From Bursa to Cambridge

Published January 22, 2024 by Büşra Elmas

Do they not travel through the earth, so that their hearts (and minds) may thus learn wisdom and their ears may thus learn to hear?

Quran, 22:46

This Quranic verse beautifully emphasizes the importance of travel and exploration to gain wisdom and understanding. It resonates with the essence of my journey in the UK, where every experience served as a lesson, and every interaction broadened my horizon.

My journey to the Woolf Institute marked many firsts of my life. It was my first solo international experience, allowing me to navigate the challenges and joys of living abroad, fostering resilience and adaptability. My journey to the Institute was my first time in an English-speaking country, which was a great chance to immerse myself in an English-speaking country, significantly improving my language skills while gaining a deeper appreciation for different cultures.

I was not in my home country during an Eid for the first time in the UK. Being away from my family was sad, but I was fascinated by the broader community, which prevented me from feeling alone during Eid. More interestingly, the first Eid prayer of my life was in Cambridge. I find this fact very interesting because in Türkiye, traditionally, women do not go to the Eid or Friday congregational prayers. Even if they want to participate in Eid or Friday prayers (For other private or congregational prayers, there is always a place for women, but not for Eid or Friday prayers), they cannot usually find a place to do so. It is tragically funny to think that in my 2-month length UK stay, I attended more Eid and Friday prayers than in my whole life in Türkiye. That is why my brother was joking around with me by saying, ‘That’s life. You can’t go to Friday prayers in a Muslim-majority country, while you can go in a non-Muslim one.’ It was lovely to be able to attend Friday prayers and feeling I was part of the community.

For the first time in my life, I was asked to reflect on which aspects of myself I aim to improve and what skills I hope to acquire during my limited time in the UK. I am genuinely grateful for this question posed by Dr Emma Harris. Her inquiry and contributions have been profoundly meaningful, helping me recognize my shortcomings and formulate solutions. I cannot thank Dr Harris enough for her time and guidance. If I feel more open to new challenges now, she has been a big part of it. I truly miss our Wednesday meetings.

During my time in Cambridge, I have met representatives of the Cambridge University Islamic Society and attended some events organized by them. I actively participated in an English reading group every Wednesday at Cambridge Central Library, where I met many people from different countries like China, Japan, Libya, Syria, Poland, Albania, Ukraine, Russia, France… Then, we built another community from that classroom to meet on Fridays to discuss certain topics together. That group still holds those meetings, and I like hearing from them. It was the first time I have had such a diverse group of friends. At the Cambridge Central Mosque, I had the chance to meet fellow Muslims from different backgrounds like locals, converts, tourists... I even met Esra Albayrak, the daughter of Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, during my last Friday prayer there. Another first of my life was that I shared a house with a non-believer Turkish woman, which initiated meaningful discussions about our world views and Türkiye. These dialogues nurtured mutual understanding and respect, exemplifying the importance of personal dialogue and tolerance. And again, for the first time in my life, I had the opportunity to meet people from the Church of Jesus Christ in person during the summer school at the Institute. Nothing is as helpful as face-to-face dialogue to understand similarities and appreciate differences. I was so lucky to meet all those wonderful people and have their friendship.

At the Institute, I was privileged to spend my time in the library, to have access to online resources of Cambridge University and to be able to attend events. I had a chance to meet many people through many different events. I was introduced to different methods used in teaching. Especially in the summer school I enjoyed how the sessions were held; separating the class into different groups and discussing the matters was instructive and fun, although I found that quite challenging sometimes. The Woolf Institute has helped me in many ways and provided invaluable support and opportunities. I am grateful for the friendliness of everyone there. The part of the Institute that impressed me the most was that it is an example of embracing diversity. The presence of an ablution area, the silent room, and the consideration of people with different dietary rules during events were all exemplary manifestations of this commitment.

In conclusion, my experience as a visiting PhD student in the Woolf Institute has been a remarkable journey filled with profound firsts. Each new encounter broadened my perspective, and each challenge fortified my adaptability. This journey has not only enriched my academic pursuits but has also fostered personal growth, making it a treasured chapter in my life’s journey. I feel more prone to new challenges now. And now I see more clearly that embracing diversities is possible.

Thank you, Woolf Institute, and thank you to all those who made this journey possible and unforgettable! I owe you all.

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