For our Duke in Istanbul group, the excitement surrounding our first excursion began before our plane had even left the ground.
A few minutes after our group had taken our seats and stowed our belongings on the plane from Istanbul to Nevşehir, two men boarded, both wearing suits, one shorter and older who wore glasses, and the other younger, wearing a suit and an earpiece and acting as a bodyguard. Whispers immediately filled the plane – “That’s the Turkish Foreign Minister!” In a stunning coincidence, Ahmet Davutoğlu, Minister of Foreign Affairs for Turkey, took his seat in the row ahead of me.
The Minister posed with babies for photos as the plane pulled away from the jetbridge and taxied to the runway.
Once we had reached our cruising altitude, several other people came up to the front of the plane to shake Davutoğlu’s hand. I mentioned to those in our group that the Minister’s position was one I had portrayed in a mock NATO summit last January as a part of a Euro-Atlantic relations course at Middlebury College.
A few minutes later, the Minister’s attention turned to our group, and he leaned over the back of his seat to chat. Alican mentioned to him, speaking in Turkish, that I had done the mock NATO summit in college and had taken on the role of Turkish Foreign Minister. Davutoğlu nodded and asked me what the mock scenario was about. I explained that it was on the Syrian crisis. He then grinned and asked me what I would do if could have 15 minutes as the Turkish Foreign Minister! Not wanting to seem like I was telling the Minister and international diplomat what to do in his foreign policy, I said that I was not sure and that tough decisions are undoubtedly a part of the job. After shaking hands with us, Davutoğlu said that our group should pay a visit to Ankara.
When our plane landed, a welcoming group replete with provincial and local government officials was on the tarmac to greet the Minister. As we began our tour of sites around Nevşehir, the mayor of the small town we were visiting checked in on our group. Apparently, he did so because the Minister had mentioned to the governor of Nevşehir to “Take care of these American students,” and the governor of the province informed the mayor. The mayor spoke briefly with Karanfil, our academic advisor, to ensure everything was going smoothly.
All in all, it was a unique experience to have a face-to-face conversation with someone I have studied in the classroom and who is a recurring presence in the pages of The Economist and The New York Times. This spring, I hope to take on a new “mock” role; not that of a NATO delegate but rather a student living in Turkey, experiencing life at a university in Istanbul.