Austin Area Officials Visit Antayla, Turkey

By Cheryl Coggins Frink

Special to the Austin American-Statesman
June 24, 2008 - Austin, TX

Texas State Representatives Donna Howard and Valinda Bolton, Travis County Constable Bruce Elfant, and Dr. Yetkin Yildirma, Institute of Interfaith Dialogue met with Mayor Menderes Turel of Antayla, Turkey at the request of Austin mayor Will Wynn, to discuss a proposed Sister City agreement between Antayla and Austin, TX. Austin currently maintains Sister City relationships with ten cities on five continents. Antayla would be Austin's the first Sister City in the Middle East region and the first predominantly Muslim city.

Antayla, founded in 150 B.C., is located in southern Turkey on the Mediterranean Sea. Austin and Antayla are similar in population and climate. With a natural beauty that attracts more than seven million visitors each year, tourism is Antayla's main industry. Surrounded by water and mountains one can snow ski in the morning and water ski in the afternoon.

Mayor Wynn looks forward to building a close and rewarding relationship between Antayla and Austin that promotes a better understanding and respect for our diverse cultures and includes an exchange of civic, educational, and business strategies, Constable Elfant said.

When Gail and Tim Sulak headed for Turkey with a group of colleagues this past summer, their itinerary would most likely have pleased the most demanding traveler. After all, ruins that predate Christianity by thousands of years, intricate and beautiful Byzantine mosaics, ancient churches and legendary mosques, as well as the remnants of the world's first university and the modest house where Mary, the mother of Jesus, is thought to have lived in her final days - well, almost any of these would make the trip to Turkey worthwhile.

But the Sulaks and their group wanted more. They wanted conversation with the Turkish people whose country they were visiting. And, ultimately, they hoped for the opportunity to contribute in some small way to the hugely compelling concept known as world peace."The idea of bridging faiths and cultures totally appealed to me," Sulak says of her June trip to Turkey sponsored by the Institute of Interfaith Dialog, a nonprofit organization founded in Austin but now headquartered in Houston that is committed to bridging the religious and cultural gaps between different faith groups. "We were on a mission to understand and promote tolerance," says Sulak of the trip to the predominantly Muslim Turkey.

That sort of peacemaking diplomacy, the kind in which people share a meal and talk face-to-face about what makes them similar as well as what makes them unique, is at the heart of an ongoing series of trips to Turkey sponsored by the interfaith institute. Since the program's inception in 2004, more than 500 visitors from Texas, Louisiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Arkansas and Oklahoma have traveled to Turkey to visit with families, educators, newspaper editors and political and religious leaders.The groups, which usually include about 10 Americans along with volunteer guides, are sponsored by families and individuals in Turkey. Lodging, meals and transportation within the country are paid through donations from the sponsors. The only expense for the Americans is roundtrip airfare to Turkey.

"There is no pretense. They are a welcoming people," says Sulak, a clinical social worker with 3M's employee assistance program. "They gave us gifts everywhere we went. We had some memorabilia from Texas to give them, but they gave us nice books, beautiful cookbooks, gold cufflinks and nice clocks. I wish we had been a little better prepared for how welcoming they were."

When the Americans visited in private homes of Turkish families, their hosts "would prepare an amazing meal, and we would sit down and talk. They wanted to talk about American politics. They know our history better than we do." Yetkin Yildirim, vice president and founding member of the Institute of Interfaith Dialog, says, "The whole idea is to bring people together to prevent the occurrence of ignorance and negative stereotypes. When people come together, in reality they find so many similarities, not differences."

The institute, an organization that sprang from the grief and destruction of 9/11 to advocate for tolerance and understanding among people of different faiths, is inspired by the teachings of Fethullah Gulen, a Turkish Islamic scholar and religious leader recently named by Foreign Policy magazine as the top public intellectual in the world. Gulen's tenets of universal education and religious tolerance and understanding not only are championed by the interfaith group, but also serve as the basis of an international movement and institute bearing his name. Followers have been active in creating hundreds of schools reflecting Gulen's philosophy of interfaith communication and education.

"I think with time people will understand that peaceful dialogue is the only solution to stopping the terrible things going on all over the world," says Yildirim, a native of Turkey and a highway pavement expert who teaches at the University of Texas at Austin.

State Rep. Donna Howard, D-Austin, who was on the trip in June, also uses the word "mission" when she talks about this summer's trip. "People on these trips have a great opportunity to actually sit in people's homes in a casual, informal way and talk about what we believe and what it is we wish for," Howard says. "We talk about our families and come to realize all that we do have in common." As the Americans and the Turks get to know one another better, there is hope that stereotypes will crumble and the Americans will come home with a broader perspective of the Turkish religion and culture. "The institute is sponsoring these trips so that people will have a better understanding of Islam, which is much, much bigger than the limited aperture we have into what happened with 9/11," adds Howard. "Anyone (in this group) will tell you that they don't consider what the terrorists have done to be in any way a part of the Islamic religion, because that is not what Islam teaches."

The Institute of Interfaith Dialog sponsored two groups of travelers in June. (Another group left earlier this week.) One group was from Austin's University Presbyterian Church. The second group included the Sulaks, Howard and her husband, Derek, State Rep. Valinda Bolton (D-Austin) and Bolton's husband, Associate Judge Andy Hathcock, and Travis County Constable Bruce Elfant and his wife, Lisa Harris. Leading the group were Yildirim and Rasit Avsar, also a native of Turkey and an Austin math teacher.

The trip, which included eight days of sightseeing and visiting with host families, included stops in Istanbul and Izmir, as well as the Turkish capital of Ankara; Austin's next sister city, Antalya; and Sanliurfa (known as Urfa), which is only about 30 miles from the Syrian border.

Though the schedule at times might have seemed grueling, the travelers say they were offered an unbelievably rich sampling of the historical, architectural and spiritual underpinning of Turkey and the Middle East. "The country is about the size of Texas," says Sulak. "This trip would have been like going to Lubbock, Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, Austin and El Paso and seeing the best of what those cities have to offer in eight days." "There was so much to see on the trip that I can't point to a single thing" as a favorite, says state Rep. Elliott Naishtat, who visited Turkey with an Institute of Interfaith Dialog group out of Houston last year. "We went to the Jewish Museum in Istanbul, and this was an extremely moving experience for me. We spent a couple of days in Urfa where Abraham lived, and we stood on the bank and threw stones into the Euphrates River," says Naishtat, D-Austin, whose group included several current and former state legislators.

Along with meeting the people, the history of Turkey and its remarkable impact on some of the most critical turns in the story of mankind is what was most eye-opening to some of the travelers. "I knew very little about Turkey before this trip," says Sulak, who has traveled extensively in Europe. "Now I wonder what else I don't know about that is so incredibly rich." Of course, the exchange of stories, the conversations about what mattered to the Turks as well as the Americans, is what the travelers speak of when they discuss the soul of this journey. "Their perceptions of Americans is that there has been a loss of values," Sulak says. "Their concerns were primarily about the family unit and the divorce rate (in the United States)."

Sulak said that when they arrived in Antalya, "my first impression was of the solar panels on every rooftop. They are far more progressive about energy conservation than we are." The police chief there is a Renaissance man, she says, "very educated and thoughtful."

What kept slapping us in the face is that we think we're progressive, but others are way ahead of us." Not only did the travelers learn about the similarities in the religious and cultural lives between the Americans and Turkish people, they also learned a bit about themselves, says Howard, who has long been involved in interfaith issues through her work with the Austin Area Interreligious Ministries.

One night, she remembers, the group was dining with three young couples and their children. In the course of a conversation, Howard asked the 23-year-old woman next to her what she would change about Turkey if she could. "Her response was her freedom in regard to her headscarf. I immediately assumed she meant not having to wear it. But that's not what she meant.

"She meant that she cannot go to the university in Turkey unless she takes off her headscarf, and to her, her headscarf is an important part of her religious expression," says Howard. "It was an insight into my own prejudices. I realized that no matter how open and enlightened we think we are, we all have certain biases and prejudices." Many of the dinner conversations would turn political, and the travelers found that the Turkish people were well versed in American history and government. "One time in one of our conversations, someone mentioned Bobby Kennedy, and everyone in the room including the Turkish people knew who we were talking about," says Howard. "Our visits made it clear that people around the world know about us, but we don't know about them."

The talks with the Turkish people also reflected concerns about divorce rates and perceptions of educational decline in the United States. And questions about the war in Iraq and the current political scene often found their way to the dinner table. The group that traveled with Howard and Sulak in June is continuing to stay in touch and look for ways to channel their Turkey experience into a concrete, long-lasting commitment to interfaith tolerance and communication. They already are ambassadors for the trips, telling friends and speaking to groups about their experiences there. Most have attended several community-wide dinners sponsored by the Institute of Interfaith Dialog and have shared meals with Austin Muslims. Sulak says in the future they hope to have their new friends over for meals in their home.

It's a response that is not unexpected based on what many have termed a life-changing experience."This is the first time in my travels that I've had a role beyond being a tourist," says Howard. "And it allowed me to become more expansive in my perceptions of my worldly neighbors. I had to leave my comfort zone behind and some of my preconceptions and assumptions, and that freed me up to experience the culture of another country."It was a very enriching thing that I would never, ever have experienced otherwise," says Howard. "It was a huge gift."

Cheryl Coggins Frink is an Austin freelance writer.

About Interfaith

Visits to Turkey often include elected officials, law enforcement officials, religious groups and political figures; the program is open to anyone interested in interfaith and intercultural dialogue. Those interested in learning about Turkey and Islam through the interfaith trips or other activities can contact Institute of Interfaith Dialog at www.interfaithdialog.org.

Although Austin has been rich in sister cities - there are currently 10 cities with that formal designation - none of the sisters has a predominantly Muslim population. After Sept. 11, 2001, Mayor Will Wynn began what became a long-term quest to change that situation. His inspiration stemmed from a number of factors. Austin had become more international, and the city's Muslim community was growing. But most central was the fact that in the first terrible days after the tragedy of 9/11, Wynn watched as many Austin groups and individuals, in particular members of Austin Area Interreligious Ministries, eased tensions as they reached out to encourage compassion and religious tolerance. So when the Institute of Interfaith Dialog invited Wynn to travel to Turkey in August 2006, he decided he would use the opportunity to work on that sister city goal. He asked trip organizers if he could focus on presenting the idea to the mayor of Antalya, a city on Turkey's Mediterranean coast that resembles Austin in size, geography, education and industry.

"I had been there 12 years earlier, but so much had changed by the time I went back in 2006," the mayor says of his trip with the Institute of Interfaith Dialog, an organization created to foster compassion and respect between different religious and cultural communities. "Yet when I got there, I was more convinced than ever that Antalya would make a great sister city," says Wynn. "It is a fabulous city with a really high quality of life, the provincial capital, a big visitor destination, a university town and a city with a beautiful natural environment. They even have an internationally renowned film festival. "A river runs through the middle of town," he adds, "and cascades down a cliff into the Mediterranean Sea. There are remarkable similarities with Austin."

The idea of teaming with Austin through Sister Cities International was well-received by Antalya city officials. And in February, the Austin City Council approved a resolution establishing a sister city relationship. As soon as the international organization gives the formal OK, Antalya will become Austin's 11th sister city.

The sister city agreement - based on protocol established by the international sister city organization - encourages business, cultural and academic exchanges between participating cities. At the core of the arrangement, however, is the idea that lasting peace depends on communication among the people of the world. "It (the sister cities program) was founded more than 50 years ago by President Eisenhower ... with the idea that the best way to secure long-term peace is to give ordinary citizens the opportunity for dialogue," says Wynn.

With that ultimate goal in mind, and the hope for building business, cultural and academic exchange, Wynn expects the agreement with Antalya to be one of Austin's more successful sister city arrangements. "Once more Austinites discover Antalya, there will be a flood of folks going back and forth," says the mayor.

Cheryl Coggins Frink is an Austin freelance writer.