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It’s Never too Late to Study Abroad: Turkey Part II

CHASS Dean Jeff Braden is traveling in Turkey as part of a delegation from North Carolina’s Divan Center, a nonprofit committed to promoting cultural understanding between the United States and Turkey. He is sharing his experiences and perspectives through a series of blog posts.

On the bus from Konya to Cappadocia, 10:45 am, Tuesday, 2 July, 2013. Yesterday started early—very, very early! We were up at 3:00 am and off to the airport at 4:15 to catch our flight to Konya. The flight was made slightly more exciting by the fact the pilot suddenly put power to the engines and pulled up on the final approach; he later explained he did so because there was a flock of birds in our approach path. We turned around and landed without incident and were soon at our hotel—all by 8:00 am! They gave us breakfast, but not surprisingly the rooms weren’t ready for us. So, rather than mope around the lobby zombie-like while waiting for our rooms, I decided to go for a run. I know, I know, I’m crazy–and the stares of the pedestrians and drivers I dodged only confirmed my shaky grip on sanity.

I find that running is not only something I need to do for my physical well-being; it also is a great way to explore and learn about the places I visit. This run was no exception. As I struck out from the hotel, being careful not to become a victim of the uneven pavement or the heavy traffic, I quickly discovered we were in the heart of downtown Konya. Although most people (myself included) think of Istanbul as the ancient face of Turkey, Konya is a few thousand years older, dating back to before the Hittites in Neolithic times. It’s fame comes from being the center of Islamic mysticism inspired by Rumi, Islam’s most famous poet. Modern Konya, however, is often referred to as Turkey’s Detroit, in that it is a large industrial hub. Unlike Detroit, it has exploded in growth, going from roughly the size of Raleigh in the mid-90s to over a million people in the city proper, and more than 2 million in the metropolitan area, today. It seemed as if all of the residents were either on the sidewalk or in cars trying to hit me when I went running (OK, that’s a gross exaggeration—it was busy, but the people were generally nice and I’ve run in worse traffic in the US and China).

Mosque in Konya

Thanks to a CHASS student (thank you, Katherine!), I’d installed the MapMyRun app on my iPhone and was able to follow my progress, pace, and literally know exactly where I’d been. My run took me around Alaeddin Hill, a large (and I later learned, man-made) mound upon which a castle had been built in the mid-12th century CE. As I ran around the castle ruins and the impressive Alaeddin Mosque up on the summit, I got great views of the city. My run through the streets and parks showed that, unlike Istanbul, Konya was more spread out, had more green space, and was filled with mosques, tombs, and other historical sites attesting to its rich history. I also saw almost no signs advertising beer at bodegas or restaurants; whereas Istanbul had been filled with businesses displaying Efes signs (the Turkish national beer), they were virtually absent in Konya. I had read that Konya was the most religiously conservative city in Turkey; the dearth of beer signs apparently confirmed it. I finished my run, happy that I’d burned at least a little of the massive food intake of the past few days and, pleased with my photos, showered in time to emerge for our next appointment.


Our itinerary took us to a private K-8 school, where we had the wonderful opportunity to meet not only administrators, but also some of the students who were studying English. The teacher, a New York native, welcomed us and invited each of the students to introduce themselves to us by stating their name, age, and where they were from. They did so, acquitting themselves well as early English language learners (most of the students said they were 12 years old). When it came time to introduce ourselves to them, I went last—and got a good laugh when I said “My name is Jeff; I am from Raleigh, North Carolina, and I am 12 years old.”  I was struck with their friendliness and excitement over our visit; it was good to get past the things that represent history and meet the people who have (and will) write that history.

Our Group Visits Mevlana University

We went from there to Mevlana University, named for Rumi (Mevlana was the honorific by which Rumi was referred during his life). Much to my delight, the professor who stood up to give us a brief introduction to Rumi and Muslim mysticism was none other than the same faculty member who had given a talk in our college 12 Sept., 2012! It was a brief but wonderful explanation of how Rumi interpreted and integrated three levels of Islam: Sharia (the things that one should and should not do, which constitute the minimum requirements of Islam); Tarika (the feeling of spirituality that guides consideration of others), and Hakika (the spiritual enlightenment of the self, so that one sees the world and oneself as being at one with God). The primer helped me understand differences among Islamic sects that I had understood politically, but not from the religious origins perspective. The university, too, was most impressive as a modern and architecturally appealing facility; I later learned that it had been built as a shopping mall, but was then donated to the university when the owner felt it wasn’t as commercially successful as planned.

This gives me a chance to talk about the difference in investment that I’m seeing in Turkey vs. North Carolina with respect to higher education. When Turkey became a modern state, it had four universities. They were public, but served a very small, elite section of the Turkish population. By the time the current administration came to power about a decade ago, that number had grown to a little over 80, with a mix of public (mostly) and private (few). However, in the past ten years, the country has doubled the number of public (and, with some public assistance, private) universities so that there are now more than 180 (with more opening every day). As is true of most countries I’ve visited recently (e.g., Brazil, China), I’m struck with how much these countries aggressively invest in higher education, and how that investment stands in stark contrast to our trends in North Carolina. Our House, Senate, and Governor all proposed budgets—and every one of those budgets reduces state support for the UNC system. Today’s narrative is about closing campuses and increasing tuition, all within the context of the fourth consecutive year of economic growth within the state. Whether the decision is right or wrong is, of course, a matter of much debate—but that it runs exactly counter to the decisions made by other nations with whom we are locked in economic competition is not. Other countries are investing and growing higher education as we are cutting back; even more to the point, they are expanding their emphasis on liberal arts as we are becoming increasingly focused on professional and technical education. Time will tell who is making the better decision.

Host Family in Konya (Fatma on left)

Monday evening ended with perhaps the warmest experience we’ve had to date; a family in Konya hosted our group for dinner. Ali, our host, is a textile wholesaler. We met his wife, two daughters, and grandson as we feasted on yogurt soup, stuffed grape leaves, salad, rice, and more—including beef that had been slaughtered by a friend of his on the previous Saturday. After over-eating (again!), we got up to visit his garden, from which much of our meal had been harvested. The brilliant taste of fresh vegetables and fruit was a treat that, although the food had been terrific, was unparalleled in our visit.

However, what struck me most about our hosts–after their spctacular hospitality—was the fact their daughter, Fatma, was deaf. When I began signing with her, I realized that we shared about 75% of our signs in common. Many (normally hearing) people don’t know that sign language is not universal. In fact, when I go to London, I need a sign language interpreter, even though I’m fluent in ASL—and ironically, when I go to France, I can sign with deaf adults, but cannot speak with Francophiles. The reason I can understand some sign languages fairly well, and others not at all, is historical; what is now ASL started as a formal language of instruction drawn from French Sign Language. As I conversed with Fatma, I speculated that Turkish Sign Language must have been based on ASL. She was delighted when I told her I interpreted for President Obama. However, our conversations were not sustainable for long or complex topics, as 75% in common is just not enough of a foundation to sustain communication without compromising understanding. The experience underscored two universal principles: First, that although mutual affection, respect, and interest can be conveyed by food, art, architecture, and hospitality, genuine dialogue requires a shared language–whether spoken or signed. Second, the love within a family is universal. As we bid adieu to our hosts, their affection and pride in their children, the love of the children for their parents, and the warmth and kindness that extended to us as strangers, I left feeling full—and by that, I mean my life, not (just) my belly!


Capadoccia awaits; I’ll write up and post another blog soon!