The Turkish Life

Saturday, March 26, 2016

They paved paradise...

There's a long-running joke in the United States that suburban housing developments -- places with monikers like Fair Oaks, Orange Grove, or Willow Springs -- are named after whatever was torn out to make room for the construction of the new homes and roads.

A similar logic seems like it may have been at work in Istanbul's far-flung outskirts, where, as I traveled 40 kilometers on the metrobus to carry out a frankly preposterous bureaucratic errand (more on that later), I passed places with names like Cevizlibağ (“Vineyard with walnuts”), İncirli (“With figs”), Bahçelievler (“Houses with gardens”), Şirinevler (“Charming houses”), Sefaköy (“Delight village”) Cennet Mahallesi (“Paradise neighborhood”), Saadetdere (“Happiness creek”), and Güzelyurt (“Beautiful homeland”).

They pretty much all looked like this:

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Nowruz mubarak / Newroz pîroz be

Happy Nowruz, Novruz, Newrozê, Navrūz, Nevruz…

This new year’s celebration has become politically fraught and often associated with violence and repression in Turkey, eclipsing the message that an Iranian friend so beautifully describes:
"That's what Persian New Year is all about, to leave the dark behind and celebrate the light; to not chose the evil (which are dark thoughts) but the good (again, our good thoughts). In Zoroastrianism, we believe it's the human choices that make 'Evil' or 'Good' exist. So let's chose life and celebrate it."

A faravahar in Yazd, Iran. The different elements of this symbol
represent different aspects of Zoroastrian beliefs.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Vibrant, vexing, and all too vulnerable İstiklal

On my very first visit to Turkey, 15 years ago, my traveling companions and I spent a couple of nights in a charmingly shabby hotel overlooking İstiklal Caddesi, an incredibly busy pedestrian street in the heart of Istanbul. We were young then, staying out late each night drinking cheap beer in crummy bars, and I don't recall being bothered by the noise. But I vividly remember the excitement of standing on our small balcony, raptly watching the throngs of people passing by below until the wee hours of the night. I'd never been anywhere that felt so alive.

For better or for worse, İstiklal is a melting pot, though that seems too gentle of a term for a place that sends all different kinds of people colliding into each other, often literally (look where you're going, will ya?!): camera-toting tourists, scarf-waving football fanatics, street vendors hawking everything from stuffed mussels to glow-in-the-dark devil horns, rambunctious teenagers, chanting protesters, armor-clad riot police, busking street musicians, bag-laden shoppers, over-persistent charity solicitors, bar- and gallery-hoppers, scammers, gropers, lovebirds, drunks, and many more. As dynamic as the crowds are the storefronts themselves, which change so rapidly as malls and chain stores push out beloved local institutions that even after just a few days away, you can barely recall what used to be where that shiny new kebab shop is now, a phenomenon my friends and I have come to think of as "Istanbul amnesia."

In the eight years I've now lived here in Istanbul, I've walked down İstiklal an uncountable number of times, at every hour of the day and in every season, from the scorching heat of summer when pedestrians cling to the shadows cast by the buildings lining either side of the avenue to cold winter nights when snowball fights break out among people slip-sliding their way down the icy street. Familiarity breeds a bit of contempt, though, and for the local resident, İstiklal is more often annoying than it is enthralling. The noise, the tacky shops, the crumbling pavement, the strong possibility of getting teargassed, the crowds, oh, the crowds. But a place so woven into the fabric of our daily lives can't fail to hold cherished memories as well: the thrill of being caught up amidst an exuberant, defiant post-Gezi crowd of Gay Pride parade revelers; of venturing into dilapidated hans for dinner and dancing at raucous Greek and Laz meyhanes; of tipsily weaving through the crowd hand-in-hand with someone you're simply crazy about.

This morning, I was at the gym just off Taksim Square, one of İstiklal's endpoints, when a news ticker on the TV caught my eye: "İstanbul İstiklal Caddesinde patlama meydana geldi." An explosion has occurred on Istanbul's İskiklal Avenue.

After multiple bomb attacks in Ankara, and amid a heightened threat of terrorism not only in Turkey but in many places around the world, I thought I had braced myself for this news, but my heart was still in my throat as I waited for the ticker to cycle through seemingly endless lines of entertainment, sports, and business news before eventually updating. Two dead, six wounded.

I exited the gym to find the building surrounded by riot police, lined up in front of yellow caution tape blocking off the entry to Taksim, and milling about amidst the small crowd of people who all looked as shocked, confused, and uncertain about what to do next as I felt. I walked home under the loud thrumming of helicopters overhead, anxious to be in front of my computer where I could watch the "I'm safe" messages roll in online from friends, breathing a sigh of relief with each one.

The night before the bombing, I'd been out on İstiklal yet again, albeit a bit warily. Renewed security warnings had noticeably reduced the usual crush of people, leaving typically packed bars and restaurants with many empty tables. There was some jovial bravado amongst those who'd ventured out, and jokes at the expense of someone whose fearful wife had forbidden him to leave home. It all seemed rather cavalier the next morning, with at least four (plus the suicide bomber) dead just around the corner from where we'd been cracking open beers. After the bombing, İstiklal was closed off for many hours; by the time it reopened, I was getting ready to head across the Bosphorus on a nearly empty ferry, encountering the same eerily vacant streets people had been photographing all over the city. Always-frenetic Istanbul was quieter even than on the biggest annual holidays, with an inescapable somberness.

I saw online that İstiklal shopkeepers had laid red carnations and small candles at the site of the attack, carrying signs that read "We are here, we are not afraid." These commemorative tokens may last a day or two, the consciousness of passing a place of tragedy a bit longer. But soon, I am sure, Istanbul amnesia will set in once more, and the street that we love, hate, and love to hate will again be filled with throngs of people, not out of defiance but because life somehow just always goes on.

Friday, December 18, 2015

#RefugeesWelcome: Here’s how you can help

When I first moved to Istanbul, the near-total lack of people living on the street stood in stark contrast to my native San Francisco, where homelessness has been a serious problem for decades. The war in Syria changed all that. I’ve become used to seeing the men who sleep outside the hotel where I go to the gym, huddling against the air vent for some scant warmth and propping up cardboard to ward off the wind; the children racing in and out of traffic to beg from cars, sometimes with a plastic bag of sickly-yellow inhalant drugs in one hand; the families begging on the sidewalk with their Syrian passports held open to passersby.

Syrian Kurdish refugees arriving in Turkey. Photo: EC/ECHO
Not all of the nearly 2.5 million Syrians in Turkey are homeless, of course. Though only around 220,000 are in the refugee camps set up near the border, others are renting (often overcrowded, overpriced, substandard) apartments, or squatting in abandoned buildings. And, of course, many are embarking on the dangerous and difficult journey to Europe, boarding flimsy boats to reach Greek islands like Lesbos and then crossing the Balkans by train, bus, or on foot. Photos of these refugees – and, in particular, of the body of one 3-year-old boy washed up on a beach in Turkey – have awakened the rest of the world to the desperate reality with which people in this region were already far too familiar.

Though there’s been much handwringing about the lack of response to the plight of Syrians and other refugees, and an increasingly ugly anti-Muslim backlash, I’m holding firm to my belief that most people (or at least, most of you) are, like me, not heartless or ignorant or prejudiced, but instead overwhelmed by the scale and scope of suffering in the world and feeling powerless to do anything about it. If that rings true for you, please join me in taking at least one of the following actions today, and continuing to look for ways to do more tomorrow.

Pro-refugee rally in Melbourne.
Photo: John Englart (Takver)/Flickr CC-by-SA
Individual efforts probably can’t bring an end to these devastating crises but they can save, and improve, lives. If you don’t have the time to volunteer, donate money; if you don’t have the money to spend, ask friends and families to donate on your behalf in lieu of giving you a Christmas present.

If you know of other ways to help refugees, from Syria or elsewhere, locally or globally, by giving money or time, please post them in the comments and I’ll keep updating this list. And please feel share this post widely. I know there’s a lot of options for ways to help, but don’t get overwhelmed! Just pick one, randomly or whatever speaks to you most. Let’s not let hate win or hope die.

> Stay informed and speak out

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Filling the gaps on Lesbos

Refugee families arriving at the Moria camp on Lesbos.
Photo by Ashley Anderson
Last month, some 125,000 people fleeing violence, oppression, and abject poverty in their home countries made the treacherous journey by sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in hopes of starting new lives in Europe. Though their numbers threaten to overwhelm the infrastructure of the small island, they are just a small percentage of the millions of displaced people currently on the move worldwide, as many as a million of them heading for Europe alone this year.

As border crossings become tighter or less restricted and as weather and other conditions change, the routes taken by these refugees and migrants are constantly in flux, making it difficult to direct aid where it's most needed. This is especially true in places such as Lesbos, where unpaid volunteers are shouldering much of the load due to what appears to be a vastly insufficient response from large aid agencies and governments.

During the four days I spent on Lesbos, I met some of these devoted volunteers and learned about the challenges they face and the needs they are trying to help meet, including hunger and a lack of shelter among refugees, and difficulties coordinating and building capacity for the emergency response. I worked with a small group of independent volunteers dedicating to filling the humanitarian gaps on Lesbos in order to direct funds where they are most needed now.

The money so generously donated by friends, family, and complete strangers has been used to purchase:
  • 100 rain ponchos to be distributed during the next rainstorm to people without warm clothes and shelter

  • 30 tents, which refugees will take with them as they continue their long journey in increasingly wintry conditions

  • Ingredients for a hearty breakfast for around 350 people, many of whom have been eating at most one meal a day

  • Four crates of apples distributed at the port area to children and others who have very little fresh fruit in their diet

  • Five industrial-size cooking pots that are being used to prepare and serve two additional meals per day to chronically underfed refugees on the island
Two of the new cooking pots being used to prepare and
serve additional meals to refugees on Lesbos
Thank you all for your compassionate and generous response! For those who would like to continue to support this effort, additional donations can be sent directly to the "Filling the humanitarian gaps on Lesbos" fundraiser, which is administered by the trusted people I worked with on the island.

If you want to aid refugees elsewhere in Europe, the crowdsourced is a fantastic resource for up-to-date information on where, and what kind of help, is most urgently needed, both in terms of donations and volunteers.

No matter how dedicated and well-funded, however, volunteers can't -- and shouldn't -- do it alone. Dozens of volunteer groups that have been helping refugees across Europe have come together to "call on all the governments of Europe to act immediately and decisively to alleviate the situation." You can support their #europeact open letter by calling, emailing, or visiting your elected officials and asking them, "What are you going to do to prevent suffering and death among refugees?"

Other recommended ways to donate to Lesbos:

Buy items needed by refugees arriving on the island through an registry created by Lesbos residents and longtime volunteers Eric and Phillipa Kempson

Help fund the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a search and rescue charity that has been saving refugees' lives in the Mediterranean and is launching a new rescue mission in the Aegean

Help Proactiva Open Arms expand their team of volunteer lifeguards, who are helping refugees disembark safely as they arrive on Lesbos and another Greek island, Chios

Support a Greek NGO providing interpreter services on the islands to help register asylum applications and escort unaccompanied minors from detention centers to proper accommodation facilities

Other volunteer groups working on Lesbos:

Lesvos Volunters

Lighthouse Relief

Starfish Foundation - Help for refugees in Molyvos

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Stranded by a strike, and dangers still ahead: Day 4 on Lesbos

People wait to buy tickets and board the ferry to Athens
Each day, a massive, cruise-ship-sized ferry leaves Lesbos, transporting refugees who've been able to secure the necessary permission to move on to Athens -- and the money to buy a ticket for their passage. Neither task is an easy one.

Non-Syrians in particular face long waits for registration papers, and with high prices and limited public transportation on the island, the poorer refugees can run out of funds for a ticket before they even have a chance to leave.

Now, another obstacle has been thrown in their path: a port strike by the Greek seaman's union in protest of austerity cuts. The strike means a halt to ferry operation, though travel companies continue to sell Athens-bound tickets to refugees.

One wild-eyed man storms up to volunteers serving free food in the port, waving his ticket and screaming in a broken mix of languages as he points to the dates on his and his friend's tickets, dates for which the scheduled departures have now been cancelled. Another man quietly explains that he and his family of nine had been booked to leave today but now have nowhere to sleep tonight.

Life jackets and the remains of rubber rafts litter
the coastline in Lesbos after recent arrivals by sea
Meanwhile, yesterday's calm already seems poised to end as reports come in from other parts of the island of dozens of boats arriving or en route, including one that is said to have left Turkey with 300 people onboard. The mayor of Lesbos told reporters this week that the island has run out of room to bury the 55 bodies still in the local morgue after being recovered from previous shipwrecks.

Those who survive the sea voyage still face many uncertainties and risks, even once they are able to leave Lesbos. Winter is coming to the Balkan countries that tens of thousands of refugees are crossing, often on foot, after reaching Athens, and to the northern European destinations where they hope to eventually settle.

A special report by The Guardian details just some of the perils: "Hypothermia, pneumonia and opportunistic diseases are the main threats now, along with the growing desperation of refugees trying to save the lives of their families. Fights have broken out over blankets, and on occasion between different national groups.
Crowds of people stranded at the Lesbos port
Now sex traffickers are following the columns of refugees, picking off young unaccompanied stragglers." Other journalists have reported how women and children fleeing through Europe have little protection from the sexual assault, coercion, and exploitation that are an ever-present risk on their journey.

For now, though, being stuck on Lesbos for yet another night has its own prosaic concerns. As the sun starts to fall below the mountains, we see men digging through a dumpster for cardboard boxes, which will provide a thin layer of insulation from the cold ground.

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 

Monday, November 2, 2015

From chaos to eerie calm: Days 2 and 3 on Lesbos

Rice to feed thousands being prepared at a Lesbos
catering company
If a refugee on Lesbos had a meal today, chances are good it came from a nondescript warehouse tucked away on a rural road lined with olive trees outside the town of Mytilene.

Inside this building, the staff of a small Greek catering company stir pots of lentils and rice so heavy they need to be winched out of the cooker, make sandwiches assembly-line-style, and pack thousands of small single-serve containers of salads each day. Aid agencies, governments, and other donors contract with them to prepare the food, but the company's cheerful young owner keeps the meals coming even when he isn't getting paid for the work he's been asked to do -- which has sometimes happened for months at a time.

Waiting in line for breakfast at the Moria camp

As soon as the company's van pulls into the parking lot at the port, or into one of the refugee camps, people begin to line up -- women and children in one line, men in a much longer one -- to take the bowls of simple but hearty food as fast as volunteers can dish them out. Some wait patiently, others try to cut the line. Nearly everyone seems to have a reason to ask for another bowl -- a sleeping child back in their tent, a relative who couldn't make it to the line-up. It seems cruel to say no to obviously hungry people, but impossible to say yes when there are still so many more mouths to feed.

So much suffering is in evidence on the island: A young boy takes his bowl of food with one hand, his other arm hanging limply by his side. A man walks by with his ear bandaged and half of his forehead raw from severe burns. Children carry their baby siblings up to the food table, asking if we have any milk. An elderly woman plods along in men's trainers many sizes too big for her feet; many kids run around in no shoes at all. A man asks for someone to come help his sick children; a volunteer nurse who visits their tent reports back that they all look severely malnourished. Attempts to distribute small amounts of additional food and donated clothing out of the trunk of a car draw crowds up people pushing up against each other to grab whatever they can.

An outdoor community kitchen also serves food to refugees
It's eerie, then, to drive up to the encampments one afternoon and find them nearly empty. A rumor is going around that they've been cleared ahead of a visit by the Greek prime minister, all the Syrians pushed through registration and packed onto boats to Athens, leaving the Afghans, Pakistanis, and other increasingly desperate people behind.

Volunteers say this happened before, ahead of another official delegation's arrival, and that the coast guard was out in force during that previous period, keeping boats from entering Greek waters. After the big-wigs departed, they say, the held-back boats poured onto Lesbos' shores at a rapid pace -- which means another onslaught could be just days away.

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Paradise turned purgatory: Day 1 on Lesbos

"The weather's a bit bad, is the ferry still running today?" a woman asked upon entering the ticket office, visibly worried. The man behind the counter nearly rolled his eyes. "The fishing boats have gone out and they have only one motor. These ferries have three. There's no weather in which we don't go." The woman did not look reassured. "Well, can we change our tickets, then?"

Her fears were unfounded. On this clear, sunny day in late October, the high winds and choppy water indeed posed no more threat to the ferry running between the Turkish town of Ayvalık and the nearby Greek island of Lesbos (Mitilini) than the possibility that a passenger might spill her tea as the boat crested over a rolling wave. But for the thousands of refugees making the crossing on leaky, overcrowded rafts in search of sanctuary in Europe, the rougher weather can be fatal.

A rescue off the coast of Lesbos.
© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch
"People have been sending me photos of their family members lost at sea, and now I'm getting photos of the bodies that have been washing up onshore today in hopes that I can make a match," one long-term volunteer on Lesbos explained after our small group arrived on the island this afternoon.

Volunteers like her are saving drowning people from the waves, and burying those who don't make it. They're serving food and buying tents and providing medical care -- "not only in Greece, but all along the dismal journey that people fleeing war and persecution follow through the Western Balkans to reach asylum in Western Europe," Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch wrote today. "All along the route, there is virtually no humanitarian response from European institutions, and those in need rely on the good will of volunteers for shelter, food, clothes, and medical assistance."

The scene on Lesbos is a surreal one -- looking out at the green hills and the blue sea, driving past stately mansions, and strolling down picturesque side streets filled with cafes, it's easy to see what an idyllic place this must have been, not so long ago, for a holiday. Today, the visitor disembarking from the ferry enters a parking lot packed with people, entire families in tents, makeshift shelters, or completely exposed to the elements, waiting for their chance to continue further into Europe. Bright-orange life jackets and parts of deflated rafts scattered on the island's beaches attest to the continuing arrivals on the dangerous journey by sea. At one camp, we met a pregnant Syrian mother of six whose husband had been killed in the ongoing war. Her young son pulled his shirt half-off to show us the scar where a bullet had passed through his arm.

An encampment on Lesbos. Photo: IRC
With the sun shining, people seem relatively relaxed, spared from the torrential rain and mud that just a week or so ago was causing cases of hypothermia and trench foot as people waited for days in kilometers-long lines to register under new Frontex procedures. But the need is still dire, the resources and infrastructure limited, and the efforts disorganized.

Many refugees staying on Lesbos are eating only one meal a day, a foil takeout container of lentils and rice doled out by some ad-hoc kitchens operating on the island. Most of our day was spent sourcing industrial-size cooking pots, basic ingredients, and a kitchen in which to prepare vats of porridge so at least some people can have an additional meal tomorrow morning. In the evening, as the wind whipped fiercer, we took crates of apples and oranges into the parking lot by the harbor, passing them out to men, women, and children who formed a crush of people in just seconds, holding out their hands, pleading for just one more. I fall asleep to the sound of the wind whistling outside, hoping that it will not capsize any boats tonight.

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Let's vote! What's the ugliest building in Istanbul?

From the great Ottoman palaces of old to the graceful late-19th-century apartment buildings lining many of Beyoğlu's winding streets, Istanbul has much for the architecture-lover to appreciate. Even some of its umpteen malls are award-winning.

But as you venture out further into the city's endless sprawl, the situation gets grimmer: kilometer after kilometer of cheaply put-together apartment blocks, office towers, industrial facilities, and strip malls. Amid that drab parade, however some buildings still stand out -- for their absolute atrociousness.

Since Turkey has yet to follow Britain's lead and invent an "award" for the ugliest new building of the year, let's get the competition going ourselves...

A friend threw down the gauntlet on Twitter, asking "Is there an uglier building in #Istanbul than #Bakırköy Adalet Sarayı?"

Can't deny it, that's pretty ugly. My money, however, has always been on the 212 Power Outlet in Bağcılar, a landmark on my former daily commute:

And the nominations kept rolling in...

The Perpa Ticaret Merkezi in Şişli:

The rather phallic (and completely out of sync with its surroundings) Ritz-Carlton hotel near Taksim:

The TRT building in Tepebaşı (of which I must admit I've become strangely fond):

The Doubletree hotel in Moda:

The so-kitschy-it's-almost-cute Mustafa Kanat Camii (aka "the Darth Vader mosque") in Ataşehir:

And last, but certainly not least, the under-construction Andromeda Plus residence in Ataşehir, aptly described by a friend as a design that "has to be modelled on [developer Ali] Ağaoğlu's infant son's first Lego creation. No other explanation":

Now it's your turn to weigh in:

What building deserves the title of Istanbul's ugliest?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Election slogans and Internet snark

Weary of fretting about the upcoming Turkish election, the terrible things that could happen between now and then, and the uncertainty of what might happen afterwards? Me too. Let's try to have a laugh about it instead, at least for a moment.

During the last election, all the way back in June, the ruling party plastered the country with billboards proclaiming "The others talk, AK Party does" (Onlar konuşur, Ak Parti yapar). Which, of course, left the question of "does what?" open to Internet jokesters to fill in:

"We are making the biggest thing in the world"

"We are making oven-baked pasta"

"We are doing something very super"

"We are making Turkish subtitles"

"We are doing whatever our hearts desire"

... and on and on.

The party's new election slogan, "There is no you or I, there is only Turkey" (Sen ben yok, Türkiye var) was of course also quickly appropriated by online critics:

That's a good one, for sure, but plenty of other alternatives could be similarly Photoshopped, don't you think? A few ideas to get the ball rolling...

Sen ben yok ayran var
(There is no you or me, there is only ayran)

Sen ben yok biber gazı var

(There is no you or me, there is only teargas)

Sen ben yok beton var
(There is no you or me, there is only concrete)

Well, how 'bout it?

Sen ben yok _______ var

This week, astute wags pointed out that a new ad campaign touting the party as "the women's party" was slyly colored pink but featured only the visage of the male, mustachioed prime minister. I'm just waiting for the memes to pop up on this one too...

Although, frankly, given the poster boy's most famous recent gaffe, I think I may have come up with a winner already:

Geometri ustaların partisi
(The geometry experts' party)

Got a nice ring to it, değil mi?