I was born in 1969 in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My father is a (now emeritus) professor at the University of Michigan, and in 1976 and 1983 my parents and I spent two six-month sabbaticals in Paris. In 1975, I spent the first half-year of kindergarten in Ann Arbor, and the second half of the year in Paris. In the eighth grade, we likewise split up the year. Then I got to spend a summer with a French family in Normandy in 1986. These experiences had a big impact on me, and I think they played a role in my decision to attend McGill University in Montreal and then, after graduation, head off to Europe with a backpack in the spring of 1992.
First trip to Turkey
My goals for the trip were twofold: I wanted to both have a good time and find a job. I had enough money to travel for four months, so I wasn't too discouraged when, after a few weeks in Italy, I was unable to find employment as an English teacher. While I had considered Italy because I had studied Italian at university, I was also very eager to find work in eastern Europe, especially Prague, Budapest, or one of the other capitals of what people then thought of as the "new" Europe. After Italy, I traveled through Greece for five weeks, and then set off for a few days in Istanbul.
On my way from Greece to Istanbul, a number of delays forced me to make small changes in plan. A customs strike in Greece kept me in Alexandroupolis for six days, and then once the border did open I was unable to board the bus leaving for Istanbul because it was already packed with people who, like me, had been waiting a week for the border to open. I ultimately took the train, but even here there were some unexpected detours. At three in the morning, after we had passed through customs, I was awakened by the conductor, who told me that I had to get off the train. I bridge was out, and I would have to continue my trip to Istanbul by bus. Along with eight other foreigners, who like me were given special treatment by the Turkish train officials, we were placed (ahead of all the Turkish train passengers) on the first bus leading to Istanbul, about a three-hour ride away. Boarding a crammed bus, all nine of us were able to sit down as several men and women, sitting towards the front of the bus, immediately stood up to offer us their seats. I felt ridiculous taking the seat of a thirty-something woman, but was completely exhausted and did not argue with her generous offer.
I dozed off and woke up after about an hour. The sun was rising, and I made eye contact with a kid sitting next to me in the window seat. He spoke English, and explained he was studying Dentistry at a university in Istanbul named Marmara University. "I am Bülent,” he announced with a smile, and we shook hands.
The biggest disadvantage to arriving in Istanbul by bus, particularly in those days, was the inevitability of arriving at the much-maligned Topkapı bus station. This was the main bus station on the European side of the city, but there was nothing about it which appeared to me as a “station” when I first set eyes upon it. I could discern no center, no main hallway or tower, and felt quite disoriented. Moreover, Topkapı was really far from Sultanahmet, which is where all of the tourist sites and cheap hostels were located. When we got off the bus at Topkapi bus station, Bülent offered to take us all to Sultanahmet by bus.
Bülent bought us (municipal) bus tickets and found which bus to take, then herded us all aboard. It took over an hour to get to Sultanahmet, and we were all starting to feel pretty wiped out. It was fun chatting with Bülent, though, who had lots of questions and answered our questions about Turkey and his life. We finally arrived in Sultanahmet, and Bülent helped us find the hostels we’d circled in our guidebooks.
Once we’d found the places we were looking for—we all stayed in a couple of hostels that were right next to each other, so there wasn’t much trudging around—we thanked Bülent for his help and asked if there were anything we could do for him. One person in our group, an annoying British guy, wanted to give Bülent some money. Bülent was, of course, mortified by the offer, but asked if we would like to spend time with him later on during our stay. We all said certainly, and agreed that we would meet up in front of our hotel at noon three days later.
After three days, Bülent showed up. The others who had benefited from Bülent's assistance the first day had, over the course of seventy-two hours, decided to blow the meeting off, so I waited for Bülent by myself. He showed up right at noon, and asked if I’d be interested in meeting his friends. I said “sure,” and off we went.
We walked down the steep streets of Cağloğlu to Eminönü, on the European banks of the Bosphorus. From there we took a ferry to Kadıköy, on the “Asian” side of the city. After taking a minibus from Kadıköy to Göztepe, we finally arrived at the gates of Marmara University, where a police officer was standing with a machine gun in his hands. The university, which had been founded recently after the unification of three smaller schools, was in the process of expanding and the Göztepe campus was brand new. It was literally under construction, and even someone like me--who had spent his entire life around universities--could not recognize the site for what it was. Bülent took me across the muddy campus, and I caught the attention of a number of the students standing in the garden. It was a beautiful day, one of the first days of spring, and a lot of people were out enjoying the good weather. A number of Bülent’s friends stopped him, and Bülent introduced them to me. They all knew who I was and that I was coming to campus.
I had assumed we’d just go sit down somewhere to drink tea and chat, but Bülent had apparently spoken to his English teacher about me. Marmara, like a lot of other universities in Turkey, is an English-medium university. If a student is accepted to the university but does not know English very well, it is possible to take a year-long intensive course in English. At the end of the school year, if the student passes (what was then) a pirated copy of the TOEFL test, it is possible to begin the next year in the department that had accepted them, studying their major in English.
Bülent was in one of these TOEFL-type classes, which collectively were known as the “prep” school (a direct translation of the Turkish, hazırlık okulu). He had, after our initial meeting, told his teacher that he would be meeting me again, and she had apparently then insisted that he bring me to class. While everyone in the class had been expecting my arrival, I really had no clue that I was about to walk into a class until the moment Bülent opened the door. Indeed, I had followed Bülent into a darkened, seemingly empty building, wondering why he was taking me to such a crummy place to drink tea when all of his friends were hanging out outside.
[Bülent had kept telling me we would meet his “friends,” but only later (after I learned some Turkish) did I understand that he had been directly translating sınıf arkadaşları (literally, “class friends.”) into English, so I hadn’t really been expecting to see his classmates in class].
So, I was surprised when, after Bülent knocked at the door, it was opened by a very pretty woman standing before a class of eager young students. Dikmen explained that she had been looking forward to my arrival, and that her students were all very excited to meet me. She then said that she wanted each of her students to ask me a question. (In other words, a pretty easy lesson for Dikmen that day!).
During the course of my interrogation I was struck time and again by the incredible level of respect, even awe, people seemed to feel for me simply because I was from a place far away. None of the students seemed bored at all to be a captive audience to the inane ramblings of some dude their classmate had literally picked up off the street. On the contrary, they were all extremely polite and eager to test their skills against a new foreigner, someone who wasn’t a teacher (almost all of the native English speakers they knew were teachers at the prep school). A few of the students even lost their breath a little bit, or became extremely nervous and agitated while speaking, but I tried to be supportive and it was all a lot of fun. They asked me the classic questions I would get asked a million times in Turkey. Where are you from? How many brothers and sisters have you got? Do you know who Atatürk is?
One kid asked me what my “job” was. I told him I didn’t have one, but that I wanted to find a job as an English teacher. This brought responses from several students at once. “Great!” “You should work here!” “Yes!” Dikmen then said, to my astonishment, that she would talk to the director of the prep school at breaktime, which was in about ten minutes.
After class, Dikmen and I went to the office of the director. He was a guy named Marvin, I later saw that he had advanced degrees in the teaching of English as a second language, and his look was rather skeptical. Fortunately for me, Marvin was leaving his post in a couple of months, and so any decision on personnel would have to be made by the incoming director, a Scotsman named Gordon. Gordon seemed more optimistic about the propspect of my teaching English there, and after chatting with me for fifteen minutes and ascertaining that I did have a university degree (I had to send them a copy of it before I actually started working there), he offered me a job.
The job would start in October and it was still only April, so, I continued with the rest of my trip. I spent the next couple of months slowly making my way north through Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, before returning through Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Slovenia and back to Italy, where I flew back to Michigan in June. Over the summer I worked in Ann Arbor, and in October I flew back to Turkey carrying a backpack, a suitcase, and $1000. I was twenty-three.
Living in Istanbul, 1992-1999
In all, I would work seven years in Istanbul. I spent only one year at Marmara, then left after they ripped me off to the tune of $5000 (a long story). After that, I found a great job in a language school on the European side, and worked there for another six years. At first I worked at the school full-time, but after a couple of years I collected a number of private students. The school was very good about letting me work the minimum number of hours (people earned a lot more teaching privately, so everyone's goal was to work enough hours at a language school to receive a work permit without losing out on too many private lessons).
The last four years I was in Istanbul, I was able to work a few days a week at the school, and the rest of the time I was free to ply my trade on the open market. It was very remunerative, and very interesting, and my work schedule was super. Basically, I could work whenever I wanted. Sometimes I would go through stretches where I’d be working seven days a week, and some nights I would work until eleven o’clock or later. On other occasions, I’d work less. In the summers, the language school closed down, and I’d straggle on with a few private students through July, then take off someplace for a couple of months. Every year I did some summer traveling, usually backpacking for six to eight weeks before rolling back into town mid-September. In October, the school year would start up again.
While in Turkey, I spent a lot of time learning foreign languages. When I was a kid I'd learned French pretty well and had studied Italian for two years in college. During my first year in Istanbul, however, I didn't learn much Turkish. Part of it was that I wasn't sure how long I'd be staying there--I'd been thinking in terms of one or two years, but really had no further plans. Also, the fact that I had gotten chisled out of $5000 in my first year didn't really make me inclined to pay money to learn something.
During the summer of 1993 after having spent my first academic year in Turkey, I started going out with a girl, who, while foreign, spoke Turkish well and was taking advanced classes at the government-subsidized language school, Tömer. One day I accompanied her as she went to sign up for an advanced class, and before I knew it I was signing up for 'Basic Turkish I,' a simple 80-hour class that met four hours a day for four weeks.
I ended up taking just one course at Tömer, but it gave me the basics I would need for further improvement. Indeed, in that class you learn the three main tenses and all of the cases, so from that point forward it's mainly a question of learning vocabulary and some of the more unusual grammatical forms. In 1993-94 one of my jobs was teaching English in a high school where most of the teachers didn't speak English very well. Armed with my basic Turkish from Tömer, I was able to learn more and expand my vocabulary. By the time I left Istanbul, most of my friends were Turkish, and I'd reached a very high level of proficiency. Mostly, I found that going out to restaurants and bars with large groups of raucous Turks was the best way to pick up conversation and comprehension skills.
But I also worked hard at learning Turkish. I took private lessons for about six months, and after the private lessons ended I read the newspaper Cumhuriyet almost every day. For a couple of years I was in the habit of writing out sentences using grammatical forms I didn't understand very well, then showing the sentences to my friends for correction. Towards the end of my stay in Turkey, in 1998, I would go back to Tömer to take their proficiency exam as a means of demonstrating my level in Turkish (I was applying to do an MA at the time). I scored a 96 on the exam, so I guess I had managed to learn something during those years.
When I was in Turkey I also studied a number of other languages. In 1995, after the breakup with a girlfriend, I was commiserating with a friend in a bar. I'd just come back from a two-month trip through southeastern Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Israel, and was talking about all of the Russians I'd seen on the streets in Aleppo. I'd been to Russia, in 1993, and in Ukraine and Moldova in 1994, and was interested in learning Russian. Fresh from my breakup with this girl, I mentioned to my friend that I wanted to learn Russian, a hobby to take my mind off my social life. My friend responded that, at the university where he worked, they had just hired a Russian teacher and that one of the unsuccessful applicants lived right in my neighborhood. He gave me her telephone number and I called her up right away.
Tatiana was around fifty and was from Kharkov, in Ukraine. She'd taught at the local institute there with her husband, who was Azeri. After the collapse of the USSR they didn't receive their salaries, so her husband accepted a job in Turkey, at Adana University. In Adana Tatiana had learned Turkish, and her daughter--who had attended the American school there, was currently a student at Istanbul University (which is why they had moved to Istanbul). Now the husband was doing business between Russia and Istanbul, and Tatiana didn't have much to do other than watch over her daughter, so she seemed happy to have the chance to teach someone Russian.
I worked with Tatiana for a couple of years, then had a succession of other teachers after she moved back to Ukraine. By the end of my stay in Istanbul, I could read Russian okay but couldn't really speak it or understand it very well. In 1998, after I'd been studying Russian for a couple of years, I took a trip to Russia and traveled around for two weeks, then spent two weeks in the Baltic Republics, speaking Russian just about everywhere. It was great. Nevertheless, it was only at Princeton, where I took intermediate and advanced Russian, that I really began to learn how to pronounce things better.
In Istanbul I also studied Hungarian. This was because I learned, in March of 1993, that I was the father of a Hungarian child. I thus began making trips to Hungary at around this time, and within a few years decided to study the language systematically. Once again, I was very fortunate with regard to teachers. I put up an ad in the Hungarian Consulate, which happened to be in Nişantaşı, not ten minutes from my apartment. After a few days, a girl named Helga called.
Helga was from Szeged--the same city where my daughter lived--and had studied Turcology at university. She had come to Istanbul the previous year in order to perfect her Turkish, and had been working as an interpreter (she also spoke German and some English) at the German Hospital. As was the case with Tatiana, my common language with Helga was Turkish, but soon we were speaking mostly in Hungarian. By the end of my time in Turkey, I had studied Hungarian for about two and a half years. Then, in 2001 (the summer between Princeton and Brown), I got a grant from ACTR-ACCELS to study intensive Hungarian at Debrecen University. At Debrecen, I tested into one of the advanced classes, and completed the coursework with honors. Since that summer, I've taken conversation lessons on a one-on-one basis with a few Hungarians I've encountered in Princeton, Providence, and Istanbul, and have tried to keep up with it despite the fact that my daughter and I now mostly speak English with one another!
Travel was another important part of my time in Turkey. Every summer, I went somewhere. In 1993 it was Russia, the Mediterranean coast of Turkey, and southeastern Turkey. In 1994, I went backbacking for two months through Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Moldova, Romania, and Bulgaria, and in 1995 I traveled for six weeks through southeastern Turkey, Syria, Jordan, and Israel. In 1996 and 1997 I twice backpacked through the Balkans, taking two two-month trips through various places in Greece, Albania, Macedonia, Kosova, Serbia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria. In 1998 I flew to Moscow, traveled through Russia for two weeks, went to the Baltic Republics for two weeks, then returned overland to Turkey via Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Croatia, Bosnia, Croatia again, Hungary again, Romania, and Bulgaria. In 1999, right before returning to the US to take up my studies at Princeton, I took a five-month trip through India, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and China. I flew back from Beijing to Budapest and then traveled overland through Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria, and arriving in Istanbul three days before the earthquake of August 17, 1999.
Finally, I also started doing some writing in Turkey. In all, I published seven or eight articles on current events in Turkey and the Balkans, mostly during the years 1996-1998.
By the time I started pushing thirty, I was starting to get a little tired of the life I was leading. It was a good living, but I didn’t want to be working by the hour for the rest of my life. I had been thinking of graduate school for some time, and in 1998 applied to a number of master’s programs (I’d been out of school too long to even consider a PhD program yet), mostly to regional studies programs in Russia/Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do with a master's degree. Perhaps I would do a PhD later on, perhaps I would do something else--I really didn't know. Mostly, I wanted to do something that would hopefully direct me towards a career in which I would be drawing upon the skills and experiences I'd acquired over the previous seven years. I was interested in both history and politics, so applied to regional studies programs. A number of these focused upon the Middle East, because I was interested in Turkey and the Ottoman Empire, and a number of these programs concentrated on the former Soviet Union and "Eurasia," as I was also interested in Russia and the Balkans.
One day in the middle of February I received an email from the secretary in the Department of Near Eastern Studies. I had been short-listed for Princeton, meaning they were going to fly me in from Istanbul in order to take part in a two-day marathon involving language exams, interviews, and a ten-minute presentation in front of the other applicants, current graduate students, and faculty.
Indeed, I had already made reservations to fly to New Delhi, and was just a couple of days away from buying the ticket. After hearing from Princeton, however, I changed my reservation and bought another ticket--this time with Princeton's money--for New York.
It was a pretty intense trip. In seven years, I'd only been back to the United States once, in the summer of 1997. The department put me up in a hotel with a guy who took off right after his interviews--leaving the room to me. The night before my presentation I walked around by myself in the falling snow, eventually going into a bar and watching a hockey game on tv for the first time since college. The next day, I gave my presentation, then flew to Detroit to visit my parents before heading back to Turkey. No matter what, I still planned on traveling for five months through Asia before starting graduate school in the Fall.
When I found out I'd been accepted to Princeton, it was tough to say no--after all, I'd gone through all the trouble of preparing a talk and going through those interviews..and after all, it was Princeton. I'd also been accepted to Indiana and Michigan (Russian studies in the case of Indiana and both Russian and Middle Eastern Studies at Michigan). Even though going to the U of M had been my secret dream, in the end I chose Princeton.
The MA program at Princeton is two years and includes the writing of a thesis. Mine was entitled Memory and political symbolism in Post-September 12 Turkey: a history of the May 27th debate and was about the political rehabilitation of a prime minister, Adnan Menderes, who had been overthrown in a coup in 1960. The "September 12" in question, if anyone is curious, refers to the date of the 1980 coup, the brutality of which led many to re-assess their understanding of the role of the 1960 takeover, which had traditionally been viewed as a "good" coup. (Today, I would say that sympathy among "secular" intellectuals in Turkey has probably swung back towards the idea of the "reform" coup, unfortunately).
At Princeton there were both good times and bad times. The library was one of the best things about Princeton and was something that I didn't properly appreciate until my move to Brown. My classmates at Princeton were also very inspiring. Orit Bashkin, Yoav di Capua, and Justin Stearns were just a few of the truly talented people I was able to study with, and I made a number of good friends both in my department and elsewhere.
There was a lot of generosity at Princeton, with regard to both time and money. Thanks to Princeton, I was also able to begin studying Ottoman Turkish. Erika Gilson and Şükrü Hanioğlu were both generous with their time in tutoring me in printed Ottoman Turkish, while the department and another office on campus financed my trip to Ottoman Island, the six-week "Ottoman Summer School" organized on Cunda Island by the late Şinasi Tekin. Also of great importance to me was the school's decision to award me a fellowship for the second year in the MA program, something that I did not have when I was first accepted.
At the same time, it was at first hard for me to adjust, at age thirty, to being in school again. For eight years I'd been living on my own, traveling the world, and always earning more than I needed. I'd had about $10,000 in the bank when I started at Princeton, and that was after eight years of never thinking twice about the money I was spending. Yet in an instant, I'd traded a two-bedroom apartment in Tesvikiye for a dorm room at Princeton. All of my savings was gone, and I had incurred about $30,000 in debt overnight. I shudder to think what state my finances would be in today if I hadn't been given a fellowship for the second year.
Perhaps most difficult of all was that, after having the same job for seven years and slowly garnering more and more experience, suddenly I was in a very foreign and competitive environment. Moreover, I had entered Princeton with the rather naive notion that my language skills and years of experience in Turkey would somehow make me an instant star in the department. In Near Eastern Studies, however, everybody has great language skills. Moreover, personal experience inside a country--while valuable--is not going to power much scholarly work on its own.
Throughout my first year, I really felt like a fish out of water. I hated the loss of autonomy that living in a dorm entailed (it was a nice dorm--complete with a working fireplace--but a dorm nonetheless). I was thirty years old and living on a meal plan. And while I was paying to do a master's degree, everyone around me was getting paid to do a PhD--and they were all about seven years younger than I was! All in all, it often felt a little humiliating and I was frequently miserable.
It wasn't always a bummer, though. I really liked my early Ottoman classes with Heath Lowry, and a paper that I wrote for a class I was taking at the Woodrow Wilson school was placed on the webpage of the instructor, Ambassador Robert Hutchings. For the first time in my life, I was getting all 'A's--not that this means very much in graduate school, but to me it was important all the same.
As unhappy as I often was, I didn't regret my decision to come back to the US and go to graduate school. Turkey had been great, but I really wanted to do something more professional, more intellectual than what I had been doing. No matter how depressing things could get at Princeton sometimes, I did feel that it would ultimately be good for me.
My first year ended on a particularly good note. With the help of Heath Lowry and Norman Itzkowitz, I was able to get a fellowship for my second and final year. While I had been obliged to pay about $30,000 in tuition for my first year (not including health insurance and other expenses), for my second year both tuition and insurance would be provided. They would also be giving me a yearly stipend of over $12,000--the same deal that the PhD students were getting. My days of paying for school were over!
Another good thing that happened at the end of my first year was that both my department and the Council on Regional Studies gave me money to go study Ottoman Turkish over the summer at Harvard's Ottoman Summer School.
While I was on Cunda I thought a lot about what I wanted to do after the MA. Indeed, during my first year I'd specifically avoided thinking about this subject, concentrating instead on survival. Now that I was fairly certain I'd survive, I began to think about the future. Prior to Princeton, I really couldn't say if I wanted to do a PhD or not. During the course of the year at Princeton, however, I decided that I wanted to. A major factor in my decision was the intelligence and enthusiasm of my classmates at Princeton. I decided that if people that smart and that interesting were pursuing PhDs, then that is what I wanted to do, too. And there was really no other way that I thought that I could write and work on Russia and Turkey in a manner that interested me.
The next thing I had to decide was what period I wanted to work on. I had always assumed that, if I did a PhD, I would work on the late imperial period. During the course of my first year at Princeton, however, I'd taken three classes with Heath Lowry and had really been swept up by his enthusiasm for the early period of Ottoman history, the foundation period. However, I also knew that working on early Ottoman history would pretty much signal the end of my hopes to one day work on Russia, and that what I really wanted to do was somehow combine late imperial Ottoman history with late imperial Russia.
Indeed, in the department of Near Eastern Studies I had a choice: I could become yet another of a legion of scholars working on Turkish and Arabic documents--which would be fine, but it wouldn't be what I wanted. Or I could work primarily with Turkic and Russian documents, which I found more interesting and which I felt could lead to work which would make a much larger contribution to the field.
I can say that I learned a lot about the Ottoman Empire and improved my language skills (Russian and Ottoman) while I was at Princeton. I didn't, however, receive much of an education on how to think like a historian. In fact, after two years of studying there, I still had little idea of how to discuss the topics that interested me in a way that would be interesting to people not already focusing upon Turkey. I think the department of Near Eastern Studies is a great place for people who can already do that and who want to devote themselves to the field of Near Eastern Studies. I, however, had just spent seven years living in Turkey. My skills were very deep, but also very narrow.
In the fall of my second (and final) year at Princeton, I applied to PhD programs. In retrospect, I think that my intense focus upon a few topics of interest at the expense of thinking more thematically ended up being a real disadvantage to me. In the personal statement that I sent out to universities to which I was applying, I wrote a lot about the details of the research I was interested in, and next to nothing on why this research was important in a broader sense. I think that I also took the whole application process too lightly. Even with a rather unusal professional and academic background, I had been accepted to almost all of the MA programs I had applied to back in 1998. Now, as I was finishing up an MA at Princeton, I really thought that I would be able to choose from any number of schools. I was no longer an outsider, and finally was able to combine my personal experience and language skills with the imprimatur of a first-rate university and a freshly-minted degree.
In retrospect, I was over-confident--thinking that my language skills and Princeton MA would more or less guarantee me a spot in the school of my choice. I applied to four universities: Harvard (Middle Eastern Studies), Chicago (History), Brown (History), and Princeton (NES). Ultimately, only Chicago and Brown accepted me. Because Chicago only offered me a tuition waiver (but no stipend), the choice was pretty easy: Brown it would be.
What was most difficult for me was not getting into the PhD program of my own department, NES. I had, after all, done pretty well at Princeton, and had been encouraged to apply to do the PhD there. I had been short-listed again, and thought that my talk and interviews had gone well. That being said, I knew there could be complications. I had been working on modern Turkish history in the MA program, and now was proposing to work on the late Ottoman period. This meant that I would be changing advisors, which was problematic because there would be no single individual on the acceptance committee upon whom I could rely to champion my cause. Moreover, I think people in the department (rightly) questioned my commitment to near eastern studies as a field, since I had opted to improve my Russian at Princeton rather than study Arabic (I would eventually take three years of Arabic at Brown). While I had taken a number of courses at the Woodrow Wilson school and in the departments of History and Slavic Studies, I had worked closely with only the three Ottomanists in NES, and hadn't taken classes with most of the other professors in the department.
Whatever the reason for the ways things worked out, I really do think that I dodged a bullet by not getting into NES. Looking back on things, I think that I probably would have developed much less at Princeton than I did at Brown. This isn't to say anything against Princeton--the NES department there is one of the best in the world at what it does. What I needed most, however, was to be around people who would force me to talk about something other than the minutiae of my topic. I needed an advisor who would help me think like a historian, rather than a regional studies expert. At Brown, I was lucky enough to find such an advisor in Engin Akarlı.
After defending my master's thesis in May of 2001, I spent the summer studying advanced Hungarian at Debrecen University under the auspices of an ACTR Central European language study grant. I arrived at Providence in September.
To be honest, I had been a little frightened by the prospect of studying in a department of History. I would be forced to move out of my Turkish/Ottoman comfort zone, and I didn't expect it to be easy. My advisor, Engin Akarli, didn't go easy on me, either. The first two years I was at Brown, I was convinced he thought I was a complete idiot. After the disappointing ending to my time at Princeton, however, I was determined to do whatever it took to improve. I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder, and put the embarrassment I felt after not getting into NES into improving myself as a scholar. Before too long, I started to get some positive results. At the end of my first year at Brown, I received a Combined Research and Language grant from the ACTR-ACCELS. This was used for the study of Tatar and Russian during a three-month period in Kazan and St. Petersburg over the summer. At the same time, I also received a pre-dissertation grant from the Institute of Turkish Studies, which I was forced to turn down, and a pre-dissertation grant from the SSRC that I was able to defer.
All of these awards came largely due to the help of Professor Akarli. Engin Bey's notations would fill the margins of just about everything I submitted to him. This was also the case with my early drafts of grant applications. He helped me extensively in preparing my first applications, and his recommendations made a big difference in opening up new possibilities for my training and development as a scholar. All in all, it was a very welcome change from Princeton, where my advisor--who had treated me as a sort of protégé in my first year--had basically stopped communicating with me once I'd told him that I wanted to do the PhD with someone else in the department. After having gone through experiences like that the previous two years, I really appreciated the selflessness with which Engin Bey dedicated himself to improving me as a scholar, and I will always feel an enormous debt of gratitude towards him.
Studying in a department of History was also liberating in that it allowed me to work intensively on Russian history for the first time. I had been interested in the history of Russia and the USSR ever since college and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Now I had the chance to study it. At Brown, I was lucky enough to work with Tom Gleason, who gave me a first-class education in Russian history. Indeed, it was one of Tom Gleason's books--Young Russia--that inspired me to treat intellectuals the way that I do in my dissertation. Working with Tom, Patricia Herlihy, and the Russianist-dominated Watson Institute gave me a great opportunity to present my work to Russianists for the first time. While I was still focusing primarily upon Muslim populations in Russia, rather than upon the Russian state itself, these experiences were really important with regard to helping me better formulate what would become my dissertation project. Constantly going back and forth between Ottoman history and Russian history, moreover, was also very helpful in developing my comparative instincts, something which was further aided by my work with Brown's Europeanists.
After passing my preliminary examinations in May of 2003, I went abroad to begin my research. During the three-month stay in Russia in 2002, I had managed to get my feet wet in the archives a little bit, which at least gave me some idea of what I could expect the second time around. Moreover, my experience in the archives undoubtedly helped my applications to receive more money for research. Thus, as I was completing my second year at Brown, I received word that I had been awarded research fellowships by Fulbright, Fulbright-Hays, ARIT, and IREX. I used the Fulbright money to spend the 2003-2004 academic year in Russia, then used the IREX money to spend four months in Azerbaijan. The ARIT money was used for six months of research in Turkey. Later, in 2006, I would receive another grant from CAORC, which I used to spend six weeks in the Crimea and six weeks in Istanbul. Ultimately, I would spend a total of two and a half years doing research abroad while I was at Brown.
Having so many opportunities to research abroad was extremely helpful with regard to both collecting materials for my dissertation and developing languge and reading skills. For the Fulbright year I spent in Russia, for example, I was given a budget of $3000 (in addition to my stipend) that could be used only for language training. I used it for both Russian and Tatar. With my Russian teachers, I discussed my research at length in an effort to pin down my scholarly Russian, and at the same time these teachers helped me strengthen my (at the time, non-existent) skills in reading Russian paleography. Perhaps even more importantly (because it was a more unusual skill), I also had the chance to work a lot on Arabic-script Tatar paleography with a private teacher at Kazan State University. Meanwhile, in St. Petersburg I worked with a Persianist who helped me read printed and handwritten Arabic-script Azeri.
Most importantly, all of the research money just gave me time to think and digest. To this day, I feel that if I had not gone back to Kazan in 2005 for an extra five months, my dissertation would have been considerably weaker than it is. It was during that summer of 2005, after I'd reread Bob Crews' article, that I started looking more closely at religion and the state. It was an eye-opener, and during the summer of 2005, even as I sweated through yet another interminable and adhesively sticky Kazan Summer, I learned an incredible amount, thanks to a number of scholars in Kazan, particularly Azat Akhundov, Rafik Mukhametshin, and Ildus Zagidullin.
Brown was also very generous to me, particularly when it came to the write-up stage of my dissertation. I had to TA for just one semester during my final two years (that is, after coming back from my two years of research), having received write-up grants for the other three semesters as well as summer money. For two years and a half years, I sat at home in front of the computer, working on the dissertation day after day. Unlike a lot of students at Brown, who have to hold TAships or even full-time teaching jobs, I was able to focus entirely upon my writing.
Anyway, Brown was a great experience. I loved Providence as well, so much that I would probably say that Providence is one of my favorite places in the world right now.
In May of 2007 I finally graduated. For whatever reason, I'd never really found my academic voice at Princeton. At Brown, however, I felt like I came into my own academically. I felt a lot more comfortable in the classroom, had some success getting grants and fellowships, and, eventually, was able to do work that I was consistently able to find interesting.
From Columbia to Montana State
From 2006-2008 I was on the job market. Fortunately for me, my year of graduation coincided with the decision by the Harriman Institute at Columbia University to devote one year's resources to the study of Islam and the Russian Empire--for which I applied and received a year-long postdoctoral fellowship. The man behind this was Mark Mazower--writer, historian, and a really great boss.
The year at Columbia went really fast, and was extremely satisfying. Along with the other two postdocs involved in the Russia-Islam project, I helped organize a series of scholarly events pertaining to Islam and the Russian Empire. One of my personal responsibilities was to put together the graduate student conference on Russia and the Ottoman Empire, where a number of graduate students from all over the US came and presented their work on Russia and the Ottoman Empire.
Probably the best part of the year at Columbia was that I was put into the position of having to discuss my research interests to Russianists on a frequent basis. While there was a small community of Russianists at Brown, at Columbia we had the entire estrada of Russianists from across North America coming to our events. I think that I learned a lot about how to broaden the parameters of my work from something devoted primarily to Muslim communities in Russia into something which tells the reader more about the nature of the tsarist state itself.
During the Columbia year, I also had the opportunity to give a number of talks. I gave one talk at the Harriman institute on Muslim education in rural Russia and another for the Ottoman-Turkish reading group at Columbia. I also presented at the AAASS conference in New Orleans, and gave another two talks in Japan: one at the Slavic Research Center in Sapporo and the other in Kyoto. At the beginning of April, the graduate student conference that I organized was held, and I also presented at the big conference we held on Russia, Islam, and the Ottoman Empire at the end of April.
Something else that I did towards the end of my year at Columbia was learn how to make a website. This was something that I'd wanted to do for a while. As I was unable to find any place at the university where anyone would offer me training, I decided to just buy the Dreamweaver software myself. I also bought a guide, which was helpful enough, but probably not really necessary. Before too long, I got into the habit of just searching the web anytime I had a problem and could usually find the tutorial that I needed. As you can see, my site isn't terribly professional, but it could be worse. Fortunately I had the sort of job where I could devote hours a day to learning how to do something like this.
After my Columbia postdoc ended in June of 2008, I began a year of research in Russia, Georgia, and Turkey. The six months I spent in Russia and Georgia were funded by the National Council for Eurasian and East European Research while I was also given seven months of support through a grant provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the American Research Institute in Turkey.
During the 2008-2009 academic year I continued to look for work, and January 1 of 2009 I was offered a tenure-track job by Montana State University. Needless to say, I was pretty psyched to get the news. The job comes with a 2-2 teaching load, which is great, and during the first two years at MSU I'll only be teaching a total of five classes (one in the fall of 2009, two in the spring of 2010, two more in the fall of 2010, and then a semester off in spring of 2011).
Best of all, I get to teach whatever I want. My first semester at MSU I taught a pre-existing class on the Middle East in the 20th Century, and in the Spring semester of 2010 I'll be teaching one class on Russia upto 1917 (which was also on the books before I got here) and another (which I designed) called the Making of Modern Turkey.
As someone who works in two geographical fields (Russia and the Middle East) it's really great to be able to teach at a school where I can teach classes in both fields. But what seems really great about my department is that not only can I teach classes pertaining to both regions, but also we are given a lot of freedom with respect to what these classes will be. After years of being asked by potential employers how I would teach classes that I had no interest in teaching, it's a very liberating feeling to be told that I should teach whatever I want to teach.
Best of all, Bozeman is a really nice place to live. It's located in the middle of a world-class skiing center (in the northern Rockies), and there's plenty of stuff to do around town. Granted, it's pretty different from a number of the other places I've lived, but so far it hasn't been so hard getting used to life here.