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Philosopher of law Ali Kösedag: Hague heart, Leiden mind

In the Pioneers of Leiden University series we talk to past and present students who were the first in their family to go to university. In this fourth instalment: alumnus and philosopher of law Ali Kösedag (1992): ‘Philosophising about equality before the law in the Netherlands at an early-morning lecture, while the riot police were thundering through your street the night before.’

Mohammed El Baroudi (1995), a trainee at Leiden University, was himself a first-generation student. He is charting the stories of pioneers at the university. This is his fourth article in the series.

We meet at the entrance to the Old Observatory in Leiden, at Kösedag’s request. He explains how this imposing building has always fascinated him: ‘The study sessions in the old library at the Observatory are unforgettable.’ Kösedag has a degree in philosophy of law and works as a researcher for the municipal ombudsman of The Hague. He is the oldest in a family of four boys and was born and bred in Schilderswijk in The Hague.

Unexpected advice

Kösedag went to ‘t Palet primary school on Vaillantlaan, the busy arterial road in Schilderswijk. He was the only one in his class whose secondary-school advice was for VWO, the pre-university stream: ‘Completely unexpected advice,’ he says. He can remember that he loved reading. When he was eight his father took him to join the local library at the crossroads between Hoefkade and Koningsstraat: ‘I began with adventure books, Snelle Jelle [a series of children’s books about a young footballer called Jelle], that kind of thing. At some point I realised that I also liked reading difficult books instead of gaming or playing outside.’

A photo of Ali Kösedag looking at books in the Old Observatory library.
Kösedag in the Old Observatory library

Bookworm under the radar

Discovering new things, the unknown, is what made Kösedag’s heart beat faster. But this wasn’t without its drawbacks: ‘Once I got to the last year of primary school, I started hiding that side of me. I had about eight books at home that I wanted to finish on the sly. I didn’t want to be seen as the teacher’s pet or a nerd, and began to enjoy being able to fly under the radar in class.’

Neither his parents nor his teachers had expected him to be advised to do VWO. When it came to choosing a secondary school, Kösedag’s father took the initiative. ‘My father was definitely involved, but had never had to interfere with my school career. So it surprised me that he did have an opinion about my choice of secondary school,’ he says.

Exit comfort zone

Everyone that he knew – cousins, the neighbours’ children – automatically went to the local Johan de Witt College. A secondary school that Kösedag’s father had his reservations about: ‘My father knew that most of them didn’t do well there, so he decided to send me to a secondary school in Rijswijk, which was well outside my comfort zone.’

Although the school was only a few kilometres from his home, it felt to Kösedag as though it was a world away from the one he knew: ‘My first years at Rijswijks Lyceum were quite hard, a culture shock that I had to overcome. In retrospect I can say that it was then that I appreciated how unusual Schilderswijk was. A neighbourhood whose context and composition was miles away from any other average at all in the rest of the Netherlands, even compared with neighbourhoods a short bus journey away.’

The same boat

In Schilderswijk there was a feeling that everyone was in the same boat. The sometimes tough conditions that the families there lived in, regardless of whether they came from a migrant background, were what brought them together. ‘Outside of Schilderswijk you felt as though you’d been plucked from a comfortable melting pot. In Rijswijk after the first summer I heard classmates talking about holidays in Bali and the Azores. Where I lived the most you would hear would be about children who’d been to a local campsite or spent days in a van on their way to a village in Morocco or Turkey.’

But Kösedag wouldn’t have wanted it any other way: ‘It was a fantastic time, nonetheless. I had to learn how to deal with differences, and succeeded. You gradually learnt how unique your perspective really was and this was a harbinger of later in higher education.’

A photo of the village of Eleşkirt with the Kösedag mountain in the background.
The village of Eleşkirt with the Kösedag mountain in the background. Photo: Omer Alan

Crow Village

Kösedag’s roots lie in Eleşkirt, a village in eastern Turkey, close to the Armenian border. It is also known as ‘Crow Village’, in reference to the presence of hordes of these mystical black birds. Kösedag’s father was illiterate and came from a family of shepherds. His mother, however, came from the nearby city of Agri and had been to primary school. They more or less taught themselves to read and write.

The region in which Eleşkirt is situated is a piece of ‘forgotten land’, says Kösedag: ‘It’s a grey area that is blanketed with thick snow for four months a year. Kösedag means ‘bare mountain’ in Turkish, and is the namesake of a mountain that lies behind the village.’ A region far from the Turkish metropolises, where the people live in poverty and often see migration as their only escape, says Kösedag.

Kösedag’s father’s migration history begins with a migration of over 1,500 kilometres to Istanbul, to work in construction there. ‘He worked there with his father and brothers, until one day a passport was thrust in his hands and he was told he could catch a flight to the Netherlands.’ Upon his arrival in the Netherlands, things moved fast for father Kösedag and there was little time to acclimatise: ‘He was picked up at Schiphol Airport when he arrived at two in the morning and taken to a guest house in The Hague. He then had to leave at six in the morning for his first day at work in the glasshouses in Westland.’

‘It feels as though I’m standing on my parents’ shoulders. Living on the wave that their sacrifice has created.’ 

Parents’ shoulders

A history that Kösedag unconsciously carried with him as a student: ‘My grandfather determined my father’s fate and mine too, I realised later. After each visit to the village my father would leave with tears in his eyes.’ His father’s fate was decided for him, when Kösedag is almost certain he wouldn’t have left the village for anything in the world: ‘He was homesick and often thought of returning, but I think it was my oldest brother and me that kept him here. He saw potential in us and that was his greatest motivation for putting off his return until tomorrow.’

And, as the proverb says, tomorrow never comes, something Kösedag felt he had to compensate for. ‘I always wanted to pay my own way. That started with part-time jobs as a teenager, so I wouldn’t have to live out of my parents’ pockets. It feels as though I’m standing on my parents’ shoulders. Surfing on the wave that their sacrifice has created.’ 

Kösedag’s parents were involved in his life, did all they could to facilitate his studies, but, at the same time, let him make his own decisions. He was the first in his family to go to university. When he saw his parents shed a tear at his school graduation, he realised what it meant to them: ‘It was in this context that the earnest voice in my head emerged that was always saying: “Take this seriously and get all you can out of it.”’ A voice, perhaps, that spoke in moments when he was relaxing or taking it easy: ‘It wasn’t quite a fear of failure, but I did put a lot of pressure on myself.’

A photo of Ali Kösedag on a Leiden street.
‘The baggage you carry: that’s your unique selling point.’

Proud, but what next?

The end of secondary school was also a relief. Kösedag could momentarily forget the pressure he had put on himself: ‘I could think about myself, what I actually wanted, who I was. My family was proud, but what next?’

After spending six months studying in Rotterdam and a further six months working full-time, Kösedag ended up at Leiden Law School: ‘The building, the history, it was quite imposing. But this time I consciously opted for the fear of the unknown. To shake things up.’ Something that wasn’t difficult in Leiden, with courses like jurisprudence and philosophy of law: ‘I learnt how to look critically at concepts like freedom and justice. Once again, I was the odd one out, but the fact that many certainties were challenged made me sharper than ever before.’

Hague heart, Leiden mind

Kösedag identifies with pioneers at the university, mainly in his experience as a student in an unfamiliar environment. He felt a strong connection to Schilderswijk, but also developed a connection to Leiden. ‘It was as though every day, during the twelve-minute train ride, I went through a real transition. Once I arrived in Leiden and was on my way to the lecture halls, I felt really “Leiden”. I never took the bus, purely to enjoy the walk through town. I got to stand on the shoulders of giants who had studied there, like Thorbecke, who helped lay the foundations of the Dutch parliamentary democracy.’

Leiden gained a permanent place in his life alongside his raw Hague background, despite that voice in his head that sometimes had its reservations. ‘Practically speaking, I don’t belong here. That’s what I thought at the time. I didn’t belong to a student association, didn’t drink beer and didn’t live there.’ But he overcame his doubts: ‘At some point it just didn’t interest me anymore. I could be my authentic self and no one had a problem with that.’

Toned-down excellence

For Kösedag the law faculty was more than lecture halls; it was a school of life even. He met his wife there and was allowed to excel. He followed the Leiden Leadership Programme at the Old Observatory and his fascination for disputing the undisputable led him to a specialisation in philosophy of law. ‘At one point I was even tempted to play devil’s advocate all the time. I’ve toned it down a bit now,’ he says.

‘Philosophising about equality before the law in the Netherlands at an early-morning lecture, while the riot police were thundering through your street the night before.’

Unique selling point

Kösedag’s quest was for balance, identity and feeling at home, if not more. ‘We stick too many labels on ourselves. You walk into a faculty, afraid of the unknown, when your background makes you unique in an environment like that. You bring a realistic and underrepresented perspective with you and are aware of its value.’ 

More than anything, pioneering for Kösedag was about overcoming his fear and learning to appreciate the unknown: ‘I often felt I didn’t really know what I was doing, but followed my intuition.’ And about his determination to succeed, something he only discovered the real strength of as a student: ‘Philosophising about equality before the law in the Netherlands at an early-morning lecture, while the riot police were thundering through your street the night before. That’s quite absurd, but it no longer surprises you. The baggage you carry: that’s your unique selling point.’

Text: Mohammed El Baroudi
Photos: Melissa Schriek

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