I Learned Not to Be Offended by Physical Work

Prof. Dr. İlter Turan
9 minutes

I have no doubt that this understanding has changed today, but I don’t know how much. In my childhood, “school masters” like me who continued their education were not expected to do physical labor. It was even thought that physical labor was not for the educated, that it was the uneducated who should do it. I think this understanding is the product of a static social structure that assumes that everyone has a place and a job in society. Indeed, I came across the same understanding in Egypt. The driver of the Turkish embassy in Egypt, where I was a guest due to a marriage, did not wash the car himself, but hired a man from his own salary and had him clean the car. Yes, the driver’s job was to drive the car, washing the car was a lower level job, unbecoming of a driver. Therefore, it should have been handed over to someone suitable to do it for a price.

The first time I saw that everyone can do physical labor, that it is natural, that there is nothing shameful about it, was when I went to the USA in 1957 as an exchange student. Before I had even had a chance to look around, I had gone to the wife of the family who was hosting me and asked how I could help with the housework, on my mother’s suggestion that in America children help with the housework. The house’s panoramic windows overlooking San Francisco Bay needed cleaning. They handed me the materials and I started cleaning the windows, which were quite high up. My arms and shoulders were not used to it, so after a while my muscles started to ache. I grumble to myself: “Did I come here to work as a cleaner, I wish I could just go home!” Anyway, I finally accomplished and finished the job I didn’t think was worthy of me. They thanked me.

When I started to get to know the neighborhood a little bit, I saw that almost every high school student was doing physical labor and many students were earning money this way. For example, at that time, motorized lawn mowers had not yet been developed. The grass growing in the gardens would be cut with weed whackers pushed by a person, and then raked up. Most high school students used to clean the gardens of their acquaintances after school for minimum wage, earning their weekly allowance. I noticed that most of the students’ families were wealthy enough to provide pocket money for their children. It was not about need, but about the child learning to earn by working. One of the easiest jobs for a high school student to do was manual labor like mowing grass.

It should be noted that such work by young people also helped to meet the need for labor in society. It would probably be too expensive to have it done by a professional weed cutter. In any case, there were no weed cutters. It was easy for everyone to see the work as being done by young students ready to work in their spare time. Garden owners were able to maintain their gardens at relatively cheap rates, and high school students were able to earn pocket money and become independent from their families. Everyone was a winner.

I soon adapted to the land and started to earn money by mowing grass. Then I got a job in the coffee-sandwich section of a drugstore and continued to work there after school. My ingrained psychological-cultural barriers against doing physical labor disappeared. During my long student life in America, I worked in various manual jobs, as a waiter, waitress, construction worker, elevator operator (elevators were not yet automated at that time), and lifeguard on the Atlantic coast. So I felt more free. I lived a more enjoyable life with the opportunities I created.

An incident I encountered on my way back to Turkey had a great impact on me. In those years, air travel was not yet a luxury. I have a lot of stuff. The most reliable way is to take a ship from New York to Naples and from there take a Turkish ship to Istanbul. As luck would have it, the day I was to board the ship, the dock workers were on strike. Many people come with their suitcases, and the workers have to carry the suitcases to their cabins. I have too much stuff to carry all at once. How do you think American Export Lines, which operates the ships, overcame the loading problem? All employees of the company, including the general manager and senior executives, met the passengers at the docks, received their belongings and carried them to the cabins and warehouses themselves. I wondered, if the same incident had happened in our country, would the top executives of the company have made such a gesture? I don’t think so. Maybe they would send lower level staff and they themselves would supervise the workers.

An incident I experienced after returning to Turkey showed me that we still have a long way to go in body work. Most people don’t know or don’t remember. The University Entrance Exams system was first established by Istanbul University Faculty of Economics. Prof. Haydar Furgaç, an esteemed professor of statistics, started the process by acquiring an IBM main frame computer, which was a new development at the time. I was one of the “newbies” who helped him. The exam books were printed in Istanbul and then sent by truck to other provinces where the exam would be held.

I can’t be sure of the year, but it might have been 1970, and I was asked to take the exam paperwork to Ankara and bring it back. The documents, sorted by test venues and halls, were loaded in sacks into Tuzcuoğlu’s flatbed truck and the door was sealed. So I sat next to the truck driver. We left Istanbul early in the morning and arrived in Ankara in the afternoon. In Ankara, I counted and handed the documents to the examiners. The exam was held the next day. After that, the process started to work in reverse. The documents collected from the halls and buildings were packed, counted and put in sacks. Then, in my presence, the sacks were counted and loaded onto the truck. Of course, the truck bed was sealed again.

We set off for Istanbul. According to the calculation, we will arrive in Istanbul at sunset. There is no bridge yet, but the car ferry and the police have been notified and they will take us on without waiting in line. As we were approaching Kızılcahamam, the driver said, “Brother, the car won’t shift after second gear, we can’t go, I’ll tow it to a mechanic in Kızılcahamam, we may need to ask for parts from Ankara.” And so it was. We spent the whole day in repair. It was only in the evening after dark that we were able to set off again. We arrived in Harem around 6:00 in the morning. No bridge yet. We’ll take the ferry across. The driver wants to unload immediately because trucks are not allowed to drive in the city after 8:00 pm. At around 7:00 we arrived at the computer center and warehouse under the new building of the Faculty of Economics. There are janitors who slept at the university at that time. I told the janitor who was waiting for us to wake them up and we need to unload the truck now. After a while, the janitors, slightly groggy, did the honors and reluctantly began to carry the sacks. I carry bags so that the work is done quickly, and I try to keep a tally of the bags so that they are not missing.

A janitor turned to grumble for me to hear. “What a disgrace, they make us do porter work!” Probably because of my youthful intolerance, I suddenly lost my temper. I exclaimed. “If I hadn’t been a janitor here, you probably would have been a porter downstairs in the market (at that time the market was between Eminönü and Unkapanı). Can’t you see I’m slapping the sacks on my back, the job has to be done. If you can’t do it, get out, but know that I will report you!” He fell silent and continued carrying the sacks. In retrospect, I probably should have handled the situation differently. Apparently, doing physical labor was a job that was unbecoming even for janitors in the division of labor of the day. In a static society, where everyone’s job and place in society was determined, this rule prevailed, and breaking it caused a backlash.

How much has this understanding changed today? I don’t know. I think that as labor became more expensive on the one hand, and as a result of the difficulty of finding a job, even those who studied had to accept physical work, the system of values that envisaged the avoidance of physical work automatically weakened. Yet I feel that most of our people underestimate physical work, avoid this kind of work. On the other hand, circumstances dictate that we should not avoid physical labor, but social attitudes are not easy to change. From my own experience, I don’t find it difficult to grasp that not avoiding and respecting the work of the body is not an easy understanding to acquire. But I see that circumstances have made it natural for all of us to do more physical work. There will be more to come. I guess we have to be patient.

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