Halima heard the front door close with a click that was almost inaudible. Casting a quick look at the digital clock on the kitchen counter, she surmised that her son, Ahmet, must have come home from school. Since Ahmet began carrying his own key, he preferred unlocking the door himself. Yet, why didn’t she hear his sweet “salaam” – the greeting of peace?
Halima walked into the living room and smiled at what she saw. Ahmet was sitting on the edge of the sofa deeply immersed in a book. He had taken off his shoes on the doormat and dropped his backpack nearby.
Although this wasn’t the first time his love for books had captivated her son-Ahmet had mastered reading two years ago in 2nd grade-Halima couldn’t help wondering about the content of this book that had kidnapped him. She placed his shoes on the rack, stored his backpack in the closet, and sat by his side sneaking a peek into the pages he was reading. She realized that it was an elementary school version of the Guinness Book of World Records.
As her son turned the pages, she saw pictures of the tallest man on earth, of the woman with longest fingernails, of the man with longest ear hair, of the woman with the most body piercings.
The book also displayed pictures of a man who pulled a plane, of a man who held 10 rattle snakes in his mouth by their tails, of a man who balanced a car on his head, of a man who ate 36 cockroaches in one minute, of a man capable of producing the loudest burp-you name it.
Reading the “fun facts” beside each picture, Halima was overtaken by a desperate wish to censor her son’s book selection from the school library. But how possible is that? As she felt at a loss for the right words to begin a conversation without triggering objection, Ahmet looked up and misjudging her interest in the book, he asked genuinely:
“Mom, which record should I break?”
Caught off guard, Halima rummaged through the pages with a let-me-see pose and decided to turn the question around:
“Which one would you like to break?”
“I think I could grow really looong nails,” Ahmet answered stretching the adjective.
“Goodness gracious!” sighed Halima trying to conceal her repulse. She looked at his face and resisting the temptation to snatch the book from him, she spoke softly.
“Ok, my son. Let’s say you broke the longest nails record. Who would benefit from it? You would spend your life growing your nails and depending on others for your basic needs, right?
“Your name would appear in this book,” she continued trying not to sound offensive, “you may earn some money, too, and then what?” Halima fell silent to let her question sink in.
Seeing Ahmet inconsolably disappointed, she switched into a softer tone so that Ahmet would not feel guilty for expressing his childish wish.
“The achievements you read in this book may look cool and fun, but are they bringing any good to anyone?
Ahmet, half-convinced, shook his head.
“Yet, there is a record I want you to break, my son,” Halima said, ending the silence with a new excitement that caused his eyes to shine with interest.
“Really?” asked Ahmet without disguising his thrill.
“Sure. I want you to break a record in …”-here her voice turned low and soft, almost into a whisper, as if confiding a secret or waiting for him to fill the blank-“… good deeds.”
Ahmet looked at her in disbelief. What kind of record is that?
“Yes, my sweetheart, there is such a record, and there are infinite ways to achieve it,” she said pausing to collect examples. “For instance, you can be a very trustworthy person who has never told even the tiniest lie.”
“Wow, that’s hard.” Ahmet said, the very thought making him blush.
“Yes it is,” Halima agreed. “But you can try your best.”
Halima decided that she should suggest more appealing options to her hard-to-convince son. “How about being a very generous person who donates all his wealth to help the less fortunate?” Halima continued. Ahmet couldn’t figure out how he could do that. His own allowance never seemed to be enough.
“You can open schools in areas of the world where people can’t even write their names.” Ahmet shot her a disbelieving look, “Can’t even write their names?”
“Think of a scientist who finds a cure to a deadly disease,” Halima went on slowly picking up the ideas along the way. “Imagine being a firefighter who risks his life to assist others in times of disaster. What do you say? Wouldn’t that be nice?” Ahmet nodded with a grin. He still had his toy firetruck as a keepsake.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Halima added. “You can be an influential leader who stands for justice and peace.”
“Like Martin Luther King?” asked Ahmet, as elated as a student who has found the right answer before time has elapsed. He had visited Dr. King’s home in one of his social studies field trip.
Halima nodded with an assuring smile and continued, “How about being a super environmentalist who keeps our planet clean.”
Halima purposefully paused to see his reaction at her last words. Environmental awareness was one of the mission goals in his school. As she expected, a sparkle of recognition shone in his eyes which poured into words in no time.
“Yeah, I can fight against pollution and preserve the natural habitats for endangered animals,” he said very confidently.
Halima hugged Ahmet and smiled. Of all aspirations, no wonder this one had touched the cord of his animal loving heart.
“Throughout history,” Halima continued in a lecturing tone, “many men and women of great integrity have made an impact on the world. Some of their names are written in books, some not. Yet believe me my son that no goodness, even as small as mustard seed, ever perishes.”
As Ahmet was trying to figure out how a goodness can be as small as a mustard seed, his mom brought his train of thoughts to a halt. She took him gently by his shoulders and asked out of the blue: “Do you want to know a hero of our times?”
As soon as Ahmet nodded, they headed to the computer in his room. Ahmet pulled up a chair and sat nearby as his mom typed an unfamiliar name into a Google search.
Haji (Hacý) Kemal Erimez. Ahmet could tell right away that the name was Turkish. Born in USA, to Turkish parents, he was fluent in both languages.
In 0.19 seconds 5,200 search results came up arousing his curiosity. Ahmet watched a 45-min-Turkish video in silence trying desperately to match the pieces of information together and process them in his little brain. He wouldn’t be surprised if his mom asked him to summarize the video content, out of habit of course. His teacher did that too.
“O.K.,”-he thought to himself trying to make mental notes,-“this uncle, called Haji Kemal, spent all his money for the opening of three schools in Turkey and five in Tajikistan. If only I had a paper and pen to take notes,” Ahmet wished.
He thought of asking his mom to pause the video. Then he dismissed the thought altogether because he saw on the screen an army tank strolling through some dusty streets accompanied by soldiers carrying guns.
All ears, Ahmet listened as the video host explained that Haji Kemal not only spent his senior years tending to the needs of schools instead of retiring and relaxing with his grandchildren, he also refused to leave Tajikistan during a civil war that broke in 1992.
Ahmet couldn’t figure out who fought against whom. Despite the urge from Tajik authorities to leave the country, Haji Kemal and other Turkish teachers had very bravely decided to stay and defend the school if necessary. Apparently this had made a deep impression on local authorities, some of whom Ahmet heard mention Haji Kemal with great respect in their interviews, referring to him as “Ata,” which as mom explained to Ahmet meant father in the Tajik language and interestingly in Turkish, too.
Later Ahmet watched a group of Tajik students happily smiling at the camera, showing off their gold medals that they had earned for their country in international math and science Olympiads.
Then the video showed parts of Haji Kemal’s funeral in 1997.
Thousands of people stood in rows under the rain to pay their respects to a great man-as the video host put it. In tears, one Tajik student promised that he and his friends would never forget Haji Ata and that they would work hard to fulfill his dream: serving Tajikistan to prosperity.
At this moment Ahmet noticed that his mom was crying too. She looked back at him and trying to smile she said, “See Ahmet, these Tajik students have found their higher goals in life. That’s a good record to break.”
Ahmet was overwhelmed by a strange apprehension that he was missing some important point in all this discussion. “Haji Kemal amca,” Ahmet thought, instinctively replacing the word uncle with its equivalent in Turkish, “is a very good person, no doubt about it. In fact, he looks like my grandfather with his white hair and beard.” But what makes him a hero? Why do all these people admire him? Ahmet wondered. Realizing that the video, which had ended moments ago, had no more to offer, he decided to ask his mom.
“Mom, why is opening schools so important?”
Halima stood silent for a couple of seconds to think of the right shortcut to simplify this complex topic.
“Long ago,” she said, “I came across an inspiring saying that I think answers your question in a nice way. I don’t remember who said it, but anyway the quote went like this:
“Whoever opens a good school closes a prison.” By the way Ahmet fixed his gaze on her, Halima could tell that her curious son was perplexed by the school-prison link.
“Lack of education leads to ignorance, which in turn leads to poverty, and poverty most of the time leads to many unfortunate troubles for the individual or the society. Do you know what the word society means?” she asked to double check.
“Mom!” Ahmet protested in a tone that gave a hint that he was either amused or upset by such an easy question. “I am studying and comparing the Greek and American Democracies for my social studies this year!”
“Oh, so sorry to assume,” Halima smiled at his sensitive scholarly pride and continued. “Sound education-that is, nurturing of the mind and the heart-is a foolproof way to build a better, peaceful world.”
Ahmet, still not sure whether he understood everything right, felt a peculiar desire nonetheless to go back in time, meet Haji Kemal amca and kiss his hands, a typical Turkish gesture of showing respect.
Halima, looking at the digital clock on the computer screen, realized it was getting late and got up to set the table for dinner.
“Ahmet!” she called to shake him from his daydreaming, “Why don’t you start training for your record breaking by helping me in the kitchen right away?”
Ahmet, smiling, stood up promptly and, as erect as a soldier before the commander, duplicated the response of obedience, “Yes, ma’am!”
Halima laughed at his wittiness and patting him on the shoulder she said,
“Then go wash your hands, my champion.”
Mirkena Ozer had her major in Turkish language and literature. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.