Generous Friends and Political Tension in Istanbul

Jed Lenetsky, ’15

When I walked out of our plane into the Istanbul Atatürk Airport, along with ten other students, I had no idea what to expect – other than a long line at customs. After waiting in line for around 15 minutes, only to have moved a quarter of the way through it, Dr. Marion was called by an old acquaintance, who told her to move the group out of the international customs line and enter the line for Turkish citizens. A retired cop, one of the host parents on the exchange, would get us through the line.

At the time, this show of hospitality only seemed natural. As the trip progressed, we witnessed many similar displays of hospitality, and such displays soon characterized our experience in Turkey. After going through customs, we were then led swiftly to baggage claim where all of our bags were waiting for us, already removed from the carousel.

Our host families were waiting for us outside the terminal. I immediately saw Arda, my partner, beaming with joy and anticipation, but before I could greet him, his father jumped up and hugged me first, kissing me on both cheeks (as is the traditional Turkish manner). He then led me to their car with his arm hooked around mine. After two minutes, I was truly a member of their family.

The Turkish students’ school, Kabataş Erkek Lisesi, is situated on the Bosphorus (the strait that divides the European and Asian sides of Istanbul) in a 19th-century Ottoman palace. Pictures and busts of Atatürk, the man who is idealistically viewed as the founder of modern Turkey, are in every room. We spent most of our time in prep classes, in which first year Kabataş students learn how to speak English. The proficiency of their English surprised me. For most classes, we would talk to them about how we liked Turkey and what we had seen so far, and they would ask us questions about America. We would ask them about the Turkish education system and how they felt about their classes, but they didn’t seem very interested in sharing their thoughts.

Arda’s father, on the other hand, was very interested in discussing politics. “So, Jed,” he asked me one evening, “What do you think of Erdogan, our prime minister? He banned YouTube and Twitter.”

I didn’t know how to respond to this question. Before departing for Turkey, Dr. Marion had warned us about inserting our opinions in political discussions with our host family. She said that Turkey is very different from America socially and politically, and we didn’t want to offend anyone. Although I felt strongly that Erdogan was clearly restricting the freedoms of speech and expression of Turkish citizens, I simply responded, “I don’t really know enough about him to have a judgment. I’ve heard both good things and bad things. What do you think of him?”

“We have mixed feelings,” Arda’s father said, gesturing to the rest of the family in the room. “He banned Twitter and YouTube. Why would he do that? I have nothing against him as a leader, but why would he do that?”

It was at this moment that I began to better understand the political situation in Turkey: many people are angry and annoyed but not to such an extent as to demand change. Arda’s father felt strongly about Erdogan’s Twitter and YouTube ban, but didn’t speak out about it openly. Still, the effects of last year’s demonstrations in Gezi Park against Erdogan’s leadership remain. When we walked by the park, we saw tank-like vehicles and police officers who seemed suspicious of all passersby. The current tensions in Turkey’s political sphere stand in stark contrast to the abundant hospitality we experienced during our stay.

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