Carleton College's student newspaper since 1877

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Looking “Beneath the Surface” on the Middle East Mosaics Program

<rletonian features Off Campus Studies, in the rotating column series. We hope to include the voices of various campus groups and academic departments throughout the year with this project. Please contact caffreyj or crowleye for submission guidelines.

It may come as no surprise that Carleton students are quite adept at finding the road less traveled wherever there is one to be found. The students on this term’s Middle East Mosaics program have certainly made it a point to leave the comfort of their set itinerary and find alternative experiences, first in Egypt, then in Turkey, and currently in Morocco. More difficult for everyone, however, has been finding the places less visited on the road more frequently traveled. There is little more challenging or rewarding than the moment when one is led to an unexpected destination on a foot worn path. This is exactly what Louis Fishman, a former History professor at Carleton, did for thirty-two students when he gave them a four day seminar entitled “Beneath the Surface: The Other Istanbul.” After two weeks learning about and wandering through the streets of Istanbul, Louis’s visit helped us gain a more nuanced view of Turkey’s past, present, and future. As many professors aim to do on an abroad program, he helped us reflect upon our own country’s situation as well.

The sky was grey and the weather cold when we met Louis at the Cevahir shopping mall, a familiar sight to American eyes. After a five minute walk, we found ourselves in a more residential neighborhood at the entryway to Istanbul’s Italian-Jewish Cemetery. The small, well-kept burial ground, located next door to the city’s Armenian cemetery, is tucked away behind a large brick wall that renders it indistinguishable from any other cemetery at first sight. As we walked in amongst the star-topped tombs Louis kept reverently silent, allowing us to take in the names and inscriptions (in Hebrew, Turkish, French, and Italian) that were etched upon them. As we would learn later that day, the Jewish community in Istanbul is quite small, about thirty thousand people in a country with a population of seventy million. Although we had visited the Italian cemetery, most are Sephardic Jews who came to Turkey after expulsion from Spain ,and the community struggles to maintain their language and customs. Turkey is, after all, a country where “Turkishness” is thought by most to be the most important identity that one should claim. Indeed, in the two weeks that we had been in Turkey before Louis’ arrival, the only portrait we had seen displayed in public, on main thoroughfares and in tiny convenience stores, had been that of Kamal Ataturk, the much beloved founder of modern Turkey. In the cemetery, however, the leader’s face was nowhere to be found, the only faces we saw were the small portraits of the deceased that could be found on some of the tombstones.We also did not find Ataturk’s face at our next destination, the offices of Agos, Turkey’s only bilingual Turkish-Armenian newspaper. A large photo of the newspaper’s deceased founder and editor, Hrant Dink, hung in the entryway instead. We had been warned that this visit might be a difficult one, and I knew shortly after we stopped in front of an unmarked office building on a street close to the cemeteries that this location lacked proper signage for a reason. Outside Louis asked the group to keep their voices down and proceed quietly and quickly into the building. “Hrant was shot here a year ago,” he told me somberly. Inside a young man named Serkis, with dark circles under his eyes and stubble on his face that placed him well beyond his twenty-something years, told us about the history of the paper. Agos attempts to serve as a counter-balance to the current Turkish government’s denial of an Armenian genocide. Because it is one of few venues for Armenian news, surrounding the genocide and other cultural or political news concerning Turkey’s Armenian population, Agos has become an easy target for those hoping to maintain the infallibility of the Turkish state. Our arrival came shortly after the one year anniversary of Hrant’s assassination and the case has yet to be resolved. Many suspect that though a teenager has confessed to killing the editor, larger political forces are behind his death. As we exited I checked one more time to be sure. The door to the street was flanked by signs for several law firms and another for some sort of consultant but none indicated the controversial publication housed on the second floor. Doubtless, numerous Turkish residents could have told us the location but few of us would have thought to ask. Louis had once again led us to an unexpected stop on our path.

Walking down Ýstiklal Caddesi, Istanbul’s most heavily populated pedestrian walkway, was something that many of the students did several times a week while we were in the city. The people-watching scene here is hard to beat. Men and women from seemingly all walks of life meet here in the evenings to shop, eat, or just stroll. Louis met us at the bottom of Ýstiklal three out of four days that he was in town. He was staying nearby and access to the street was easy for everyone. On the last day of his visit, we ventured from the main road to one of many narrow side streets that flank it. After a couple of twists and turns we were once more asked to quietly and quickly ascend a set of stairs. This time, six flights up, we found a door marked by a plaque with rainbow letters. We were at Lambda, one of a handful of LGBT advocacy groups in Turkey. Although homosexuality is not illegal in Turkey, it is widely taboo and is one of several human rights issues the country has struggled with. There we had a fairly informal discussion with three members of the community: an American woman working in Turkey, a gay Turkish man, and a Transgender man who had spent time in the U.S. The following hour was quite insightful as we had a question and answer session with these three members of a fraction of society that is not easily recognizable during a long stroll down neighboring Ýstiklal. They were quite open about what challenges and successes they had encountered as they advocated for legislation, promoted safe sex practices, and organized a pride parade. When we asked questions, their responses were sprinkled with humor. One man told us that it was illegal for gay men to serve their otherwise compulsory Turkish military duty. As proof, the armed forces required pictures of men having sex. This fact, he noted, meant that the Turkish military had one of the biggest collections of gay pornography in the world! Clearly, this is not the kind of joke we would have heard on the street. We had been invited into a space where this community felt enough at ease to make light of such a heavy issue.

After a weekend beneath the surface of Istanbul’s mainstream, we emerged more aware of our surroundings. Our visits to Jewish cemetery, Agos, Lambda and the other parts of the “other Istanbul” that we had witnessed over the past four days changed the way we looked at the same old streets that we walked along on our way to and from familiar places. Reflecting back to my own country I began to think of all the “other” communities that exist in the U.S. At the end of it all Louis drove the weekend home, by reminding us that even in Washington, D.C., Atlanta, Oakland, or Northfield, one can find communities living beneath the surface. One would be hard pressed to find a country where women aren’t abused, children aren’t starving, journalists aren’t assassinated, and homosexuality isn’t considered by many to be illicit. I think most of the students would agree that the weekend’s glimpse of an “other Istanbul” was invaluable to their education in the country. Louis’s final global perspective on marginalized communities was the icing on the academic cake. As it concerns my impression of the country in relation to the rest of the world, it made all the difference.

Leave a Comment
More to Discover

Comments (0)

All The Carletonian Picks Reader Picks Sort: Newest

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *