Friday, August 04, 2006

My Turkish student Eva, the Islamist students and the choice of civilization

(Caution: long post)
In recent time, the mosque in Sofia made headlines. Ataka activists (I've wrote about these idiots at suddenly decided that the summon for prayer disturbs non-Muslims and began a petition to force the imam to use only his voice, no loudspeakers. Tensions accumulated, somebody broke a window of the mosque, somebody set the mosque in the town of Kazanlak on fire. Happily, the damage was small (both mosques are historical buildings, remained from the Ottoman era).
So much from me about this controversy, I don’t want to cover in detail Ataka and their heroic deeds. I'm myself an Islamophobe, now if I criticize Islam, the opponent may well ask me where I was in the night when the window was broken :-). We Bulgarians often praise ourselves for our tolerance, we’d better let others judge it. I prefer to write something else about this mosque, or rather about some worshippers.
During the 2005-06 academic year, I had no classes with the foreign students of the preparatory year (when they learn Bulgarian and some high school-level basic facts). I was glad that I hadn't. These students are always difficult, but this year they were the worst audience we've ever had. So said my colleagues who lectured to them. Once I entered briefly the lecture room and saw for myself. The students were speaking loudly in their native languages and were playing with their cellular phones, not even pretending to listen.
A significant part of these students were Turks. We've had many students from Turkey and they all looked quite secular. These ones were Islamists. All the girls wore headscarves and characteristic dresses designed to hide the body outline, to protect the woman's virtue and to facilitate fractures. My colleague complained that, when he was explaining evolution, the Turkish students interrupted indignantly: "This is not true! It is Allah who created all species! And how dare you say that we are descendants of monkeys and apes?"
These students also refused to come to class before 3 PM on Fridays, because they wanted to pray in the above mentioned mosque. I remember one Friday when my colleague was awaiting them nervously. "I have to lecture about meiosis," she said. "How can I explain it in so little time?"
(Meiosis is the most complex type of cell division.)
"Don't trouble," I replied. "Lecture only as long as you are due, not a minute more. If after that the students still have questions about meiosis, let them go to the mosque and ask the imam. Allah will give him the necessary inspiration to clarify meiosis."
So different were these kids from my student Eva that it was hard to believe they belonged to the same nation. Let me now write about Eva. She was a regular 1st year student in my group. Her first name was an Old Testament name acceptable for a Turk but more common in the Western world (I'm using another Old Testament name, Eva, to preserve her anonymity - I haven't taken her permission to blog about her.) Her second and family name were Turkish but with the characteristic Bulgarian ending -va. Her Bulgarian was perfect, so I naturally assumed that she was born and raised in Bulgaria, an ethnic Turk or a Bulgarian Muslim. We have a few such students every year and I'm always happy for them, because it's not easy for them to become our students. Not that they are discriminated, as somebody might think. It would be impossible because our Medical University, like all serious Bulgarian universities, has a strictly reglamented anonymous entry exam. But these kids typically grow in small towns or villages, usually don't go to the best schools and, if they are ethnic Turks, have to do the exam in their second language. So, on the average, it is more difficult for them to succeed in education.
Once I looked at Eva's faculty number and saw it was of a foreign student. I was disappointed. Because the above mentioned candidate student exam is very difficult, some bypass it, usually by spending a semester or a whole academic year in a foreign university and then transfering to our Medical University. These students are usually children of renowned doctors, politicians or rich people. They can be recognized because, although they are Bulgarians, they have faculty numbers as if they were foreigners. I don't like this sneaking into the University through the back door, I wouldn't allow it if it depended on me. So you understand why I thought sadly, "The girl couldn't do the exam. Or possibly she could but her parents didn't want to take the chance? What a pity." Of course I voiced none of these thoughts. At any rate, no matter how she got there, Eva fully deserved to be in the University. She was one of my best students.
Once I had to call Eva's group for an additional class. I proposed to see them at 1.30 PM. Most agreed, but Eva said, "I cannot come at 1.30. I have to attend a lesson of Bulgarian exactly at this time." "I'm surprised that you attend Bulgarian classes," I said. "I was sure you were from Bulgaria." Eva laughed and thanked for this compliment to her Bulgarian language skills. So I realized by chance that Eva was a real foreign student. Had she been educated in Bulgaria, she wouldn't have to learn Bulgarian in the university.
Later she told me more about herself. Her family was originally from Bulgaria, but emigrated to Turkey. Some of their relations remained in Bulgaria and Eva visited them every summer, so she kept her Bulgarian in good shape. She graduated a secondary school in Turkey and even studied philosophy in Istanbul for a year before coming to Sofia to study medicine.
I thought about Eva and her parents and wondered. Why did these people care for her daughter to speak good Bulgarian, why did they send her to study here? If you don't know it yet, Bulgaria is a miserable country. Moreover, in the last years of Communists rule in Bulgaria (1984-1989) ethnic Turks suffered terrible wrongs: their names were forcibly changed to Bulgarian ones. So why did this family keep such close ties with Bulgaria?
My guess: because they felt belonging to the Western civilization and Bulgaria, however miserable, was their only direct connection to this civilization. When Bulgaria was joining NATO, Peter Stoyanov, Bulgarian President at that time, said this was "civilizational choice". So Eva's family also made their choice of civilization.
I think that the main force keeping a civilization alive and advancing is the feeling of people that they belong to it. There are always some who have grown in it but dislike it, they are a disintegrating force acting from inside. Among the outsiders, some will like the civilization, some will dislike it. I feel fully belonging to the Western civilization and convinced in its values. I don't understand why so many people outside it, instead of trying to join it, make efforts to ruin it. Maybe these enemies can be subdued by force, I don't know. Maybe they’ll succeed. But why are they against it in the first place? Why are our troops forced to fight them, why don't they just drop their arms?
During the last academic year, I saw about a dozen Turkish students spending the Friday in the mosque - and just one Eva. The balance is quite grim, isn't it? As the proverb says, one swallow makes no spring. Or possibly there are many more Western-minded Turks like Eva's parents, but they have more money and send their kids directly to Cambridge? Let's hope so :-). But I doubt.

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