Chigozie Obioma’s experiences as a Nigerian student in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus left him with a knowledge he wished he’d never gained.
As a Nigerian young adult traveling abroad for the first time, the thrill I experienced was, at first, intoxicating. I’d dropped out of the university I had been attending in Nigeria, and was desperate to return to school, this time to study English instead of economics. My visa application to the UK had been rejected, and so I found my new destination, a university in the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus. It was a nation few people seemed to know much about. It was, and still is, without international recognition.
After days of celebrations, prayers, and phone calls from relatives far and wide, I took off—my first plane ride—and was immediately overwhelmed. I had expected a warm welcome from the few Nigerians and Africans—about ten or so, mostly young men, along with four young women—who were already there. But they treated my arrival with discomfort and wondered why I had chosen to come. Seeing that their question didn’t make logical sense, since they were in Cyprus as well, they’d always end the discussion by telling me I’d soon discover why they had asked.
The day after I arrived on the island, I went to eat at the campus cafeteria. My parents had warned me that I might not be able to eat the food there. “It will be nothing like ours,” my dad had said. “This is a country in the Middle East. Think of the food in the Bible—olives, loaves. It’s very different.” They’d advised me to learn how to cook Nigerian food before leaving, but I hadn’t put any stock into their words. Occupied with the more pleasant visions of my upcoming journey, I had not considered that there could be something I would not like.
But standing in the cafeteria that day, during the lunch hour, I knew I was in a bit of trouble. The cafeteria bustled with the voices of new Turkish students, and foreign students from places like India and Pakistan, who, like me, had just arrived. The building seemed more colorful than anything I could remember in Nigeria, with the exception of the Central Bank of Nigera’s national headquarters, where my father had worked. The architecture in Cyprus placed aesthetic emphasis on glass and an interior range of ascendant roofing. The floors were mostly wood, so that they made sounds when one walked on them.
After finding a seat, I looked down at my lunch plate where the thigh of a half-simmered chicken steadily oozed pink blood. Beside it was something that looked like chicken shit but had the smell of nzu, the white chalk found under certain bodies of water in Igboland. Months later, I would learn that this was called hummus. I called my father and begged to be transferred from the food-inclusive dormitory to one of the on-campus apartments where students could cook their own food. Then I called my sister and begged her to email me recipes.
That night, I went back to the school restaurant and ordered food I recognized: rice, skewered meat that looked much like our suya, but which the Turks called kebab, and some fries. As I sat to eat, I encountered the first sign of what I was to become in this country. A lady and her boyfriend occupied the table I had chosen. Once I sat down, she pointed toward me, and in that moment, a man rushed toward me speaking in mangled English, “No seat, no seat!” I looked around me. The people in the cafeteria were laughing, and those who were not laughing were looking at me.
I was a stranger in a country where people viewed me as inferior. When I told my African friends—Dee, Glory, and the others—about my dinner experience, they laughed and quipped, “Welcome to North Cyprus!” Then some of them cursed the leaders of Nigeria and complained that we could have been a great country—not one that subjects her children to this kind of humiliation abroad. By my third day, I fully understood their discontent. The Turkish students who boarded the school bus chose not to sit by us. When one of us sat beside a woman, she rose and stood instead. We huddled into ourselves as if we were prisoners. In the mornings, we went to class together as a group. If someone had a lecture at nine, he went to campus with someone whose class began at eight, just so that he didn’t have to walk there alone. You could be called arap—a term adopted by Ottoman Turks who thought black people were Arabs and used it to refer to black slaves—seemingly a million times before you reached the classroom, and passersby would laugh at you so much that you would look at your extremities and feel, sometimes, as though they were indeed bound with sturdy Ottoman chains.
One afternoon, two of the female African students returned from class enraged. Dee and I asked them what happened.
“The teacher disgraced us,” Seyi said.
Her companion, K.K, narrated how the professor had asked them, in the full glare of the class, if they had come to Cyprus naked. The man had said, “We hear and see on TV that there are no clothes in Africa. Did you get the clothes at the airport?”
We vowed to protest and, the next day, took a complaint to the International Office. A few days later, the teacher apologized to the students, blaming CNN and international media.
Nearly every day, we encountered incidents of vicious racism. Once, a trucker stopped in front of a Nigerian girl, wound down his window, and spat in her face. She had done nothing; she was simply standing on the side of the road, waiting to cross. Incidents of men stalking African women were rife. Yet, despite this, I found some true Turkish or Turkish-Cypriot friends. One day, nearly eight months after I arrived on the island, one of my friends, Mehmet, brought his parents to visit, and they invited me to return with them to Turkey for the summer holiday.
When I told my roommates that I was going to stay with a friend’s family in Turkey, they were worried. But although we were often wary of Turkish students, I had become sure of Mehmet’s good intentions. I had tested him by inviting him and a group of his friends to my birthday party, for which my roommates and I had made Nigerian food. Those who were fakes, who saw us as exotic baggage they could carry around for prestige, would not submit themselves to something like that.
That journey would mark for me a great change. Upon arriving, I realized that this part of Turkey was decidedly different from North Cyprus. Perhaps because I was always with Mehmet and his brother-in-law, Turkish people themselves, I was treated differently than in Cyprus. No stray insults were thrown at me. I was treated more as a curiosity. People looked at me wherever I went, and I was always conscious of their gaze. Toward the middle of the visit, Mehmet and I went to a mall. As we came out to find our car in the parking lot, a car pulled up near us and stopped on the side of the road. A man got out, speaking to my friend in rushed Turkish. My friend looked at me with obvious embarrassment.
“His daughter,” he said. “I’m sorry, Obi. His little daughter. Want to touch you, Kanki. You say yes?”
I didn’t know what to say. The man’s eyes were on me. Out in the Mersin afternoon, with the sun blazing somewhere behind us, our clothes already sticking to our bodies from the heat, I nodded. The man opened the door of his car and out came a young girl who jumped right toward me and held my legs with her little hands. She would not look at my face; she just held my legs as though I were a brother or some long-lost friend who’d come back to see her. That moment felt to me like a reprieve. Turkish adults, especially the women, would not even sit near me. But here was this young girl, not yet fully formed, holding me. It felt like a patch of light in the uterine dark of my experience so far.
On another occasion, Mehmet’s parents invited a family over to visit. Their son, a boy of about seven, refused to join the table at a dinner. When his parents insisted, the boy said he would if they would ask me one question: why was I black? I rambled to Mehmet that it was just how my kind were. There are people more white than Turkish people, and there are those darker than them. Mehmet, with great reluctance, relayed the answer to the kid. But the kid shook his head slowly. He was not convinced. Then he said something that caused the people at the table to laugh hard and I waited impatiently for my friend to translate for me. It was not how I was born, the boy had said. I had become that way by eating so much chocolate, and it had darkened my skin.
After four weeks in Turkey, I was ready to return to Cyprus. Once Mehmet and his brother-in-law dropped me off at the airport and hugged me goodbye, I felt naked, fully conscious that I was probably the lone black man in the entire airport. I had been covered, shielded by Mehmet and his family for weeks, and now that had been torn away. Three men walked past me speaking in loud voices, engaged in what seemed like an argument. It struck me, as one thrown into sudden wakefulness, that I could understand what they were saying. One of them was talking about the stupidity of the referees during a Besiktas game. I sat unsteadily down in a seat near two women. A voice came over the loudspeaker, and I understood nearly everything that had been said. For some time, the two women stole glances at me. Then one of them said, “I have been seeing slaves about recently.”
“There are many of them in Cyprus,” the other said.
I sat there, surprised at myself. Without even knowing it, I had learned the Turkish language. For the first two weeks of my trip to Turkey, Mehmet’s mother, who did not speak a word of English, had insisted on communicating with me every day. She’d show me things, attempting to get me to understand something. She would converse with me, even though I could not understand her. And slowly, to appease her, I had paid attention, striving to get as much as I could from what she was telling me. In his book, Language and Silence, George Steiner speaks of the “transcendences of language toward silence.” Language can hibernate, appear dead, even, if unused or unexplored. This had been my experience.
In the following days, I would hear Turkish people discussing the smell of the Africans; how one must be careful to avoid being robbed by us; the brilliant ones among us who excelled in class; and once, I became privy to a heated debate on whether or not the size of my manhood was bigger than that of the average Turkish man.
I felt changed. At first, my friends could not believe that I understood Turkish. But when they saw me communicate with the grocers at stores, they rejoiced. I felt apart from the other African students. I could now understand the language of those who often mocked and ridiculed me. While my friends saw a utilitarian purpose to my knowledge, I began to see it as a curse. They felt that it had given me an edge, and yet, every day, I went about craving a lobotomy. I wanted to be like them again. I wanted to be able to walk through a mass of Turkish students and not know what they were saying. I craved the immunity of ignorance, but there was nothing I could do now. Every day, I would walk the streets of North Cyprus and be called a slave by those who knew I was not. And every day, I would be seen by my friends as having gained mastery over a thing I could no longer escape—for I had been enslaved by a language I did not want, and there was nothing I could do about it.
Chigozie Obioma’s new novel, An Orchestra of Minorities, was inspired by his experience in North Cyprus.