Hak Pak Sak

Stephen Lewis on Infrastructure, Identity, Communication, and Change

Friendship and Borders: Facebook, Turkish Etymology, a Virtual Kurdistan, and a Moment of Remembrance

Posted by Stephen Lewis on May 28, 2008

Facebook, the Banality of Friendship, and the Wisdom of Turkish Etymology

Late last year I opened a facebook account. In part, I was compelled to. Several work-related acquaintances in the US and UK had told me that they were so overwhelmed by regular email that they were restricting their correspondence to those listed as “friends” on their facebook accounts. I was also curious. Having devoted much time these last years to researching the origins and consequences of 19th- and 20th-century national identities, I am intrigued by mechanisms claiming to offer individuals possibilities to shape their own identities and allegiances at will and to transcend the simple congruent assemblages of geographic borders, officially-sanctioned languages and religions, and artificially contrived histories and heritages that are at the core of most if not all national identities.

For a time, I gave facebook a chance. I let it troll my address book and I began to collect a community of facebook ‘friends’ of my own. My list of ‘friends’ soon grew to contain several dozen names. Most of my facebook “friends,” however, turned out to be little more than acquaintances, acquaintances of acquaintances, or people with whom I had had one-off conversations at meetings or conferences. Others were unfortunates who either had mistaken me for someone else or imagined me to have far more influence or connections than I will ever amass. Few were what I would call friends and only a few more were people with whom I would care to be friends. Friendship as defined by facebook was not what I would call friendship. It appeared to conflate every from of acquaintanceship, no matter how slight, and to ascribe value to relationships in terms of their numbers and not than their substance.

I then set out to purge my list and separate facebook “friends” from real friends. In search of a filter, I turned to Turkish, a language in which I can do little more that travel and shop and exchange basic pleasantries and in which have a vocabulary of only a hundred or so words, many of them archaic survivals of Ottoman Turkish still embedded in Balkan Slavic languages, as in colloquial Bulgarian, a language that I do speak quite well.

Turkish has two words for friend. One, dost, is Persian in origin; the other, arkadas, has Turkish roots. Dost, according to Hanneke van der Heyden, a translator from Turkish to Dutch of writers including Nobel Prıze winner Orhan Pamuk, implies sentiment and emotional connection. The more commonly used arkadaş, which can refer to colleagues and co-workers as well as friends, invokes inter-reliance, trust, risk-taking, and self-sacrifice. Ottomanıst and archıtectural historıan Machıel Kıel points out that arkadaş is comprised of two shorter root words and can be literally translated as “companion of the back.” Kiel surmises that the word is of martial origin, referring to fighting back-to-back against foes and relying on one another to guard each other’s vulnerabilities, not unlike the hackneyed phrase “watch my back” used by police officers under fire in American crime cinema and “police procedurals.”

Thus, with two Turkish words as criteria, I eliminated from my facebook list all those with whom I did not share or admire sentiments or passions or for whom I would not put myself on the line to defend or trust to do the same for me. The number of names on my list plummeted from scores to an even half dozen.

(A correlate phenomenon: A glance at my facebook home page shows me that those on my list whose passions and work and relationships are conducted face to face, who produce rather than watch and who see the internet as a tool or conduit rather than an end in itself show far less activity on facebook.)

Linked-In, Geopolitical Boundaries, and a Virtual Kurdistan

Linked In is even more puzzling to me than facebook is. I regularly receive requests — mostly from contacts and ex-colleagues in the Netherlands and occasionally from hustling would-be entrepreneurs in the Balkans — to “link” to me on Linked In, but why and what for I’ve yet to figure out. A bit of clicking around on Linked-In suggests that like facebook-ers in search of friends, Linked In-ers thrive on numbers, confusing numbers of contacts for qualitative measures of worth or self worth. Some of my more active Linked In connections have hundreds of contacts but, absurdly, those with the largest collections keep their lists confidential, closed to the prying eyes and linking obsessions of others.

This said, a look at the Linded-In contact list of one ex-coleague led me to the name of another, a veteran telecommunications consultant who had set up fixed-line and mobile systems throughout the world, quite often under harsh physical conditions and even harsher regimes. Back in the late 1990s he told me that he had been approached sometime before by Kurdish “separatists” dedicated to carving an independent Kurdistan out of contiguous regions of present-day Iraq, Iran, and Turkey asking him to conceive a pan-national mobile phone network that would be a first step toward creating out of infrastructure what had been denied them in terms of internationally recognized physical boundaries and political self-rule, i.e. a functional actualization of Kurdish identity.

I have no idea what happened to this project or even whether it was feasible technically but, coincidentally, it fits within the concerns of my present work in the study of the history of national identity and of current issues in telecommunications and the internet. Projects and visions based on overlapping patterns of allegiance and infrastructure are potential alternatives to the limitations and divisiveness of outmoded models of ethnically and geographically defined national states with arbitrary physical and cultural boundaries.

The Meaningfulness of Friendship and the Transcendance of Worlds: A Moment of Remembrance

Consideration of issues of friendship and boundaries leads me to reflect on a remarkable woman whose life was a study in friendship and community and in uniting and transcending seemingly disparate worlds and peoples.

This coming Saturday at the Meeting House of the Society of Friends on East Fifteenth Street in Manhattan a memorial service will be held for Rachel M. Yoder. Rachel was born almost 72 years ago into the Amish and Mennonite world of rural Maryland. She came to New York in the mid-1960s with her husband Monroe. Together, they built a family and helped build a church — Seventh Avenue Mennonite Church in Harlem — that ignored divisions of race and class. Rachel’s home and heart were open to blacks, whites, hispanics and all others, rich and poor, educated and not, Christians and non-Christians (this writer among them), whether in times of joy, sorrow, or need. By transcending the superficial distinctions that divide most people, Rachel enabled others to transcend themselves. Rachel had a soft voice, a youthful laugh, and compassion, understanding, and a warm smile for all. She lives on in the hearts and thoughts of all those whose lives and souls she touched and united.

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One Response to “Friendship and Borders: Facebook, Turkish Etymology, a Virtual Kurdistan, and a Moment of Remembrance”

  1. Shefaly said

    What an amazing post!

    I think at some level, we all grapple with the ‘boundaries’ we wish to observe in our lives. I do however think that this is a function of age, somewhat. My cousin was confused about my nephew (her son) having over 800 Facebook friends. He is 20 and works differently from his mother who is 46.

    There is much more but you have written a very reflective piece and as I complete my own draft on these issues, I will certainly like to include this in one of the recommended readings.

    PS: Got here from JP’s.

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