Saturday, November 9, 2013

A haunted schoolhouse

Visitors' voices lower instinctively to a hush upon entering the echoing central hall of the Ioakimion School for Girls in Istanbul's Fener neighborhood. Bright sunlight streams through the windows into rooms marked "Orta III" (Middle III) and "Kitaplık" (Library), where multicolored layers of paint peel off into abstract patterns. Desks worn smooth through decades of use sit primly in their rows, facing blackboards from which the final lessons were never erased.

Constructed in 1879 and used as a girls' high school until 1988, when the last six students graduated, the shuttered Ioakimion stands as just one of many melancholy monuments to an Istanbul that once was -- a multilingual, multicultural city full of Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. The sense of sadness and loss that has seeped into the school's walls must have been attractive to Greek artist Kalliopi Lemos, whose installation "I Am I, Between Worlds and Between Shadows," a parallel event to the 13th Istanbul Biennial, has offered a rare chance to peek into the school between Sept. 11 and Nov. 10.

Lemos's exhibition, which consists of a piped-in soundtrack of children's voices and seven bronze sculptures of hobbled, headless, hanging, or disfigured human-animal hybrids, is meant to bring attention to "the status of women and children and the upholding of their self-respect and human dignity," according to the artist's statement. Though a worthy aim, this topic is not necessarily what first springs to mind upon viewing her sad grotesques, which is perhaps why Lemos added the overly didactic (if suited to the educational environment) touch of placing articles about violence against women and children on some of the classrooms' empty desks.

Without the interpretative materials provided by the artist, the sculptures in some ways take on an even greater burden, allowing the viewer to project onto their misshapen forms any kind of pain, torment, or alienation. The disturbing figures Lemos has created further haunt the school's abandoned rooms, their ugly scars like physical manifestations of the wounds of a nearly disappeared community and the city it once called home.

TO VISIT: The Ioakimion School for Girls (Fener Yoakimion Rum Kız Okulu) is located at Mektep Sok. 15 in Fener, below the more prominent Fener Greek High School (aka the "Red School"), and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Be mine?

It may very well be simply an innocuous function of the two languages' respective grammars, but something occurred to me earlier this week about Turkish terms of endearment.

While English-speakers (American ones, at least) refer to the object of their affection with the likes of "honey" and "sweetie," Turkish-speakers use words like

canım (my soul)
aşkım (my love)
hayatım (my life)
tatlım (my sweet)

Notice a pattern? If you've observed the possessiveness too often seen in romantic relationships here, I bet you probably do.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Istanbul uprising: Beyoğlu after a grim night

When police cleared Istanbul's Gezi Park last night and pushed back demonstrators in surrounding streets with the toughest force seen in the last two weeks of protests, I was an hour outside of the city center, watching on TV and the Internet as my neighborhood burned with tear gas, fury, and, in some cases, actual flames.

Friends and colleagues at Reuters, The New York Times, and other news outlets braved the melee until late into the night to bring to light the latest developments in a country where much of the local media has been cowed into silence. Police water cannons chased fleeing protesters into the courtyard of the German Hospital in Cihangir and fired tear gas after them into the Divan Hotel, which has been widely praised for keeping its doors open to gassed and wounded demonstrators.

I returned this morning to eerie quiet. With special buses and boats being put into service to ferry people to a large pro-government rally in the Kazlıçeşme area of Zeytinburnu, metro service has been suspended three stops out from the Taksim Square area, which has been an epicenter of Istanbul unrest. Other transport services have also been stopped to keep protesters from succeeding in their plans to march on Taksim once again at 4 p.m. local time today. Yesterday, Turkey's EU Minister Egemen Bağış said anyone who enters the Taksim area -- one of the city's main commercial and tourism hubs -- will be considered a "supporter or member of a terror organization."

Reports are flying of doctors being detained for treated wounded protesters, homes of demonstrators being raided, and investigations underway of people who used protest-related hashtags on Twitter to spread news. Last week, some 50 lawyers were detained for protesting the treatment of demonstrators, prompting thousands of their colleagues to walk out of court the next day in support. Accredited foreign journalists are being kept out of the Taksim Square/Gezi Park area and Amnesty International has called for the whereabouts of people detained in last night's unrest to be released.

It's hard to believe that three weeks ago none of this had happened yet, and that just a week ago, Gezi Park was still "occupied" by peaceful protesters of an incredibly wide range of political and social stripes -- Turkish nationalists, Kurdish groups, environmentalists, artists, teachers, women's rights and LGBT activists, students, leftists, anti-capitalist Muslims, supporters of Istanbul's typically warring football teams, and many, many more. Despite the massive throngs every night during the week-plus when the park and Taksim Square had been abandoned by police forces, the area had never felt safer -- far more welcoming than on a typical Saturday night when it was often throbbing with macho aggression.

On the stroke of 3 p.m., as protesters gather in adjacent neighborhoods to attempt to return to Taksim Square, my neighborhood has erupted its the pots-and-pans-banging symphony of support heard throughout Istanbul at least once a day since widespread demonstrations began May 31. The city will not remain quiet for long.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Istanbul uprising: DIY urban planning

A year ago, Taksim Square was a traffic-clogged mess, with idling buses spewing exhaust on one side, cabs jostling for position on the other, and throngs of people bumping around in between, surrounded by mostly graceless architecture. Six months ago, those same throngs had been funneled into narrow walkways by even uglier temporary walls fencing off huge construction pits.

People walk across the re-opened square
Despite the square's previous lack of appeal, the government's plan to move surrounding roads underground and pedestrianize the area was not greeted with much applause. An animated rendering released by the municipality showing vast expanses of concrete did little to quell fears that the space would be left lifeless and inaccessible -- worse off than before.

But during the course of the protests that erupted last weekend, demonstrators tore down the construction walls, converting them into makeshift barricades to keep police out of the square. With the walls down and the barricades up, thousands upon thousands of people are flowing through Taksim Square and its surrounding area every day, and few motorized vehicles have been able to enter. Hardly what the government had in mind, but this unplanned pedestrianization has created a new feeling of openness in the square, despite the massive crowds.

A makeshift barricade blocks car traffic
A strange mix of collectivism and commercialization rules the day. While street vendors hawk food, water, beer, tea, Atatürk paraphernalia, Turkish flags, "V for Vendetta" masks, and a myriad of other accessories, protesters have been busily creating the services they need and the public amenities they envision for the area in and around adjacent Gezi Park. Volunteer lawyers and barbers have hung out their shingles, first-aid stations and soup kitchens have been set up, bus stops have been redecorated, community libraries and vegetable gardens are being established. Beyond the square, once-banned tables and chairs are back on the streets of the Beyoğlu neighborhood.

The people have firmly shown they have some ideas for how Istanbul's public space can and should be used. The question is, will anyone listen?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Istanbul uprising: Turkish vocabulary lesson

Still wondering what all those people in the street have been chanting since mass protests broke out on Friday or what all that new graffiti around the city says? Here's a handy guide to what they probably didn't teach you in Turkish class:

AVM > shopping mall
The Turkish acronym stands for "alışveriş merkezi" (shopping center). Since the initial protests were sparked in part by plans to build a shopping mall on Gezi Park, you'll see lots of mall-related slogans around, such as this one written on the Demirören AVM on İstiklal Caddesi: "AVM yıkılsın yerine park yapılsın" -- Let the mall be torn down and a park built in its place.

boyunu eğme > literally, "don't bow your neck"
This one's been popping up on signs all over lately, calling for people not to be subservient.

"Stay calm and don't attack police, continue resistance"
cephe > front/side
Often combined with "halk" (people), as in "halk cephesi" (people's front).

çapulcu > looter/riff-raff
Used by Turkish Prime Minister Erdoğan to describe the (overwhelmingly peaceful) demonstrators and subsequently sardonically adopted by many protest supporters as part of their Facebook names.

çevik kuvvet > riot police
Literally, "nimble force," or something along those lines.

defol > piss off/go to hell
Don't use this one unless you mean it!

devrim > revolution
Also a man's name.

direniş > resistance/opposition
A form of the same root word appears in the Twitter hashtag #direngeziparki that's being used to spread news about the demonstrations sparked by police violence against a sit-in to protect Istanbul's Gezi Park.

eylem > action
Part of the phrases used for sit-ins, labor actions, police actions, etc.

gaza geldik
This play on words literally translates as "We came to the [tear] gas," but also carries the slang meaning "We got pumped up."

istifa > resignation
Generally heard/seen in the slogans "Tayyip istifa!" or "Hükümet istifa!" calling on the prime minister (Tayyip is his middle, and most commonly used, name) or the government to resign.

isyan > rebellion/revolt
Cleverly incorporated into "İsyanbul" to describe the current situation in the city.

katil > murderer

kimyasal > chemical
As in "Kimyasal Tayyip," referring to the copious use of tear gas to break up protests. The nickname apparently goes back to May Day protests in 2008.

kurtarmak > to save/rescue
You might see this verb conjugated as "kurtaralım," meaning "let's save."

küfür > cuss/curse

milli içki > national drink
A reference to Erdoğan's statement in late April -- before pushing through tighter restrictions on alcohol advertising and sales -- that Turkey's national drink was the non-alcoholic yogurt-based beverage ayran, not beer or the popular local liquor rakı. "Milli içkimiz gaz" is a common current usage, meaning "Our national drink is [tear] gas."

mücadele > struggle

muhalefet > opposition

Shorthand for the Turkish slang for "son of a b*tch/whore." Usually appears before "Tayyip."

saldırı > assault/aggression
Usually combined with "polis" (police).

yaşasın > long live/hurray
Common recent usages include "Yaşaşın Gezi Parkı," "Yaşasın özgürlük" (Long live freedom), and "Yaşasın sosyal medya" (referring to the mainstream Turkish media's initial silence on the protests and police reaction, and/or the prime minster's scapegoating of social media as "the worst menace to society" for its role in spreading the news).

zıpla > jump
The imperative form of "zıplamak" (to jump) has become part of a chant that goes "Zıpla! Zıpla! Zıplamayan Tayyiptir!" -- or "Jump! Jump! Whoever doesn't jump is (a) Tayyip!" Thanks to @barisp for the full explanation of what all those jumping crowds are chanting.

What else is must-know Turkish vocabulary these days? Send me your additions and amendments and I'll update the list.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Istanbul uprising: The shifting moods of Taksim Square

Taksim Square was eerily quiet at around 3 p.m. on Saturday. I had just walked up through Cihangir with a large, loud group of protesters and seen the wall of tear gas that awaited them on Siraselviler Caddesi, and heard reports of packed crowds (and more tear gas) in nearby Harbiye. But Istanbul's central transit hub was nearly empty. A lone taxi or two drove past the Garanti Bank, where policemen sat on the curb with their helmets off and riot shields stacked up, elbow-to-elbow with people with makeshift gas masks hung around their necks. Both sides looked weary. Everyone seemed to be waiting to see what would happen next.

Half an hour or so later, police buses and armored vehicles began to roll up, filling the street. The resting police slowly picked up their shields and headed across the square, where a phalanx of officers had formed in front of Gezi Park, the initial flashpoint of the protests. The growing crowd got to their feet and began to chant again: "Faşizme karşı omuz omuza!" (Shoulder to shoulder against fascism!) More people continued to stream into the square. Suddenly, the sky was full of white trails shooting into the sky and then falling toward the earth again, exploding in clouds of smoke. Tear gas.

The crowd around me surged through the doorway of a hotel, whose lobby quickly filled with gas and people suffering its effects -- crying, coughing, in some cases vomiting. Through the window, I could see the protesters who had just been gassed moving en masse back toward the square. Undeterred, unafraid.

An hour or so later, the police were gone. As word of their apparent retreat spread on social media, Taksim began to fill with people milling about, aimlessly compared to their previous purposefulness. Had they won? Or were the police off somewhere, regrouping? Turkish parties and unions with their banners held aloft joined what had until this point seemed -- for once -- like an uprising of individuals rather than interest groups. Something seemed to have disappeared from the air along with the tear gas.

Much later, reports began to circulate that the battle had moved down the hill to Beşiktaş. Past midnight, as I walked from Osmanbey back to Taksim, the air was again hazy with tear gas billowing up from those clashes. With the streetlights out, people passed each other in the dark, mouths covered by surgical-style masks, dabbing at their eyes. Around Taksim, the detritus of the uprising -- police barriers, ripped-up pavement, even burned-out vehicles -- had been commandeered by protesters into crude but effective blockades. Broken glass crunched under our feet and rowdy shouts rang out through the night. The square itself was a surreal landscape of overturned cars, smoldering fires, graffiti, garbage, and clusters of people drinking beer. I went to bed disheartened. Had getting back into Taksim Square had become the sole endgame, as if it was May Day all over again? And did the protests, which had started so peacefully and with such great community spirit, have to devolve into something that would make it easier for the prime minister to continue to paint his critics as "marginal" elements within society?

Sunday morning restored my faith. Protesters had gone to Taksim Square and Gezi Park early to clean up, even replanting trees that had been uprooted in the park during the unrest. Donated garbage bags, wet wipes, cleaning gloves, packages of food, and bottles of water had been arrayed neatly along a wall for anyone to take and use. Police barriers had been re-re-purposed into booths where volunteers dished out food, supplies, even fresh clothes. People wandered through the jubilant crowd passing out snacks and rain ponchos in case the sky clouded over again. Pulled-up paving stones were arranged to spell out "Taksim halkındır" (Taksim belongs to the people) as bystanders cheered. The spirit of community was back in spades, but still I wondered, was this end? Would everyone go back to work Monday, with only the vaguest of aims accomplished? Or was it the beginning of something real?

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Do some deaths matter more?

After so many years in Turkey, becoming a bit detached from developments (even important ones) back home seems almost unavoidable. I'm embarrassed to admit how little I understood last year's "individual mandate" debate and despite being a firm supporter of equal rights, I found it hard to get as fired up as I wanted to over the recent gay marriage battle in the U.S. But the news of last week's Boston Marathon attack hit me like a punch in the stomach. As a once-and-hopefully-future runner and someone who's cheered others on from plenty of race sidelines, it was all too easy to imagine myself in that crowd -- joy, relief, and excitement turning to confusion, panic, and terror in an instant.

Since this tragic event, there's been plenty of discussion about whether the four deaths in Boston are getting a disproportionate amount of attention (especially from Americans) while other tragic events happening at the same time seem to provoke little grieving. Though I've expressed my frustration before at the way both the American and Turkish press zero in on countrymen affected by terrorist acts or natural disasters nearly to the point of relegating all other victims to a footnote, I don't think nationalism or even small-mindedness are the only factors at work here.

As Joshua Keating writes for Foreign Policy:
It's not reasonable to expect people to care equally about every tragedy in the world at all times. And the fact that we tend to empathize more with victims we can more easily relate to in situations we might have found ourselves in, seems not so much callous as simply human.
Heartwarming messages of support from runners in Beirut and tributes to the Boston victims at subsequent marathons in London and Bethlehem show that the common bond of running creates cross-cultural kinship. In the same way that my living in Turkey has caused my friends back home to pay more attention when the country is in the news, I know that my past visits to, say, Tunisia and Lebanon mean that I feel events there more keenly than I do similar ones in other countries.

Rather than contempt, familiarity can breed compassion. If there's anything "wrong" with Americans, I would argue that it's not empathy we lack but the personal experience in and connections with other parts of the world that would bring tragedies elsewhere closer to home.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Down in the vault

Entering the Sabancı University building in Karaköy for the first time, I asked the security guard where I could find the Kasa Gallery. He opened an inconspicuous cream-colored wooden door near the entrance and pointed the way down a flight of stairs. The door shut behind me as I descended the staircase, which curved into a small basement room with what looked like the building's electrical control system along one side, and a janitor's closet on the other. There was no one -- and no art -- in sight. Had I fumbled my Turkish that badly? Was someone playing a trick on the dumb foreigner?

Then I saw the sturdy metal door with its large dial handle. Of course. Kasa. Cash register. Cash box. Safe-deposit box. Vault.

The small gallery is in fact located inside the original basement vault of the Minerva Han, built in the early 20th century as a bank. Though the exhibit currently on display, Greek artist Bill Balaskas' "The Market Will Save the World" -- featuring a video of the Parthenon lit up by strobe lights and a room filled with potted cacti, Monopoly money, and popped balloons -- didn't do much for me, the concept of putting artworks that "investigate the nature of capitalism and global economic crisis" in an old bank vault seemed satisfyingly apt.

The Minerva Han's basement isn't the only place in Karaköy where you can delve into an old bank vault. The much more extensive vault area of the old Ottoman Bank Headquarters just up the street (now SALT Galata) houses the well-put-together, if highly specialized Ottoman Bank Museum, featuring old banking records, century-old photos of bank customers and employees, and data about banking clientele in the late Ottoman era. Look for the panels discussing the presumably awkward period when the Ottoman government ended up on the opposing side in World War I from the bank's British and French owners.

TO VISIT: Kasa Gallery is located at Bankalar Cad. No. 2 in Karaköy and is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The Ottoman Bank Museum is located at Bankalar Cad. No. 11 and is open Tuesday through Saturday from noon to 8 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 6 p.m. Admission to both venues is free.