Way beyond the Rubicon

Councillor Ruby Khan always chuckled as she talked about how another Manchester councillor had been heard to refer to an encounter with her as ‘Crossing the Ruby Khan’. (If someone “crosses the Rubicon” they have gone too far or taken too big a risk.) Ten years ago Ruby and I finally had time to talk when sharing the same ward at St Mary’s Hospital, Manchester. Though we had come across each other several times, we had not realised how much we had in common. We were both long-term Manchester residents with foreign backgrounds. Both of us were teachers; both of us had commitments to education and involvement with the Manchester Education Committee. Her partner, a historian, had just become Muslim before they got married; I was about to move to Turkey where my partner is a historian.

Without ever coming to Turkey, Ruby primed me better than anyone on what to expect moving to another culture. The week before I left Britain, she slipped in a comment “Turkey is lucky you’re going.” I could not understand. I was leaving feeling I had not been able to do much other than keep myself together and relatively sane in the inner city jungle. I had developed such a coat of armour that, once in Anatolia, I gave off too strong an image: part of the defence mechanism for a woman living alone in Moss Side. I’ve now been here ten years, have join citizenship and am as settled as I’ve been anywhere.

Our partners never met: too busy between conferences, juries and lectures. My husband only met Ruby ten days before her final hospitalisation. She died on 14th November 2002 with so many ideas, so many projects to be done, so many stories to write and so much history to record. As it turned out, Ruby-the-teacher had foreseen what was to happen. Though I was leaving Britain without leaving any traces, I had been observing, learning and picking up pieces I had not been able to put together in 19 years in Britain.

I have had to check where the Rubicon is or was: a river between northern Italy and Gaul that Julius Caesar crossed in 49BC. In those days the Gaels, the Celts among them, were a widely dispersed people that had spread from somewhere in Central Europe: northwest to the British Isles, southwest to the Spanish Peninsula and east into Anatolia, now Turkey. Twenty-four years after Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon westwards, the Roman Empire expanded eastwards with the Roman province of Galatia, the capital of which was Ankyra, now the site of the Turkish capital, Ankara.

I have been teaching English at the Middle East Technical University in Ankara for eight years, preparing students to read academic texts and write exam papers in English. Ever since I began, I have kept an eye open for those ‘not best served’ by the system. Though I happen to be teaching English at the moment, I am not a dyed in the wool English teacher. During my 19 years in Manchester I was initially a geneticist, but later mended bikes, was unemployed, on ‘job creation’, a lab technician, a primary school teacher and a translator. However, volunteering provided some of the most valuable experience in getting me where I am today, particularly years as a school governor. Thanks to the understanding gained, I have been able to work with students on how to develop what could become the first Turkish support network for university students with disabilities.

The first steps were not difficult, but alone. Easy because when nothing has been done, anything can count as progress. I was alone, working without interference, not having to explain to people who didn’t understand my dream. By June 2002, I had worked out the elements of academic support for any disabled student studying at out English department. My Mancunian LEA experience had given me enough ideas of what needed to be done; but I was and still am strongly aware of the need to develop a locally appropriate version of the solutions that have been developed in other countries.

Last November, I was off work with appendicitis and no new disabled students had registered at the department in September. Had I developed my ‘academic and social support project’ for no one? It was time to reach out to disabled students in the main departments of the university. I wrote to Ruby, pouring out ideas and ideals, restrictions and hurdles. I brainstormed and planned, listed contacts and opportunities. A month later, once I had been able to begin talking to people about these possibilities, a phone call from Britain announced that Ruby had died even before I was hospitalised. Had I known, without my soul mate in Manchester, I would have felt alone, lonely. Without the steady glow from miles away, the idea could have been just another thought with no consequence.

Since Ruby’s death, much progress has been made. The Middle East Technical University had already begun an access improvement project in conjunction with the Rotary Club. This has now been brought together with the academic support project to become a comprehensive programme called Engelsiz ODTU, ‘engelsiz’ meaning both ‘without disability’ and ‘without hurdles’. Although this is happening without any legal requirement to provide support, a major new parliamentary act is expected this December. Work so far has been based on good will and intrinsic motivation. Students are coming together to talk about issues so far considered of ‘lower’ priority. As awareness increases, people are looking for possible solutions. It is important to be realistic and look at what can be done within current means and without immediately demanding major changes to operations and systems. In the early stages, it is important to convince people, in a non-threatening manner, that improvements can be made, without excessive demands and expectations. This is a sensitive balance, on a sensitive issue.

Thanks Ruby! For your insight, your ability to see a spark of potential that others could not: lack of attention, lack of awareness, or not knowing what to look for? But most importantly, your insight was followed by sustained faith in my ability to bring about change, first in myself, then in others. This can rarely be done alone, in total solitude. In those moments of darkness when things are not working, when no one understands, when things go wrong and others say “It will never work, not here – you do not know these people, this culture”, Ruby’s belief in me and my knowledge of what she too had been able to do keep me going. Ruby, the strength of your convictions will keep me going yet and bear fruit in Anatolia, half way between your two homelands. These are exciting times, times I would have loved to share with you. In your absence, I am passing them on to others in the hope that someone somewhere may benefit.