This week, my mother tongue weighs heavy. It is a chain circling my throat. This week, my mother tongue is my curse. It transmits pain across continents and time zones. This week, my mother tongue is my nightmare, my reality, my sole wish to will it all away. 

I was born in Istanbul and lived in different parts of Turkey until the end of college. My parents are 78 years old and, like most of my immediate family, live in the southern city of Mersin on the Turkish coast of the Mediterranean. 

On the evening of Sunday, Feb. 5, as we were busy with the evening chores here in Pittsburgh, an earthquake hit southeastern Turkey and Syria. It was registered as 7.8, which is considered as “major” on the official magnitude scale. Nine hours later a second quake, at 7.5, came along. 

Mersin is a mere 175 miles away from the epicenters. 

Müge Kökten Finkel (Courtesy photo)
Müge Kökten Finkel (Courtesy photo)

I spent the initial hours trying to reach family and friends. I found my parents shellshocked, having gotten out of their 13th-floor apartment to the street in their pajamas. My friends responded with quick messages: “we r ok, can’t reach my sister,” and “my nephew is out, no news from the rest of the family of 5.” 

This week, in my safety, all I could do was to bear witness to growing agony, and listen to the sheer burden of life piercing through the TV screen. They came in so many accents, so many voices, sang in so many tunes, against the backdrop of so much rubble, in so many different hours of the day and the night. I watched as snow and rain muffled the words but not the pain. I watched people of all ages, all looks, start with a normal sentence on camera only to lose their bearings in the next second. I stared at a photo of a father sitting on top of rubble, all alone, all defiant, holding his long-dead daughter’s hand. The caption read, “Is there a worse pain?” 

I can’t speak when asked if I am OK. When I try, words bubble in my throat and come out of my eyes. 

My friends, when they heard Turkish for the first time, used to comment that it is loud and sounds like an argument but strangely ends in laughter. This week, all Turkish sounds like a tide wave of cries.

The first five days after two quakes, all Turkish was a battle cry against time; in the depths of the night with freezing temperatures, all Turkish was a curse against fate; in the absence of help when neighbors dug each other out with bare hands, all Turkish was a scream against helplessness. 

By the 198th hour, all Turkish was hopelessness, but a call for miracle, a mom’s wish to lose herself in the rubble if her child can’t be saved, a father walking barefoot in snow and mud for kilometers to bring a search light, a stranger’s assurance to another stranger under cement blocks, “I will get help and come for you.” 

This week, all Turkish was, “Please, don’t go.”

Mersin, Turkey (Photo courtesy of Müge Kökten Finkel)
Mersin, Turkey (Photo courtesy of Müge Kökten Finkel)

This week, my mother tongue weighs heavy. I look in envy upon people who only see the screens but are not able to hear the pain through its spoken language. 

This week, my safety and distance from a human calamity feel undeserved. I wake up, eat, go to work, come home. My home stands still, my walls are not cracked. My ceiling is where it is supposed to be. My people are breathing through the night. This week, the pain of strangers pierces my heart, my humanity is tested, my anger merges with disbelief. 

I recall geography is destiny. I wonder, for the millionth time, why? This week, I bury myself in my mother tongue, one that is broken into silent cries, one that is stolen from those under the rubble. This week, I carry the burden of life, through my mother tongue, heavy, but a reminder nonetheless. I oblige to hear.

Müge Kökten Finkel, is the director of the Ford Institute for Human Security and a faculty member at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. She can be reached at For anyone who wishes to support the ongoing humanitarian relief efforts, she recommends giving to AHBAP Foundation, a non-governmental civil society organization, and Pittsburgh Helps Turkey, a collaborative effort supported by student organizations at Pitt, Carnegie Mellon University and Duquesne University.

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