Monday, March 01, 2010

Turkey: Turkey's "Living Library" promotes understanding, battles prejudice

Turkey has a new twist on a conventional library, instead of borrowing books, you borrow individuals who represent stereotypes that often are the target of prejudice or hatred. For VOA, Dorian Jones in Istanbul visited Turkey's Living Library recently and was given a tour by its director, Meri Izrail, who hopes the project helps increase understanding among the country's diverse population.

IZRAIL: "This is the entrance to the Living Library, where the readers will come across the librarians, and they will choose the book that they want to borrow from the catalogue and they will be introduced to the book. They will have half an hour to read the book, so actually it more or less works as a real library, except the fact the books we have are human beings and the people here as books are people who are discriminated for a variety of reasons. People [with] whom we have prejudices."

JONES: "Can you show me what books there are?"

IZRAIL: "Here we have the catalogue. OK we have different book titles available: we have gays; we have Greeks; we will have schizophrenics; bisexual; visually impaired; Arab; NGO worker; headscarf wearing women; transsexual; Armenian; Kurdish; and, Alevi."

The first Living Library opened at a youth festival in Denmark in 2000. Aimed at combating racism, the idea has since spread across the globe.

With hundreds of people lining up to check out a living book, there is an atmosphere of expectation and excitement. One of those waiting in line is 21-year-old Anol Celick.

"We wanted to know about the other people, the people who have a different lifestyle," said Anol Celick. "I choose with my friend, an Armenian, because it is kind of a big problem here. I just wanted to meet one single Armenian person because I have never met one before, because they are a very closed community. Although we have 60,000 people here in Turkey, we never see them. And we have no idea how they live, how they speak and feel about all these problems. So I came here to meet someone from Turkey with an Armenian background."

Armenia and Turkey remain deeply divided over the fate Armenians suffered under Turkish Ottoman rule. Armenia claims Turkey's then Ottoman rulers committed genocide against its Armenian population in 1915, a charge denied by Ankara. As a result of the differences, Armenian minorities often face difficulties living in Turkey.

The most popular living book at the library is a 22-year-old Turkish-Armenian named Bagsi. Over tea, she told me she is amazed that there is such interest in Armenians.

This is a big surprise for me that people coming and telling me that they want to understand me, she says. Because usually people's ideas are formed by media and the education system, which often misrepresent us and is prejudiced. But what is beautiful is that after a short while the conversation evolves into a nice chat, she says. When you talk to people you can see that prejudices are not cast in stone, and after half an hour of conversation we come out having shared so many things, not only the issue of Armenians.

Bagsi left me for her next session with Celick and his friend.

After the session finishes, I ask Celick how it went.

"We had just a really nice chat for 20 minutes," said Celick. "I learned that she is feeling same way as I do for Turkey. So it is quite good. She is almost feeling as like a Turkish person."

Listening to Celick is library director Meri Izrail. She says this is what the Living Library is all about.

But she is keeping her feet firmly on the ground about what it can achieve.

"Most people would like to present the project as a project that will actually erase prejudices," said Meri Izrail. "Of course it is not possible to erase prejudices in half an hour. But I think it is a very good sign if we can bring back readers. There were some readers who were, for example, at a book fair who are coming back to this Living Library with their friends. So this is the sign of achievement on our side."

Breaking down stereotypes, fears, and prejudices is the aim of the Living Library. With observers saying Turkish society remaining deeply polarized, it seems it has a lot of work to do. But with people lining up to enter the library, there appears to be at least a willingness among many to open their minds.

Dorian Jones
Published with the permission of Voice of America

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