A stranger on the other side of the world taught me that the Tower of Babel was a blessing. Let me explain. I was tooling around Facebook late last night when a lady I’ve never met accepted my friend request. Her name is Hulya, and she lives in Turkey. I sent her a friend request on impulse. First, let’s get this out of the way—she is pretty. Okay. This certainly was a factor in my friending her. But it just so happens that I have a soft spot in my heart for Turks.
I have taken special notice of Turkish people ever since I met Songul, who is one of the most soulful people I have ever known. She and I became friends around 2002 when we were both servers at the Egan Convention Center. Before I ever had a conversation with her, I managed to hit her with a speed rack while we were setting the ballroom for a large dinner. I was moving too fast and couldn’t see her because the rack was over six feet tall. Once I realized I had hurt her, I felt awful and tracked her down in the huge building to apologize (profusely). I guess I got her attention, because we became friends and even went out on several dates. I was attracted to her, but the time wasn’t right for either of us to get amorously involved, so we remained friends.
Songul turned out to be a special friend. She is honest, gentle and kind. She’s tough, too. As she told me stories about her upbringing, I learned that she got in trouble several times for beating up neighborhood boys back home in Istanbul, some of them older and bigger than she was, because they had harassed her younger siblings at school.
During one of our many conversations, Songul told me that in many rural areas of her country, the people live simple lives of poverty. And yet are incredibly kind. If you are a stranger wandering through their region, they will invite you into their homes for shelter and feed you as you are passing through, just as they would if you were family.
No doubt the reader is wondering: how does all this tie in with the story of the Tower of Babel? Most people probably know the story from Genesis 11. Before Abraham or Moses, there was a great leader named Nimrod, whose strong personality harnessed a great population of ambitious people:
11 Now the whole world had one language and a common speech. 2 As people moved eastward, they found a plain in Shinar and settled there.
3 They said to each other, “Come, let’s make bricks and bake them thoroughly.” They used brick instead of stone, and tar for mortar. 4 Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, with a tower that reaches to
the heavens, so that we may make a name for ourselves; otherwise we will be scattered over the face of the whole earth.”
5 But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building. 6 The Lord said, “If as one people speaking the same language they have begun to do this, then nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down and confuse their language so they will not understand each other.”
8 So the Lord scattered them from there over all the earth, and they stopped building the city. 9 That is why it was called Babel—because there the Lord confused the language of the whole world. From there the Lord scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
This act of God is considered a curse, and it certainly put a great impediment in place to govern human activities. All of us have experienced the frustration of dealing with linguistic and cultural barriers. But have you ever noticed how sweet human interaction can be with someone of foreign persuasion? Coming into contact with another’s humanity—thoughts, feelings, anecdotes from that other person’s life—is a remarkable experience when it comes in a different cultural wrapping. We become desensitized to things we experience frequently. What is commonplace doesn’t get our attention anymore. But interacting with someone from a much different part of the world can cause us to experience humanity in a fresh and penetrating way.
This is what I enjoyed with Songul and, in a less intense way, with my new Facebook friend Hulya. After I got the notification that Hulya had accepted my friend request, I sent her a simple greeting on Messenger. I thought she spoke English since she and I have a mutual friend who is American. But Hulya’s response was in Turkish. I just sat there for a minute looking at the letters laid out in unfamiliar patterns, with strange accent marks. I didn’t know what to think of it. Then I realized that she was responding to my communication the only way she could. And even though I didn’t know precisely what she was saying to me, the broader message was clear: Hello.
So I typed in a response to her response: “I can’t read Turkish.” She came back with another message in Turkish! I wondered briefly if she could be reading my messages, but then I realized that if she could read English, she would also be able to write in English and would certainly start doing so with someone who had just told her he couldn’t read Turkish. But she hadn’t. I typed in another message: “I wish I could read your words.” She, in turn, responded in Turkish.
This exchange was a strange undertaking. On the one hand, it didn’t make traditional sense to be sending and receiving messages we both knew couldn’t be read. But in a raw, elemental way, what we were doing was perfectly natural, and I started really enjoying myself. Hulya was too, obviously, because she kept coming back with responses. I typed in another message: “You are a pretty lady.” It gave me an unusual thrill to tell her this even though I knew she wouldn’t understand it.
Our exchange went on for a few more rounds, and then I pulled the plug, more because of the hour (it was 2 a.m.) than because of the language barrier. I left her one last message: “This has been interesting.” When I got up this morning, there was another message from her: “Niye.” I Googled it. It means, “Why?”
I have no idea what she meant, but I can’t help but wonder if she wasn’t lamenting the fact that we couldn’t enter into conversation. And I would have liked to talk with her; that’s why I sent her a message in the first place. But what happened instead was a brand-new experience for me (perhaps for her too). I sense that our impromptu “conversation” was an important event. I feel different about people in general today. In a fundamental way, the Tower of Babel didn’t change anything. Hulya and I got on famously.