In one of the more surreal events of my years in the English High School of Istanbul, I came face-to-face with Princess Anne, the daughter of Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain. The year was 1971, and it happened, of all places, in a chemistry lab at the school, located on the very top floor.
For most of the 20th century the English High School stood as a bright beacon of British colonialism in the exotic lands of the Muslim Turks. The Brits, of course never actually colonialised the heart of the Ottoman Empire, as they did India or Egypt, or large chunks of the Middle East which they captured from the Turks in the Great War. . They merely exerted varying amounts of influence over the centuries, increasing greatly by the time of the First World War. After the disintegration of the Ottomans a new, secular Turkish Republic followed its own course, and by the end of the Second World War, was more in alignment with the U.S. and NATO. Our little elite High School occupied a tiny role in British-Turkish relations, in proportion with the by then decreased influence of Great Britain as a world power.
By the 1970’s the school was in serious decline. It had long since lost subsidies from the British, and was badly struggling financially. Later in the same decade it was to fail completely, be taken over by the Turks and change its name to Istanbul Anadolu Lisesi. In other words it would cease to exist. At this peculiar moment in time, with our school in its deathbed, Queen Elizabeth happened to be pay a state visit to Turkey, and decided to visit EHS. Why, I don’t know! The school was meaningless to all parties involved except, perhaps, as a symbol of old, more glorious days.
This was, to our knowledge, the first time ever that a British monarch visited our school. We were informed of this historic visit months in advance, and a general excitement swept through the school. Preparations began to make this momentous occasion in the history of the school as perfect and auspicious as possible. Why? Again, in retrospect I don’t know. But “the Queen was coming”! What other reason did we need?
As the school became more impoverished, the small building in Nishantash which housed us was becoming more and more dilapidated. We didn’t mind this. But we did mind that the school did not have proper funds to furnish us with suitable, state of the art science labs. In a society that valued a technical education more than anything else, the lack of proper physics, chemistry and biology laboratories to supplement the lecture courses in these fields, which incidentally were obligatory for all, was conspicuous and a source of much consternation. By contrast many other private Lycee’s including the wealthy Robert College, an American school located in a gorgeous campus on the hills overlying the Bosphorus, seemed to have everything, including those much coveted laboratories.
Half of the class that started at EHS with us back in Ortaokul (grade school) in 1967, had recently defected to Robert College in the transitional summer from grade school to high school. Many of them were intellectually the best and brightest. Those of us left behind felt a bit abandoned and bewildered by this mass move to Robert College, in effect an overt act of recognition that EHS was in decline and a better education was to be had elsewhere. We felt inferior to our American counterpart, larger and wealthier than us. In a funny way, the two schools now, in retrospect, seem like a microcosm of the post World War II reality of the two parent countries they represented. We were too young to appreciate the metaphor that our schools had become. All we knew was that there were inadequacies and gaps in our education and we wondered how much better our education would be if these were filled.
As the royal visit approached however, the powers that be at EHS set out to sweep these inadequacies under the rug, and present the school to the monarch as a perfect, well rounded, up-to-date prep school, injecting ostentatious British culture to the progeny of the Istanbul elite. Thus they came to include a chemistry lab demonstration as part of the show they put on for her, as if the school regularly had chemistry lab in its curriculum. As the visit approached, preparations took on an increasingly urgent, more furious pace. It was no different than staging a school play. We rehearsed more frequently and with higher intensity.
Our chemistry teacher that was to lead the royal lab demonstration was a young Turk, as it turned out in more ways than one. He was a relatively recent alumnus of EHS himself, and had only just graduated from the University. This was an interim job for him on the way to bigger and better things, and he was a breath of fresh air, bringing energy and enthusiasm to this subject previously languishing under lugubrious British predecessors. His name was Mehmet Ipekci. He cut a dashing figure in the school, tall and handsome with a grand moustache, and the temperament of a young Ottoman officer. He was formal and abrupt, and a bit intimidating. He was, in all appearances new Ataturk to be.
Mehmet Bey belonged to an illustrious family from Thessaloniki who were said to be “donme” ( “conversos” in Spanish), which means Jews who had converted to Islam in some prior generation. Such families, regardless of how much success they sought, were viewed with suspicion by higher echelons of Turkish society and were more likely to encounter glass ceilings in their rise through the ranks, especially in military or political careers. His uncle was a famous journalist for the well read Istanbul daily Milliyet, Abdi Ipekci, who, before the decade was over, was to be assassinated by none other than the infamous Mehmet Ali Agca, who subsequently attempted to slay Pope John Paul II . The young Ipekci, fearless, ambitious and full of vigor, seemed oriented to overcome his family curse and destined to shatter any ceilings placed in his way.
He was also a proud man who did not take to any humor at his expense. Once, a classmate named Selim, a science geek with a strong interest in theoretical physics and chemistry, who himself had great ambitions, that of becoming the next Einstein, had left him a message on a blackboard. This happened after Mehmet Bey abruptly shaved off his imposing moustache in the middle of the school year, shocking us all with a new, more childish and thus less respectable image. In those days the students stayed put in a given classroom all day, and every hour a new teacher entered to give a new lesson. There was always a 5 or 10 minute break in between. Just before chemistry class, Selim delighted us with hoots and laughter with a poetic line on the class blackboard: “biyiksiz Mehmet kuyruksuz esege benzer”. This translates to “Mehmet without a moustache resembles a donkey without a tail”. In Turkey “donkey” is a mild swear word. By the time our teacher entered we were all mum, our amusement suppressed and replaced by curiosity about his reaction. Our self-important young teacher did not take to having his visage compared to that of a donkey’s ass – sans moustache or tail – very well. He hit the roof, insisted on knowing who had written that message and gave Selim hell for the rest of the schoolyear, starting with a call to his parents to complain about their irreverent son.
When assigned the important task of a chemistry-show for the Kralice (“queen” in Turkish), Mehmet Bey came up with a simple, easy to perform demonstration that was least likely to blow up the lab – and the royal visitors – and most likely to impress. It was an acid-base titration experiment, where as the pH of the reactants changed so did their color in magical, almost artistic transition. I was a science geek in those days, a fact well known to the teacher staff, and got quickly assigned to this lab. My mate Selim, much to his disappointment was excluded; that tailless donkey was to hound him for many months to come. Those of us assigned to the royal demonstration found ourselves in the chemistry lab at the very top of the school building, right under the roof, repeatedly practicing this simple experiment to acquire facility with it. Thus the occasion of this visit gave us students who cared about science, a rare chance to experience that much coveted laboratory that was deficient in our lives.
After months of anticipation the much awaited day arrived. The Queen showed up with an entourage that included her then rather young, unmarried daughter Princess Anne. The majority of the student body greeted her in the dusty schoolyard outside the main entrance, lined up in as perfect a military formation as the school could muster. This they had practiced countless times, as we had with our acid-base titrations. Those of us assigned to the lab were happy to be excluded from this tedium and abide in a less constrained world. On the day of the visit we found ourselves crowding the few windows of the lab that overlooked that part of the yard, to observe the upcoming royal inspection of our fellow students. When she finally entered the yard, accompanied by the Mayor of Istanbul Vefa Poyraz, and other dignitaries, all we saw was the top of Her Royal Highness’ hat, walking slowly, observing the student body, with God knows what demeanor.
Queen Elizabeth did not come to our chemistry lab. Maybe the four story climb to the attic was too much for her; the school had no elevators. Instead, she sent her young daughter for whom those stairs were, I suppose, no trouble. And thus, one day in 1972, at age 15, I witnessed the grand entrance of Her Royal Highness Princess Anne of Great Britain into our humble lab, where, with a well timed cue from an advance observer we had initiated our titration some minutes earlier. We were attempting to time that all important, and much theatrical pH change with her royal arrival, so that she did not experience much ennui in the few minutes it takes for the reagents to mix in the beakers and flasks. This we managed to do with much flair. The students were in groups on a rectangular bench arrangement, akin to a large board-table with a missing center, and the Princess circled on the outside of the groups, observing the proceedings with obvious disinterest.
She was much prettier in person face-to-face, than in countless newspaper and magazine photos I had seen of her, where she appeared plain and horse-faced. I distinctly remember thinking that if she stayed in the room maybe a few minutes longer I could develop a crush on her. My surprise at how pretty I found her is now indelibly etched in my memory of that day. But was I just a horny, hormone crazed teenager who would have found any woman her age attractive? I will never know, for I have never seen her again in person. She rounded the benches as fast as she could courteously do, and then muttered something under her breath, soft but distinctly audible, about how much she disliked chemistry. Within seconds she was gone. We immediately rushed the windows to catch a glimpse of her mother, still at the dusty school yard engaging in some ceremony or speech with the dignitaries, school officials and the still stiff, immobile geometric lines of our fellow students standing at attention. We stared at the top of their heads, and Her Royal Hat, trying to make out what was being said, but high atop the building so far away, with the regular noise of the busy city around us, this was impossible.
That’s when the second most memorable impression of the day unexpectedly occurred, and nearly wiped out my budding romantic impression of the formerly plain, now pretty Princess. In the safety of the lab, for all practical purposes hermetically sealed from the rest of the ceremonious world honoring Her Highness, Mehmet Bey, our teacher, went on an uncontrolled tirade about what a useless woman Queen Elizabeth was, and how anachronistic the British Monarchy had become in our age. This he did with all the passion of a Young Turk properly educated in the tenets of Ataturk, the relatively recent “father” of our nation, displacing his hatred of the Ottoman Monarchy, a central tenet of the modern Republic, on this hapless woman which for us was nothing but a round red hat viewed from the fourth floor. His emotions, raw with youthful zeal, were not just his. They belonged to the new intelligentsia of the lucky few with higher education in this yet newly Westernized nation. The Ottoman Monarchy was a symbol of Medieval backwardness, illiteracy, and dogmatic tenacious attachment to the Kuran, itself a major impediment to the enlightenment of the potentially powerful new Turkish nation. For Mehmet Bey the Queen was nothing but a fellow-felon, a sister to the Abdulhamits, and Abdulmecits of the past. I did not understand all this then. All I remember was how shocked I was at this overt display of utmost disrespect towards, of all people, a Queen, “Queen of England” for Heaven’s sake! That the words were uttered by none other than a teacher, an authority figure who commanded automatic and obligatory respect in our society made the occasion all the more shocking.
It was clear to me then, as it is now, that if Mehmet Bey had been within earshot of the school’s higher up powers, he would never have made such a disrespectful statement to us students. Despite his arrogance, he was still too young to dare such an act. The conflict he created between the official school “party-line” and his personal opinions expressed so bluntly left me much bewildered. Was the Queen really a superfluous, useless, anachronistic figure? Did she deserve respect from us, people foreign to her? Did she even deserve respect from her own subjects, as Mehmet Bey seemed to question? I was to ponder these questions through decades to come as I lived and studied medicine in England, and as I observed England go through wars in the Falklands and Iraq. When the tragic death of Princess Diana occurred in 1997, to my surprise, Mehmet Bey’s passionate opinions, uttered by the open windows on the top of the EHS building, were in the mouths of the whole world including England, and in the front pages of newspapers everywhere. The question he posed that day remains unanswered.
A few years after the royal visit, I found myself at the University of Chicago as a freshman college student, performing the exact same acid-base titration in a chemistry lab. I was now in one of the great Universities of the world, one with no financial problems, a dynamic institution that clearly was not resting on its laurels as did my former high school. As a pre-medical student I was engaged in a heavy science oriented curriculum in my first two years, with memories of EHS still fresh in my mind. To my surprise and amusement I discovered that the Chemistry, Physics, Calculus and Biology I took in Chicago was nearly a verbatim repetition of the curriculum we were taught at EHS. In Chicago straight A’s came to me easily in these subjects, for this was material I already knew well. Wouldn’t you know it? That EHS education that we denigrated and suspected for being inferior, as it turned out, was actually top notch, laboratories notwithstanding. In fact those much coveted labs were, in reality, overrated.
We now fast forward to 1989. I was living in Cincinnati, Ohio at the time, and my wife was pregnant with our first baby. I was a young attending physician practicing neurosurgery, and her, she was a seasoned nurse. We both had been through obstetrics and gynecology in our training and encountered births and deliveries. I myself had delivered quite a few babies. I was thus surprised when my wife dragged me to La Maz classes. “What do we need this for”, I kept asking myself. But I was a newlywed, and wanted to indulge my young wife whom I loved at the time. The classes were held in a fancy retirement home tastefully decorated with reproductions of British hunting scenes. I found the classes incredibly boring, and took to frequent mental distractions during seemingly interminable sessions.
In the middle of one such class Julie turned to me and found me in a contemplative gesture staring at one of those English paintings. Thinking that I was daydreaming about the upcoming blessed event, the birth of our first child, she asked me with excitement in her voice, “honey, what are you thinking about?”. “The decline of the British Empire”, I laconically answered, and then turned to face her anguished, disappointed expression. I stared at her blankly as Mehmet Bey, fully moustached, made a lightning pass through my disinterested mind. Then I snapped out of it and tried, as best as I could, to rectify my gaffe.