So for several years, I’ve been trying to come up with a reason to visit Turkey. Although I grew up only a four-hour plane ride south-east of Istanbul, it never occurred to me to just hop on over to just enjoy the scorching sun, cool breeze and the deep blue Bosphorus. So when I heard SU Study Abroad was offering a summer program, The Road to Democracy in the Islamic World, at Bahçeşehir Üniversitesi in Istanbul, I could not pass up the opportunity to further study the Middle East and enjoy kebap and köfte at the same time.
So far, the classes have covered everything from political rhetoric, to building terrorist organizations, to Islamism. There are ten of us in the program: five Americans (two of us are Public Diplomacy students), four Turks, and one Palestinian. Class runs in the morning, leaving the afternoons open to wander around and explore the city on our own.
At first, we did all the typical touristic things: we visited the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, the Tokapi Palace – and we left each sight more impressed than the last. We flew to İzmir to visit the Temple of Artemis (one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), the ancient city of Ephesus, as well as the House of the Virgin Mary. Needless to say, all these sights, impeccably constructed thousands of years ago, left us in complete awe.
But I would argue people don’t keep coming back to Turkey for the sights. Istanbul’s beauty is more than skin-deep. With that said, I’d like to share my observations from a Public Diplomacy student’s perspective.
The Bosphorus not only divides Europe from Asia, but the West from the East. Istanbul is a city of around 15 million people, and even though there is no divide ethnically or religiously among the city’s population apparent on the surface, I’m still struggling to understand how the two sides of the city can be so different. Everything I thought I understood about Turkish culture was thrown out of the window when the ferry docked at the Kadiköy station on the Asian side.
I came to the realization that this culture is so complex, and my attempt to understand it as an IR student over the last year did it no justice. The European side is a hodgepodge of all things traditional and modern, crowded with thousands of tourists, street venders, and standstill traffic. You have to struggle to find a tourist on the Asian side. The roads sport luxury cars, high-end stores and hundreds of swankier bars and restaurants. There is nothing different in terms of the sides, apart from the atmosphere. Yet that becomes the most important thing when thought about it in terms of the “civilized West” vs. the “backwards East.”
While I used to think Turkey would be a great addition to the Middle East, and they should emerge as a regional power, now I’m not so sure. I think Turkey has shown itself to be a great political model for the surrounding nations, but in terms of actually becoming a “Middle Eastern state” – I’ve found that Turks are too different from the Arabs, but they are also too different from the Europeans, and I think Turkey will struggle with its identity for many more years.
So, I’m leaving this beautiful city with a lot on my mind, and much research to do. On top of the mindboggling material dumped on us in class, I have to think about (and I encourage everyone to do the same) Turkey’s place in the world, and what’s best for this country and its people. Although I’ve been around the world, this one trip has really opened my eyes about the importance of cultural understanding, and this has made me appreciate the importance of Public Diplomacy even more.