The Turkish Life

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.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Guts, grit, and grime

Marathons, triathlons, and ultra-marathons no longer seem to be enough to satisfy runners in the US, UK, and elsewhere around the world, who are signing up by their tens of thousands to crawl under barbed wire, slog through mud, jump into freezing water, avoid electric shocks -- and pay dozens, even hundreds of dollars for the privilege. You don't need to spend a penny, or fill out a registration form, to experience obstacle racing in Istanbul, though. Just lace up your shoes and steel your resolve to face these heart-pumping challenges:

What Nike wants you think
running looks like in Istanbul
The Bridge -- Struggle to maintain your footing as you speed across cement slick with fish guts, bilgy seawater, and soggy cigarette butts, dodging fishing lines whilst they're being cast, and coughing on clouds of smoke emanating from small but pungent coal-and-trash-burning fires.

Adrenaline Rush -- Run on the narrow shoulder of the road and thrill to buses flying by at top speed less than a foot from your face. (Caution: Their mirrors may be even closer than they appear.)

Morton's Fork -- Vault over a cable barrier into oncoming traffic or take your chances with the pack of snarling street dogs on the sidewalk.

Dodge 'Em -- Pick a sidewalk, any sidewalk and try avoid running into people talking on the phone, taking selfies, strolling arm-in-arm three abreast, stopping abruptly right in front of you, walking dogs they don't know how to control, pushing vending carts, unloading trucks, hooking up generator cables, or pulling their car up onto the sidewalk so their passenger can fling the vehicle door open into your path and disembark.

What that same location
actually looks like
Stumbling Block -- Bounce off of loose tiles that spurt up black water as they wobble under your feet, crumbling curbstones, and patches of missing brickwork -- all without turning an ankle.

The Gauntlet -- Keep your cool and avoid eye contact as touts step out in front of you to point the way into their restaurant, nargile cafe, or carpet shop, waving menus or doing mocking impersonations of someone running in order to try and get your attention.

Wet 'n' Wild -- Start your run during or after a heavy rain to experience the excitement created by the city's poor drainage system: Plazas and squares become ankle-deep pools and hills turn into rushing streams. Just try not to look at all the trash being swept along with it.

Bonus Round (female racers only) -- Extra points go to any woman who can don a modest-enough wardrobe and tough-enough attitude to silence the catcalls. (Disclaimer: This one's impossible.)

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."

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

City for sale

My initial, indelible memory of arriving in Istanbul for the very first time was speeding in a taxi at night under the illuminated Valens Aqueduct, its stone arches towering overhead as the domes of mosques glimmered in the distance.

Nice spot for a meze joint.
Now the Istanbul Municipality reportedly wants to "restore" the 4th-century structure and plop a restaurant on top -- along with a walking path, which would admittedly be kind of cool, and an observation deck (h/t @nblaser18). With a cheesy nightclub already inside Beyoğlu's medieval Galata Tower, malls going up left and right, and the mayor promising an aerial cable-car ride across the Bosphorus, there seems to be no fighting the total Disneyfication of Istanbul. Herewith, a few modest proposals for embracing the inevitable:

Yedikule AVM -- Seven towers, seven different shopping experiences!

Chora Çay Bahçesi and Kıraathane -- Sip your tea and smoke endlessly on the tranquil grounds of this former Byzantine church. The card rooms inside are the best-decorated in town.

The Aya Sofya Experience -- Why gaze up in awe at what was once the world's highest ceiling when you can show that old dome who's boss on Istanbul's tallest climbing wall? The athletically challenged can go inner-tubing through the newly opened underground cisterns below.

Rumeli Hisarı Et Mangal Piknik Alanı -- Celebrate the Conquest every weekend with a cook-out inside this 15th-century fortress on the Bosphorus. Book well ahead for a private spot with a sweeping view inside one of the old look-out towers.

Dolmabahçe Döner Dünyası -- The world's biggest and most glamorous kebab shop, bar none.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Emotional cartography

"Looking at things too much celebrated, like views of beautiful cities, is equal to not seeing anything at all. Our brain, as soon as [it] acknowledges the images, doesn't need to work on them."*
A patch of earth. A dinner plate. A gas station. A row of chairs. The subjects of young Turkish photographer Cemre Yeşil's series "This Was" ("Bak Bu") are the polar opposites of those discussed by curator Vittorio Urbani in his introduction to an unrelated (though nearby) exhibit. They are things little celebrated, and often not even noticed. But by pairing these simple, yet skillfully composed, camera-phone images with short bits of handwritten text, each work becomes a moving exploration of how the angle of a loved one's foot or a nondescript spot by the sea can evoke powerful personal memories; how the joys and losses we experience attach themselves to the places we pass through everyday, superimposing an emotional map onto the physical one.

Walking home from the exhibit, I was inspired to capture a few of the spots on my own emotional map of the neighborhood in similar style, a humble tribute to Yeşil's fine work, on display through this weekend at Daire Sanat.

This is where I found his cat.

This is how I first found my way.

This is where I ran in fear.

This is where my heart once sang.

Cemre Yeşil's exhibition "Bak Bu // This Was" can be seen at Daire Sanat on Boğazkesen Caddesi No: 76A, Tophane, Beyoğlu, through June 15. The gallery is open Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday by appointment only.

* Quoted from curator Vittorio Urbani's introduction to Italian artist Flavio Favelli's exhibition "Grape Juice," showing at the Galata Rum Okulu in Karaköy until June 14.