From Robert College to Boğaziçi Universitesi

Go into the campus past the pastry shop and the mosque, glance at the portakabin where  Islamic girls enter bescarfed and exit with wooly hats, not a Boğaziçi fashion, as I suspected, but rather a ploy, a jeitinho, to get around the “no headscarves allowed at any school or university” law. Amble down the hill overlooking the yachts of Bebek and arrive in the main quad. Switch off for a moment and you are in an Ivy League university in the US: Cornell, Harvard, Berkeley. Blue limestone mansard buildings constructed from 1850 to 1920s. A nice day and students are throwing frisbees on the lawn or just chilling out.

A pause in the class. I hear the dogs of Istanbul barking. Be careful when you’re out in Taksim, I’m told, for an English sailor, not so many years ago, after taking one too many, lay down to rest. In the morning all that was left of him were his bones.  

In Constantinople, written in 1878, Edmondo de Amicis writes that each district has its fixed population of dogs, which have their own police patrols, and woe betide any strange dog entering! Although Muslims didn’t keep dogs as pets they fed them, and the dogs had a much better life than in Christian and Jewish Pera across the Golden Horn. Indeed, on  Boğaziçi campus they have a special pen and volunteer walkers. 

In 1910 they were removed to the nearby Sivriada Island in the Marmara Sea, one of the nearby Princes Islands, where their howls, as they devoured each other, could still be remembered by old men some fifty years afterwards. But Istambul was soon repopulated.   

I can almost touch the towers of Rumeli Hisari, the castle built by Mehmet the Conqueror in 1452, at the narrowest part of the Bosphorous in order to prepare for his conquest of Constantinople in 1453 and to prevent the Byzantine fleet from escaping. Thus fell the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.   

Boğaziçi (don’t pronounce the soft “ğ”, and the “ç” is a “çh”) or Bosphorous, University was set up by North Americans Dr.Cyrus Hamlin,an educator, inventor, technician, architect and builder, and Mr. Christopher Rheinlander Robert, a well-known philanthropist and a wealthy merchant from New York in 1863 as Robert College and remained thus until 1971, when, due to increasing financial burdens and an endowment system that never really worked, it was handed over to the Turkish government. But the language of instruction remained English. The majority of professors got their PhDs in English speaking countries. English in the classroom, but Turkish for tutorials and for tea. Another invasion, I wonder, but this would be too simplistic. There seem to be no protests over the use of English, and it gives students an important differential on the job market. No sense of Turkish nationalism seems to have been offended. Indeed, the campus is full of busts of Atatürk. 

The grass is manicured but salaries are low. A full professor earns no more than US$1000 a month. A two-bedroom apartment in a far from posh area will take up at least half of that. Those who need money also work elsewhere: my colleagues here translate, interpret, teach at the much better-paid private universities set up by private foundations as profit-making concerns, and give TOEFL crammer classes on Saturdays and Sundays. Coming to Boğaziçi may even seem a pleasant day off after the tension of the cabin, the solitude of the computer or the frustration of attempting to force information into denser students. Have lunch at the faculty restaurant while looking at the ships passing along the Bosphorous on a gorgeous autumn day, rub shoulders with the Great and the Good of Istanbul. And teach students who are bright, polite, concentrated and respectful. Many even seem interested in what the profs have to say. 

And Boğaziçi gives you the status to get these other jobs. Students have few problems getting employment. Most of those who qualify from the Translation and Interpreting course actually work as translators and interpreters. The Alumni Club is the most sophisticated place on campus, with its state of the art gym, chic restaurant and bar and swimming pool. Money ran out for the residence I’m staying in, but it was baled out by the Koç foundation and Yapi Kredit and Garanti banks, after which the halls are named and where many Alumni work.   

I enter the Superdorm, not Superdome, as I thought it was called, residence. As we enter we see the on the billboard an Atatürk looking up, and the words “The future for you is full of light”. The porch containing pictures of and poems on Atatürk has been named “Atatürk Corner”, for on 10th November 1938, at 9:05 a.m., Atatürk died here in Istanbul in the Dolmabahçe Palace.

On Friday Turkey stopped and remembered. In my neighbouring primary school the pupils lined up in the playground. At 9.05 a.m. the sirens sounded. A wreath was laid at the Atatürk bust. The national anthem was sung. Speeches were made. Students read out essays on Atatürk. And the same was happening all around Istanbul, and all around Turkey in Gazantepe, Izmir, Anatalya, Bursa, and particularly in Ankara, which Atatürk made capital, and the eastern Anatolian cities of Erzurum and Shivas, from where Atatürk started his revolution of 1920-1923. 

Yesterday in Ankara at the funeral of veteran Republican politician Bulent Ecevit crowds chanted “Turkey is secular and will remain secular” and booed the arrival of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose AK party has its roots in political Islam and favours a lifting of the ban on headscarves in schools and universities. But Erdoğan is popular, and the economy is stable. Erdoğan may run for President in May 2007. His wife wears a headscarf. This may be the biggest problem for Turkey to face next year… 


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