Chairman of the Turkish and Middle Eastern Department at the University of Cyprus Theoharris Stavrides, said that they are trying to be a bridge between the two communities.
He believes that their department is one of the few official institutions that accommodate officially people from both communities.
He gave information about the Department and explained their work in an interview to Voice International .
How did you become the Chairman of the Turkish and Middle Eastern Department at the University of Cyprus?
I started studying History at the United States and I did my PhD there. There, I concentrated on early Ottoman History and then when I came to Cyprus, I was employed at the Kykkos Monastery Research Centre. Then, I was elected as an Assistant Professor at the Department, initially, and later as an Associate Professor. I have been at the Department since 2007. My election as the Chairman of the Department was a coincidence because we do not have enough staff who is eligible to hold this position. Only three persons can and one of them is serving as Dean of the Faculty of Humanitarian Studies.
Can you tell us about the history of the Department at the University of Cyprus?
The Department was founded in 1991 together with the University of Cyprus. It was one the first Departments that were founded in the university. Those who founded the university , thought that it was essential to have a department in Turkish studies because ideally it would grow to be a university that would be bicommunal and cover both communities. Later on, we were expected to be expanded as a department. It was established as a Department of Turkish Studies and then we went on to be named Department of Turkish and Middle Eastern Studies. This has not been materialised because of the crisis in 2008. So, we are essentially Department of Turkish Studies, but we also offer a couple of courses in general Eastern History and History of Islam.
Is it necessary for students to have previous knowledge of the Turkish language in order to study?
No, they do not need to have any previous knowledge of the Turkish language. The students start at their first year with intensive teaching of Turkish. So, they can start without any prior knowledge of Turkish and then acquire it along the way. So, especially the first year is devoted almost exclusively to the teaching of Turkish with only two other courses, that are content courses. The one is Introduction to Turkish Studies and the other one is Introduction to Islam. The rest are just language, grammar, speaking etc.
What is the main academic focus of the Department ?What does the department offer to the students?
We have two directions. One is in History-Politics, and by History is mainly Ottoman History and the History of the Turkish Republic until nowadays. We have colleagues who work on contemporary issues. On the other hand, we have Linguistics and Literature. We try to have a very broad program for the first five semesters of the students. They do everything including an introduction to linguistics, literature, politics and Ottoman history and then at the end of the fifth semester, students have to choose a direction, either History and Politics or Linguistics and Literature, that they follow until the end of their studies and they kind of specify. As a professor of Ottoman History, I have to say with regret that students are more interested in contemporary issues, which is understandable and natural. So, judging from the topics students choose when they go to Master’s Degree or PhD, I must say the number one choice is politics and contemporary issues.
You mentioned that there are different directions and orientations that the students can choose from. What are the employment opportunities for graduates?
Well, it depends on what you’ve followed. Of course, in the end the bachelor’s degree that the students get is a degree in Turkish Studies, although it says with which direction you chose, but it is not necessarily a restriction. I personally know people with a degree on the History direction that went on to study Didactics for example. I think that the direction does not necessarily force you to follow a certain path after graduating. In general, our graduates, at least the ones who find employment in their area of study, they become either journalists, diplomats or are employed by the police or the army. Those are usually police or army officers and come to the Department to bolster their career path later. These are mostly graduates interested in History and Politics and then we have those who are interested in Linguistics and Literature, from whom most of are interested in teaching Turkish. Unfortunately, because Turkish is not compulsory in the south part, not many of them are employed in high schools, but some of them work as freelance teachers or translators.
The initial purpose of the University was to include and accommodate students from the Turkish Cypriot community also. What is the current situation of the Department now? Are there any Turkish Cypriots studying at any level (BA, MA, PhD)?
Turkish Cypriots students have a special status. Normally, Greek Cypriot students enter through the official exams. Turkish Cypriots can just apply and the Department considers the application and they can be accepted not through exams, but with a direct application to the University. We’ve had students as undergraduates before. We have more Turkish Cypriot students at the Master and PhD. So, they have a special status and by applying to the Department, their application is considered, they are interviewed and accepted directly from the Department without any exams.
Based on the current situation in Cyprus and in the Middle East, how do you think that the Department could serve beneficially for the Cyprus society?
In terms of the Cyprus issue, we are trying to be a bridge between the two communities. I think , we are one of the few official institutions that accommodate officially people from both communities and most of our students speak Turkish. So, we organise cultural events just like the one held by the Department on 1st of November, with one writer from the Turkish Cypriot community and one from the Greek Cypriot community. Also, we have contacts with the Turkish Cypriot community giving the chance to meet people from the Turkish Cypriot community.
Now, regarding the general situation in the Middle East, I am not sure we can do much. Of course we have the name of “Middle Eastern Studies”, we try to promote awareness about certain things, that especially in the Greek Cypriot community are difficult to promote like for example, Islam, because there is a lot of prejudice on this matter. So, I think that even in the general picture of confronting the very complicated politics in the Middle East, we try to promote at least some understanding in the Cypriot society.