Thursday, January 31, 2013

Strolling Around Tarlabaşı

As I was saying in the last post, the Istanbul neighborhood Tarlabaşı has been receiving a lot of media attention because it's where Sarai Sierra, the New York woman who disappeared last week while traveling solo in Istanbul, stayed. A lot of American and British outlets have been reporting that she stayed in a hostel, but it seems like she rented a basement room in an apartment on Kömürcü Zeynel Street. I don't know specifically where that is in Tarlabaşı, so I can't say how run-down it actually is, but the general area has been described as "sketchy" by USA Today and others, and is generally considered to be crime-ridden by Turks. I noticed in the Turkish media's interview with the guy who rented her the room that the house across the street was just a shell, but interestingly, in the Airbnb reviews for places on the same street, no one mentions the quality (or lack of) of the neighborhood.

But at this point in time, Tarlabaşı is basically half-destroyed, all part of a scheme to seize the area from its poor inhabitants and make some rich people even richer. As urban scholar Yasar Adanali said in a New York Times article from July 2012, "This transformation plan doesn’t pay any attention to these social realities [that poor people live in Tarlabaşı for close access to jobs]. Why not create social programs to help these people? Instead, they just take Tarlabasi as a problem zone, a cancer area that you need to erase from the map and rebuild for a completely new clientele."

There's so much of this type of thing  happening in Turkey that it makes me ill. And yet, I feel conflicted about Tarlabaşı itself -- frankly, it's one of the last places in the city I'd want to live. We went there for a street art festival, and I felt a little nervous walking around, even though it was in the middle of the day. The area smells like piss, and within a minute of being there, we saw a prostitute and her client stumbling out of one of the abandoned buildings, only the first of a number of prostitutes we saw in an hour there. The area also has drug problems. So Tarlabaşı can't stay this way, something there has to change -- parts of Tarlabaşı currently look like 1945 Dresden -- but at the same time, you can't erase a neighborhood just because you don't like the types of people who live in it.

Tarlabaşı graffiti: In English, it reads, "We are not family."
Anyway, enough lecture...let's look at some photos. The street festival we went to had invited some 40 artists to add color to the run-down buildings with graffiti, but in general, Tarlabaşı already has a lot of street art, much of it commentary on what has happened to the neighborhood.

Street art festival
In Tarlabaşı

German street artist Pomes One with his newly painted swallow

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A look at Tarlabaşı

Tarlabaşı has been receiving a lot of attention in the media lately as it's the "shady" neighborhood where Sarai Sierra stayed in Istanbul. I've already posted on the case and since nothing significant has emerged, I don't want to dwell on it -- rather, seeing Tarlabaşı mentioned in all of these news stories has been a reminder that I had intended to post about the neighborhood many months ago but put it off because frankly, it's just so complicated.

Tarlabaşı is a historic, run-down neighborhood in a Istanbul prime location, just a stone's throw from Taksim Square, the symbolic heart of the Republic, and the famous and always crowded Istiklal shopping street. Historically, Tarlabaşı was home to a Greek community, but it now houses a lot of Istanbul's disenfranchised, like poor immigrants to the city and transsexuals. I've heard conversationally that a lot of Western foreigners live there, though I don't know anyone who does, but Turks seem to fear the place and don't understand why any European or American would want to live there if they don't have to. 

I've only been around and about the neighborhood once, one Sunday when I managed to convince Cagatay to go, but I used to pass by it on the bus every day. On that commute, there were three things that always stood out: the laundry strung between buildings, the ridiculous amount of wig shops, and the tank sitting in front of the police station. Yes, a real tank. Supposedly, it's for Taksim Square (the site of many demonstrations), but I think it says quite aptly how people feel about Tarlabaşı -- This place is baaad.

I can't say what Tarlabaşı used to be, but right now, it's caught in this no-win cycle. In 2006, the government decided to "renew" the area, which is the PC way of saying that they're going to destroy the buildings and push the poor people out so that friends and friends of friends can make a shit-ton of money. Notably on this project, the company awarded the tender to renew Tarlabaşı is a subsidiary of a company owned by the prime minister's son-in-law. This kind of thing has been happening a lot in Istanbul in the name of progress and modernity, but the actuality is pretty horrible -- as part of moving out of the neighborhoods, they promise these poor people apartments in new buildings on the edges of the city, and then later, these people find out about the expensive down-payments or rents that they cannot possibly afford, and they end up with no place to live. It's just a glorified land grab. (We saw a fantastic documentary in the theater last year called Ekumenopolis, about this and other societal and environmental issues facing Istanbul.)

I'm not exactly sure what's currently going on with the Tarlabaşı Yenileniyor (Tarlabaşı is Renewed) project, but it seems to be stalled from what I could see (although the street is currently blocked off due to another massive project involving Taksim Square, so it's hard to say -- things might also just being moving really, really slowly). And this is where the no-win part comes in -- a lot of the buildings have been half-destroyed, so Tarlabaşı has become this empty neighborhood full of the shells of buildings and piles of concrete waste. If there were crime issues before, I am sure this hasn't helped.

The plunder of this city makes me really angry -- the government seems to do whatever it wants to historic districts and archaeological sites, and they're lining their own pockets at the expense of their citizens. (I know this happens in a lot of places, including America, but it just seems over the top here -- and the religious hypocrisy is just the cherry on top.)

As I'd pass by the edge of the neighborhood on the bus via Tarlabaşı Street, the billboards advertising Tarlabaşı Yenileniyor always caught my attention. There's a real interest here in building these "modern," Westernized mixed-use spaces, and the ads generally remind me of those old futuristic ads of flying cars and robot maids. The ads for Tarlabaşı envision a nice future, but it's one that has nothing to do with Istanbul -- they depict a lot of blond white people calmly strolling these large, empty sidewalks lined by ultramodern buildings. Istanbul is never going to look like that, and frankly, wouldn't it be a shame if it did?

This post is already longer than I intended (see what I mean about complicated?), so I'll save the details of our visit for another post.
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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

New York Woman Missing in Istanbul

Not surprisingly, there has been a lot of chatter here about the disappearance of 33-year-old Sarai Sierra, the New York woman who never boarded her plane back home last week after spending three weeks exploring Istanbul. I have read a number of the news stories, but it's a little hard to get a handle on what may have happened because the details change/vary (her husband's last name has been reported different ways, some publications say her father went to pick her up while others say her husband, it was reported that she stayed in a hostel, but it was an Airbnb-like apartment situation, etc) and weirder pieces of information seem to emerge every few hours (like the quick side trips to Amsterdam and Munich and the revelation that she had a Dutch tour-guide Internet friend). There are also confusing, unexplained bits to the story -- for example, there's the suggestion that she did not stay at the apartment on her last planned Sunday night in the city, but she spoke to her family the next day. I hope she's safe and just chose not to go home. Otherwise, I really don't know what to make of it.

The thing is, Istanbul is a really safe city for tourists. There are a lot of things I don't like about living in this overcrowded, aggressive megapolis, but I've always felt safe walking around. I have a friend who feels harassed a lot, but I've never had anyone bother me, besides the tourist touts in Sultanahmet, the old city. According to a US State Department bureau, "Istanbul's overall crime rate remains lower than that of other cities of comparable size. While the majority of crime is non-violent in nature, both the level of crime and aggressiveness of criminals remains a concern." According to the Turkish government, in 2005, there were 148,165 recorded crimes in Istanbul, a number that has since fallen. In London, there were nearly 1 million crimes during that period (a number that has also fallen, to just over 800,000 between 2009-10). London's population is/was about 7.5 million; estimates of Istanbul's population vary, and the city is growing fast, but the government estimated it was 12.5 million in 2007. I'll let you do the math.

Of course, anything can happen anywhere -- I think one should exercise caution in Istanbul, as one would and should anywhere. But unscientifically speaking, my observation is that Istanbul (and Turkey in general) is much more dangerous within the family structure. In my opinion, the average woman (and perhaps her children) have much more to fear from their husbands than from a random stranger on the street. There are absolutely horrifying stories, almost every week, of women being brutally murdered by their (ex-)husbands or (ex-)fiances. The most recent news item I saw was last week, of a 25-year-old woman under police protection who was murdered by her husband, whom she was trying to divorce. And these kinds of stories abound. There have also been some religiously and ethnically motivated murders, and honor killings are still perpetrated. Turkey is also a hotspot for sex trafficking, mostly because of its unique geographic location and growing economy, although this seems to mostly affect young, poor women from the former Russian republics. Listing all this, it makes the country sound like a terrible and scary place, I know, but  my point is that while Turkey continues to have some serious issues with gender violence, these issues don't generally affect tourists. I've heard a couple of horrible stories about women who have come here from Turkmenistan to work, and there are a lot of these murder stories in the newspapers, but I have never -- literally not once -- heard a violence story that involved a tourist. Perhaps Sarai Sierra's disappearance will be the first, but I really hope not.

This story has been in the Turkish newspapers, of course, but I've also seen it on the USA Today website and Yahoo. As I usually do, I spent some time reading the Yahoo article's comments -- there are more than 6,000 on a story from yesterday -- but that was a mistake. Because there are a lot of people out there who know absolutely nothing about Istanbul, implying that she deserved what she "got" for going to "that part of the world." A lot of people apparently think that Turkey operates under Sharia law and every woman is completely covered and wearing a headscarf. I shouldn't have been surprised since a good chunk of Yahoo comments are always offensive and uninformed, but yowza.

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Monday, January 14, 2013

Fashionable Turkey

When I was in Dallas at Thanksgiving, I got to do one of my favorite things, which is look at fashion magazines. While I'm not personally all that fashionable, I do enjoy the pretty pictures -- and the idea that one day I could be that fashionable. Well, maybe. Of course, there are a ton of Turkish fashion magazines, including the Turkish versions of InStyle, People Style Watch and Vogue, but I like my American versions (i.e., the ones I can read without constantly consulting my doorstop-size dictionary). Since the US versions are much too expensive here, they've become an extra-special treat when I go back to the US.

So I was leafing through Lucky and InStyle at home in Dallas, and I was suprised and amused to see multiple references to Turkey in the issues. Since Istanbul has always been both exotic and accessible, my guess is that this is actually nothing new -- rather, it's just something I notice now that I have a link to Turkey. (Before I came backpacking in Turkey, I had never met a Turkish person in my life -- and then when I was home on one visit, I was perusing the racks at Banana Republic, and the lady standing next to me was speaking in Turkish on the phone. I had to stop myself from talking to her -- because that would have been weird. But I really, really wanted to. But my point is, there was probably more Turkish around me than I ever knew, but since I didn't know anything about Turkey, I had never noticed anything about Turkey.)

Anyway...In the December 2012 issue of Lucky (the one featuring Britney Spears on the cover in that awful wig), there were actually two Turkish references. Two! On one page, there was an expensive evil-eye necklace, while on another, there was a half-page article by regular columnist Jean Godfrey-June on the amazingness of pestemals, the thin cotton hamam towels made in Turkey.

In the November 2012 issue of InStyle, there was a full-page article on Narciso Rodriguez's new collection for Kohl's, which drew from Istanbul for its inspiration. In the blurb, he's quoted as saying, "I wanted to merge the color of Istanbul with the graphic elements I use in my own collection to create something fresh." While I wasn't terrible keen on any of the items on the page, it was still nice to see Istanbul featured so prominently.

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Onion Powder Surprise

A little story for your Monday enjoyment: This morning I was cooking, and I pulled my trusty onion powder from the spice shelf. I bought it six months ago or so, and I expected it to be fine, since it came from the supermarket, packaged and plastic-wrapped. (It was Kotanyi granül soğan, FYI.) So you can imagine my surprise when I pulled off the top to discover that inside this little bottle were two caterpillars (and a thick cocoon) at the top. WTF?!? How does this happen?!?

I guess they managed to wriggle in at the factory -- or maybe the eggs were on the onions and somehow survived the journey into powder? And then they hatched/lived in this bottle of onion powder for six months or more? And when I used the onion powder before, on other occasions, we probably ingested their friends?

I'm more than a little grossed out thinking about how this situation possibly came to be. Especially after I read on Wikipedia that caterpillar hair can cause health problems ranging from "urticarial dermatitis and atopic asthma to osteochondritis, consumption coagulopathy, renal failure, and intracerebral hemorrhage." I don't even know what half those things are. Oh, and caterpillar hair can even cause death.

It brought to mind that Internet forward that was going around a few years ago that warned against drinking directly from aluminum cans, saying that the cans are usually stored for a period of time in warehouses where mice and rats have the opportunity to defecate on them, leading to you, the drinker, getting a fatal disease. I've just learned from Snopes that this tale is mostly not true (apparently the pee of a healthy rat is safe to drink!), but after finding caterpillars in your onion powder, it really makes you think.

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Hair transplants in Turkey

According to the Guardian, coming to Turkey for facial hair transplants is a new and booming trend. While there are no actual statistics to support this assertion, the doctors quoted in the article say that more and more Middle Eastern men are coming here to get beard and mustache implants because in Arab countries, facial hair is a sign of masculinity and not having it is a bad thing. "Thick hair is a status symbol, and a sign of strength and virility," one doctor was quoted as saying. According to another, of his 60 hair-transplant patients a month, 10-15 now want facial hair.

This actually doesn't surprise me in the least, for two reasons. First, Istanbul is already a hotspot for lower-cost medical treatments. And second, you walk around Istanbul long enough, you see packs of Middle Eastern guys walking around fresh off their head-hair transplants. They almost always have a white bandage secured around their head with a black headband, but it's usually not enough to hide the bloody implantation areas. The first time I saw some of these guys, in Ortakoy, I thought they'd been in a car accident, seriously. I completely understand why they're walking around -- they come here on an arranged trip through a travel agency, and they're not ill -- but my god if the sight of bloodied scalps doesn't put you off your lunch. I sincerely applaud the guy in this photo for wearing a hat. Pin It

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Istanbul Weather: More snow and an earthquake

So, we had another massive snowstorm this week. The snow fell all day Monday and Tuesday, at some points blowing around like crazy. (I suppose that was what's known as a blizzard.) I'm fascinated by the snow, especially when I don't have to go out in it -- I feel like a little kid, so excited by it, and I guess that's because I grew up in Texas, where snow was pretty rare.

It actually got me thinking the other day about weather generally, and how "weird weather" is a matter of perception and depends upon what you're used to. I've mentioned before that you don't see much of a sunset in Istanbul; thunderstorms with lightning are also quite rare. Which is the exact opposite of Dallas, and I suppose a Turk would find the weather there weird, too. (Yeah, I've got a lot of time on my hands to think about this kind of stuff.)

Anyway, I say all this because on Tuesday morning, I was thinking about the weather differences between Dallas and Istanbul, and how grateful I am that North Texas doesn't experience earthquakes. Scary-ass tornados, yes, but no earthquakes. (Or, at least, we didn't have earthquakes when I was a kid -- did you know that the number of earthquakes in North Texas has dramatically increased in the last four years, due to natural gas drilling?) Istanbul, on the other hand, lies near a major fault line, and everyone expects a major quake to hit at some point and just destroy the city, since so much of the building construction is shoddy. Fun, right? (As a side note, the word for earthquake in Turkish is "deprem," which sounds an awful lot like "depressing.")

So I was thinking about this Tuesday morning, and then, voila, there was an earthquake Tuesday afternoon. It registered at a magnitude of 6.2, but it happened deep in the Aegean Sea, to the west of here, so I didn't notice anything, and I don't think anyone in Istanbul did. But still, an earthquake! I'm really hoping we will have moved far away from here when the big one hits -- if what I've said isn't convincing enough, read this scary article on for how very unprepared the government is for such a disaster.

But back to the snow, it seemed like everyone enjoyed this latest snowfall. A lot of the schools were closed, so there were kids outside all day, sledding down the hill outside of our apartment. On Tuesday night, Cagatay and I decided to take a romantic walk out in our winter wonderaland, and there were a surprising number of people out doing the same thing, even though the snow was still blowing all around. I even made my first snowman. I remember I tried once when I was a kid, but there was only the thinnest layer of snow that day, one that was melting fast, and I suspect I was just too cool to give it a try when I spent four snowy years in Massachusetts at college. :)

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Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Turkey's New Year's Eve Lottery

So, Turkey has a national lottery, and the jackpot is especially big on New Year's Eve. This year, it was worth TL 45 million, which is a little more than $25 million. Not bad, eh? But the tickets are seriously expensive -- you can buy a single ticket for TL 40 ($22) and you win the entire jackpot, a half ticket where you share the jackpot with someone else, or a quarter ticket for one-fourth of the money. Each ticket has a number on it, like in the US, and for the half and quarter tickets, there are two and four tickets, respectively, out there in the world with the same number.  

You can buy the tickets at various places, but when we were shopping in Eminonu a couple of weekends ago, Cagatay pointed out Istanbul's most lucky seller -- Nimit Abla. It was fairly early and there weren't a lot of people out and about, but there was a line stretching down the street of people waiting to buy tickets for the New Year's jackpot. I've never seen anything like it. And there were individual ticket sellers standing around (you can see them in the photo above, at the left, in the white caps), but no one was paying any attention to them -- everyone wanted to buy from the little store.

Cagatay said that they've sold a couple of winning tickets in the past, and as a result, people consider Nimit Abla to be a lucky place to buy from -- but of course, that ends up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, as statistically, they'll sell more winning tickets as more people buy from them. And people were certainly buying from them.

We bought one quarter ticket, but from a lady standing across the street -- she looked like she needed some business. But alas, we didn't win last night...our numbers weren't even close. It was a set of quarter tickets that won, sold in Istanbul, Izmir, Mugla and Malatya, but no word yet on where specifically the Istanbul ticket came from. :)

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