28 Aug 2014 21:00
Şirince (pr. Shee-rin-jay) is a picturesque village on a hill only a few kilometers from the ancient Turkish town of Ephesus. Here, far away from the tourist crowds, a group of eccentric intellectuals have fulfilled a utopian dream: a village completely devoted to the study of mathematics.
Volunteer teachers, including some foreigners, give classes following strict schedules and programs. The pupils range from high school students to PhD level university scholars. They all seek the quiet and comfort of the village to help further their craft.
Some students live in tents, others in double rooms or small dorms in stone houses. It is mandatory to help to wash dishes, cook, do laundry and clean. Turkish families are very protective of their kids and most of the younger guests, especially boys, have to learn here how to live on their own in the village.
A small staff helps with the management of the Village. Some receive accommodation and a small salary, and others are volunteers. Miri, a blonde 32 year old interior architect from Antalya, comes every summer to work at the village. “I have a job but to come here is better than vacation. I help to build something different to improve the world” she says. A spirit of mission is pervading the place: Miri’s task is to help with further planning and construction of the expanding village.
However, politics are now threatening the future of the village. Private schools are widespread in Turkey as public schools are not good enough to equip students for university. However, the ruling AKP has been clamping down on private schools in a push that some say is designed to increase government control of education. Nesin is now facing pressure from the authorities.
Sivan Nişanyan, the architect of Armenian descent who planned most of the village, was recently sentenced to 2 years in jail for building an 'illegal' house next to the village. However, many claim the sentence was only an excuse to punish the controversial entrepreneur, who managed to upset both local Kemalist elites criticizing Atatürk, and the ruling AKP by insulting the Prophet Muhammad. Illegal building is indeed an incredibly widespread offense in Turkey and it is rarely prosecuted. The village was built in absence of urban regulation and has now been deemed illegal and could be destroyed.
Ali Nesin doesn’t seem shaken by the prospective. “If we are not protected by the Law, we will be protected by our popularity. We are a non-profit organization, the Village activity is funded by sponsor and donations and we ended with a loss every summer. We are looking for support from TUBITAK [Turkey’s scientific research agency] and even UNESCO. Bureaucracy makes hard to ask funds from European agencies.”
The names of the sponsors are inscribed on a wall in one of the “squares” of the Village. The funds are collected through the Nesin Foundation, a charity organization founded by Mr. Nesin’s father, the famous writer and humorist Aziz Nesin, to provide education for poor children. The land where the Village has been built was donated to the foundation by Mr. Nişanyan. Although a fee is required to enlist into the Village’s summer school, Mr. Nesin claims proudly that “nobody has ever been rejected for economic reasons,” following the foundation’s spirit.
“We are receiving too many applications, so we are demanding a motivation letter to make sure that highly motivated students will have priority. Even so, we don’t have enough room to accept all applicants. Some students are coming from abroad, but we have far too many requests from Turkey to really open the Village to International students as we would like. And the success of the Mathematics Village has encouraged us to start a new project, the Philosophers Village, on the nearby hill.” Ali explains as he interrupts briefly to scold a group of students chatting too loudly. “We need to keep this place like a sanctuary.”