NIMEP Turkey Trip Reflections

by tuftsigl
Feb 11

In January 2013, seven students from the New Iniative for Middle East Peace (NIMEP) travelled to Turkey to investigate topics ranging from Turkey-Iraq relations and Turkey's role in the Syria crisis, to journalism and censorship.

Their reflections and initial impressions are below

To contact any of the student participants, please write to


Attaturk and the Kemalist Narrative

By Phil Hoffman '14

We hadn’t planned on visiting Mustafa Kemal Attaturk’s Ankara mausoleum at the stroke of noon, but the tableau we walked into gave me a more symbolically-resonant impression of the trends that we’d seen so far than nearly anything else. The monument itself is imposing in a self-aware way. Two marble staircases funnel visitors into an empty plaza and past several man-sized flaming basins and military sentries into an echoing and frigid chamber where a marble block slightly larger than a minivan marks the spot of Attaturk’s crypt hundreds of feet below. As our group entered the outer courtyard, a bugle call stopped us and we joined a crowd of silent observers watching an honor guard slowly enter the main building. After a few hushed minutes the soldiers emerged and we continued our visit, a bit cold but ready to explore a monument to a man whose legacy was so internalized in Turkish culture.


Separated from the context of its surroundings, this small ritual speaks to the powerful allure of an all-encompassing Kemalist narrative. These surroundings, however, proved stubbornly resistant to this type of separation. The noontime bugles that stopped our group were met with simultaneous and equally loud calls to prayer from the surrounding mosques that bled into the military honor guard’s solemn moment of silence. The soldiers themselves could barely finish their ceremonial march without the help of frantically screaming security guards to marshal the crowds of tourists, many of whom wore the hijab, off of the monument’s steps. In a way, site’s intended purpose told me much less about the state of Attaturk’s legacy than the way its visitors interacted with it.


The forced solemnity of the mausoleum’s noontime ceremony was not enough to keep it apart from the realities of contemporary Turkey. Despite the military guards’ best efforts, crowds bled into the site’s “sacred spaces” and foiled the austere silence that the site tried to create. The midday trumpet sounded loudly but no amount of noise could have kept the nearby mosques out of earshot. The sincerity of the soldiers, security guards, and museum docents who tried to keep the country’s surrounding “disorder” out of their environment only underscored the extent to which such a task is no longer possible.


Turkey as a whole is not, and never was, a true reflection of that silent vacuum of sandstone and marble. In the past ten years, debates about the military character of the Turkish state and the ethnic basis of Turkish nationalism were waged openly and have indelibly affected all of the topics that we researched. These issues are and, most likely, will remain unresolved. The symbolic glimpse I saw, and the broader picture that our group observed throughout those two weeks, was only a sliver of the long-reaching arc of national debate that far-transcends the modern Turkish state but I’m lucky to get as clear a picture as I did.


Contemplating the "-isms"

By Niyash Mistry '14

One seems to always want to sum up, in a few short words, the subject which one discusses. To tie up various strands of thought into a neat conclusion is the perfect end to any argument or exposition. The same follows for Turkey for which after months of research and study, I set out to rationalise what it is that makes Turkey Turkey. I pulled in the various characteristics- secularism, rationalism, nationalism, “Islamicism”, and whatever other isms I could think of. So, Turkey is a secular state with staunchly nationalistic, but rational, Muslims who for the better part of one century ignored the existence of ethnic minorities; this dynamic plays out with Islamists against secularists, Gulenists against AKP-ists, the military against the government. It all comes together in a single string of coexisting dynamics that, frankly, doesn’t quite cut it. In an attempt to neatly sum up the complexities of Turkey into one manageable sentence, I’ve complicated and convoluted the issue quite awfully. The NIMEP trip this January made me realise that the neatest way to sum Turkey up is to simply say it cannot be summed up.


There is too much in Turkey, too much depth, too many layers for Turkey to ever be neat. After having lived in Turkey for a good part of my life and studying it for many months, I only discovered this aspect on our research trip. There is, for example, a rivalry in the top echelons of the Islamist government between the AK Party (AKP) and their major supporters, the Gulenist movement. Moreover, even describing the AKP as Islamic is too simple as proven by our meeting with the party’s deputy chief of foreign affairs, who is a German-Turk solely interested in the party for its economic, democratic policies. More broadly speaking, many claim that there are two camps in Turkey: the traditional secularist old guard and the more recent religiously oriented movements. Yet, that view completely ignores those who are disillusioned by both Islam and secular dictatorship, of which there are many, and even they don’t all fit into any single category. Finally, I discovered that even newspapers’ political stances do not trump a journalistic bond shared between the papers’ editors. Nothing necessarily makes sense in Turkey, and nothing is as it would seem. Only by sitting and talking to each of these leaders in Turkish society, over many of the ubiquitous Turkish coffees, does one get a sense of this.


When in 1957 Ian Fleming wrote of the Turks that “all this pretence of democracy is killing them,” he probably echoed a valid point. He was, however, letting his fantasies run a little wild by deciding that they really “want some sultans and wars and rape and fun.” What it seems they really want is too broad and wide an array of things to classify in any one sentence. Turkey, like any other country, has a multitude of different people from different backgrounds and different belief systems. Ataturk tried very hard to erase this, to make Turkey and all the people in it a homogenous unit- a single Turk. It is this that Turks were dissatisfied with when Ian Fleming sensed something was amiss during his research trip there. And it is only now, after I took part in the NIMEP research trip, that I can understand the vibrant forms of expression and ways of life that exist in Turkey today.


The Permanence of Turkey

By Madeline Hall '13

Leaving Turkey on a 5am plane out of Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport does very little for an individual’s morale. There’s nothing wrong with the airport, aside from the institutional displeasures that any airport offers. Rather, it is the willful departure undertaken by someone who spends any amount of time in Turkey that ultimately deals the crushing blow to the human psyche. Tropes like “beautiful” and “marvelous” don’t speak to the perfection of a cold Istanbul morning punctuated by the call to prayer, or to the kindness of Turkish hosts as they offer endless cups of tea. Leaving that all behind in the dreary fog of departure casts a certain despair, despite the antecedent joy.


Indeed, on the other end of that emotional spectrum, the opportunity to go to Turkey at all through the Institute for Global Leadership’s student group, the New Initiative for Middle East Peace (NIMEP), offered me a buoying excitement and eagerness in proportions that negated the eventual disappointment of departure. Researching the implications of legal reform on the practices of Turkish journalism, I was able to interview professors, politicians, researchers, and journalists themselves on the multifaceted issue to such a degree that I lived, breathed, ate and drank all things Turkish for twelve consecutive days. Of course, the research was supplemented by actually living, breathing, eating and drinking all things Turkish, but lord knows I wasn’t complaining.


Splitting our time between Istanbul and Ankara, our student delegation interviewed and engaged with some of the most colorful actors in Turkish society: a Justice and Development Party (AKP) parliament member; an American freelance journalist invested in the rights of Kurds; an outspoken urban sociologist with much to say about the construction of a third Istanbul bridge; and a verbose columnist whose mastery of English eclipsed the skill level of virtually every native speaker on the trip. Some of their insights were indispensable to my understanding of my topic, shedding light by contextualizing ideas in the Turkish experience itself. Others read us the party line; be it governmental, organizational, or religious, those interviewees’ interests and commitments were part and parcel of their responses. Still others discarded historical and political considerations, speaking passionately from the pure desire to express their personal experience.


Finally, those interviewees that admitted they did not know – and could not know – how to articulate answers about Turkey’s practices were the most illuminating in some respects. Acknowledging the immense complexity of a country with a century of modern state history preceded by many centuries more of an imperial mentality validated our own confusions and contemplations; some answers simply did not exist. As much as its labeled intent was to be a “fact-finding mission,” the trip was far more valuable in illuminating the many truths that are applicable to Turkey.


All of these considerations were weighing heavily on my mind as I boarded our departing plane, folding myself into the impossibly small seat that presented itself more as a prison cell than as a vessel for returning to my real life. While the trip resolved many of my questions and propelled my research that much further, I couldn’t help but balk at the prospect of removing myself from that understanding.


But weeks after the plane lifted and launched, with my body safely returned to Tufts, it occurred to me that my worrying and regret were for naught. The permanence of Turkey in my thoughts, weeks later, posited a hopeful prospect:  you don’t truly leave Turkey, as it certainly comes with you. 



The Importance of Human Interaction

By James Bowker '13

After three months of sessions in Tisch obsessively sifting through all the hits Google Reader gave me for the keywords “Turkey,” “Refugees,” and “Syria,” as well as trying to navigate the Turkish government’s policy on granting asylum,  the experience of conducting a marathon of interviews in Ankara in Istanbul was utterly rewarding in several senses.  Obviously, I felt privileged to be in Turkey in the first place, making it only the fifth foreign country I’d been to (also the fifth Middle Eastern country I’d visited, all of my experience abroad having been while I studied in Jordan last year).  I had the opportunity to ferry across the Bosphorous, visit the Grand Bazaar, and take in Istanbul’s renowned skyline, while feeling a little superior to the average tourist because I was getting to conduct research and learn. 


Between overhearing Syrians chatting in Arabic on the metro, seeing the ubiquitous posters encouraging Turks to donate for their Syrian brothers, and meeting face-to-face with an impressive array of academics, diplomats, and journalists, I was able to delve into aspects of my research that Google Reader can’t communicate.  Every time I learned a piece of information that hadn’t come up during my pre-trip research, I was deeply gratified.  When Cheryl Fernandes at the Embassy fully explained to me the very opaque administration of the refugee camps, I realized the enormous privilege of being able to directly pose research questions to the people making the decisions I was researching.  Admittedly, it also felt good to have State Department officials compliment my familiarity with my research topic. 


Throughout the trip, however, my feeling of privilege nagged at me whenever it occurred to me that the Syrian refugees weren’t just the statistics I was writing about, but real people, dealing with the same cold weather that I was, but without the advantage of a hotel room.  This privilege came into unexpectedly sharp focus on one of the last nights of the trip when, standing in front of the Pigeon Mosque in Istanbul, my co-researcher Sari and I heard Arabic voices asking for money from behind us.  We turned to find a brother and sister, about eight and ten, in worn-out clothes with hands outstretched.  In speaking with them, we learned that they were refugees from Aleppo, living with their parents in a cheap hotel.  After giving them a few lira and having to shout at them to stop them from following us, Sari and I shared a somber walk through the animated crowds of the spice market while we digested what had just happened. 


We had enjoyed up until then the invaluable human connection in our research without being challenged by it.  In that moment, I thought to myself, I had come face to face with two of the 200,000 refugees in Turkey I had read and written so much about.  And I realized that while it might be my research, my research isn’t “about” me, my questions, my feeling of importance because I got to go to Turkey, but about the real people who were in the title of my article.  And while this realization wasn’t gratifying or rewarding, it is the part of the trip for which I am most thankful.   


Appreciating the Subtleties

By Leah Muskin-Pierret '16

Traveling from the vibrant streets of Istanbul to the imposing AK Party headquarters in Ankara, I developed a sense of awe for the history, people, and the plethora of cultures that make Turkey what it is today. Simply studying a country as a specimen, not a collection of living, breathing, unique people, compromises the depth, and to some extent, also the efficacy of research.  If I was going to spend two weeks interviewing prolific and dedicated professionals, I owed it to them to both fully appreciate the human element of my research and work tirelessly to be sure I truly contributed to the existing knowledge. Likewise, from the safety of my computer, through cyberspace to JSTOR, I could do no more than skim the surface of the issue. In Turkey, I would find, my research would gain a compelling hypothesis, strong facts, and most importantly, a human dimension.


In on the ground research, sound bites have faces and backstories.  I returned to America with a notebook brimming with quotes and ideas for my article, but the greatest contribution Turkey will have to my article is what won’t be put directly into words.  The frank stories of casual racism that an American diplomat, whose wife is Kurdish, shared with us, painted a starker picture of the reality of the Kurdish population today than any news article; the impassioned and highly critical lament of a journalist for his field in Turkey demonstrated the struggle of journalists than any report; the Ataturk tattoo sighted on one man’s neck spoke more towards Kemalism’s enduring effect today than any academic piece.


I also gained a newfound respect for the power of what isn’t said. While the interviews were largely fruitful, the carefully chosen silence of interviewees as well as casual acquaintances spoke more towards Turkey’s taboos than words could have.  The AK Party official’s political silence on the cause of the Kurdish strife was enlightening. Similarly, the careful tip toeing around issues of women’s equality in all of our interaction with Gülen movement members made clear how intent the movement is on not addressing the issue.  The trip taught me that silence, in some contexts, is as crucial to scrutinize as words.


However relatively brief our time was in Istanbul, I developed a true love for the country as both a political scientist and an individual. Turkey today is in the midst of a fascinating transition, blazing towards a potential new ideal for Middle Eastern of innovating capitalism, egalitarian democracy, and moderate Islamism all married together. Likewise, on the most individual level, I am personally captivated by human level of the country, especially the captivating cosmopolitan center of Istanbul.  While one day living in Istanbul is just a glimmer in my mind’s eye, I certainly can’t imagine not returning.


First Impressions

By William Beckham '15

I had never been to the Middle East before, nor had I ever set foot in a country that was predominantly Muslim.  From the very beginning, I recognized that NIMEP was shoving me into a position I had yet to experience: not only would I have to gain my bearings in a country I knew little about beyond what I learned from my reading in the months prior, I would have to conduct in-depth interviews with dozens of informants to come back to the United States ready to write a substantial piece on potential political repercussions for Turkish investment in the Kurdistan region of Iraq.  I came into this trip expecting a challenge, but seeing what lay ahead of me made it clear that a successful trip would demand far more of me than I originally thought.  As my first experience in really any sort of academic field work, going to Turkey for 12 days exclusively to learn about this country and my topic was far too great of an opportunity for me to pass up.


I arrived jetlagged in Istanbul late on Thursday, January 3.  The city was gorgeous, an interconnected mosaic of modern, Islamic, and Byzantine architecture.  My first steps walking around a Muslim country brought a welcome culture shock.  Many women wore some form of headscarf, and there were so many mosques around us that I was walking through a narrow alley I could never see less than two minarets in any direction.  I woke up the next morning hearing for the first time the adhan, or the Muslim call to prayer, a familiar sound that echoes throughout the city five times a day.


From studying Arabic at Tufts, approaching Islam academically had been a fairly routine exercise for me, but it was impossible to really “see” Islam (or Turkey, for that matter) for what it really was until I could see how it fit into everyday life.  Bizarre and exotic as Islamic culture can come across to an unfamiliar westerner, the day-to-day realities of the religion and culture were far more familiar than I could have expected.  Many of the women I talked to who wore headscarves treated them the way Christians view jewelry with crosses on them- a means through which one can project one’s religious identity. Hearing the adhan is also not that different from hearing church bells as you walk down the street in Boston, a daily occurrence with which I was naturally more familiar.  Textbooks just can’t reveal these kinds of connections and similarities of everyday life in another country.  Going to Turkey allowed me to see those things on a daily basis.


NIMEP also gave me the chance to conduct on the ground research in a way I never thought I could do as a sophomore undergrad.  For two weeks, we met so many incredible people who kindly gave up their time to help us with our research, ranging from journalists from the New York Times, Today’s Zaman, and The Atlantic, professors from Universities all over Istanbul, members of Turkey’s Hizmet movement, diplomats from the US Embassy in Ankara and the Consulate in Istanbul, and even the Mayor of Sisli Municipality in Istanbul.  Being able to sit down with these people and to discuss our research topics was not only an incredible experience because of their role in shaping and understanding the issues we were studying, they allowed us to build a clearer understanding of our topics than we ever thought possible.  Getting out of the air conditioned library and into Turkey helped us understand its domestic and international political trends more than any book or news article could, and getting to interview so many people allowed me to see how stakeholders in Turkish politics construct their opinions on local and international issues.  Travelling with NIMEP gave me an excellent first opportunity to do field research in political science and gave me the research and logistical skills I will need if I want to do a similar project on my own in the future.