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Untangling American History in Turkey

The following is a guest post by Timothy M. Roberts, an assistant professor of history at Western Illinois University.
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Timothy M. Roberts (second from left) and his class in Istanbul.

American history has gone global in the last few decades as professors have responded to the complications of a post-____ world (fill in the blank) by showing the longue durée of our entanglements with others. “U.S. in the world” faculty positions appear increasingly in job postings. The most important tell-tale of the arrival of a “field” in history, glossy textbooks, now organize the American past (mind you, still in two volumes) by its global context, not its national narrative.

This year I developed a “U.S. in the world” course for the first time—and it included an unusual international element. Its wrap-up actually took place in Turkey, where I had spent six years teaching American history previously. By visiting Turkey, students and I, so I envisioned, could trace the footsteps and impact of our transnational Yankee ancestors, and thus learn more about our American identity and past than we could staying at home. How did it go? Not surprisingly, the course had both successes and shortcomings.

Anticipating administrative skepticism about the need to teach American history offshore I prepared an extravagant course description and bibliography of America-in-the-world sources. But the university administration proved a surprisingly easy sell on the course idea. A sign, perhaps, of globalization’s reach? Recruitment of the requisite number of students, however, proved grueling. Turkey is more politically stable than all of its neighbors, and the dollar is strong against the lira. But perhaps for students in the heartland, Turkey means the Middle East and Islam, not Europe and, well, whatever religion Europeans practice. Yet after a barrage of electronic and paper publicity, visits to colleagues’ classrooms, information meetings, study-abroad course fairs, and some last minute rule-bending about minimum enrollment, five graduate students and three undergraduates not only registered but made non-refundable deposits. One was a Marine veteran of a tour in Iraq. One had gone to boarding school in Switzerland. One was a Mexican immigrant. Two had never flown on an airplane. One had not crossed our state’s borders.

For seven weeks the class learned American, Middle East, and Mediterranean geography; discussed “transnational history”; saw films portraying Turkish as well as American stereotypes; had a guest lecture on “anti-Americanism” by a Middle East scholar educated in London of Italian descent; and met for “Turkish cultural hour” at a local coffee shop with Turkish students enrolled at our university. Parents and significant others concerned about the trip’s safety were welcome. I envisioned the class learning a medley of Turkish phrases to drop on marveling Turks once we arrived, but this went nowhere – and, anyway, locals spoke English many places we went.

On the other hand, my elementary Turkish and familiarity with frenetic Istanbul taxi drivers, while helpful in getting our study-abroad office’s support, perhaps increased students’ sense of incapability and dependence on me. Several, nonetheless, related encouraging anecdotes in journals they kept describing how they devised ways to cope with linguistic and other cultural challenges, perhaps the most important takeaway of a study-abroad experience– one spoke some German, and another a little Arabic to locals; a third relied on his knowledge of world soccer to negotiate a table for our group to watch Fenerbahçe v. Galatasaray in a raucous pub.

I pitched the course as “America in the World: the crossroads of Turkey,” so I was intent to keep our focus on American connections amid our savoring various Turkish delights over five days in Istanbul, two days of travel to and around Selcuk, near ancient Ephesus, and two days in Izmir. Some connections were plausible; some, because they were unplanned, were perhaps most compelling. At Ephesus I recounted the narratives of American missionaries who distributed evangelical tracts there in the 1820s, and a lecturer at Yașar University in Izmir narrated a Turkish perspective on the Jupiter missile crisis of 1962 – how different then, when Turks in the city demonstrated against removal of U.S. missiles. To emphasize both America’s religious lineage and early global philanthropy I organized another lecture by a Turkish professor at Istanbul’s Boğazici University, founded by an American missionary in 1863. The topic was supposed to consider American missionaries’ impact in Turkey, but discussion quickly veered towards recent comparative and transnational politics: how U.S. state authority under the Patriot Act has provided context–even legitimacy–for Turkey’s on-going crackdown on political opposition. I can’t see how the class, staying in an American classroom, would have heard that sobering perspective on our country’s recent cultural exports. And nighttime calls to prayer prolonged some students’ jet lag but also prodded them to ponder public religion in the two republics.

Other American connections were a stretch, or failed wonderfully. To remind students of America’s youth I pointed out that Sultan Mahmud I donated his exquisite library we saw in the Hagia Sophia in the year 1739 – whaddaya know, exactly four years after John Adams and four years before Thomas Jefferson were born. Wandering among the dazzling jewels, crowns, and swords on display at the Topkapı Palace given to the Sublime Porte by foreigners, we mused why there were no gifts from the American government – and if Americans had offered gifts, what would they be? Meanwhile, at least once, my America-in-the-world cover was entirely blown: after leaving one museum or bazaar a student exulted, “Dr. Roberts, I know this had nothing to do with American history, so thanks so much for showing it to us!”

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