Friday, December 18, 2015

#RefugeesWelcome: Here’s how you can help

When I first moved to Istanbul, the near-total lack of people living on the street stood in stark contrast to my native San Francisco, where homelessness has been a serious problem for decades. The war in Syria changed all that. I’ve become used to seeing the men who sleep outside the hotel where I go to the gym, huddling against the air vent for some scant warmth and propping up cardboard to ward off the wind; the children racing in and out of traffic to beg from cars, sometimes with a plastic bag of sickly-yellow inhalant drugs in one hand; the families begging on the sidewalk with their Syrian passports held open to passersby.

Syrian Kurdish refugees arriving in Turkey. Photo: EC/ECHO
Not all of the nearly 2.5 million Syrians in Turkey are homeless, of course. Though only around 220,000 are in the refugee camps set up near the border, others are renting (often overcrowded, overpriced, substandard) apartments, or squatting in abandoned buildings. And, of course, many are embarking on the dangerous and difficult journey to Europe, boarding flimsy boats to reach Greek islands like Lesbos and then crossing the Balkans by train, bus, or on foot. Photos of these refugees – and, in particular, of the body of one 3-year-old boy washed up on a beach in Turkey – have awakened the rest of the world to the desperate reality with which people in this region were already far too familiar.

Though there’s been much handwringing about the lack of response to the plight of Syrians and other refugees, and an increasingly ugly anti-Muslim backlash, I’m holding firm to my belief that most people (or at least, most of you) are, like me, not heartless or ignorant or prejudiced, but instead overwhelmed by the scale and scope of suffering in the world and feeling powerless to do anything about it. If that rings true for you, please join me in taking at least one of the following actions today, and continuing to look for ways to do more tomorrow.

Pro-refugee rally in Melbourne.
Photo: John Englart (Takver)/Flickr CC-by-SA
Individual efforts can’t bring an end to these devastating crises but they can save, and improve, lives. If you don’t have the time to volunteer, donate money; if you don’t have the money to spend, ask friends and families to donate on your behalf in lieu of giving you a Christmas present.

If you know of other ways to help refugees, from Syria or elsewhere, locally or globally, by giving money or time, please post them in the comments and I’ll keep updating this list. And please feel share this post widely. I know there’s a lot of options for ways to help, but don’t get overwhelmed! Just pick one, randomly or whatever speaks to you most. Let’s not let hate win or hope die.

> Stay informed and speak out

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Filling the gaps on Lesbos

Refugee families arriving at the Moria camp on Lesbos.
Photo by Ashley Anderson
Last month, some 125,000 people fleeing violence, oppression, and abject poverty in their home countries made the treacherous journey by sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in hopes of starting new lives in Europe. Though their numbers threaten to overwhelm the infrastructure of the small island, they are just a small percentage of the millions of displaced people currently on the move worldwide, as many as a million of them heading for Europe alone this year.

As border crossings become tighter or less restricted and as weather and other conditions change, the routes taken by these refugees and migrants are constantly in flux, making it difficult to direct aid where it's most needed. This is especially true in places such as Lesbos, where unpaid volunteers are shouldering much of the load due to what appears to be a vastly insufficient response from large aid agencies and governments.

During the four days I spent on Lesbos, I met some of these devoted volunteers and learned about the challenges they face and the needs they are trying to help meet, including hunger and a lack of shelter among refugees, and difficulties coordinating and building capacity for the emergency response. I worked with a small group of independent volunteers dedicating to filling the humanitarian gaps on Lesbos in order to direct funds where they are most needed now.

The money so generously donated by friends, family, and complete strangers has been used to purchase:
  • 100 rain ponchos to be distributed during the next rainstorm to people without warm clothes and shelter

  • 30 tents, which refugees will take with them as they continue their long journey in increasingly wintry conditions

  • Ingredients for a hearty breakfast for around 350 people, many of whom have been eating at most one meal a day

  • Four crates of apples distributed at the port area to children and others who have very little fresh fruit in their diet

  • Five industrial-size cooking pots that are being used to prepare and serve two additional meals per day to chronically underfed refugees on the island
Two of the new cooking pots being used to prepare and
serve additional meals to refugees on Lesbos
Thank you all for your compassionate and generous response! For those who would like to continue to support this effort, additional donations can be sent directly to the "Filling the humanitarian gaps on Lesbos" fundraiser, which is administered by the trusted people I worked with on the island.

If you want to aid refugees elsewhere in Europe, the crowdsourced is a fantastic resource for up-to-date information on where, and what kind of help, is most urgently needed, both in terms of donations and volunteers.

No matter how dedicated and well-funded, however, volunteers can't -- and shouldn't -- do it alone. Dozens of volunteer groups that have been helping refugees across Europe have come together to "call on all the governments of Europe to act immediately and decisively to alleviate the situation." You can support their #europeact open letter by calling, emailing, or visiting your elected officials and asking them, "What are you going to do to prevent suffering and death among refugees?"

Other recommended ways to donate to Lesbos:

Buy items needed by refugees arriving on the island through an registry created by Lesbos residents and longtime volunteers Eric and Phillipa Kempson

Help fund the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a search and rescue charity that has been saving refugees' lives in the Mediterranean and is launching a new rescue mission in the Aegean

Help Proactiva Open Arms expand their team of volunteer lifeguards, who are helping refugees disembark safely as they arrive on Lesbos and another Greek island, Chios

Support a Greek NGO providing interpreter services on the islands to help register asylum applications and escort unaccompanied minors from detention centers to proper accommodation facilities

Other volunteer groups working on Lesbos:

Lesvos Volunters

Lighthouse Relief

Starfish Foundation - Help for refugees in Molyvos

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

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Stranded by a strike, and dangers still ahead: Day 4 on Lesbos

People wait to buy tickets and board the ferry to Athens
Each day, a massive, cruise-ship-sized ferry leaves Lesbos, transporting refugees who've been able to secure the necessary permission to move on to Athens -- and the money to buy a ticket for their passage. Neither task is an easy one.

Non-Syrians in particular face long waits for registration papers, and with high prices and limited public transportation on the island, the poorer refugees can run out of funds for a ticket before they even have a chance to leave.

Now, another obstacle has been thrown in their path: a port strike by the Greek seaman's union in protest of austerity cuts. The strike means a halt to ferry operation, though travel companies continue to sell Athens-bound tickets to refugees.

One wild-eyed man storms up to volunteers serving free food in the port, waving his ticket and screaming in a broken mix of languages as he points to the dates on his and his friend's tickets, dates for which the scheduled departures have now been cancelled. Another man quietly explains that he and his family of nine had been booked to leave today but now have nowhere to sleep tonight.

Life jackets and the remains of rubber rafts litter
the coastline in Lesbos after recent arrivals by sea
Meanwhile, yesterday's calm already seems poised to end as reports come in from other parts of the island of dozens of boats arriving or en route, including one that is said to have left Turkey with 300 people onboard. The mayor of Lesbos told reporters this week that the island has run out of room to bury the 55 bodies still in the local morgue after being recovered from previous shipwrecks.

Those who survive the sea voyage still face many uncertainties and risks, even once they are able to leave Lesbos. Winter is coming to the Balkan countries that tens of thousands of refugees are crossing, often on foot, after reaching Athens, and to the northern European destinations where they hope to eventually settle.

A special report by The Guardian details just some of the perils: "Hypothermia, pneumonia and opportunistic diseases are the main threats now, along with the growing desperation of refugees trying to save the lives of their families. Fights have broken out over blankets, and on occasion between different national groups.
Crowds of people stranded at the Lesbos port
Now sex traffickers are following the columns of refugees, picking off young unaccompanied stragglers." Other journalists have reported how women and children fleeing through Europe have little protection from the sexual assault, coercion, and exploitation that are an ever-present risk on their journey.

For now, though, being stuck on Lesbos for yet another night has its own prosaic concerns. As the sun starts to fall below the mountains, we see men digging through a dumpster for cardboard boxes, which will provide a thin layer of insulation from the cold ground.

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

Monday, November 2, 2015

From chaos to eerie calm: Days 2 and 3 on Lesbos

Rice to feed thousands being prepared at a Lesbos
catering company
If a refugee on Lesbos had a meal today, chances are good it came from a nondescript warehouse tucked away on a rural road lined with olive trees outside the town of Mytilene.

Inside this building, the staff of a small Greek catering company stir pots of lentils and rice so heavy they need to be winched out of the cooker, make sandwiches assembly-line-style, and pack thousands of small single-serve containers of salads each day. Aid agencies, governments, and other donors contract with them to prepare the food, but the company's cheerful young owner keeps the meals coming even when he isn't getting paid for the work he's been asked to do -- which has sometimes happened for months at a time.

Waiting in line for breakfast at the Moria camp

As soon as the company's van pulls into the parking lot at the port, or into one of the refugee camps, people begin to line up -- women and children in one line, men in a much longer one -- to take the bowls of simple but hearty food as fast as volunteers can dish them out. Some wait patiently, others try to cut the line. Nearly everyone seems to have a reason to ask for another bowl -- a sleeping child back in their tent, a relative who couldn't make it to the line-up. It seems cruel to say no to obviously hungry people, but impossible to say yes when there are still so many more mouths to feed.

So much suffering is in evidence on the island: A young boy takes his bowl of food with one hand, his other arm hanging limply by his side. A man walks by with his ear bandaged and half of his forehead raw from severe burns. Children carry their baby siblings up to the food table, asking if we have any milk. An elderly woman plods along in men's trainers many sizes too big for her feet; many kids run around in no shoes at all. A man asks for someone to come help his sick children; a volunteer nurse who visits their tent reports back that they all look severely malnourished. Attempts to distribute small amounts of additional food and donated clothing out of the trunk of a car draw crowds up people pushing up against each other to grab whatever they can.

An outdoor community kitchen also serves food to refugees
It's eerie, then, to drive up to the encampments one afternoon and find them nearly empty. A rumor is going around that they've been cleared ahead of a visit by the Greek prime minister, all the Syrians pushed through registration and packed onto boats to Athens, leaving the Afghans, Pakistanis, and other increasingly desperate people behind.

Volunteers say this happened before, ahead of another official delegation's arrival, and that the coast guard was out in force during that previous period, keeping boats from entering Greek waters. After the big-wigs departed, they say, the held-back boats poured onto Lesbos' shores at a rapid pace -- which means another onslaught could be just days away.

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

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.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

(Almost) alone at the Artemis Temple

I'm not proud of it, but I've got to admit, over the years, I've become a bit of a ruins snob.

I've been lucky enough to be able to visit some stunning, awe-inspiring, downright reverence-inducing ancient sites -- from the colosseum of El Jem, where you can walk through the cellars that once held wild beasts of all types, to the temple complex of Baalbek, with its mysterious megalithic stone blocks -- many of them blissfully free of crowds.

The downside of this good fortune is that it takes more than a towering structure or a well-preserved frieze to impress me (and that it makes me embarrassed to feel so blasé when other visitors are clearly wowed). A ruin usually sticks in my mind and my heart not because of its size, age, or level of preservation, but because of its setting and the experience I was able to have there -- whether hearing the call to prayer rise up from the modern city of Bergama while gazing out over the ancient ruins of Pergamon, poking my head into the 2,000-year-old shops of Ostia Antica, or rambling freely over the remains of Patara.

So while intellectually I can appreciate the value of Ephesus, heralded as the the best-preserved classical city in the eastern Mediterranean, traipsing down its mile-long main avenue along with thousands of other camera-toting, flag-following tourists can feel more like a slog than a privilege, especially in the midday summer heat.

The Temple of Artemis, annoying tout not pictured

I thought I'd found my Selçuk-area bliss instead at the Temple of Artemis; one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, it now scarcely merits a single-line mention in most guidebooks. But what could be more evocative of the tides of history and twists of fate than this once-grand temple reduced to a scant few architectural remnants rising out of a murky green swamp, birds nesting atop its scattered capitals? I sat happily on part of an old column in the shade of a mulberry tree for some time, listening to the birds all around and watching them wade, swim, and dive in the plant-filled waters. The dusty, hot modern town was largely hidden behind layers of green, affording a wonderful view of the İsa Bey Mosque and the Basilica of St. John.

Just one thing disturbed my reverie, like the buzzing of a mosquito all the more difficult to ignore the longer it went on: the insistent voice of the sole other person at the site, a vendor calling out "Lady, postcard! Postcard, lady! Laaaady!" 

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Ode to the night bus

I love the feeling of waking up in a new place, of drowsily realizing that the rolling hills out the window are not the concrete caverns you left behind....

I love the bustle of the mola dinlenme tesisi, with its rows of giant buses being hosed down and crowds of people shopping, eating, and smoking as if it was midday and not two in the morning...

I love arriving not at a sterile, interchangeable airport but at a dusty small-town bus station or boisterous big-city otogar, its halls echoing with the shouts of touts calling out their company's destinations, or the drumming and singing that sends a young man off on his way to become a soldier...

I love watching families being able to accompany their travelers until the last minute, coming onto the bus to make sure they're settled into their seats, waving madly as the engine starts, even running alongside the bus as it starts to pull away...

I love stamping through snow at a midnight stop en route to the beach, where it's still warm enough to swim in the sea, reminding me how big and geographically diverse this country is...

And, I'll admit it, I love the little paper cups of Nescafe, and the snack-packs of processed cookies too.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Life amid the olive groves -- and the energy industry

"Welcome to Akhisar, realm of the olive," proclaims a sign arching over the entry to the bus station in this small Western Turkish town. Inside the station, bottles of olive oil are nestled in a display of fake flowers decorating one of the seating areas. The even smaller towns ringing Akhisar have tractors parked on their dusty streets and olive groves just outside the residential center; one town has olive-branch designs emblazoned on its town gate; another is named "40 trees."

Local pride aside, and in spite of the handful of wind turbines scattered on the ridges of nearby hills, what this region has become best known for, in the most tragic of ways, is coal. In May of last year, at least 301 people were killed in a coal mine in Soma, about 20 miles from Akhisar. Turkey's worst-ever industrial accident, it prompted outrage and mass mourning, but little in the way of accountability.

Just a few months later, as if to add insult to injury, an energy firm came into a Soma village called Yırca and bulldozed 6,000 olive trees out of the ground overnight -- disregarding a pending legal case, in which a court ruled just hours later that the company's expropriation of the land to build a coal-fired power plant was illegal.

I traveled to Yırca this week to see how the villagers were faring following the loss of their olive trees, and to investigate the larger battle between energy-industry interests and small farmers and rural residents that is playing out across much of Turkey. I spent the day with local muhtar (a kind of village headman) Mustafa Akın, his wife, and their neighbors as they tended some of the village's remaining olive trees, a difficult livelihood that they nevertheless say they do not want to give up.

My story about Yırca and Turkey's energy battles will be published later this year in Sierra magazine; until then, this slideshow of photos provides a glimpse of how the energy industry is already encroaching on Yırca, and at the traditional rural way of life that's at stake.

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.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

An urban cycling adventure for a good cause

Precariously balanced on the back of a creaky tandem bicycle, I skated one foot along the curb as we wound our way through narrow roads clogged with cars and pedestrians, drawing curious stares, pointed fingers, and open laughter at the outlandish sight of bikes trying to traverse one of Istanbul's most bustling neighborhoods late on a Saturday night.

Ready to roll in Kadıköy
Inside a popular local soup joint, it was brighter and warmer, but equally busy, full of people downing hot bowls of mercimek çorbası before or after a night on the town. Our soup, however, was brought out from the kitchen not in bowls but in a large insulated container, ready to be packed into a specially rigged trailer on the back of one of the bikes in our odd little convoy. Then it was back out into the chaotic streets of Kadıköy, darting through traffic to reach the ferry terminal.

Across the Bosphorus in Karaköy, we met up with two more intrepid souls who had ventured out on a bitingly cold February night to delivery hot soup to the city's homeless. "I came the first time out of curiosity," one of the riders told me. "But the night had such a good feeling, I keep coming back."

After donning orange florescent vests, we headed back out into the night, this time on wider streets with faster traffic. Not much of a cyclist -- hence the tandem -- I felt my chest tighten every time a car zipped by closer than it needed to, or startled me with an unnecessary honk. I tried to keep focused on the reassuring tinkle of the bell on the bike behind us, and take heart from the cheerful demeanor of the only other person riding on the back of a tandem, a blind man who is a frequent participant in this unusual initiative that aims to make cyclists, the disabled, and the homeless more visible on Istanbul's streets.

Pouring bowls of soup to serve in Aksaray
Fear eventually gave way to exhilaration as we sped through the night, wind on our faces and legs pumping hard. We hopped off at ancient archways, mosque courtyards, metro entrances, and underneath highway overpasses -- anywhere we spotted someone huddled under a blanket or warming their hands around a fire burning in an empty tin olive-oil canister. Most welcomed the meal, and the chance to tell someone their story, though a group of homeless children alongside a busy boulevard ran away as we approached.

In the wee hours of the morning, the soup pot empty and our hands aching from the cold, we parted ways. As I walked up the hill towards home, I passed a building I've walked by hundreds of times without a second glance. For the first time, I noticed the alcoves created by its exterior architecture -- and the pile of blankets inside one of these niches, wrapped around a solitary sleeping figure.

READ MORE: My story about the two-wheeled soup-delivery initiative Engelsiz Çorba was published by GOOD magazine on March 13, 2015.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

A very Beyoğlu 'Christmas'

Amid the now-annual calls from some outraged corners of Turkey's religious establishment and conservative press for Muslims not to celebrate New Year's -- a holiday that has taken on many of the outward trappings of Christmas -- the usual mashup of traditions continued to mark the occasion in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district, a historic hub for minorities and foreigners.

On shopping thoroughfare İstiklal Caddesi, jam-packed crowds had braved the frigid wind and sleety rain to snap up last-minute gifts, including the red underwear and other lingerie believed to bring good luck in the coming year if worn on New Year's Eve.

In the nearby backstreets, a lights-and-ornaments-bedecked tree made an incongruous sight on a drab, rubble-strewn corner.

And the scattered seeds of a smashed pomegranate recalled the area's once-thriving community of Greeks, among whom tossing and breaking the fruit* as the new year arrives is thought to herald abundance and good fortune.

Happy new year / Mutlu yıllar / Καλή χρονιά / Շնորհաւոր Նոր Տարի / Bonne année / Gutes neues Jahr !

* Apparently Turks and Armenians also share the same practice...