REVIEWS: Peace Corps Memoirs Of Turkey

Dr. David Espey (Morocco 1962-64) recently retired from the English Department at the University of Pennsylvania. He has not, however, retired from teaching and writing. David just finished a year as a visiting professor in Istanbul, where he had also previously taught on a Fulbright. (His other Fulbrights were to Morocco and Japan.) David is  the editor of Writing the Journey: Essays, Stories, and Poems on Travel published by Longman, and over the years has written extensively on travel writing.

We are pleased to publish an essay by Dr. Espey on three memories by RPCVs who served in Turkey: Turkey: Bright Sun, Strong Tea [Travel Info Exchange 2005] by Tom Brosnahan (Turkey 1967–69); Village in the Meadows [Citlembik/Nettleberry Publications 2007] by Malcolm Pfunder (Turkey 1965–67); and An Ongoing Affair: Turkey and I [Citlembik/Nettleberry Publications 2008] by Heath W. Lowry (Turkey 1965–67).

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Three Memoirs of Turkey

Three books by Peace Corps Volunteers in Turkey return to the 1960s when the organization, like the authors themselves, was young and Turkey a far different place than it is today. The Peace Corps in Turkey lasted less than 10 years, and each writer, despite an abiding affection for Turkey, suggests — directly or indirectly — why the organization ultimately had to leave.
As community development workers, Pfunder and Lowry came to know intimately the world and the rhythms of Turkish village life. Brosnahan started as an English teacher but ended as a guidebook writer; he produced the first Turkey on $5 a Day, and much later, the first Lonely Planet Turkey.

Reading these memoirs took me back to my own years in the 1960s as a Volunteer in Morocco.  Turkey was different in one important respect; unlike most of the countries to which the Peace Corps was sent, Turkey never was subject to European colonial rule.  And unlike Morocco, Turkey was a republic with a secular government. Despite the differences in the countries, so much was similar: Islamic culture, traditions of hospitality, proximity to Europe, and a storied past.  Each book recalls the atmosphere of the Peace Corps in the 1960s:  the ersatz training programs in the U.S. and those weird psychological tests we had to take, the Cold War atmosphere, the shock of first encounters with a foreign language and society, our gradual adaptation to a strange and different culture, the letters home in which we tried to give a sense of our new lives, and our curious relationship with that fledgling and often bumbling organization — the Peace Corps itself.

These books answer the kinds of questions that Americans ask when they find out you were in the Peace Corps. Where did you go?  What did you do? What did you eat? Did you ever get sick?  Or homesick? What did you think of the Turks (or Moroccans or Ghanians or Phillipinos)?   What did they think of Americans?  What did you accomplish?  (Something the Peace Corps was constantly asking the Volunteers.) And these books all respond in their own ways to the question that former Peace Corps Volunteers continue to ask ourselves: How has it affected our subsequent lives?

Taken together, this kind of material might constitute its own literary genre — the Peace Corps Memoir.  It is primarily a comic genre, given the constant cultural misunderstandings, the innocent misadventures, the failed schemes and small triumphs that characterize Peace Corps life.

turkey-bright-sunBrosnahan’s book encompasses more than the Peace Corps years, but remains focused on his adventures in Turkey.  Brosnahan drops one-liners like a stand-up comedian as he bounces around the country, examining lodgings and restaurants, visiting and revisiting every touristic site he can.  The life of a travel guidebook writer is not as cushy as it might sound; the fact checking seems never to stop.

Seeking out cheap hotels, he blunders into a brothel.  He interviews hippies in Istanbul, recounts his romances, crashes a circumcision party, corrects misconceptions about Turkey, sees his map of the Grand Bazaar plagiarized in other guidebooks.  He  commits puns (“a matter of Kurdisy”), strains analogies (“The Renault whined like a Frenchman confronted with peanut butter and jelly “), and suffers gastronomic distress (“Any guidebook writer worth his tripe soup gets TD [Travel Diarrhea] early and often, and protects his esteemed readers by not mentioning the restaurants in which he contracts gut-busting bugs.”)  When he gets in a jam, the Turks invariably come to the rescue and bail him out.

He tries out graduate school, then abandons the study of Ottoman Turkish for the life of the road.  In the mid-1980s, his Lonely Planet Turkey is a best seller, and he finally makes “some serious money.”  After a divorce, he finds it hard to start going out again: “Middle-aged dating is a lot like leftover pizza.”  But he meets and marries another traveling partner for the continuous journey that constitutes his life.

By contrast, Pfunder and Lowry limit their accounts to their lives in villages that bring to mind the pastoral ideal enshrined in those early Peace Corps posters.

village-in-meadowsThe very title of Pfunder’s book, Village in the Meadows, is a literal translation of the Turkish name of his post, Cayirici Koyu, a hamlet in the mountains that rise above the Black Sea.  Lowry’s village, Bereketli, means “blessedness,” and as he muses affectionately on it many years later, he realizes it “has never really let me go.”

As a member of a dimly conceived Rural Community Development program, neither Pfunder nor Lowry was trained for a specific task.  Their fellow Peace Corps Volunteers joked that the amorphous nature of their assignment was simply a directive to “Go forth and be relevant.”  Both Pfunder and Lowry, to their credit, try to do this.  Their books are — besides testimonies of affection — a series of anecdotes about illuminating encounters with the villagers and about projects that fail often because of cultural inertia or misunderstanding.

First, Pfunder’s travails: village dogs consume a family of Peace Corps rabbits just as they are beginning to breed.  His chickens grow obese on a diet of corn meal and lose their ability to lay eggs.  He proposes to make a soccer field by clearing a terrain of rocks, but the entire “young adult male population of the village”  hides from him on the day the work is to be done.  The village schoolmaster enthusiastically embraces Pfunder’s idea to form a sports club, but then refuses to help in any way, and the project falls  “as flat as the deflated basketball that came with the equipment.”

Despite these frustrations, Pfunder keeps himself occupied, improving his Turkish and cultivating friendships with the villagers.   Much of his time is consumed with the daily tasks of living — getting food, water, and fuel; washing clothes, furnishing his hut.  He admits to occasional moments of depression, but he gamely persists.

What keeps him (and his memoir) going is his interest in the lives of the villagers;  his book becomes a kind of informal ethnography as he observes and records the minutiae of village life in a place where little changes beyond the seasons. There are no motor vehicles and barter takes the place of money.

One thinks of Turkey as a warm, Mediterranean country.  But it is full of microclimates. Winters can be harsh. The Peace Corps decides to evacuate Pfunder for good after eight feet of snow paralyzes the village.

Ironically, many Turks suspected Peace Corps Volunteers of being spies.  The Cold War helped encourage this suspicion. As a member of NATO and a close neighbor of the Soviet Union, Turkey hosted a large number of U.S. military, who manned listening posts throughout the country to monitor Soviet communications. Even in his remote region, Pfunder encountered American military when he went to Trabzon, the largest city in the region. Usually, the Americans came to town to drink heavily and escape momentarily the loneliness of their posts.

an-ongoing-affairIn a village in western Turkey, at the opposite end of the country, Heath Lowry faces many of the same challenges as Pfunder.  But Lowry has the good fortune of a village mayor (muhtar) who takes an interest in him and makes use of his presence to entice regional officials to pay more attention to the village.

Lowry benefits from the strong traditions of Turkish hospitality.  Upon his arrival, the muhtar enlists all 128 households in the village to feed him.  He is lodged in a room at the local mosque, and each day he dines at a different house, where he is urged to eat and eat. Once he is offered the eye of a roasted sheep — a local delicacy that he can’t refuse.  (That was an event I feared — but never had to experience — in Morocco).  His social life revolves around the three village coffeehouses (which really serve tea).  Turks are famous for picking up the bill, and  Lowry never has to pay.  He improves his Turkish by conversing with the village men about the burning issues of the day — the weather, crops, and other matters of subsistence.)

His book, like Pfunder’s, is a chronological account, but divided more thematically into episodes that illustrate his own growing understanding of Turkish culture through the challenges of village life.  A project to distribute free powdered milk founders because of a rumor that it is pig’s milk.  He gets an unwanted reputation as a doctor when the villagers discover his Peace Corps medical kit. During Ramadan, he observes the fast so diligently that some villagers assume he wants to convert to Islam.

There is a darker side to his story, however, and a villain; this provides some suspense, though all comes right in the end.  The one hostile villager, an ex-mayor and ex-convict, nurtures a dislike for Lowry. By chance, a Peace Corps official visits the village when Lowry is absent and gets a litany of complaints about him from the ex-con.   The Peace Corps threatens discipline or possible expulsion, until the villagers — all devoted to Lowry — come to the rescue.

Both Brosnahan and Lowry offer reasons why the Peace Corps was forced to leave Turkey.  Brosnahan attributes the problem to the anti-American demonstrations of Turkish leftists who opposed U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.  Lowry notes that a Peace Corps staffer unwittingly fueled suspicion of spying by directing Volunteers to administer a questionnaire about Turkish life (for use in a Ph.D. dissertation).

In the course of their experience, each of these writers develops a deep attachment to Turkey, and over the years, they keep returning to their adopted country and mark the amazing progress it has made since the 1960s.  Pfunder has gone back a half dozen times, taking his wife and children to the village where he served. He is a Director of Anatolian Artisans, a non-profit organization that supports Turkish handicrafts and an appreciation of Turkish art and culture.  Brosnahan revisits the country to revise and update his guidebooks and his travel website And Lowry, who went into the Peace Corps after dropping out of college, returned to academia, eventually earned a Ph.D. in Ottoman and Turkish history, and is now the Ataturk Professor of Turkish Studies at Princeton. He has written extensively on Ottoman and Turkish history, is a founding member of the Institute of Turkish studies in Washington, and divides his time between Princeton and Istanbul.

My own attachment to Turkey started in 1990–91, when I was a Fulbright lecturer in Ankara. My family and I have used Brosnahan’s Lonely Planet Turkey like a Bible in our continuing travels around the country.  We have trekked in the Black Sea mountains, not far from the village where Pfunder lived.  And I have swapped Peace Corps tales with Lowry when he and I were colleagues at Bahcesehir University in Istanbul.  The books sharpen my desire to revisit not only Turkey, but my old Peace Corps post in Morocco as well. They may have similar effects on other Peace Corps veterans, and even inspire them to embark on their own memoirs.

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