Günay Evinch is a second generation Turkish American of Ottoman Macedonian heritage. He practices foreign affairs law in Washington D.C. He has always had strong connections to Turkey. Indeed, when he was only six months old, his parents sent him to Turkey with a flight attendant, so that his grandparents could see him. He was the first child to fly across the Atlantic, alone!
Mr. Evinch serves as Co-Chairman of the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), which represents the broadest diversity of Turkish Americans nationwide. He is the first Turkish American jurist to be inducted into America’s prestigious Cosmos Club. He also serves as Commissioner on the Maryland Governor’s Committee on Middle Eastern Affairs as well as Turkish American Representative to the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Mr. Evinch received the U.S. Fulbright Scholarship in 1991 in International Law. His host institution was Ankara University, though he spent much of his time in the field in eastern Turkey, researching the Armenian Revolt (1885-1919). In 1994, he and a law school friend established Saltzman & Evinch in Washington D.C.
Can you briefly tell us about yourself?
I was born in Chicago in 1963 to immigrants from Manisa, Turkey. We were not well-off, but we had strong family values, a tough work ethic, dedication to Atatürk’s universal principles, and a deep feeling that we were ambassadors of the Turkish heritage. I grew up in San Francisco, California, and have resided in the Washington D.C. Metropolitan Area since 1993. I earned my Juris Doctor degree at Washington & Lee University School of Law in 1991, and my Bachelor of Arts in Public Service and Economics at the University of California, Davis, in 1986. I studied European Union law at the University of Madrid one summer.
I love to play soccer – indeed I collect videos of Turkish National soccer games, the good, and the bad! I love to play the rock guitar – in high school and college I had a progressive rock band, Crystal Lattice, which was greatly influenced by the music of Pink Floyd, Genesis, Led Zeppelin, Rush, and philosophers, Sartre and Rousseau.
I interned with the Federal Public Defender in Sacramento and District Attorney in San Francisco. Most important to my professional development was my Fulbright Scholar experience in Turkey, 1991-93, which catapulted me into the cutting edge of law and foreign policy as it relates to Turkey.
How did you make the decision to become a lawyer? Is there a particular person or event that motivated you?
It was a series of tête-à-têtes in which:
- Mr. Tom, my middle school teacher from China, encouraged me to run for student body president, which I did and won, not only in middle school, but also in high school, college and law school;
- Mr. Madruga, my high school history teacher from Brazil, had me brief and present Constitutional law cases to my classmates;
- Karl Larsen, the Federal Defender in Sacramento, said to me one quiet summer day, “You know Günay, Turkey is going to be REALLY important one day – if I were you, I would be Turkey’s lawyer”;
- Professor Heath Lowry, who gave me a minute to explain how the Armenian claim of genocide warrants a proper legal analysis, because genocide is a crime defined by law, not by political or sociological aberration;
- My mother, Evşen, and father, Hüsam, who often advised me, “Günay, it is not enough to be right, you must constantly convince people, because law is the child of politics.”
My Juris Doctor thesis analyzed the Armenian case under international law. But, I needed a solid program that would take me to the “battle field” for proper fact-finding and to gain a sense of the region and the people. The U.S.-Turkey Fulbright program was the answer, giving me the best access to resources, networks, and field experience to be tested by legal analysis.
What was the scope of the research you conducted in Turkey?
I applied the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide to the Armenian case, and concluded that under international law and the facts that are known, the Armenian case does not constitute genocide, though further research is necessary to explore the full tragedy, including the role of the Armenian Revolt in Muslim and Jewish population deficits in eastern Anatolia. You have to remember, my family was forced out of the Balkans; they survived to tell the story of anti-Muslim and anti-Jewish insurgencies, persecution, pogroms and massacres. The Ottomans lost in the Balkans, but they won in eastern Anatolia under identical privations of WWI.
In what ways did your Fulbright experience help you professionally and personally?
Fulbright provided access like no other research program. It is credible beyond any investigative journalism or political commission of inquiry. I was in constant contact with historians who qualify as expert witnesses in late Ottoman history. I was also in constant contact with foreign diplomats, politicians and scholars who were in no way experts, but who had genuine interest at best, or political agendas at worst.
As I examined how the Armenian Revolt started with isolated acts of terrorism funded by external forces and grew into a massive insurgency funded by foreign governments, I started to draw parallels with the PKK and Syrian terrorist organizations. Cycles of conquest using ethnic proxies tend to repeat. Such can create artificial countries based on micro-nationalism, as Sykes-Picot accomplished and Sevres failed. More importantly, such can also cause disruption macro-economically and security wise, in order to regulate the behavior of an enemy, and even an ally.
I believe Fulbright made me stronger, more aware and calmer. My experiences in the field in eastern Turkey were exciting, to say the least. I remember assisting Robert Kaplan in his books, “The Ends of the Earth” and “The Coming Anarchy”. We were in Diyarbakır. The PKK sent a young man who had an American accent to speak with Robert about the “plight of the Kurds”. The young man slammed the late Özal on human rights, as he attempted to legitimize the PKK terrorist organization as freedom fighters. He kept interrupting himself, and expressing to me, “Sorry man, but I have to tell it as it is.” I kept replying, “This is a democracy, you can say anything you want to.” He grew angrier and angrier, because I was not being provoked.
As fate may have it, three years later I married the daughter of the Mayor of Diyarbakır Turgut Atalay, after meeting him and Senem, my wife, in Washington D.C. Mr. Atalay was in Washington D.C. for rehabilitation after being severely injured in an assassination attempt by the PKK. He explained that a young Kurdish man with an American accent had come to his office to demand that the municipality fund the PKK. He had the man arrested. Two months later the PKK attacked Mr. Atalay as he was walking to his home; 8 bullets and over 100 pieces of shrapnel from two grenades entered his body. Mr. Atalay survived to tell it as it was (and as it is).
Had you visited Turkey before receiving the Fulbright Grant? If you did, which cities/towns had you visited?
I first visited Turkey when I was six months old, in the arms of a flight attendant who handed me to my paternal grandfather, Hakkı. Though my family did not have a big budget, we did manage to visit Turkey almost every two years.
My relatives were in Manisa, where most of the streets were dirt and there was no running warm water in most homes. Those were rough and tough times, because there was also severe political polarization and street fights. I remember a few kids harassing me for wearing American blue jeans – I was the “Imperialist”. I also remember some other kids harassing me for wearing shorts in public – I was the “Infidel”. Though my family was generally left of center, my maternal grandmother, Zekavet, wisely preached: “We are neither sağcı (rightists), nor solcu (leftists); we are futbolcu (soccer players)!” I honestly believe that playing youth soccer at the Manisaspor facilities saved me in many important ways in those summer days.
Before my Fulbright experience, the farthest east I had ever gone was Konya in Central Anatolia and Mersin on the Turkish Mediterranean, thanks to my father’s brother-in-law, Tayfun. My mother’s brother-in-law, Jenghiz took me to soccer matches and helped me discover the soccer player inside of me. In my short-lived “soccer career”, I played forward for the American side in two internationals, U14 vs. Mexico, and U16 vs. England. We lost both matches badly, but I did manage to score the only goal for our side!
In the summer of 1974, I was 11. We were in Turkey when the Cyprus Peace Operation occurred. The Operation was top secret. None of us knew until it happened. As it turned out, my uncle, Neşet, was the Commander of the Turkish Amphibious Forces in the initial assault that stopped the massacres of Turkish Cypriots. Prior to being dispatched to the island, my uncle visited my maternal grandmother– it was like any other visit. But, little did we know that in the mind of my uncle it was a possible farewell, as he was going to war. The summer of 1974 showed me how Turks can really pull together in times of crisis.
It was also the summer my family attempted to move to Turkey permanently, but my father, who was a power engineer at Bechtel in San Francisco, was not able to find a job! In the early fall we returned to San Francisco. We bought our first home. One evening, my father called the family into the guest room and said, “Children, America is your homeland. It is a good homeland where you can chase your dreams with confidence, be rewarded for your merits, and not be spoiled by your contacts in high places. But, please always remember your motherland, Turkey, and the father of your existence, Atatürk.” Tears filled my father’s eyes, as my mother asked that we give him some privacy.
How did you feel when you arrived in Turkey as a Fulbright Scholar?
It was the fall of 1991. If I recall, I was the first Turkish American to receive a Fulbright grant to Turkey. I didn’t realize the importance of that until the U.S. Ambassador pulled me aside at an Embassy reception and referred to me as, “the proud, and the few!” Simply put, I felt great as someone who was there to do important work on critical issues relating to U.S.-Turkish relations. I felt as if I was on a mission to build stronger bonds between the peoples of both countries.
Five years had passed since my prior visit to Turkey. When I arrived in Ankara, Turkey seemed so much wealthier and economically advanced, and the Turkish people, especially the youth, were so very confident. Unfortunately, a fierce wave of PKK terrorism pre-occupied Turkey throughout my Fulbright years and through much of the 1990s, until Öcalan was apprehended leaving the Greek Embassy in Kenya.
Have you had the chance to see different parts of Turkey to help your research? If so, what impressed you the most about Turkish culture and academic life?
Much of Turkish culture in western Anatolia was familiar to me, because my parents and relatives were from the Aegean Region. Aegean culture also expressed a deep appreciation to the Turkish Republic for accepting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Balkans during and after WWI.
Culture in the Turkish southeast was challenging for me. First, from the moment I entered Urfa in the southeast all the way to the Armenian border near Iğdır in the northeast, I heard mostly Kurdish in public discourse. I did not speak Kurdish – Zasa, Kurmanji, or any other dialect. Thankfully for me, the language of professional life was Turkish, and sometimes English.
I remember relaxing in my room in a hotel in Van, and reading a newly published issue of National Geographic regarding how Kurds were afraid to speak Kurdish in Turkey. Really? Fulbright gave me the chance to fact check the assertions of many authors and publications who put themselves out as experts on Turkey.
Also, in the east, women and girls were second-class citizens, not by operation of the law and government, but by operation of the family and village. When I asked fathers regarding the number of children they had, they rarely counted their daughters. In Van, a young Kurdish boy, Selahattin, offered to take me around the ruins of the Urartus, the pre-Armenian inhabitants of the region. He lived in a village near the Urartu castle in old Van. When I visited the village, I saw all the women and girls gathering Seymiz grass from the swamps around the lakeshore. Seymiz was an important ingredient in their meals. But, where were the men? They were at the coffee house, while the boys were at school. Selahattin cut school for me that day. I paid Selahattin 50 lira for his help. I told him to give the money to his mother, not his father. He replied that his mother had died while giving birth to the last of his five siblings, a baby girl. I told him to give it to the oldest woman in his family or village.
Academic life was a rich combination of learning and fun. I felt that the average Turkish student took at least twice as much time studying, because of all the socializing – tea breaks, coffee breaks, extended lunch, extended dinner, this Bayram, that Bayram . . . you name it! I do remember fellow students finding it a bit strange that I would work at my desktop computer for hours on end. They tried it out and found that they got a lot more work done! But, they also decided that my work style was not healthy in the long run. Now, at the age of 54 and working as a lawyer in D.C. for 25 years, I think I would agree with them, though I am curious who we have become, physically, emotionally, spiritually and professionally, and at what cost and benefit.
We know that you have been working actively in Turkish American associations in the U.S. Can you tell us the importance of these associations in building stronger relationships between the two countries?
It has been a rewarding life, though quite bumpy. For example, I was the 14th President of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations (ATAA), but the first American-born President. The presidency came at a huge price, as the organization was sued to stop my election. A vociferous few said that a Turk who is not born in Turkey is not a true Turk. Gladly, we settled the lawsuit and I was given a chance to show my work.
My two principles then, and today, are:
- Interfaith dialogue? Let’s try Inter-Turk Dialogue first. If we can succeed in getting along with one another, maybe we can then offer our services to others!
- Solidarity within Turkish American Diversity.
Today, I serve as Co-Chairman of the Turkish American National Steering Committee (TASC), which is a modern, good faith effort to strengthen Turkish American civic engagement based on solidarity within Turkish American diversity. In my parents’ times, Turkish American immigrants were mostly professionals (engineers and doctors) from the Turkish metropolises. Today, the majority of Turkish Americans comprise faith-based families, small business owners, and skilled labor. I believe that with mutual respect and consideration, we Turkish Americans can build a more perfect unity on issues that concern our community, as we become a heritage community that enriches our homeland America and our motherland Turkey.
Today, Turkish Americans are funding and operating what I call a four-dimensional public advocacy program. This includes classical lobbying by groups such as TASC; campaign funding by groups such as the Turkish Coalition Political Action Committees (TC PACs); legal defense of our Constitutional Rights by the Turkish American Legal Defense Fund (TALDF); and cultural activities such as the Washington D.C. Turkish Festival by the American Turkish Association of Washington D.C. (ATADC). It’s a true team effort which has become a formidable force in Washington D.C. and nationwide.
What would you advise to the U.S. scholars who are planning to come to Turkey with a Fulbright grant?
1. Hold a monthly cocktail party at your home. Offer hard drinks, soft drinks, and Ayran (yoghurt drink) in an environment of mutual respect, kindness and good old fashion Rock’n Roll, which reminds me of the time when my law partner, David Saltzman, and I used to play the guitar in a rock band in law school, Daren and the Duck Heads. Our motto was, “the more you drink, the better we sound!” Well, the more you get to know people, the better you start to understand and appreciate different cultures and broader humanity.
2. Be aware of your mental and emotional filters. My maternal grandmother, Zekavet, used to say, “I know others, as I know myself”, which meant that we tend to judge others or filter information according to our subjective life experiences and self-image. Judging others is the ultimate arrogance, and it cannot be concealed from a society that has a high EQ, but which is hospitable enough not to let you know that it knows.
There is a great interest in pursuing a graduate degree in the U.S. among Law students and graduates in Turkey. What tips would you like to share with Turkish students who would like to pursue an LL.M. or a JD degree in the U.S.?
This is the one big question I get from Turkish law students – at least one email a week. Though I have now developed a boilerplate response in my mind, I feel for the students who take the time to write a personalized email about their educational and career goals, and I start a dialogue with them. Remember, Inter-Turk Dialogue?
I believe that the 2-year Master of Laws (LL.M.) degree is far less valuable than the 3-year Juris Doctor (JD) degree. The LL.M. does not come close to providing the Anglo-American jurisprudential education that the JD experience provides. This is an important factor if you plan to work as a lawyer in America, because law firms will favor JD graduates. JD graduates require far less supervision and produce much more billable hours. The law firm is a business, and the lawyer’s hourly rate is divided into thirds: 1/3 profit for the partners, 1/3 overhead for business, and 1/3 salary of the lawyer.
I would recommend to each Turkish law student who wants to study in the United States: first graduate from a law school in Turkey; secondly, come to earn a JD at a quality American law school. Be prepared to study extremely hard, especially the first year. Be prepared to respect and be amazed by the intellectual might and rich life experiences of your classmates. Be prepared to respond to very high expectations by your professors. Be prepared to pour yourself into the JD experience. Law school is nicknamed, “the jealous mistress”, so be ready to be dumped by your girlfriend or boyfriend!
I support the JD experience for any Turkish law student who is serious about learning Anglo-American jurisprudence and practicing law in America. The JD experience happens after the undergraduate experience, which means older, more mature students with real life personal, social, and employment experiences.
There are more than 500 law schools in the U.S. There are more than 20,000 unemployed lawyers in Washington D.C., working for peanuts during the day, bartending for thousands of dollars at night. I know, because I started that way, when I decided to open my own law office. If you don/t come from a judicial family, you will definitely feel a huge disadvantage in a quality American law school. The students around me grew up in families where the parents and grandparents were lawyers or judges. They grew up speaking the language, thinking the philosophy, feeling the culture of the Anglo-American jurisprudential heritage. For me, it was a foreign world, which I needed to adopt and adapt quickly, like an eager immigrant!