Our footsteps sounded hushed in the dimly lit stairwell. As my friends and I went up, I saw a vision of a tight-lipped, dark-haired man with a Turkish army uniform and accompanying machine gun going silently past us down the stairs. Was it a harmless vision of past events or a warning of danger to come?
The five of us stepped into the room, taking in the plain furnishings, the Turks and non-Turks and arranged empty chairs waiting for an audience. Though students of Turkish culture and language, we had only arrived in Turkey a month before, December 2000, so we understood only a little of the language.
We had finally been able to attend a gathering of eastern Turkish Christians, congregating without fanfare or announcements or a steeple. We were college-age, female, American cultural exchange students. The director of our cultural exchange program did not want us to frequent the services, drawing polis attention to the somewhat illegal Christian meetings. Open arms and food-laden tables await Western Christian visitors, but the Turks have a saying, “To be Turkish is to be Muslim,” and it is socially taboo to invite Turks to become Christians.
After the sermon, the women and girls served sweet black tea and fragrant pastries. We savored our experience and chose to linger and wash up the teacups, cutlery and plates in the tiny office kitchen. Without warning, one of the tiny glasses slipped through my fingers, shattering on the floor, causing a dangerous mess, but one that could be cleaned up.
It was afternoon by the time my American friends and I stepped out into the afternoon blue sky and sunshine, ready to hop on a dolmush, one of thousands of van-sized taxis, usually about 20 years old, that canvas the streets looking for passengers.
We walked across the open modern square when a man in his thirties or forties, in button-up shirt and dark slacks stepped into our path. He was with the polis, he told us. Why were we there? Where had we just come from? His stern face made it seem a good guess that his fists were also clenched. If he meant to intimidate, he succeeded thoroughly.
He held out a hand for our identification papers. We knew only elementary Turkish and could understand his body language, but were woefully ill equipped for such a barrage of questions. Our cultural exchange director had told us that we might be confronted by the polis and that both Turkish and American Christians were routinely interrogated and kept overnight in jail. I began to breathe a silent prayer, “O God, save!” as my heart raced.
We tried to explain that we were only harmless students of Turkish. After various questions from him and quavering answers from us, we were let go. Shaken, we fled back to where we had last seen our director, inside the church office. With unsteady emotions we described our experience, slowly calming as we realized that danger was no longer immediate.
The shattered clear glass of the teacup had been swept up easily, but the appearance of peace and stability that had been broken would take a longer time to clean up. In America, my beliefs had never been used by the authorities to determine if I should have freedom of movement. As an American citizen, I had always taken for granted freedom of religion and speech. That day shattered my sense of entitlement. It caused me to value both my beliefs and my freedoms more than I ever had before. Fortunately for me, it was my complacency that had been broken. A broom of gratitude and dustpan of deeper understanding would be my tools for cleanup this time.