Friday, December 28, 2012

A dessert with depth

Cooking aşure at a Slow Food event
in Istanbul.
"What kind of dessert is this?" I thought to myself the first time I tried aşure. A traditional Turkish pudding thick with wheat, rice, chickpeas, and white beans, and studded with dried fruits and nuts, it seemed more reminiscent of a hearty, good-for-you bowl of oatmeal than a sweet treat.

Joining the contributors team at Zester Daily, a website devoted to food journalism, gave me the opportunity to really dig in to this unusual dish, whose cultural associations and traditions are as rich, numerous, and varied as its ingredients.

Get to the bottom of a bowl of aşure with my debut piece for Zester, "A Pudding for All That Comes From Turkey's Melting Pot."

Thursday, December 20, 2012

TreeHugging in Turkey: A look back

For the past four years, I've been blogging for about environmental news and views in Turkey and wherever else has piqued my interest.

What passes for 'nature' in much of Istanbul.
In the main, the environmental news from Turkey has been distressing to follow: continual construction of destructive dams, stubborn plans to build a nuclear power plant in the face of earthquake threats, the tragic deaths of coal miners, and preventable flooding disasters, to name just a few.

Not that there haven't been some fun moments too (a cute little baby bear in a box! ice cream delivery by bike! translating Tarkan lyrics and calling it work!).

Most heartening, and rewarding, however, has been getting to know some of the people who are bucking the tide of unsustainable growth -- people developing eco-tourism options, helping others shop more responsibly, empowering consumers to learn about their food, designing green buildings, engaging in creative recycling, and planting permaculture gardens in the middle of the city.

As of this week, due to changes at the site, my tenure as a TreeHugger correspondent is over, though not my interest in covering these issues, of course. To mark the end of a little era, here's a baker's dozen worth of links to some of my favorite TreeHugger posts that I wrote about Turkey:
You can find my full archive of TreeHugger posts (for now, at least) on my contributor page.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Farewell, İnci

The marble slab below the door sagged on one side, worn concave by the countless thousands of shoes that had trod upon it over the last 68 years.

Photo: Athens Voice
Until this weekend, many feet still passed through the threshold of İnci Pastanesi each day, especially on weekends, when Turkish families, couples, and not a few tourists would crowd into the long, narrow pastry shop, grabbing a plate of profiteroles drenched in chocolate syrup to eat at one of the small, low tables along the wall opposite the counter.

Neatly printed signs above them read, "We don't have any table service" and "We don't have any other outlets." Boxes covered in shiny wrapping paper lined the upper walls, interspersed with tidy spools of equally colorful ribbon. Sometimes a face might peek out from the loft office, above the cash register and next to one of the framed photos of Atatürk. In the back, partly visible through an open doorway, a seemingly un-diminishing pyramid of pastry puffs were continually hand-filled with custard, while chocolate churned in a large white vat.

The eviction. Photo: Radikal
Opened in 1944 by Lukas Zigoridis, an Istanbullu of Albanian Greek origin, İnci hearkened back to an earlier time when Istanbul, and the Beyoğlu district in particular, was a place where religious minorities -- Greeks, Armenians, Jews -- and various residents of European descent made up nearly half of the population and İstiklal Caddesi was a grand avenue lined with fashionable local shops and elite residences.

Shuttered for good. Photo: Aktif Haber
Following anti-Greek riots in 1955, mass rural-to-urban migration, and a host of other factors, today's Istanbul is overwhelmingly Turkish and İstiklal Caddesi is home to three Starbucks, a Burger King, a Sephora, and a Gap (just to name a few). The fading memories of Beyoğlu's cosmopolitan past lend a melancholy undertone to the bustling and often rowdy neighborhood, where this history lingers only in the quiet, tucked-away old churches, in the Greek- and Armenian-origin dishes served at local meyhanes... and at İnci. But no longer.

On Friday, the local zabita (civil police) arrived at the storied pastry shop to carry out a long-fought eviction order of İnci and the other remaining tenants of the historic Cercle d’Orient building, an 1884 Baroque- and Rococo-style beauty reportedly slated for the same fate as its neighbor: renovation into yet another shopping mall.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Atatürk'ün askerleri

They'd been out on the street near Taksim Square all week, passing out leaflets calling for "1 million Atatürks" to don masks of the revered figure's visage and assemble outside Dolmabahçe Palace for the 74th anniversary of the Turkish leader's death.

"We will be at Dolmabahçe at 9:05 with our Atatürk masks on 10 November to show that Atatürk did not die and will not die," their flyers read. "We are all Atatürk!"

With the "one million [fill in the blank]" concept overused to the point of absurdity, I half-expected just a handful of stalwart Kemalists milling around forlornly in their cardboard masks. But it was actually a fairly impressive (though of course far-short-of-goal) crowd that gathered to mark the moment of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk's passing outside the Ottoman-era palace where the first president of the Republic spent his final days.

Bedecked in Atatürk pins, scarfs, armbands, headbands, T-shirts, and flags, the crowd chanted "We are Atatürk's soldiers!" and booed every mention of the ruling AKP with gusto, then fell completely still and silent when -- as is the custom across Turkey each year -- an air-raid siren sounded at exactly 9:05 a.m., bringing traffic on the typically busy nearby streets to a halt.

I've been fascinated by the Atatürk phenomenon since first coming to Turkey, and while I have a great deal of respect for his accomplishments (and no love for the current government), I've often felt that much of the recent talk about Turkey "becoming another Iran" is the hand-wringing of an old elite bemoaning its fall from long-held power.

But in the wake of Tuesday's U.S. presidential election, I thought I could see in the assembled crowd what some Republicans are apparently feeling following Barack Obama's victory, and what many Democrats felt in 2004 -- genuine fear (whether justified or not) for the future of their country. While some of Atatürk's, shall we say, top-down methods would not pass muster in today's world, he created a unified country out of the tattered remains of an empire. With tensions rising in the Kurdish conflict, over "urban renewal" in Istanbul, and between the government and the secular opposition, it's easier to understand the fervent longing for someone to rise to the challenge of uniting Turkey once again.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Curating Turkey

The Swedish tourism board's free-speech experiment of allowing a different Swede to tweet each week under the official @Sweden Twitter handle ran aground this summer when one of the selected participants fired off some anti-Semitic and just plain bizarre messages. The concept of creating the "world's most democratic Twitter account" seems to have weathered the storm, however -- while inspiring a spin-off here in Turkey.

Self-declared "Swedophile" Güney Köse started up @CuratingTurkey as "Turkey's personal Twitter account," with the aim of showing different aspects of the country to the world. Although a private initiative (unlike the government one in Sweden), @CuratingTurkey follows the same model as @Sweden, handing off the account to a new person -- either Turkish or expat -- each week.

As of midnight last night, and until next Sunday, November 4, you'll find my tweets in the @CuratingTurkey stream. Come on over and join the fun!

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Be here now

Riding the train between Chicago and Ann Arbor, I notice the girl across the aisle has taken off her shoes. A tattoo on the side of her foot reads "Be Here Now."

As I gaze sleepily out the window, it occurs to me that's just what train (or long-distance bus) travel encourages: Faced with hours of forward motion along a predetermined route, with no control over where or when you stop, the traveler's mind drifts readily into a meditative state.

Light and clouds play across the sky, wind-blown leaves whip down the track, weathered farmhouses fade into the trees, two stenciled eyes gaze back from the wall of a utility shed, skyscrapers rise in the distance.

All here, now, but just for a moment before disappearing past the window, carrying with them any pain over what's been left behind.

Monday, August 20, 2012

The wound

"We Are All Flesh (Istanbul, 2011-2012),"
Berlinde De Bruyckere
The air hangs heavy and damp inside the old hamam, even though it hasn't been used as a Turkish bath in years. Sweat begins to glisten on the visitor's skin within minutes of stepping through its door. Without intending to, you become more aware of your body -- the hairs and pores on your arms, the muscles unconsciously tensed, the ever-so-slightly labored intake of breath into your lungs.

These heightened sensations, I think, must have been what Flemish artist Berlinde De Bruyckere had in mind when she decided to install two of the works in her latest show, "The Wound," inside the Çukurcuma Hamamı, a rundown bath just up the hill from the new Museum of Innocence and surrounded by antique shops.

Visually, the pieces are incongruous, even startling. In the hamam's first private chamber, what appears to be a massive, headless animal carcass hangs from the ceiling by its trussed hooves. Further inside, a stack of antlers and bones, stripped down to a glistening pink and white, take the place of a human bather's body on the central marble slab.

"Actaeon, 2011-2012," Berlinde De Bruyckere
Like the rest of De Bruyckere's works in "The Wound," on display up the hill at ARTER, these sculptures of wax, wood, fabric, horse skin and hair are uncomfortable to look at, but not without beauty. Her facsimiles of bones stacked up in a cupboard, a dead horse slumped on a table, gaping wounds, and chunks of fatty flesh are played not for their shock value but for the sense of vulnerability and mortality they provoke in the viewer -- a vulnerability that might not be so dissimilar to that of someone stripping off their clothes in a hamam for the first time, preparing to confront their own imperfect body and those of others in a place where hundreds of years of skin have already been pummeled, scrubbed, and sloughed off.

TO VISIT: "The Wound" is on view until August 26 at ARTER and the Çukurcuma Hamamı at Çukurcuma Cad. No. 43, both in Istanbul's Beyoğlu neighborhood. ARTER is open Tuesday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. The Çukurcuma Hamamı is open Tuesday through Thursday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Friday and Saturday from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Admission to both venues is free, and if you walk between them on Postacılar Sok./Tomtom Kaptan Sok., you'll go right by the music door too.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

The music door

A whisper of a Latin groove carried up the street as I made my way down the steep and narrow cobblestone alleyway, growing louder as I passed a crumbling red building. It's not uncommon for structures in Istanbul that at first glance look abandoned to actually be inhabited, so the summery sounds could easily have been coming from someone's radio inside. But the notices affixed to the imposing metal door drew my eye.

On four sheets of letterhead from the Ecuadorian Consulate General, each sheathed in plastic and tapped to the door in a careful line, someone had written the same message in English, French, Spanish, and Turkish, using a blue marker and a loose, lively hand:
This Music is YOUR Music, it makes the "Lovers' alley" more secure and your kisses sweeter...
Please protect it the way it protects you
The windows of the building, I then saw, were boarded up or missing, as was at least part of the roof. There were no signs of life within. Above the doorway, though, hung a small black speaker, the vehicle through which the offering of music was being made to passers-by. I continued down the street with just a little bit more spring in my step than before.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Kazancı manavı

"Abla!" a familiar voice called out from across the street. I was passing by my neighborhood greengrocer and no one else in the vicinity fit the (commonly used) description of "sister." I turned my head. "Your semizotu (purslane)," he said.

Ah. Earlier in the day I had stopped in to buy some salad fixings. Thinking he didn't have arugula (my all-time favorite), I had settled on semizotu, then changed my mind when I learned he did indeed have my preferred green. Apparently I didn't communicate that very well. I tried to explain the misunderstanding. He listened, then looked at me quizzically. "So the semizotu...?"

"I'm sorry, I didn't want it," I said. "OK, then I need to give back your money," he replied, pulling two lira coins (just over $1) out of his change box and handing them to me. I thanked him, apologizing once more, and walked the rest of the way home, thinking yet again how alive and well "small town values" are in this city of at least 15 million.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The glamorous life of the guidebook updater

"You must have the best job in the world!" the couple at the next table gushed, having just learned that I was staying at their Assos hotel while updating part of the Fodor's Turkey guidebook.

While there are certainly some jealousy-inducing perks to guidebook work – like getting the VIP treatment at that lovely establishment (including a divine breakfast featuring fresh-baked bread, local cheeses and olives, spicy pepper dip, and homemade pistachio and chili jams) – most of what's involved is far less glamorous than fellow travelers might think.

My days on the North Aegean (one of my favorite parts of Turkey) last summer were largely spent getting up early, guzzling copious amounts of Nescafe, and then racing from one hotel, restaurant, or historic site to the next, checking opening hours, prices, menus, room features, and other nitty-gritty details, then collapsing in a sweaty mess (it was August, after all) on a bus that would take me to the next destination, where the process would start all over again.

Nearly a year later, the fruits of these labors have made it into the 8th edition of Fodor's Turkey, with "Chapter 3: The Sea of Marmara and the North Aegean" – much of which is also available online – bearing my mark as updater. Friend and colleague Vanessa Larson's imprimatur is on the "Istanbul" and "Cappadocia and Central Turkey" chapters. I hope our work helps point travelers in the right direction – and that on my next trip to the North Aegean, I'll be packing my bikini and beach towel instead of my reporter's notebook and pen!

Monday, June 18, 2012

Unsettled history

On April 24, 1915, the Ottoman state "sent notice to the provinces... with the aim of stopping the activities of the Armenian gangs who had killed innocent people, rebelled against the state, and made cooperation with the enemy." Of course, that's not quite how Armenians see it.

It is, however, how history is told in the "Belgelerle Ermeni Sorunu Salonu" (Armenian Problem with Documents Room) at the Istanbul Military Museum in Harbiye.

That small chamber on the museum's upper level, part of its WWI display, does indeed contain a few documents -- on the "circumstances necessitating the relocation" of the empire's Armenians -- as well as the bloody shirt of a pasha killed by an Armenian assassin in Berlin. The bulk of its holdings, though, are photographs: of bombs and weapons captured from Armenians, of members of "Armenian gangs," of mosques burned to the ground by Armenians, and gory image after gory image of Turks (including children) set on fire, hacked apart, bound and left to die, even fetuses pulled from their mother's wombs.

The imagery was deeply disturbing on at least two levels -- because of its content, most certainly, but also for the single-minded determination to depict a country as made up of only heroes and martyrs that it represents. Let me be clear: I am well aware that many Turks contest this formulation, and that my own country is no stranger to erasing (or manipulating) inconvenient historical facts. I also have no illusions that the presentation at a counterpart museum in, say, Yerevan would be any more nuanced.

But looking at such official portrayals of history, it seems unfortunately easy to understand how people's beliefs about the "other" can be formed and reinforced, and how this can contribute to creating intractable tensions between two parties. Somber thoughts for a museum best known for its colorful but mind-numbingly repetitive mehter band performance.

With such ideas on my mind as I continued exploring the museum's collection, one artifact stood out in the nearby area devoted to the Korean and Cyprus conflicts: a "Bloody cleaver used by the Greeks against the Turks in Cyprus."

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Watch your tongue

"Sheep's head is usually served roasted or boiled," I said, pointing at the flesh-covered skulls in the corner of the butcher's case, their tongues lolling out between stubby teeth below their bulging eyeballs. "Here's the sheep's liver, and its heart. And did you see the cow tongue back there?" I asked my tour group, indicating a chunk of whitish meat roughly the size and shape of a human forearm.

"No, no," one of the butchers interjected. "It's kaynana tongue."

I racked my brain for the meaning of the unfamiliar word. Was it water buffalo, like the animal whose liver he'd already said was even bigger than the massive cow liver on display? No, that's manda. Was this little shop alongside the Spice Bazaar doing a secret trade in exotic animal parts? Perhaps I should have paid more attention during that useless-seeming Turkish 1 lesson where we studied the words for "giraffe" and "kangaroo."

The butcher repeated himself, clearly dismayed at my still-quizzical expression. "Are you married?" he asked, pointing to his ring finger. I shook my head. "That's why you don't understand..."

As I continued explaining the different types of offal to my guests, the other butcher took pity on me. "Senin beyin annesi," he said with a slight smile.

A-ha. Mother-in-law's tongue.

Tomorrow I'll have to tell them that we have a plant with the same name -- one that's sharp and a bit poisonous.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Seeing the light

Whether dancing on the water, casting a warm glow on the hills, piercing through the clouds, or finding its way through the cracks in a crumbling building, the light is one of the most beautiful things about Istanbul, one of its most alluring characteristics.

But as with any romance, the day-to-day drudgery of life can dim the appeal of a city that once seemed exotic or exciting, making it just another place where the weather can be foul, the traffic is bad, earning a living is hard, and people seem not to care. In other words, it's easy to forget about the light.

Seeking to beat my latest bout of the "Istanblues," I turned to my typically reliable three-step cure: 1) Find something new to go check out -- usually an art exhibit, sometimes a lesser-known historical sight or area; 2) Identify somewhere promising to eat in the vicinity; 3) Wander at will. (Note to self: Cure will not work if you attempt to employ it in your own neighborhood.)

As the clouds passed back and forth across the sky, I hopped on a bus to Unkapanı and then set off walking west on the narrow, broken sidewalk as traffic on the Halıç road zipped by. So far, not so good. But the sun was out, the tulips were in bloom on the median, and the Golden Horn glistened. Noting that St. Stephen of the Bulgars, the "iron church," was closed for renovations, I ducked into the unmarked door of Köfteci Arnavut, taking a table in the low-ceilinged back of the eatery onto which a heaping plate of piyaz and a tasty, tender portion of köfte was soon placed.

Thus fortified, and a few wrong turns later, I arrived in front of a plaque heralding the UNESCO-funded restoration of a historical Balat residence into the "Arte İstanbul Balat Art Square and Dimitri Cantemir Müzesi," a project seemingly left uncompleted despite the announcement of its opening two years ago in the Turkish press. Around the corner, though, a staircase led up between old stone walls to the massive neo-Gothic "red castle" (actually the Fener Rum Lisesi, the city's oldest Greek Orthodox school). Wandering back down by another route, I spied bits of the skyline through gaps between buildings -- and painted across the exposed side of one structure. Handprints covered another wall in the shape of an angel's wings, and colorful graffiti flowers sprung up where no real ones did.

Old Göksu and Anadolu Hisarı, 1909
Finally I reached my ostensible destination, the Reza Has Museum at Kadir Has University, which is showing the work of Nazmi Ziya Güran until Tuesday. (The museum is open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day.) Güran, who died 75 years ago, was one of the first Turkish impressionists, members of a group of artists whose style of painting often sought to capture how changing light makes a scene look or feel rather than its every detail.

Though some of the paintings were lovely (the depiction of Göksu creek, above, was a particular favorite), the real point of the excursion was trying to find the light again. I like to think Nazmi Bey would have approved.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Going Dutch in Istanbul

"Wager cup with hunting scenes
and allegorical tableaux," c. 1642-44,
Unknown artist, Rijksmuseum
Is it so wrong that my favorite thing about the exhibit of Dutch Masters currently on view at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum wasn't a painting by Rembrandt or Vermeer, but instead a silver windmill cup used for 17th-century drinking games?

As if the idea of trying to chug-a-lug the entire glass before the little windmill's blades stopped turning wasn't entertaining enough, the cup -- aptly known as a "drink-up" -- is displayed alongside paintings and drawings of poor Dutch souls who failed to hold their liquor. Depicting fat, slovenly, and lecherous figures, these types of pictures were the PSAs of their time, according to the exhibit text, which explained that they were meant to show the dangers of drinking too much.

The pairing of paintings with objects depicted in or related to them is one of the clever touches in the fine, but otherwise mostly unsurprising "Rembrandt and His Contemporaries" exhibit, which brings together more than 100 works from the "Golden Age" of Dutch art. Alongside the expected range of stern portraits, dramatically lit still lives, and gorgeously rendered landscapes, the decidedly modernist-looking "The Golden Bend in the Herengracht in Amsterdam" stands out, its crisp, spare composition seemingly a couple of hundred years ahead of its time.

"The Golden Bend in the Herengracht in Amsterdam,"
1671-72, Gerrit Adriaensz Berckheyde, Rijksmuseum
The museum's free audio guide offers some useful interpretative tips (who knew a painting of a ship at sea on a wall was an "instantly recognizable" symbol of romantic passion?) while occasionally lapsing into condescending platitudes. (I can decide whether I think the ducks on the pond add a charming detail or not, thanks.)

The Sabancı's Rembrandt exhibit is just one of the many Dutch-themed art shows that have been popping up around town like so many spring tulips, part of a commemoration of 400 years of diplomatic relations between Turkey and the Netherlands. (Or, as they were known back then, between the Ottoman Empire and the Dutch Republic of the United Provinces.)

Unknown painter,
17th century,
Pera Museum
The trade relationship embarked on in 1612 sparked, among other things, the Dutch mania for tulips, a wild flower in Central Asia that was cultivated in the sultan's gardens in Istanbul and features in one section of "Sultans, Merchants, Painters: The Early Years of Turkish - Dutch Relations," another anniversary exhibit, this one at the Pera Museum. In the text accompanying a lovely set of tulip drawings, the museum's curators note that "the famous motifs seen on 17th century tulip leaves" are now known to have been "caused by a viral infection." Talk about bursting one's bubble.

TO VISIT: The "Rembrandt and His Contemporaries" exhibit is on display until June 10 at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul's Emirgan neighborhood. The museum is open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Wednesday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. General admission is 12 Turkish Liras.

The "Sultans, Merchants, Painters" exhibit ends this Sunday, April 1, at the Pera Museum in the Beyoğlu district. The museum is open Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. General admission is 10 Turkish Liras.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Ali Usta's place

"Ayakkabı tamırı." Those two words, printed on a small piece of plain white paper and taped inside an upstairs window, were the only advertisement for the shoe-repair shop a friend had directed me to, explaining, as people generally do here, that it was "across from the phone store and above the bad accessories shop."

Poking my head around the corner of the building, I spied a dark, narrow doorway, beyond which an even narrower set of stairs wound steeply up to the next floor. I pushed open the door on the landing and squeezed alongside the elderly shoe repairman's desk into a bathroom-sized space stacked floor-to-ceiling with dusty boxes, tools, shoes, and bags. A television blared and a heater ran full-blast, trying to ward off the chill outside.

Waving me into the one vacant seat, Ali Usta picked up my two pairs of tattered leather boots, turning them around in his wrinkled hands, and pronounced that he could have them fixed by the next day for less than 10 dollars.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Eclectic art in an unexpected location

Artistic rabble-rouser Robert Rauschenberg photographing puppies? A serene sunset cityscape by the sexually provocative Nan Goldin? A photograph by Cindy Sherman without the artist in any of her many guises?

Collectors Can and Sevda Elgiz enjoy finding and buying works by artists that depart from their best-known styles, Billur Tansel, the manager of the Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art, told me on a recent tour. Starting with the first pieces by Turkish artists that the couple acquired in the 1980s, they have let "gusto" guide their collecting decisions.

The result is an eclectic, eye-catching mix of works in various mediums -- from a mannequin-like figure made out of dead beetles (by Belgian artist Jan Fabre) to an inflatable PVC "cloud" shot through with rays of sunlight (by Turkish artist Iskender Yediler) that expands and contracts as if it is breathing above the viewer's head.

A selection from the collection is currently on display as part of the museum's 10th-anniversary celebration. If you haven't heard of the Elgiz Museum before, you're not alone; according to Tansel, the institution is much better known to people outside of Turkey than to local art-lovers. Despite the quality of work exhibited, this doesn't come as that much of a surprise; the museum's location behind an office tower in the Maslak business district is far off the typical Tophane/Nişantaşı/Galata gallery-hopping trail, but well worth a visit.

When Can and Sevda Elgiz decided to use some of the wealth from their construction business Giz İnşaat to establish the museum's predecessor, the Proje 4L art space in 4. Levent, back in 2001, platforms for contemporary art were limited in Istanbul. That is now far from the case. It will be interesting to see how the Elgizes maintain their reputation as trendsetters now that nearly every major family-managed firm or holding company in the city seems to have an art space to its name.

TO VISIT: The 10th-anniversary exhibition "Elgiz 10 Istanbul" is on view until this Saturday, March 17, at the Elgiz Museum of Contemporary Art in Istanbul's Maslak district. The museum is open Wednesday to Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is free. Take the metro from Taksim to the İTÜ Ayazağa stop and walk toward the Beybi Giz Plaza building. The museum is around the back to the right of the main entrance.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Word on the street

If it's Saturday, there must be a protest on İstiklal Caddesi. Of course, the same is true on most Sundays, and plenty of weekdays too. Anyone who regularly transits Istanbul's busiest thoroughfare can pick out the chants from blocks away and say to themselves with just a glance as the marchers pass by, "Oh look, the union folks are out again" or "Hey, there go the communists."

Some regular presences don't fade into the scenery quite as quickly, of course. The sight of the stalwart Saturday Mothers, quietly displaying pictures of missing loved ones to passersby, never fails to pull at my emotions. But the sight of something decidedly different from the usual fare -- a sea of Turkish flags in light blue instead of red; tables and chairs held aloft -- can turn the street itself into a news source.

Walking up İstiklal around dusk this past weekend, I came across a circle of people near Galatasaray, the avenue's halfway point and a major landmark. From a distance, it looked like the kind of crowd that gathers around street musicians for a few minutes and indeed a song was carrying out of the center of the group. The crowd, though, was thick enough to block the "nostalgic tramway" in both directions, and as I drew closer, I saw the musicians were backed by dozens of placards: "Selling concert tickets is not a crime." "Revolutionary art cannot be obstructed." "Listening to Grup Yorum is not a crime."

A headline I had skimmed over earlier suddenly made sense. The members of Grup Yorum, a band that expresses left-wing political sentiments in its songs, have previously become the target of police raids; one musician is still in jail after being taken into custody in mid-December.

Last week, six fans, including four university students, were sentenced to between 1 and 13 years in jail for selling tickets to or attending a concert featuring the group. The charges? Being "members of a terrorist organization" or "spreading propaganda for a terrorist organization" -- increasingly catch-all accusations that seem in this case somewhat akin to jailing M.I.A. fans because of her support for the Tamil Tigers or charging Clash listeners with inciting riots.

UPDATE (Feb. 28, 2012): Posters advertising a Grup Yorum concert in the western city of İzmit have been taken down ahead of the show as part of what officials called a general effort to "get rid of environmental pollution." The ticketing company Biletix (the Turkish arm of the much-reviled global firm Ticketmaster) has meanwhile denied reports that its sales agents refused to sell tickets for the group's shows "because they provided funds for terrorism."

Friday, January 6, 2012

Turkey's 19th-century Renaissance man

Osman Hamdi Bey's "The Tortoise Trainer"
Maybe it's all the bad knock-offs of his most famous painting, "The Tortoise Trainer," for sale on İstiklal Caddesi and around the Galata Tower, but I always found it a bit hard to understand what all the fuss was about Osman Hamdi Bey.

Turns out painting was probably the least of the sad-eyed, long-faced Ottoman intellectual's contributions to Turkish culture. As the exhibit "Osman Hamdi Bey and the Americans" details, old Osman Hamdi essentially invented Turkish archaeology, conducting important digs at Nemrut Dağı in central Turkey, Assos along the Aegean coast, and Sidon in modern-day Lebanon.

The small, well-put-together exhibit -- which admittedly is likely to be of most interest if you've visited some of the places Osman Hamdi excavated -- ends this weekend at the Pera Museum but the fruits of his labors can be seen in perpetuity at the Istanbul Archaeological Museums across the Golden Horn in Sultanahmet.

Chillin' at Nemrut Dağı
Now one of the most important institutions of its kind, the museum's "collection" was essentially just a pile of booty from Ottoman military campaigns when Osman Hamdi was appointed director in 1881.

His focus on scientific classification and protecting antiquities turned the museum into what it is today, while the enacting of the Antiquities Law he wrote kept Ottoman treasures within the empire at a time when they were being increasingly hauled off to Europe by whoever found them. (Whether the famous Alexander Sarcophagus and other discoveries from Sidon should now go back to Lebanon is, I suppose, another question altogether.)

And for my money, his richly detailed painting "The Fountain of Life" (also on display at the Pera Museum) runs rings around that damn tortoise trainer any day.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Out with the old, in with the new-ish

The unscientific consensus (of people I know on Facebook) seems to be that 2011 was a year best forgotten. My year wasn't all bad -- I went on tour in Europe with a rock band, after all -- but there were plenty of parts I wouldn't care to repeat. My track record with my lets-not-call-them-resolutions for the year that just passed wasn't too hot either, as it turns out.

My pledge to pitch more stories mostly fell by the wayside, though I did somehow manage to write articles for five new-to-me magazines. I did some new stuff in Istanbul and other places in Turkey but stayed in ruts a lot of the time too. And all my talk about going to Iran someday remained just that.

I did do some cool stuff I hadn't planned, however. I ran a 15-kilometer race in Istanbul. I traveled around the Aegean coast updating part of a guidebook to Turkey. I learned how to make a damn good apple pie. I moved into my own apartment for the very first time after 36 years of living with family, friends, flatmates, and boyfriends. And I quit my newspaper job, casting myself out into the uncertain world of the full-time freelance writer/editor.

While all three of my "intentions" for 2011 still hold true for 2012, I've got a few more I want to add to the list:

  • Run a half-marathon. I'm taking recommendations as to where. Already suggested: races in Berlin, Paris, Antalya, and Belgrade.

  • Be more adventurous in my travel. I've got people I could visit in Tunisia, Kosovo, Dubai, and (soon) Qatar. There's a cool-as-hell-sounding free arts festival in Serbia. Such opportunities should not be missed.

  • Keep cooking new and tasty things and inviting friends over to eat them with me.
Herkese iyi seneler! Happy new year, everyone!