By Robert Mann
She was not entirely sure it was the right thing to do. Her mother certainly had serious doubts, even fears.
I assured them that it would be fine, but honestly, I wasn’t certain.
But with all the confidence I could muster, I pushed my former student toward what I hoped would be a life-changing adventure – a three-month internship in Istanbul with the Journalists and Writers Foundation.
I had visited Turkey each of the previous two years and knew her new employers well, so I was confident that her Turkish hosts would welcome her warmly and watch after her.
She had never traveled outside the country and I had warned her about getting homesick and told her she must resist the urge to scurry home after a few weeks.
I could not have known, however, that when she boarded her plane in late January 2011 her adventure would last far beyond the scheduled three months.
How could I have known that it would be more than two years before Aly Neel would return to the United States? That she would fall in love with Turkey and its magnificent city of Istanbul. That she would master its language and become a respected journalist. That she would develop a passion for women’s rights and write eloquently and bravely in Turkish and American newspapers about gender equality.
In less than two weeks, Aly returns to Louisiana, where she will spend a few months among friends and family before embarking on her next great adventure – as a graduate student at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs at Princeton University.
My hearts swells with enormous pride in this amazing young woman’s achievements – not just because she is my former student, but also because I love her like a daughter.
When I stop to think of what Aly has done, I’m astounded. I doubt that at her age I could have even found Instanbul on a map. I would certainly not have been brave enough to leave my home for more than two years to live in a foreign land.
But Aly did.
On a cold January day, she arrived in Istanbul, alone, and more than a bit intimidated. A kind representative of the foundation met her at the airport and deposited her at the apartment of two sisters, one of whom worked for an organization affiliated with the foundation. Neither spoke a word of English. Aly knew fewer than a dozen Turkish words.
Despite the language barriers, the sisters somehow communicated to her that she should accompany them to their parents’ apartment. She tagged along, entering the home to find a gathering of new friends — and a birthday cake.
That evening was typical of the overwhelming friendship and Turkish hospitality she would enjoy over the next two-plus years.
To be fair, Aly would also experience a darker side of Istanbul – the relentless street harassment of woman about which she has written in publications like the Washington Post and the Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman.
But it was the kindness of the Turkish people and the various expats she befriended that sustained her and enriched her new life in a foreign land.
“Istanbul is more than a city to me,” Aly told me the other day in an email. “My first job after college was here. People I’ve grown so close to they feel like family and the wonderful, scary and hilarious memories I’ve shared with them are here. I’ve made a whole life here.”
Aly embraced Istanbul in a way I never imagined she would.
Within days of arriving, she enrolled in a Turkish language class and she attacked the language with the same intensity and single-mindedness that helped her graduate from LSU’s Manship School with honors and a perfect 4.0 grade point average in December 2010.
I visited her in Istanbul in May 2011, after she had been in the country a mere five months. She had not yet mastered the language, but I will never forget what I saw one day in Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar. Standing outside Malatya Pazari – a lovely store which sells the most delicious Turkish Delight — our amazed group watched as Aly argued passionately in Turkish with the clerks, begging them to allow us into their upstairs tea room. After about ten minutes, and much gesticulation, she prevailed. Our group was soon seated and sipping tea.
Aly later told me that learning to speak a new language had forced her to become more assertive, because at first you simply don’t have the skills to speak with nuance. If you want something, you must blurt it out and live with the consequences.
Learning a new language also opened up new doors of opportunity. By late summer, she was gainfully employed as a news reporter for Today’s Zaman, the English language edition of Turkey’s largest newspaper Zaman.
At first, her job was to translate news stories from Turkish to English (who does that kind of thing after only five months in a country?).
Quickly, however, she became a correspondent, reporting and writing her own news stories. That’s what she thought would occupy her time for the next year, about as long as she thought she would remain in Istanbul.
And then came an incident that would change her life, about which she wrote in the Washington Post in January.
While waiting at my bus stop one spring morning in 2011, I watched as a man assaulted a woman in the middle of the street, apparently unfazed by the throng of witnesses mere yards away. When I tried to intervene, the man swiped at me with a knife, and were it not for another bystander who pulled me back, he might well have made contact.
I was shaken and shocked — not only by the brazenness of the crime but also by the indifference of onlookers and the refusal of the police to get involved in a “private matter.” Though I tried, I never found out what became of the perpetrator or the woman he attacked.
Overnight, the treatment of women — in Istanbul and throughout the Muslim world – became her passion. At first, she tried writing about it Today’s Zaman, but her male editors rebuffed her — and some even ridiculed her. She would not relent. Through force of will, she eventually persuaded her editors to began publishing her stories about the harassment and violence experienced by women throughout the Muslim world.
Not long after that, when she discovered that women at the newspaper were not allowed equal access to the building’s gym, she organized a petition that forced the newspaper’s management to give the women more time in the facility.
It’s been almost a year since she left Today’s Zaman to strike out on her own as a freelance journalist (although she still writes regularly for the paper). She’s published pieces in the Washington Post, Outside, and a host of other publications. She’s written raw, passionate stories about her experiences walking the streets of Istanbul.
She even travelled to Basra, Iraq, in pursuit of one story. And she’s devoted considerable effort to writing about the plight of 12,000-year-old Hasankeyf, a small town in eastern Turkey whose existence is threatened by a planned dam on the nearby Tigris River.
There is something surreal about the unassuming beauty and quiet tranquility of this place. Maybe it’s the lush pomegranate trees, twisted with age, seemingly standing guard on every corner. Perhaps it’s the stillness of the dusty roads and stone houses or the certainty of the ancient waterway.
But the most heart-warming and colorful part of Hasankeyf lies not along the river banks or in any of the 9,000 caves, but inside the tea houses and markets — the town’s warm, generous locals, who are happy to sit down and share their stories with visitors. There’s Ali the shepherd, who is also an excellent singer and offered to give us a night tour of the fortress; eco-motel owners Furat, Birsel and their adorable children, who taught me how to dance in the street; and the town imam, whom I chatted with over tea my first night.
To me, Hasankeyf is now more than just a dot on a map. The word conjures up memories of dancing, linked arm-in-arm with giggling girls, at a Kurdish wedding on the top of a mountain; watching a gaggle of young women beat wool with sticks along the banks while gliding down the Tigris on a hand-built wooden raft; and lamenting the imminent destruction of the town with the construction workers of the new Hasankeyf housing. I was only in Hasankeyf for four days and yet I left with such a strong connection with the town and its people I cannot imagine it all being flooded into nonexistence. While strolling along historic ruins, dancing with locals and butting heads with a sheep (seemed like a good idea at the time), the destruction of this town seemed unbelievable, made up even. I found myself saying and even writing, “If the dam project is completed,” in the same voice I’d describe some ridiculous conspiracy theory.
In early May, Aly finally returns to the United States for good, which means she is busy packing and saying goodbye to dear friends and colleagues.
But she is also reflecting on the meaning of the last two years and how it has changed her.
“How haven’t I changed?” she told me when I asked. “Maybe it’s Istanbul, or maybe it’s simply taking a leap, moving abroad and embracing a city, country, culture and language altogether foreign to me. Whichever it is, living here for the past 2.5 years has challenged nearly every part of me. My beliefs, my values, my political ideology. It was here in Turkey that I discovered and pursued my passion for journalism and gender equality.”
Turkey has also made her more guarded, she says, which makes me smile just a bit. You see, Aly is “a hugger” and I remember warning her that, in a Muslim country, hugging people — especially men — would quickly get her into trouble.
“For better or worse, I now am much more guarded in public,” she says. “The harassment that I, along with countless Turkish and foreign women alike, face here on a daily basis (which I know exists in many countries, including the US, but doesn’t make it any less of a problem) admittedly wore me down.
“I changed everything I could about the way I dress and behave on the streets until, nearly two years into living here, I finally realized it made no difference. At times I have to remind myself I have the right to public spaces as much as anyone else and to stop looking down and avoiding eye contact. It’ll be interesting to see how/if my behavior changes once I’m back stateside.”
Much of what frustrates Aly is the way this Muslim country treats women. Turkey is better than most, but still has far to travel until it reaches anything approaching real gender equality.
But living among people of another faith – the country is 98 percent Muslim – has opened her eyes. “It’s just another religion,” she says. “A belief system, set of values. Like many people have. They’re not a faceless group. [They’re] some of my best friends who taught me more about faith and love” than anything she learned in the United States.
“Talk with them. Ask them about their religion,” she said. “You’ll find we’re more alike than different.”
What I most wanted to know from Aly was – with two years perspective – what she wished she had done differently while still at LSU.
“I wish I would have befriended international students,” she said. “I think about how little I knew moving here and many people looked out for me when I moved here (brought me to the doctor and airport, showed me how to put money on my bus card and how to get home, etc.), and I feel ashamed for not reaching out more to students from different countries at LSU. I just had no idea.”
Finally, I asked her what she will miss most about Istanbul. Her answer surprised me.
“More than anything, I think I’ll miss the challenge,” she said. “This is going to sound strange, but I became comfortable with the daily challenges of living in a foreign country. You take for granted simple tasks back home — like calling the plumber or going to the doctor — that can be frustrating (and hilarious!) obstacles when you have to do them in a foreign language. But these daily challenges — and accomplishing them — kept life interesting and kept me growing.”
It occurred to me the other day that even though Aly is returning home to the U.S., she will still be very far away come this fall. But I’m thrilled by the opportunity she has to attend Princeton and know that she will bring much light and happiness into the lives of the new friends she will soon make in New Jersey.
But I miss her terribly and a big part of me wishes she were coming back to stay in Baton Rouge.
If you teach for long enough, you’ll come to know some extraordinary young people. If you let them, they’ll change the way you view the world. You think you’re teaching them, but it’s often the other way around.
Aly was – is — like that for me. There was a time when I thought I was her teacher and she the student. Then, I trekked across Turkey with her two summers in a row and watched how she bravely and skillfully navigated this new country. I watched as she embraced the adventure with complete abandon. And I remember thinking that I could never have been so brave and bold at her age.
As we said our goodbyes on an early June day in 2011, I remember my words to her – just as true today as then.
“You,” I confessed, “are my hero.”