The Turkish Life

Sunday, September 25, 2016

An urban island nocturne

As modern urban dwellers, we're generally out of touch with the world's natural rhythms, waking to alarm clocks instead of the sunrise and going to sleep under the glow of streetlights that obscure our view of the stars. A friend confessed
Ready to hike through the night.
Photo by Nick Hobbs/Hiking Istanbul.
recently that while newly living in an Istanbul apartment with a Bosphorus view, there were some nights that the water was so brightly illuminated she thought there must be floodlights on at a nearby stadium or construction site. "And then," she said with a laugh, "I realized it was the full moon!"

An urge to overcome that sense of disconnection is part of what drove two dozen nature-starved Istanbul residents to do something a bit mad on a recent Friday night.

The 9 p.m. ferry from Eminönü to Büyükada, the largest of the Princes' Islands off the city's coast, was mostly empty. During the hour-and-a-half ride, those of us traveling alone with backpacks and walking shoes eyed each other curiously, finally working up the nerve to ask, "Are you going on the hike?"

Taking in the view.
Photo by Nick Hobbs/Hiking Istanbul.
After disembarking and assembling as a group around 10:30 p.m., we reviewed the plan: to walk through the night under the full moon around the quiet country roads and sparsely wooded paths encircling the island.

The glow of streetlights dogged us for longer than expected, but once we'd escaped their intrusive glare, it was just us and the night. We strode forward surprisingly assuredly under moonlight strong enough to cast shadows of tree branches as distinct as any you'd see in the daytime. The only sounds at times were crickets chirping, a murmur of wind, and the ground crunching underfoot. (Those moments, unfortunately, were few and far between thanks to the loud and banal chatter of a handful of hikers who ignored repeated requests, first politely and then not-so, to allow others to enjoy a quiet walking meditation.)

The empty streets of Büyükada.
From the top of the island, rocky outcroppings glowed white in the moonlight as the lights of the city sparkled far beyond. Though the islands are far from its heaving crowds and densely packed development, Istanbul in some ways never seems so massive as when viewed from this remote vantage point, its buildings upon buildings sprawling out along the distant horizon as far as the eye can see. Beneath us, the rolling slopes of the islands themselves spilled down to the dark sea. Vain attempts to capture the scene photographically only served to show to how much more the eye can see than an iPhone.

As the night wore on, our feet started to move forward almost mechanically as a dreamlike state began to cloud our tired minds. Creating an 18.5 kilometer hike on this small island meant looping back to some of the same points and starting out anew on a different trail, adding to the disorientation as we wondered amongst ourselves, "Have we been here before or I am just imagining things?"

First light from the ferry.
Notions of a middle-of-the-night swim were thwarted by the high walls erected around the island's privatized beaches, and we ended up finishing our route earlier than expected, with nothing to do but plop down on the sidewalk on the outskirts of town and stare at the sea until the first ferry back to the mainland departed at 5:50 a.m. As we walked to the dock, the streets of Büyükada were still shrouded in darkness and had something of the feel of an abandoned movie set. Scattered lights shone from only a bakery or two, the smell of fresh bread emanating from within.

Back to the city.
The first glimmers of dawn only began to appear in the sky as the ferry made its languid way around the smaller islands, picking up a scant few passengers on each one. Unable any longer to resist the embrace of sleep, we stretched out on the vinyl-covered benches and fell into deep slumbers, rousing periodically to watch and photograph the progress of the sun into the sky until the familiar minarets and skyscrapers and apartment blocks were again in view, all bathed in a warm, welcoming glow.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

A view from Istanbul during the #TurkeyCoupAttempt

Glancing at the to-do list on my desk that I’d scribbled just hours before, the scrap of paper seemed to have appeared from some alternate universe too banal to be believed.

My story featured on the CityLab homepage.
Set alarm for 6 a.m. Take out the trash when I go out for an early-morning run. Bring some money to buy fruit for breakfast on the way home.

Cowering on the entryway floor at 3 a.m. as jets roared past, their sonic booms shaking the building and threatening to break the windows, hadn’t been part of the plan....

As shots rang out outside my window and concerned messages pinged in from friends and family around the world, my editor at CityLab, The Atlantic's website on urban issues, asked me if I'd like to write something about my personal experience of being in Istanbul during what turned out to be a failed military coup.

Read the rest of that essay, "Istanbul, the Day After," on CityLab.

For more on the politics of the coup attempt, its aftermath, and its possible ramifications, here are some news, analysis, and commentary pieces I think are worth a read:
As it happened: CNN Türk page for "news related to the 
15 July 2016 coup". The main headline reads: "Group of 
soldiers in the TRT building have issued a statement."
{This post has been cross-posted from my professional website.} 

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Fear, flux, and forgetting

When suicide bombers staged a deadly attack on check-in counters at Brussels Airport in March, I wasn’t the only person to breathe a small sigh of relief over my local hub being Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport, where all passengers and bags are screened at the curbside entrances to the terminals. Taking my laptop out of my carry-on and stripping off my belt and boots twice per trip suddenly seemed not a hassle but a boon.

But on June 28, that extra layer of security itself became a target for suicide attackers, who killed at least 45 passengers, visitors, and staff at Europe’s third-busiest airport. It’s not the first time Istanbul has been hit by terrorism in recent months, and it likely won’t be the last. But in this ancient, ever-dynamic metropolis, fear and forgetting are vying for supremacy – and both are changing the city in discomfiting ways.

I first passed through Atatürk Airport in spring 2001, arriving alone from the U.S. to visit an American friend who had recently relocated to Turkey. September 11 was still five months in the future and my passport, now bulging with extra pages, was nearly blank. My 15-year relationship with Istanbul that began on that trip has since gone through all the stages of a difficult love affair: infatuation at first sight, longing from afar, thrill of discovery, arguments, disappointments, rejection, new hope, repeated heartbreak, determination to try again. (Of course, since this is a city we’re talking about, these are all one-sided emotions, but, well, some relationships are like that, değil mi?)

Over the same period, trips to what was once a strange and unfamiliar airport – the first I’d ever visited alone in a country where I didn’t speak the language, its halls filled with an eye-popping array of the world’s people, carrying out their sad farewells, joyous reunions, and anxious or excited waits in a multitude of attires and tongues – had become grindingly rote. The travelers I know in Istanbul gripe about the long lines at passport control, the regular delays, the mediocre dining and drinking options (unless you have the golden ticket to the THY executive lounge), the high likelihood of having to be shuttled out onto the tarmac to board your plane, and the overcrowded gate areas, where holiday-makers and Hajj pilgrims alike spill out of the seats and onto the ground, turning aisles into obstacle courses of suitcases and sprawling bodies. Atatürk’s chronic overcrowding has been cited by the Turkish government as a reason for building a massive (and controversial) third airport on Istanbul’s remote Black Sea coast.

In recent months, though, a resurgence of political violence in the country’s Southeast and a handful of previous terror attacks in Ankara and Istanbul – including one on the bustling pedestrian thoroughfare İstiklal Caddesi, close to my home – had done what once seemed unthinkable: left Atatürk Airport at times feeling almost like a ghost town. The dramatic drop in tourism to Turkey has been as palpable at the airport as it has on İstiklal and in Istanbul’s central Taksim Square, all places I love to hate for their chaotic crowds and crumbling, inadequate infrastructure.

But like misfortune befalling an annoying friend or relative you might complain about in private but never truly wish ill, seeing these places so subdued has been a burden rather than a relief. I can hardly enjoy the relative peace and quiet of an airport, a street, or a square when I know that the reasons for the unfamiliar calm are anything but peaceful, that the sheer excitement I once felt as a tourist to Istanbul must now be shot through with trepidation for anyone who still dares to visit our battered and beleaguered city.

Our city of chaos and endless construction
Within 12 hours of last week’s attacks, Atatürk Airport was back up and running, a fact that seemed to shock many who commented on social media about how strange it was to see passengers going about their travels amid bullet holes and debris. Others noted throughout the day how quickly the cleanup was proceeding, and how the city lacked a memorial like the public messages of grief and solidarity that quickly appeared in the Belgian capital after the Brussels attack.

After eight years living in Istanbul, none of this really came as a surprise to me. Ours is a city in constant flux, one being endlessly torn down and rebuilt. We swim in Bosporus bays in the shadow of bridge construction, dine on sidewalks next to torn-up streets, shop in grocery stores and underground arcades with exposed wires hanging from the ceiling. We cross construction sites on our daily commutes, squeeze past cement mixers, walk under rickety scaffolding, and go to art exhibits in crumbling buildings awaiting renovation. We search in vain for beloved bars and cafes swept away by the tide of redevelopment, and stand perplexedly in front of new neon signage, wondering how we could have already forgotten what so recently occupied the space where this brand-new shop now stands.

In short, we live with chaos and we live with erasure. And these days we -- like so many others the world 'round -- live with terrorism too.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Bittersweet bayram

With smiling children in colorful costumes dancing, playing, and waving balloons around Turkish rock icon Barış Manço as he sings "Bu Gün Bayram" ("Today is bayram"), the video for this cheery-sounding song makes it at first seem the picture of a nostalgic remembrance of holiday festivals past, when life was simpler and nothing more exciting than to wake up to a day off school, with sweets to eat and new clothes to wear.

But listening to the lyrics of "Bu Gün Bayram" after coming across it on Twitter today, the first day of Şeker Bayramı in Turkey (known as Eid al-Fitr elsewhere in the Muslim world), it quickly became clear that this is a melancholy song, tinged with loss. Reading up about it on Turkey's famous crowd-sourced "dictionary" Ekşi Sözlük, I learned that it figures in many young Turks' early holiday memories -- and that it is interpreted as being about a widower taking his children to visit the grave of their mother on the first morning of bayram.

All the more fitting for the start of this year's holiday, which follows a week in which terrorist attacks have killed at least 44 people in Istanbul, 222 in Baghdad, 20 in Dhaka, and 4 in Medina. People in each of these cities are celebrating the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. Now for many, those celebrations co-mingle with mourning. A grieving parent may well be acting out the very words to this song right now. Hepinizin başı sağolsun.

Since you went
Inside me there’s such a hurt that
Only you understand
You are now far away
With the angels in heaven
You dream about us and cry

Today is bayram
The children are up early
Dressed in their best clothes
Wildflowers in their hands
Don’t cry today, mommy

You, in the summer nights
Sometimes through the stars
You winked at us
You, in the cold days
My memory of you warmed my heart most

Today is bayram
The children are up early
Dressed in their best clothes
Wildflowers in their hands
Don’t cry today, mommy

Today is bayram
Hurry, children
Mommy is waiting for us
The angels lamenting on bayram
These flowers please them

(All translation errors and awkwardness are mine alone)

Saturday, June 18, 2016

What's going to save Turkish tourism this week?

War across the border and conflict and terrorist bombings at home have sent Turkey's tourism industry into a tailspin. The downing of a Russian jet didn't help matters. Neither, probably, did attacks on Asian visitors. The situation is so dire that the headline of a satirical news story was echoed by hotel owners' actual complaints to a real news outlet after the most recent bomb in Istanbul: that there are no reservations left to be cancelled.

With 8 percent of the country's entire workforce employed directly in tourism and the downturn showing no signs of abating, this is no laughing matter. But the seemingly endless list of attempts to save the industry is by turns sad, hilarious, head-scratching, and appalling (and ever-so-occasionally pragmatic). So what's going to save Turkish tourism this week? Is it...

1) Shooing away those unsightly refugees?

2) Giving school kids an extra two weeks of vacation?

3) Organizing a Justin Bieber concert?

4) Taxing Turks who travel abroad?

5) Building Chinatowns in major Turkish cities?

6) Promoting halal holidays?

7) Offering submarine tours of the Mediterranean?

8) Sinking an airplane into the ocean?

9) Filming a new soap opera?

10) Subsidizing charter flights?

11) Building the world's largest duty-free shop?

12) Praying?

Seems your (and my) guess is as good as anyone else's, so what would you propose to save Turkish tourism? I considered suggesting that Turkey steal an idea from its neighbor Georgia and welcome foreign travelers with complimentary wine, but a free bottle of Turkish plonk might scare even more visitors away.

UPDATE (13 July 2016): With fences mended with Russia, and domestic travel boosted to record levels by the declaration of a nine-day holiday following the fasting month of Ramadan, things may be looking up for the tourism industry. But Turkey is taking no chances: The Black Sea city of Samsun recently announced that construction is almost complete on the world's first golf course on an artificial island

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.