I would go living in lights

I would go living in lights: October 2011

Monday, October 10, 2011


Two Google Images results for "eastern turkey"

After some undefined number of months living in another country, the major contrasts between Old Home and New Home fade into the background. I guess I've grown accustomed to rhythms of Turkish life. I get a strange sensation of uncertainty sometimes, indecision- firetrucks screeching up the street and missing their turn, playing board games at the office during the second power outage in as many days, men in suits attempting to heave a stranger's car onto the sidewalk so a bus can maneuver around a tight corner. Would these things happen in the States? I can't remember.

I used to read a lot of travel forums even before posting on Thorn Tree and BootsnAll became a major aspect of my job (I'm not bragging... or am I? Maybe a little bit). These days, unsurprisingly, I'm clocking up a lot of hours on the expat subdivisions, where I can whine with other Americans and Canadians about how hard it is to open a bank account in another country, muse about how the nosedive of the Western world is looking from these parts, share the articles our friends and family send us about the allegedly direct correlation between beard length and likelihood of concealed weaponry, that sort of thing.

One recurring thread in expat forums is- as you might well suspect- a discussion about the things we miss most from home. Nearly all the Americans who posted their responses included Mexican food. Like, nearing 100%. That strikes me as funny. The thing we miss the most about our home country is another country's cuisine? I thought we were more patriotic than that! "Cattle rustling" was conspicuously absent from the lists. Nobody put "sitting around with a case of PBR and brainstorming new racial slurs," or "singing the national anthem," or hell, even "baseball." Mexican food.

I came across an article by Charlotte McPherson in which she observed that Westerners "tend to become more patriotic and nationalistic when away from their homeland." My instinct is to disagree, at least when it comes to us Americans. For every United States citizen singing the praises of our Great Democracy abroad, there are three discreetly sewing Canadian flags to their backpacks. Of course, most people aren't so easily pigeonholed, and as a whole, an expat's relationship with their native country is far less likely to revolve solely around boring the locals with endless tales of the superior majesty of the motherland or solely around raging about the worst aspects of home. I miss my family and roadtrips and bluegrass and sledding in Vermont, and I enjoyed a few moments of snobbish delight upon finding out that Americans are apparently viewed as the "coolest" nationality on earth. On the other hand, I also frequently find myself overcome by the impulse to preemptively assure people that I don't think executing innocent people is a terrific idea and that neither my family nor the family of anybody I know actually owns a Hummer. Living in a different country means that for better or for worse, I've come to take both praise and criticism of America much more personally than I used to. I'm quicker to point out the great things about the US and sadder about the hateful, shocking, dysfunctional ones. So maybe I am more patriotic.

With nationalism on my mind, it occurred to me to wonder whether Americans or Turks are prouder of their country. The reputation of the States overseas is as a land of rabid superpatriots- and in fact, a poll by MSNBC found that we're the world's most enthusiastic flag-wavers.

But is it so simple? I've never seen an American rush to George Washington's defense with any particular passion (have you?); in Turkey, insulting Atatürk is actually a crime- a law which is rigorously enforced. According to 2011 polls, only 17% of us in the US have a favorable view of our federal agencies, compared with 61% and climbing who support the government over here. The Turkish language has undergone, in the last century, a radical overhaul to purge the common vocabulary of thousands of words with Arabic or Persian roots in favor of Turkic equivalents, many of which had to be made up on the spot- an overhaul which met with resounding success and acceptance. Despite polls and reputations, it seems that Turkey is in many ways more patriotic than America.

I looked up "aspects of culture" with the assumption that culture is a central concept to this idea of nationality- we rally around our flags and our symbols because they represent an unspoken commonality that we all share. I'll admit that I didn't look very far. Wikianswers, possibly the least authoritative source on the entire Internet, provided me with the following list:

1. Food
2. Clothing
3. Recreation
4. Government
5. Education
6. Language
7. Religion
8. Transportation
9. Economy
10. Environment
11. Culture
12. Arts

(Apparently culture is an aspect of culture, but there are also eleven others! Who knew?)

Some of them aren't very handy when discussing patriotism. Transportation, for example. Even sitting in the Greyhound terminal in Murderton, Detroit, waiting for my eight-hours-delayed bus and nervously mm-hmming my way through a chat about prison tattoos with a highly pungent and frightening gentleman, it never occurred to me to think, "bad public transport. THAT'S what's wrong with America." Similarly, despite the comfortable seats and smiling stewards aboard the trains and planes here, I've never seen anybody smugly waving Turkish flags outside Atatürk airport. Their beheading rates are infinity percent below North America's and even their food is not the nauseating sludge we Americans have come to expect on our travels ("Make sure you don't miss their hazelnut snack," Cornell Prodan raves in his review of Turkish Airlines. I'm not sure why I find this so funny).

But I digress.

Some of the others, I think, are better barometers of national pride. Some things we have in common because they're institutional and/or unavoidable. An American can't really choose not to have Obama for a president or live in a bad economy or come from the country that gave the world Hollywood. Others are more... um, opt-in, I guess, and more nebulous. Faith. Traditions (which should be on the list but isn't). Even language, to an extent. It occurs to me that maybe American nationalism is born of our strange contrast. Countries like Turkey are more historically, religiously, ethnically, linguistically homogenous than ours (we'll leave the Kurds out of this, and I doubt many of them would identify as strongly patriotic anyway), and that's THEIR source of solidarity. Maybe ours stems from different values entirely- our perception of ourselves as independent, free, self-starters, a bit rebellious in our determination to make it together despite our varied roots and backgrounds. If Turkey is a noble family with centuries of pure blood, we're a rags-to-riches businessman who bootstrapped his way up from nothing.

What do you think?

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Sunday, October 2, 2011

Tarlabaşı: ghetto living

Reporters speak of Tarlabaşı like it's the dark heart of some fairytale forest- you can stroll down "glitzy," "vibrant" İstiklal, but don't stray too far from the path. Mere minutes away, it's all too easy to find yourself in a sunless slum where the trees whisper to each other and the birds are all reporting to their ogre overlord and you're more likely than not to find yourself getting shoved in a witch's oven or initiated into a gang.

"Istanbul's Tarlabasi district, is famous for all the wrong reasons - drugs, prostitution, crime. Photos of mysterious figures in the shadows, pimps, transvestites smoking cigarettes, and men slinking up to hotel rooms..."
-David Hagerman

"It's located right next to the commercial and cultural heart of Istanbul and, yet, most Turks consider Tarlabasi a no-go zone."
-NPR's Ivan Watson

"Tarlabasi is burdened with a reputation as a haven for drug dealers and prostitutes, and few would wander its lanes at night."
-Robin Eckhardt

Ahhh, home sweet home. Always nice to read a glowing review of the neighborhood you live in, don't you think? Sure, the panorama outside the iron bars on my window might not be majestic, exactly (hissing cats picking through a sort of post-apocalyptic windswept dump), but nobody throws loud parties here and it's been at least two weeks since anybody traded gunshots on Kurdela Sokak, two streets over.

Drug deals, I will admit, are not uncommon, unless I'm reading way too much into the huddles of shifty-looking youths which spring up after dusk. Nor are transvestites and prostitutes (my Halloween wig shopping is going to be cake this year). Seedy hotels? Check. Out of all the journalistic allegations above, the only one I can really take issue with, actually, is this:

most Turks consider Tarlabasi a no-go zone

Do they? I mean, I guess it wouldn't spring to many minds as a top-notch destination for moonlit strolls carrying a month's salary in cash. But on the other hand, even the Turks who consider going to bed with wet hair a highly risky activity and hurl themselves in my path when I attempt to jaywalk across empty streets- as if I were diving out into a spray of bullets- don't seem particularly horrified when I walk home to my apartment alone.

I like Tarlabaşı for the same reason my parents took home the most hideous kitten they could find from the Humane Society. Because it's ugly, and because that gives it a kind of eccentric charm. It's got the faded glory effect, with little now left to remind us of its past as an affluent district populated by Greeks and Armenians. Forced to leave en masse in the first half of the 20th century, their abandoned houses were slowly filled with Kurds, Roma, and illegal immigrants (as well as a recent upswing in European Erasmus students enticed by the low prices)- the ragtag misfits of Turkish society, in other words, whose Little League team will surely someday win a heartwarming victory over a richer and better-equipped team from a wealthy suburb (now accepting suggestions for the title of the Disney movie... I'm thinking Starlabaşı).

I'm constantly trying to get people to come to the Sunday market (the pazar, a word which means both "Sunday" and "market" in Turkish). It's one of the oldest in İstanbul and also one of the most frenzied (read: fun), a fact due in large part to the very economy and demographics which apparently make it such a terrifying place to visit on any other day of the week. You can get black market loot from Georgia, fresh vegetables for the equivalent of 26 cents a kilo, toy guns, any sort of underwear your heart desires, massive watermelons, spices... it's like Christmas day (if instead of visiting your aunts and uncles, you visited a bunch of large men shouting in Kurdish).

By Karpuz11

Tarlabaşı, really, is not that frightening. The man at the corner store, intent on slicing up his cheese, will try to give you some. The toast lady will hand you a free bag of popcorn, just because. Women will lower buckets on ropes and holler at you to fetch them some bread. The tiny boy on his dad's parked motorcycle will whisper "vroom" noises and make you laugh (until he starts shouting rude words down the street after you, anyway).

Unfortunately, maybe the toast lady forgot to smile at some government official one day, because Tarlabaşı's future is looking grim. İstanbul's Urban Transformation project, targeting around 31 neighborhoods citywide, looks certain to drive out most of the area's current residents- pimps and barbers, drug dealers and pilav sellers alike. Tarlabaşı may be... well, scruffy. But I think this is sad.

Tarlabaşı Photo Report From MSNBC

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