Carla M. Zimowsk, Department of History
2017-2018 Staff Essay Contest
Ikbal was a feisty little woman known to arm-wrestle across the lunch table or smack a volleyball around the playground when she wasn’t busy cleaning or prepping meals for her village school in the arid central Anatolian region of Turkey. I met her in 2009 during my brief visit as a technical observer to the research base that occupied the school over the summertime, housing research scholars from around the world as they collected and analyzed historical data.
I was in my forties, but this was only my second trip overseas and my first time traveling to a non-English-speaking country. I managed to learn just enough Turkish to navigate the Istanbul and Ankara airports before joining a project leader to make the rest of the trip by regional bus. Although not nearly as Westernized as Ankara or Istanbul, the village surrounding the research base showed a curiously mixed culture: some women in scarves, others not; young girls walking by in second-hand designer jeans; old farmers riding past on their dusty tractors; younger men zipping by on motorcycles or mopeds; stray dogs crossing paths with stray cats—all as the call for prayer echoed throughout the village several times a day.
At each day’s end I would pair up with a project member to be my interpreter for walks into town. We stopped in village shops and had tea with the merchants or toured the remnants of Ottoman architecture and searched for the ever-elusive but magnificent storks. I had been told that these prehistoric-looking birds with wingspans over six feet could be found perched along rooftops or sitting in nests high atop utility towers, yet I only managed to catch glimpses of them flying over the school, and usually when my camera was not at hand.
During downtimes at the school, I would sit at a picnic table writing in my travel journal or walk around the school grounds snapping pictures of the unfamiliar plant life. Sometimes I would look up to find Ikbal standing in the doorway of the school, perhaps taking a break herself from the day’s chores before starting to cook—drying her hands on her apron and looking intent on saying something, but frustrated by her inability to communicate with me. I felt the same frustration. We would just smile and wave.
Ikbal ultimately got tired of waiting to communicate via an interpreter and had one of the project members invite me to join her on a walk into town. My excitement was mixed with hesitation as I asked who would interpret for us, but the project member assured me that I would not need an interpreter with Ikbal. “She will find a way to communicate,” she told me.
I found Ikbal in the kitchen with bags of recyclable bottles at her feet. Taking up a bag in each of our hands, we set out on the uphill walk into town in 90+ degree heat until we arrived at a small shop stocked with brightly colored candies and souvenirs, and occupied by a round old man sipping tea behind the counter. With our bags deposited at the foot of the counter, I started to see just who Ikbal really was as she counted out the bottles and haggled with the store merchant.
Maintaining an assertive posture with occasional winks in my direction, she finally wore the man down and got her price. I didn’t need language to understand the annoyance on the merchant’s face. Tucking one portion of the money proudly in her pocket, she took the other portion and purchased a handful of candy to bring back to the base for the project members.
Ikbal handed me a candy as she led me further into the village, up cobblestone streets that wandered between tightly packed rectangular houses of weathered stone and sun-dried mud. Laundry hung from balconies, and neighbors leaned out of windows to catch the latest gossip. I could only stand there smiling shyly, while listening but not understanding. Ikbal squeezed my hand in hers and introduced me using one of the few Turkish words I knew: arkadaş,“friend.”
She did the same as we came upon a group of women huddled around a stoop talking and laughing. The seated women slapped the hard stoop between them with their hands, signaling me to sit with them. I suddenly felt accepted into a sisterhood as the women next to me brushed bits of dirt off my pant leg and gently patted me on the knee while they carried on their conversations.
Ikbal once again took my hand as we continued on our way through the maze of narrow walkways. We stopped at the back of a house where Ikbal opened the gate and ushered me into a lush garden covered in vegetables, herbs, and flowers, with vines traveling everywhere along the fence. She held an imaginary camera up to her face, and I smiled, realizing that she had been watching me take pictures around the school grounds.
The narrow walkways opened to a courtyard where Ikbal abruptly stopped us, tugged my sleeve, and pointed skyward. There, perched atop an old, rusted electrical tower was a large nest filled with storks, some staring sideways down at us, while others stretched their massive wings. Ikbal quickly hushed me before I could gasp out loud and once again raised her imaginary camera, reminding me to take pictures while she delighted in my giddiness over this tour of her everyday life.
Back at the base camp, Ikbal and I sat with a translation book trying to learn more about each other. I learned that Ikbal was widowed and raising her two children on the salary of a “school mom.” It seemed her whole life had been in this village, but I could see in her a curiosity for what might be beyond. I could relate, for this was about as “beyond” as I had ever encountered in my life.
That a connection can happen so quickly across an immense cultural and linguistic divide between two complete strangers left an unforgettable impression on me, as did Ikbal herself. Through the rest of my trip, I no longer worried about needing an interpreter.
We communicate on so many levels without even realizing it. We just need to stop and listen.