Lucia Holliday Buie
Monday, October 12th, 2009 was a deeply thrilling day. The President of Turkey, Abdullah Gul, came to Meliksah Universitesi in Kayseri to officially open our school with a red ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Before his arrival, walking to work that morning, I could see that the construction crew and cleaners had worked around the clock throughout the weekend. Myriad improvements had been made since Friday. I noticed streamers on the street lamps, streamers cascading from the corners of the university building, giganda bright red Turkish flags toweling down the buildings as well as full-color banners of Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, and President Gul.
Overnight, large silver sculptural letters adorned the buildings proclaiming their names and the faculty (college) designation. Standing sculptural elephant tusks bordered the path the President would walk.
Looking out my office window at mid-day Monday, I observed a colony of ant-sized people scrubbing, sweeping, hauling potted trees in, and on and on. Throughout the day, men or little boys ran up carrying these huge faux floral tributes that looked like American funerary displays, tripled in size. An obligatory red carpet swam its way between the red velvet rope lines.
Dozens of police and presidential guards (in glorious black and red) scrutinized the campus, clearing the building where the president was to speak, and whisked in a subdued, diligent German Shepherd to ferret for bombs. Around 4 pm, all the faculty were summoned to don blue and orange robes the tailor had sized us for a week earlier. Outside the building, masses of suited men waited. I asked where the women were for the president's visit and got this jocular response from a colleague: “His purpose is not to pick up a woman today.”
Gul, who is from Kayseri and a PhD academic by training, is the first devout Muslim president in modern Turkish history. He was controversial when he assumed office in 2007, because there was some question whether he would be able to pledge support for the very secular Turkish Constitution, which demands separation of mosque and state. Gul's wife, whom he married when he was in his late twenties and she was 15, wears a headscarf in public. Whether women should be allowed to do that at work and at school is a matter of intense debate in Turkish society. (See Wikipedia profile of Abdullah Gul.)
The president arrived with a battalion of men – guards, staff, and hundreds of nearly all-male supporters in the audience -- while the media rigged up the live feed.
In the university website picture, I am looking nervously at the photographer, another teacher. He had courageously jumped over the velvet rope line to take the picture. It made me uneasy because of all the police and secret service (or Turkish equivalent to the secret service) . Alas, because Turkey is still a military state to some degree (according to my friend), the beribboned, bemedalled, very serious-looking Chief of the Armed Forces accompanies the president everywhere. I thought it best to sit very still, and not make any sudden movements, so this other teacher's movements alarmed me. Obviously, he was more experienced attending events with heads of states than I was.
Men Holding Hands
One of the oddest things I saw - and typical of Turkey - was two Secret Service types with curly wires coming out of their ears and looking very macho and fit (as their American counterparts would) whispering together while holding hands. To my American sense, this was so strange. Turkey is not a place where you would ever flaunt your gayness. Contrarily, boys and men hold hands, walk arm in arm, sit together with one's head resting on the other's shoulder, etc. That’s the way it is here and, being an American, it’s new to me.
Stirring Opening Anthem and Inspiring Conclusion
Before President Gul spoke, the crowd stood up to sing the national anthem. It was deeply stirring to me – all these somber, black-suited men singing, conjuring images of a baritone-voiced Russian men’s chorus from the days of the Czars, or for the Turks, the proud days of their beloved founder, Ataturk.
After the president’s speech, various university contributors were announced and came forward to shake his hand, to speak briefly, and receive an award. A very old man, introduced as “Professeur Docteur...”, came up on stage and shook another honoree’s hand before being redirected to the president. One of my Turkish colleagues translated his speech for me. The Professeur Docteur spoke of when there were so few universities and professors, that he would teach at 10 different universities within the same week. One day’s example began with a class in Istanbul, boarding a plane for the next class in Trabzon on the Black Sea, and then boarding yet another plane to teach a third class in Ankara that same day. My colleague said that was why she loved listening to stories from older Turks – so much has changed so rapidly.
Alex, Lucia, and Jim, just before the ceremony, and with Eileen Walter (below, photo by Arzu Dogan).
- Meliksah University Slide Show on President's Visit. Photos there and most of the ones above by colleague by Courtney Smith
- See Wikipedia profile of Abdullah Gul.