Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Race day, Istanbul style

Most runners expect to complete a race to the sound of spectator cheers, announcers calling out finishing times, and some high-energy music from the post-race party.

What participants in the Istanbul Half Marathon on Sunday heard at the finish line instead were religious chants and songs, amplified to ear-splitting volume, from the gender-segregated celebration of the Prophet Mohammed's birthday that some city official had apparently seen fit to schedule for the same time in the same concrete wasteland, er, "meeting area."

Photo: Hope Gross Mandel
The incongruous pairing could be seen as a metaphor for the mix of ideologies and cultures jostling, not always comfortably, up against each other in Turkey. It certainly created humorous juxtapositions, with lycra-clad women -- some stripping down to their sports bras to change out of their sweaty race shirts -- gathered on one side, those swathed head-to-toe in black robes (an unusually conservative mode of covering for Turkey) on the other.

Istanbul's disparate realities also intruded into the day's sporting event in the form of bedraggled Roma and refugee children wandering around the race course, alternately trying to high-five runners and block their path. (In general, little effort is made at Turkish races to keep bystanders and runners separated, as the photo below demonstrates, and as any runner who's had to dodge around a street vendor and his simit cart mid-race can attest.)

Photo: Vodafone İstanbul Yarı Maratonu
Certainly, local flavor can add to the racing experience: Running past tanks and military bands along the route, and having the post-race entertainment include a show of soldiers performing rappelling demonstrations from helicopters hovering overhead made completing my first-ever 10k as part of the Beirut Marathon particularly memorable.

But after an 8k, a 10k, two 15ks, and a half marathon's worth of Istanbul races with chaotic starts so jam-packed as to drive people to walk on top of the portable toilets to bypass the crowds; emptied-out water stops; nonexistent crowd control; self-aggrandizing speeches by public officials who've done nothing to encourage sporting culture; mis-calculated route mileage; spectator-less sidelines, cars zipping onto the course before the race is over; and bag-retrieval melees, someday running a properly organized race is going to seem like the real novelty. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

As time goes by

The impermanence of life, and both the pain and comfort that can promise, threads through much of Scottish artist Robert Montgomery's work currently on display at the Istanbul'74 gallery in the Galatasaray neighborhood of Istanbul.

Billboards and neon signs are his canvases for text-based works both politically aligned against these mediums' usual capitalist, establishment messaging and personally resonant of the longings and fears such advertisements emptily offer to assuage.

Some serve as reminders of how quickly beautiful moments can pass by:

"...Every morning some of
the things you have 
loved will always be 
behind you."

Others as assurances that the oppressive forces in the world will also eventually come to an end:

Montgomery's works speak of civilizations that have crumbled, dreams that have withered, people and places that have become lost to us.... but also of how those losses are themselves impermanent. One particularly bittersweet piece concisely conjures up the human connections so deeply affecting that you may never be fully free of them:

What the words leave open to interpretation is whether the "ghosts" are benevolent presences, or haunting ones, evoking memories that you cherish the ability to revisit, or ones painful to recall, but more painful yet to let go.

TO VISIT: "Robert Montgomery" is on view until 18 April at the Istanbul'74 gallery in Istanbul's Galatasaray neighborhood. The gallery is open Monday to Friday from 11 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. and Saturday from 1 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Free admission.