The Turkish Life

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ode to the night bus

I love the feeling of waking up in a new place, of drowsily realizing that the rolling hills out the window are not the concrete caverns you left behind....

I love the bustle of the mola dinlenme tesisi, with its rows of giant buses being hosed down and crowds of people shopping, eating, and smoking as if it was midday and not two in the morning...

I love arriving not at a sterile, interchangeable airport but at a dusty small-town bus station or boisterous big-city otogar, its halls echoing with the shouts of touts calling out their company's destinations, or the drumming and singing that sends a young man off on his way to become a soldier...

I love watching families being able to accompany their travelers until the last minute, coming onto the bus to make sure they're settled into their seats, waving madly as the engine starts, even running alongside the bus as it starts to pull away...

I love stamping through snow at a midnight stop en route to the beach, where it's still warm enough to swim in the sea, reminding me how big and geographically diverse this country is...

And, I'll admit it, I love the little paper cups of Nescafe, and the snack-packs of processed cookies too.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Race day, Istanbul style

Most runners expect to complete a race to the sound of spectator cheers, announcers calling out finishing times, and some high-energy music from the post-race party.

What participants in the Istanbul Half Marathon on Sunday heard at the finish line instead were religious chants and songs, amplified to ear-splitting volume, from the gender-segregated celebration of the Prophet Mohammed's birthday that some city official had apparently seen fit to schedule for the same time in the same concrete wasteland, er, "meeting area."

Photo: Hope Gross Mandel
The incongruous pairing could be seen as a metaphor for the mix of ideologies and cultures jostling, not always comfortably, up against each other in Turkey. It certainly created humorous juxtapositions, with lycra-clad women -- some stripping down to their sports bras to change out of their sweaty race shirts -- gathered on one side, those swathed head-to-toe in black robes (an unusually conservative mode of covering for Turkey) on the other.

Istanbul's disparate realities also intruded into the day's sporting event in the form of bedraggled Roma and refugee children wandering around the race course, alternately trying to high-five runners and block their path. (In general, little effort is made at Turkish races to keep bystanders and runners separated, as the photo below demonstrates, and as any runner who's had to dodge around a street vendor and his simit cart mid-race can attest.)

Photo: Vodafone İstanbul Yarı Maratonu
Certainly, local flavor can add to the racing experience: Running past tanks and military bands along the route, and having the post-race entertainment include a show of soldiers performing rappelling demonstrations from helicopters hovering overhead made completing my first-ever 10k as part of the Beirut Marathon particularly memorable.

But after an 8k, a 10k, two 15ks, and a half marathon's worth of Istanbul races with chaotic starts so jam-packed as to drive people to walk on top of the portable toilets to bypass the crowds; emptied-out water stops; nonexistent crowd control; self-aggrandizing speeches by public officials who've done nothing to encourage sporting culture; mis-calculated route mileage; spectator-less sidelines, cars zipping onto the course before the race is over; and bag-retrieval melees, someday running a properly organized race is going to seem like the real novelty. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

As time goes by

The impermanence of life, and both the pain and comfort that can promise, threads through much of Scottish artist Robert Montgomery's work currently on display at the Istanbul'74 gallery in the Galatasaray neighborhood of Istanbul.

Billboards and neon signs are his canvases for text-based works both politically aligned against these mediums' usual capitalist, establishment messaging and personally resonant of the longings and fears such advertisements emptily offer to assuage.

Some serve as reminders of how quickly beautiful moments can pass by:

"...Every morning some of
the things you have 
loved will always be 
behind you."

Others as assurances that the oppressive forces in the world will also eventually come to an end:

Montgomery's works speak of civilizations that have crumbled, dreams that have withered, people and places that have become lost to us.... but also of how those losses are themselves impermanent. One particularly bittersweet piece concisely conjures up the human connections so deeply affecting that you may never be fully free of them:

What the words leave open to interpretation is whether the "ghosts" are benevolent presences, or haunting ones, evoking memories that you cherish the ability to revisit, or ones painful to recall, but more painful yet to let go.

TO VISIT: "Robert Montgomery" is on view until 18 April at the Istanbul'74 gallery in Istanbul's Galatasaray neighborhood. The gallery is open Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Saturday from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Free admission.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A very Beyoğlu 'Christmas'

Amid the now-annual calls from some outraged corners of Turkey's religious establishment and conservative press for Muslims not to celebrate New Year's -- a holiday that has taken on many of the outward trappings of Christmas -- the usual mashup of traditions continued to mark the occasion in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district, a historic hub for minorities and foreigners.

On shopping thoroughfare İstiklal Caddesi, jam-packed crowds had braved the frigid wind and sleety rain to snap up last-minute gifts, including the red underwear and other lingerie believed to bring good luck in the coming year if worn on New Year's Eve.

In the nearby backstreets, a lights-and-ornaments-bedecked tree made an incongruous sight on a drab, rubble-strewn corner.

And the scattered seeds of a smashed pomegranate recalled the area's once-thriving community of Greeks, among whom tossing and breaking the fruit* as the new year arrives is thought to herald abundance and good fortune.

Happy new year / Mutlu yıllar / Καλή χρονιά / Շնորհաւոր Նոր Տարի / Bonne année / Gutes neues Jahr !

* Apparently Turks and Armenians also share the same practice...

Monday, December 29, 2014

We remember

Berkin Elvan
Uğur Kurt

... and far, far too many more.

May the coming year bring more peace and less heartbreak.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Haunted by history, ripe for tourism?

There are few places in Turkey more visually intriguing and emotionally resonant than Kayaköy, a Mediterranean hillside village formerly inhabited by Anatolian Greeks, and left empty after its residents were forced to relocate to Greece under the population-exchange agreement of 1923.

This mass deportation was part of the beginning of the end of the much-vaunted religious tolerance under Ottoman rule, and of the old cosmopolitanism of Istanbul (though that city's Greeks were exempted from the exchange) and the coasts. Its lingering effects can still be felt today in parts of Turkish life ranging from nationalist politics to lost or dying culinary traditions and craftsmanship.

With more than four times as many people relocated from Turkey to Greece as the other way around, no one ever repopulated the "ghost village" of Kayaköy, where plants crawl up staircases, trees grow between crumbling walls, and ceilings of churches gape open to the sky. With few amenities nearby, its abandoned pathways can generally be explored in near-silence, alone with thoughts of the mastic trees no longer tended, the rebetiko songs no longer sung, the Istanbul Greeks attacked by Turkish mobs in 1955, and the few remaining minority-run businesses in Turkey's largest city today facing closure due to rising rents and gentrification.

Turkish authorities, however, seem to think that history and its echoes are best contemplated (or, more likely, best forgotten) from a table in a tea garden or the balcony of a five-star hotel room. Last week, the country's Culture and Tourism Ministry announced plans to auction off the rights to rent and develop Kayaköy, potentially a 30 million TL construction and tourism project that local officials boast would turn the town into an "international brand." Surely the Mango outlets and Mado shops won't be far behind.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A girl walks into a bakkal

Sweaty girl walks into a bakkal (corner store) after a long run:

"Would you like water?"

"Yes, please. And what kind of juice do you have?"

"All kinds."

"What do you have with no added sugar?"

[The shopkeeper thinks for a moment.]


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Once upon a time in northern Iraq

A peaceful day on the Tigris River in northern Iraq.
Herons soared overhead as our little flotilla made its way slowly down the Tigris, their calls echoing off the rocky cliffs towering on one side of the quiet river's banks. On the other bank, dry and golden as the summer came to an end, fishermen dawdled in front of their lean-tos, shepherds tended their flocks, and women and children toted loose armloads of firewood. When we stopped to camp for the night, camouflage-clad peshmerga (armed Kurdish fighters) dropped by to peer curiously at our handmade vessels, smoke cigarettes, and pose for photos with the foreign visitors.

Mosul, not far to the south, was already too dangerous to include on the route when I joined the Tigris River Flotilla for part of its journey down the ailing waterway last fall, and bridges crossing the river were tightly controlled in an attempt to staunch the flow of refugees from neighboring Syria, at some points just 10 kilometers away. But northern Iraq seemed largely peaceful and increasingly prosperous; its rural countryside and bustling cities both felt far removed from the conflicts raging all around.

Peshmerga in repose.
Just over eight months later, the Islamist militants known as ISIS had seized Mosul, sending half a million people fleeing into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The city of Duhok, where we had strolled around a lively amusement park, was receiving victims of the fighting for medical treatment. The partner of one of the flotilla participants was missing, first thought dead and then later reported to be a captive of ISIS. And the peshmerga who had idled so casually around our campsite were battling fiercely to repel the intruders. (As I write this, ISIS, now re-branded as the Islamic State, is reportedly at the doorstep of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and a refugee camp is being built in Fishkabur, the then-sleepy town where we had our base-camp.)

Within a few short weeks, though, the world's attention and outrage moved swiftly to the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, and then to the violence in Gaza. Meanwhile, long-suffering Syria endured the bloodiest 48-hour period in its ongoing civil war, with more than 700 people killed in two days. One in three families in the Central African Republic have now lost at least one family member to the sectarian fighting there.

It's hard to keep all of these developments in focus, much less mentally or emotionally absorb the human suffering they entail, at least not without slipping into despair. And yet the voices on the Internet keep crying out: "Why aren't you tweeting on Gaza?!?" "Have you forgotten about Syria??" "Why aren't ____ talking about ____?! It's because they're [anti-Semitic / Islamophobic / racist / ignorant]!!!"

Shepherd by the banks of the Tigris.
Amid the tragedies clamoring for attention, I know that I will click to news about Iraq more quickly than to many other stories because of my experiences so close to the area now in turmoil, and to stories about Syria in large part because its refugee crisis is so visible on the sidewalks right outside my door in Istanbul. Having witnessed the passion of Turkish people taking to the streets last summer made it all the more wrenching to see their counterparts in Kiev cut down by police bullets in February, much in the same way as runners around the world mourned the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, relatively few in number though they were.

As frustrating as it may be for people trying to draw focus to a crisis they feel is being overlooked, it seems only natural to be more readily able to empathize with places or people with which we feel a connection. It may even be a positive thing, if it keeps some people's attention focused on a particular place or issue when the rapid pace of the news cycle causes others to pivot away. A more selective focus may also play a self-protective role by keeping us from being too overwhelmed by all the world's woes to do anything about any of them at all.

The danger, it seems, comes if our connection with one place or group of people blinds us to the plight of another; if we become so embittered by the indignities and abuses "our" side has suffered that it no longer seems appalling to turn around and inflict something similar. We are seeing the bloody results of that kind of loss of empathy every day.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Out of many, one

The undulating screen hanging from the ceiling seems to wave like a flag in the breeze as its tiny LCD panels flicker in and out, one image fading into another. Though completely different in physical form
A detail of 'Sakıp Sabancı'
(Photo: Sakıp Sabancı Museum)
and artistic style from Botticelli's paintings of the Medicis or Sargent's portrait of Rockefeller, this video art piece by Turkish artist Kutluğ Ataman is likewise a commissioned portrait of a wealthy patron -- in this case Sakıp Sabancı, described in the wall text at his namesake museum as "the late Turkish industrialist who transformed Turkey into a modern developing country."

"Wow, all by himself?" my friend asked, tongue firmly in cheek, as we read the description before entering the darkened room at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum where Ataman's unimaginatively titled artwork "Sakıp Sabancı" is on display until 10 August.

Unlike historical portraits of the rich and powerful, however, this one contains multitudes -- it's made up of thousands of passport-sized photographs of "people from all walks of life whose paths crossed the famous businessman's in some way." But whether it's a particularly generous approach or a particularly grandiose one is harder to ascertain.

'Sılsel' at the Galata
Greek School in 2012
Watching the hypnotic digital dance above our heads, I wondered, does Ataman's work challenge the "great man" approach to history by creating a portrait of Sakıp Sabancı made up of all the people who influenced him and touched his life -- a humbling recognition of how we are all in many ways the sum of our encounters and experiences with others -- or perpetuate it by enlisting the images of many anonymous people in celebration of the single one who gives the artwork its name?

Visitors to the Sabancı Museum are invited to submit their own ID photographs to be added to the piece, an interactive element that hearkens back to Ataman's previous project "Sılsel," in which viewers could contribute their own messages written on a piece of cloth to a freewheeling fabric mosaic also hung overhead. In that case, though, the portrait that ensued was not just of one man, but of a whole country and its hopes and dreams.

TO VISIT: The piece "Sakıp Sabancı" is on display until August 10 at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul's Emirgan neighborhood. The museum is open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. General admission is 15 Turkish Liras.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mornings in Maçka

The older gentleman with the high-waisted shorts doing jumping jacks and hip swivels by the side of the path.

The two younger men walking their matching woolly dogs.

The woman who runs with her shoulders pulled up close to her ears.

The tall, lanky man with white hair who runs with a big grin on his face.

The girl out for a power walk in the "What breaks your heart?" T-shirt.

I don't know any of their names, but they are my people, part of the motley crew of runners, joggers, walkers, and calisthenics-doers who come alone, in pairs, or in small groups to Maçka Park in the quiet hours of the morning. The low hum of traffic can still be heard from the other side of the trees, and the peace is occasionally broken by the thwack-thwack-thwack of a helicopter descending to drop off some VIP at the nearby Ritz-Carlton hotel.

The Maçka Park running track.
But in a city where exercising still often seems like a mark of extreme eccentricity, where going out for a run means dodging cars, stumbling over torn-up pavement, and trying to ignore hecklers and leering eyes, the park is a small oasis, a place where you can stretch, sprint, or shuffle to your heart's content among a like-minded cohort. It's a little bit of sanity and humanity in a sad and difficult world. If the city ever tries to pave it over and put in a mall, I'll be the first one out in front of the bulldozers.

Photo via and its article "10 best running routes in Istanbul."