An Interesting Summer in Istanbul with Professor Sylvia Önder


CERES Professor Sylvia W. Önder has been in Istanbul, Turkey throughout this tumultuous summer as Project Director for the U.S. Department of Education’s Fulbright-Hays GPA with the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT) for Advanced Turkish Language at Boğaziçi University.  This year, the program selected 18 ARIT-BU Fellows from around the U.S. for the full packet of funding — including undergraduate and graduate students and one faculty member.  With two terrorist attacks against tourists in Sultanahmet on January 12, and in the Taksim area on March 19th, the lead-up to our orientation in Turkey was stressful.  Various other summer programs were cancelled or moved out of Turkey.  As our program takes place in the bucolic campus setting of the former Robert College (founded in 1878 by American Protestant Missionaries), far north of the center of Istanbul and behind the castle built by Mehmet the Conqueror, we were happy when classes could begin as usual.  Our 18 ARIT-BU Fellows were a significant and highly-qualified addition to the total of 37 summer language students.

Our first security meeting took place the day after the Atatürk airport bombing on June 29th, which killed more than 40 people.   Since we all had been through that airport recently, and since many had guests planning to come during the summer, the airport attack was a hard blow to morale.  The horrific attack that killed 84 in Nice, France on the 14th of July made it clear that terror is not confined to a single place, but was not reassuring to the families of our participants.  Life took on a tinge of paranoia as social media outlets created and bounced about theories about which national security advisories meant the next attack was imminent.

And then came the night of July 15th, a Friday at the end of a long week.  A friend called from Ankara – “Are you OK?” “Sure, why?” “We have jets flying over and I can hear explosions” “No, nothing like that here…” Until the jets started flying over and the TV announcer began to read in a strained voice a statement from coup plotters that the government had been taken over.  Social media, which remained available to any who had a Virtual Private Network (VPN), was alive with photos of clashes on the Bosphorus Bridge, reports of explosions at the Parliament Building in Ankara, and speculation about what was unfolding.  One of our undergraduate ARIT-BU Fellows living close to Taksim Square called at about 3:30 a.m. to ask me what I thought they should do – stay put even though the glass on neighboring buildings was shattering from noise and a chanting crowd had formed in Taksim?  Leave everything and run down to the edge of the Bosphorus?  As I was getting more information from him about what he could see in the streets below, a military jet blasted over my head in the direction of Taksim.  I heard a massive boom on his end of the telephone… my worst fears seemed possible… were military jets being used on civilian targets?

The boom, it turned out, was a sonic one, not caused by explosives.  We hunkered down for the rest of the night, all glued to our tv sets and Facebook, Twitter, and Whatsapp accounts.  We fielded concerned messages from friends and family.  The airport was clearly the worst place to go, since it had changed hands more than once and was where President Erdoğan was arriving from his interrupted vacation in Marmaris, calling supporters into the streets from his telephone as he flew.  The U.S. State Department recommended we shelter in place.  Because of our various forms of communication, I was in touch with all program participants — except one — by dawn.  The last participant had slept through everything and e-mailed me when she woke up later in the morning. Things were quiet during the day on Saturday, except in the media, where eye-witness reports and breaking news swirled in a tornado of speculation.  As the sun went down, though, flag-waving crowds chanting “Allah-u Ekber” (among other slogans) marched through neighborhoods on the way to the main squares, as requested by President Erdoğan.  There were reports of the beheadings of soldiers on the bridge, countered by opposing reports of civilians and police taking pity on the conscripts who seemed to have thought they were in a routine exercise rather than a coup attempt.  It seemed best to stay out of any crowds…Turkey 1

After consulting with the Boğaziçi University staff, we decided to call our second security meeting of the summer for Monday morning.  We wanted to get everyone together, go over the events, make sure everyone had the proper advisories, see if anyone wanted to move to the dormitories, and resume classes to calm nerves.  The government seemed to be firmly in control of the public sphere at this point, with a few areas of unusual activity such as in the area around Erdoğan’s vacation hotel where a small team of would-be assassins was pursued, and alarming comings and goings from Incirlik Airbase in the South East.  But in Istanbul, businesses and museums were open, public transportation was made free-of-charge to encourage citizens to get back to normal life, and the Turkish flag appeared with pro-democracy slogans on all billboards and many homes and businesses.  The slogan that appeared right away everywhere was “Hakimiyet Milletindir” a slogan used by the government of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk in 1923 to mean that governance (or hegemony) belongs to the people.  In the commentary of many pro-government voices, the participation of the public in the prevention of the coup on the night of July 15th serves as proof that the people are finally able to protect their own democratic control of government from attacks by factions in the military and from evil-doers like Fetullah Gülen.

The Gülen network, until 2013, was operating in concert with Erdoğan’s A.K. Party in the realms of education, foreign policy, law enforcement, the judiciary, and others.   The opening of 37 Turkish embassies in the continent of Africa, for example, was coordinated with the educational and charitable work of the network.  Diplomatic relations with and media coverage in the United States have been heavily influenced by the network, which runs at least one charter school in at least half of the states of the U.S.A.  When the “break-up” came, both powerful men, each accustomed to total loyalty and unquestioned obedience, embarked on a quest to eliminate the other.  For American students studying abroad in Turkey, it became essential to understand that an overwhelming majority of Turkish citizens believe that the US government itself, or at least the CIA, was involved in, or at least supportive of the coup attempt.  And that the word “Pensilvanya” has come to stand for the Gülen network, since Fetullah Gülen lives in a small town in the state of Pennsylvania.  The official Turkish government term for the network is now the “Fetullahçı Terör Örgütü (FETÖ) which comes from an ending on the first name of Gülen, creating a meaning like “Gülenist Terror Organization”.

Fethullah Gulen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan (Source:
Fethullah Gulen and Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The continuing suppression of media and academic freedoms, begun long before the coup attempt, gained steam in its aftermath.  One result is that the Turkish citizenry has an ever-narrowing range of analysis of events in the Turkish media at the same time as a growing awareness that foreign press is almost exclusively negative about recent events in Turkey.  This split awareness is made possible by the near universal use of the internet and a wide range of social media.  Although they are usually on holiday by this point in the summer, Turkish academics are following with a sense of dread the wholesale sacking of university deans and the call back of academics from outside the country to their public universities where they must sign statements that they have no connections to FETÖ.

On Sunday, August 7th, there was a massive rally at Yenikapı (the name means “New Gate” and the organizers used this to suggest the start of a new period characterized by unity between the political parties although the pro-Kurdish and liberal HDP was conspicuously not invited), and a Turkey with “one heart”.  At the end of the rally, President Erdoğan asked the crowd to affirm his wish that the nightly “protection of democracy” rallies in main squares around Turkey be discontinued as of Wednesday.  This means that our ARIT-BU program will end together with the nightly rallies.  It has certainly been an interesting summer…



Further Reading:

Being Different in Turkey: Religion, Conservatism and Otherization by Binnaz Toprak, İrfan Bozan, Tan Morgül, and Nedim Şener (PDF)

Interview with Dr. Jenny B. White as coup was unfolding: “How Turkey Came to This”

An insightful piece on the shake-up before the attempted coup by Reuban Silverman: “Some of the President’s Men”

A political view from the soccer pitch: “Erdogan vs. Gulen: Power struggle comes full circle in Turkish soccer”

Dani Rodrik’s blog: “Is the US Behind Fethullah Gulen?”

Al-Monitor “Is Erdogan really stronger after failed coup?”

“Turkey Chooses Erdogan” by Christopher de Bellaigue

A (Mid)summer in Sweden by Valentino Grbavac


When I found out back in February that I had been selected as one of three Wallenberg Fellows from Georgetown University, I jumped up and down for joy. Ever since I had heard about this amazing fellowship, I had dreamed of becoming a fellow. After the first few moments of complete euphoria and sheer happiness, I started wondering and asking questions. What will the summer be like? Where will I intern and what will I do there? What places will I visit during those three months? What will my first Midsummer celebration look like? I had so many questions, and later on as I packed my suitcase and left DC for Stockholm, so much planning and so many expectations.

Now, after more than half of my summer in Stockholm is over, I have to say that this experience has surpassed even my wildest expectations. It has been full of fun, adventure and above all, learning. I could have not imagined a better experience, and I am eternally grateful to the Wallenberg family, and everyone else involved, for this unique opportunity.

In May, I started working at Ericsson’s PDU Radio Products unit in Kista, a suburb of Stockholm often called “Sweden’s Silicon Valley.” Most of Ericsson’s R&D facilities are in Kista, and it has been exciting to work with the brilliant people who are developing 5G technology there. When I began my work, I had some a trouble communicating with my co-workers, to be completely honest. I have no background in engineering, and almost everyone around me has an engineering degree and speaks mostly in technical abbreviations and industry-specific lingo. Every second or third word I heard was an industry-specific acronym. During some meetings, I wondered if the person presenting was indeed speaking in English. Still, step by step, and with help from my gracious co-workers (who gave me a crash course in radios, hardware development, lean engineering and agile development) I learned so much. In what seemed like no time at all, I was able to speak the secret language of the ITC engineers. This experience made me realize the true value of MAERES courses. Through these, I have developed analytical skills and the critical thinking required to succeed in any field. After gaining these skills, with a bit of background knowledge, I am able to easily jump from analyzing Russia’s foreign policy to analyzing organizational structure and performance at a big international company. The vocabulary might be different, but the grammar is the same.

Ericsson’s PDU Radio Products Office Building in Kista where I spent most of my days this summer.

After becoming acquainted with PDU Radio Products, I began to work on projects. My first big task was to provide outsider feedback to help the unit transition to Ericcson’s new business model which is based on lean engineering. Another project I was tasked with was to find a better way to measure the efficiency of hardware development and the overall productivity of the R&D unit. I also explored the effectiveness of different agile methods, such as cross-functional teams, Kanban boards, “war rooms” and PULSE meetings. All of these projects, together with day-to-day operations, made me realize that I really enjoy operations consulting. Thanks to this experience I may pursue a career in this field.

What I have enjoyed most about the experience, apart from it being an immense learning opportunity, is how open and accommodating the company is and how kind and interesting my co-workers are. I have not been treated like intern, but rather, as an equal. In the US, it is unlikely that an intern would end up in a meeting with senior management to discuss strategy and trajectory. This is exactly what happened to me here in Sweden. My co-workers are not only a source of information about the technical side of the job, but also great guides to Swedish culture.

When we were not talking about the UEFA European Championship, they were telling me all about their favorite museums, the must-see places in Stockholm, about Swedish cuisine and culture, and about the best places to celebrate Midsummer. I took their advice and explored much more of Stockholm than I would have simply by following guidebook recommendations. For Midsummer, I took the advice of one of my colleagues to be adventurous and see out how Danes celebrate the holiday (even though, he reassured me, Swedish Midsummer festivities are the best ones in all of Scandinavia). I spent my Midsummer in the historic Nyhavn district in Copenhagen, somewhat sad about Croatia being kicked out of Euro Cup by Portugal, but nonetheless enjoying my first Midsummer festivities.

The historic Nyhavn district in Copenhagen was not only gorgeous, but also a great place to celebrate Midsummer in a traditional Scandinavian way.
The historic Nyhavn district in Copenhagen was not only gorgeous, but also a great place to celebrate Midsummer in a traditional Scandinavian way.

In July, it seems like all of Sweden migrates to the sunny beaches of Southern Europe. Most of my coworkers took a month-long vacation, so I also had some time off. I managed to visit some of my closest friends from the high school I attended in Italy. I visited Turkey, Macedonia and Romania and caught up with my friends in their home countries. It feels good to be back in Eastern Europe. It was very interesting to see architecture in each city and to experience the way that Istanbul, Skopje and Bucharest function, especially after having taken an excellent course on socialist and post-socialist cities by Professor Smith. I would recommend this class to all of my fellow MAERES students. It was also exciting (and at times scary) to be in the region during the failed coup attempt in Turkey and to receive first-hand information and insight from my Turkish friends about the subject.

Rested from this trip, I returned to (a still mostly empty) office to wrap up my projects and get ready to leave for home in the middle of August. I know that I will miss Stockholm once I am back in DC. It has truly been a fulfilling experience outside of my comfort zone of Eastern European politics and history. I hope to make the most out of the few weeks I have left here. It has been an incredible summer filled with learning, fun and both personal and professional growth. All that happiness and excitement I felt back in February has been more than justified by my experience thus far.

 A view of the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia taken during my summer vacation.
A view of the Blue Mosque from Hagia Sophia taken during my summer vacation.


Valentino Grbavac is a rising second-year MAERES student.