The Second Year Can Be Most Difficult
It was becoming obvious that I wasn’t tolerating village life well by the end
of my second year in Ismet Pasha, a village settled by Bulgarian Turks in the
1920s after the breakup of the Ottoman Empire. Though I involved myself as much
as possible in village activities, and even donated a set of the annotated Koran
in Turkish to their new library, I began to make longer trips to visit other
volunteers to know what they were seeing and doing.
Clair, my female counterpart, had left after the first year and married
another volunteer in our group. I was sad to see them leave because they were
terrific workers, but Peace Corps rules were no cohabitation of partners unless
I was even anxious when riding the buses for fear of being in an accident,
becoming a nervous wreck who smoked a pack- a-day of their “Askerli” cigarettes
in that second year. Its brand name was the Turkish word for soldier, and I
never knew if it was created to provide the poorly paid Turkish soldier with
something he could afford, since a pack cost 40 Kurush, $0.04 cents at the
current exchange rate.
The tediousness of becoming a single volunteer was spelled by 45 days of paid
vacation leave allowed by the Peace Corps during the two years of service, and
semi-annual conferences that brought everyone together for progress reports.
We village volunteers were considered well paid at 60 dollars per month, the
equivalent of a Turkish teacher’s salary. To put that in perspective, we could
have a good restaurant meal for one dollar, and a haircut for 25 cents. In
addition, we were allowed $7.50 per day of vacation allowance. I had money to
travel on, as my rent for a small, one room adobe cottage was just $3 per month
that second year.
Our own volunteer liaisons were made during holidays and our vacations. I and
a female volunteer unfortunately overstayed our vacation time on the island of
Rhodes during the winter school break because of a severe Mediterranean storm
that capsized a tourist boat with the loss of 40 lives, isolating us long enough
so that she was late for her assignment teaching English at a high school.
I was reprimanded for assisting in her delinquency through no fault of her
own, and our Peace Corps country director at the time withdrew his offer to put
me on training staff after completion of my two years. My loneliness had cost me
the possibility of remaining in Turkey for a third year.
Not spending another year in Turkey was probably a good thing, as I was
feeling more sad than happy as my two years of service came to an end. As
difficult as it was to live in and absorb so much of a foreign culture, it was
just as difficult to leave such an intensely emotional and personal experience.
Turkish culture was based on very intense relationships; close emotional bonds
of either love or hate in friendships as well as families, including strict
behavioral guidelines we had to follow between the sexes.
We of Turkey V, the first volunteer rural community development group to
serve in any Muslim country, were finally discharged in June of 1966, and it
could not have been a day later for me. I had dodged attacks by Turkish
sheepdogs, part of the feared and famous Anatolian Mastiff breed, ridden on
horseback through sparkling winter snows under the clearest blue skies,
weathered some scary illnesses, and was ready to return to western culture.
Had I made a difference, and what did the villagers end up thinking of me?
There were so many highs and lows—the companionship with other volunteers that
broke the tedium of village life, the vacation travel, visits to ancient,
storied civilizations, and being part of such an ancient way of life that was
barely changed by a few tractors and combines that sped up the planting and
Turkey in Later Years
As the Vietnam War dragged on, Americans and the American way did not look so
peaceful to the rest of the world. This was one reason Peace Corps left Turkey
after 10 years during which some 1600 hundred volunteers had served.
Opposition to the Vietnam War had grown in many European countries, and
educated Turkish students were no exception. There were also serious gaffes by
American officials, such as appointing former CIA employee Robert Comer to be
the next U.S. Ambassador to Turkey. He had overseen the South Vietnamese village
pacification plan, and his appointment as Ambassador to Turkey so enraged
students that they overturned and burned his car during one of the many anti-war
His predecessor, our own Peace Corps director, had earlier killed an elderly
woman dressed in black while driving in Ankara one dark and rainy night. Because
he had diplomatic immunity, he was spirited out of Turkey to avoid being charged
That was not well-received by the students, either. Turkey and the Peace
Corps administration agreed it was time to phase out the Peace Corps program
that had lasted from 1961 to 1971, after students at several of the technical
schools where Peace Corps volunteers taught held a vote and decided that the
Peace Corps was no longer welcome.
My last year had been a very lonely, but productive, year, and I had no
illusions that most villagers in this part of Anatolia with its semi-arid and
mostly treeless environment would stay in their villages much longer. Their
industrial revolution was now in full swing.
I hoped our presence there as volunteers had helped them consider us as their
friends rather than obnoxious foreigners. I also hoped they saw us presenting a
better, more peaceful side of American foreign policy that was more in line with
the true face of the America I believed in, despite the Vietnam War.
I believe the Peace Corps Volunteers serving in Turkey did make a difference.
We encouraged many of our villagers to work to develop their own land, instead
of moving to the cities. Ismet Pasha’s villagers that remained were usually the
most prosperous landowners that could exploit more modern farming techniques
that I had helped to develop.
There was also talk of the Turks forming their own domestic volunteer corps
that had a Turkish precedent. Educated Turkish males already had the option to
teach in a village school instead of wearing a military uniform because Turkey
had universal male military conscription. But I never knew if it was expanded
into something that resembled the Peace Corps, in part because Turkey was
changing so fast.
The Return to Turkey
Though today Turkey’s rural population has continued to grow, the percentage
of the total population living in villages has declined because of
In 1970 about 67 percent of the population lived in villages. In 1980 the
rural population had declined to 54 percent. Less than 21 percent of Turkey’s
population still lived in villages in 2020, according to the World Bank.
That is why I was so startled on a return trip to Turkey. More than 30 years
had passed since I left in 1966 and I wanted to know what remained of my work in
Ismet Pasha. I had organized a tour group that landed at Istanbul’s Ataturk
Airport during a national holiday. It was a shock to see the streets lined with
many women covered from head to foot in traditional clothing as we were driven
to our hotel. They had to be from the villages to dress so conservatively. It
was evidence of the mass migration to cities and how much Istanbul, Turkey’s
most European and cosmopolitan city, had changed.
I made a point of visiting Ismet Pasha during the tour, but it seemed a shell
of its former self on my return. The mill that produced their flour was gone, a
sign of the decline of village life. Its huge grindstone lay beside the road in
front of the abandoned bakery building. The villagers no longer baked their own
stone ground wheat bread that I remembered; giant kilo loaves steaming just out
of the oven that I had enjoyed at meals when invited to dine with them.
The ethnic Turks who still lived in Ismet Pasha, including the son of the
Mukhtar I had worked with during my two years, were doing well. Irrigation water
was now plentiful from a fully developed irrigation system that watered a large
sugar beet crop via elevated concrete canals that funneled water into the
Ismet Pasha that had dirt roads and no electricity when I lived there, now
had electricity and a paved main road that give them greater access to markets
for their produce in all seasons, so their economic future looked bright.
But the village was also full of Kurds newly arrived from their homeland in
eastern Turkey. They were the victims of Turkey’s ongoing war with Kurdish
militants belonging to the PKK, their most radical political party that wanted
an independent country of their own.
The war had dragged on for years and did not look like it would come to any
resolution soon. Millions of Kurds still lived in Turkey and were forbidden to
teach their language in the schools at the time.
The ethnic Turks to whom I spoke looked down on the Kurds as bad farmers,
transplants that really did not fit in. The Kurds were thought of as a
semi-nomadic herding culture, since many of them still lived in the mountains of
Syria, Iran, and Turkey. But maybe all the good land around Ismet Pasha was
taken, so there was nothing else for the Kurds forcibly transplanted from their
homeland to do than raise lifestock? It looked like only families with the
largest landholdings were able to take advantage of the new irrigation wells I
first brought to the village.
But will Turkey ever become a sectarian democracy ruled by civil law rather
than religious law? Or will they be saddled with their current devoutly
religious President, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, an aspiring President-for-life intent
on imposing a more religious theocracy rather than continuing their sputtering
attemp and most of the remote rural villages ts to join the European Union?
I also saw that the community development precepts I learned in Peace Corps
training worked in a Turkish village, because they were much like us, a
practical people who believed success in the secular world was as important as
the world promised by Islam. Who knows what future might be possible for such a
I felt good about what I had done, and it was now time to move on to find
another community I might contribute to.
Harlan Green © 2022
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