Professors Berna Turam and Kathrin Zippel On Their Dialogue

Written by Mary Chen | chen.mary@husky.neu.edu

Photo by Dirk Ahlgrim

Professors Berna Turam and Kathrin Zippel are both of the International Affairs, Sociology, and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies faculty here at Northeastern.  Together, they run a dialogue, aptly named “Turkey and Germany: Politics of Space and Islam, Gender, and Sexuality in Istanbul and Berlin”.

What is this dialogue about? What do the students learn?

Turam: It’s based on exposure to the big cities of Istanbul and Berlin. It’s important  because they both are also “divided cities”. Istanbul has been identified as the fault line between Muslim and Christian civilizations or Europe and the Middle East. Berlin was divided between the Communist world and Western democracies. And now with its large Muslim minority, it is one of the new hosts of the so-called clash between Islam and the West. These cities are mixed and diverse and because they host Muslim populations, we are able to study Islamic politics. We look at how Islam and Muslim ways of life are being negotiated with … and the particular context in which Islam is being practiced. We explore the meaning of religious freedom and piety in two different socio-political contexts.

Zippel: Our Dialogue uses an intersectional lens of gender and sexuality to study these different historical, social and economic contexts of urban life. Berlin is very special because it holds Muslim, Arab and Turkish diaspora, the largest in the world actually. It’s an immigrant city! And Berlin is also the pinnacle of gay/lesbian/transgender lifestyle. Seen historically as the “open city”, Berlin has been a place for “alternative” cultures, including many cooperatives, housing projects and feminist projects. So Berlin has been a laboratory for changing politics by changing ways of living.

Turam: Yes, and we focus on urban space and power struggles.

Zippel: Basically, the political side of everyday life and how it translates into how the world gets arranged.

What are the classes like? What do the students see?

Turam: It’s not just lectures. We invite local experts who are artists, activists, politicians, journalists…We do site visits to organizations…and we do a lot of walking tours like mosque visits and walks through neighborhoods, squares and parks.

Zippel: And some historical sites, museums, the Parliament building, the mosques, the palace of the Ottoman empire…the must-sees, but mostly to create this context for our students.

Turam: This is not a touristy adventure. Because our main focus is contemporary issues in urban space, we like to have the students do a lot of walking to see for themselves.

What made you start this program?

Turam: It started as an idea to take students to Turkey and the Middle East. My research has largely been on state and society interactions focusing on political Islam. Turkey is the only entirely secular state that doesn’t even have religious ruling in its civil code. So the dialogue initially explored mainly the secular state and Muslim people and how they interacted and negotiated. Then, my research traced the Turkish diaspora to where Turkish immigrants were more concentrated. This is how we incorporated Berlin, the city with the largest Turkish populations outside of Turkey. More lately, I have been studying politics of the city and urban space. In Berlin, we looked at how urban space and political power are mapped upon each other, how they interact and transform each other. Then, Kathrin joined as an expert on Germany and gender politics.

Zippel: So, you could say the dialogue evolved with our research projects.

Why are you connected to these cities/places?

Zippel: [Germany] is my home country. I love showing students the city I love.

Turam:  I am emotionally attached [to Turkey], you know. I was born there, raised there and went to school there. As I have ongoing field research there, it is kind of a big part of my life.  As Turkey is changing fast, these dialogues provide us windows to observe and participate in the rapid transformations.

Zippel: We live transnational academic lives and we really like our students to benefit from that. We can take them to these places and show them the inside, not as tourists. We give them firmly grounded exposure and can connect them to our local networks.

Turam: We both take these students to our research sites and literally drag them into our field sites; we bring them into the world of our research. You know, as researchers, one stops being surprised about the subject matter after a while. To observe the way the students are surprised and interact with these cities is a very precious learning experience for us too.

Zippel: It’s exciting to be with the students in those settings. It’s enriching for our research – the questions they ask, the way they look at these problems, their reactions – that’s very stimulating for our research.

What is your favorite part of the dialogue?

Zippel: Oh, I don’t have one. It’s so hard to choose. I do enjoy a lot to work with students on their own research projects as they develop them and write own individual papers based on their ground exposure so each finds their own window into these cities. This is important because we have students from all disciplines – and many of our students are University Scholars.

Turam: The boat tour, for sure. It’s a dinner reception of this international group of people. We take them to the actual fault line, in the Bosphorus Channel, that physically divides Europe and the Middle East. It’s very exciting to be at those sites with our students.

If you could add anything to your dialogue, what would it be?

Turam: Taking students to the Syrian border. A few years ago—before the crisis in Syria, I took our students to a city at the border, called Mardin, Turkey, where four ethnicities live next to each other: Kurds, Arabs, Assyrians and Turks, all in peace. It’s a dream city. It’s one of the religiously and ethnically most diverse and peaceful places in the world. We explored  how a city can maintain peace without gates, while there has been ongoing bloodshed just 10 miles away. I wish we could go back there again.

Zippel: My dream would be for every student to be able to speak at least some German and Turkish. It’s so important to be able to speak the native language. Basically, to break the language barriers. I have to say, what I’ve enjoyed from the dialogue is having students from all backgrounds, all disciplines and different countries. It’s really interesting to watch them interact with their own diversity in a different space. Everybody’s a foreigner.