Saturday, March 26, 2011

Going back to Berlin

What I remembered most about Berlin was the cranes. They towered over the city, sprouting from blocked-off squares and empty lots and half-finished buildings. It was almost a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall and to a wide-eyed visitor, the city still seemed to be in the messy middle of ripping itself up and starting again. The ruined tower of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church stood amid broad and empty avenues; the crumbling path along the remaining part of the wall, painted with faded murals, was eerily deserted. Berlin's scars had not yet healed, and in the scant day or two I spent there on my first trip abroad in 1998, I was moved by the way there seemed to be an agreement not to cover them all up.

When I had the chance to return in 2010 to cover an environmental conference, the cranes were gone, their work done. People strolled through parks, lined up to see the view from the Reichstag's glass dome (top right), rode their bikes along the spruced-up East Side Gallery (bottom right), ate Thai noodles in sleek restaurants, and drank in a beer garden in the shadow of an abandoned-department store-turned-prison-turned-artists-collective. I was saddened to learn that latter spot, the Kunsthaus Tacheles (left), is at risk of being shut down, and I could see how people who had loved Berlin through its tough times might feel that its gritty uniqueness has largely been lost. But coming from crowded, grimy Istanbul, it was hard to see much to dislike in this green, cultured, cosmopolitan -- and completely transformed -- city.

While wandering one day, I found myself in the vicinity of the Brandenburg Gate, a former barrier between East and West Berlin and an iconic symbol of the fall of the wall. What I saw there, though, looked so small and sedate that I had to ask at a nearby souvenir shop to confirm that it was actually the place I remembered. The area around the gate, like so much else of central Berlin, was attractively refurbished, pedestrian-friendly, and rife with outdoor cafes. I wanted to like it, but I didn't. I missed seeing cars whip between the once-barricaded columns, emphatically demonstrating that people were free to move and the city was one again.

NOTE: Revisiting favorite places can be comforting, vexing, or bittersweet. Check out other Lonely Planet travel bloggers' experiences with return visits in the Blogsherpa Blog Carnival: Going Back, hosted by Natalia and family at No Beaten Path.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Expat environmentalist

The Middle East environmental news site Green Prophet recently interviewed me about my "experiences as an expat environmentalist," including what brought me to Turkey in the first place, what challenges I've encountered in trying to maintain a "green" lifestyle abroad, the most serious environmental problems facing Turkey, if there's any good news here on the eco front, and (sigh) how my Turkish is coming along, among other interesting questions.

Check it out: "INTERVIEW: Treehugger Blogger Jennifer Hattam Talks To Green Prophet About Turkey"

UPDATE: My former colleagues at Sierra magazine nicely highlighted the interview on the Green Life blog I founded way back when: "Catching Up with a Former Sierra Editor." Thanks, guys!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Peeking inside the Aya İrini, and into Anatolia's ancient past

Marriages, divorces, broken betrothals, inheritance disputes, the selling of slaves, even the arrest of a spy -- it's awfully juicy material to be found in faded etchings on small clay tablets. Though they may not have the aesthetic grace of a well-crafted jug or bowl, or the obvious intrigue of icon-like animal figurines, these early records of the drudgery (field sales, donkey transportation fees) and drama of daily life in Central Anatolia some 4,000 years ago are perhaps the most compelling part of the exhibit currently on display at the Hagia Eirene Museum in Istanbul.

Even if you're not interested in ancient archaeological discoveries, the awkwardly named "Foreword to Anatolia Kültepe-Kanesh Karum: Assyrians in Istanbul" is worth a visit for the chance to peek inside the Hagia Eirene (Aya İrini), a mini-version of the more famous Hagia Sophia that's typically closed to the public. But unlike many such exhibits where endless rows of coins and pottery are displayed with little more than a date on the label, some effort was made here to interpret the findings from Kültepe (Karesh), an 18-level dig near the modern city of Kayseri, for a general audience.





The first written documents in Anatolia, those little clay tablets can be thought of as the beginning of history in the area. They also reveal the somewhat surprising fact that women in the settlement had legal rights and could sign business transactions -- abilities probably no one was willing to try and keep from women tough enough to guard their homes against robbers and collect from debtors while their merchant husbands were away. Equality only went so far, though: A man could take a second wife in the event of infertility, which was considered solely his first wife's fault.

Also striking were some examples of the extraordinary longevity of good design. A clay colander c. 1880 BC looked pretty much the same as the metal ones in today's kitchens, while a pair of gold hoop earrings from 1700 BC could have been the first pair I wore in high school.

Not addressed, however, was whether users of stamps bearing the image of a double-headed eagle -- a common motif apparently symbolizing "the meeting of East and West" -- were soundly mocked for resorting to cliché.

TO VISIT: The exhibit is on view until March 28 at the Hagia Eirene Museum in the Topkapı Palace Garden in Istanbul. The museum is open Wednesday through Monday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and admission is free.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

We're number 5!

One hot day in the summer of 2008, I was sitting at a popular viewpoint overlooking central Athens, taking in the city's sprawl, when a man struck up a conversation by asking where I was from. "I'm from the United States, but I live in Istanbul," I said. He grimaced. "What are you doing there? Are you a student?" I told him I was, which was mostly the truth at the time. "Don't tell me you're studying Turkish," he said with evident disdain.

"Actually, I am," I replied. "I'm going to be living there for a while so I think it would be good to learn the language."

"But why??" he pressed. "People only speak Turkish in Turkey."

Politeness (and awareness of the not-so-friendly feelings between the two countries) kept me from uttering the obvious retort: "And they speak Greek where else, exactly?"

According a recent post by Mavi Boncuk, a treasure trove of Turkish and Ottoman trivia, that snarky response would have been justified. With 220 million speakers around the globe, Turkish ranks fifth in the world, after Chinese, English, Spanish, and Hindi -- and ahead of Arabic. Yep, I was surprised too. From the site:
Turkish is a member of the Turkish, or Western, subgroup of the Oghuz languages, which includes Gagauz and Azeri. The Oghuz languages form the Southwestern subgroup of the Turkic languages, a language family comprising some 30 living languages spoken across Eastern Europe, Central Asia, and Siberia.
In case you're curious, Portuguese and Bengali follow Arabic on the commonly-spoken list. Greek is nowhere to be seen.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Blog banning roulette

First it was YouTube. Then WordPress. Then Google Docs and Maps. Then YouTube again. Or maybe it was the other way around. It's awfully hard to keep up with all the websites that have been banned in Turkey, even in just the three years I've been living here. So-called "Web 2.0" sites seem to create some of the biggest problems as Turkish law appears ill-equipped to deal with the fact that the content on a single website can be created by hundreds of thousands, or even millions of users -- if just one of them insults a revered historical figure or pisses off a rich creationist, it's no skateboarding dogs for anyone.

Somewhat inevitably, the wheel has spun again and come up Blogger. This time around the ban, which comes at a moment of increased concern about press freedom in Turkey, seems to be the result of a simple copyright spat, although Google (the parent company of both Blogger and YouTube) and Turkey have a testy history that may or may not play a role.

Migrating to another web service that might just as well get blocked five minutes from now doesn't seem like too appealing of an option, so for the moment I'm just going to stay put on blogspot and see how things shake out. If you're in Turkey and want to keep reading my blog (which I hope you do!) and others hosted by Blogger, try one or both of these tactics that have been suggested as a way around the ban:

  • Sign up for the RSS feed of sites you like (that link goes to mine), and ask your favorite blogs to switch to showing their full posts in RSS feeds if they're not doing so already.

  • Follow the "Don't Touch My Blog" (Bloguma Dokunma) campaign on Twitter and Facebook for the latest updates and work-arounds.