The Social Architect

By Sabrina Fatma Ahmad

In the three years that he has been the Ambassador of Türkiye to Bangladesh, HE Mustafa Osman Turan has given many, many interviews about the bilateral relations between our two nations. In a friendly chat with MW Bangladesh, we get to know more about the man himself

Thursdays in winter are not ideal for photoshoots. Thanks to the gridlocked traffic, it takes hours to assemble the MWB team at our shoot location, and the AQI has made visibility a very chancy thing. All of that falls away when we reach our destination: the Turkish Embassy.

Classical Turkish architecture has been given a modern interpretation by the Uygur Architects from Ankara who designed the embassy, creating a space that can accommodate human interaction, introspection, and ignite imagination at the same time. The use of red Mirpur bricks brings in that local connection to the surroundings.

We’ve been warmly received, offered tea and treats, and given a tour of our shooting spots before HE Mustafa Osman Turan makes his appearance, apologizing for also being held up by traffic. Any worries about staying on schedule are immediately dispelled, because the Ambassador has come prepared. He’s dressed in a sharp pale grey suit, has brought an armload of options, and knows all his good angles. A compliment about his fashion sense, and indeed, the strong fashion sense of Turkish men in general brings forth that camera-ready smile, and in turn, he speaks warmly about Bangladeshi fashion, saying that he finds saris very elegant, and thinks the Mujib coat makes a strong style statement, although he personally prefers brighter colors to the traditional black. One has to wonder if it takes a special kind of person to enter diplomacy.

“I was a tall kid – taller than my peers” he tells us. “And that has given me some advantages. In primary school, five years straight, my teachers nominated me as the student responsible for the whole class, so that gave me a sense of responsibility. You don’t want to upset your friends, and you don’t want to upset your teachers.” That was just the beginning of a childhood of grooming for leadership, as the young Turan went on to become a leader of their local dance group, and the captain of their secondary school basketball team. While he modestly attributes these things to his prodigious height, he does admit that he was a good student, and the summers spent in his family hometowns, surrounded by extended family, spending time in nature also instilled a love of nature and community in him.

NOT THE ROAD INTENDED

“I studied international relations in a university in Ankara and that kind of also formed my intellectual outlook and made me a global citizen,” Ambassador Turan reminisces, telling us about his traineeships in Eastern European countries like Yugoslavia, Slovenia, and Bosnia. Having studied International Relations, he would work as a tourist guide in the south of Turkey, taking tourists to historical sites and brushing up on his language skills, but also gaining an insight into different world views. “Diplomacy wasn’t my dream,” he tells us. “I wanted to become an architect, but since I studied international relations, it was more convenient. I had a prejudice about the foreign service, because I thought if you didn’t have any connection as an Ambassador, it would be difficult to become a diplomat, but my classmates passed that exam and I was encouraged by them to join the foreign service.” When asked if he regrets not pursuing his initial dream of becoming an architect, he’s decisive. “I never regretted it. Now I consider myself a social architect, building communities instead of buildings.”

WE’RE DIFFERENT AND THE SAME

In his 30 years of diplomacy, HE Turan has lived and served in eight different countries, from developed nations, to those finding their way out of conflict and economic hardships, like Afghanistan and Kosovo. “I was in Albania in the late 90s, but I also served in Italy, Austria, and Belgium where I had the opportunity to learn about European culture and civilization, because we have to deal with Western diplomats a lot,” he elaborates, as a nod to Türkiye’s position, straddling both Europe and Asia.

You’ve been to eight different countries and eight different cultures. What are some of the things that are similar? I ask him. He ponders for a minute. “I believe what binds us together are the feelings. For example, pain. When someone feels pain, it’s the same everywhere. The pain that people suffer because of disadvantaged socioeconomic conditions, because of discrimination or intolerance towards them, or because they are not valued enough, they are not heard enough, these kinds of feelings are similar everywhere. I think that’s why it’s so important that we build empathy towards others who are feeling similar pains. This is the negative aspect, but when you look at the spectrum of feelings, it’s true for happiness too. When you see how people are joyful, it’s also quite similar. When we are joyful we look like each other. We all smile, it’s easier to communicate. I think those areas when our feelings are aligned, we feel that empathy and connection, and feel similarities towards other people.”

TOGETHER YESTERDAY, TOGETHER TOMORROW

I raise a point about Ottoman Turks using Chittagong port for their business, and the Ambassador is quick to school me. “Actually our shared past goes even before the Ottoman empire. The people who brought Islam to the sub-continent were the Turks, our ancestors, who were moving from Central Asia to the West. Some of them went to Anatolia, where Türkiye is now, but others came down to India, and established the Mughal empire. I think there is a lot to be researched about how Turkish people interacted with Bengali people.” He goes on to share some of his discoveries of examples of early ties between our people, recalling the Shait Gombuj Mosque in Bagherhat, a UNESCO recognized heritage site which is a fine example of Turkish architecture. He talks about Sufism, which is still alive in Sylhet and Chittagong, and the local fascination for Rumi. “I’ll tell you something interesting, when I came here I felt like [I was at] home, but I didn’t know why I felt that way. When Bangladeshis go to Türkiye, they also feel like home, and they don’t know why. It’s also that shared past, shared culture, shared history.”

Ambassador Turan has definitely been active in the cultural exchange between our two nations, having organized Sufi festivals here in Dhaka. He talks about organizing events at the embassy that featured Sufi musicians and Turkish dervishes and local baul singers and kathak dancers. “When we juxtaposed them, and people saw the similarities, then it clicked, why we are similar.” He talks about Bangladeshi musicians he has enjoyed, such as Imran Ahmed and his jazz band, and Armeen Musa. He talks about events like the Dhaka Lit Fest and the Dhaka Art Summit as great ways to showcase local arts and cultures to the whole world.

We move from his office to the garden outside. He switches from his grey suit to a colorful coatie, and then into a beautiful blue blazer, which is informs us, is made from jute, and has been crafted for him by an organization looking to promote jute products in Bangladesh.

Other than creating meaningful cultural dialogue, the Ambassador has been an active proponent of the start-up scene in Bangladesh. Being the Founding Co-Chair of Sustainable Development Goal Impact Accelerator, he shares with us his initiative of bringing the SDGIA program to Bangladesh, and graduating two start-ups during the Covid years. He expresses his admiration for the work being done by a2i in Bangladesh, and incubator programs run by Build Bangladesh, and inevitably, the government’s Digital Bangladesh vision, which has recently been rebranded as Smart Bangladesh. “When you are coming out of the ‘developing country’ status, trying to move into ‘developed country’ status, technology is key. Otherwise, you can’t catch up. I think Bangladesh is doing well. Economic development very much depends on political stability, economic stability, as well as physical security. I think those things are present in Bangladesh – what’s now necessary is to build infrastructure, which the government is trying to do. Not only building roads or bridges, it’s also building better schools, hospitals. Putting more money into health and education is essential to economic development. I think in that sense, Bangladesh in the next years will be dealing with those issues,” he muses.

Photoshoot completed, Turkish delights consumed, we talk about our experience of discovering new talent at the Dhaka Lit Fest and rediscovering old favorites. As we’re about to part, I ask him what memory of Bangladesh he will be happy to take back with him. “My trip to Sundarbans on a full moon night. It was a weekend. It was really magical and took place during Covid times, so it was really interesting for me, coming out of lockdown. I took a few helicopter rides over Bangladesh. You know when you fly closer to the ground you see how beautiful the landscape is.”

Photo: Salek Bin Taher

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