From 24-28 March 2011 I was with my wife Pauline in Tirana for a conference of the Hizmet movement also known as the Fethullah Gülen network for education, social emancipation and interreligious harmony. In various short stories I will record some impressions of this most interesting and revealing trip.
We arrived on Thursday 24 March. That same evening a meeting and dinner was planned at the campus of Epoka University, some 20 km south of Tirana, only ate 3 minutes drive from the International Airport. The second day (at the end of the first day of the conference) we went to the most prestigious of the "Turkish Colleges' in Tirana, named after Turgut Özal, Prime Minister between 1983-9 and the President of Turkey until his death in 1993. He was praised as the first 'non-Kemalist' politician after many presidents from the military.
Epoka University is relatively small: not much more than 2000 students and it does not want to become much bigger. It concentrates on Economics, Computer Science/ICT, Civil Engeineering, architecture. Our main leader, here and during many of these days was Armando, a young engineer who had studied at the first Turkish College in Tirana (the özal College, also called the Memorial International School of Tirana). Armando is fluent in English, but also in Italian and Spanish. He is a civil engineer who worked for some ten years in several projects, among these the building of the international airport of Tirana. He moved to Epoka University in 2009. He wants to start his Ph.D. soon, on the topic of the restauration of post-Byzantine churches in Albania. His wife is also a civil engineer. She was prominent in the preparation of the recognition of Berat as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. His wife is still working at the government department of cultural heritage. They have one boy (born about the same time a our granddaughter Sophie, late 2009).
Epoka University has several buildings in Tirana City, but has started a new campus on a nice piece of land quite close to the international airport in a region that is otherwise still empty land, along a nice small lake. This is a view the resembles the Fatih University of Istanbul, although everything here is on a smaller scale. The name Epoka means Epoch and it must be the start of a new epoch in the history of Albania. Like Fatih University there is also no theological faculty, even no facility to say prayers, no mosque (yet). We had lunch here on the day of departure and at least half the students were female. None of them with a veil: this all looks quite secular and gives the impression that this undertaking is more a development or emancipation effort than something of a strengthening of the Islamic character of Albania.
People sitting at the table below: Mrs and Prof. Admiel Kosman of Berlin, Jewish Studies; Ercan Karakoyun of the Berlin Dialogue Centre; Rector and the Dean of Ecnomics of Epoka University; Prof. Radhi al-Mabuk, Psychologist in University of Northern Iowa, of Saudi Arabian origin and close to the Gülen movement. Second table, looking on his back Dr. Günther Mulack, German diplomat, former ambassador in various capitals of the Middle East and first German Ambassador for the contacts with Islam.
The second evening we visited Turgu özal College where we saw a show of students who read poetry, did some singing and dancing, both in pop-style as traditional. It is a secondary school that started in 1993 as the first of the 'Turkish Colleges' that are the trademark of the Gülen people in Albania: teaching at an international level in English, much emphasis on science, architecture, economics and computers. Below some photographs of the new buildings and the show.
Here we see Dr. Pauline Maas-Steenbrink talking with Mustafa Erdem, Dean of Students at Epoka University. From our arrival in Tirana until departure he was, together with Armando Demaj our guide. Mustafa Erdem originates from Istanbul, and he is one of a quite good number of people from Turkey serving the Gülen activities in Albania.