My mind remains addled a bit by the jet lag after ten days in Turkey with my 13-year-old daughter and 15 amazing LSU students.
Back in the country just more than 24 hours, my body hasn’t yet adjusted to the time difference.
As I write this, it’s 7 p.m. in Baton Rouge; 3 a.m. in Istanbul.
But I offer here a few random reflections on the sojourn, my fourth to Turkey in as many years.
1. One or two visits to any country isn’t enough to begin understanding its culture, history, geography, people, etc. I’ve traveled from one end of Turkey to the other several times, devoured a dozen or more books on Turkish politics and history, and I try to read at least two Turkish newspapers a day. Still, every day offered new sights, revelations, and insights. Now, even after four visits, I’m overwhelmed by how little of this country I truly comprehend.
2. You really cannot understand a country if you don’t speak the language. There’s so much you’ll miss, even if you have a great interpreter or if the people you meet speak to you in your language. There’s a great deal of nuance you’ll never get and without that nuance, you are looking at that country, to quote St. Paul, “through a glass, darkly.”
3. Travel abroad with your children if you can, as soon as you can. My 13-year-old daughter turned out to be the best traveling companion I could imagine. She approached everything with a sense of wonder and adventure. She loved the people, the sights, the food, the language, and the culture. She embraced it all with gusto. Never once, over ten grueling days of arduous bus rides and late-night plane flights, did she complain or express homesickness. She kept her good humor all along. I loved — and will always cherish — every precious moment I spent with her. And I cannot wait to hit the road with her again. Maybe one day she’ll allow me to backpack across Europe with her.
From the beginning, I prayed that the trip would spark in her a greater desire to know the world and accept and understand other cultures. I’m happy to say that I believe this trip did just that — and more.
4. I swell with pride over the 15 LSU students who trekked across Turkey with us. They proved to be outstanding ambassadors for Louisiana and LSU. At all times, in my presence, they comported themselves with much dignity and poise. They were polite and exceedingly kind to everyone they met. They were generous and thoughtful with each other. They welcomed my daughter into their fold with open arms. (For example, when we arrived at the hotel without our bags, one student dashed upstairs to her room and quickly reappeared with a stack of clothing that she thrust into my grateful daughter’s hands.)
When we visited a Turkish family’s home for dinner one night in Izmir, I watched as they embraced the rare opportunity to befriend this lovely Muslim family. They charmed everyone with their great, good humor and gratitude. By the end of the evening, we were all laughing and singing together like old friends. If these 15 young people are in any way representative of their peers, the future of our country is bright, indeed.
5. Speaking of the dinner with the Turkish family, it proved to be the high point of the trip. From the beginning, I begged my Turkish hosts to arrange such a dinner. From my experience on previous trips, I knew that nothing would compare to sitting at a table — heaving with a sumptuous home-cooked feast — and getting to know an average Turkish family on an elemental level.
For so many of us, the label “Muslim” carries such negative baggage. Some don’t see them as people, but as radical heathens who hate America and our Western values. Breaking bread with wonderful, generous people of deep faith always explodes those notions. We learn there is so much more that unites us than that which divides us. We learn that we worship the same God, just in different ways. And we learn that we all share the same love of country, family and friends. And the Turks can teach us a thing or two about hospitality.
6. I love Turkish food. My daughter discovered that she loved it, too. The students declared that the cuisine in Turkey was, by far, the best of their trip so far (they had visited Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic prior to arriving in Turkey). If there’s a Turkish restaurant in your town, you should try it. It’s among the most interesting and varied food in the world.
7. Finally, there was Aly Neel, my former student, now living in Istanbul. I still remember vividly the day, four years ago, that an email arrived in my inbox from her, with questions about the class she would be taking with me in the fall. A few weeks later, she appeared in my office for the first time and, later, began dropping by after class for visits about the course and, then, just to chat.
From the beginning, I recognized that there was some extraordinary about this bright, lovely, vivacious young women. What I didn’t know at the the time was that I would eventually come to love her like a daughter. When I helped arrange an internship for her in Istanbul after her graduation a year and a half ago, I thought it would be an exciting experience before she moved to Washington, D.C. She had never traveled abroad and, before she left, I remember warning her that after a few months she would likely become homesick and that she must push through it and resist the urge to return home.
So, in January 2011, Aly arrived in Istanbul knowing not a single soul and less than ten Turkish words. A year and half later, she is almost fluent in the language. She has spent a year working as a journalist for Today’s Zaman (the English language edition of Turkey’s largest newspaper). In a few weeks, she will begin her second job, working for an organization dedicated to women’s rights.
In Istanbul, she has thrived. Already very mature and confident when she left, I saw in Istanbul an even more confident and self-assured young woman. I am so very proud of her and what she has accomplished.
Aly traveled with us the whole way. She was our guide and interpreter — and roommate and big sister to my daughter, who absolutely worships her.
Four years ago, she was my student. Today, she is my “adopted” daughter.
Along the way this week, someone asked me, “Why do you like Istanbul so much?” Without hesitation, I replied, “It’s one of the most beautiful places in the world. But mostly,” I said, pointing to Aly, “someone I love now lives here.”