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Sean Singer, FLAS Scholar

Ortakoy Mosque

In Turkish novelist Tahsin Yücel’s Kumru ile Kumru, the titular character reflects on Turkey’s largest city: Istanbul is the sea, we are sand.

With the exception of those brief moments before landing at one of the city’s two airports, the thought of being above the city and not surrounded by, or submerged in, it seems fanciful. Two months was not enough time to walk Istanbul’s streets, visit its historic places, and converse with its residents. But two years probably wouldn’t be sufficient, either.

As the Turkish saying goes, “Nerede beleş oraya yerleş,” “settle where the land is free,” which I was able to do for the summer of 2011 thanks to a FLAS from the Center for the Study of the Middle East. I was studying at Turkey’s prestigious Boğaziçi University, formerly Roberts College, founded by American protestant missionaries in 1863.

I had spent the previous nine months living in a small provincial capital in northeastern Turkey, Bayburt, and my move to Istanbul was one that countless Bayburtians had made themselves since Istanbul entered a stage of explosive population growth in the second half of the 20th century. Istanbul is full of neighborhoods filled with such migrants—and their children and their grandchildren—from Anatolia. Dolmuş, or minibus, drivers proudly advertise their home province’s soccer team in their rear windows. The city is constantly expanding, and a canal or “second Bosphorous” connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara, what the Prime Minister calls his “Crazy project,” might even be in the works. Istanbul’s iconic views —and perhaps none is better than that of Boğaziçi University, up on a hill just south of the Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge—are spectacular. There’s even a word, “Bosphorizing,” for describing time spent staring from one side of the city at the other.

While English speakers usually refer to the city’s Asian and European sides, Professor Sumru Özsoy, Boğaziçi’s Turkish Language and Culture’s Program’s director, told our class one day, when speaking in Turkish it’s always just “this side” or “the other side.” For all the talk of Istanbul being where Europe meets Asia, with the Bosphorous in between, dichotomous divisions don’t suit the city. It’s just a bit more complicated than that—more like the sea that Kumru finds herself in—which is why I am so thrilled to be at Indiana University, furthering my understanding of Turkey’s history and culture in hopes of returning to the city of seven hills as soon as possible.