Planet Duke: A look at Turkey

Political unrest offers a platform for learning
November 12, 2013

About a month before students were slated to land in Turkey last summer, the city of Istanbul erupted in a fury of protests. What began as a peaceful sit-in to oppose the demolition of Gezi Park soon morphed into large-scale demonstrations and indiscriminate police violence. After careful evaluation, Duke administrators opted to go forward with theDuke in Turkey program as planned, according to Amanda Kelso of the Duke Global Education Office for Undergraduates.

By the time students arrived, the protests had died down, but the aftermath was still tangible. “The protests then became this great opportunity to study the politics,” says Erdag Göknar, assistant professor of Turkish and Middle Eastern studies and leader of Duke in Turkey since 2011. “So we put it on the syllabus. That was a great opportunity to turn politics on the ground into a learning experience.”

“We don’t want students to participate in the protests on the ground,” explains Göknar, recalling safety concerns voiced by parents. “We’re trying to take a step back and say, why is this protest happening now, and what are the forces at play?”

Students studied graffiti and memorials generated during the unrest, followed news reports of the injured, and analyzed the public’s reaction. “I was excited to be in Istanbul at such a historic moment and turning point for politics,” wrote Arielle Brackett ’15 in an e-mail message. Jeremy Clift ’15 expressed similar thoughts in a blog post: “Living in Istanbul during this period of civil unrest undoubtedly influenced my perception of the Turkish government and the associated political system.”

Great beauty: The Haghia Sophia museum in Istanbul. Erdag Göknar

“The city of Istanbul, which is so interesting in its contradictions, becomes a text that students explore when they’re abroad,” says Göknar. Located at the crossroads of Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and the Middle East, Turkey holds a unique mix of European and Islamic culture. The program coincided with the month of Ramadan, and though she was raised Methodist, Brackett decided to attempt the fast for a few days. “I feel that while I was abroad and in this different hemisphere, I began to use the other hemisphere of my brain,” she wrote.

Students lived and studied at Bogaziçi University, located on the scenic shores of the Bosphorus, a strait that divides Asia and Europe. 

They spent six weeks taking courses on Istanbul’s history and culture as well as gender in the Middle East. The group also visited what Göknar terms Turkey’s “greatest hits,” including sites in ancient Byzantine, the otherworldly landscape of Cappadocia, and the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus.

Duke in Turkey: At a Glance

Current students whose home country isTurkey:42

Turkish nationals working at Duke:12

Alumni living in Turkey:124

Number of students who traveled to Turkey with university programs in 2013:49

Key Duke connections:

  • Duke’s first Muslim chaplain, Abdullah Antepli, was born and raised in Kahramanmaras, Turkey. He is known around campus as the “Turkish Delight Imam.” 
  • Desmond Lee ’14 was awarded a Turkish Coalition of America Scholarship for the Duke in Istanbul program in the fall of 2012. 
  • Duke offers a minor in Turkish language and culture, as well as four Turkish language courses. 
  • Each year at Springternational, the Turkish Student Association serves traditional Turkish foods such as baklava and stuffed grape leaves. 
  • Elizabeth '11 is a writer in New York. She previously worked as a senior editorial fellow for The Trace and a staff writer for Duke Magazine.