Loss of visionary who brought Turkish and Greek youth together
This week I lost a very dear and close person for the part of my life I have spent in Türkiye, which means more than 20 years. I am sure the same feeling of sudden loss is shared by a great number of people who happen to come across this special person in their lives.
Professor Aydin Uğur, the former rector of Istanbul Bilgi University who passed away earlier this week, meant different things to each one of us who knew him. To me, a foreign journalist based in Istanbul, he gave me the chance to discover the sweet charm of academic life and its potential for going deeper into things like culture, history and communications. But there was more to that. He gave me the chance to take up the role of a Greek academic instructor getting to teach young Turkish students to be open to the “other” even if that “other” was conceived as a traditional “foe.”
Uğur was one of those people who would make you feel comfortable at first encounter, who would make you feel important no matter whether you were a colleague or the lady who served us tea. In fact, he would often give more importance to the latter.
It was because of his encouragement, support and inherent optimism that an initial “part-time” teaching job he offered me came to dominate my life for the following 15 years, mostly spent at the most interesting campus in Istanbul, the Santral Istanbul.
It was thanks to his open-mindedness and his natural tendency to approve even the craziest project provided that it would promote more intercultural understanding, awareness and eventually peace that we devised a wealth of projects to bring Greek and Turkish students together. And that happened in Istanbul, in Kavala, in Athens, in Delphi. There, over several years young people from countries with deep-seated historical wounds would interact and learn about each other and try to reconstruct their perceptions of each other starting with a clean slate.
Uğur possessed a gift of drawing correct conclusions for major issues from minor details. I remember an incident that took place in the old building of the Panteion University of Athens where he was invited to sign a cooperation agreement on behalf of Istanbul Bilgi University. Before the serious business of the signing ceremony, he had an unusual request from me: “Let’s go and visit a classroom” he told me. We strolled the long grey unkempt corridor of the second floor and we knocked on the door of a classroom that seemed to be in session. I opened the door and asked the surprised instructor and students, whether “our Turkish professor” could watch the lesson for a few seconds. We were very lucky because the lesson was about modern Greek poetry and the instructor was the famous poet and novelist Nanos Valaoritis, already in his late 80s. We listened to him for short while and left. “The classroom smells the same, like in Türkiye. It is the same aura. We are so much the same,” Uğur said. He was very happy as if he had confirmed something he already knew.
That period of close cooperation with Greek academia with meetings, joint projects, trips, panel discussions and publications, lasted until about 10 years ago, until the initial enthusiasm gradually died out. But it was a period that marked many Turkish students’ life where some of them continued their education in Greece and even found employment there.
Under the shock of the loss of my dear professor, it is very difficult for me to bring out more memories of that period because there are far too many. I am sure when the dust settles, I may be able to settle with the idea that it was a great luck that I met that visionary person who helped me realize a Greek-Turkish project which now, unfortunately, looks impossible.