Graduate Research in Istanbul
Kent Schull is a UCLA graduate student in History. He and his family of five (now six) spent two years in Istanbul, where he conducted dissertation research with support from a Fulbright-Hays grant.
Published: Sunday, September 19, 2004
Istanbul is called the city of two continents and the crossroads between East and West. Its charms, beauty and history are legendary. Tens of thousands of tourists visit each year to view its sites, taste of its delicacies, and experience its unique culture and setting. However, living and researching in Istanbul is very different from a whirlwind two-week tour. Many a taxi driver has told me “Istanbul hayati çok zordur” (Life in Istanbul is very difficult), and after nine months of living here with my spouse and three children, I fully agree. It is very difficult, especially with small children, but it isn’t devoid of wonderful enjoyments and memorable experiences.
My first real experience in Turkey was during a summer intensive Ottoman language program on a small provincial island off Turkey’s Aegean coast. For six weeks I lived and studied in one of the most beautiful and peaceful settings in the world. The produce and the food were exceptional and the people as warm and inviting as any I had ever met. I was excited to bring my family to Turkey to experience this wonderful country, culture and people.
When we arrived in Istanbul during the worst winter in fifty years, and shortly after the terrorist bombings of the British Embassy and the HSBC Bank, we quickly realized that there is an enormous difference between visiting and living here. Life has been very difficult at times and we have often felt, especially during the initial period of adjustment, like fleeing back to our comfortable surroundings in Los Angeles. There were the usual adjustments you have to make whenever you live abroad, such as acquiring the language, getting an apartment, using local transportation and finding the basic necessities like good chocolate, but with a family everything is more difficult.
My family came to Turkey with no knowledge of the language. I knew academic Turkish well but my Turkish vernacular was weak. Our personalities and comfort zones have been continually stretched in ever increasing degrees as we tried to rent an apartment, get residency permits, find a school for our two eldest children, deal with Turkish bureaucracy, become accustomed to Istanbul’s traffic and transportation, find health care, have our fourth child, shop, pay bills, have some fun, and amidst all that conduct my dissertation research. In short, we’ve been learning how to live here on our own.
Housing can make or break your experience in any country. Our first flat almost broke ours here in Turkey. It was located in Cihangir, which is known for its cosmopolitan atmosphere, inviting cafes, great nightlife and beautiful view of the Bosphorus. Cihangir is a short walk from Taksim, the commercial and transportation hub of Istanbul. We lived within a hundred meters of three supermarkets, a green grocer, a butcher shop and several corner markets. Taksim Hospital and the German Hospital and numerous pharmacies were only blocks away. We were minutes from the famed Istiklal Caddesi with its wonderful shops, bookstores, restaurants, movie theaters and pickpockets. We enjoyed the convenience and centrality of Cihangir, but it isn’t suitable for small children. There are few places for them to play and very few children live in the area. The streets are crowded and dirty, there are no sidewalks to speak of, and those that do exist are usually occupied by merchants’ displays and parked cars. On top of all this, Cihangir and Taksim are not the safest of parts of Istanbul. Burglaries are common. If you’re single or with a partner, then Cihangir can be a great place, but there are many other centrally located neighborhoods that are more suitable for a family.
We now live in Ortaköy which is mainly a family area with many children and good private and state schools. It lies along a major transportation artery with access to both Taksim and Eminönü where the central train station and the main docks are located. It’s quiet and much safer, and it’s probably the closest you can get to suburbia here in Istanbul. There are nice parks close by and we live on a cul-de-sac where all the neighborhood kids congregate to play together. It’s really wonderful and we enjoy our flat and our neighbors. Other places that are great for families and not expensive are Kadiköy and Üsküdar on the Asian side of the Bosphorus and Besiktas on the European side.
Most people deal with a real estate agent (emlakci) when they rent an apartment. Emlakcis are everywhere and they are not necessarily the most reputable business people. They work for the owner of the apartment and they charge you a large finder’s fee, usually a month’s rent. If possible, find an apartment to rent directly from the owner. The best places to look are the Hürriyet daily newspaper and Sahibinden.com. You’ll find many options and get a sense of the going rates and what’s available. Another good resource for all things Istanbul is MyMerhaba.com. Although geared toward wealthy expatriates, this site has a great deal of useful information.
A word of advice: it’s best to pay rent in Turkish Lira, and don’t rely on the word of the owner or the emlakci, get everything in writing. Renting a flat in Istanbul is not like renting an apartment in the States. The renter is responsible for repairs, and deposits rarely get returned. When a flat is listed as unfurnished, it means just that. In most cases there is absolutely nothing in the flat, including appliances. It is suggested that you use your deposit as the last month’s rent. Another tip: be aware of the proximity of the nearest mosque when you look for a flat. Our first place was just twenty-five meters from a mosque, which meant that we were awoken every morning between 4:00 and 5:00, and the noise from the other four daily calls-to-prayer was literally unbearable.
Getting around Istanbul can be a harrowing experience but also a fun adventure. I prefer to walk wherever I can. I’m not one who likes to wait for a bus, but for most people hoofing it is not a reasonable option. Istanbul’s public transportation system is inexpensive and well developed. You can take a bus anywhere you want to go. There is limited train and subway service, which is in the process of being expanded.
I’ve found that the most inexpensive way to travel is to use an Akbil. This is a small magnetic device that you can charge with credit, and it’s designed to attach to a key chain. When you pay your fare with an Akbil you get a 10% discount and it’s good on any bus, train or subway in the city. Istanbul’s main commercial, shopping and transportation centers are Taksim and Eminönü. Most buses run to, through or from one or the other. Bus stops are clearly marked for which buses stop there. Because most people use the bus system, the buses are often very crowded, so watch your wallets and purses.
Another transportation option is the famed Istanbul taxis. They are literally everywhere and they’re much cheaper than taxis in the US, but many drivers will try to take advantage of a foreigner. Some will tamper with the meter and really overcharge you if you aren’t paying attention, but I’ve found most of them to be pretty decent people, especially when you’re warm and friendly to them. A taxi during normal daytime hours (6 am to midnight) currently starts at 1,050,000 Turkish Lira. This is the equivalent of about 75 cents in US currency, and you should be charged about 70,000 Lira (5 cents USD) per 100 meters. This is definitely a viable option if you’re in a hurry or traveling with a group of people.
The third great option is the dolmus or shared taxi, a mini-van that carries 8 to 10 people and charges a set rate to get you from point A to point B. They ply between most major areas and .pick up and drop off at pre-designated stops. They’re less convenient than a taxi or a bus, but they’re still a great option because they’re cheaper than a taxi and quicker than a bus.
A few words to the wise: Istanbul traffic is crowded and crazy. It can easily be as bad as New York or LA on any given day. Istanbul is huge with a population of some 12-15 million, and traffic rules are meant to be broken. In fact, the only traffic rule here is that there are none, yet it makes some sense in an ironic sort of way. Drivers are more alert and drive better than drivers in the US, because they have to be prepared for anything at any time. Oh, and one other thing: pedestrians never have the right of way! Do not try to impose this American custom on Turks. You may not live to regret it.
For traveling around Turkey, the bus is the cheapest option. Bus companies run multiple daily routes around the country, and the buses are comfortable and air-conditioned. The major lines are KamilKoç, Pamukkale, Varan and Metro. I’ve used all of them and have been quite satisfied.
In terms of visas and residency permits, there are a number of options. If you’re going to conduct normal archival research or you’re coming to learn the language, don’t spend the money for a research visa or a student visa. They’re expensive and unnecessary. The archives and the libraries are open to the public. You don’t need a research visa to access the Ottoman or the Turkish Republican Archives. You do need one if you’re going to interview human subjects, conduct research on medical topics, produce a film, etc.
Right now a simple tourist visa is $20, having recently dropped from $100 USD. This will give you access to the archives, it’s good for 90 days, and it can easily be renewed by going to the Greek or the Bulgarian border (about a 4-hour bus ride one way). That being said, however, things can change and policy is often reversed.
If you do pay for a student or research visa, you must obtain a residency permit within 30 days of entering the country (this isn’t required if you’re on a tourist visa). The residency permit can cost a significant amount of money. For a single person it isn’t too bad, only another $40 or $50, but with a family such as mine, the permits cost an extra $1000 USD over and above the cost of the visa.
A residency permit does make it easier to get a land phone line in your name, for example, but it isn’t always necessary. And beside the enormous cost of the permit, there’s the sheer hassle of dealing with the ultimate in Turkish bureaucracy. It’s a nightmare! You’ll be required to go back multiple times for various and sundry reasons. No one seems to know or care to tell you what you need the first time you ask for the permit. And the Turkish bureaucracy has the motto “Don’t do today what you can put off until tomorrow.” Often you’re told to come back tomorrow for something that could easily be done today. Luckily we have some wonderful friends who helped us find our first apartment, get residency permits and deal with many initial adjustments. Here I would be remiss not to thank the Fulbright Commission in Istanbul for their incredible and untiring support and assistance to us.
Heaven forbid you ever get your passport or residency permit stolen, but if you do you’ll need to replace them and that’s a real pain! After finally getting our residency permits, I was returning home and had them stolen by two pickpockets. It was a nightmare. I had to go and fill out a report with the local police and then reapply for the permits. I thought perhaps I would only need to pay for the residency booklets again, but no, they wanted half the original price for the replacement permits. I was astounded. I would recommend just living here on a tourist visa if possible. It’s much easier and you get an excuse to travel every three months. Obviously it can be more expensive if you have a large family like I do. The choice is up to you.
If your children are of school age, then you need to think about schools for them. Turkey’s school system is very different from that of the US. Children start the equivalent of kindergarten at age six and grade school at age seven. Public education is mainly based upon rote memorization and immense amounts of repetition. But there are a variety of different schools in Turkey, ranging from international to private Turkish to state or public schools.
MyMerhaba has a wealth of information on schools. The international schools are extremely expensive, but this is where most foreign nationals send their children because the curriculum is in English or another major Western European language. Most international schools cost around $15,000 USD per child per year. Private Turkish schools are usually pretty good and cost between $2,700 and $6,200 USD annually. Turkish public or state schools are free, but they’re very crowded and discipline is usually absent. Most Turkish nationals do all they can to send their children to private schools. I believe a residency permit is required for all of these schools, especially the state schools.
We wanted our daughter to learn Turkish, make friends and experience Turkish culture. We couldn’t afford an international school so we sent her to a private Turkish school. At first it was very difficult for her because the school was unequipped to teach a foreigner Turkish. They had her writing Turkish words all day long and no one explained to her or showed her what the words meant. The school day is usually very long (8:30 am to 4 pm), so most days when she came home she was too worn out to try to keep up with her American school curriculum that we had brought with us. After a month we pulled her from the school, hired a private Turkish tutor in order to ramp up her Turkish, and my spouse began home-schooling her.
We were pretty sure we would be here for two years so we felt good about our daughter getting enough Turkish via the tutor so that she could fit in at a public school in the fall. This appears to have been the correct strategy. She has really picked up the language quickly, especially since we moved to an area with many more children. She’s outside with them every day using her Turkish and learning more. By the time school starts she’ll be perfectly fine.
We’re still debating whether to put her back in a private or a public Turkish school. At this point we’re leaning toward the public school, and taking her out early each day and supplementing her education with an English language arts curriculum and math. Our second child is approaching six years old and he’s eligible to start a kindergarten program here. Most public and private schools offer such a preparatory course for children. Wherever our daughter ends up going to school, we’ll probably send our son there too.
If you want to improve your Turkish or your partner/spouse wants to learn some Turkish, there are many options, from private tutors to formal programs. Private tutors can be expensive, but you can find many people who will swap English lessons for Turkish. The two major commercial programs that teach Turkish as a foreign language are the state-run Tömer program and Dilmer, a school that broke away from Tömer. Both have branches near Taksim, and both offer beginning, intermediate and advanced courses. They have month-long courses that run four hours a day, five days a week, with either morning or afternoon classes. Tömer has the better reputation, but it’s slower paced and more expensive. That being said, both have good programs that are reasonably priced. I took a few courses at Tömer and my spouse took a course at Dilmer. The teachers at both schools are competent and the facilities are good. If you’re starting Turkish from scratch, the entire Tömer program (beginning through advanced) will take a year, while the Dilmer takes six months. Personally, I found it too hard to spend twenty hours a week sitting in class when I have so much research to do. Both programs occasionally offer classes that run four hours a day, three days a week, but those are rare.
If you’re strapped for cash because your scholarship isn’t sufficient to support a family, then don’t worry too much. You can supplement your income nicely by teaching English, especially if you give private lessons. There are numerous English-language institutes in Istanbul and they’re always looking for native English speakers to teach courses. The pay is not exceptional, but they give you the opportunity to make connections for private lessons which are much more lucrative, with a going rate of around $20 USD an hour.
Teaching English was fun for me: not only did it help us make ends meet, but it was a great way to meet Turks from many backgrounds and get to know them. It also allows you to set your own schedule and still have time for research and/or language classes. One institution that’s always looking for native English language instructors and is run by very nice people is the Turkish-American University Association. They don’t pay very well but they’re a great organization that offers inexpensive English classes for people from all walks of life. I taught two semesters there and enjoyed it.
If you get sick or have an accident, your best health care option would be one of the numerous private hospitals. Turkey does have state hospitals with very competent doctors, but their facilities are not the best and the standard of care is low. The private hospitals, on the other hand, especially the American and the German Hospitals, are exceptional in terms of facilities, technology and care. Our children have been sick several times and one of them even needed stitches, and we found the health care to be satisfactory and even exceptional. The prices are reasonable, indeed much cheaper than in the States. These hospitals can also refer you to private doctors such as OB-GYNs or pediatricians, etc. We’re having our fourth child while here in Istanbul, which has been another adventure in trying to find the right doctor and hospital. My best advice to you is to contact the International Women of Istanbul. They have a great deal of information and contacts for just about everything you could need, especially in terms of family issues like health care, dentists, play groups, etc.
We’ve had the opportunity to have a lot of fun and see some great things while here in Istanbul. It’s a fabulous city that’s also very crowded and dirty. If you like the normal touristy things, be our guest, but we quickly grew tired of being hustled and hassled because we stick out as foreigners. People will definitely try to take advantage of expatriates, so beware! There are many beautiful parks, large and small. Our favorites are Yildiz and Gülhane. These are large open areas that tourists rarely visit. That means you’ll get some time to yourselves and enjoy some peace. There’s plenty of open space for children to run and play and get away from the crowds and the noise of the city.
In addition to the parks, nothing beats a walk along the coast between Ortaköy and Bebek. On weekends this is one of the most popular activities among locals. It’s a beautiful way to spend the day. All along the shore there are small playgrounds for the kids to stop and enjoy. You’ll see lots of fishermen and jellyfish. Plus you can stop at any time to relax and get a little something to eat. From Ortaköy you can also hop on a boat and take a short ride up and down the Bosphorus. It costs about $3.50 USD and kids are free. In fact, children up to age seven are free for most things in Istanbul, including public transportation.
If the kids are really itching to go to an amusement park of sorts, then I recommend Miniatürk, which is also free for kids. It’s one of the neatest places in Istanbul because it has miniature replicas of the most famous and historic places in Turkey. You really get a nice feeling for all that Turkey has in terms of culture and history. Plus it gives you great ideas for short trips outside of Istanbul. There’s a large playground and picnic area and even a little train the kids can ride around the park. It makes for a really nice inexpensive day for the family.
If you want to get outside of the city and see some of the amazing sights around Turkey, it is definitely possible with small children. Our kids are real troopers, because this summer we took about three weeks and traveled around the Aegean region. We went exclusively by bus, which was inexpensive and quite comfortable. We stayed mainly in pansyons, which are small bed and breakfast type places, usually without air-conditioning or television, but cheap and clean, and the owners are usually really friendly and inviting.
Our favorite place to visit was Bergama (Pergamum), the ancient birthplace of medicine. This is one of those out-of-the-way places where few tourists go, but the ruins are every bit as good as the most famous sites like Ephesus. We had a great time and our children experienced some very special things that they will always remember. Besides Bergama we saw Troy, Ephesus, Pamukkale, Miletus, Hieropolis and many other great and ancient places. It was really a memorable experience.
In terms of safety, I would again caution you against pickpockets and swindlers. Do not trust people you meet on the street. This may be cynical, but most people will try to take advantage of a foreigner. Beware of anyone who tries to follow you to your place of residence, especially in Taksim. Both my spouse and I have had people try to follow us home and get money from us. Be aware of who is around you and watching you. You may feel like you’re being paranoid, but this is not a bad thing when it comes to your family’s or your own safety.
When shopping, there are always two prices for everything, the local and the foreigner price. It can be very annoying, but don’t take it personally. They do it to everyone. If you want to be treated well, get to know your neighborhood shopkeepers. They’ll usually treat you right because you’re their regular business and they can’t afford to have you telling the neighbors they treat you dishonestly. I’ve had the pleasure of becoming very close friends with some of the local shopkeepers and every day I look forward to paying them a visit or greeting them as I pass by. This is one of the nice things about Turkey that we have really enjoyed. You can be part of the neighborhood and that feels great.
Turks really love children and believe in spoiling them rotten. Our kids have been the biggest hits in Turkey, especially our towheaded two-year-old. He literally gets candy thrown at him every time we step into a shop. People just can’t keep their hands off of him. He has opened more doors and softened more hearts for us than anything else. One day we were walking around Ortaköy and a little old lady saw him and said “Günes geliyor” (The sun is coming) and then proceeded to pinch his cheeks and smother him in kisses. It’s really sweet to see the joy that children can bring into people’s lives here.
And now, finally, we come to the real reason I’m here in Istanbul, to conduct my dissertation research. First of all, let me say that a happy family, a comfortable place to stay, knowing your way around, good fun, relaxation and safety all lend themselves to a healthy research atmosphere. Istanbul is an incredible environment to conduct research. The resources are amazing and exciting. Getting access to the archives and the various libraries has not been a problem.
One of the first and most important things you need to do is figure out where your sources are. I’m working on Ottoman prisons during the Young Turk era, and the vast majority of my sources are in the Basbakanlik Osmanli Arsivi which is located on the Golden Horn in the tourist-infested Sultan Ahmet area. This is the main archive for all things Ottoman. The sheer number of documents and the wealth of information are overwhelming. Many time periods are very well catalogued. You can also search the online catalogs (registration is required but it’s free), which include not only Ottoman documents but the Turkish Republican Archival holdings as well. They’re an amazing but incomplete resource, and that’s why I still prefer the hard catalogs.
I spend the majority of my time every day in the archives searching the catalogs, requesting documents, examining them and having them photocopied. This can be expensive, with photocopies averaging 15 to 20 cents apiece, but I found it indispensable to have copies of important documents that require close examination. The archive allows you to photograph documents that can’t be photocopied, but you need to get special permission. The archive staff are wonderful people and very helpful, especially if you’re kind, not demanding, and try to speak to them in Turkish. You can order a maximum of twenty-five dosya (folders) a day. The dosya include anywhere from one to over a hundred documents, so you can really see a lot of things in a day.
Summertime is the most crowded and the most difficult time to get things done at the archives. Because there are so many researchers in the summer, requests are processed more slowly and it takes longer to get your documents and your photocopies. Keep this in mind when arranging your research trip and planning your schedule. From mid-June to mid-August, it takes about a day and half to two days to get requested documents and about the same amount of time to get photocopies. For the other ten months of the year, documents and photocopies are produced much more quickly. If you order documents first thing in the morning, you can usually get them later that same day, and copies usually take only a day to obtain.
Just recently the Ottoman Archives started opening their doors on Saturdays, so now you have an extra day to get your work done. This is helpful if you’re short on time. For your information, the archives are open from 9 am to 4:30 pm, Monday through Saturday. The hours do change occasionally, for instance, when I first got here they were open from 8:30 to 4:30, then they switched to 9 to 5. It seems they like to play musical working hours. The archives also periodically offer courses in reading the various types of Ottoman script. The cost of a course that meets two evenings a week for eight weeks is around $40 USD, which is really a great deal, but the courses are completely in Turkish. The archive staff can also refer you to private tutors if you want personal attention.
There are a number of very good libraries around Istanbul, both private and public. The private libraries, i.e. the German Oriental Institute, the American Research Institute in Turkey (ARIT), and the Center for Islamic Research (ISAM = Islam Arastirmalari Merkezi), have very good holdings and, with the exception of the German Oriental Institute, accessible working hours.
The Oriental Institute is located in Cihangir and is only open on Wednesdays, which is inconvenient, but the holdings are pretty good and the people who work there are great.
ARIT has a nice facility in Arnavutköy. It’s a little far from the Ottoman Archives but several buses run back and forth between Arnavutköy and Eminönü which is within walking distance of the archives. ARIT’s hours are 9 to 6, Monday through Friday. Beside its very good holdings, it also has rooms to rent for short stays. The best and cheapest time to stay is any time but summer. If you want to stay there you need to let them know at least a month in advance when you’re coming and for what reason. Dr.Tony Greenwood directs the Istanbul branch of ARIT, which also has a research center in Ankara where the Turkish Republican Archives are located.
ISAM is located in Üsküdar. It’s air-conditioned and it has the longest working hours (9 to 8). It is well funded by a grant from the Saudi government and has very good holdings, especially in terms of periodicals. All of these libraries have good English- and Turkish-language collections of secondary sources on Middle East history, politics, languages and the arts.
Some of Istanbul’s public libraries also have great Turkish-language periodicals and secondary sources, and many periodicals from Ottoman times. The main libraries are the Atatürk Library in Gümüssuyu (Taksim), the Beyazit Library in Beyazit, the Millet Library in Fatih, the Tercüman Gazetesi Library in Topkapi, and the Süleymaniye Library in Süleymaniye. The Atatürk Library is easy to access and you can even borrow books. There are also numerous university libraries around Istanbul that possess good collections of Ottoman-era documents and periodicals.
In order to prepare yourself to find all the Ottoman periodicals you’ll need for your research, get your hands on the Istanbul Kütüphaneleri Arap Harfli Süreli Yayinlar Toplu Katalogu: 1828-1928 (Union Catalog of Periodicals in Arabic Script in the Libraries of Istanbul) by Hasan Duman. This catalog was published in 1986 by the Research Center for Islamic History, Art and Culture (IRCICA) of the Organization of the Islamic Conference. This is an amazing catalog that describes all of the periodicals in Arabic script printed in the Ottoman Empire from 1828 to 1928, and indicates which libraries in Istanbul hold which issues of these periodicals. It is an absolutely indispensable resource for Ottoman research during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
It has been a real joy for me to conduct my research here. Now that my family and I are really settled in a great apartment, we’re happy. I’ve found an overwhelming number of incredible sources in the archives. The key to my research now is narrowing my topic down and getting it written up.
Well, I hope I haven’t scared you away from wanting to conduct research in Istanbul. It really is a wonderful city with warm and inviting people. Like everything else, there’s always a period of adjustment as you learn your way around and get accustomed to a new culture, language and way of life, but be patient with yourself and remember that most things in life are what you make of them. What most excites me about spending all this time in Istanbul is what I’m giving to my children. They are getting opportunities I never had, being able to live in a foreign country, learn a new language and culture and have their minds opened to new ways of looking at the world around them. It has been an incredible learning experience for all of us and we are better people for it. One of the neatest things is that we get to stay here another year and really enjoy the fruits of our initial investment. We finally feel like we know what we’re doing.
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Kent Fielding Schull