(written on 24 May 2016)
Some people have written and enquired as to what it is like to live here, in Hatay province – a province that borders Syria on two sides, the Mediterranean Sea on the other and Turkey on just one side, especially in times such as these.
They inquire as to what life is like in the city of Antakya, which over the past five years has experienced a transformation, an evolution, a subtle process of Syrianisation.
When we first arrived in the city it was apparent that this is a city unique and unlike other cities in Turkey. For one thing, there was a functioning Jewish synagogue, a Greek Orthodox Church, a Roman Catholic Church, and a very visible Korean Methodist Church.
The population, in addition to these small Jewish and Christian elements was divided into two major groups made up of Sunni Muslims and Alevi Muslims (a branch of Shi’ite Islam). Ethnically the city is home to Turks, Kurds and a large and disproportionate number of people from Arab ancestry.
It is to be noted that at that time the city was a bi-lingual place. In normal life and interaction you would hear Arabic not nearly as often as Turkish, but frequently. At the same, when what you heard was predominately Turkish, it would often be spiced with Arabic words.
Not being a linguist, I can not say definitively, but I felt that the local, Antakayian dialect of Arabic, this regions flavour, to be softer and more mellow than the Syrian variety.
One other thing was clear then, the local people of Arab descent, whose mother tongue was Arabic, could not read nor write Arabic script. All the shop signs and advertisements in the city were in Turkish and using the Latin based Turkish script.
Even in the fellowship some twenty or so kilometres to the east of Antakya, a fellowship of saints who have come from an Orthodox background – whose first language, and for some of the older folk, only language, is Arabic, when it came time to put some Arabic hymns on the projection for the Sunday meeting that they wrote the Arabic hymn using the Turkish, Latin, alphabet.
When we came to Antakya in 2007, there was a rapprochement between Turkey and Syria – this was the pre-war time. And as a result, Turks would freely and without requiring a visa visit Syria and Syrians would equally and without the hassle of visas, visit Turkey. Eight, nine years ago it was common to see a car with Syrian number plates or Syrian taxis with the advertisement on the side offering a service from Antakya to Aleppo on the streets of the city.
Ah, the pre-war days….
So, at that time, Antakya was a unique, mixed city – with the various elements living with a degree of tolerance and peace. The local Alevi community even have some traditions that would appear on the surface to have been borrowed from the Christian community. This included painting of eggs at Easter time and a part of their meetings that involves bread and wine.
In those days being a Christian in Antakya was not especially note-worthy. Regardless if you were local or foreign, it wasn’t a significant point as it is in other parts of Turkey. Let me hasten to add that when a local believer identified as a follower of Jesus Christ – generally, there would be no reaction… that is, until it was learned that they were not “born” Christian… that they had chosen to become a follower of Jesus Christ from a Muslim background. Then there was a rather strong, determined and often times, violent reaction.
But I digress…. move the clock forward to today, Tuesday, 24 May 2016.
Have things changed?
I mean, all things change, that is the nature of life, nothing remains the same. But there are degrees of change and the situation here has undergone some profound, significant changes and all within just a few years.
I suppose one of the more visible changes is the number of Syrian inhabitants in the city. You can recognise them at a distance by their dress – you see ladies dressed in the black, all-encompassing garb whereby all they have is but a slit at the eyes to see where they are going. Then some of the men wear a garment, reminiscent of an old fashioned night dress, one piece falling to the ankles. This is not a night dress, but your day to day, working clothes – but it is distinctive and Turks do not wear an equivalent to this that I have seen. Of course Syrians wear the full gambit of styles and clothing type, everything from conservative to western styles. It is not possible to make a single accurate generalisation about what Syrians wear. But, by and large, you can still discern who is Syrian on the street.
The complexion of the Syrian women is often quite distinctive as well – being of profoundly fair complexion. Other Syrians have a much darker, more what you may naturally associate with an Arab complexion, but this is not true of all. Again, it is complicated and defies simple, broad brush generalisations.
Today there is far more Arabic writing on shop signs and advertisements – sometimes to the exclusion of Turkish. These, by definition, have been done by Syrian sign writers as precious few people in Antakya would be able to write Arabic.
There are now shops specialising in Syrian bread, and restaurants that cater to the Syrian palate. This is common as it happens the world over where there is a foreign influx – the Turkish shops in Haringey and Hackney in London and the Polish shops scattered over the UK for example. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it does indicate that the influx of souls has reached and surpassed the critical mass required to inspire the establishment of specialist shops to cater for their particular needs and desires.
The tenor and feel of the city has changed. More and more you hear Arabic on the street – not the softened, more mellow Turkish influenced variety, but, to my ear, the harsher, truer form of Syrian Arabic.
Where once you could easy identify Syrian automobiles by their Arabic script registration plates, they all now carry a Turkish registration number plate.
Wherever you go, be it in the shopping precinct, the vast old covered market area, the ultra modern shopping malls – you encounter Syrians and Arabic. When you wander off the beaten track, into the neighbourhoods around where we live, you encounter Syrians; families, children in abundance, and all freely and comfortably chatting in the Syrian dialect of Arabic.
Where once there was a pervading tolerance, especially between the Sunni Muslims and the Alevi Muslims, now it has been replaced with the imported tension and sometimes downright hatred of the various groups from Syria.
Likewise, as the Syrians have taken local jobs and have taken their place in the health system, often displacing or just being perceived to have displace local, Turkish patients, there is a growing resentment towards Syrians within the local Turkish population.
Sometimes these feelings are expressed in very strong and emotive terms.
But, to return to the question with which I began this, how do we feel living here?
Well, by and large, it feels normal. We do not feel any direct threat day to day.
Yes, we are more careful. We have received a ‘security briefing’ and have been taking on board what was shared. We seek to be aware of our surroundings at all times.
But, as far as ‘feeling uneasy’ or ‘feeling insecure ‘ or ‘feeling threatened’, I must confess, that, no, it all feels rather ‘normal’ – mundane even. We do not wake up fearful, we do not hesitate to go out the door in the morning, we do not curtail our activities because of a perceived ‘security threat’.
An example of not curtailing our activities was highlighted yesterday when we, as a fellowship, were doing one of distributions of aid (dry food stuffs) to Syrian refugee field workers. There was a group of foreign young people, some of whom were planning on joining with us to assist in this distribution. Then the team leader asked how close we would be working to the actual Syrian border. He had made an earlier commitment that he would not be taking the people in his group to within ten kilometres of the border, so his was a reasonable query to make.
Well, top of my list for distribution that day was an encampment we identify as the ‘olive grove’ – these are a lovely group of Syrian refugee field workers who are both destitute and yet very grateful for the aid they receive and are very pleasant to work with. They have been very much on my heart – and they have only begun to receive aid. In fact when we discovered them, on our first visit, we had nothing prepared for them, just that which was left over. We helped them, but in a limited sense. It really was ‘their time’ to receive aid.
When we were asked the question as to how close to the border, I could remember that we had previously done the calculation, and that particular encampment was within the ten kilometre window. To be certain, we did a recalculation – thank you Google Maps and the handy scale they provide in the map – and, by our calculation it was seven kilometres from the border.
The fact that the encampment was on the downside of a rather significant hill and the border was on the opposite side of the hill, notwithstanding, integrity means your word is your word and so the team leader decided that those who were to join us would be taken off the task and two others who, for whatever reason, were not subject to the same commitment would take their place.
My point in explaining this, was that we then headed off to do this ministry including the encampment that is within about seven kilometres of the border – we evaluated, assessed and decided in this circumstance not to curtail our activities.
When we had the security briefing I mentioned earlier, one thing that was shared was an allegory of a frog in a pot of water. Put the frog in boiling water and it will leap out if it can… put the same frog in room temperature water, it will happily swim in the water. Slowly heat the water, and the frog will remain in the pot until, well, it is cooked….. ((no frogs were hurt, injured or killed in the making of this allegory – that I’m aware of))
Basically, he was saying, that there is an equivalent danger that people ‘in the situation’ can become inured to the small, daily changes occurring around them….possibly until it is too late.
And so, taking a moment to ‘take the temperature’ of the water, I freely declare that the ‘water is quite pleasant at the moment’ – not cold, not tepid, warm, yes, but not on the boil either.
Now, this assessment is very subjective and devoid of any objective input in what may be happening elsewhere, and what may be planned by forces and individuals and groups…. etc….
I guess what I want to say is that each day ‘feels’ normal, as if we were walking the streets of Hemel Hempstead in the UK. That may not be the reality, but I did say it ‘feels’ like that, not that it ‘is’ like that.
It is not an over-bearing hardship to live and work here.
Having said all this….
On Sunday it was reported by some believers locally and confirmed in the press and on the official Turkish Earthquake monitoring site that Antakya experienced a 3.9 earthquake.
Well, we do live in active earthquake region.
Neither my better half nor myself were cognisant of it at the time.
Now this could be construed as a more worrisome event.
We live in the old section of town in a house that is at least a hundred years old with rather weakened concrete and rusted reinforcing steel. We have increased the burden on the house by constructing a flat on the former flat roof – we live downstairs.
If that wasn’t enough and to complicate things, our neighbour’s house is subsiding ‘into a void’ that has developed underneath it.
Where once there was a visible crack at the point their home abuts ours, now there is a crack I can easily fit my fingers into – their house is on the move.
It seems obvious now that a 3.9 earthquake will not knock our neighbours flat down…. at least not yet.
But, it is not a healthy situation, it is stressing our home and we have our own sympathy cracks appearing and growing.
What can we do about it? After much thought, and in discussion with some people, it seems there is little we can do to our home to make it more resilient to earthquakes. I suppose a steel cage in our bedroom may provide a safe haven…but, to date, I haven’t done anything about trying to make that a reality – and I’m not sure how to go about it.
So there are some other, very real and very unpredictable threats or risks that are inherent in living in this particular place on earth.
Well, we are called to live by faith and to trust God in all things. That does not guarantee that none of these things will happen…just that if they do, God is with us, He will never leave us…and, ultimately, for us to live is Christ and to die is gain. This is easy enough to write, easy enough to say, very easy to sing, and, it is after all, a part of the bedrock of our faith and so it needs to be more than just a declaration but something we actually, practically, exercise in life.
So, in spite of potential dangers due to the socio-political environment and in spite of the very real dangers due to the geographical environment, we ‘feel’ at peace here and carry on day by day in a normal fashion.
We are not struggling under an oppressive burden, not hanging on by the skin of our teeth, in anxious, nervous, tension. In Christ, this is a normal ‘normal’, with the same tensions, problems, difficulties, challenges and burdens that are common to all of us wherever we are found.
Part of the reason we are in this generally peaceful state is because people are praying with and for us. Please continue. Do not take this as a declaration that we have no need for such spiritual undergirding. We rest on that support continually and acknowledge our need of your prayer support as we live day by day.
For it is by the grace of God, we are not beaten down and oppressed and feeling over-whelmed by the situation…
God, in His grace, has made this situation ‘normal’ for us.