13 October, 2007

Şeker screwup, Turkish sea life, and The Godfather

It's raining, really raining. Even better than the sound of the light, steady rain outside is the occasional roil of thunder. I even saw a white flash in the thick cloud cover as I made breakfast this morning. I hope this is a sign the rainy season in this parched country will actually be rainy this year. I made my first cultural faux pas yesterday.

Apparently in addition to marking the end of Ramadan, some people treat Şeker Bayrami like Halloween. Yesterday morning the bird call that is the doorbell sounded to indicate someone wanted to get in the building. A few minutes later I heard the voices of a man and children in the stairwell before the bird chirped again. There stood a very nice man and his four children. He smiled, but looked unsure what to do next when I stammered out my greeting in Turkish. He asked and gestured if anyone else, hopefully Turkish-speaking, was home. I assumed he was asking for one of my roommates and I said no and thinking he knew one of introduced myself and invited them in, which seemed to confuse both he and the kids. He wished me a good Bayram and, still smiling, gathered the kids and headed down the stairs. A while later it dawned on me that what they were probably doing was Bayram trick-or-treating, which left me feeling like those annoying people on your block as a kid who either didn't have candy, but left their porch light on, or the equally annoying box raisins or apple distributors. I knew the tradition dictates you give children sweets on the day, I just didn't realize they came looking for them. I'm sure the kids got their sugar fix elsewhere. I have no one here to ask about this today, but I'm pretty sure I'm right.

So, I am finishing breakfast and studying my Turkish by watching a little Sponge Bob Square Pants in Turkish . Sadly, the powers that be did not bother to dub the theme song in Turkish. I have to admit hearing Patrick the dopey starfish use my favorite Turkish word - Saçmalama (Stop this crazy talk!) - made me giggle.

Other than Turkish-speaking sea life, the oddest thing I've noticed is the how often I've been hearing the theme from the film The Godfather in the last few days. A few nights ago a car on our tiny street blasted their horn, which actually played the iconic first few bars of the theme. My inner-child, who still thinks El Caminos and musical horns are cool, was impressed. Actually, I remember hearing a horn that played Dixie in Damascus, so, I guess it's not that strange. Then yesterday while walking İstiklal Caddesi I passed a man selling wind-up toys. One of them, a bird, actually twittered the same famous opening notes, which seemed like an odd choice for a child's toy, but then again, I don't have children.


12 October, 2007

İyi Bayramlar

A few photos posted over at Flickr....

The city was far from deserted today with the holiday. However, I was able to stroll leisurely across the six tight lanes of Cumhurriyet Avenue outside of the crosswalk, which is rather remarkable.

I stopped in to the New Mosque at about the time for the Friday service and decided to stay. I got annoyed at having to sit behind a screen, especially because I ended up next to a woman who decided to give me a full lesson on proper prayer technique a la Turk. Since we quickly figured out that my broken Turkish wouldn't do, she simply took to yanking my various parts into the proper position. At one point I really longed to know the phrase, "Give it a rest, Bob Fosse," in Turkish. She left before I could thank her. I must say that Yeni Cami smelled distinctly more like feet this time around, but it could have simply been the presence of thousands of them around me.

I paid my first visit to the Rüstem Paşa Mosque, layered in blue Iznik tiles. It's upstairs from the street filled with vendors, which means the traffic is far less than at other mosques, which is nice. The cool blue and white of the tiles and the cozy size, not to mention a very friendly caretaker, make it one of my favorites.

I wandered up the hill to the Süleymaniye Mosque, which is lovely, with deeply colored jewel-like windows and beautiful circular tile works with Arabic script flanking the mihrab. The main dome is either being painted or restored with a jewel motif covering most of it. I tried to walk in with my shoes in hand, as is usually done, only to have the guard at the entrance try to tell me otherwise in broken English. He was a bit embarrassed when I responded to him in Turkish, told him not to worry and that I live here. We shared a smile and he shrugged, as if to indicate he'd had a long day of directing first-time mosque visitors. I wished him a good Bayram when I left and he wished me the same.

Karaköy was empty, save the cats. As I stood photographing a doorway to a church, listening to Max Roach on my headphones, I completely missed the young security guard that had walked out of his building to see what I was up to. Seeing him in my peripheral vision made me laugh as I jerked a bit. We had a perfunctory, but pleasant, conversation before I headed towards the ferry docks.


11 October, 2007

Thoughts on the Armenian Resolution

My roommate and I watched the House committee vote on the Armenian resolution live on Turkish television last night at about midnight. The non-binding resolution passed 27-21 and is supposed to go to the full House next and then on to the Senate.

I've seen the photos, the maps outlining deportations and camps and they are horrific and certainly seem to illustrate killing on such a scale as could not take place without some official system. I can certainly understand how any of the remaining survivors would want, finally, the Turkish government and the rest of the world to say "This happened to you."

If this was happening today, I would hope all governments could find effective means to stop it. Certainly, 92 years ago every government failed the Armenians. Ambassadors and others on hand and who may have had sway with their governments knew what was happening, reported it, yet no one stopped it. But, what does it mean for the government of the modern Turkish state to admit to a genocide committed by the Ottoman Empire?

And while many of my Turkish friends agree that the issue needs to be brought into the open and discussed, they see the issue as one for Turkey and Armenia to deal with and not foreign governments to demand. In some ways I agree, not quite understanding how these resolutions will change things for the better. Indeed, it seems forcing change on this issue only gives power to the very ultra-nationalists who want to keep it hidden in the dark of the past. One could also look at some of the countries, mine included, demanding that Turkey pull the issue into the light of examination. France has only recently begun to deal with the horrors wrought upon Algeria during the colonial era and the bloody war for its independence. In the U.S. the story of one of the world's greatest mass killings, that of the native peoples of the Americas, still usually only gets a brief mention in most schools. Academics and theorists who raise the issue of the US genocide against native peoples as the root from which the violent cycles of US culture and history grew from are often called unpatriotic or quacks, at best.

Not being Turkish, not being any sort of nationalist, perhaps I'll never understand. One confusing aspect for me is that this happened during the dying days of the Ottoman Empire, not under the auspices of Ataturk or the modern Turkish nation. Why not use this episode to show how far the nation has come? I've read part of the difficulty is in the notion of a unified Turkishness - there are no Armenians, Greeks, Kurds, only Turks. This is the same issue plaguing the Kurdish issue. Differences are seen by many as weaknesses, cracks in the foundation. There are people here who call for a change, for the country to begin to celebrate its many cultures, to see variety as a strength. Of course, the same issue is being argued in reverse by many in my home country. After years of celebrating our many cultures, our own ultra-nationalists are pushing for people to see the "others" in the US as threats to security, economy, personal safety, and "American culture", whatever that phrase means.

Things like this cannot, should not, stay buried. Yet even for some of those here who take the risk of calling it genocide, this is an issue to be decided by the two countries involved. Most notable and tragic of those being Turkish-Armenian journalist Hrant Dink, who was murdered early this year in front of the offices of his newspaper after calling the killings a genocide. He firmly believed it was genocide, did not agree with the interventions by foreign governments in the issue. In the days after his murder over 100,000 people marched in the streets here chanting "We are all Armenians." However, the Turkish government recently shut down YouTube after music videos appeared in which a Turkish singer insinuated that Dink got what he deserved and bearing images of his body on the ground shortly after his murder. The trial of the young man charged in the case begins soon.

Then there is the stifling Article 301 of the Turkish penal code, which makes it illegal to "insult Turkishness", that is now well known for snaring Nobel prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk and author Elif Safak, who both faced significant jail time. Safak was charged under the code for simply having a character in her novel call the Armenian murders a genocide. Pamuk was only acquitted on a technicality, had to be provided a security detail after Dink's murder, and, rumor has it, has relocated to New York City for good. Europe is calling for the code to be repealed as part of Turkey's talks for joining the EU.

As with the current situation in Sudan, my stomach churns with all this discussion and debate over a word while people are starved, raped, and butchered. Mass killing, genocide, crime against humanity...Whatever you want to call it, people are dying, have died, and will die. Instead of spending time debating whether these horrors fit the criteria, I wish those in power would spend more time developing effective responses to end the violence and help the victims.

Supposedly the Nazis highlighted the fact that the world forgot about the Armenian victims when discussing their plans against Europe's Jews. There point was that no one would act against them, nothing would be done, because no one had stood for the Armenians in 1915. Sadly, they were right, and, in the beginning, few people in power stood for the Jews. That seems to be the sad constant with genocides across history and into today - it can be identified and classified like a specimen, but no one knows quite what to do with it. Some call the Armenian victims "The Forgotten Genocide". Sadly, it seems, too many victims of similar horrors are forgotten in the end.


PS: If you want to read an excellent and enraging work on a modern genocide, I suggest We Regret to Inform You, But Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda, by Philip Gourevitch.

10 October, 2007

Bayram and Turkey in the News

It's been a week of anticipation in Turkey, not all of it good.

Şeker Bayrami, translated as the sweet festival, is scheduled for Friday and will mark the ended of the holy month of Ramadan. There are plenty of people not fasting, but everybody fasted for Kadir Gecesi, or The Night of Power, earlier this week. That day commemorates the initial Quranic revelation to Muhammad. I was in training at the language school I'll be working for and the trainer was fasting for the first time and we weren't quite sure she'd make it. As far as we know, she did. I shared iftar, literally break fast, with my roommates at the apartment. One of them has gone home to the Black Sea coast for the holiday weekend. A lot of people will be in-transit over the next few days, heading home to visit their families, with bus lines and airlines sold out. I've heard a few complaints that because Bayram falls on Friday the holiday is much shorter than last year's.

Every night the major stations broadcast special programing as sunset and iftar approaches, on boats, at mosques, usually surrounded by crowds of worshipers waiting to share one of the communal iftars held throughout the city. The programs usually include music and lovely Quranic recitations before everyone digs in and the lights adorning the minarets are switched on.

Unfortunately, the week hasn't been all about gearing up for Bayram. The two major news stories here have been the deaths of 15 Turkish soldiers in attacks by the militants factions of the PKK (Kurdish Worker Party) and the possible passage by the US House of Representatives foreign affairs committee of a non-binding resolution calling the deportations and of countless Armenians (600,000 to 1.5 million), in what was then the Ottoman Empire in the years prior to World War I, a genocide.

Bush&Co have put on a show against the resolution, calling for US House to stay out of it and allow the Turkish and Armenian governments to sort this out themselves. The topic is extremely taboo here. Novelist Elif Şafak was charged under the infamous article 301 of the Turkish penal code ("insulting Turkishness") simply for having a character in a novel call the murders a genocide.

The deaths of the 15 soldiers have helped renew the call by some for military action across the Iraqi border into Iraqi Kurdistan, where the PKK militants are said to be taking refuge. As I've mentioned in the past, people here don't want a war, but they are angry at what they feel is the unfair treatment of Turkey by the U.S. government, who seems to have put the issue of foreign fighters in Kurdistan on the back burner during most of the Iraq war. As one Turkish friend pointed out to me, "So, the US can take care of their problems, but we can't take care of ours?"

The renewed call for military action into Iraq and the dispute over the resolution seem to be a bad combination for the US government. There are rumors that Incirlik airbase near Adana, which is of major importance for supplying US forces in Iraq, would be closed to the US.

In response to the killings this week, Turkey has begun bombing suspected PKK positions. And tonight there was word of a grenade attack on a police vehicle in Diyarbakir that killed a child. Not such a sweet holiday season after all.