The Turkish Life

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

When politics intrudes on paradise

This time of year, the Mediterranean village of Adrasan used to be bustling with backpackers, spending a night or two in town as part of their trek along the Lycian Way. But this week, I seem to be the only tourist for miles.

"We would be on full staff in March," the owner of the otherwise empty hotel where I'm staying tells me. "As you can see, the weather is so good for hiking, but with the terrorism and the politics..."

Such cares couldn't feel further away while walking alongside Adrasan's serene beach, looking out over its glimmering bay from the tree-dappled mountains that rise up from the shoreline, or eating a hearty home-cooked meal alongside its lazy river. Yet for those who depend on tourism for their livelihood, the effects of distant disasters and decisions are felt especially keenly in places like this.

Before opening the hotel, its owner had operated a pair of restaurants on the nearby beach. All told, he's been in the tourism business in Adrasan for 25 years, but is originally from Diyarbakır, in southeast Turkey. I asked him why he left his hometown. He shrugged. "Same as you moving to Istanbul..."

I hadn't said anything about my reasons for relocating, but it was a more than fair point. I don't have a ready answer as to why I uprooted myself from everything I knew nine years ago. In some ways, it doesn't really matter what someone is seeking, or escaping; we end up somewhere, we may struggle a bit (or a lot), but eventually we build new lives. And then the bombs come -- or the tourists don't -- and we may feel like we're too invested to leave.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

10 yıldır

A soft rain fell as people gathered in Istanbul this afternoon to once again mark the anniversary of the death of Hrant Dink. The Armenian-Turkish journalist was assassinated in front of the office of his newspaper, Agos, 10 years ago today. His family is still seeking justice for the murder.

Where the outcry over Dink's killing in 2007 spurred hope that some old wounds in Turkey might yet be healed, the country today seems more divided and damaged, as Dink's widow, Rakel, reminded in her speech with a wrenching rundown of the past decade's pain:
What has happened in the last 10 years? Oh my darling. The Malatya massacre, İskenderun, Sevag Balıkçı, Roboski, Gezi, Suruç, Diyarbakır, Sur, Mardin, Nusaybin, Cizre, Şırnak, Tahir Elçi, Ankara, July 15th, Maçka, İzmir, Gaziantep, Ortaköy, Airport attack and the war in the Middle East. Operations, terror...
The always-poignant commemoration was a bit subdued this year; under the "state of emergency" imposed since last summer's failed coup, there was no march from Taksim Square to the Agos offices in Harbiye. With Istanbul having suffered yet another horrific terror attack less than three weeks previously, security was high, with bag checks to enter the cordoned-off area in front of Agos, and both visibly armed and plainclothes police mingling amidst the crowd.

But none of this could diminish the power of the words spoken there, both those by Rakel Dink, and those earlier in the remembrance:
"We are all Turks, Armenians, Kurds, Laz, Circassian, Alevi... 
"We are in front of Agos today in these difficult times... 
"We are sustaining your voice and your struggle, but we miss you."

Sunday, January 8, 2017

A death in the mahalle

The steadily falling snow that has blanketed Istanbul over the last 36 hours has brought a welcome hush to the city's noisy, jostling streets and a momentary sense of peace that has lately been in far too short of supply. But the edginess created by recent months' terrorist attacks was quick to grip my heart once again at the sound of a loud voice on the street outside my apartment building.

Cautiously looking out the window, I felt the tension in my chest immediately ease, replaced with a warm sadness at the sight of dozens of people lined up in the snow-covered street, holding their gloved hands up in prayer as an imam in a long cloak and red-and-white cap recited verses over a green coffin.

Bundled up for the minus-zero temperatures, the mourners listened quietly and still as the ruhuna fatiha was read. Afterwards, some consoled each other, touching the sides of their heads together in greeting, while others reached out to lay a hand on the coffin as the open-bed truck belonging to the municipal funeral services department slowly pulled away down the street to transport the body to its final resting place for burial. Başınız sağolsun.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

A thank-you letter to my fundraising supporters

Dear friends,

Thank you so much for your support for my fundraising campaign last month! I know everyone has many, many good causes competing for their attention and funds so I really appreciate your devoting some of yours to mine.

Children should be playing and learning, not working!
Thanks to your generosity, I concluded my campaign with a total of 6,454 Turkish Lira ($1,833 US) — more than twice my original fundraising goal! I also surpassed my goal of successfully reaching out to more than 40 individual donors. And I'm quite pleased to report that among the 70 runners raising money for the Turkish NGO Hayata Destek Derneği (Support to Life Association), I raised the 2nd-highest total number of donations, and brought in the 3rd-highest number of individual donors :)

Your donations will provide more than 25 migrant farmworker children with school supplies, educational materials, and the hygiene items they need in their tent homes. Overall, 324 children will be assisted by Hayata Destek's fundraising campaign!

In a country where neither running nor individual charitable giving are common pursuits, I'm also proud to be among nearly 5,000 runners who raised more than 6.7 million Turkish Lira for 29 worthy NGOs by running the 10k, 15k, or full 42k race in the Istanbul Marathon and fundraising through the wonderful organization Adım Adım ('Step by Step').

Running on the Galata Bridge, crossing the finish line, showing
off my finisher's medal, and enjoying a post-race beer.
Last but not least, I had a fantastic race too :) It was my fourth time running the 15k in Istanbul, and I smashed my previous personal best by nearly seven minutes, completing the course in 1:32:58 (one hour, 32 minutes and 58 seconds). Despite rain overnight and a tumultuous sky in the early morning, we ended up with a gorgeous day for running. After finishing my 15k, I met up with runner friends to cheer on the marathoners at the finish line and then enjoy a couple of well-deserved beers by the water.

This year, I've overcome my intimidation about running with other people thanks to an excellent small group of runner pals who challenge and encourage me on early Sunday morning trail runs in and around the Belgrad Forest north of the city. I know pushing myself with them was a big factor in my success at the race — as was knowing you were all cheering me on from near and far!

I encourage you all to learn more about the excellent work of Hayata Destek and their ongoing efforts to combat child labor in Turkey and help provide relief aid and psycho-social support to some of the more than 3 million refugees now in this country. You can read more about them in English at and follow along (mostly in Turkish, but also with photos!) at

Thank you again so much for your support!

With love and solidarity,


Friday, November 11, 2016

America voted. Now what?

Eight years ago this month, I took a nap late in the evening and then awoke again in the wee hours, packed up some bottles of champagne and walked through Istanbul's for-once quiet streets to a fellow expat's house. There a group of Americans and their friends held a vigil through the night, drinking, eating, and goofing around, but mostly glued to the TV and our laptop screens as we watched the election results roll in back home. We got to pop those champagne corks around sunrise, which seemed utterly fitting, and as I made my sleepy but thrilled way back home, it felt like the world outside shone just a bit brighter.

There was a little déjà vu, if a lot more anxiety, Tuesday evening in heading out around midnight, already sleepy but determined to watch this year's returns until the bitter end. And bitter it was. There's already so much armchair analysis and so many emotional outpourings online, I don't really feel like opining further here. But if you, like me, believe in progressive ideals and are concerned about the effect the U.S. presidential election might have in terms of racial/gender/LGBTQ equality, the environment, human rights, global peace, and much more, you might, like me, need a little shot in the arm and some ideas about what to do next.

So I'm starting (and will keep updating) a list here of other people's writing that I feel provides one or both of these things; if you have more suggestions, send 'em my way. (Admittedly, this is an American-centric list, and post, but many of the issues we face are global ones, and I'd love it if this inspires anyone to take like-minded action in their own countries.)

Get fired up:
  • Inspiring Down-Ballot Wins That Defy Racism, Sexism -- Short profiles of the nine women of color elected to the U.S. House and Senate this week, including my new California senator, Kamala Harris. (Another article has more on female firsts in this election, including the first Somali-American woman to be elected to public office in the United States.)

  • Don't Mourn, Fight Like Hell -- "Trump appealed to America's worst impulses. Now it's on the rest of us to show, to prove, that this is not all that America is. This is a time when we're called on to do things we may not have done before. To face down bigotry and hate, and to reach beyond our Facebook feeds in trying to do so."

  • Here's what progressives need to do to stop Trump’s insane agenda -- "We need to take back Congress in 2018 like our lives depended on it because they do."

  • Forget Canada. Stay and Fight for American Democracy -- "Fighting for democracy is part of America's heritage, from abolitionists to suffragettes to the progressive reformers. Maybe you thought that fight was confined to history. It will go on."

  • Autocracy: Rules for Survival -- "Believe the autocrat. Do not be taken in by small signs of normality. Institutions will not save you. Be outraged. Don’t make compromises. Remember the future."

  • The Morning After -- "Let’s get off the floor and get busy." The brilliant Samantha Bee's call to action. Need further convincing that the 2018 midterm election can matter? Watch her trenchant piece from earlier in this campaign season about the 2010 midterm -- you know, the one that only 40.9% of eligible voters bothered to cast a ballot in -- and then read about some of the voter-suppression laws enacted by people that apathy allowed to sweep into office.

  • We Have To Create A Culture That Won't Vote For Trump -- "We’re going to need every single one of you. Because what we need to do is hard. Very hard. We have to create a culture that won’t vote for Trump, that won’t vote for anyone like Trump ever again. And in order to do that we have to shift our focus from our politicians, our electoral college, our TV pundits—and we have to start focusing on our communities. Because Trump did not elect himself."

  • Citizens, United -- "Despair is a counterproductive response. So is denial — an easy temptation in the wake of the inevitable postelection pleasantries and displays of respect needed to maintain the peaceful transfer of power. The proper response is steely resolve to wage the fight of our lives."

  • Trump changed everything. Now everything counts -- "With due respect for the colored ribbons we’ve worn for various solidarities, our next step is to wear something on our sleeve that takes actual courage: our hearts... There’s safety in numbers, but only if we count ourselves out loud."

Get active:

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Running so kids can be kids -- not farmworkers

Runners are often advised to rekindle their love for their sport in tough or unmotivating times by remembering the joy and freedom they felt running as a child. But not all children have the freedom to run and play. In Turkey, at least 1 million young people under the age of 18, including both Turkish children and Syrian and other refugee children, are spending their childhoods working — at least 400,000 of them in grueling seasonal migrant agricultural labor — instead of learning and playing.

Helping some of these children get back to school is the reason why I’m running the 15k race in the Istanbul Marathon on 13 November for Hayata Destek, a Turkish NGO that provides social support to vulnerable communities, and its "This Work is Not Child's Play!" campaign.

For each 250 TL I raise (that’s just $80, €72, or £65), Hayata Destek will be able to provide one migrant farmworker child with school supplies, educational materials, and the hygiene items they need in their tent home.
Jennifer Hattam's campaign page
I know there are many, many organizations and causes in need of funding right now. I've chosen this one not only because of the good work they do, but also to help support Turkish civil society, which is both increasingly embattled and woefully underfunded. The group through which I'm carrying out my funding drive, Adım Adım, has done amazing work over the past eight years promoting two things that were once very foreign in Turkey: running and individual charitable giving. I trust their vetting of the organizations they choose to partner with; the founders have even started a new project, Açık Açık ("Openly") to promote transparency among Turkish charities.

Unfortunately, the Adım Adım donation pages are only in Turkish, so if you need a little help navigating them, here's a quick translation:

"We're running so children working in seasonal
agriculture can be children,
because this work is not child's play"
At the top of my campaign page, you'll see my information, including the campaign I've chosen to support and how I'm doing at meeting my goal. Scroll down below the "Neden Koşuyorum" (Why I'm Running) section and underneath "Kampanyamı Destekle" (Support My Campaign"), click on the orange button labeled "Online Bağış Yap" (Make An Online Donation).

From there, type in the amount you want to donate ("Bağış Miktarı") *in Turkish Lira* ( is a good currency converter); your credit card number ("Kredi Kartı Numarası"), expiration date (“Ay” is month, “Yıl” is year), and card security code ("CVV"); your name (“Adın Soyadın”); and your email address (“E-Posta Adresin”). Then click on the red button marked “Bağışla” to make your donation! 100% of all funds raised go to my selected charity, Hayata Destek.

If you have a Turkish bank account and want to donate via electronic funds transfer, click on “Havale/EFT yapmak istiyorum” to see the recipient bank name (Finansbank / İstanbul Maçka Şubesi), account name (Hayata Destek Derneği / STL), and IBAN numbers for Turkish Lira, US Dollar, and Euro donations. Don’t forget to write the code “CC10138” in the explanation section ("açıklama") so that the donation gets registered to my campaign.

If you have any questions or difficulties making a donation, please PM me. If you have trouble donating from abroad, I'd be happy to accept donations to my personal PayPal account and then send them through to Hayata Destek myself.

Please help me meet my fundraising goal of 3000 TL ($961 / €865 / £779), which will support 12 children in going back to school. All it takes to meet that goal is for 40 of you to donate 75 TL ($24 / 22 Euro / 19 GBP) each! Thank you for your support!

UPDATE: Thanks to the generosity of my supporters, I concluded my campaign with a total of 6,454 Turkish Lira ($1,833 US) — more than twice my original fundraising goal! These donations will provide more than 25 migrant farmworker children with school supplies, educational materials, and the hygiene items they need in their tent homes. Overall, 324 children will be assisted by Hayata Destek's fundraising campaign. Read more in my thank-you letter to my fundraising supporters.

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)