Negotiating Istanbul

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Among the several self-published memoirs we received is Cultures in Counterpoint: Memoirs of a Sephardic Turkish-American (Xlibris, 2009). The author, Bension Varon Gr’67, is a Turkish-born Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1960 after the collapse of his family’s business in Istanbul. Settling first in West Philadelphia, where he earned his PhD in economics at Penn and worked at the Population Studies Center, Varon went on to a 30-year career at the World Bank. But his memories of Turkey are particularly pungent—and often wry, as the following vignette suggests.

I was not unhappy in the army. Like every Turk, I had taken for granted as a youth that I would one day serve, but to do so as a reserve officer turned what had been a traditionally feared experience for all into a benign, even positive one. I was, in fact, pleased and even proud to serve, and so was my father, as the following incident demonstrates. During one of my visits home, a petty thief broke into our apartment in the early hours of the morning and stole my father’s wallet out of his coat pocket. Although the money lost was minor, my father was outraged. He promptly told me to put on my uniform and go to see the district’s Komiser, or Chief of Police. Here was a man culturally programmed as a Jew to avoid talking to a policeman, let alone a Police Chief, telling me to go to complain to the Komiser! He must have waited for such a day all his life. I knew better, though. I put on my uniform, walked twice around the block, and told my father that everything would be taken care of.

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