The Cats of Cunda: CMES Alumnae Remember a Unique Study Abroad Experience

November 21, 2014
Cats lounging at the Cunda harbor.
Cats lounging at the Cunda harbor. (Photo courtesy ActieZwerfhonden.)

When Karen Leal (’89, AM ’94, PhD ’03) packed her bags for a summer at the Intensive Ottoman Turkish Summer School (IOTSS) in 1998, the instructions from the school’s co-founder, the late Harvard professor Şinasi Tekin, included “bring cat food.”

Many students would look askance at such instructions, but not Leal. “My mother and I knew he meant it seriously. We had a Harvard duffel bag with pockets and packed it full of dry food.”

Leal knew why Tekin was asking students to bring cat food on their summer trip: the Turkish island where the school was located, Cunda, also known as Alibey Adası, is well known for its large population of feral cats. Co-founders and cat lovers Tekin and Gönül Hanım (Tekin's wife) did their best to tend to them even when the school was not in session. By the end of the time she spent in Cunda, Leal had grown so attached to the cats that she brought three of them home to the United States.

Harvard away from Harvard

A Harvard-affiliated summer language program might not seem like the most likely place to adopt a cat. However, the IOTSS is not a typical institute. Founded in 1996, the IOTSS was Tekin’s “lifelong dream,” according to Leal. The program focuses on Ottoman and modern Turkish and Persian language studies, as well as paleography, 19th century Ottoman texts, and similar subjects. The program is intellectually intense, run by some of the field’s leaders and producing many alumni who have gone on to notable careers. Leal, for example, is now the managing editor of the renowned publication Muqarnas: An Annual on the Visual Cultures of the Islamic World.

In contrast to the program’s academics, the location is very relaxed. The school takes place in a single research building on a small island with easy beach access and little public transportation. Both Leal and Barbara Petzen—a former doctoral student on Cunda and now president of the Middle East Outreach Council—describe an exciting, close atmosphere and the ability to engage with local culture as well as with major scholars in the field.

The island location and rigorous program fostered a strong sense of community. “There aren’t a lot of Ottomanists,” Petzen explains, “We are not a huge field, so being able to make really strong personal connections in your microfield is important. Being away from everything else—helping each other in this intense experience—I think really bonded people together. We still contact [each other] today.” Caring for the cats was an additional bonding experience, and a counterpoint to the academic intensity. “When you’re working with Şinasi Tekin and Gönül Hanım, who were the top people in the field, it’s a little intimidating,” says Petzen. Watching them with the cats, however, was a different story: “They [became] entirely playful and disarmed. [The cats] lent a warmth to the program that no other kind of summer program I’ve ever been to had,” Petzen recalls.

Caring for Cunda’s cats

When Leal arrived on Cunda, she had never seen so many cats. They filled the narrow streets near the school. Every summer, female cats would get pregnant while their previous litters were not yet fully weaned, leaving dozens of kittens stranded and dehydrated in the street.

“The situation in Cunda was exceptional because there are so many cats per square meter,” explains Linda Taal, founder of the Netherlands-based ActieZwerfhonden (StraydogsCampaign). There was little effort to curb the cat population because they were seen as useful rat killers. With food plentiful at the harbors, the population ballooned. The Tekins, cat lovers, did what they could to help the animals. “[They took in] any cat that was in trouble,” Petzen remembers, “so there were just tons of kittens. They had this garden courtyard in the school and it was always full of cats, all the time.” The Tekins also brought in a veterinarian and enlisted students to help feed and care for the kittens.




“You had a responsibility to help care for [the cats],” says Petzen. Her first adopted cat, named Cunda of course, was one of these kittens. She found the kitten on the sidewalk, half dead, and carried her back to the house, where the little animal promptly revived only to nearly choke on a sardine fresh from the market. As Petzen and the other students were trying to save her, “Gönül Hanım opened the front door. We panicked—I grabbed the cat and ran to the laundry room and hid it in a box.” Later that night, Petzen snuck back to the laundry room, but the cat was gone. “I was looking under the washing machine and I got up and as my head cleared the top, there’s Cunda, this tiny little kitten, just staring me right in the face, as if saying ‘I want another fish.’ And after that she just followed me everywhere.”


Rengin and Bonnie.

Rengin and Bonnie

Petzen wasn’t the only one to adopt cats from the island. Leal and several other program members took cats home; one kitten even ended up in Vienna. Leal, who adopted three, almost had to leave her first cat behind: calico Rengin—which means “colorful” and “charming” in Turkish—was found in the courtyard of the school, blind and abandoned by her mother. The Cunda-Istanbul bus driver refused to take a cat on board, so Leal had to leave Rengin on Cunda until her friend Selim Kuru (Ph.D. ’00), now an IOTSS instructor and associate professor at the University of Washington, convinced someone vacationing from Istanbul to drive the tiny animal to meet Leal in the city. Leal’s second and third cats were Boncuk (a popular Turkish pet name, which became “Bonnie” in English) and Düdük, which means “whistle” (Düdük was a big bruiser of a tomcat with “this little whistle voice,” explains Leal.)


A drawing of Düdük.

A drawing of Düdük

Getting the cats home was an international effort in a literal sense, from haggling with the Cunda-Istanbul bus driver, to “kitty passports” and a cat carrier shipped from the United States by Leal’s mother. In the end, says Petzen, the customs officials “didn’t even look to see if it was in fact cats, much less at the kitty passports.”


Cats in Turkish culture

Cats have long been associated with scholarship in Turkish culture, so a Harvard institute caring for street strays is oddly appropriate. Since the Safavid period (16th to mid-18th centuries), cats have often appeared in paintings of scholars, and Leal says that they are often found in Turkish bookshops, lounging in the windows, wandering among the shelves, wayfarers in a sea of books. In Istanbul, Simurg Kitabevi (Simurg Bookstore) is “very famous, especially for anyone doing anything related to Ottoman history,” says Leal. “There’s always a cat around there—I even saw the owner giving medicine to the cats on the street.”

In a country where cats are generally seen as street animals, shelters are not common. “They are not used to owning animals, keeping them indoors most of the time and feeling responsible for them. Pets live outside, most of the time either as a guard dog on a chain or roaming around freely,” explains Taal. Despite the lack of shelters, says Petzen, it is very common for people to feed street cats and tend to them: “They would cook extra [food] and put it out on a plate for the cats. Casual concern for street cats is very very widespread.” Cemal Kafadar, Vehbi Koç Professor of Turkish Studies at Harvard, explains that cats as well as dogs have been a part of street life in many Turkish cities for centuries, and that caring for these animals is often a community effort. “Informal neighborhood networks to feed alley cats were and are a common phenomenon,” Kafadar notes, “but there were also formal endowments made—in Ottoman Istanbul, for instance—to regularly feed certain quantities of liver to the cats of a particular neighborhood, or a certain amount of grain to the birds.”

Even President Barack Obama took note of one of Turkey’s cats. During a grand formal tour of Istanbul’s renowned Aya Sofya (Hagia Sophia), a former Ottoman mosque, Obama stopped to pet Gli, a small tawny-and-white feline resident of Aya Sofya who is beloved by local residents and tourists alike. “People went crazy in Turkey over this,” Leal says,“I think they were touched that he was in this world-class building and noticed this little animal.”

Cunda and its cats today

Cunda not posing.

Cunda not posing

Şinasi Tekin passed away in 2004. The IOTSS continues under the charge of Gönül Hanım, and has seen nearly 300 graduates since its founding.


In 2013, veterinary and general volunteers from Taal’s organization neutered approximately 1000 cats, with plans to return each year for three to five years. According to Taal, the villagers, at first uncooperative at the idea of reducing the cat population in the face of potential rat infestation, came to understand that the neutered cats are healthier and still able to kill rats. Taal says that they have even begun reporting situations with stray animals to Mrs. Gulnihal Balci, the woman in charge of the shelter in Ayvalik, Cunda.

As for the adopted cats, Rengin and Cunda are still living lives of luxury with Petzen and Leal. Aside from their unusual calico coloring—very prevalent among the island’s cat population—and a certain indefinable “Turkish cat” quality, according to Leal, they aren’t too different from the average American house-cat. Petzen attempted to get a picture of Cunda on an Ottoman carpet, but reported that “unsurprisingly, cats don’t pose.”

—By Sabrina Zearott (’09)

•    Johanna Bodnyk, CMES Web Editor & Communications Coordinator
•    Sabrina Zearott, Freelance Writer

The IOTSS, founded in 1996 and affiliated with Koç University since 2002, is run through the Ottoman Studies Foundation with funding from the Turkish Cultural Foundation.

See also: 2014-15, Alumni News