Saturday, October 31, 2015

Paradise turned purgatory: Day 1 on Lesbos

"The weather's a bit bad, is the ferry still running today?" a woman asked upon entering the ticket office, visibly worried. The man behind the counter nearly rolled his eyes. "The fishing boats have gone out and they have only one motor. These ferries have three. There's no weather in which we don't go." The woman did not look reassured. "Well, can we change our tickets, then?"

Her fears were unfounded. On this clear, sunny day in late October, the high winds and choppy water indeed posed no more threat to the ferry running between the Turkish town of Ayvalık and the nearby Greek island of Lesbos (Mitilini) than the possibility that a passenger might spill her tea as the boat crested over a rolling wave. But for the thousands of refugees making the crossing on leaky, overcrowded rafts in search of sanctuary in Europe, the rougher weather can be fatal.

A rescue off the coast of Lesbos.
© 2015 Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch
"People have been sending me photos of their family members lost at sea, and now I'm getting photos of the bodies that have been washing up onshore today in hopes that I can make a match," one long-term volunteer on Lesbos explained after our small group arrived on the island this afternoon.

Volunteers like her are saving drowning people from the waves, and burying those who don't make it. They're serving food and buying tents and providing medical care -- "not only in Greece, but all along the dismal journey that people fleeing war and persecution follow through the Western Balkans to reach asylum in Western Europe," Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch wrote today. "All along the route, there is virtually no humanitarian response from European institutions, and those in need rely on the good will of volunteers for shelter, food, clothes, and medical assistance."

The scene on Lesbos is a surreal one -- looking out at the green hills and the blue sea, driving past stately mansions, and strolling down picturesque side streets filled with cafes, it's easy to see what an idyllic place this must have been, not so long ago, for a holiday. Today, the visitor disembarking from the ferry enters a parking lot packed with people, entire families in tents, makeshift shelters, or completely exposed to the elements, waiting for their chance to continue further into Europe. Bright-orange life jackets and parts of deflated rafts scattered on the island's beaches attest to the continuing arrivals on the dangerous journey by sea. At one camp, we met a pregnant Syrian mother of six whose husband had been killed in the ongoing war. Her young son pulled his shirt half-off to show us the scar where a bullet had passed through his arm.

An encampment on Lesbos. Photo: IRC
With the sun shining, people seem relatively relaxed, spared from the torrential rain and mud that just a week or so ago was causing cases of hypothermia and trench foot as people waited for days in kilometers-long lines to register under new Frontex procedures. But the need is still dire, the resources and infrastructure limited, and the efforts disorganized.

Many refugees staying on Lesbos are eating only one meal a day, a foil takeout container of lentils and rice doled out by some ad-hoc kitchens operating on the island. Most of our day was spent sourcing industrial-size cooking pots, basic ingredients, and a kitchen in which to prepare vats of porridge so at least some people can have an additional meal tomorrow morning. In the evening, as the wind whipped fiercer, we took crates of apples and oranges into the parking lot by the harbor, passing them out to men, women, and children who formed a crush of people in just seconds, holding out their hands, pleading for just one more. I fall asleep to the sound of the wind whistling outside, hoping that it will not capsize any boats tonight.

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Let's vote! What's the ugliest building in Istanbul?

From the great Ottoman palaces of old to the graceful late-19th-century apartment buildings lining many of Beyoğlu's winding streets, Istanbul has much for the architecture-lover to appreciate. Even some of its umpteen malls are award-winning.

But as you venture out further into the city's endless sprawl, the situation gets grimmer: kilometer after kilometer of cheaply put-together apartment blocks, office towers, industrial facilities, and strip malls. Amid that drab parade, however some buildings still stand out -- for their absolute atrociousness.

Since Turkey has yet to follow Britain's lead and invent an "award" for the ugliest new building of the year, let's get the competition going ourselves...

A friend threw down the gauntlet on Twitter, asking "Is there an uglier building in #Istanbul than #Bakırköy Adalet Sarayı?"

Can't deny it, that's pretty ugly. My money, however, has always been on the 212 Power Outlet in Bağcılar, a landmark on my former daily commute:

And the nominations kept rolling in...

The Perpa Ticaret Merkezi in Şişli:

The rather phallic (and completely out of sync with its surroundings) Ritz-Carlton hotel near Taksim:

The TRT building in Tepebaşı (of which I must admit I've become strangely fond):

The Doubletree hotel in Moda:

The so-kitschy-it's-almost-cute Mustafa Kanat Camii (aka "the Darth Vader mosque") in Ataşehir:

And last, but certainly not least, the under-construction Andromeda Plus residence in Ataşehir, aptly described by a friend as a design that "has to be modelled on [developer Ali] Ağaoğlu's infant son's first Lego creation. No other explanation":

Now it's your turn to weigh in:

What building deserves the title of Istanbul's ugliest?

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Election slogans and Internet snark

Weary of fretting about the upcoming Turkish election, the terrible things that could happen between now and then, and the uncertainty of what might happen afterwards? Me too. Let's try to have a laugh about it instead, at least for a moment.

During the last election, all the way back in June, the ruling party plastered the country with billboards proclaiming "The others talk, AK Party does" (Onlar konuşur, Ak Parti yapar). Which, of course, left the question of "does what?" open to Internet jokesters to fill in:

"We are making the biggest thing in the world"

"We are making oven-baked pasta"

"We are doing something very super"

"We are making Turkish subtitles"

"We are doing whatever our hearts desire"

... and on and on.

The party's new election slogan, "There is no you or I, there is only Turkey" (Sen ben yok, Türkiye var) was of course also quickly appropriated by online critics:

That's a good one, for sure, but plenty of other alternatives could be similarly Photoshopped, don't you think? A few ideas to get the ball rolling...

Sen ben yok ayran var
(There is no you or me, there is only ayran)

Sen ben yok biber gazı var

(There is no you or me, there is only teargas)

Sen ben yok beton var
(There is no you or me, there is only concrete)

Well, how 'bout it?

Sen ben yok _______ var

This week, astute wags pointed out that a new ad campaign touting the party as "the women's party" was slyly colored pink but featured only the visage of the male, mustachioed prime minister. I'm just waiting for the memes to pop up on this one too...

Although, frankly, given the poster boy's most famous recent gaffe, I think I may have come up with a winner already:

Geometri ustaların partisi
(The geometry experts' party)

Got a nice ring to it, değil mi?

Monday, October 12, 2015


Graffiti in Istanbul:
"If only it was a dream"
Turkey is still in mourning after the worst terror attack in its recent history, a suicide bombing targeting a peace march in the capital city of Ankara that killed at least 97 people. Flags are at half-mast, heartrending photos from funerals around the country are filling social media, and the sound of pots and pans being banged in protest echoes through the night air in many Istanbul neighborhoods.

Much has been written, and will continue to be, trying to explain the attack, what led up to it, and what its ramifications may be for the next election, and for the country in the longer term. Instead of rehashing them, or trying to add my voice to the many clamoring for attention right now, I'd rather share some pieces that I think are worthwhile reads, a few personal reflections, and some photos and other imagery that seem to capture the current mood -- or, at least, my mood.

"We are dying in order to live as humans.
You who have lost your humanity, you are already dead."
Photo via @sweidius
After such an event, it's easy to fall into despair, but it’s been heartening to see the outpouring of love and support from abroad. I know many people who have responded felt Turkey's pain personally due to their visits here or connections with Turkish friends, which speaks well of the country and its people despite the anger and fear swirling around us now.

"95 dead, 85 million injured"
Yesterday I saw an exhibit of works by student artists from Sarajevo, most too young to remember the bloody war that ravaged their city and killed tens of thousands. In the evening, I shared a wonderful Syrian meal with friends, cooked by a young man from Homs who has fled the violence there and is trying to finish his education and start a new life in Turkey, an endeavor the dinner was helping support. After, and amid, such great tragedies, somehow, life goes on.

Today, people around Turkey are gathering to mourn the dead and call for justice to be done, attending funerals and demonstrations despite the fear that undoubtedly now hangs over any large public gathering. I am inspired by their resilient spirit, along with that of the people who rallied to donate blood after the attack, to bring food and blankets to family members waiting outside Ankara's hospitals for news on their loved ones.

These people, and everyone else who fights for a better, more compassionate world, are living the words written on a protest sign by a young woman killed Saturday and laid to rest this morning in her Black Sea hometown of Arhavi: “Beautiful days don't come to us, we march to them.”

Protest sign in Antalya: “Our pain is great. So is our indignation.
We are bereaved. We are in revolt."
Photo via İleri Haber

Selected reading:
How to help:
  • The "10 October Solidarity" civil initiative is organizing volunteers and donations to help survivors and their families
  • A scholarship fund for archaeology students in Turkey has been set up in memory of Dilan Sarıkaya, 22, who was an archaeological student at Çukurova University

Monday, October 5, 2015

Open Studio Days in Istanbul

Walking down a frequently trod street in our Beyoğlu neighborhood, we peered more closely than usual at the houses lining either side, eyeing doorsteps and overhead windows for the pink balloon that meant there was art inside.

Jewelry by İrem Burcu Ummansu
I had been excited to learn that the “Open Studio Days” (Açık Stüdyo Günleri) concept was finally coming to Istanbul. SF Open Studios had always been one of my favorite events back in my San Francisco days, offering a full month of opportunities to explore new neighborhoods, meet local artists, peek into their studios, and maybe even buy a print or two. And the weekend-long Istanbul Open Studio Days got off to a good start right away, with a nicely printed brochure containing details on the participating artists and maps to guide us on our urban treasure hunt.

Painting by Desen Halıçınarlı
Starting off near home in Çukurcuma and working our way down to Tophane and Karaköy, a friend and I stepped gingerly into the first location on our self-plotted tour, feeling a little awkward about entering a stranger’s house, but were warmly greeted by the artist, who cheerfully offered us snacks and showed us her colorful painted caricatures and ceramic pieces. Proceeding more confidently after that, we climbed to fifth-floor walkup apartments and into dusty hans (traditional commercial buildings). We got lost a couple of times and failed entirely to find one or two studios on the list.

In Karaköy, we enviously ogled beautiful jewelry reflecting the architectural forms of old Beyoğlu buildings. I fell madly in love with one painter’s moody cityscapes — and got to step out onto her roof terrace to see some of the vistas that inspire her — but was afraid to ask how much they cost.

Paintings by Begüm Mütevellioğlu
The next day, we did it all over again, boarding a ferry to Kadıköy and diving into the streets of Yeldeğirmeni, a newly hip Asian-side neighborhood where crumbling Ottoman-era wooden houses sit amongst new apartment buildings and even newer cafes and boutiques.

One of the artists’ studios was inside one of those old wooden houses, offering a rare glimpse inside a characteristic (but quickly vanishing) style of Istanbul architecture along with some fine paintings. With lots of street art to look at along the way, we visited a printmaking studio, stood around awkwardly while one artist hosted what appeared to be a dinner party for her friends, and scratched our heads over some conceptual works in a gallery.

Print by Mediha Sevinç
Wrapping up the days with beers in one of Kadıköy’s many lively bars, we raised our glasses to toast a successful weekend meeting up-and-coming artists, looking at their works in progress, seeing some of their inspirations, and poking into some new corners of the city. A few duds aside, the Açık Stüydo Günleri had been a wonderful, well-organized event. Too bad it only happens once a year.