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Ben Priest Interview

Ben Priest is a graduate student in the Department of Central Eurasian Studies and the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (NELC). He wrote an article for the IAUNRC telling us about his research interests and giving us an insight into his experience as a CEUS student abroad.

 

​From May 15 - July 21, 2016, I lived in Beyoğlu, Istanbul, Turkey. My purpose for being there was two-fold – the first was to study Turkish and Kurmanji Kurdish, and the second was to conduct pre-dissertation research. In the course of my graduate work, I’ve been bounced around by the realities of regional politics, and as one avenue of research closed, I would seek another. I chose Istanbul because it most closely aligned with what was then the topic of my research, namely understanding the meaning and value of Islamic shrines and other sacred spaces. It was my intent to work mostly with the Eyüp Sultan shrine complex and locate several smaller locales for comparison and contrast. While Eyüp Sultan is a fascinating place and smaller shrines were not difficult for me to locate, it quickly became clear to me why all the best treatments of Islamic shrines are written by women; while the smaller shrines had a more even distribution of visitors, the majority of those praying at Eyüp Sultan were women, and the situation made it inappropriate for me to approach and conduct interviews.  Being a non-Muslim, American male put up more barriers than it bypassed in this particular case.

            While Islamic shrines were and still are interesting to me, what I found between classes and exploring the city was that exploring the intersections of Kurdish nationalism and Islam would be a far more substantive and rewarding topic for me personally. In the summer of 2015, I started taking Sorani Kurdish here at IU. Having taught Arabic and taken three years of Persian, I’ve been able to pick it up relatively quickly. My Kurmanji instructor spoke little English or Arabic, so our pedagogical languages were Sorani, Persian, and Turkish. As it happened, I had picked an apartment in the middle of a cluster of Kurdish neighborhoods. For as frustrating as the process of being bounced around the Middle East in terms of languages and topics was, my experiences in Istanbul made it increasingly clear to me that the knowledge I had accrued could very easily be put to use working with Kurds, themselves members of transnational, multilingual communities.

            The irony in my picking Istanbul as the ‘most stable’ location for my pre-dissertation research is not lost on me. However, being there during such a politically turbulent period was extremely beneficial in shaping my understanding of events and helped me develop my current dissertation topic.

             On a less serious note, I was asked to include one of my favorite memories from my trip. About halfway through my time in Istanbul, I came across an MMA gym owned and operated by a Turkish man who had fought in tournaments throughout the U.S. The workouts were brutal, but all of my fellows were extremely open and the atmosphere was one of camaraderie. Beyond stretching my physical limits and teaching me new combat skills, the owner/coach (who knew a good bit of Persian) would have me switch languages mid-workout. I highly recommend combining language and physical training; the pressure of giving a presentation or taking directions diminishes significantly when you’ve been acclimated to operating in the target language while simultaneously dealing with physical stressors.