The Stories They Told: Allan’s Turkey, More than a Black Box

By THO Team member, Caelan Elliot

“I’ve been here approximately seven years, I guess, six or seven  years, I can’t remember exactly when I came… I’ve been a long time in Turkey.” Allan Dell, a first year PhD candidate in Ankara, has a casual, take-life-as-it-comes demeanor that is evident right from the start of conversing with him.

Originally from North Carolina, Allan never planned to be in Turkey long term. With a hunger for travel and thirst to see the world, Allan applied to a broad internship program that might have sent him anywhere on the planet—“wherever chance takes you,” as Allan describes it—and it placed him right in the middle of Turkey to teach English. Before this, Allan knew next to nothing about the area; “as you say in America, I was flying by the seat of my pants…I’m always just going around to new places.”

Allan really had no expectations going into the experience. “I was curious; I had no idea what I was getting into. I didn’t know where I was going to live, I didn’t know anything. I just got on the plane and hoped for the best. All I had was one girl’s phone number that was going to take me from the airport.” Apparently Allan was supposed to be heading to Istanbul, but after 15 hours of flying he was greeted with the abrupt news that plans had changed—he was heading to Kocaeli! It seems that short trips have a tendency to become longer ones in the mysterious land of Anatolia. After the specified period of teaching English, Allan would continue his education there, studying Europe and the Middle East. He loves how open and welcoming Middle East Technical University (METU) has been—“It’s like paradise, odtü, the best place in the world.” (Below- the stadium at METU with their slogan Devrim, Turkish for Revolution

Because in many areas people do not speak English, Allan has learned Turkish by necessity and through experience. “I can speak Turkish pretty well, but I’ve never really gone to a Turkish class…I can talk to people in the market; I can talk to the taxi driver; life has taught me Turkish.” His first year there as a teacher, though, was a bit difficult in the language arena. Michael describes how he would go to “speaking cafes” to find English speakers. “I would go to the speaking cafe to find people who speak English, but the problem is…everyone tries to get you to teach them a lesson!” he says, laughing. “If you go to the speaking cafe and you’re an American, you cannot escape!” 

Something that Allan has come to love about Turkey is that the people there “feel things more deeply. The music is more intense; it’s like a painting that has darker colors. I don’t know how to explain… There’s something very beautiful about Turkey. From afar it’s like this scary box, a dark scary box, you’re afraid to open it—but when you open it, it’s full of colors.”

“I’ve lived six years of my life here, with these people.” Allan says that when some people first come to Turkey and walk into the streets, from their American conditioning they are trained to think that certain environments are dangerous. Some streets may have dogs and cats wandering about; some buildings may not look as nice as others. But Allan says that over time, he has discovered that “these are really nice people. It is safe. I feel safer in Turkey than in America. Everyone is more welcoming and open than I expected them to be.” (Below- METU lets street dogs come into the library to escape the cold of winter)

No place is perfect; they all have their skeletons in the closet. But Allan has seen variations and shades in the color palette of human nature. “There are some people here who aren’t very  understanding of different cultures, but there are also people who are understanding of other cultures. I’m doing research with Syrians right now, and they have an idiom that you shouldn’t judge the hand for the finger. Just because one finger is bad, another finger might be good… you should judge the hand for the hand.”

Allan’s time in Turkey has taught him that you cannot truly know a place or a people until you have been there and spent time with them. Too quickly, he says, we judge others—particularly in this region of the world—without knowing anything about them. When we look at something that is unfamiliar or foreign to us do we see simply a black box, the apparent darkness? Or do we see the potential beauty of hidden light and color and understanding that can dawn if we will only choose to look and to listen?