The Turkish Life

Thursday, May 12, 2016

2016: An Ikamet Odyssey

Tales of pell-mell races across the Eminyet courtyard and sharp-elbowed scuffles at the residence-permit application counter were swapped over Efes like war stories among expats when I initially arrived in Turkey. By the time I made my own first application, things had settled into some manner of organized confusion. But, like the course of true love, bureaucratic progress did never did run smooth. One particularly bad year, a friend had to queue in front of the Emniyet in the middle of night, where she reported people were selling places in line. When the process was decentralized to local police stations, crowded waiting rooms were replaced by bored young officers flirtatiously or sadistically (it was sometimes hard to tell which) quizzing female applicants on American sports teams or the capital cities of random English-speaking countries.

This past year, the mass influx of Syrians and other refugees led Turkey to set up an entire new bureaucracy for processing foreign residents, the Göç İdaresi (Migration Administration). Those of us who'd already been in the country for a while were promised efficient new electronic renewals, under which "the foreigners shall be informed through their e-mail addresses" of any missing documents, and receive an SMS when the permit is ready to be delivered. And there the odyssey began:
√ Gather necessary paperwork, get ID photos taken, fill in online application. So easy! 
√ Go to tax office in Eminönü, pay required fees for the renewal. A little elbowing required at the cashier's counter, but not too bad. 
√ Bring receipts home to scan them, along with the rest of the application documents (you never know what might get lost in the mail). 
√ Package up original documents and receipts and take them to the post office to send them to the Göç İdaresi by registered mail. 
√ Track the letter online and see that it's reached its destination two days later. So far, so good! 
√ Wait.
√ Wait. 
√ Wait some more.
√  Decide after two and a half months that maybe it would be a good idea to check on things. Call the mobile number you've been given of someone at the Göç İdaresi in Fatih. He tells you to come in (wait, what happened to letting applicants know by phone or email? never mind, don't ask...) so they can see if your paperwork is in order. Uh-oh. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Cheap-beer chic

A few years ago, I wrote a blog post entitled "Better things to do with a can (or bottle) of Efes than drinking it." If I were writing it now, the list would most certainly be topped (no pun intended) by this bottle-cap purse hand-crocheted by the wonderful craftswomen of Çöp(m)adam.

Founded by longtime American expat Tara Hopkins, who I previously profiled for MORE magazine, this social-entrepreneurship business (the name is a play on words that means "garbage ladies") is based in the Turkish Aegean town of Ayvalık. Hopkins hires women who have never worked for pay before to create playful, beautiful handicrafts out of recycled materials -- bags, aprons, stuffed animals, wallets, frames, tea towels, cushion covers, keychain decorations, and more.

Their bottle-cap bags come in various sizes, from shoulder bags to clutches to wallets, and are made with an assortment of colorful soda and beer bottle caps. After eight years of loving to hate Turkey's most famous beer, however, I just had to special-order an all-Efes version.

If you want one all of your own, you'd better hurry -- rumor has it that Efes will be switching over to pull-off bottle caps in the near future. The mediocre taste of the beer inside will surely remain the same, but the good crafting materials will become in short supply.

Check out the full catalogue of products, and inquire about your own special orders, over at the Çöp(m)adam website.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Top 10 reasons I dread shopping for running shoes in Istanbul

If anything can be more challenging (and aggravating) than running in Istanbul, it's buying running shoes in Istanbul. Admittedly, I like shopping about as much as going to the dentist even under the best of circumstances, but my experiences across the gamut here -- at specialist local running shops, outlets of international brands, and general sporting-goods stores -- would be funny if they weren't so frustrating. Here's just 10 of the ways salespeople have left me reconsidering the possibility of inner-city barefoot running, cement, broken glass, and general detritus be damned.
  1. Not stocking women's shoes larger than size 39 or 40, then balking at the idea of letting me try on men's sizes.

  2. Telling me I don't actually have wide feet (you'd think I might have noticed in 40 years of buying shoes) then passive-aggressively recommending a model that a quick Google search reveals typically runs narrow.

  3. Photo courtesy kovats
  4. Not stocking any wide widths at the shop of a international brand known for offering the majority of its shoes in multiple widths, then telling me it's because "everyone in Turkey's feet are standart."

  5. Telling me that too-small shoes couldn't possibly have caused my feet to start to fall asleep while running, "there must be something wrong with your nerves."

  6. Asking me if I "run long distances, like 5 kilometers?"

  7. Snickering when I try to explain that my left foot is larger than my right (which is not uncommon, okay?) then continuing to insist on only giving me the right-foot shoe to try on first.

  8. Gesturing at a long wall of shoes and asking with a shrug, "So what do you want to try on?"

  9. Not bothering to measure my feet or bring out the same pair of shoes in multiple sizes, just moving straight on to totally different models when the first one is a bit snug.

  10. Explaining, when I say that one pair of shoes fits a bit better than the last one, that it's because they're "very professional."

  11. Offering up, in response to a request for trail running shoes, a strangely stiff pair that turn out to be (when consulting the manufacturer's website later) "approach shoes" meant for technical hiking/rock-climbing.

  12. Telling me my foot's shape "is not very nice."
Oh wait, never mind that last one. That wasn't a shoe salesperson, that was a physical therapist.

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 RefugeeMap.com 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 Amazon.com 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: