Interview: Professor Etem Erol
Written by Bwog Staff
Ever wanted to take Turkish? Now you can, thanks in large part to Professor Etem Erol, whom Bwog correspondent Omar Siddiqi sat down for an interview last week.
As I understand it, you weren’t always a Turkish professor, but in business before. Why did you switch into the world of academia?
Well, that was another life time. In my previous life, I did have an MBA in Finance, but then I switched. I always wanted to study history but social pressures led me to study for an MBA. I worked in that field for 12 years, but at the age of 40 I decided to change my direction. I’ve never looked back after that.
By training I’m a historian, and the connection to language actually came with the need to learn Ottoman Turkish, in order to study my own history. After learning Ottoman history I ended up getting into languages. Proper training in Ottoman Turkish requires knowledge of Arabic and Persian, so I got into learning languages because of that. As I was teaching history, I was actually called by other universities to teach history there. I began at Columbia teaching Ottoman Turkish. So, that’s the language connection.
Since then, well, I made a fateful decision. Some people convinced me that I should expand into Turkish, not just Ottoman. I’m very happy that I made that decision. On the side I don’t mind going to other schools like NYU, in other words, I still get my kicks teaching history. I don’t feel that teaching language, especially in advanced levels, makes me too distant from history. Even in elementary levels, the subject of a historical context comes up. I have no intention of teaching Turkish for tourists. Etymology still interests me, as well as teaching Turkish within a cultural context. I find that to be exciting; in the final analysis, who wouldn’t want to talk about himself? I find that in class I am constantly talking about myself. I don’t approach teaching in a mechanical fashion. I don’t have much respect for the word private; I go with the word public. I like talking about myself; I like myself. There are different ways of teaching language, but my choice is teaching language within a cultural context. In advanced, that becomes even more prominent.
I think that a lot of students are unaware that there is a Turkish program; can you talk about its development?
Thank you for asking that. Let me say at the beginning that I cannot ask for full credit for the development of Turkish here; there have been many people from whom I’ve received a lot of support. Also, there’s been a growing interest in Turkish studies. For example, Orhan Pamuk is somewhere in and around our department. He has yet to stop by the building, I don’t think he knows where we were, but he’s part of MEALAC.
When we started Turkish at Columbia three years ago, I had 8 students, which became 16, which became 22, and now I have 30. If you add Ottoman, we have almost 40 students. Again, there are many factors for this development. I can certainly claim some of the credit. A lot of muscling, a lot of eleven hour days non stop, six days a week non stop, organizing events, bringing speakers. I keep telling everyone, the only thing I haven’t done to promote Turkish here is bringing belly dancers and organizing wrestling matches. Other than that, I’ve done practically everything. Here’s the thing. Before I started teaching Turkish here, all the students would go to NYU. Two years after I started working here, in the middle of the semester, students would say, “Oh, you are teaching Turkish here too!” So it was an uphill battle.
Now, I don’t have that problem so much. One thing, though, is I would like to have more freshmen in my classes. But there are certain folks who come in the third year, which, if they want to master Turkish, they are going to need three years. There are very encouraging signs. A lot of students take Turkish because they want to work with Nader Sohrabi or Rashid Khalidi on Turkish or Ottoman history. And I am grateful to Khalidi, because he emphasizes that if you are going to learn about the modern Middle East, you have to understand the context, meaning you have to know Turkish to access the archival materials.. In that sense, Turkish is a developing, well rounded program. Our slogan is that everyone in New York will speak Turkish and be a Fenerbache fan, Fenerbache being the glorious Turkish soccer team.
Has anyone complained about the placement of Turkish within MEALAC as opposed to with European languages?
It never crossed my mind actually. Perhaps some of the so called European department languages should be part of MEALAC as well. Turkish is, like the Semitic and Indo-European languages, a category by itself. Is this a prelude to get my opinion about Turkey joining the EU?
No, no, I promise it’s not.
I come from a tradition. My training for this job is that I learned Arabic and dabbled in Persian a tiny bit as well. My basic reason for learning Arabic was to improve my Ottoman, which is actually to improve my Turkish. So Turkish being part of the Middle East, that’s a very natural designation. What else could it be? In fact, most of the time, especially teaching my students with some nationalist heritage, etc., it totally amazes me that the new generation of Turks is completely unaware of the amount of give and take that took place between Turkish, Persian, and Arabic. I get exactly the same sense from the Arabic and Persian speakers in my class. Not a day goes by that we don’t cover 5-10 words that are heavily borrowed. Most of the time it’s so embedded that the same word has become part of all three languages.
It’s beautiful to see the overlap of those cultures. But then again, it’s very difficult to cross over those nationally determined boundaries. Let’s face it, the Turkish Republic, Iran, and the Arab counties have had a distinct period of “cleansing,” that is still being continued, and it certain points it becomes ridiculous to divide along national borders and to attempt to rediscover essentialist linguistic groups. And I enjoy ridiculing those efforts to divide and segregate. There is a Turkish saying, that before a tongue touches a tongue, you can’t learn that tongue. That is it; there’s no give and take without that.