Happy Turkish local election day!

Today, people across Turkey are voting in local elections. If you’ve been keeping up with Turkish news recently, you’ll know that recently the government of Turkey has blocked both Twitter and YouTube due to leaked tapes displaying government corruption and even invasion plans for Syria. Therefore, these local elections are crucial. If the incumbent AKP party wins again, Facebook is likely to be blocked.

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AKP flags that we observed hanging all throughout Istanbul.

While on my trip to Istanbul, I was lucky enough to meet the opposition CHP mayoral candidate for one municipality, Beyoglu. Unfortunately, our group was not able to meet with any incumbent AKP mayors, but meeting Aylin Kotil was an eye-opening experience into local Turkish politics and campaigns.

Aylin Kotil
Aylin Kotil

First, a bit of background:

The AKP party was created in 2001 and shortly after that they gained control of the country in a series of landslide elections. They still control most of the country, but the main opposition party, the CHP, has slowly been gaining more ground. Their main ideological divide is that the AKP endorses Islam, while the CHP is secular. Even though I will be writing about my experience meeting a CHP candidate, I do not endorse either party. I am not Turkish and therefore cannot even pretend to know what is best for their interests. (I really like Facebook and YouTube though…)

Story time:

I had just walked into a campaign office for the first time in my life. Was it the Democrat’s campaign office? No. Republican’s? No. It wasn’t even American.

One of the CHP's many campaign offices
One of the CHP’s many campaign offices

It was the campaign office of the CHP (People’s Republican Party) of Turkey. Aylin Kotil is running as the opposition candidate for mayor of the Beyoglu municipality of Istanbul. Despite her extremely busy schedule of running a campaign she still had agreed to meet with us, a group of American college students who could in no way help her campaign in the slightest.

As we walked in, the first thing I noticed was how many women there were walking about. At least 75% of her campaign volunteers that day were women and what was most interesting to see was that one of the women was wearing a hijab. (Read this post to hear about my research) That was as clear of a sign as any that the CHP is drawing back from their former position of an almost radical separation of church and state.

Aylin herself came out to greet us, in English suprisingly, to tell us that in half an hour we would be joining her on her campaign bus to visit businesses in the district.

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My reaction

Needless to say, we were excited.

It turned out to be a giant tour bus, but with at least a dozen speakers attached to the top. As soon as the bus started moving, our campaign music started playing. It was such a high energy exciting song! Side note: We rode around in that bus for several hours, listening to that song the entire time. By the time we got off, we were all singing it.

Aylin's campaign bus. Please note the giant speakers on top!
Aylin’s campaign bus. Please note the giant speakers on top!

The first place we went was a low income, AKP-friendly neighborhood. We hopped off the bus, and literally followed Aylin around as she went door to door shaking hands with all of the business owners and anyone who happened to pass. Apparently in Turkish politics, personal connections with the person running for office are expected. Aylin had already visited the neighborhood several times already, yet it was still a contentious area.

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At one point my friend and I got completely separated from the rest of our American, English speaking classmates. Apparently most of the group had decided to go to Tarlabasi, another area in the district. We decided to just keep following the campaign, since that was our best bet of meeting up with everyone again, but of course, someone from the campaign noticed that the rest of our group had left and a game of charades and language barriers ensued!

The photographer pointed to us and then made a questioning, looking around motion.

“Our friends left us!” we said.

“…” He looked confused.

We shrugged our shoulders, lifted our hands up high and put on confused faces.

He looked confused again.

“They… left us! Tarlabasi!”

He nodded, then pointed to us and looked confused.

“We stay here!” We pointed to each other and the ground.

He smiled and gave us a thumbs up. Crisis averted.

Despite the complications and annoyances of language barriers, I honestly kind of like them. They’re like a challenge. When you finally get your meaning across, through a careful selection of simple words, or a creative use of gestures, it’s extremely satisfying and a lot of fun!

On our way back to the bus, we ended up running into a group of ladies who created a dance to go with the campaign music!

Can you point out the Americans of the video?

After getting back on the bus, we drove to a quaint, outdoor cafe where we sat down for all of 10 minutes before going to lunch. During this fast break, we were able to have a personal conversation with Aylin. She mainly talked about her plans to help improve the conditions of women in the area: she mentioned building a women’s resource center with pilates and daycare areas. She had just started talking about some of the AKP’s policies in her neighborhood that were religiously affiliated (MY TOPIC) when we had to leave.

Sometimes I feel like Loki:

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Anyways… back to the bus where we drove around some more before going to eat lunch with some textile workers. (Read this post to see what we ate!)

Despite being cooped up in that bus for hours, it was honestly my favorite part of the entire campaign experience. We drove through the city, blasting amazing, energizing music, and literally every person we passed in the streets turned to look at us. I felt a tiny bit famous. Okay, Aylin was on the bus with us waving out the window, but it was still a cool feeling! The people’s reactions were so amusing. Some of them even covered their ears, or their childrens’ ears. Guess we weren’t appreciated everywhere.

Check back in a few days for an updated post on the election results! I know my class will probably throw a party if Aylin wins. 🙂

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TURKISH FOOD: My Quest to Find Ice Cream in the Winter

The food in Turkey is delicious. There is really no other word to describe it. I have actually missed it so much that last weekend I went to the Turkish restaurant in the neighborhood, but it was only a faint comparison.

I saw this promotional tourism video before I left, and the image I most remember is at 44 seconds. Turkish ice-cream! The video makes it look like a semi-solid, super elastic form of ice-cream. All I knew was that I had to have some. But of course, only in America do you sell ice-cream in the winter! 😦

6/1/2014 EDIT: It has come to my attention that the video above no longer exists. This must have happened when the Turkish government blocked YouTube. It was basically a really cute tourism video made by Turkish Airlines, but as Turkish Airlines is run by the government I doubt that the video will be back anytime soon 😦

Anyways, my favorite food by far was the Turkish pizza, called Pide.

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Pide Pizza and Apple tea. This pizza had some sort of minced meat and a special type of pepperoni.
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This one looks more like a baguette, but I promise it had lots of gooey cheese in the middle! Also, random fact, the Lipton iced tea in the states is horribly sweet, but outside of the US it always has just the right amount of sugar! Go figure.

My second favorite food was Kofte, a spiced, grilled, meat-ball like food.

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Literally the only thing this restaurant served was Kofte and salad. We didn’t get menus when we walked in, just Kofte, Kofte, and more Kofte!
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Lamb Shish Kebab and Kofte.

The Turkish people make rice really, really well. So well, that we would order extra sides of it! It’s called Pilav (like pilaf!)  and it usually has some sort of oil that gives it such a distinctive, light, pleasant flavor.

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Yum 🙂

One night our group was invited to a Turkish family’s home for dinner! It was such an interesting cultural experience. They served dinner buffet-style and had many different dishes. I only took one picture, because I didn’t want to seem like a creeper, but everything was delicious!

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This was another Pilav (rice) dish, but with meat. The lady told us that you put the meat at the bottom, then add the rice, and then flip the entire dish over onto a plate so that it looks really pretty. It was delicious!

Street Food: Doner!

That's Doner. It's like a giant slab of meat that is continually roasting.
That’s Doner. It’s like a giant slab of meat that is continually roasting. They either serve it on a bed of rice, or in a sandwich/wrap if you get it on the street!
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Adana meat, which is a lot spicier than normal meat, in a wrap with lettuce, tomato, cucumber, and other yummy things.
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Chicken Doner and freshly squeezed pomegranate juice! It was a little too tart for me, but what was I expecting??

Chicken Shish

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Chicken Shish. That yellow thing on the plate was in fact mashed potatoes! I was so surprised to find them outside of the states!

Ottoman Food: One night we went to an Ottoman restaurant in the neighborhood. Apparently Ottoman food is different from Turkish food because they tend to serve fruit in their meat dishes!

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I really wish I wrote the name of the dish down. We were at an Ottoman restaurant, it was lamb and it was fantastic. They also served it with an open flame!

Manti:

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Manti, according to Wikipedia are Turkish dumplings, but I thought it was just filled pasta shells! They contained spiced meat and they were covered in some sort of yogurt sauce.

One day, while we were with a CHP (political party in Turkey) candidate, we went to have lunch with the textile workers of Beyoğlu, a district in Istanbul. There were so many different groups of people from all over the world! The textile companies provide meals for their workers and give them lunch breaks, so this place was constantly full of people. They all segregated to sit with people who spoke their own language, but I met a man from Nigeria because he was the only worker there that we knew spoke English. I wish I could have found a way to discover how many different countries the workers were all from!

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Front: Roasted squash and eggplant stuffed with rice, and some sort of soup.
Back: Dessert. I have no idea what it is called (there were no signs anywhere) but it tasted like cinnamon and the texture reminded me a little bit of couscous. Good stuff.

Okay, I lied earlier. Istanbul does sell ice-cream in the winter, but you really have to search for it. Every time I saw that rare someone with ice-cream in the street, we were always rushing to our next meeting of the day! I was convinced that it was my fate to never have the pleasure of trying Turkish ice-cream, but by pure luck I found it on my last day!

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Here’s a picture of me taking a picture of the ice-cream, because I was so excited to finally find it!
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See how stretchy it is? The ice-cream itself was actually very good, but it was slightly chewier than most ice-cream!

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Research in Turkey: Or How No One Would Answer My Question

I traveled to Istanbul this past spring break as part of a class research trip. Everyone going had their own individual research questions, but we all met with the same government officials, policy makers, and university professors during our week in Turkey.

We visited quite a few housing development sites, some that are quite controversial as the government kicked the previous dwellers out and then built luxury, for-profit apartments.

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And even cruise-ship like resort complexes:

It's actually a bunch of apartments, but it's giant!
It’s actually a bunch of apartments, but it’s giant!

So the people studying housing were more successful in finding relevant information than others…

But a few of us, like me, ended up with very little data. People just kept avoiding our questions! One policy center we went to was quite frustrating:

Q: “What is Istanbul’s policy regarding the Syrian refugees?”

A: “Well they’re not refugees. They’re just transients.”

Q: “How do the local governments here deal with minorities and their access to education?”

A: “Turkey doesn’t have any minorities. Since the country is 98% Turkish, their numbers are too small to count as minorities.”

What we looked like at the table. "Did they really just say that??"
What we looked like at the table. “Did they really just say that??”

I’m not joking. The policy study center actually told us that.

Anyways, for my project I decided to pick the most divisive issue in Turkish politics. Political Islam.

Me at the Blue Mosque! This was the only place in Istanbul that I had to cover my hair.
Me at the Blue Mosque! This was the only place in Istanbul that I was required to cover my hair. I was worried that my bangs were going to cause problems, but I was fine.

**Disclaimer: I am not trying to promote a certain ideology or offend anyone with this topic, but as an American, where church and state are (mostly) separated, the idea of a government either banning religious garb or promoting it, is especially curious**

When the Turkish republic was founded in 1923, the new secular government took separation of church and state a little too seriously. Headscarves were actually banned from government buildings and schools at one point. With the rise of the AKP as the dominant party in the 2000’s they began getting rid of such policies and then started implementing controversial policies with distinctive Islamic undertones. While on the trip I wanted to focus on local municipalities and what policies had been implemented that could have religious motivations. I also wanted to ask the secular party, the CHP, how they were going to react to such policy changes and if elected, were they planning on reversing all of the AKP’s policies?

Headscarves for sale!
Headscarves for sale!

I discovered a little…

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Aylin Kotil, a CHP candidate.

For example, the CHP party is now backing away from their strong, secularist past and they are now seeking to integrate all people into their party, secular or not. However, apparently there is a stigma in Turkey that you are a bad Muslim if you don’t vote for the AKP, so whether this strategy will work for the CHP has yet to be seen.

But no one ever really answered my specific questions. One guy told me political Islam wasn’t a big deal for daily life in Turkey, because if you knew a person who knew a person you could always get around the sale alcohol ban after 1opm (not counting bars).

Because I am obviously an ignorant American college student who only cares about alcohol.  Whatever. (Turkish nightlife was pretty cool though, but that’s another story!)

Unfortunately, since this was a school trip, I wasn’t allowed to split off from the group to find people who would answer my questions. So now I have a research paper coming up and no data!

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Research sucks.

If you enjoyed this please subscribe (click Follow blog via email in the column on the right!) to receive this blog’s updates via email! Also, I love getting feedback so please comment! **And if you happen to have any information pertaining to local policies in Istanbul, particularly Beyoğlu, please let me know!

Seeing Istanbul through cats!

I don’t know how one city can have so many stray cats.

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Bosphorus University Cafe. Can you see them all?

In America, if you see an animal in the street, you pick the dog/cat up and you take it home and post lost animal signs everywhere until the owner inevitably comes to pick it up. If you did that in Istanbul, you wouldn’t have any room to sleep because every square inch of your house would be full of stray, homeless, animals!1779901_822624227753926_299665312_n Most of them look pretty well cared for though.1897856_821423467874002_371038843_n Even gorgeous.1890552_10152676204657786_951863118_o Some live in mosques.

Blue Mosque cat
Blue Mosque cat

Some prefer museums.

Hagia Sophia Cat
Hagia Sophia Cat

Some are very philosophical…

Hagia Sophia
Hagia Sophia

Or at least like posing for the tourists… mosque catSome liked to chill inside cafes like the rest of us…

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Bosphorus University cafeteria

Some hide from the tourists…

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Hagia Sophia gift shop

And most are very sweet and tame.

toki cat And here’s one guy having fun for you dog lovers… 1529885_825132247503124_551902269_o

All in all the people of Istanbul seem to love their strays. We often saw food set out for the dogs and cats and the people even protested their removal in 2012!

Decided to make this post a little less serious since the last one was so heavy! If you enjoyed this please subscribe (click Follow blog via email in the column on the right!) to receive this blog’s updates via email! Also, I love getting feedback so please comment!

Re-Adjustment Issues and Making Friends

**Warning** Extremely long post up ahead!

This semester, I was fortunate enough to be in a class at Rice University that allowed me to travel to Istanbul over spring break and research a topic of my choice. I just got back a few days ago and for the first time in my life, after returning from abroad, I have literally been at a loss for words. Amazing is too simple of a word to describe the powerful emotions and lessons I learned over the past week. But it is the only word that I seem to be able to say in person. My closest friends are surely frustrated with me, because I have spent the last few days in a kind of moody, jet-lagged state and I have told them nearly nothing about my fantastic trip, often brushing them off or avoiding the subject when they ask. Therefore, I am going to blog and hopefully I will be able to adequately illustrate everything that has happened to me, and help everyone to understand the significance of this trip for me.

Instead of starting at day one, I feel that I need to start with my favorite part of the trip…

It was Wednesday, and my friend Anya and I were strolling through the Spice Bazaar of Istanbul. Row after row of nearly identical shops stretched before us, selling nearly identical things: oriental spices, scarves, knick-knacks, and tea. Oh the tea! One thing that we had learned about Turkish culture is that everywhere we went we were offered a petite glass of tea: either the strong Turkish variety or Apple flavored.

Turkish Tea

So Anya and I were on a hunt for tea. Since nearly all of the shops offered the same goods, it was just a matter of settling on a shop to buy from. We had just decided to go into the next store we came across when we heard a voice call out “Hey, Spice Girls!”

Now this is a fairly normal experience in Istanbul. Workers are stationed outside of their respective shops, and they are expected to get the attention of people walking past, usually using whatever means they have at their disposal, through bribes such as Turkish Delights, or more often through a common language.

All over Istanbul we had been hearing people call us “Spice Girls” and we were at a loss as to why this phrase was so popular. We knew of the pop-group of course, but why was this phrase in particular so popular in this city?

Anya and I stopped after hearing this phrase again, and then turned and proceeded to interrogate the poor guy as to why he was calling us “Spice Girls.” Surprisingly, the guy was able to give us a sheepish, yet eloquent reasoning behind the phrase.

Honestly, I was so shocked to hear such good English that I can’t remember what his reasoning was!

Regardless, Anya and I entered the shop and proceeded to buy quite a few bundles of apple, pomegranate, and jasmine tea.

The conversation that happened next I can only describe as being magical:

It turns out that this man, Abdullah, is a refugee from Syria. (He does not have refugee status, but according to the very definition of the word refugee, he is most definitely one) He speaks English so well because he attended University in Syria and taught English in his spare time before everything started happening and he was forced to come to Turkey.middle_east_95

**I cannot even pretend to be an expert on Syria, but I invite everyone reading this to Google “Syria” to find out the facts, and visit the UN’s website on Syria or BBC’s timeline. Focus on the time period from 2011 to present**

The most basic thing you should understand is that what has been occurring in Syria has -been a blatant violation of human rights on the part of the government.

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Shock is the word to describe what I felt after hearing that.

Remembering our research, Anya and I asked if we could come back to talk with him the next day about being a refugee, and he invited us to have tea or dinner with him, since he did not feel comfortable talking about the subject at work.

So that Friday evening, Anya and I headed back to the Spice Bazaar just before closing to have dinner with our new friend. We bought some more tea (so that his boss wouldn’t get too upset with some random girls hanging about the shop!) and sat down to watch the bazaar shut down all around us. A few minutes later Abdullah walked back in, out of his uniform and in normal street-clothes and we walked out of the bazaar with all of the other shop-keepers to the bus station where we boarded some random bus, that was going to a random part of town we had never been to.

**Disclaimer: I know what you guys are thinking. You boarded a random bus, going to a random part of the city, with a random stranger, in a foreign country?? Yes, yes I did. But Abdullah was not a random stranger. Not once during this entire evening did I ever feel unsafe. Abdullah is one of the rare individuals that you can’t help but trust implicitly. 🙂

We went to a Syrian restaurant, where Abdullah ordered food for us, all in Arabic.

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Left to Right: Hummus 1, Hummus 2, Salad, Falafel, and Syrian-style pizza. All delicious!

After, Anya and I sincerely tried to pay for the meal, especially after learning that Abdullah’s family had just arrived from Syria on Monday, but with no luck. Regrettably, girls paying for dinner must be a purely American custom, but this new knowledge only made the evening more special.

Then we walked around the area for a good hour, learning all about Abdullah. He told us about life in Istanbul and his past life in Syria. Before everything started life was perfect, but after you couldn’t take a taxi without fear of being killed by the secret police. Of course like any college student, they still went out at night, but they increasingly encountered dangerous situations. He showed us a picture of the Virgin Mary in his wallet, and explained that despite being Muslim, he cherished the picture because a friend had given it to him and explained its significance. Before, he told us, it didn’t matter what religion you were, and that he was friends with everyone, Christians, Sunnis, and Shias.

As he was telling us all of this I realized that while I had learned about the conflict back in the United States, I had never truly comprehended what this meant for people our age especially. His description, made the conflict all the more real, and terrifying. You never knew where the next missile was going to land.

Then he told us something that was almost heart-breaking: he hated all of the other countries in the Middle East, for being silent bystanders to the neighboring human-rights tragedy. Essentially, he feels that the world turned its back on Syria in its most important hour.

Granted the United Nations has been passing resolutions, but the fighting still continues. I too, started feeling angry, the intricate politics of why the United States has not interfered escaped me under this raw testimony.

Anya, tried to offer some explanations: the catastrophe in Iraq prevented the US from acting decisively in these contexts, the economics of war and accepting refugees, and the general unwillingness of the American public to fight. All of these explanations, while pertinent when making any political decision of that magnitude, to me, seemed to dehumanize the people of Syria. Human rights are being violated. That alone should be cause enough for everyone else to rush in to save the lives that still remain.

Despite having lost everything to this war, Abdullah is the most optimistic person I have ever met. It’s beautiful. He is always smiling, and he kept telling us about how he plans to come to the United States and finish his college degree. His visa has already been denied once. He told us he thinks he was rejected because he is from the Middle East and is Muslim. It saddened me to hear how obvious American prejudices are to outsiders.  But he still hopes and dreams of the day he will be able to join all of us in living the “American Dream” and I realize how lucky I am, and how often I take being American for granted.

Eventually, we came to a bus stop, and Anya mentioned how late it was getting so we agreed to head back. Yet, we let several buses pass us by: none of us wanted to say goodbye. So Anya explained the American saying of “See you later” and we all made plans to see each other in the future. The second Abdullah makes it to the United States, we will take him to try some good old-fashioned Southern iced-tea, our treat.

Whoever makes it to the others first, we decided, will buy me dinner! Anya and I are already searching for ways to go back to Istanbul, so watch out Abdullah 🙂

Then Anya and I hailed a taxi, we all exchanged hugs and “see you laters” and then he was gone.

I cried the entire way back.

(Abdullah if you’re reading this I’m about to be very embarrassed!)

I cried, because I realized Abdullah was most likely the most beautiful person inside and out I would ever meet. He had everything in Syria, and was just like us, a college student, but then he lost it all, and yet he still hopes. His optimism is mind-boggling to me. He is always smiling, and every word his says is truly genuine. He brightens the life of every person he meets.

I sincerely hope, with all of my heart, that he will be able to fulfill all of his dreams.

I’m sure that I speak for both me and Anya, in saying that, Abdullah, if there is anything you ever need, we will be there for you.

See you soon!

Friends

Now I need to go find another tissue…

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