As the call to prayer echoed throughout the vast valley that encompasses the city of Bolu, I thought to myself how 1,000 people from all around the world being mixed up, separated into groups of around 20, assigned roommates at random, made to learn Turkish and live by a relatively tight code of conduct is not an easy thing, both for the participants and for the organisers. But that is exactly what happened in this year's annual Turkish Summer School organised by the Yunus Emre Institute, an Ankara-based international organisation which promotes the learning and exchange of the Turkish language and culture.
The entire program took up one month, with the first three weeks in a city or town assigned randomly to participants depending on their current level of Turkish, and the last week being spent in Istanbul for the closing certificate and rewards ceremony.
My exploits in Turkey this summer were interesting, to say the least. I was sent to the small city of Bolu, which has a population of 150,000 and lies between Istanbul and Ankara, along with 18 other participants. We hailed from a variety of backgrounds, cultures and political views; observing such personalities was a project within itself. For a month I lived alongside central and west Africans who put ten spoons of sugar in traditional Turkish yoghurt dishes, a young Irish woman who was fiercely pro-Israeli, and a student from Cameroon who I once named King of Africa and who then decided to keep the name for the duration of the trip.
When living with such a huge variety of people of differing cultures outside one's comfort zone, however, there are bound to be both conflicts and sex scandals. Apart from having to tolerate a few Americans and French-speakers, our group was miraculously conflict-free and, as far as I know, contained only one-sided romantic pursuits. When all the groups gathered in Istanbul during the last week, on the other hand, the news ran rife with rumours of summer flings and sexual scandals ranging from those between students, those between students and their married teachers, and even one between a female student and her group's 19-year-old coach driver.
Such affairs of human lust cannot be blamed on the institute, of course, as they are largely inevitable when male and female participants can sneak out of the segregated accommodation.
The question that constantly nagged at my mind throughout the entire program, however, was why the institute was so willing to pay all of our costs: every single participant's flight, accommodation, lessons, three meals per day, intercity transport, and in some cases even small details such as the laundry, were all paid for by the institute. A few of us calculated the cost of the accommodation for every student, this amounted to around $1,200 at a bare minimum, and that was in Bolu alone. That barely scratches the surface.
Why should an organisation, which most of us thought was an NGO, go to all the trouble for a bunch of students that may or may not benefit them? Many of whom will not take the language course seriously? It was then revealed shortly afterwards that the institute was connected to and supported by the Turkish government itself, and that this was the first or second year participants did not have to pay towards any of the costs.
Through this program involving a worldwide selection of participants supported by massive costs, the Turkish government has invested billions of dollars into spreading its language, culture and overall influence into the hearts and minds of a thousand future workers and leaders. Some will go on to learn Turkish more thoroughly while others will go back home and languish in the remnants of their memory of the trip, seeing it as a distant dream or a life experience at best. But one thing is certain: they will all return home with stories on their tongues about the sights they saw, the history they felt, the hospitality they experienced, and the blossoming education and work opportunities that they discovered in the country, citing the numerous Arab and African students they interacted with personally.
With this program, the government is doing what every far-sighted administration aims to do: broaden its international opportunities, seek future foreign investment, and show the world that its country is open to everyone. It is a clever multi-billion dollar investment into expanding its soft power far beyond simple trade and military prowess. Moreover, the institute does not hide its mission. In an interview last year, the head of the Yunus Emre Institute Professor Şeref Ateş stated that "as an element of soft power, our aim has always been to represent Turkey and its culture along with introducing it to other nations and countries in accordance with Turkey's strategic targets."
While sitting in the lobby of our five-star Istanbul hotel one evening, one Greek-Cypriot student told me: "Turkey accepted me because they know that they can have someone on the other side." She meant, of course, that to have someone in a rival nation who has been opened up to the Turkish language, people and therefore influence, can benefit the country in the future. The fact that the program was open to citizens from states that Turkey is either entirely at odds with or at least has tensions with – I met those from Southern Cyprus, Greece, Israel, and even Armenia – is evidence of that. Such is the extent to which Turkey has realised the rewards that soft power can bring.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.