Thursday, March 28, 2013

Emirgan Park and tulips

Since the tulips have flowered in Besiktas, it seemed reasonable that the tulips in Emirgan Park were also out, so on Sunday, I dragged my loving husband around to look at pretty flowers. (Poor guy, he also had to go through this last year, both in Holland and twice in Istanbul.)

Although the tulip is generally associated with Holland, the flower originates in Central Asia and was beloved by the Ottoman sultans. It's thought that the tulip actually came to Holland via Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq, the Holy Roman Empire's ambassador to Constantinople in the mid-1500s.

For almost the last decade, the Istanbul municipality has embraced this history every year with a tulip festival held the month of April. Last year, the city planted 11.5 million tulips across the city, at a cost of nearly $1.5 million. This year, the municipality is also celebrating with the opening of a tulip museum at Emirgan Park on April 7.

Although the tulip festival doesn't actually start until April 1, there's no holding the flowers back, and there were a number of tulips in bloom when we were at the park on Sunday. It was also abundantly clear that the park wasn't quite ready for visitors -- there were a number of muddy spots, and gardeners were busily planting (or re-planting?) some sections.

But still, it was lovely, and the park was delightfully serene. There aren't a lot of green spots in Istanbul, and it was just so nice to wander along the paths under the trees.

In addition to the "regular" batches of tulips planted along the pathways, Emirgan Park also has a couple of special flower arrangements. Last year, there were some tulips planted in the shape of tulips, the Turkish flag and the evil eye. This year, the Turkish flag plot had been converted into a map of Turkey while the evil eye became a cintamani.

I also saw a squirrel! Now, I know this doesn't seem like a big thing, but I have never seen a squirrel in Istanbul. It was like sighting a unicorn -- parents stopped to point out this one lone squirrel to their kids, and the little kids were watching it with wide eyes, it was very cute.

There were also bees...

When we were at Emirgan Park last spring, there were a number of brides and grooms there to take their photos among the tulips, and this year, even early in the season, it was the same. [The red wedding dress is unusual, by the way -- I have never seen a non-white wedding dress here before. The veil/hood is a religious style, functioning as a head scarf.]

Some last Emirgan Park tulip photos...

How cool is this Istanbul Trees and Landscape logo? I love the Istanbul landmarks coming out of the tree.

There are a number of places to see the tulips in Istanbul, by the way. In addition to Emirgan Park, there's also Soğanlı Park (by the old city walls near the Panorama 1453 museum), Gulhane Park in Sultanahmet, Yildiz Park in Besiktas, and the Goztepe Rose Garden on the Asian side, among others.

After we left Emirgan Park, we walked along the Bosporus for awhile. The weather wasn't especially warm, but it was more than pleasant in the sun. It was just so great to be out along the water -- a stroll along the Bosporus alone is worth coming to Istanbul for.

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Photos of Istanbul -- Galata Bridge and Galata

In the last year or two, I've noticed that my memory has been going, especially for words and names of places -- I suspect that it may be from trying to learn Turkish and always being surrounded by a second language, though a doctor told me it might stem from the stress/depression of living in another country. Whatever the reason, I guess I really shouldn't be surprised that I forgot that I'd taken photos on our various outings across the city in March. :)

One Saturday, we ventured over to Eminonu and my favorite shopping spot, the Kürkcu Han (furrier's building), where they sell hundreds of colors and styles of yarn for cheap. (Seriously cheap -- one American-sized skein of acrylic yarn is about 80 cents.) As usual, Eminonu was incredibly crowded, so we ended up walking across the Galata Bridge and over to the Tunel tram in order to get home.

People always say that walking across the Galata Bridge is an Istanbul must-do, but I don't get it. The bridge is usually crowded with pedestrians, and you have to dodge the fishermen swinging their lines around -- one of my biggest fears when we walk along the water, be it on the bridge or on the Bosporus, is getting speared with a fishing hook. This isn't like being afraid of zombies -- it could totally happen.

From the Galata Bridge, you can clearly see the controversial new metro bridge that's going up across the Golden Horn. I'm impressed by how quickly it's gone up, and reports say that it will be finished in May.

Istanbul was originally built on seven hills, and as you walk around the city, you feel it. There are a lot of steep inclines and 100-step staircases. To help out the population, there are also two funiculars on the European side. The one at Tunel is the world's second-oldest underground train, opened in 1875.

Another Saturday, we ventured over to Galata, home to the famous Galata Tower and one of Istanbul's loveliest neighborhoods. The area is usually pretty crowded with tourists visiting the tower, but I really love wandering down the side streets and ducking into the cute little shops. We also had lunch at one of my favorite spots, the delightfully charming Santral Dukkan.

The graffiti is on the same street as Santral Dukkan, Serdar-i Ekrem Sokak.

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Sunday, March 24, 2013

Nevruz Cease-fire

It's officially spring, kids. Regardless of the weather, March 21 marks the beginning of the season each year, and in Turkey, it's also the date of Nevruz, the Kurdish New Year. Nevruz is an exclusively Kurdish holiday in this country, and it's generally associated with protests and violence. As this year's State Department security warning said, "Historically, members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) have used these celebrations to incite violence in order to provoke a response from Turkish authorities." For a long time, Nevruz celebrations were simply banned, and then last year, there was a row over what date the celebrations would be held, and the celebrations turned violent.

But this year, Nevruz ended up being a monumental day in Turkey, as the head of the PKK, Abdullah Ocalan, called for a cease-fire and told his armed forces to withdraw from the country -- he said that it was time to exchange guns for politics and begin a "democratic struggle." Ocalan has been in jail since 1999, and his statement was read out in Kurdish and Turkish during the Nevruz celebrations in the southeastern city of Diyarbakir.

The reason why this cease-fire is so monumental is that Turkey has a "Kurdish problem." It's a complicated issue -- I don't pretend to completely understand the situation, but I'll do my best to explain. It's an incredibly politically and emotionally charged issue, and Turks hold passionate views on the topic.

The short version is that after the Turkish Republic was founded in 1923, the leadership wanted Turkey to be Turkish and did not really permit other expressions of identity/ethnicity. However, Turkey has a significant Kurdish population (the estimations differ but it's somewhere between 12 million and 25 million of Turkey's 75 million citizens) that lives mainly in the southeast. Through oppression and lack of economic development, the government tried to assimilate the Kurds into the mainstream (and thus, snuff out their culture). As a result of all this, a terrorist group (the aforementioned PKK) was formed in the 1970s and began violent attacks in the 1980s to fight for Kurdish rights and independence. Since then, some 40,000 people have been killed in the conflict. In recent years, the government has been holding secret talks with Ocalan, trying to come up with a solution. The cease-fire was not a surprise -- there had been reports about it at least a week prior -- and the conditions (lay down arms/leave the country) mirror reports in the last year of what the government's conditions were for resolution.

So hooray, peace and victory! Hahahaha -- just kidding. There doesn't seem to be a lot of  celebration -- instead, the cease-fire has created much controversy, criticism, questions and highly charged emotion. [Update: I saw a number of "hooray, victory!" columns in Sunday's paper, though some of that has already given way to discussions about Israel's apology over the Mavi Marmara incident.]

It's important to note the government has not exactly been heroes in this. In general, the current government has gone aggressively after people, including politicians, journalists and military members, who it sees as critics or threats. Discussing the validity of those trials is a whole other (highly controversial) subject, so I won't go there. Let's just say that in this specific situation, "blaming the Kurds, who were identified with terrorism or political dissent by the majority of Turks, [enabled] Ankara to justify policies that often do not discriminate between armed guerillas and disgruntled civilians," writes Gabriel Mitchell in A "Kurdish Reset": Erdogan's Last Chance? In other words, there have been a number of people arguably unfairly jailed for not towing the party line.

A month ago, one newspaper published the minutes of a secret parliamentary visit to Ocalan, and the prime minister accused the paper of acting against the national interest of the country -- which then led to (more) discussions about press freedom (or the lack of) in Turkey, and the firing/quitting of a prominent journalist. The leader of the main opposition party is now saying that no one knows what Prime Minister Erdogan and Ocalan have agreed to. Reading between the lines, there seems to be concern that the PKK and Ocalan himself, a man who has been called a baby-killer, are being legitimized as a player in the democratic process through an undemocratic, secret process (and that the violence and deaths of the last 30 years are sort of being glossed over). This is especially important as Turkey is attempting to write a new constitution that will shape the future of the country -- and, as one columnist wrote, "there is also concern that peace is [being] used as a bargaining chip to support Prime Minister Erdogan's presidential ambitions."

Another concern, again mostly reading between the lines, seems to be that the cease-fire is actually the first step in fracturing Turkey instead of heralding the "building of a 'new Turkey'." There were no Turkish flags at the event in Diyarbakir, which made a lot of people angry -- and if you watch the video, you'll see a number of red-green-yellow Kurdish flags and plenty of yellow flags featuring Ocalan's portrait. Not surprisingly, the nationalists went crazy.

This is only the beginning, and I have no doubt that there will be a lot written about the cease-fire in the coming days, weeks and months. I hope for my part that I have done it some justice in the explanation.

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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Adventures in Renewing a Residency Permit

Many of you don't know me personally, but I think it's fair to say that I am an upstanding, law-abiding citizen. I've never been arrested, I've never been inside an American police station, and I've only been inside a court of law for jury duty. So, much to my surprise, when I went to renew my residence permit three weeks ago, the officer told me I had broken the law by not declaring my change in marital status within 15 days of getting married.

Let me back up...To live in Turkey for any length of time, you have to apply for a residence visa (ikamet). For North Americans and Western Europeans, it's a straight-forward process -- in Istanbul, you make an appointment on the website and pay the money, which is about $160 for the first year (and it's only that expensive because the first time around, you have to buy a poorly constructed little blue visa book for $80). While you don't have the right to work with a residence permit, you don't have to do anything special (as a Westerner) to get one -- the Turkish government is happy to take your money and let you live here, and they don't care why you want to stay.

Getting a residence permit in Turkey is easy; getting an appointment to get a residency permit (or renew or change it) is another matter entirely. See, the online system doesn't work very well, and this is where our problems came in. We tried to make an appointment in August after we got married, but the website wasn't working. Cagatay went to the office in person, and the officer there at the time told him it was broken and that we just had to wait until it was fixed -- and no, he couldn't make an appointment in person. So we checked and checked again and around the beginning of October, we managed to get an appointment for mid-November. That was the day I was going home for Thanksgiving and since we weren't able to change the appointment (you couldn't then, maybe you can now), I just had to skip it. Back to square one.

When I got back to Istanbul at the end of November, I tried to make a new appointment. I checked the website for about three weeks and usually, it just looked like this:

The website always lists just three appointment dates, and they're always full. I was starting to panic because my residency permit expired at the beginning of February, and as you can see from today's screenshot, the appointments are for months later. [In fairness, you just have to make the appointment before your ikamet expires -- they accept your reservation date as "the" date, though I don't think you would be able to leave the country in the in-between period.] Anyway, after about three weeks of checking the website, I finally managed to get an appointment for the end of February.

So, here we are, present time. We went to the appointment as scheduled, and our intention was to renew my residence permit and to update my marital status. Cagatay explained to the officer why we hadn't come earlier, but the guy really didn't care. So the website was broken? Not his problem. So it's nearly impossible to get an appointment? Also not his problem. [Oh, btw, I also contacted the American Consulate in December about this issue, and guess what? Not their problem either.] The officer said that they release 100 appointments a month (per branch, I'm assuming) and that all the private companies that organize your paperwork for a fee know when the appointments are released and snap them up. Which explains why it's so f'ing difficult to get an appointment -- but hey, not his problem.

So, despite our objections, he told us we had to pay a fine. It wasn't actually that bad (about $78), but we were annoyed in principle. But we couldn't pay the fine then -- first, he had to organize the paperwork and then we would have to go to our local police station about a week later. So, the next week, we did that. The police officer there was very understanding, but he said since it was in the system, there was nothing anyone could do. We spent about an hour there and in the end, I signed some paper in Turkish attesting to my "guilt." This officer said that he would give the paperwork to a supervisor and in 10 days, we could go back to the municipality office to actually pay the fine. So, we did that -- about 10 days later, we paid the fine in one office and showed our receipt to the residency permit guy in a building down the street. Once we showed the receipt, he gave us the residency permit paperwork, and we went to the tax office (by cab) in another area of Istanbul to actually pay for the renewal. Then we went back to the municipality office to show that receipt. He said we could come back to pick up the residency permit in about a week. That's today -- three weeks later.

If you've followed along through all this, I'm sure you've realized what the moral of the story is. If not, here it is in brief: Start early for anything involving a Turkish residency permit. Start months earlier than you think you need to. Trust me on this.

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Tuesday, March 19, 2013

It Might Be Spring...

I have my fingers crossed that spring is actually here. We had a really mild winter in Istanbul, so it was really no surprise when the trees started to bloom about two weeks ago.  And then we were walking around Besiktas last week, and it was 70 degrees and sunny...and shockingly, the first tulips were starting to bloom, a month early. We had a slight blip of bad weather this past weekend, 40 degrees and rainy, but I'm really hoping that's just winter's way of saying see ya.  Hooray, SPRING!!!

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Monday, March 11, 2013

SALT Galata

All the way back in January, my Greek-American friend Eva and I went to SALT Galata to see the "1+8" exhibit that had just opened (and which runs until April 7). As we've had relatively nice weather this winter, Eva and I had been meeting up almost every week at the end of the week to explore various places in the city, and the SALT installation was my suggestion -- the exhibit is based on a documentary of the same name, one I'd been pretty bummed to miss at a film festival last year because I had to work the only night it was showing.

The name "1+8" is a reference to Turkey and her eight neighbors -- Bulgaria, Greece, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, Georgia and Nakchivan, an autonomous Azerbaijani republic that doesn't touch the mother country and just barely borders Turkey. As you can see on the map below, Turkey has fairly sizable borders with everyone else.

The exhibit at SALT Galata was comprised of footage from the documentary, which looked at how people lived in the border towns on both sides. According to a Today's Zaman article, filmmakers Cynthia Madansky and Angelika Brudniak were initially interested in how Turkey influences the countries with which it shares a border.

The filmmakers conducted between 30-40 interviews in each town, but interestingly, they only speak Turkish, so they couldn't understand what the interviewees in the other eight countries were saying -- but they felt like that allowed their subjects to speak more freely. The video below is one of the trailers for the movie; it's a pretty accurate representation of what visiting the exhibition is like:

To be honest, I wasn't that impressed with the exhibit. All of the screens are in one very large dark room, so you're trying to watch everything at once, and it was difficult to take it all in. There were eight screens, one for each of Turkey's neighbors, and each screen featured footage from both that country and Turkey -- I found it also incredibly difficult to tell what side of the border the footage was from though granted, this would be easier for Turks since the Turks would obviously be speaking Turkish, but I also suspect that one of the points of the exhibit was how, in fact, similar the people are, despite cultural, linguistic and in some cases religious differences.

My qualms about the installation aside, SALT Galata is well worth a visit. First off, it's free. Second, it has a lovely cafe with a small outdoor space and very cool bathroom sinks in the ladies room on the main floor. (Seriously, the sinks are cool. If you're going, check them out. I can't say what's happening in the men's or on other floors.) Third, and perhaps most importantly, SALT Galata is housed in a gorgeous white-marble 1890s building that was the former home of the Imperial Ottoman Bank. There's a decent-sized permanent exhibit on the history of the bank and while most of it is names and dates, you can go into the bank vaults and see some of the old money. My favorite part of SALT Galata, however, was the two-story library -- with its array of art and history books in English, Turkish, German (and perhaps other languages) and comfy reading areas, it would be a great place to spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon. I especially love the poofy round seats (foot rests?), which look convincingly like marble orbs.

One-lira banknote from 1914
The research library at SALT Galata

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Friday, March 8, 2013

Ayasofya Controversies

At the end of January, a surprising story emerged in the press about Lego's 2012 Jabba's Palace set. The Lego set is based on Jabba the Hutt's digs on Tatooine in the Star Wars universe, but according to a Turkish cultural group in Austria, the set is actually meant to look like the Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia) in Istanbul. And because Jabba is a "terrorist" who "likes to smoke hookah and have his victims killed," using this building as a basis for a villain's abode is offensive. (The quotes are from the Turkish Cultural Community's website, which is in German, so I'll have to take the Daily Mail's word that this is what it says.) The article goes on to say that the group is planning legal action in Germany, Austria and Turkey, though there's been no further word about any of it since the initial reports. [Update 4/16/13: Lego recently announced that the set would not be available after 2013. According to the linked article, the Turkish cultural group believes this came as a result of their meeting with Lego, but Lego said that is a misinterpretation.]

Interestingly, the Daily Mail story refers to the Hagia Sophia as a mosque -- not once, but six times, from my quick count. The Austrian group is offended because they feel the Lego set is insulting a famous mosque. But you know what? Ayasofya is not a mosque. Let me say it again:  AYASOFYA IS NOT A MOSQUE. Whew, that feels better. This isn't a prickly Christian thing, either. The present building -- which was constructed by Emperor Justinian as a basilica in the 500s and converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks in 1453 -- was secularized and turned into a museum in the 1930s. (If you want me to get prickly, I would start by pointing out that the building was built as a church and served as a church twice as long as it was a mosque, so if anyone should be offended, it's Christians.)

Hagia Sophia mosaic of the Virgin and child next to Empress Eirene

Yes, kids, today the Ayasofya is a non-religious building. It's not a mosque or a church. But things being what they are in Turkey today, there's a group petitioning parliament to change that. According to a Daily Hurriyet article in February, three citizens in Kocaeli (a town outside of Istanbul known for being incredibly religious) are asking that the Ayasofya be converted back into a mosque and reopened for Muslim worship.  There was also, apparently, a mass prayer rally last year involving 3,000 worshipers in front of the church. Apparently, the issue is being taken "under consideration."

Istanbul's Ayasofya

Now, you'd think the government would just dismiss all of this, right? People can petition for whatever they like, but that doesn't make their demands logical or reasonable, as I'm sure Piers Morgan would agree. It's never a good idea to give in to the wishes of a society's more radical members, whoever they may be. Plus, the Ayasofya has been a museum for the last 78 years, without incident, and there's a perfectly lovely and equally famous mosque to pray at just a stone's throw away. I'll be blunt: Turning the Ayasofya back into a mosque would be nothing more than a blatant f-you to Turkey's secular and non-Muslim populations. Can you imagine the uproar if Europeans started turning mosques or former mosques into churches? And yet, it wouldn't shock me in the least if they end up converting Ayasofya back into a mosque. In November 2011, the Hagia Sophia museum in Iznik was suddenly converted into a mosque -- Iznik was once known as Nicaea, and the church hosted some of the important Christian Ecumenical councils (think Nicene Creed). The government is also allegedly planning to convert the Hagia Sophia in Trabzon into a mosque.

According to a Washington Times blog post, Deputy Prime Minister Bulent Arinc said last year, "The Hagia Sophia Mosque in Trabzon has, unfortunately and for no good reason, been used as a museum until now. This sort of thing won't happen as long as we are in power. Mosques are for worshipping Allah. No law can ever change its original purpose." Do I even need to point out that the building's "original purpose" was as a church?

P.S. If you thought the Lego story was crazy, go read this story about the nine Turkish army officers charged with "insulting Turkishness" for showing Game of Thrones because the show depicts Turks as "a barbarian tribe with perverted religious rituals." You remember the Turkish characters in Game of Thrones, right? :)

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