A ‘Rum’ in Robert College from 1955-1965

This is an old presentation of mine from the conference titled “Not the Least Among Many: The Greeks at Robert College” at İstanbul’s Boğaziçi University on Nov. 19, 2005. It is being published today as my old school faces a political and ideological “hurt locker”. It can be read as a reminder of what is at stake and changing for the worst. A prestigious school is losing its character, becoming forced to embrace banality. 


The “Rum” (Greek Orthodox in Turkish) in the title is me, of course. I joined Istanbul’s Robert College as a young boy at the age of 14, following my primary education at the Greek minority Feriköy Rum Primary School. I was older than the other students because Greek primary schools had six grades and not five like the Turkish primary schools. I graduated from university after 11 years, as a civil engineer and already a married man. Robert College was the environment where I came of age. I formed my personality which marked the rest of my life in this school, and by the word “personality” I try to express the entities of human beings which are usually characterized with the words identity, basic ethical values, political worldview, philosophical attitude vis-a-vis our environment and our fellow men, etc. Today I will try to speak about this experience of mine. Not so much “the Greeks at Robert College,” but the influence of Robert College on a Greek adolescent.

Is it ever possible for anybody to speak about themselves objectively? I will leave this question unanswered because I do not believe in the notion of objectivity regarding opinion in general. We are all doomed to be personalities with a personal history, which marks our opinions and judgments. Today, I will speak of my perception of my experience in Robert College, Turkey’s top private high school.

One of the teachers that I remember from my first years in Robert College is Turan Bey. The first days in class when I spoke in Turkish he sensed from my accent that I was “different,” which prompted him to ask me my name. I said Millas, which was not distinctive enough to disclose my ethnic identity. So he asked me my first name. I said Herkül, which was not enough, either. He then looked at me perplexed and he asked the name of my father. I said, “I am a Rum.” My father’s name was Nikos and this would have been enough to identify me. So I had decided to end this uneasy back and forth with the confession. In short, I knew that I was somehow different from the beginning. I still remember however, that Turan Bey blushed and he said that he did not mean to ask “that”. But I was confident that he was curious to find out my ethnicity. Over time I came to like Turan Bey very much and I especially appreciated that he had blushed when I decoded his question. 

But what did Rum mean during those years? The title of today’s conference is “The Greeks at Robert College,” but when this is translated into Turkish the tendency is to speak of “Rums at Robert College”. There is not a word in English which corresponds to Rum. It was inconceivable to call myself a “Yunan” (Greek) because I was a minority member which was not officially identified with the nation of the neighbouring state of Greece. I was taught in primary school that I was a Turkish national, a member of the Turkish Republic with equal rights and obligations as the rest of its citizens. If questioned I would answer that I was a Turk and if further questioned I would add that I was a Rum, too, despite knowing that the my status was a little more complex. Rum still today means an Orthodox Christian connected to the Patriarchate of Istanbul (not necessarily a believer) and (not necessarily) a Greek-speaking person. The Greek minority of Istanbul, as it is the case with many such groups, identified itself by the way it was perceived and treated by the “majority” rather than by some objective criteria. Even the Greek language of the Rums in Turkish is called “Rumca” and not “Yunanca,” even though “Rumca” is almost identical with the language spoken in Greece. That is to say, I speak specifically of these Greeks, and of the years between 1955-1965 alone. 

Allow me to narrate what I remember of Robert College from those early years. There are some incidents and images that are of some importance because they have become engraved in my memory and have had a great influence on me. I remember my American teacher of mathematics in my early middle school period. He managed to convince us, and I am unable to remember how, that it was more important to remain honest than to receive a good grade in a test. After a few weeks with him, he would give us a test, during which he would leave the class. And we did not cheat. After many years, I tried to do the same when I taught Turkish at the Aegean University in Rhodes. During a final exam, I left the class, went to the cafeteria, bought a sandwich and a beverage and returned to class. I still believe that my students had not cheated in this short interval for the reason that I had talked to them, somehow like my American teacher.

I remember another teacher explaining to the class, upon the complaints of some boarding students that they had been fed leftovers, that the food that remains in the saucepan is not in fact left over. The teacher said that such food should not be thrown away, but can and should be heated and served the next day. Our English was not so great at the time, so he had drawn a saucepan on the blackboard, showing plates with real leftovers in a bid to make it clear what he meant by untouched food. I felt he was right. This remains as a vivid picture in my mind and at home we do not throw food away.

I remember how in those early years of my youth we used to visit the houses of some of our American teachers, who would organize parties for us. In one instance, the girlfriend of the teacher was there, too, something which really impressed us as teenagers. The Turkish teachers and some of the few Armenian and Greek teachers never allowed for such personal interactions between themselves and their students. I think that this kind of socialization was my first and strongest experience of democratic equality among citizens. Respect had nothing to do with awesome and distanced superiority. 

We would play football with our teachers. I ran with them in field days. On the ‘77th day’ we made all kinds of jokes with them. They did not preach to us about equality, democratic attitude and respect, but instead practiced and demonstrated them. I did not only hear about these notions, I experienced them. I wonder if this is still the case today.

These are some memories that I thought would help explain how the school transmitted certain ethical values to me: Honesty to a degree that in Greece and in Turkey would be considered naiveté, scepticism for excess luxury or a somewhat ascetic way of lifestyle, equality and respect among members of any community. It was not the well-equipped laboratories, the rich library, the wide gym, the modern curriculum and the teaching methods that made the big difference of studying at Robert College at that time. All these naturally were of importance. It was actually the staff, which was composed of members that came from abroad, who were quite different, if not better than those of Turkey, and believed they were on a mission. Many years later a Greek (non-Rum) friend that watched me operate in life pointed out to me that I had tendencies of what Weber described as “Protestant ethics”. It was then that I became conscious of my experience in this school and of its great positive influence on me. 

While no two persons are alike, as all cases that have to do with an individual, my case may also represent an element that composes a generality. Generalities however, are constructions that serve a purpose, either of an individual or a group. Why do we discuss the Greeks today? How do we perceive the Greeks of Robert College today? Who are we who speak of them? These are a few questions that come to my mind, which did not cross my mind 40-50 years ago.

In the year 1964, while in university I was for a while the president of a cultural organizational committee, a section of the student union of this school. Among our activities, which mostly were political and heavily influenced by the leftist agenda of those years, we also carried out a short study about the history of our school, particularly the social and ethnic background of the students from the inception of the school - from the 1860s to 1960. We studied the registration lists of the students for every 10 years, checking the names and professions of the parents. We ended up with a social profile of the students. 

Unfortunately, I do not have this study and it was never published. I lost it as I moved from one house to the next. What I remember is that the students until the years of Young Turks, but especially until 1920s when the modern Turkish Republic was founded, were mostly Christians, especially Bulgarians, Armenians and Greeks. Muslims were a minority. Their fathers were merchants, doctors, shopkeepers - people who were financially well off. The situation changed drastically after 1923, when the Turkish Muslim students became the majority. In my time there were many students who were studying with scholarships; they had come from various places in Anatolia from families with no wealth.

I wonder how the Greek students of the 19th century identified themselves. Did they consider themselves as Ottomans, Greeks (in the sense of Yunan), Rums or Orthodox Christians? Did they use combinations of these identities? I cannot say. But I can speak of my time and of myself.     

Running through the yearbook of 1965, the record of 65 as it was called, I ended up with the following. Greek students in that year at the university numbered 20 in total. They composed 5 percent of the students of the School of Engineering and 3.4 percent of the other two schools combined: the School of Business Administration and Economics, and the School of Sciences and Languages.

The corresponding percentages for other non-Muslim students, namely Armenians and Jews were as follows: 44 students in total, 12 percent in the engineering and 6.3 percent in the other schools, making up for 10 percent in average. The Greeks and the non-Muslims still presented a “normal” and a somewhat high rate, taking into consideration the proportion to the total population of Istanbul (approximately 3 percent for the Greeks, and a similar figure for Armenians and Jews).

However, what was of interest was the low percentage of the Greeks in the extracurricular activities of the school. When the members of clubs and councils such as tourism, philatelist or student unions etc., are considered, the participation of the Greeks in these subgroups were as low as 2 percent. We notice seven Greeks participating in these activities, out of which four were in the Photography Club, where they composed the majority of the club. If this “Greek Club” is excluded, the integration of the Greeks in the clubs of extracurricular activities drops to about 1 percent. In other words the Greeks in the years 1965 were not a very active group in the school. 

This is the way I remember them, too. I use the word them and not us because back in the ‘60s I felt and behaved somehow differently. I did not identify myself wholeheartedly with them. I felt I was more integrated to my environment, to the school and my immediate surroundings. I still have a vivid image in my memory of the Greek students on the campus of the university, in front of Albert Long Hall. They were walking, five or six of them, as a group. I felt that something did not look right. That is the reason I still remember this moment after 40 years. They were a group of Greeks, whereas I did not operate at that time as a member of a Greek group. My closest friends were Uğur Aker, Osman Ulagay, Osman Birder, Ali Taygun, Tarık Okyay, Tosun Terzioğlu and others, of course. There were friends from middle school, from the Academy. There were no Greeks among my closest friends even though I socialized with them, too. This was probably because I did not select friends based on ethnicity, but a closeness that had naturally developed among classmates. 

I propose a distinction in order to explain a phenomenon. Among the Greek students of the 1960s there were two categories at the university part of Robert College: those who had joined the school after they had completed a Greek high school and those who came from the middle and high schools of Robert College.

The latecomers showed signs of a closed community. They were not wholly integrated into the environment and experienced a kind of ghetto psychology in a school, which had two distinctive characteristics. The school was American from the academic point of view and Turkish from the students’ point of view. I felt at ease with both because I had a long period of adjustment. Furthermore, my association with both had started when I was very young.

Much later, trying to understand the influence of Robert College on me, my choices in life and my group identity, I came to the conclusion that it was decisive. This school had provided to me the notions and secured the reflexes needed to be integrated with the wider Turkish environment. To be more precise, it provided a cosmopolitan framework that later enabled me to adjust myself to any new environment. I recently read an article by anthropologist Ulf Hannerz in Global Culture: nationalism, globalization and modernism, which classified human beings into cosmopolitans and locals. The latter group appears more tied to tradition, closest to their familiar environment and more conservative. The cosmopolitans are, as the term implies, more open to the others. I believe this is one of the most important aspects that Robert College has granted to me - a Greek of the 1960s.

Paradoxically, it was this cosmopolitanism that made this Greek a very good and active Turkish citizen. It was the American school, not the Turkish state that made a good Turkish citizen out of me. In those years I was very active within the Turkish community, or to word the phenomenon more precisely, within my greater community, which happened to be Turkish. It could have been anything…, I would have adapted myself to it. Later when I moved to Greece, it was as easy for me to act as a regular member of this new environment. It is of interest to note that it was the Rums of Istanbul, who had isolated themselves from the wider Turkish environment. Upon arrival in Greece they still could not integrate into the new Greek environment, forming their small minority groups with their clubs and newspapers, segregating themselves as they did back in Turkey.

Robert College with its cosmopolitan and democratic education and atmosphere secured what the Turkish state did not manage. This may sound surprising to some, but it is this open society that secures the good and loyal citizens. When I was still a student I was in the varsity team of Turkey as a runner representing Turkey, an active member of Workers Party of Turkey (TİP) and a member of the student council. In other words I was a citizen that participated in social affairs. I was the only Greek that had an active participation in the leftist movement of the country. I remember that the Greek community of Istanbul never appreciated, but even more interestingly, never understood my motives of my participation in this “Turkish” enterprise. They were, at least during those years, quite isolated in their cultural and social ghetto.

My integration with and my participation in the social environment was the end result of an understanding that was closely connected to basic democratic principles of equality and responsibility that were inspired in this school. Integration went hand in hand with the preservation of my ethnic and cultural identity. My identity as a minority member was also secured and respected in Robert College. To be a Christian, for example, was the most natural thing, since our teachers, that is to say the most respected men and women of the institution were in most cases of a different religion. Respect to multiculturalism was the normal approach. All these can be covered under a general title of tolerance. All differences were tolerated: philosophical, religious, ideological differences and diversity in general were not seen as a challenge and threat. Understanding for the other was what was taught to us from the first day.

Most of these were absent in the wider Turkish community and outside the campus. Out there, there was the discrimination of minorities, the mistrust and suspicion vis-a-vis the Other. When I graduated and faced the “Turkish reality”, and especially the practices of the state, I had to make some decisions and reconsider the situation. The 11 years of my education however, helped me not to retreat back to an understanding of a minority group that was closed in itself. I believe that I am still a cosmopolitan. Not in the sense that it is used in general in Turkish society, i.e., in a pejorative sense connoting loss of cultural identity, but as a positive quality.

In those old good days, because for old people all past days are good and nostalgic anyhow, I profited a lot from Robert College as a Greek. I had a wonderful time, too. I enjoyed athletics, the activities in the student union, some friendships that I did not manage to make to that extent in the years that followed. I fell in love in this school and I am still married to Evy, a Greek graduate of Robert College, too. I want to believe that it was this school that saved me from becoming a nationalist, as well. At least the school’s role in this direction was of some importance for me.

As a conclusion, even though I do not like conclusions since they always limit the richness of the details of a text, I would like to remind you of some distinctions.

1. By “Greek” at Robert College one may mean different things: 

      a) Members of the Greek nation (Yunan)

         b) Grecophone and/or Christian Turkish citizens (Rum) .

2. By “student” one may mean:

      a) Any student that studied for any period of time in this school

      b) Students that came of age in this school 

3. By “education” one may mean:

      a) Obtaining a training in a profession and/or skill

      b) A worldview or a style in facing the world. 

4. Finally, citizenship goes hand in hand with acceptance of alterity, that is to say the other. If a state fails to accomplish this, one may end up with subjects not citizens.

All the above distinctions are vivid in my mind when I speak of the “Greeks of Robert College.”


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Ahval.