Monday, December 29, 2014

We remember

Berkin Elvan
Uğur Kurt

... and far, far too many more.

May the coming year bring more peace and less heartbreak.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Haunted by history, ripe for tourism?

There are few places in Turkey more visually intriguing and emotionally resonant than Kayaköy, a Mediterranean hillside village formerly inhabited by Anatolian Greeks, and left empty after its residents were forced to relocate to Greece under the population-exchange agreement of 1923.

This mass deportation was part of the beginning of the end of the much-vaunted religious tolerance under Ottoman rule, and of the old cosmopolitanism of Istanbul (though that city's Greeks were exempted from the exchange) and the coasts. Its lingering effects can still be felt today in parts of Turkish life ranging from nationalist politics to lost or dying culinary traditions and craftsmanship.

With more than four times as many people relocated from Turkey to Greece as the other way around, no one ever repopulated the "ghost village" of Kayaköy, where plants crawl up staircases, trees grow between crumbling walls, and ceilings of churches gape open to the sky. With few amenities nearby, its abandoned pathways can generally be explored in near-silence, alone with thoughts of the mastic trees no longer tended, the rebetiko songs no longer sung, the Istanbul Greeks attacked by Turkish mobs in 1955, and the few remaining minority-run businesses in Turkey's largest city today facing closure due to rising rents and gentrification.

Turkish authorities, however, seem to think that history and its echoes are best contemplated (or, more likely, best forgotten) from a table in a tea garden or the balcony of a five-star hotel room. Last week, the country's Culture and Tourism Ministry announced plans to auction off the rights to rent and develop Kayaköy, potentially a 30 million TL construction and tourism project that local officials boast would turn the town into an "international brand." Surely the Mango outlets and Mado shops won't be far behind.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A girl walks into a bakkal

Sweaty girl walks into a bakkal (corner store) after a long run:

"Would you like water?"

"Yes, please. And what kind of juice do you have?"

"All kinds."

"What do you have with no added sugar?"

[The shopkeeper thinks for a moment.]


Sunday, August 10, 2014

Once upon a time in northern Iraq

A peaceful day on the Tigris River in northern Iraq.
Herons soared overhead as our little flotilla made its way slowly down the Tigris, their calls echoing off the rocky cliffs towering on one side of the quiet river's banks. On the other bank, dry and golden as the summer came to an end, fishermen dawdled in front of their lean-tos, shepherds tended their flocks, and women and children toted loose armloads of firewood. When we stopped to camp for the night, camouflage-clad peshmerga (armed Kurdish fighters) dropped by to peer curiously at our handmade vessels, smoke cigarettes, and pose for photos with the foreign visitors.

Mosul, not far to the south, was already too dangerous to include on the route when I joined the Tigris River Flotilla for part of its journey down the ailing waterway last fall, and bridges crossing the river were tightly controlled in an attempt to staunch the flow of refugees from neighboring Syria, at some points just 10 kilometers away. But northern Iraq seemed largely peaceful and increasingly prosperous; its rural countryside and bustling cities both felt far removed from the conflicts raging all around.

Peshmerga in repose.
Just over eight months later, the Islamist militants known as ISIS had seized Mosul, sending half a million people fleeing into Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. The city of Duhok, where we had strolled around a lively amusement park, was receiving victims of the fighting for medical treatment. The partner of one of the flotilla participants was missing, first thought dead and then later reported to be a captive of ISIS. And the peshmerga who had idled so casually around our campsite were battling fiercely to repel the intruders. (As I write this, ISIS, now re-branded as the Islamic State, is reportedly at the doorstep of the Kurdish capital of Erbil, and a refugee camp is being built in Fishkabur, the then-sleepy town where we had our base-camp.)

Within a few short weeks, though, the world's attention and outrage moved swiftly to the downing of flight MH17 over eastern Ukraine, and then to the violence in Gaza. Meanwhile, long-suffering Syria endured the bloodiest 48-hour period in its ongoing civil war, with more than 700 people killed in two days. One in three families in the Central African Republic have now lost at least one family member to the sectarian fighting there.

It's hard to keep all of these developments in focus, much less mentally or emotionally absorb the human suffering they entail, at least not without slipping into despair. And yet the voices on the Internet keep crying out: "Why aren't you tweeting on Gaza?!?" "Have you forgotten about Syria??" "Why aren't ____ talking about ____?! It's because they're [anti-Semitic / Islamophobic / racist / ignorant]!!!"

Shepherd by the banks of the Tigris.
Amid the tragedies clamoring for attention, I know that I will click to news about Iraq more quickly than to many other stories because of my experiences so close to the area now in turmoil, and to stories about Syria in large part because its refugee crisis is so visible on the sidewalks right outside my door in Istanbul. Having witnessed the passion of Turkish people taking to the streets last summer made it all the more wrenching to see their counterparts in Kiev cut down by police bullets in February, much in the same way as runners around the world mourned the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing, relatively few in number though they were.

As frustrating as it may be for people trying to draw focus to a crisis they feel is being overlooked, it seems only natural to be more readily able to empathize with places or people with which we feel a connection. It may even be a positive thing, if it keeps some people's attention focused on a particular place or issue when the rapid pace of the news cycle causes others to pivot away. A more selective focus may also play a self-protective role by keeping us from being too overwhelmed by all the world's woes to do anything about any of them at all.

The danger, it seems, comes if our connection with one place or group of people blinds us to the plight of another; if we become so embittered by the indignities and abuses "our" side has suffered that it no longer seems appalling to turn around and inflict something similar. We are seeing the bloody results of that kind of loss of empathy every day.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Out of many, one

The undulating screen hanging from the ceiling seems to wave like a flag in the breeze as its tiny LCD panels flicker in and out, one image fading into another. Though completely different in physical form
A detail of 'Sakıp Sabancı'
(Photo: Sakıp Sabancı Museum)
and artistic style from Botticelli's paintings of the Medicis or Sargent's portrait of Rockefeller, this video art piece by Turkish artist Kutluğ Ataman is likewise a commissioned portrait of a wealthy patron -- in this case Sakıp Sabancı, described in the wall text at his namesake museum as "the late Turkish industrialist who transformed Turkey into a modern developing country."

"Wow, all by himself?" my friend asked, tongue firmly in cheek, as we read the description before entering the darkened room at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum where Ataman's unimaginatively titled artwork "Sakıp Sabancı" is on display until 10 August.

Unlike historical portraits of the rich and powerful, however, this one contains multitudes -- it's made up of thousands of passport-sized photographs of "people from all walks of life whose paths crossed the famous businessman's in some way." But whether it's a particularly generous approach or a particularly grandiose one is harder to ascertain.

'Sılsel' at the Galata
Greek School in 2012
Watching the hypnotic digital dance above our heads, I wondered, does Ataman's work challenge the "great man" approach to history by creating a portrait of Sakıp Sabancı made up of all the people who influenced him and touched his life -- a humbling recognition of how we are all in many ways the sum of our encounters and experiences with others -- or perpetuate it by enlisting the images of many anonymous people in celebration of the single one who gives the artwork its name?

Visitors to the Sabancı Museum are invited to submit their own ID photographs to be added to the piece, an interactive element that hearkens back to Ataman's previous project "Sılsel," in which viewers could contribute their own messages written on a piece of cloth to a freewheeling fabric mosaic also hung overhead. In that case, though, the portrait that ensued was not just of one man, but of a whole country and its hopes and dreams.

TO VISIT: The piece "Sakıp Sabancı" is on display until August 10 at the Sakıp Sabancı Museum in Istanbul's Emirgan neighborhood. The museum is open Tuesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. General admission is 15 Turkish Liras.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Mornings in Maçka

The older gentleman with the high-waisted shorts doing jumping jacks and hip swivels by the side of the path.

The two younger men walking their matching woolly dogs.

The woman who runs with her shoulders pulled up close to her ears.

The tall, lanky man with white hair who runs with a big grin on his face.

The girl out for a power walk in the "What breaks your heart?" T-shirt.

I don't know any of their names, but they are my people, part of the motley crew of runners, joggers, walkers, and calisthenics-doers who come alone, in pairs, or in small groups to Maçka Park in the quiet hours of the morning. The low hum of traffic can still be heard from the other side of the trees, and the peace is occasionally broken by the thwack-thwack-thwack of a helicopter descending to drop off some VIP at the nearby Ritz-Carlton hotel.

The Maçka Park running track.
But in a city where exercising still often seems like a mark of extreme eccentricity, where going out for a run means dodging cars, stumbling over torn-up pavement, and trying to ignore hecklers and leering eyes, the park is a small oasis, a place where you can stretch, sprint, or shuffle to your heart's content among a like-minded cohort. It's a little bit of sanity and humanity in a sad and difficult world. If the city ever tries to pave it over and put in a mall, I'll be the first one out in front of the bulldozers.

Photo via and its article "10 best running routes in Istanbul."

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

City for sale

My initial, indelible memory of arriving in Istanbul for the very first time was speeding in a taxi at night under the illuminated Valens Aqueduct, its stone arches towering overhead as the domes of mosques glimmered in the distance.

Nice spot for a meze joint.
Now the Istanbul Municipality reportedly wants to "restore" the 4th-century structure and plop a restaurant on top -- along with a walking path, which would admittedly be kind of cool, and an observation deck (h/t @nblaser18). With a cheesy nightclub already inside Beyoğlu's medieval Galata Tower, malls going up left and right, and the mayor promising an aerial cable-car ride across the Bosphorus, there seems to be no fighting the total Disneyfication of Istanbul. Herewith, a few modest proposals for embracing the inevitable:

Yedikule AVM -- Seven towers, seven different shopping experiences!

Chora Çay Bahçesi and Kıraathane -- Sip your tea and smoke endlessly on the tranquil grounds of this former Byzantine church. The card rooms inside are the best-decorated in town.

The Aya Sofya Experience -- Why gaze up in awe at what was once the world's highest ceiling when you can show that old dome who's boss on Istanbul's tallest climbing wall? The athletically challenged can go inner-tubing through the newly opened underground cisterns below.

Rumeli Hisarı Et Mangal Piknik Alanı -- Celebrate the Conquest every weekend with a cook-out inside this 15th-century fortress on the Bosphorus. Book well ahead for a private spot with a sweeping view inside one of the old look-out towers.

Dolmabahçe Döner Dünyası -- The world's biggest and most glamorous kebab shop, bar none.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Emotional cartography

"Looking at things too much celebrated, like views of beautiful cities, is equal to not seeing anything at all. Our brain, as soon as [it] acknowledges the images, doesn't need to work on them."*
A patch of earth. A dinner plate. A gas station. A row of chairs. The subjects of young Turkish photographer Cemre Yeşil's series "This Was" ("Bak Bu") are the polar opposites of those discussed by curator Vittorio Urbani in his introduction to an unrelated (though nearby) exhibit. They are things little celebrated, and often not even noticed. But by pairing these simple, yet skillfully composed, camera-phone images with short bits of handwritten text, each work becomes a moving exploration of how the angle of a loved one's foot or a nondescript spot by the sea can evoke powerful personal memories; how the joys and losses we experience attach themselves to the places we pass through everyday, superimposing an emotional map onto the physical one.

Walking home from the exhibit, I was inspired to capture a few of the spots on my own emotional map of the neighborhood in similar style, a humble tribute to Yeşil's fine work, on display through this weekend at Daire Sanat.

This is where I found his cat.

This is how I first learned my way.

This is where I ran in fear.

This is where my heart once sang.

Cemre Yeşil's exhibition "Bak Bu // This Was" can be seen at Daire Sanat on Boğazkesen Caddesi No: 76A, Tophane, Beyoğlu, through June 15. The gallery is open Saturday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sunday by appointment only.

* Quoted from curator Vittorio Urbani's introduction to Italian artist Flavio Favelli's exhibition "Grape Juice," showing at the Galata Rum Okulu in Karaköy until June 14.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Kalbimiz Soma'da: How to help families of Soma mine disaster victims

Since news broke Tuesday of a deadly explosion in a coal mine in Soma, a town in Turkey's Manisa province, the country has been plunged into deep mourning as the number of fatalities climbed to at least 283, making it the deadliest industrial disaster in Turkey's history.

That grief, however, has also been accompanied by frustration and anger as details of the working conditions at the mine, Turkey's overall poor workplace safety record, and the prime minister and other government officials' callous-at-best response to the tragedy have become public.

Across the country, events have been canceled out of respect for the dead, protests held to demand justice, and signs of solidarity posted in windows everywhere from supermarkets to bars, office building to taxicabs. Relief initiatives are also being set up to help the families of the Soma victims. Here are some ways you can show that "Soma Madencisi Yalnız Değil" (Soma Miners Are Not Alone) and "Kalbimiz Soma'da" (Our Hearts Are In Soma):

TPF Soma Disaster Relief Fund
The U.S.-based Turkish Philanthropy Funds, which specializes in "high-impact social investments in Turkey," is collecting donations to be distributed to miners' families through targeted grants to the organization's well-regarded local NGO partners.
(Update: Turkish Philanthropy Funds is also using the Global Giving website to make it easier for U.S.-based supporters to donate via text message, check, stock donation, or monthly recurring donation.)

Soma Mining Disaster Relief Fund
Acclaimed Turkish scientist and conservationist Çağan Şekercioğlu has set up an online campaign to raise funds for families of the mine victims, many of whom hailed from his home province, nearby Balıkesir. Şekercioğlu, whose environmental work I've covered in the past, will deliver 100 per cent of the funds directly to needy families, many of which have no breadwinners left after the disaster and are facing bankruptcy.
(Update: The first batch of donations were delivered one week after the disaster to 11 families in the small, but hard-hit village of Elmadere. The money will help sustain families until government pensions kick in. Şekercioğlu will make another visit to the affected area at the end of June to distribute the remaining funds. He can also help facilitate donations for the ongoing legal expenses that will be incurred in lawsuits against the mining company.)

Soma için Gençlik Burs Fonu (Soma Youth Scholarship Fund)
Toplum Gönüllüleri Vakfı (Community Volunteers Foundation), a partner organization of the charity running group Adım Adım, has created a Soma Youth Scholarship Fund to help fund the education of students who lost a close family member in the mine disaster.
If you know of any other reliable, worthy groups collecting donations or offering other assistance to Soma miners' families, please let me know and I'll keep updating the list.


Soma İçin Müzik (Music for Soma)
Turkish music promoter Pozitif Live will be donating ticket revenues from its June concerts -- the One Love Festival, Travis, Bob Dylan, Travis, and the Pixies -- to help families who lost their loved ones in the Soma disaster.

Other options
For those who read Turkish, the news site Haberturk, entertainment site, and family travel blog Gezgin Anne have each put together fairly long (and in many cases overlapping) lists of organizations that have started Soma relief campaigns. I haven't independently verified the trustworthiness of those not already mentioned, so any reader input on those that do (or do not) merit support would be appreciated.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Yorumsuz (No comment)

"Please give me your blessings, son."
     -- Note found in the hand of a miner who died in this week's Soma mine disaster near İzmir, Turkey

"Let me take my boots off, the stretcher shouldn't get dirty."

"Mahmut didn't get out. Mahmut couldn't get out… Leave me, I'm alone, take him. His wife is pregnant..."
     -- Rescued miner

# # # 

"Explosions like this in these mines happen all the time. It's not like these don't happen elsewhere in the world."
    -- Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, visiting the Soma diaster site

"Those who survived Soma were the ones who used their minds."
   -- İzmir Deputy Governor Mustafa Harputlu, a member of Erdoğan's ruling party

"The rumors that a 15-year-old died in the mine was false. He was 19. That's good news."

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Turkey's 'Garbage Ladies'

It's a warm July day in the small harbor town of Ayvalık, on Turkey's Aegean coast. A horse cart with wooden wheels clatters down a cobblestone street, past a bustling, sun-drenched workshop, its front door flung open. Inside, a half dozen women are hunkered down over long wooden tables, cutting, stitching and crafting. Using bits of thrown-away packaging and factory rejects – leather scraps, swaths of felt, surplus canned-food labels – they're transforming trash destined for the dump into colorful clutches, purses and wallets to be sold in trendy gift shops around Turkey. Even more remarkably, the women, most of whom have no more than a fifth-grade education, are also transforming their lives: For the first time ever, they're being paid for their work...

I met American expat Tara Hopkins not long after I moved to Istanbul, when she had recently founded Çöp(m)adam, a path-breaking social enterprise that combined women's empowerment with environmental responsibility in a way largely unknown in Turkey. I knew from the start that it was a great story – one that finally found a worthy home this year in the U.S. women's magazine More.

To write the profile of Hopkins and her talented team of "Garbage Ladies," I spent time at their workshop in the seaside town of Ayvalık, hearing heartbreaking and inspiring stories about the women, their families, and their new lives.

Read my article about Çöp(m)adam as it appeared in More magazine's March 2014 issue: “She Turns Trash Into Cash..." (pdf)

Wednesday, February 19, 2014


After ice-dancing pair Alper Uçar and Alisa Agafonova, representing Turkey in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, were eliminated from the short dance program competition, Turkish newspaper Haberturk knew just who to blame: The ice skating lobby.

Photo via @aylajean
Whether sincere or tongue-in-cheek, the paper's headline riffs on the seemingly endless succession of "lobbies" that have been blamed -- mostly by the government and its allies -- at least since the Gezi Park protests last summer for all manner of ills befalling Turkey. It's getting tough to keep track of all the would-be foes, but keep your eyes peeled for members of these undesirable elements:
  • Doğalgaz lobisi (Natural gas lobby) -- The chairman of the Kolin Group, a business conglomerate known to have close ties with the government, lashed out at this lobby after a Turkish court blocked construction of a coal power plant the firm was building near Yırca village, a project for which it had already controversially chopped down some 6,000 olive trees. Referring to the outcry over this action, chairman Naci Koloğlu declared: "Bu doğalgaz lobisinin işi." ("This is the work of the natural gas lobby.") [Added 29 December 2014]

  • Edebiyat lobisi (Literature lobby) -- Used by the pro-government newspaper Takvim in a claim that well-known Turkish writers Orhan Pamuk and Elif Şafak are pawns of an "international literature lobby" that is using such authors to attack the Turkish government. [Added 13 December 2014]

  • Ermeni lobisi (Armenian lobby)

  • Faiz lobisi (Interest-rate lobby)

  • İsrail lobisi (Israeli lobby)

  • Kan lobisi (Blood lobby)

  • Kaos lobisi (Chaos lobby) -- Previously cited by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan as a foreign-backed force trying to harm Turkey's economy, the "kaos lobisi" was recently blamed by Food, Agriculture and Livestock Minister Mehdi Eker for price increases on beans, potatoes, and meat.

  • Medya lobisi (Media lobby)
  • Montrö lobisi (Montreux lobby) -- Identified as a force behind opposition to Erdoğan's Kanal Istanbul project, in reference to the Montreux Convention that guarantees free passage of vessels through the Bosphorus. [Added 14 December 2019]

  • Müteahhit lobisi (Contractors lobby)

  • Porno lobisi (Porn lobby)

  • Robot lobisi (Robot lobby) -- This new addition to the list was coined by PM Erdoğan, following the release of audio tapes allegedly implicating him and his son directly in an ongoing corruption scandal, to refer to those he claims are engaging in social media attacks against him.

  • Rum-Yunan lobisi (Greek lobby) 

  • Savaş lobisi (War lobby)*

  • Savcı lobisi (Prosecutors' lobby)*

  • Terör lobisi (Terror lobby)

  • Uluslararası lobi (International lobby)

  • Vaiz lobisi (Preacher lobby) -- Refers to Turkish preacher Fethullah Gülen, whose cemaat (community) is accused of engineering a wide-ranging corruption investigation targeting many government allies.

  • Yahudi lobisi (Jewish lobby)**

And drop me a line with any additions to the list that you've spotted in the news -- bonus points for source links (in Turkish or English).

* Thanks to @clevantine for the correction.
** Thanks to @Istanbultelaviv for the addition and link.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Hepimiz Hrantız

It wasn't the sternest slogan of the day -- "The murderer state will be held to account" is pretty tough to beat in that department -- but seven years after the killing of Armenian-Turkish journalist Hrant Dink, the simple, poignant words "Hepimiz Hrantız, Hepimiz Ermeniyiz" still pack a punch.

We are all Hrant. We are all Armenian.

In a country that has often sought to downplay, if not entirely deny, the presence of minority populations, the appearance at Dink's 2007 funeral of this slogan on small black-and-white placards must have been a powerful sight. This year, some of the round signs, now a multilingual hallmark of the annual commemoration of Dink's death, had been adapted to show solidarity with those killed during last year's Gezi Park protests: "We are all Ethem. We are all Ali İsmail." The van leading the slow, solemn march from Taksim Square to the site of Dink's murder also broadcast a call for justice for Kurdish brothers and sisters killed in the Roboski massacre, for which no one has been held accountable two years on.

Otherwise, the protest remained closely focused on the martyred champion of minority rights, who has become a symbol of broader demands for democracy and freedom. Few of the multitude of flags and banners usually seen at Turkish protests were in evidence, and those that could be spotted were swept to the edges of the sea of monochrome signs remembering Dink and calling for justice to finally be done in regards to his death. Near the offices of Dink's newspaper Agos, where he was gunned down in broad daylight, a handful of youths tore down flags for the nationalist party MHP and tried to get some breakaway chants going. But few in the sober, disciplined crowd seemed interested in giving the riot police who had gathered en masse any excuse to interfere, or in detracting for one moment from the man being mourned.

For Hrant. For Justice.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Hoşgeldin 2014!

Yeni yıl, herkes için daha fazla barış, daha fazla özğürlük, daha fazla gerçekleşme, ve kesinlikle daha fazla aşk dopdolu olsun... mutlu yıllar!

May the new year be full of more peace, more freedom, more fulfillment, and definitely more love for everyone... happy new year!