16 May 2007

1696) Scholar Traces Lost Turkish Community

PEABODY, Mass. — Isil Acehan is a ghost hunter, on the trail of an all but invisible community, people who lived in Peabody for decades, who made Walnut Street a noisy, vibrant cultural hub, who worked by day in the tanneries and helped build the world's leather capital.
http://armenians-1915.blogspot.com Turkish researcher Isil Acehan at the grave of one of the few Turkish leather workers who never went home, Yakub Ahmed, who married an American woman and had a family . . .
Alan Burke / Courtesy photo

Then - poof - they disappeared without a trace.

Acehan, a 28-year-old doctoral candidate in American history from Turkey, estimates that as many as 2,200 Turks came here, largely at the turn of the last century, often staying for 25 to 30 years. They opened shops, coffeehouses and a club.

Often, despite animosities, they found common ground with Turkish-speaking Greeks, Armenians and Jews. But while those other groups stayed and prospered - joining those from Poland, Ireland, Italy, Scandinavia and Portugal - nearly all the Turks eventually returned to eastern Turkey.

A visiting fellow at Harvard who is studying the contribution of Turkish workers to the North Shore's leather industry, Acehan is here from the most westernized of Muslim countries on a Fulbright Scholarship. And she's enjoyed her time in America so much that she laments going home "too soon."

Her master's thesis at Bilkent University in Ankara also concerned Turks in Peabody's tanneries. She researched it long distance, sending for documents, books and papers. Now, she has come to find people who remember when Turks lived in Peabody.

"They had their own group," Acehan said in fluent English. "They spoke Turkish. They didn't get married. They just worked in the tanneries or drank in the coffee shops."

Some of their salaries were sent home to wives and parents. Unlike other groups, the Turkish men came alone and never sent for their families.

"Turkish men wouldn't bring their women to an unknown land," Acehan said.

With their strange customs, they became figures of menace to some locals.

"When I was a kid growing up (70 years ago), you weren't allowed to go on Walnut Street because of the fact there was this element -- because of the Turks and Greeks," said Barbara Doucette of the Peabody Historical Society. "They fought like cats and dogs."

http://armenians-1915.blogspot.com In an undated photo, Turkish immigrant and Peabody, Mass., leather worker Yakub Ahmed celebrates becoming a naturalized American citizen. Courtesy/Courtesy photo

'Ali Hassans'

The worst fears were often unfounded. Bill Power of the Historical Commission cites Frank Ahmed's book "The Turks in America," which notes that Turks in Peabody were bound by their religious traditions to treat women respectfully. Ahmed's father, Yakub, was one of them.

"I think there was prejudice," Acehan said. "People didn't know who these people were."

The newcomers were known as "Ali Hassans," the Turkish version of John Smith.

Poring over back issues of The Salem Evening News, Acehan has found frequent references to Turks "in the police doings - fighting, assault." Mostly against each other.

A notorious case involved a Turk accused of killing a Greek. Eventually he was released.

"I think he was not guilty," Acehan said.

The Turks came to Peabody after hearing encouraging tales from neighboring Armenians returning from America, Acehan believes. They were helped by Protestant missionaries in the city of Harput. Times were tough in Turkey. The Ottoman Empire was beginning to crumble.

"They were peasants back in Turkey. They didn't have enough," she said.

In Peabody, with no English, they were assigned tannery jobs requiring little communication - the toughest work in a very tough business. Eventually, she said, they became strong union advocates.

Most of the Turks retained their Muslim faith.

"They didn't build any mosque," Acehan said. "It is said they were praying in Emerson Park. An educated person was leading them."

Fighting for America
George Ahmed, 77, of Salem (Frank's brother) told Acehan of his father, Yakub, one of the few Turks who made America his permanent home. He was among more than a dozen who volunteered to fight with the U.S. Army in World War I, siding with a country at war with Turkey. Acehan said that some, eventually returning home, threw their documents away lest their service be discovered.

Staying on in America, Yakub married a local woman of French-Canadian descent. Neither changed religion, Ahmed said. Today they are buried in Cedar Grove Cemetery beneath an enormous, polished stone with a cross on one side and an Islamic crescent on the other.

With no money and no family, Acehan said, many Turks at Cedar Grove are in unmarked graves.

Yakub came to America when he was 15, his son said, working in the A.C. Lawrence beam house, scraping flesh and hair from animal hides in heat that soared well above 100 degrees each summer.

Eventually, Yakub built his own business, owning 22 houses in Salem.

"I once asked him if he ever wanted to go back to Turkey," George said. "He said, 'I came here as a poor boy. I left Turkey with no food in my stomach. ... This country has been good to me. It has given me a living. This is my country."

Most of the Turks, however, were gone by the mid-1930s, George said. Annual Turkish picnics were discontinued about that time. Peabody Mayor Mike Bonfanti remembers when he was a boy, more than a decade later, passing an old, bald man. "Big," he gestures. And he lowers his voice describing what he was told, "That's one of the last of the Turks."

Acehan recently located the daughter of a Peabody Turk married to a woman of Irish descent -- the union came in the aftermath of her birth and a paternity suit. Eileen Masiello lives in California. She remembers any number of doting Turkish uncles. Even so, she could barely speak with her father, whose English was halting. She never learned much about him or his origins.

After so many decades, she was delighted to learn that someone was finally recording this unique and forgotten chapter in Peabody's past - in her past. She asked to be informed of anything that is uncovered.

And then she wept.

Anyone with information on this topic can reach Isil Acehan at acehan@fas.harvard.edu or through the George Peabody House, 978-531-0355.

By Alan Burke
The Salem News (Salem, Mass.)
Alan Burke writes for The Salem News of Salem, Mass.
© 2006, Mineral Wells Index


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