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Interview: CEUS Professor Kemal Silay

Professor Kemal Silay, Director of Indiana University’s newly opened Turkish Flagship, is also the holder of the Department of Central Eurasian Studies’ Ottoman and Modern Turkish Studies Chair and a well-regarded scholar of Ottoman Turkish poetry and literature.  Add in a wide-ranging course load, from “Islamic Jihad” to “Medieval Ottoman Literature,” and this is a lot of hats to wear.  Recently, it’s been a lot of travelling, too, but Professor Silay was gracious enough to find time to sit down with the Inner Asian and Uralic National Resource Center’s Willow Spencer to discuss his research, working at Indiana University, and the new Turkish Flagship.

IAUNRC: Congratulations on the Flagship!  You’re originally a scholar of Ottoman literature.  Are you still working in that field?  What are you currently pursuing?

Silay: Thanks. I have been in Turkish Studies all my life. That’s what I do for a living: enlightening students and the public about Turkey and its language, literature, history, politics, and cultures.  I think if we’re talking about medieval Ottoman poetry or the modern Turkish language this is all interconnected and important.  My research interest and published works have also been varied. Among my books are Nedim and the Poetics of the Ottoman Court: Medieval Inheritance and the Need for Change (1994); An Anthology of Turkish Literature (1996); and Ahmedi’s History of the Kings of the Ottoman Lineage and Their Holy Raids against the Infidels (2004). I have recently been working on several other book projects, among them The Turks and Islam.

IAUNRC: So we’ve been hearing a lot about the new Turkish Flagship Program. What, exactly, will this entail for IU?

Silay: The Language Flagshipis a federally funded program and is a component of the US Department of Defense’s National Security Education Program (NSEP). The Turkish Flagship Center at IU will fulfill the objectives of the Language Flagship, the most important of which is to develop and provide for a program that will lead its to the achievement of superior level of proficiency in Turkish (ACTFL Superior/ILR 3).   The Turkish Flagship Center will train15 undergraduate students per year in Turkish. It will also combine domestic programs at IU with an overseas component built in partnership with the American Councils for International Education.

IAUNRC: What about the Flagship’s “bridge” component ?  What’s that all about?

Silay: That is an exciting bit!  The Turkish Flagship at IU, in addition to being the first-ever Turkish Flagship Center, will include a Central Eurasian Turkic (CET) component which will “bridge” certain students over from Turkish to another Turkic language. The mid-term goal of the CET bridge component is for students to achieve an ACTFL Advanced/ILR 2 level in at least one of the selected Turkic languages.

IAUNRC: So could we ask which Turkic languages are being considered as bridges?  Uzbek, Azeri, others?

Silay:  That’s a long and mostly bureaucratic story;we discussed so many different options.  The short answer is: Uzbek.  Given Indiana University’s long history of teaching Uzbek, the established program in CEUS, and the generally high student enrollments, this language was ultimately chosen as the first part of the “bridge” section of the Turkish Flagship.  In the long run, though, there are a whole host of Turkic languages that could be “bridged” to through Turkish – maybe not Buryat or Chuvash, but pretty much any of the Central Asian or Caucasian Turkic languages, such as Azeri, or Kazakh, or Turkmen.  We’re very excited about these and other possibilities for the future.

IAUNRC: As your own work has attested, Indiana University has had a Turkish Studies program for many years and has taught Turkish as well for quite some time.  What distinguishes the Turkish Flagship from these programs?  How does it fit in with them?

Silay: Oh, I think the Flagship is a clear step forward and something that will much more to its students than we previously had the resources to provide! Upon completing the program, Turkish Flagship students will be to fully participate in social and professional settings in Turkish – that’s really what the “ACTFL Superior/ILR 3” level means.  This also indicates the ability to research and write on professional or academic topics in Turkish, as well as the ability to fluently read difficult texts and works of literature.  Getting 15 students a year to this level of language command is no small feat!  To reach that cohort strength, and attract the best possible candidates for the Turkish Flagship we are hiring, in addition to Turkish teachers, an outreach coordinator.  We will be producing the best.  we want to start with the best!

Of course, we’re taking into account the existing Turkish studies and language programs at Indiana University.   Of course, modifications will be necessary.  IU’s Turkish program will be reengineered in order to achieve the desired Level 3 goal under the Flagship’s tight timeline.  In part, this will include the development of high-level Turkish language courses on a variety of topics related to Turkish culture and history.  A fluent learner of Turkish must know the surrounding social, cultural, historical, religious, and political context of the language he or she has chosen!  This sort of cultural competence is an integral part of communicative competence…

IAUNRC: Not only at IU, but in many places in America there does seem to have been an uptick of interest in Turkey and Turkish lately.  What do you think explains this?

Silay: Oh, I’m just delighted by it! But if to explain it….The Republic of Turkey today is perhaps the most significant country in the Middle East. Surrounded by various dictatorships, human rights violations, and daily occurrences of terror attacks, Turkey is the only true democracy in the entire Muslim world. It has the world’s 15th largest economy and is one of the most stable in the world. It is a member of NATO, and has been a strategic ally of the United States since its foundation in 1923.

Not to mention that many Turkish scholars and scientists have made significant contributions to human civilization – and in the Turkish language! I think a great deal of the Turkish language’s pull right now may be political or economically-focused, but should be really discount internationally known Turkish literary figures or Nobel Literature prize laureates? I think not!  But for so many reasons, Turkish is a vital language that students can use to open their horizons into the many other exciting possibilities in the Middle East, Central Asia, North Africa, Europe, and beyond.

IAUNRC: Absolutely.  We agree that one of the many pulls of Turkish as a language of study, surely, is the wonderful body of poetry and literature that spans back centuries.  As a scholar of many things, but in part Turkish and Ottoman poetry and literature, what is one literary work or poem that you would recommend to any student of the region as an introduction to this oeuvre?

Silay: Today, Turkey’s really in the middle of things: politically, we keep hearing more and more about Erdogan, and the country’s influence in the Middle East; culturally, it has begun to get more attention in the US and elsewhere; linguistically, too, I agree, there has been an increase in attention.  But this means that there’s been more and more written about Turkey, and in Turkey, and in Turkish – there’s just so much to choose from right now.  I would say that if someone in America today wanted a brief introduction to Turkish literature and culture, he would have no better choice than to pick up one of Orhan Pamuk’s novels.  This is something really special: a Turkish author who writes in Turkish being selected for the Nobel Prize in Literature.  And he’s very accessible, and a number of his books have been translated into English.  It’s hard to think of a better place to start from.