Archive for March, 2012

  • City Sketcher

    March 31st, 2012

     © Samantha Zaza

    One of the things I wanted to do when I started this site was to provide sketches of city life. Before launching I worked furiously for a couple of hours every day, honing my skills. But I’m not there yet, and will continue to rely on my photographic skills in order to present the visual component of most of my stories for the time being.

    © Samantha Zaza

    That’s why I want to take the time to introduce you to a terrific artist we have working away right here in Istanbul already providing incredible glimpses into the beauty and mystery of this city and others. You may have noticed her site Harika (meaning wonderful, fantastic, incredible … in Turkish) listed on the blog roll to your right before today, but I really hope you’ll visit it — that’s why I’ve stopped myself at just three of her sketches. The thing I really like about Ms. Zaza’s work is that she’s a fantastic story-teller. In every sketch of hers there’s something interesting going on, something that suggests a grander, ongoing plot to me. You can feel her characters, her streets with a single glimpse.

    Sketches are also fascinating for what the artist omits. It’s not just about technical skill, it’s about mood, giving just enough to suggest or make the two-dimensional come alive. If you ask me, her work does just that, each line, each brush stroke gives a vivid impression.

    © Samantha Zaza

    I hope to get the opportunity sometime in the near future to put down my camera and work with Ms. Zaza on a project or two. Until then we’re all fortunate to have her site Harika. Check it out. 

  • Istanbul’s new chanteuse

    March 29th, 2012


    Istanbul is a tough mistress. Even if she loves you, she doesn’t make life easy. Whether you’re Turkish or yabanci (foreigner) she doesn’t really mind. I often think of Istanbul as a wonderful muse with a mean right hook. But if you continue to love her, and treat her like the empress she is, she might just grant you her favor.

    Thanks to plenty of love the Empress is becoming an international city again, as she was in Ottoman times. She’s attracting talent from within and from without. That’s why last night I was fantastically pleased to see my friend Fleur and her group Odylle take the stage at Ghetto to celebrate the release of their debut album, Istanbul Bana Ne Yaptin? (what did you do to me?).


    Fleur O. Van Wijck came to Istanbul to do her masters degree at Bogaziçi University — which she completed with top honors — and not lacking in any energy, talent or ambition went on to join with a formidable group of Turkish musicians to create her first album.

    It hasn’t always been easy for them, but, last night it seemed to me, moving from the tiny cramped stage where I first saw them perform two years ago, they’ve triumphed magnificently. Congratulations, Odylle. It’s only beginning.

    ISTANBUL BANA NE YAPTIN? is on sale now. Available from iTunes, and
    your local music shop (which I encourage you to support).

  • Accidental Patterns

    March 27th, 2012


    What is it that makes something beautiful? Is it when it suggests something to you which creates a pattern in your head? Is it about achieving symmetry, or is it asymmetrical? Is it an accident or something you can create? I wonder. I’m inclined to think the most beautiful things are discovered by an accident. Is beauty created, or discovered. No matter how genius an artist or scientist is, I’m of the belief that they stumble along to find the patterns in life and highlight them. How many accidents have found happy conclusions? I think it’s when we’re forced to look at something a different way that a beautiful new truth is discovered.


    Pythagoras, the mathematician, mystic and ‘lover of wisdom’, believed there was a pattern to nature, and is often credited with discovering musical scale. Little is truly known about the man, but still he was one of the first people in recorded history to try to demonstrate an intelligent (or perhaps intelligible?) design in nature.

    For me, beauty is something to seek, but it requires some quirk to it in order to make it interesting. The paradox for me is that symmetrical perfection isn’t perfect. But maybe that’s because the notion of symmetry and beauty are often overlapped. Perhaps this is the work of mathematicians and musicians. Nature seems mathematical, and yet is that simply us trying to impose a code we — or the mathematically inclined at least — can understand upon nature?


    I’m not sure human beings can handle perfection. Being such imperfect, immature creatures, there’s nothing for us to do with perfection but destroy it. I don’t mean that in a bleak way, I just mean that I think we’re designed to improve what we have. Perhaps it’s not even in us yet to recognize perfection.


    Nobody builds something to decay, and yet the way something oxidizes often creates a new beauty. Does nature have a pattern? She certainly seems to like to eat away at anything we try to impose upon her planet. Our attempt to impose order and a pattern is invariably undone by her.


    Where I live there’s a lot of unintentional beauty. It seems to pop up in spite of what some people do, not just because of it. What do you think? What patterns do you see? Are they beautiful, mathematical, harmonious? Is there a Golden Mean? Are we observers? Are we inadvertent creators? Are we seeing what we want to see? And am I talking too much?

    Let me know. I’m listening.

  • The Magic of Turks

    March 26th, 2012

    One of the things I vowed never to do on this blog was a rant. While I believe in an open and democratic internet, despite some of the dangers and pitfalls attached, I also feel there is far too much anger and hatred being voiced.

    That’s why I’d like to take this opportunity to talk about something that’s really touches me powerfully and positively on a daily basis.

    I don’t have to live in Turkey. I choose to. A large part of the reason I stay is the magic of this place. Yes, there are many difficulties in this land, and life is incredibly hard for a considerable portion of the population. Still, I count myself lucky to be here. That’s largely because of the mix of people who surround me, be they Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, Turkish, Turkish-Kurdish, Turkish-Armenian, Turkish-Greek …  I could go on, but you get the point.

    Since becoming a parent, I’m reminded on a daily basis of the fantastic kindness shown by the overwhelming majority of people in this country, be they rich or poor, minority or mainstream. This is especially true when I’m with my daughter.  Acts of kindness everywhere, in cafes, and on street corners, on the metro and the minibus. The generosity I’ve witnessed, and the love I feel here, especially for children, really moves me.

    One of the reasons I started this website was to share, however insignificant it may seem, my great appreciation for the many kinds of light and warmth I’ve experienced since moving to this enchanted land almost seven years (light years, it often seems) ago.

    I work hard to share that appreciation with everyone. The only person I ever intend to mock, or make a joke of on this blog, is myself.

    However, I do interview people who sometimes hold strong opinions that may or may not agree with everyone else’s. I hope to continue to do so, in the interest of sharing ideas, and leaving my daughter a personal record of my respect for the difficult work, different personalities, attitudes and cultures required to expand that open, magical society we all dream of and want to share in, where I hope she will one day choose to raise her children, in both safety and peace.

    Long live the magic of the Turks.

    Posted in People, Places | | 6 Comments
  • In the belly of a beautiful beast: the Marmaray Project.

    March 23rd, 2012

    Cities are incredible things to me, like monstrous organisms. They are composed of living and non-living materials. They have a vast network of interconnected internal organs hidden beneath layers of external tissues. They expand and contract, inhale and exhale, live and die … I could go on with the metaphors, but I won’t.

    Yesterday, I had a magnificent opportunity, one of the most awe-inspiring of my life, to enter the belly of the beast of Istanbul and explore the tunnels which will conduct the Marmaray rail system, a system which will plunge below the Marmara Sea and once completed, will connect Halkali on the European side to Gebze on the Asian side of the supercity of Istanbul.

    Like many people who live in metropolises, I take trains and the underground on an almost daily basis. Aside from some crowding, the occasional waft of bad breath or B.O., rail is a highly civilized way of conducting people quickly from one end of a city to another.  Down inside the tunnels we distract ourselves with music, magazines or iPads, thoughts of where we were or are about to be, mostly failing to appreciate the massive undertaking required to build these corridors beneath our cities.

    After yesterday I don’t think I’ll ever fail to appreciate the incredible feat of civil engineering, the manpower or will it takes to accomplish such work. It is no less than awe-inspiring.


    I meet with my guide (and a true gentleman) Ugur Galatali at Sirkeci train station at 2:00 pm and take the old rail system to Yenikapi where the Gama Nurol portion of the Marmaray Project is underway. In addition to the tunneling work they are constructing an all new Yenikapi Station. The site manager looks at our footwear and shakes his head with a laugh. He gets on the phone. After being given some industrial strength wellington boots and an orta-sweet Turkish Coffee we don our hard hats and reflective safety vests and descended by stair to the mouths of three tunnels at various stages of completion. 


    The first tunnel we enter is the shortest, and hence not dug using a TBM (Tunnel Boring Machine). These 5 Million Euro wonders are not cost-effective for shorter tunnels. Dank is an understatement and I’m  thankful for my new boots as I sank almost knee-deep in muck. Here the drilling is underway manually. Different points of the shored-up tunnel are being drilled to release water and alleviate the pressure to prevent a cave-in. Dinosaur-like digging machines and men all splattered in a thick layer of silt, work eight-hour shifts moving through porridge-like earth, breathing in the thick particle-infused air.


    The next tunnel is something else. This one has been created using one of the TBMs and seems more like something out of a sci-fi movie directed by James Cameron or Ridley Scott. Dank like the first one we entered, there are vast pools of water which must be constantly drained as it has yet to be fully sealed. Again there are points where you think you might be swallowed by opaque water. The tunnel walls are incredibly smooth, constructed of huge numbered, pre-fab panels which were machine-fitted to the tunnel walls as the TBM worked ahead.


    A few hundred meters down, the tunnel curves and we lose sight of its mouth, having forgot to kiss daylight goodbye. Tunneling work is done 24 hours a day, seven days a week, so some people enter in daylight only to emerge after a grueling shift in the cavernous dark.

    Now the experience gets truly surreal. We no longer lose our feet in pools of water, and reach one of the cross hatches being created as an emergency exit should the tunnel become impassable. Through sections where no one is working there’s a constant hum, the source of which I ask about but never discover. It’s only at intervals that you hear the recognizable chatter of drilling or squeal of a machine.


    About a kilometer in we reach a sump off to one side of the tunnel. Over a dozen grim-faced men work in a tight lattice of steel supports which stops everything from collapsing and gushing down upon all of us. Fortunately the only spray is a shower of sparks from welding. A half dozen men stand on a platform fixing thick sheeting to the ceiling. None smile, whistle or look remotely jocular. And who can blame them? This is intensely demanding work, both physically and mentally. You are in a tight spot, literally, all day or night long. A week or so earlier, we’re informed, this spot was a mini lake.

    We’ve been in the tunnel almost an hour before we turn back towards Yenikapi. Halfway down, as the first fingers of natural light return, there’s a roar. A loader is barreling toward us, its shovel lowered like the trunk of an angry elephant. We move to the walls but, even so, there’s no room. He stops just short of us, the lamps beaming down in our faces and obscuring the driver’s. We squeeze on by, and I’m relieved to see it disappear behind us.


    There’s only a few hundred meters to go and again we see the light, natural light, golden and life-giving before us. Stepping out of the tunnel there’s a euphoric rush of air, relief and sense of rightness about having a naked sky up above. Then you remember there are cranes hauling steel beams, and mixer-trucks ready to pour shotcrete down a chute directly overhead and you realize it’s no time to celebrate but instead a moment in which you need to shift your behind into gear. It’s a construction site, and there are definite limits to the protection a hard hat affords.


    Once we move out of harm’s way, there’s one last marvel to appreciate. A strange shaft of refracted light creates a perfect x to mark the end of the journey. It was only an hour or two of my life, but every second was epic. Thank you, Gama Nurol, and especially, thank you Eda Çarmikli, for allowing me to see a side of Istanbul, I’d otherwise be ignorant of.

    It was an adventure I won’t forget.



  • Kuzguncuk Mahallesi

    March 21st, 2012


    Don’t know about you, but there are times I want to live an urban life without all the latté and fast food chains, which seem to be claiming more and more prime real estate and more and more of our everyday lives. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not above using them, it’s just they get a little tiring, manufacturing the same experience over and over.

    That’s why I felt so refreshed the other day when I heeded historian Selin Barlas‘ advice and headed to Kuzguncuk. There wasn’t one branded paper coffee cup rolling around the streets, or simit chain store in sight. Instead there was relaxed local scene, where people clearly knew one another and weren’t in any hurry to be somewhere else. Kuzguncuk is a self-contained, functioning neighborhood with its own post office, a butcher’s, several bakeries and a host of independent little cafes and boutiques interspersed throughout its high street and side-streets. There’s a mix of new and old, but none of it feels artificial or imposed.

    There’s also a terrific little square looking out onto the Bosporus, bounded by a row of yalis on one side and Çinaralti Cafe and Ismet Baba fish restaurant on the other. Locals and interlopers like me are welcome sit on benches, refreshing themselves with tea, Turkish coffee or fresh squeezed orange juice as behemoth freighters fill the glistening blue corridor mute as ghosts.

    Perhaps that’s what makes the place. It seems to me that the locals are all actively engaged in and enjoy their own neighborhood. It’s the difference between a neighborhood and community, or a house and a home. There’s a feeling of belonging here. That’s something you just can’t synthesize, or buy at a Starbucks.

    To say I was charmed would be an understatement. There was something here I haven’t experienced in a long time, and call me sentimental, but I don’t want it to change.








    What makes a neighborhood more than just a place to live? How do you experience a sense of belonging, or community? Can we go back to a time when a neighborhood was more than just a stopover to take a breath as we run from one place to next? Should we? Is that neighborhood feeling irretrievable? Maybe we should be rootless or risk getting stuck? What do you think? Is a sense of place important?

    Talk to me … I’m listening.

  • The Mystic Emptiness

    March 19th, 2012

    Ever have those moments when the light strikes the surface you’re looking at in a certain way and suddenly there’s a change, an almost mystic feel in the air and you want suddenly to say, “Yeah, baby!”

    I do all the time. Then I realize I’m alone, or in a church, a mosque or some sacred site where such an expression would be highly inappropriate. The world really is an incredible place at times, particularly when you get to see the most mundane things all over again, but in a new way.

    Perhaps that’s why I’m so relieved to have my camera and this blog. Being a writer or a creative person is very solitary at times. You’re always trying to capture a moment, hold it, freeze it in glass. Now it’s not so lonely.

    I could say more, but somebody else has already said it far better:

    “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious—the knowledge of the existence of something unfathomable to us, the manifestation of the most profound reason coupled with the most brilliant beauty. I cannot imagine a god who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, or who has a will of the kind we experience in ourselves. I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with the awareness of—and glimpse into—the marvelous construction of the existing world together with the steadfast determination to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the reason that manifests itself in nature. This is the basis of cosmic religiosity, and it appears to me that the most important function of art and science is to awaken this feeling among the receptive and keep it alive.”

    I don’t generally like to use other people’s words, but Albert Einstein’s, above, hold as much truth for me as any religious text.

    Perhaps that’s why I’m here … this city is full of these moments. There are times in fact when I’m almost paralyzed by the beauty of this place and its almost indescribable quality. You can’t quite fathom it, only goggle at it for a moment or two before you trip over your own two feet. It gets a bit addictive.

    I can be so impatient for this city’s revelations, that I have to remind myself that it’s a state of mind. You’re either open to it, or you’re trapped in a hole of your own digging.

    Do you ever feel that way? Ever want to get lost with someone else in the mystic emptiness? If so, feel free to join me here.

  • Profile: Selin Barlas, Historian and TV Host.

    March 17th, 2012

    History is a subject important to us all, whether it’s personal or national. For Selin Barlas it’s both. In addition to her scholarly work she voices Bemaddy children’s stories for iPad, and every Saturday night with Murat Bardakçi and Erhan Afyoncu, c0-hosts Haber Türk’s Tarihin Arka Odasi (History’s Back Room). Like Istanbul, Selin is a woman with a Western and Eastern sides, her father is Turkish and her mother is American. When it comes to Istanbul, Turkey and history in general, there’s no other place to be.

    I got a chance to sit down with her recently and discuss her work, and understand why history is so personal and so passionate a subject for her.

    How did you come to be a co-host of Tarihin Arka Odasi?

    SELIN BARLAS: My predecessor and friend, Pelin Batu, decided to leave the show and suggested me to Murat Bardakçi. Like her I also went to Bogaziçi which was important to him.

    Is the show political?

    It’s a very democratic show, we speak about historical subjects that have never been discussed before. 

    Do you think Turks have a problem with their history?

    That’s a dangerous question … the Republic did what it had to do to construct the nation, without those measures it would have been impossible. They did the right thing at the right time. I wish Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) had lived ten more years, though, to complete his work. However, over the last 30 years, they should have opened the archives, because every struggle we’ve faced is dealt with in them.

    Who’s they?

    The government. History is either glorified or denied, perhaps because Mediterranean culture views things with either love or hate.

    What should Turks learn more about from their history?

    We only think of our history as Ottoman, be we need to think of our Central Asian history too.

    What’s your feeling about Orientalism and Occidentalism in history? 

    I think both sides are at fault. Westerners have wanted to romanticize and mystify Middle Eastern history, and Middle Easterners have done a terrible job of representing their own history and culture. Turkey is a little schizophrenic with its history. In the 1920s and 1930s they went completely Westernized, and now we’re pointing too far towards the East. How did we suddenly become spokespeople for Arab nations?

    Who are your historic heroes?

    My grandfather, Cemil Sait Barlas, for one. He was a journalist, newspaper publisher and Member of Parliament. Adnan Menderes tried to have him hanged when he and other journalists tried to expose election-rigging. The government building ‘mysteriously’ burned down and he and 160 all the journalists were thrown in jail, accused of a coup attempt. He waited 51 days before being released from the shadow of the hangman’s noose. That’s why what’s happening today is nothing new. In this country freedom of the press has never existed. Right now I’m working on a book about him.

    Aysenur Arslan is also one of my present day heroes because she fights for freedom of the press with such dignity and respect, without crudeness or violence. She fights with elegance.

    And last, but not least, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is my favorite hero. Thanks to him we have the life we lead today, which people too often take for granted and don’t respect enough.

    Would you ever live anywhere else?

    No. Istanbul is like no other place. She was a glorious empress back around 220 AD and again in 1453, those were her crowning days. Today she’s beaten and molested but still manages to glow. That’s how beautiful she is.

    Tarihin Arka Odasi airs every Saturday night at 11:15 on Haber Türk.

    Posted in People | | 2 Comments
  • Reading list: THAT MAGAZINE.

    March 16th, 2012

    Crack the champagne! Another of my favorite quarterly magazines has just celebrated its first year with its fifth issue. Though its distribution is limited to Istanbul (for the moment, as my sources tell me a special issue is headed to Art Dubai) THAT MAGAZINE  is well worth looking for and holding onto. I have to hand it to Editor-In-Chief, Mr Johnson, each issue gets better and better.

    Highlights from the latest include a photo essay in one of Istanbul’s recycling plants, as well as an excerpt from Brendan and John Freely’s upcoming book. The article is entitled Your Guide to the Best Pubs & Clubs of Galata circa 1900-1930. I loved the excerpt and I’m now really looking forward to the release of the book. I’ve often imagined all the wild characters and intrigue circulating through that era of Istanbul, and from the details in this piece, I have to say reality seems no less enthralling than I’d thought.

    THAT MAGAZINE is free and available throughout Istanbul’s finer drinking holes and swankier cafés. Simdi on Asmalimescit has some, and I’m told a fresh shipment has just dropped in Kadiköy. Drop me a line and let me know what you think of the latest issue. I’d love to know.

  • Istanbul’s otherworldly inhabitants.

    March 14th, 2012

    I sometimes wish it was possible to interview cats. What things they must have seen — and if they could talk, I’m sure they’d have a rich oral history. Unless they adapt their claws to dip in an inkwell … they’d probably be talented calligraphers. Okay, so I’m letting my imagination run away with me here. Regardless, whether you like or dislike cats, Istanbul neighborhoods would not be what they are without their feline inhabitants. The street dogs are something special too, but in my opinion they exist solely based on the good nature of the city’s gentle inhabitants.

    Cats are subtle creatures and I’m told that this city’s felines have flourished since Ottoman times thanks to the Prophet’s particular love of the animal. It’s said that he loved animals in general, but that once he cut off his own sleeve rather than disrupt a feline friend’s sleep.

    In more recent times Barack Obama paused in Istanbul to scratch a tabby behind the ear, while Hilary Clinton paused during an interview when interrupted by two noisy cats. Perhaps they were saying, “one minute, one minute … ” Who knows? So even if we can’t understand them, their voices are heard by no less than some of the world’s most prominent leaders.

    They are the true survivors, adaptable, aloof and otherworldly, and yet integral to the functioning of this city. They are a subculture of fighters, beggars, scavengers, hunters and seekers, even if all they seek is a warm lap. Without cats, Istanbul would not be what it is. Worse, our rodent problem would probably rival Mumbai’s. We’d be plagued — literally.

    What do you think of cats? Friend or foe? Neighbor or nuisance?