Leveled up in Turkish

Hanging out on Clubhouse from the beginning made me realize how lacking my Turkish was. I got on the app when Germany came online and I think Turkey launched shortly after that and only then did it kick off in the Netherlands.

That particular sequencing gave me an interesting perspective on how different cultures adopted the service. Germans went into panel hell. Most of the sessions were dominated by journalists and politicos and therefore were extremely boring. Turkey got online in no time and was dominated by influencers who launched all kinds of funky repeating formats and casual chatrooms where people were going until deep into the night (I would listen until 1-2 at night which in Turkey would be 2 hours later still). The Netherlands went into a marketing fervor with a strong showing of douchebags.

Clubhouse had its moment and fizzled, but tuning into the app again recently, I can say that it’s still there and with all the klout and hype chasers gone, things are again weird. Weird is good.


In the Turkish rooms I would hear words that I didn’t know every other sentence, sometimes entire concepts like kadının beyanı esastır. Finally, I had a situation where I was exposed to a high level of Turkish and I had the motivation to improve this.

I started noting these words down in Anki, which I had bought previously to study the HSK. Adding a word to my deck here and there was slow: switch to dictionary (now I use the official one), switch to Anki and write the card, switch back.

For some extra speed, I dug up a master word list I had made more than a decade ago. Back then I had read most of Orhan Pamuk’s then bibliography (Yeni Hayat, Sessiz Ev, Kara Kitap, Kar, Benim Adım Kırmızı) and then too found lots of words I didn’t know. I passed over them and wrote them down on a piece of paper. I transcribed these papers into a list and looked up some of the meanings. But this being before Anki, I had no real way to systematically learn these words and get better at Turkish. If I had, I would have improved steadily with each book I read and everything would have been great.

I went through this old word list letter by letter and over the course of a month made cards for all of the words in that list. The result of that effort is the 1000-word deck I have made available online now.

And now, after months of revising daily (life during the pandemic has been very exciting, why do you ask?) and also continuing to add words as I go—the recent events in Afghanistan made me add the half-Arab half-Farsi ridiculous Turkish word for charge d’affaires—I finally am out of “New” words. From now on it will just be polishing the lexicography of the deck, adding a word here and there and continuing to revise.

This also means I have capacity again to go back to studying HSK3. Or I might switch back to learning Japanese after all. Watching some anime recently and seeing Japanese speaking gaijin on Tiktok have revived this itch.

A feeling for Turkish (and Arabic)

So now what? I am a lot more confident when it comes to my Turkish after having learned a bunch of the words commonly in use in the higher echelons of society. I can now look for and find complicated words much more easily. My usage will likely be incorrect often, but I should be able to get by with my sizeable intuition for what remains the first language I learned (and learnd to read in). I can also consume complex material far more easily than I used to.

I now realize how many loan words from Arabic Turkey has. The exact numbers are obscure, but almost every uncommon word either is of Arabic origin or has an Arabic equivalent. This also explains why after being in Syria for a while I understood what people were saying without knowing Arabic.

I’ve also been amazed by how overloaded the language is for certain concepts like disaster (afet, badire, facia, buhran), sorrow (ıstırap, üzüntü, matem, yas, kahır, hicran, gam, tasa, keder, nedamet, teessür) and many others. Also all of those words are Arabic in origin except if I had to guess by word shape: üzüntü (I guessed right!).

White Turks

Delving into this part of the language and the people who use it, I came across the concept of White Turks. The division between white and black Turks underlies a lot of the dynamics of the Turkey of the past decades.

The people who I was listening to and whose language I am now emulating are usually white Turks. Me and my family originally are black Turks.

I’m sure I’ll never pass as white, though I’m now in a socio-economically better position than most white Turks in Turkey and most black Turks in Europe. Language is a key aspect of this division and when people clash it is usually the first weapon that they resort to. Now that I have levelled up, I don’t have to be exclusively on the receiving end of that weapon anymore.

Bir Başkadır (Ethos) Character Network Chart

The character relations turned into a bit of a tangle so I fired up Miro and quickly charted them out. In the end it wasn’t that complicated but the worlds of Meryem and Peri are very clearly separate.

There are lots of movies where a cast of characters roams a town and occasionally intersects in a couple of dramatic moments. What comes to mind for me most immediately is Amores Perros. Of course a Netflix serial doesn’t hit the cinematic height or dramatic depth of that movie despite having more runtime to play with. What it does manage is to set a mood for the weird tangled up modern Turkey.

The most interesting and dramatic events in Bir Başkadır happen on the road (Mesude’s death under the bridge, the family dance off on the way to the village). Along with some of the commuting sequences and the continuous questions of what bus stops where and how to get somewhere in time, that is an essential part of Istanbul. The city is so vast and spread out that people are always underway, an apt metaphor for character development—interrupted or otherwise—if ever there was one.

A lovely interview about the magic bus and the hippie period in Istanbul revolving around the Lale Pudding Shop which is still in business.

(kom eens langs)

Eerst praten we over van alles en niets.

Dan schenk ik thee. Doe er nog wat koekjes bij.

Ik had geld geleend van mijn moeder waarmee ik een goed gevulde tafel dek.

Je zegt ‘ik ben op dieet’ en eet niet, ik eet, dat geeft niet.

Dan praten we over ditjes en datjes.

Dan hebben we het over mij.

Ook al wil ik dat helemaal niet.

Je neemt me mijn fouten kwalijk.

We bekritiseren mij dunnetjes en praten over hoe jij alle kansen in het leven gegrepen hebt.

‘Begrijp me niet verkeerd, ik zeg dit omdat ik van je hou’, zeg je, waarom zou ik, mijn hart zet alles wat ik verkeerd opvat toch wel recht. ‘Het geeft niet’ zeg ik. ‘Of ik niet weet hoe close ze zijn.’ Ik lieg. Ik weet niet hoe close ze zijn.

Als je even je mond houdt, praat ik mezelf moed in.

Net als ik het kwijt wil, kijk jij op Instagram.

Je laat me het badpak zien wat je voor deze zomer gaat kopen. Ik zeg dat het heel mooi is.

We zijn twee jaar geleden voor het laatst naar zee geweest zeg ik. Ah nee dat kan toch niet als ik niet zwem dan stérf ik zeg je.

Ik zeg niet dat je niet doodgaat van zwemgebrek.

Dat er ander leed is waar mensen aan sterven, bijvoorbeeld een gebroken hart, weet je dat het echt mogelijk is dat een hart breekt, wetenschappers hebben dat bewezen zeg ik maar niet.

We drinken thee tot we erbij neervallen.

De tafel wordt afgeruimd, de asbakken raken vol.

Ik sta af en toe op, leeg de asbakken, schenk thee in.

Sorry voor de moeite zeg je.

Je zou de keuken kunnen opruimen maar omdat onze keuken klein is word je daar onwel, de muren komen op je af zeg je. Geeft niet.

Blijf zitten, ik ruim wel op.

Als je moet plassen vind je onze badkamer misschien wel leuk. Ik heb een nieuw douchegordijn gekocht op de markt.

Als je die leuk vindt zeg ik dat jij nog veel betere verdient en er valt een stilte. ‘Dank je schat’ zeg je.

Kom langs, we zullen op hetzelfde bankstel de volslagen leegte zijn.

En als je komt, neem dan dat geluk mee dat jou te klein is, misschien past het mij.


Translated diary excerpts of a soldier involved in the Dersim Massacre describe a normal kind of horror.

English language critique of Turkish rap produced in my backyard here in Berlin. That’s the way I like it.

My easily incensed people

A Turkish guy in a van turns the corner tight enough to almost run us over. He then stops and pulls down the window: “Möchtest du mir etwas sagen?”

To which I better don’t reply: “Ja, ‘senin ananı babanı sikeyim.'”

These guys are so easily triggered. Once I did say this and the dude followed me through half of Schöneberg in his car.