The End of an Era: Censure of Neutral Politics in Turkey

By now we’ve all heard of the most recent bout of witch hunts in Turkey, this time rooting out “supporters” of the July 16 coup attempt.  Campaigns in the past have almost always targeted extreme liberals and Gulenists (former supporters of President Erdogan tossed out of favor in a power struggle/split within the AKP a few years back). But this time it’s different.

Up until yesterday I was working part time editing news and articles for a politically-neutral internationally-oriented think tank based in Ankara. I was going to pick up payment for editing (and visit everyone with the baby) after her one month checkup at the nearby Gazi University hospital on July 19.  But after hearing fighter jets screeching overhead all right and moving our plane tickets forward two weeks I decided to bring her to the local family clinic instead of Gazi (Dikmen doesn’t have anything interesting enough for anyone to bomb and certainly I wasn’t going to run into any government-orchestrated street protests on my way past chatty grandmothers sitting on their stoops while walking to the clinic) and asked them to transfer the money to my husband’s bank account.

The last piece I edited was a brief condemnation of the coup intended for the website.  I didn’t receive anything last week, but I was too busy running around (and catching up on sleep) to really take much notice.  I assumed the head editor assumed I was busy with crossing continents, or the organization had become very busy with something following the coup attempt.  But payment was pretty late, so yesterday I e-mailed asking what was happening and saying that I was settled in and ready to start editing again.

But apparently USAK was shut down by the government last week: their bank accounts seized, the USAK house seized by the police.  A ten-year organization headed by a former ambassador, staffed by experts who also act as advisors to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, focused on international/Turkey-external affairs, and committed to taking a pragmatic neutral stance working for the interests of Turkey and giving Turkey a greater stake in international dialogues.  This was not a partisan organization: regardless of the views of individuals working within the organization or howevermuch anyone might have wanted to criticize (or praise) the reigning government, they took great pains to remain objective and neutral.  This also wasn’t an organization examining Turkey’s inner politics (or really Turkish politics at all); while some research concerned Turkey’s involvement in international affairs or relation to external actors, and certainly some dialogue pushed to create a space for Turkey at the international table (such as hosting panel discussions on the roles of Turkey and the EU in relation to the Syrian refugee crisis), the people working at USAK never strayed into internal politics.  So an organization unrelated to the Gulenist movement holding a neutral-party stance and not even focusing on internal issues or Turkish politics in any form was shut down by the government in an anti-terrorist supporter sweep.

This is what actually scares me.  More than fighter jets flying overhead, more than protesters being tear-gassed on the streets, more than Gulenist schools being closed and graduates of Gulenist schools being fired from their jobs, more than closure of news outlets taking a stance critical of the government or having police armed with assault weapons and bulletproof vests sipping tea and giving directions with a smile on every downtown corner.  Because if the government will go after an organization that has not been but might, possibly, be slightly critical of it by being neutral  – if taking a neutral stance in and of itself is viewed as criticism – then I have very, very little hope for the political recovery of the country.



Formulaic Pre-Wedding Celebrations: Turkish Henna Night

DSC_0061First off, I realize it’s been a really long time since I’ve posted anything – like a month.  I’m still in Ankara, still waiting for the baby, and still have things to talk about 🙂  However, I’ve also been really busy this past month – despite not going to USAK every day.  Lots of classes, lots of editing – and, quite honestly, after editing any more than 4,000 words in a day I really don’t want to open my computer again.  But the pace of everything is slowing down – only 10 pages to edit and one class to give today! – and you’ll probably see more posts as the summer progresses (provided I’m not, you know, completely swamped by being both a PT editor and a brand new FT parent).

So, Henna Night (Kina Gecesi):

Last Friday I accompanied one of my sister-in-laws on a ‘picnic field trip’ outside of Ankara organized by her work unit (a Hanim Locale/State-run Woman’s Club – somewhat similar to the original YWCAs in that, for a minimal annual fee, it offers study spaces and classes in everything from interior design and painting to English to step aerobics to cooking and jewelry making).  On the trip (which should be another post, if only because it involves a disco-bus) I was invited to the wedding – and all the pre-wedding celebrations – of one of her younger co-workers.  The hamam night had already passed, but this Tuesday saw “Henna Night”.

DSC_0075Now Henna Night is a traditional Turkish pre-wedding celebration, basically a preparing of and sending off of the bride involving dancing, singing, cookie nibbling and pressing of henna into the bride and groom’s hands.  Apparently (nearly) everybody still has a henna night, and the locale where the event was held was actually a “Kina Konagi” (Henna Konak – Konak being an architectural term describing traditional Ottoman structures) in the revitalized HamamOnu neighborhood.

But what was lacking was authenticity.  It was one of those events that seems done and carried through simply because this is the way things are done, and not because the actions continue to carry any significance for the participants and organizers.  It was almost as if we were spectators in a carefully planned – but somewhat empty – program, watching rather than creating the event.  Guests came, kissed cheeks, sat; there was music (electronic, from speakers propped up by the door) and dances led by four professional dancers in gypsy-Ottoman costumes.  The bride-to-be was henna’d and surrounded by a circle of women with their smart phones out; everyone gathered for photographs and sipped from juice boxes. But the event seemed to lack body, like it wasn’t a natural internally-originated expression from those attending.

And a Post-Wedding Update:

Mygod, the wedding was boring.

There, now I’ve gotten that off my chest. Like the henna night, the wedding felt formulaic – although even more lacking in substance and active audience participation.

The wedding hall was literally on the edge of Ankara, in this wedding complex topping a hill overlooking fields and an outlet mall. But it might have as well been in the city center because all the windows were closed and the tight high-ceilinged hall shone with cold blue lights beaming down from the white chandeliers to bounce off the round mirrors we had in place of placemats. And I thought Kyrgyz weddings were shiny.

We arrived around 7:30.  We sat.  We sat some more.  Other co-workers arrived and we somehow contrived to find a table to fit all of us, though it was at the edge.  The bride and groom descended, the veil was lifted and vows were said – but the sound system was so bad that we couldn’t really hear anything.  And then there was an hour and a half of guests going up (waiting in a line) to give the new couple their congratulations and pin the traditional gold coins.  Inedible appetizers came out (only wedding where I’ve ever been served chicken nuggets…) along with fruit juice and cola.  Then the couple danced and people started to leave. There was a bit of dancing on the small space of open floor, but… this was an alcohol-free wedding.  It’s surprising how little activity can come from one room packed with 450 people. If you’re going to have a wedding, I think ti should at least be fun and at least a partial reflection of the things you enjoy.  I’ll admit, our wedding didn’t include all the elements we would have wanted (we did arrive in Ankara 2 weeks prior), but at least it had more the sense of being a good dinner with people we know and whose company we value.  The purpose of last night’s wedding (judging by when people left and the lack of interaction otherwise) seemed to be to stand in line and pin the gold coin on the bride’s dress. Not my kind of event.  Also, Henna Night was comparatively a lot more fun.


Not Quite Xinjiang’s Security Forces

Urumqi, 2012: after mysterious incomplete news reports of “terrorist activities” hitting small towns in the regions interiors and an unconfirmed gunning at a local police station (The Bachu Incident, A Gentle Comparison) armored vans filled with black-cloaked security personnel supped to the teeth with weapons and bullet-proof (probably bomb-proof) garments became so common across the city we eventually stopped noticing them.  There were armored vans at all the downtown bus stops, at our university entrance, and dozens of gun-swaddling security forces surrounding the central mosques during Friday prayers.  These were not friendly guys – not government employees you might, for example, walk up to and ask about the bus schedules or directions to the nearest post.  In fact, they weren’t people you would walk up to at all – they were there to intimidate, and intimate that they could gun you down at any time.

From the government stance, it was obvious that the state mistrusted the people – and by people here I mean Uyghurs.  Uyghurs residing in Xinjiang tend to lump all Han together as suppressive government supporters, but the fact is that most people in China, regardless of ethnicity, don’t like the government.  Even most people working in the government don’t like the government – and the security forces are probably it’s least popular arm (after the chenguan – the “city management” bureau whose hooliganesque members regularly smash up street stalls).

Anyway – Chinese security forces in Xinjiang: not exactly going to give anyone warm fuzzy feelings.

In Turkey, on the other hand, the police are actual people.

Since the Ankara Bombing(s) they’ve become rather ubiquitous across the central part of the city – white and blue police vans parked in the middle of traffic (to the curses of everyday drivers), cloth-clad police standing on more of the corners.

Every morning now I pass a police minivan and half-a-dozen automatic gun-toting bullet-proof-vest-wearing police officers at the Demir Tepe Bridge.  Usually they’re standing around chatting, joking, catching up on the news.  Today one was ‘standing guard’ at the corner cafe, masticating a toothpick, while his companions lounged at a table in the cafe’s side garden, letting their guard [very much] down as they drank cups of tea.  Whatever your stance is on the reigning party’s politics (or on the police’s parking practices…) they’re definitely a more friendly, fuzzy bunch.  It’s not Xinjiang – and I hope it never will be.

Things I Do Miss About Kyrgyzstan

As much as Kyrgyzstan is not my favorite country (and Bishkek far from my favorite city), there are a few things I miss about living there after a month and a half in Ankara.
(There’s plenty I don’t – the rent, the roads, the graft, the inconsistent Bishkek weather, the constant feel of power competition on the streets and in almost every other situation, the [often lethargic] pace of work).  But, focusing on the positive:
  • No bombs! While you might have to watch your step for fear of falling on the uneven sidewalk (all of my high heels have migrated away from Kyrgyzstan…) or being run over by a red-light running car, you don’t have to be wary about bigger dangers, like car bombs and terrorists (or, to do a US comparison, muggings and shootings).  While there are accounts of ultra radical conservative Islamic groups in the south, there’s barely a trace in the city.  Kyrgyzstan is also [to be honest] too small and too poor to really attract refugees or any but internal migrants – and is thus free of  subsequent social insecurities.  (For comparison, Turkey’s Syrian refugee population is half that of the total population of the entire nation of Kyrgyzstan)

Bishkek Trolley Bus

  • Ease of public transportation:  Bishkek is flat and built (more or less) on a grid, with buses and trolleys that trace all over the city.  It’s basically always possible to get from one corner to another without changing buses.  Ankara’s public transportation scheme looks more like a bicycle wheel, with all spokes meeting in Kizilay.  From where I live it’s literally almost impossible to get anywhere on public transportation without transferring in Kizilay.  I do not, however, miss the madly-bouncing marshrutkasDolmuses here seem to undergo regular tuning and never smell like a men’s sauna.
  • The general benefits of living in a small city: we always know where everything is (even if we can’t find half the things we want), there’s an ease of getting around (not a lot of new roads to navigate), and it never takes long to get anywhere (at least in terms of road length…when the traffic lights are out, or everyone’s just come back from summer vacation on Issyk Kul Bishkek traffic can rival that of any metropolis)
  • Half an hour gets us out of the city and to this:FullSizeRender
  • Meat (it’s cheap!). Kyrgyzstan does have some beautiful natural local meat: mountain brook trout (форель), tender juicy lamb, sizzling beef kebabs.  I miss roasting incik kebab at home – steaming slow-cooked packets of tender meat and spice-infused vegetables.  For those of you new to Bishkek, try the shashlik at Barashek (review with photos here) and the incik kebab at Park Cafe (review here).  Meat is a staple of Turkish cuisine, but it usually comes in smaller portions, mixed inside other dishes, and is quite a bit more expensive..
  • The white cheese made by the Meskhetian Turkish woman at our local bazaar.  It’s basically pressed whole milk yogurt – and it’s delicious. I find the white cheese here tends to be a bit fatty.
  • Frozen chocolate milk.  The Chydo-brand chocolate milk sold at Narodnie (41 som) tastes better than ice cream after an hour in the freezer.
  • Moist dark Russian rye bread.  The “grandfather” brand topped with whole roasted cumin is the best, especially when spread with honey and natural butter, or (again, natural) peanut butter and bazaar-bought raspberry jam.
  • Decaf cappuccinos (and having a cappuccino machine). So far I’ve found decaf at Starbucks – which tastes like dirty acidic water. I do miss being able to buy beautiful cappuccinos (oh, the foam!) at Giraffe Coffee or decaf coffee beans from Sierra to grind at home and use to make cardamom-cinnamon cappuccinos.  While cafes here do serve espresso drinks, it’s really hard to find anything but nescafe and Tukish coffee at the market. SubstandardFullSizeRender
  • The green space, trees, and wild space.  While Bishkek can look rather…unkept, I do miss the broader avenues and green permeating the city.  Parts of Ankara feel like a concrete city, with apartment buildings almost stacked on top of each other, and not enough green space or wild space.

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  • Working in cafes. Ankara cafes are for chatting, not working – few people bring their computers and set up to work for hours, while this is quite the norm in Bishkek.

Ankara in the Sun

On a [much] lighter note, here are some photos of a warm and lively Ankara taken around Tunali during my Saturday street photography class (hosted by the Fuji Film Showroom), including plenty of photos of one very determined toddler stalking pigeons in the park.

For all my nicely edited photos (the ones below aren’t edited, as unfortunately I can’t add photos directly to wordpress from google drive), click here.

Black and White portraits are of one of the photography course instructors (we were supposed to use him as a model while experimenting with depth of field) and some of the other students in the class.

Fragments of Dikmen

My husband’s family has lived in Dikmen for over half a century.  His grandfather built the first apartment building (three floors, two flats on each floor) on the hill.  My mother-in-law recalls their flat being surrounded by old whitewashed houses with red tile roofs and vineyards when she was a child – a sunny hill of green and gardens.

dikmen houses.JPGDikmen’s now a city of cement, vineyards replaced with staggered layers of three and four story apartment blocks all almost identical in their ’90’s style, with a few taller towers rising here and there.  The roads twist and wind, some up the hills and flanked by firs, some roaring with traffic and lined by Burger Kings, chain grocery stores, and household goods shops with discounted wares spilling out onto the sidewalk.

Dikmen is a neighborhood of Fords and Fiats.  It’s primarily a residential area for mid-income office and government workers, a place people return to in the evenings and complete their grocery shopping at on the weekends.  It’s not a place non-residents visit – no great cafes or art galleries or museums or office buildings or trendy hair salons or shopping malls like Or’an to the south or Yildiz and Hosdere across the valley (the Dikmen Vadisi park).  Apart from access to the winding park that lights at night, the most exciting thing I’ve found is the Saturday bazaar.

Dikmen is middle class – but with pockets of poverty and the occasional nicer street with straighter sidewalks and well-trimmed front yards.  Like the rest of urban Ankara, there are very few detached homes – and those I’ve seen are all crumbling old houses.  In some of Ankara’s neighborhoods, around the castle and on the airport road, these dilapidated houses cover whole hills (See “Onek: Old Ankara Slums“); here they’re just scattered in pockets, one of two here and there in places too steep or narrow for new apartment buildings.

dikmen old houseNone of them have been restored, and all of them look like they’re just waiting to fall down and be purchased for larger developments.  For me (coming from a country where we cherish our older architecture) it seems a shame – why doesn’t anyone buy any of these older houses, restore it, and then live in a spacious villa with garden on a hill in the city?  But apparently few of these residences have complete legal building permits and land deeds, which means that they don’t actually fully own their homes and thus perhaps have little incentive to put money into remodeling them.

Anyway, after a week of residing in Ankara without plans (between the rush of getting my residence permit and the upcoming business of work starting next week), and a few too many walks through the neighborhood, Dikmen is decidedly boring.

Exploring Turkish Cuisine: What Exactly is a Kebab?

Originally posted on another blog I run here, but I thought my readers on Mountains and The Sea might need some appetizing weekend inspiration.


Two types of Kebab: Adana (back) and Beyti (front)

In the US we tend to think of a “kebab” as a grilled food on a stick: sizzling sliced of red meat and onions over the charcoals, vegetable kebabs, Hawaiian kebabs with speared pineapples and fish.  In most of Western Europe it’s sliced meat in a pita. But in Turkey you will encounter plenty of things called a kebab that look nothing like what I described above.  The meat may not be skewered; there may not even be a grill; there’s often not a pita.  In fact, some Turkish kebabs, like Tesli Kebabi, come in a baked clay bowl and look more like a stew.  Others, like the simit kebab, are sliced and wrapped in lavash under a dressing of sour yogurt.


Traditional Çöp Şiş


So what exactly is a Turkish kebab?

When you think of a kebab, the image that comes to mind is probably that of  Shish kebabs (Çöp Şiş or şiş kebap in Turkish) or shashlik (mixed meat and vegetables skewered and grilled).  But those are only two variations of kebabs. Kebab itself actually refers to a type of meat preparation – usually.  Continue reading

Top 5 Things to do in Ankara — Off the Beaten Path

Ankara isn’t the most tourist-friendly city, and it doesn’t have the endless unexplored possibilities of other cities I’ve lived in (like Guangzhou, Urumqi or Beijing), but there’s still a decent amount you can find poking around (plus I like her upbeat account).

Adventures in Ankara

I have hesitated to write a Top 5 “to do” list of my favorite places in Ankara.  The reason?  I am not a “usual” type of girl. The things I like to see and do will also be enjoyed by most of you, but most are NOT the typical places you will find on a typical list of sightseeing in Ankara.  I find it hard to walk in a straight line on any given day, and therefore, I prefer to walk off of the beaten path.

1- Enjoy Nature – In a city with a population of about 4.5 million people, the last thing one would expect to see is a lot of grass and trees, not to mention lakes.  But it’s always possible!  In Ankara, my absolute favorite place is Eymir Gölü.  In 1956, 45 square kilometers of land, including this lake, was given to Middle East Technical…

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How to Survive Delays and Cancellations with Turkish Airlines in Ankara

Yesterday we got to the airport an hour and a half before the first leg of our flight (Ankara-Istanbul at 10 to be followed Istanbul-Bishkek at 12:50am). Turkish airports are generally pretty quick – with an hour and a half we’d usually be lounging around the departure lounge for at least half an hour. But instead when we got to the airport we were informed that we couldn’t board, because our first plane was delayed, we would miss the second, and the people at the check-in desk had no idea what was happening. Their advice: wait. So we did, for five minutes, and then we asked again and were told to go to ticket sales to change our tickets.
Keep in mind that, even if you are told to wait, you must document having tried to check in at least an hour before your flight in order to be eligible for any compensation.
At the ticket sales counter we waited, and waited, and were finally told by a very nervous man that the next Istanbul-Bishkek flight was the next day at 6pm. We could either take our original flight to Istanbul and be in Istanbul overnight, or take a flight the next day from Ankara. As he couldn’t provide us with any details about compensation, transportation and accommodation (Turkish Airlines was beginning to resemble the country’s infamous bureaucracy of the 90’s when a simple paperwork procedure required a hundred steps and no one knew anything beyond their own narrow sphere of duties), we decided to stay in Ankara overnight as at least we had the option of calling E’s brother to drive us back.
The single person on duty to handle passenger compensation was located at D40, under Anadolu Jet (a subsidiary of Turkish Airlines). Note: they didn’t speak any English. But there were plenty of “Turkish Airlines Passenger Rights” on the counter. For passengers whose flights are delayed less than eight hours, basically all the airline will give you is food and beverages. But if your flight is delayed more than eight hours (or has to be rebooked, as ours was), the airline is obligated to provide you with accommodation and transportation to and from accommodation (along with meals). Considering that E’s home is an hour away from the airport, his brother had already driven 2 hours, and our new flight was at 2pm (so we’d go home, shower, sleep, eat breakfast and drive back to the aiport) we decided to take the hotel. We waited another twenty minutes or so, asked again, and were finally taken on a shuttle to the Ibis Hotel five minutes down the street. Small rooms, but perfectly functional and clean.
So, if your Turkish Airlines flight is messed up:
– Ask. Keep asking. If the person you are talking to doesn’t know what to do, ask them who does.
– Make sure your attempt to check in is documented at least an hour before your flight
– Ask for all your options (if we had opted to take our flight to Istanbul and the Istanbul-Bishkek flight exactly 24 hours later, we could have had a day to sightsee in Istanbul)
– Keep asking to make sure they know you are waiting for you shuttle bus/a solution and don’t just forget about you sitting there.

Gobit Doner: Turkish Burgers!

Tuesday afternoon we trekjed through the snow and sludge to Vaga’s ((right next to Kitir and Üst Kat in Tunalı) to sample their famed (and slightly overpriced) Gobit Döner.
Gobit Döner is basically sliced doner meat (what we call gyro meat in the US) layered on oven-fresh bread with tomatoes, lettuce and…french fries. I thought mine a bit dry, and would have prefered the french fries substituded out for sliced onions and the meat topped with Haydarı or another garlicy yogurt-based sauce. [localimage 128193275][localimage 128193346]

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