Erasmus, but not as we know it: My semester in Istanbul

Article published on Oct. 18, 2010
Article published on Oct. 18, 2010

An Erasmus is all about exploring new cultures and ways of life, but most students going abroad play it safe; choosing destinations like France, Spain or Germany. Katja decided to go somewhere a little bit different...

Since the start of my politics degree in 2004 at the Philipps University of Marburg, I knew that after a few years I would be going abroad for a semester as an Erasmus exchange student. However, it wouldn’t be to a traditional destination like Spain, England or Holland. I wanted to go a bit further away, somewhere a bit more exotic. In the list of universities which Marburg has an exchange agreement with I spotted the USA, Canada and even South Africa. Right at the bottom of the list nestled Istanbul. I knew it straight away - that’s where I wanted to go.

Living alone in a big city

As my plane begins to descend above Istanbul at Atatürk airport, I get briefly scared. As quick as lightning, everything that can go wrong rushes through my head. After all, this is my first time in Turkey, and I don’t speak a word of Turkish. "Everyone speaks English there anyway," my Erasmus coordinator promised me. Far from it! Arriving in the girls’ dorm, I am welcomed by three smiling, friendly ladies who give me a strong Turkish coffee to drink, but no-one speaks a word of English.

As no other solution comes to mind, I sign a list of dorm rules without understanding its content. That’ll probably turn out okay, I think to myself, until later a student from Estonia explains that I signed a document agreeing to an 8pm curfew and that no visitors (especially male visitors) are allowed. What’s more, I live with five other girls in one room, and unfortunately no-one speaks English here either. It’s bed-to-bed in an area measuring 20 square metres. The possession and consumption of alcohol and cigarettes are strictly punished. That isn’t what most young European exchange students expect from their semester abroad; Erasmus usually means partying, partying and partying.

©Objektivist/flickrUnlike in Germany, the young people have a very intense relationship with their elders, even throughout their twenties. Parents are informed if a student would like to go out or stay out the night. There are also mentors - "ablas" are older boys and "abi" are older girls - who the younger students can talk to, but they're also told to ensure their protégés apply themselves to their studies. This system in German dorms would be absolutely unthinkable. Whether that’s a good thing or not is open to debate. I’ve had more than one heated discussion about whether and when young people should be sent out "alone" into the world; it's fairly common when you start your degree in Germany. On the other hand it leads to many feeling lonely, insecure and often completely overwhelmed, which did not seem to be the case for many young people in Istanbul. Being alone in a big city and not coping without familiar surroundings nor fitting in after a while is sadly more common in Germany.

Political discussions

I’m spending my exchange semester at Fatih University, a conservative private university far from the city centre. In Marburg the lecturers take their time and are available at any moment for one-on-one talks. At Fatih, friendships with the professors develop quickly; you drink coffee together and are on first-name terms with each other. That gives lots of scope for discussions, about politics for example, which are a great deal more controversial than what I'm used to at home. "Why bother with democracy?" argues one politics lecturer. "A military dictatorship can govern state affairs a lot better." My initial reaction is speechlessness, then rage as I end up trying to convince by arguing – sometimes with mostly a little success.

I learn how to explain my arguments and points of view from their foundations: "Why should a popular sovereignty be so good, then?" In Istanbul I’m learning to challenge my own worldview, and not to see ideas like "democracy" and "human rights" as universal.

"The military in Turkey has always catered for peace and stability," my lecturer argues. "If a civil war threatens a country, these aims are the first priority." It occurs to me that my ideas of right and wrong are meant for my own little world, to an alarmingly high degree at that. There’s not only one solution. Truths are always just results of initial situations and therefore can’t apply either absolutely or universally. 

Women in Istanbul

Headscarfed or not, they take on open gestures in public identifiable to a European publicAs many as 17 million people live in the Turkish capital, and the social heterogeneity of Turkey is reflected in this crowd of people. Alcohol is allowed on the street, transvestites sit in Starbucks, Turkish girls wear mini-skirts. "It’s more European than Europe," joke the Turks about the party mile in Taksim, a square leading to the heart of Istanbul. The people here believe in the maxim of the founder of Turkey, Atatürk, whose statue stands in the middle of the square. It’s the alignment of Turkey to the west for prosperity and modernity. The people who I meet on the street think that Islam is "outdated" and that European is "in’.

I take a seat on a bus and travel an hour eastwards to an entirely different Istanbul. Tower block after tower block line up as far as the eye can see, where the residential complexes of the Turkish middle class are spread. Here, a woman explains to me that arranged marriages are the best marriages, and that women are too sensitive for the world on their doorstep. There are hardly any women to be seen at all on the street. If so, they are veiled, although headscarves are banned in public buildings. In Istanbul, the Turkish women have a trick to still cover their hair: the headscarf stays on but they wear a wig over it. That looks often very strange, but it’s generally accepted. Apart from that, women are treated with a lot of respect. On the bus, free seats always go to female passengers and sometimes even the seats next to them stay free. When I am with my fellow students for a stroll or going out, not one man looks me in the eye or approaches me. I want to smile to the waiter who serves us an ice cream, but I’m completely ignored. The first time it’s weird and I’m a bit hurt. But when I understand that disregarding a woman is a sign of respect, I see it differently. It feels actually pretty good.

An Erasmus semester in Istanbul is an incredibly rewarding experience. You should brace yourself for a little adaptability, but I have to see Istanbul again. It’ll be as soon as next year, as I’ll be writing my master's thesis about islamic influences in Turkish domestic policy. That kind of research would work better on the ground.