A Retrospective

I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ve changed as a person over the course of my time here, but, seeing as I can’t fully qualify how I’ve changed, I thought it would be more useful and interesting to explore how my relationship with Turkey has changed over the past few months. I’m going to use the example of the mosque and the müezzin (the man who leads the Friday prayers in a mosque and calls out the five daily invocations to prayer from the minaret.)

This was the first picture I took in Turkey, and it is, as you can see, a mosque. I was standing on the terrace of a hotel in the oldest part of the city and looking over the Sea of Marmara and the setting sun over the rooftops really enchanted me. This was also the first mosque I had seen first-hand, so I thought I should catalogue the occasion. But while I was enchanted by this building at sunset, come morning, I was feeling far less charitable towards it. You see, this part of the city slopes quite steeply towards the sea, so my hotel was uphill from the mosque. Unfortunately, this meant that topography had conspired to put my third story room rather close to the speakers on that minaret, and at sunrise (this was still late summer, so sunrise was around six in the morning) I was awoken by the call to prayer. Keep two things in mind: In the Old City, all calls are electronically enhanced, with each mosque seeming to compete with every other to have the most clarion call, and I had just gotten off a trans-Atlantic flight less than twelve hours previously and was severely jet-lagged. At the moment, I wished for nothing more than some easily ignored church bells, preferably in a steeple not located directly adjacent to my eardrum.

This is the same building by daylight, so you can see the contrast in lighting.

So my first daytime experience with a müezzin had not at all gone in my favor. I managed to roll over and go back to sleep after about fifteen minutes, after all the mosques in the neighborhood had stopped the call.

The next few days I got used to the dawn call, and then I went traveling outside of İstanbul for the next few weeks, and so most of the hostels I was staying at were not next door to mosques. When I returned, I moved into the apartment I would be living in for my time at university, since the school year was about to start. This apartment was much further north within the city (I’ll be posting a map soon so people can get their bearings) and while there was a mosque in the neighborhood, it was much closer to the university main gate than to my apartment. I came to associate the two much like I used to associate school bells with schools when I was younger; the mid-day prayers remain at the same time of day regardless of the time of year, more or less, so when I heard the mid-day müezzin call, I knew that it was near to noon, and that if I wasn’t already at the main gate, I was going to be late to noon class. After a while, especially during study break, I didn’t even hear the mosque consciously. It had become part of the aural landscape. In fact, when I ended up traveling to Georgia during mid-term break with friends, the sound of church bells actually ended up pleasantly surprising me. So, in a way, I feel like I culturally assimilated to the five-day prayer cycle. It’s part of why I already miss living there, since it really felt like home after a few months.

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Article 301

Article 301 is part of the Turkish penal code and it states that anyone who publicly denigrates the Turkish nation, the Republic of Turkey, the Grand National Assembly of Turkey, its government, military, security or judicial institutions, or the person of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk can be sentenced to between six months and two years in prison. In addition to the obvious barriers this places on the right of free speech, Article 301 has also been used to prevent discussion of the relations of the Turkish state with its Armenian or Kurdish populations. Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel Prize-winning author, was charged under Article 301 for stating that thirty thousand Kurds and a million Armenians were killed on Turkish soil. This was considered an affront to the state, although the charges were later dropped. Elif Şafak, who wrote The Bastard of İstanbul, (incidentally, the best-selling book in Turkey in 2006) was also prosecuted under this law because a character in the aforementioned book characterized Ottoman actions against Armenians in World War I as a genocide. These charges were also dropped. In 2006, journalist (and graduate of Boğaziçi University, where I study) Perihan Mağden was acquitted of charges brought against her under Article 301 for publishing a column entitled “Conscientious Objection is a Human Right.” Military service for males between twenty and forty-one is compulsory in Turkey, and can be deferred only if a man is seeking a university degree, and then only until he receives his degree; conscientious objection is not recognized, contravening several international treaties. Refusal to serve is regarded as an insult to the military, and is therefore punishable under Article 301. Military papers are also required by many companies before they will consider starting the hiring process, meaning that even if service could be refused, social stigma makes such refusal unlikely. More directly related to my time here, Article 301 has been used on several occasions to shut down Youtube access within Turkey. Between March 2007 and October 2010, Türk Telecom, the main internet provider in the country, blocked Youtube after a court in Ankara ruled that videos posted by Greek ultra-nationalists were insulting to Atatürk and therefore a crime. The ban was lifted for three days, between October 31 and November 3 of this year, before being reinstated. Interestingly, both the president (Abdullah Gül) and the prime minister (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) disapprove of the ban, with Erdoğan famously saying at one point that he did access the site frequently and that Turkish citizens should do the same. In case you are interested, it is actually quite easy to find proxy servers that will allow access to Youtube. My apartment provides internet through the university network (as it is student housing) and not through Türk Telecom, so I have Youtube (and have been watching it probably more than is healthy).

Speaking of Youtube, go watch this video. I think my synapses just overloaded from the cuteness!

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Afiyet olsun!

In keeping with the fine tradition of travel bloggers worldwide, I am devoting an entire post to food! And it will include pictures!

Turkish cuisine is absolutely delicious, and although it is usually claimed that Turkish food is gratuitously spicy, I don’t generally find that to be the case. The one exception are these little green peppers that come with most meals which will literally give you chemical burns on your tongue if you pop to many in your mouth at once. The problem is they also look really adorable and lonely on the edge of the plate all by themselves, so I usually am guilted into eating them, even when I know that I’ll need to chug a gallon of water afterwards to get back my equilibrium. Most Turkish meals revolve around a central meat dish garnished with vegetables, usually kebaps (skewered meat) or döner (‘turned’ meat, meaning wrapped in flatbread) and occasionally köfte (spicy Turkish meatballs). Tomatoes, lettuce, peppers and onions are usually served alongside. Many meals also come with yogurt on the side, to be used as dipping sauce. Bread and tea are always served, but you can also order juice, coffee, or ayran, a salty yogurt drink. It’s far more tasty than it sounds.

The meal above also contains çorba (soup, but I forgot of what flavor) and meze dolma. Meze is the general word for a tray of snacks brought before the meal as an appetizer, or bought with drinks during a night at a bar, and dolma means stuffed. In this case, it refers to peppers and grape leaves stuffed with rice, cinnamon and other spices. Amazing.

Turkey also has its own variety of pizza, called pide (although you can also find American-style pizza houses) which is rhomboid-shaped rather than rectangular. Also, the underlying sauce is olive oil based, rather than a tomato paste. If I want a snack, I usually go to this little cafe near the south gate of the university to eat pide or borek, which are little pastries stuffed with meat or cheese and vegetables, coated in olive oil. Probably about 500 calories a bite, but they are superb. Also, a good breakfast meal can be had with lahmacun, which are flat pieces of bread with meat cooked into their tops, which you then wrap around a selection of vegetables that a server brings to your table.

For late night snacks, especially around bars and clubs, there are always street vendors selling stuffed oysters for very cheap prices, or döner merchants who walk around with carts that have a meat turning on a spit on top. You simply go up and they slice off a piece for you and wrap it up.

For deserts, Turkey has sütlaç, a rice pudding which is burnt along the top to give a caramelized sugar layer, much like crème brûlée; lokum, the Turkish term for Turkish delight, which are small sugary candies in a variety of flavors; and dondurma, which is Turkish ice cream. It differs from regular ice cream or gelato because it is made with salep and mastic. The first is an extract from the orchid, which makes the ice cream thicker than other varieties, and cause it to melt at a much slower rate than solely cream-based ice cream. Mastic is a gelatin that makes dondurma slightly chewy and sticky, sort of a cross between taffy and ice cream. It is unusual, to say the least.

I’ve become mildly obsessed with lahmacun, since it’s easy to get, cheap and relatively filling as a snack,  and I also don’t know what I’ll do when I can’t buy vişne anymore. It’s this sour cherry juice that I consume liters of each day, I’m not exaggerating either, I buy way too much of that stuff. On the other hand, peanut butter is nearly impossible to find here, so I will be happy to return to the United States. On the other hand, cheese and bread are so fresh and cheap here that I might go into shock back in America when I try to buy pounds at a time and realize I don’t have that kind of money.

Afiyet olsun! (Good eating!)

Posted in Food and Drink | 2 Comments

More on the Weekend Attacks in İstanbul

Responsibility for Sunday’s attacks was claimed by the Kurdish independence movement, the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons. The group claimed the attack was in retaliation for ‘Turkish police fascism’ against the Kurdish minority. The Falcons support Abdullah Öcalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), who has been imprisoned by Turkish authorities since 1999, but the current PKK leadership claims the Falcons are a splinter group outside of its control. Whereas the PKK has agreed to a truce until July 2011, and has engaged in proxy negotiations with Ankara (both in southeastern Turkey and through lawyers representing Öcalan in prison) in an attempt to reach a peaceful solution to the problems faced by Turkey’s Kurdish minority, the Falcons refuse to honor a truce. The Falcons also claimed responsibility for a roadside bomb that detonated outside of İstanbul last June, killing six. Cumhuriyet published an article today detailing the response from the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons and the PKK.

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Sad News

Those of you who have been following international affairs may have read about the terrorist suicide bombing in İstanbul this past weekend. It took place in Taksim Square, the heart of İstanbul’s commercial district, during the Republic Day weekend. Given these circumstances, we are exceedingly lucky that few people were injured and that everyone caught in the attack seems to be recuperating. There were no fatalities. The attack appeared to be targeted at a police van that was stationed at Taksim Square during the morning. Currently, the Turkish government is investigating any links between the bomber and the Kurdistan Workers Party (the PKK) which has been fighting an armed insurgency in southeastern Anatolia for the past few decades. The PKK had declared a cease-fire for the month of Ramadan and later extended it for the entirety of  September and October, meaning the truce was set to expire the day of the bombing. The PKK has denied any involvement in the attack and extended their truce until the parliamentary elections in July 2011. It remains to be seen how Prime Minister Erdoğan and the AKP (Justice and Development Party, holding the majority of the seats in the Turkish National Assembly) will respond.

Read the New York Times article published 31 October covering the attack and the Cumhuriyet article (in English) detailing the PKK response published 2 November.

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Name Change

So, if you read my blog frequently, you may have noticed that I changed the name recently. This is because this blog will no longer document travels occurring solely within Turkey. You must be asking, “What does this mean? Where are you off to next?” My response is: You’ll just have to wait and see. But it will be exciting I promise!

PS. I had a Turkish midterm yesterday and finishing that decreased my stress level and increased my free time, so when I get back from this mysterious trip I am taking, I will devote much more time to this blog. Stay tuned!

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Okay, so this post by all rights should have been written a month and a half ago when I actually started thinking about it in my head, but, as you may have noticed, I’m kinda terrible at the updating-this-blog-on-a-regular-basis concept. So this is written in the present tense, but took place in the past, because English is stupid and doesn’t have the imperfect tense:

My flight to İstanbul had an hour-long layover at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam (sadly, that was much too short of a time period to go wander around the city, boo!) and because I wanted to take at least one picture proving that I had been in the Netherlands, I took this picture:

Tulips and wooden clogs! Nothing could be more quintessential Dutch, right? Well actually, tulips were first commercially cultivated as a commodity during the early Ottoman era in Turkey. They were supposedly introduced to Europe after the ambassador of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I to Sultan Süleyman saw tulips growing in the imperial gardens and asked for a few bulbs to bring back to this monarch. Tulips were an important motif in Ottoman Turkish art and architecture, as seen in these tiles:

These were tiles from one of the interior rooms in the Topkapı Palace harem complex (and I promise I will upload more soon-ish). There are several other places in İstanbul (most notably the Hagia Sophia and most of the mosques) that have tulip inspired or influenced artwork. Tulip artwork was not just restricted to the upper-classes, even if tulip cultivation was. As I mentioned earlier, tea drinking is ubiquitous in İstanbul, and tea is always served in tulip shaped glasses. This has a practical element to it as well: Tea is hot and glasses are made of glass, which conducts heat very well from a boiling liquid to the skin on the hand that hold the glass, so giving the glass a broad rim gives the fingers somewhere to grasp.

Tulips even gave their name to an historical period within the chronology of the Ottoman Empire, the Lâle Devri (lâle is Turkish for tulip). This was a period of during the early to mid-1700s that experienced a flourishing of art, architecture and leisure activity among the upper classes, mostly focused around the tulip motif. It coincided with increased cultural and economic interaction with Europe, which exported some of its notions of the indolent rich to the Ottoman upper class. A melding of European baroque and Ottoman classical styles gave rise to Ottoman rococo architecture, which was exemplified by the creation of many public fountains and monuments in the center of İstanbul. This is the Fountain of Ahmed II in front of Topkapı Palace.

And here is a similar fountain in the courtyard of the Hagia Sophia.

When I refer to ‘fountains’, I will usually be referring to Islamic ablution fountains, which contain a series of outlets surrounding a common basin where Muslims wash their hands, feet, arms, the inside of their mouths and faces before entering a mosque for prayers (a ritual called ‘al-wudu’ الوضوء in Arabic and abdest in Turkish). These fountains don’t shoot up jets of water or anything fanciful like one would expect when one hears the word ‘fountain’ in America.

If you ever travel via Turkish Airlines, keep an eye out for the tulip! Hint: It’s on the fuselage, back where the tail sticks up.

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