Turkish Study Trip Review

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Guest Contributor
Second-year M.A. Candidate at SAIS Washington

Over the summer I went with Paul Sturm, SAIS ‘14, on a two-week study trip to Turkey, which focused on the transition from the Ottoman Empire to the modern Turkish state.

The trip, sponsored and organized by the Turkish Ministry of Culture and Tourism joined us with 25 M.A. and Ph.D. candidates from Oceania and Europe.

Our schedule was intense: outings started at 8:30 a.m. and ended around 10:30 p.m. Our days were packed with visits to museums, mosques, palaces and churches.  During this trip we had the chance to visit Istanbul, Çanakkale, Bursa and Ankara.

Meals were frequent and lavish with five-course meals accompanied by libations and capped with Turkish coffee or apple tea the norm.

One real value of the trip was the lectures by various experts and public diplomacy specialists on issues important to Turkey.  In many ways, these lectures appeared to be an attempt at soft-power influencing by the Turkish government.

The country is going through a fascinating time as the secular revolution of the country’s first president, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s, faces an increasingly religious constituency, tensions with the Armenian and Kurdish populations and recent manifestations for increased freedoms and governmental transparency.

During the first set of lectures in Istanbul, our group met with a representative of the Turkish Coalition of America (TCA) a special-interest group which organizes NGOs for promoting Turkish interests in the United States.

Thereafter, we heard lectures from academics on the Ottoman Renaissance and the Tulip Period, the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the founding of the Republic of Turkey (which was contextualized by a description of the intellectual ferment of the early 20th century) and current events in Turkey.

Despite the homogenous views expressed by officials concerning the Armenian atrocities, the other lecturers in this first series produced a variety of views on the Turkish experience with clashing points of view and even criticism of  the ruling Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) from a religious Turk.

The second round of lectures was presented on our final day in Ankara where two senior Turkish diplomats offered their thoughts on the current opportunities and challenges facing Turkey.

The positions of the officials in these lectures were mostly in line with party doctrine, but the insights into the point of view of the government and ruling AKP were useful.  However, their statements concerning the Armenian atrocities were not, and a diversity of views on this issue would have been more useful

For many SAIS graduates who will be involved in public diplomacy, one of my main take-aways from this trip was knowing one’s audience is the best way to tailor a message. Let people and sights do the storytelling without unnecessary and heavy-handed prodding from government minders or organizers.

Despite this last point, the trip was a very useful and interesting experience which I would recommend to SAIS students in the future.

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