Teaching Mesut Pektas

I am teaching English to the esteemed Mesut Pektas, the head of the Istanbul People’s Bread Factory. He’s also under indictment for taking bribes and awarding contracts to his friends and religious compatriots. (I found this out from Google last night.) I started teaching on a whim – when I moved here, I stopped by Kent English to see how much money I’d make, just for fun. They were so desperate to have a native American on their rolls that they offered me, on the spot, their top salary, more than anyone else there was earning, of $5 an hour. I turned it down, much to their surprise (not because it’s so little money, but because it’s not near my house) but there are lycees closer to where I live; if I decide to teach the next school year (September), I can do so for far more money.

(As an aside, Elif’s cousin Tunc stopped by for help. He’s 15 and a sophomore in high school – he was having problems with math, and since I was on the math team in high school, I thought I’d help. You would not believe what they’re studying in Turkish high schools. He’s doing Analytic Geometry that’s way more advanced than anything an American student would ever encounter in their worst nightmares. He has two math classes – 14 classes total – and is doing complex work with set theory, derivations, algebra, manipulation of objects in 3-D space – stuff that we never, ever had to do – it’s like a mid-level college course. No AP course would even come close. Then I looked at his other books and it was the same…the only thing missing is a command of English. The worst thing is that he actually uses all the math in his other classes – physics for example – so if he doesn’t understand a concept, he’s screwed – unlike in the US, where if I didn’t get something, I could just get it wrong on the final and have a point taken off.)

Anyway, I got a call from Kent English last week asking me if I’d teach a top official in the Istanbul government for 2 weeks, a few hours a night of conversation, at $13 an hour, and I said that was more my style. Then Elif pointed out that Istanbul’s mayorship is the religious party right now (though the country’s isn’t). I was picked up by Pektas’ chauffeur and driven over the bridge to Asia, and then up the Bosphorus, and then straight into Fatih, a place that has some amazing Moslem historical sites but is unquestionably the most religious area in the city. At 5PM you will not find a woman on the street – and during the day, it’s burka-central.

We hadn’t even driven a block from our apartment when the chauffeur turns to me and asks, “Are you Moslem?” He was wearing a plaid jacket, a little paunchy, enough facial hair growth to indicate a love for all that is Taliban but not enough to be pulled over by the cops for having a Taliban beard. I held my book and answered, “No…I’m reading,” which also means “studying” in Turkish. That made him very happy. Then he asked if my wife was Moslem. I said yes and her name was Elif, and he was thrilled that her name was a historical Moslem name and the first letter of the Arabic alphabet (he didn’t mention also of Greek, Hebrew, etc). He then proceeded to recite the entire Arabic alphabet. Then he asked me my name, and he didn’t like it nearly as much. So he gave me a new one. I told him that it would surprise my wife very much if I were to have a new name, but he insisted, so I told him that it had to begin with a B, because in middle-school French class, the teacher gave me the name Jean-Pierre and I didn’t like that one bit. I came up with Baris, and he said Burak would be much better, and he called me Burak the rest of the way, when he wasn’t pointing out every single mosque we passed the way down. He (Hasan) told me he’d been to Mecca, and would go back soon, and how great Arabic and Saudi Arabia was, how really, really great, he liked it as much as my mom likes Disneyland. His cell phone rang and it played a religious Arabic melody as his ringtone. I thought this was one big Candid Camera episode.

When we got to the office, in the bread factory, he walked me to the Boss, or that is to say, I walked him. He kept telling me how great his boss was and how the boss’s English was better than mine, and he kept getting behind me, which is a very Turkish thing to do, out of respect, but it is very hard to walk in front of someone (such as a real estate agent to an apartment he’s showing you) when you don’t know where the heck you’re going!

Mesut saw me and my first impression was that he must be some kind of stealth theocrat. He looks like any Turkish businessman; 49 years old, white hair, professional, no facial hair, suit; you’d never know what religion he was, even. The reason I took him for some kind of spy is that everyone around him, at night in the bread factory, was in full baggy-pants regalia, and he seemed right at home, and I was certainly not in Kansas anymore, even though he looked just like my Auntie Em.

My job is to talk with him for 2-3 hours a night and correct his English, give him confidence, teach him a little about American business (the stock market, macroeconomics, world affairs, law), and to use idiomatic expressions and compound phrasal verbs. I Googled him, as if it would somehow help me bravely prevent another 9/11 attack, but what he tells me checks out – he was in Boston 1988-1989 getting his masters at Northeastern in Finance, he worked for the government in Ankara, and he rode the wave of religious fervor in the mid-90’s to get his job in Istanbul. He works as the Director of Disaster Coordination Center (AKOM) to help Istanbullians survive future earthquakes. He works with the IMM and its annexed agencies like ISKI (which handles water and sewage) and the IETT (which runs the buses). A real mover and shaker. He left out the parts about working for the Saudi bank then and his corruption charges now, of course. He tells me that he’s interviewing for an American firm in Washington DC and wants to impress the interviewer with his English so he can get the job and move there with his wife, and I see nothing to indicate otherwise. And he’s a really, really, really likeable guy. I want to help him. I want to help his daughters write their college essays so they can say all the right things to get into a good American university.

I feel ridiculous for ever suspecting that he’d go through Kent English to overthrow the US. When we talk about politics and law, he doesn’t hold back or keep his guard up by listening only; he makes jokes and disagrees with me, not just mirroring me. We talk about tax law, corporate bailouts and welfare, etc., and we haven’t talked about 9/11 yet except when we talk about the markets or about the airline industry bailout vs. Chrysler’s 20 years ago. We focus on the English-language aspect of it; if he has any motive other than to escape corruption charges here and cash in there, he’s doing a great job of keeping it from me. Despite his dress, he’s not pretending to me to be more secular than he is – he interrupts the lesson to grab a rug and go in another room to pray for 5 minutes at 7PM, something he knows that I know he’s not supposed to do as a public official – very odd.

He’s a busy guy, with his hands in a lot of pies. He’s often late. Sometimes I’m taken there and never get to teach him, as he’s in meetings. I bill him for the full time I’m away from home, and he pays Kent, who pays me. When he shows up, he’s a curious and attentive learner. I test him on all kinds of words and phrases, and most of what he doesn’t know are in fact idioms, phrasal verbs, or just plain cynical things to say: “beat around the bush,” “cut to the chase,” “pie in the sky,” “fake it,” “blunt term,” “brick-and-mortar,” “buying frenzy,” “get big fast,” “irrational exuberance,” “tax hassle,” “liable,” “belly-up,” “ghost,” “plaintiff,” “defendant,” “bailiff,” “voir-dire,” “indictment,” “acquitted,” “cynical take,” “sarcastic,” “lewd,” “brash,” “blunt,” “forward,” “cocky,” “arrogant,” “conceited,” “nasty,” “cruel,” “unkind,” “mean-spirited,” “rude,” “bragging,” “boasting,” “to blow off,” “throw up,” “pig out,” “on drugs,” “SAT’s,” “TOEFL.”

The chauffeur who drives me home is a 26-year-old maniac who screams at me as fast as he drives. He has a 17-month old kid and loves Arabic and thinks that 9/11 is a good thing not just because the West is the infidels, but because it brings the war home to the US, and he really resents the US having been in a tug-of-war with the USSR using Turkey as the rope and really resents having to serve in the military even after the PKK war died down and he really wants to go to the US but only has 15 days, and what should he see? Is it expensive? Which country is my favorite, America or Turkey? Most importantly, which soccer team do you support?

– I don’t watch soccer.
– OK, but if you did, who would you support?
– I don’t have a TV.
– OK, but if you did?
– I don’t like to watch sports at all.
– OK, but if you did?
– I don’t know. My wife’s family likes Besiktas, you like Besiktas, I’ll say Besiktas then. I support Besiktas.

…at which point he honks his horn, spins his wheel, almost killing us, and speeds up the car. He wants to go to games with me. I think it might be fun to go to a soccer game but tell him I’m afraid of hooligans. Hooligans, he says. We didn’t even have them till the British came 2 years ago. Then they burned our flag in the streets and two Galatasaray fans stabbed a Brit to death. Now it’s everywhere. I’m not saying that stabbing people is good, but they burned our flag in the streets, can you understand that? Now the violence happens here. It happened at the Fenerbahce-Malatya game. It happened at the Fenerbahce-Trabzonspor game. It happened at the Fenerbahce-Galata game. What’s the common denominator here?

– Fenerbahce?

I have a feeling that if Allah were playing Besiktas this guy would have a real hard time rooting for Allah. Better to be focused on the soccer. Maybe I’ll go to a game with him one day.

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2 Replies to “Teaching Mesut Pektas”

  1. Man I laughed so much at this stuff. All the things you pointed out about turkish gestures and all. Especially the soccer part is awesome. BTW my dad was alleged only because of some political reasons, he was not found guilty. But it was really fun to read this stuff. Thanks

  2. Ah, it’s wonderful to hear from you! I was crazy about your father. I’ve come to learn that being involved in politics in Turkey almost inevitably means you’ll be accused of something… How is he – I was crazy about him – he seemed not only particularly intelligent, but also humorous and gracious. Interesting for me to reread this piece, written months after 9/11, to see the attitudes of myself and others at the time.

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