Hagar Gomaa, Koç University Exchange, Fall 2013
Is this school on top of a mountain or something?! That was my first thought as I rode from the airport to Koç University. The university is situated in the northern most district of Istanbul. From my dorm room, I have a view of the Black Sea. It takes about 20 minutes on the minibus to travel from the neighboring district of Sariyer to Koç and the whole journey is uphill.
My first week in Istanbul was a whirlwind of new experiences. Meeting people from all over the world has definitely been one of the highlights of being abroad. My Turkish mentor took me and my other exchange friends into the neighboring area of Sariyer to purchase essentials including sheets, snacks, and a Turkish phone. I spent my first couple of days wandering around in Sariyer with the other exchange students. There are many cafes and restaurants on the Bosphorus strait in Sariyer and the view is simply breathtaking.
I visited common tourist areas such as the Blue Mosque, Aya Sofia, and Topkapi Palace. I was especially fascinated by the Aya Sofia which is a church that was later converted to a mosque. It has paintings of Jesus right next to Islamic scripture and I think this is a beautiful image of religions coexisting.
One of the difficulties about being in Turkey is my limited Turkish. Although all the courses taught at Koç are taught in English, most of the staff that works in the student center and dorms do not speak English. I have slowly been improving my Turkish by chatting with the staff in the student center and with people I meet in cafes or restaurants. Turkish people are incredibly friendly and helpful! During my first few weeks I did not have a transit card that is required for all bus and metro services, so I relied on strangers to swipe their card for me and I gave them cash. Most of the people I encountered were happy to swipe their card for me and refused to take the cash when I offered it!
Istanbul really is where east meets west. My university (as well as most major tourist attractions) is on the European side of Istanbul. The Asian side of Istanbul is more residential and many of the Turkish students’ families who attend Koç live on the Asian side. I did not venture to the Asian side until my third or fourth week because it can be a long journey which requires the minibus, a bus, and the ferry.
Taksim square is the center of all nightlife and shopping! The first time I walked through Taksim, I was amazed by how many people were able to walk through one street. I felt like I was in a scene from a movie because every street vendor, club owner, restaurant waiter, and kiosk owner was calling to us to buy something or to come try their product. Of course, Taksim is also a very touristy area. Many of the street vendors speak some Arabic and they recognized that I was Arab and would speak to me in Arabic.
“Where are you from?” is the first thing Turkish people ask all foreigners. My identity as an Arab American can be an anomaly to some people. I always respond with American and wait until they ask, “but where are you really from?” before explaining that I am also Egyptian. Most of the time they are fascinated to meet a practicing Muslim American and ask me some questions about being born and raised in a non Muslim country and wearing hijab. I am always happy to answer and to refute the stereotype that all Americans are white.
Koç University has a beautiful campus although it is a bit secluded from central Istanbul. To travel to Taksim square it takes about an hour and a half by public transportation and 50 minutes by taxi. I like my classes and especially enjoy my courses in Turkish Language and in Ottoman History. It can be difficult to travel further than Sariyer during the school week, but luckily I have Fridays off so I make use of the weekends to explore Istanbul. One of my goals moving forward is to travel more during the week. In my next blog post I will detail my travels across Turkey during my week off from school.