Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Istanbul Photo Album

Soccer Mania — Turkey in the European Cup

I admit my tastes in sports are decidedly American. No matter where I am in the summer, I can usually tell you how the Mets did yesterday. Soccer was not really on the scene when I was growing up in New York, and I’ve never followed the sport. But when we arrived in Istanbul, the city was awash in soccer fever, for the European Cup was on and Turkey was surprising everyone. Fatma and Ayhan showed us the highlights from Turkey’s recent miraculous last-minute victory over the Czechs and announced that we all had to go to a large arena in town the next night to join thousands of others gazing up at large screens to watch the national team play Croatia, against whom Turkey would again be the underdog.

It was quite a night, as Riley, Jesse and I found ourselves getting religion real quick, fervently waving the Turkish flags they gave us and seriously thinking it was important that Turkey win. We joined in the cheering, and even the songs and chants, our chests swelling with nationalistic pride. It was great fun, even if a voice in the back of my head kept worrying if rooting for Turkey meant I was in denial over the Armenian genocide or the condition of today's Kurdish minority. Living in the United States, I’ve always mistrusted patriotism, the “last refuge of scoundrels,” as a club used by war-mongering politicians to pound the population into submission.

But I set those thoughts aside long enough to join in the fun, and was rewarded with yet another come-from-behind-victory by Turkey in the final minute of the final overtime. In fact, droves of fans had started to leave the arena, resigned to defeat, when an “impossible” Turkey goal tying the score brought them streaming back in to celebrate. Minutes later, Turkey won the sudden-death, penalty-kick playoff, and the place erupted in singing and cheering that was still going on when we boarded our boat 20 minutes later. The man on the left in the picture below was crying those tears of joy for most of those 20 minutes.

The party continued on the boat with boisterous group singing, and when the leaders noticed that the passengers on the other ferry boat boarding next to us were relatively quiet, they shouted over and were soon leading them in songs as well.

Three nights later Jesse and I were back in the arena again to see Turkey go for another miracle, this time against the heavily favored Germany. The Turks had sustained a series of injuries and their goalie was sitting out a two-game penalty, so they came into this semi-final match badly depleted. Despite that, they played well, outhustling Germany most of the way, and with the score knotted at 1-1 until Germany managed to go ahead with just a few minutes left. Another miracle was in order, and again Turkey delivered with a game-tying goal that was so beautiful even I could recognize its brilliance. Unfortunately, the joy was short-lived, as Germany answered with yet another goal and held on to win.

I had of course wondered how this “fanatic” crowd would handle defeat. To beat Germany would have been especially sweet, as Turkey has often found itself in a subservient role to the Gremans. It was the German archaeologist Heinrich Schlieman who plundered the ruins at Troy. Germans are the #1 tourists in Turkey, and many Turks have immigrated to Germany for work, where they are often treated as second-class citizens. So, yes, a natural rivalry.

So I was surprised to see that the fans took it all in stride. They were disappointed, but seemed rather philosophical about it all, more mature than a lot of baseball fans I know. And though Turks do drink wine and beer, and beer was on sale in the arena, there didn’t seem to be that same need to get drunk to root for your team, or any great anger at the other team when they lost. I, on the other hand, was really mad at Germany and glad Spain beat them in the finals.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


I know I can be cynical with the best of them, but the truth is I tend to like people, which certainly makes travel more enjoyable. As a former French major and hopeless Francophile, I often find myself defending (sincerely) the French people against the standard criticisms. I’m not being a snob. Though they’re more formal and not as gregarious as some people and, yes, proud of their culture, the French I’ve known have been friendly and kind and quite intelligent.

I recall fondly, for example, sharing dinner (Spring 2007) in the apartment of a Parisian home exchange family whose teenage son we were going to host in New York. The food and wine were, not surprisingly, excellent, as was the conversation (all in French and, yes, mine is admittedly rusty). I was especially impressed by the father who prepared the duck and told us all about the recipe, and likewise could discuss the wines at length. Pretty standard in France, but as the topics veered from music to literature to politics to travel, he spoke about every subject with enthusiasm and intelligence. The punch line is that he’s a cop. A chief homicide detective, but still…. And that’s what I like about the French.

So I prefer to let people surprise me, which of course leads me to Istanbul and the Turks.

Backtrack to the week before my departure: I’m in the office of my orthopedist having my sprained hip flexor tendon checked out before leaving town. He asks where I’m going and I say Turkey. He’s astonished that I would want to do such a thing. Why go to Turkey? They’re nasty there. They lie, they steal, they cheat. They just want your money. Not a good country.

Did I mention that he’s Greek? And I’m guessing in his late 60s? Apparently the Greek-Turk rivalry is finally fading, at least among the young, but this otherwise intelligent man was convinced the Turks were a lost cause.

And of course when you travel in the most touristy areas, you have to contend with all the cheats and hustlers a culture can produce, be you in Beijing or Paris, Istanbul or Moscow. Taking the bus into town from Ataturk Airport, I paid for three 9 lira tickets with two 20s, and was given only 3 lira change. When I pointed this out, the guy pretended that he hadn’t noticed that the bills I gave him were both 20s. Yeah, right. Likewise, touristy restaurants in Istanbul are known to add hidden charges to bills and pull a variety of bait and switch tactics. So it is easy to have a bad experience that can sour you on the whole trip, but if you’re wise you’ll keep things in perspective. I know whereof I speak, having managed to have a great time in China after getting my $2,000 video camera stolen in Beijing.

Now (finally) to the point: the people in Istanbul were great! Except for a couple of hustlers, we were treated very well indeed by friends and strangers. We had the great fortune of being hosted by the incredible Fatma and her cordial husband Ayhan, our home exchange partners who will be visiting us in New York next year. This was a non-simultaneous exchange, with them staying elsewhere while we occupied their house and played with their cat and dog. But Fatma was ubiquitous, showing us around town, taking us to the arena twice to see Turkey in the European Cup (see next post), hosting a dinner party for us on her patio with ten of her friends, helping us shop for anything we needed, leading us and our friends and her friends on a cruise up the Bosporus for dinner in a fishing village at the mouth of the Black Sea. Fatma is a doctor twice over, an eye surgeon and a doctor of forensics who works for the court. Walk down the street with her and it seems on every block she knows someone or has a friend who runs this store or restaurant. We’ve had some wonderful home exchange experiences, but she certainly wins the first-place prize as our most ingratiating host. We’re already intimidated trying to figure out how we’re going to match her efforts when she and Ayhan come our way.

As many of you have no doubt heard me say far too often, this is the second great advantage of home exchange (the first being money). You get to meet people who aren’t trying to sell you something. Through Fatma we met and hung out with about twenty people from Istanbul. I’ll write more about my impressions of the city in a future post, but if there’s a Turkish stereotype, so far it’s definitely a positive one.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

And now the audio!

They don't make it so easy to embed audio into Blogspot, but we finally figured it out. So now you can listen to The Four Lads sing Istanbul, not Constantinople!

Monday, July 7, 2008


Barcamp! Beer and margaritas, right? Well, that’s what I thought when I was invited to participate in OSI’s Youth Initiative barcamp in Istanbul on the weekend of June 21st. Just to be sure, however, I double-checked the truthiness of this assumption with our good friend Wikipedia:

“BarCamp is an international network of user-generated conferences — open, participatory workshop-events, whose content is provided by participants — often focusing on early-stage web applications, and related open source technologies, social protocols, and open data formats.... The name "BarCamp" is a playful allusion to the event's origins, with reference to the hacker slang term, foobar."

So that’s a barcamp, all camp, zero beer. Damn!

But what’s OSI? Here’s some background for those of you out of the loop:

OSI is George Soros’ Open Society Institute, and the reason I’m in Turkey. OSI promotes democracy (the “open society”) internationally, though it originally targeted the ex-Soviet countries and is still most active there. The Youth Initiative division coordinates a major debate program known as IDEA (International Debate Education Association) and more recently a related Youth Media / Citizen Journalism program. I’ve done work for IDEA for about eight years, including two weeks in Russia in 2001, and during the past two and a half years I’ve gotten Bloomfield College CAT (Creative Arts & Technology) students involved in teaching the new media part (audio, video, web) of the Citizen Journalism program. More on that when we get to Dikili next week, but here are the links for more info:
Citizen Journalism
CAT International

At a barcamp, unlike an academic conference, pretty much anyone can show up and present, and when you’re not presenting you have four or five choices of presentations to attend. Most of them take the form of PowerPoint presentations, but with more time for group discussion. I did a presentation on Citizen Journalism for a handful of people, but for me it was most valuable learning from the group what situations they faced in countries as separated as Russia, Macedonia, and Uganda.

Nearly 100 people attended from over 25 countries, with about 60 presentations given over a two-day period. Topics ranged from using cell phones for political action to mobilizing youth in countries where dissent quickly lands you in jail. One misconception we Americans tend to have is that the ex-Soviet countries are all more or less democratic, when in fact 19 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, remnants of the KGB are alive and well in such countries as Moldova, Kazakhstan, and Turkmenistan. I attended a presentation by a political activist from Belarus, wwo listed the following political crimes in her country:

1. Administrative liability—Huge fines and up to 25 days in prison just for "swearing in public," a standard accusation used as a pretext to detain political activists right before a planned demonstration.
2. Criminal liability— Become a member of an unregistered organization (i.e, a "democratic organization") and you can get up to 3 years in jail. For "defamation of the Republic of Belarus and the Government" you risk up to 5 years in jail.
3. Deprivation of the right to earn money and feed the family — Every employee is on a contract lasting 1-3 years, which the administration can stop renewing with the activist with no reasons given. The contract system is used to harass the employees who, for example, won’t take part in the election forgeries, or won’t vote in advance during the ‘Presidential elections.’
4. Deprivation of the right to receive education — Students involved in political activities can be expelled . Applicants can enter some majors (mass media, law, etc.) only with the permissions of the Ideology Department of the local Executive Committees.
5. Persecution of relatives — Children are expelled from universities or the relatives are threatened to be fired if the activist does not "calm down."

Her question to us was: how can she mobilize youth when they are afraid and/or apathetic? No one had an answer to that one.

Freedom of speech and civil liberties are still issues right here in Turkey, and have become a bone of contention in regards to Turkey’s application for admission to the European Union. This was brought home to me as I prepared to give my talk on Citizen Journalism. My plan had been to show video clips of work created by students at last summer’s Citizen Journalism institute in Duino, Italy. However, all video on the IDEA web site is actually embedded YouTube video, meaning that the actual file resides on YouTube’s server. And guess what: YouTube is blocked in Turkey, so there I was giving a presentation about media work with no media to show. But if you’re interested, here’s my presentation, which is basically just an outline of what I talked about:

Just as Istanbul was good prep for spending six weeks in Turkey, attending Barcamp was good prep for spending three weeks in Dikili, working eight hours a day with students from 27 countries.

Catching Up

This blog is essentially a travel diary, so I suppose I should be writing things down with some regularity. The reality, however, is that we’re so busy that at the end of the day there’s little time or energy to start blogging. The good news is that this usually means we’re having a great time. I’m now two weeks behind schedule, but determined to catch up.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Cultural History

In case you didn't get the esoteric reference in the title of my first post, here's the explanation. Hope you find it as weird as I do.


"Istanbul" 1953

Words by Jimmy Kennedy Music by Nat Simon

"It's Istanbul, not Constantinople now ...." Leave it to Tin Pan Alley to turn centuries of ethnic and religious struggles into a catchy ditty. This song, although copyrighted by Kennedy and Simon, is a direct descendant of the humourous piece, "Al-Bar the Bubul Emir" that could be found in the pages of "Captain Billy's Whizbang," an early 20th century precursor to "Mad Magazine."
[But popularized by The Four Lads and even recorded by They Might Be Giants.--jt]


Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Now it's Turkish delight on a moonlit night

Every gal in Constantinople
Lives in Istanbul, not Constantinople
So if you've a date in Constantinople
She'll be waiting in Istanbul

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can't say
People just liked it better that way

So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works
That's nobody's business but the Turks

Istanbul (Istanbul)
Istanbul (Istanbul)

Even old New York was once New Amsterdam
Why they changed it I can't say
People just liked it better that way

Istanbul was Constantinople
Now it's Istanbul, not Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works
That's nobody's business but the Turks

So take me back to Constantinople
No, you can't go back to Constantinople
Been a long time gone, Constantinople
Why did Constantinople get the works
That's nobody's business but the Turks