The Stories They Told: Michael’s Turkey

By THO Team Member, Caelan Elliot

This narrative is part of The Stories They Told, an interview series exploring the experiences of American students studying in Turkey and Turkish students studying in the U.S., to promote greater understanding between Turks and Americans and find the common threads of human experience which unite both unique cultures.

Who would have guessed that a twenty-nine year old completing his PhD in Tech Design at Koc University would have a keen interest in history, a heart for refugee work, and a rich appreciation for a hot drink on the Bosphorus ferry? 

Some might consider Michael’s entrance to Turkey a fluke. A European fundraising tour for the Palestinian refugees he was working with near Bethlehem brought him an invitation to stay in Konya, Turkey, and work with children there—and a year later would find the man in Istanbul, a city he praises repeatedly for its eclectic diversity, and a country of interest for the hobbyist historian because of its imperial history.

Contrary to his expectations, Michael did not encounter many speakers of Arabic as a second language, nor did Turkey offer the abundance of falafel he enjoyed in Palestine as a vegetarian. Indeed, his diet was a challenge throughout his early years in Turkey, spent in an apartment mutfaksiz—devoid of a kitchen in which to prepare Turkey’s abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables! Despite the initial struggle, he truly fell in love with Turkey’s relaxed ambiance. 

According to Michael, the U.S. he left in the early 2000s was, if not a hostile place, at least an unwelcoming one. He saw friends and family of other ethnicities suffer. He saw a lack of understanding and a mischaracterization of those who were different from the majority. In fact, when he left for Palestine, loved ones gave him knives for self-defense and sorrowfully wished him their final goodbyes. Unlike many, Michael came to the Middle East with no political ideology; few expectations; no grandiose plans to make a tangible impact on society. He brought along only a glimmer of a thought, small and unobtrusive, yet stone-solid, dependable: 

I wanted to show the world that this part of the world and Muslim countries in particular are not any more dangerous than any other place in the world. I had a broad expectation that people live there, and therefore there must be ways to live, and I would find those ways when I got there.

Michael loves that Istanbul is “full of all different kinds of people”—Iranians, Pakistanis and Syrians who come for University, Africans who come to play football with the national teams, and many Europeans as well. He laughingly remembers watching a cricket match in a parking lot as he strolled home one evening—“probably Pakistanis or Bangladeshans.” In contrast to the limits of American public transport, Turkey’s simple and comfortable bus system gives Michael the sweet pleasure of leaving behind the bustle of the city for weekend holidays in the peaceful villages of the countryside. 

Although Michael found Turkey an easy and welcoming place to enter and live as a foreigner, he did not stop at that minimum threshold. He wanted to do something difficult, to compete with the locals, to get a job. Determinedly Michael has done this, building a life and name for himself in academia as an expert Virtual Reality developer and marrying his Turkish wife.

Michael wishes that his family would come visit him more, his friends. He is disappointed that more Americans will not come—“I wish it wasn’t always Turkish students going to the U.S. for a semester; American students coming for a five-day holiday.” 

The vitality of Turkish culture is captured with a snapshot of Michael’s experience there.

The ferry across the Bosphorus is singularly the most invigorating experience you can have in Istanbul. I used to go out of my way, take the long route, to take the ferry ride. You get your tea, on the big, public, spacious ferry, and take your time... I could have gone to Egypt, but I didn’t want to go to Cairo—it’s too big and crowded. Istanbul is just as much so, but the one thing it has is the Bosphorus, and the fresh air, and the water; the hills, the cliffs, the forest, the trees along the seaside. I’ve never failed to appreciate any time I was on the ferry going across, drinking a hot sahlep of crushed orchid roots and cinnamon on a cold winter’s day, gazing at the aqua-marine, turquoise blue of the sea.

Who would have guessed that a twenty-nine year old completing his PhD in Tech Design at Koc University would have a keen interest in history, a heart for refugee work, and a rich appreciation for a hot drink on the Bosphorus ferry? Certainly not me. But maybe that is exactly the point. If we can venture beyond the confines created by our own minds, we may find a person—or a country—to be far deeper and more beautiful than we might have guessed.