Friday, 20 November 2015

Please help me understand -
Why are none of my friends draping themselves in Syrian flags and posting this on Facebook?

An atrocious thing happened last week.  Terrorists attacked Paris and over 100 innocent people were killed.

But I ask you, how many innocent people have been killed in Syria?  As of October 2015 the death toll within Syria was 250,000 adults and 30,000 children.  Not to mention all those dying trying to escape.  All those living without food and heat and the basic necessities of life.

Why are none of my friends draping themselves in Syrian flags and posting this on Facebook?

My Syrian student sits opposite me in the small classroom.  Sun streams in from the window behind him. When he sees me squinting from the sun, he immediately gets up and lowers the shade to screen my eyes.

Ali is that sensitive, that kind.  He is a young Syrian man who was a student in Aleppo when war broke out five years.

“Three times I almost died,” he tells me. “One time a bullet whizzed past my ear,” he holds his hand just next to his ear and smiles.  “Another time I was saved from a bomb blast by being lucky enough to be behind a large truck when the bomb hit.  And one other time… well Syrian rebels captured me.  They wanted to know why I wasn’t fighting with them. 

‘We will kill you as an informer,’ they said, thrusting guns at him.

‘I’m a student. I’m a student,’ I kept telling them.

‘Prove it,’ they demanded. 

“But how can I prove it?  I started to explain some scientific thing to them.  You must understand these were uneducated men. They looked at each other and finally let me go…but this is life there.” He raises his eyebrows and shrugs.

Ali is the oldest boy in his family of ten.  He has two younger brothers and five sisters.  His father is a doctor.

“But he hasn’t been able to work for years now.  And my family has nothing.  There is no fuel to warm the apartment.  There is no food.  As the oldest boy they sent me to Turkey to try and find a way to help them.  But here I cannot go to university even though the UNHCR has said that Syrians can attend, because I must work.  And bosses here don’t care.  I work twelve hours a day at a restaurant.  If I want to go to university and ask my boss, can I have these days and these hours off, he would just tell me ‘goodbye.’  There are so many other people waiting for a chance at a job.”

Ali is studying English.  His English is excellent.  He hopes to be able to go to university in the States.  He hopes to continue his studies. 

But now it seems that the US wants to ban all Syrian refugees from entering the US.

Because one maniac terrorist happened to be a refugee.

“My father always told us that no people are all one way.  Each person is an individual and must not be judged for anything other than who he is.”

I fight back tears of frustration and exasperation.  How can the French call all Syrians ‘terrorists’, then bomb Syria, kill hundreds, and not be considered ‘terrorists.’

“Shall we get a ‘stimulating beverage',” he asks smiling.

Last week I taught him this phrase when he found me at the coffee machine.  Now he likes using it.

Two weeks ago Ali told me he had heard from Sarah Lawrence College in the US and they wanted him to send an essay on his area of interest.  He had been filled with hope and excitement.

Today, he’s not so sure. 

“Do you think there’s still any hope for me,” he asks, his big eyes looking into mine.

“Do not give up.  There’s always hope,” I tell him.

But do I believe it? I’m not so sure anymore.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Move

I just moved - on Oct first.  I wasn’t looking for a place.  I was quite comfortable in my cozy little flat.  But then a friend told me that the flat directly across from hers was now vacant, so I went to check it out.  The flat was far superior to mine--much bigger: 2 bedrooms instead of 1, a large salon, a real kitchen, and a view of the Golden Horn.  And it was less money.  It was definitely an offer I would have been silly to refuse.

But the move nearly done me in.  

My friend Mehmet organized two men to help me move.  I of course expected them to arrive in some sort of a moving van.  But no.  They just arrived with a lot of straps and this Turkish contraption that looks a little like a baby seat that they strapped on their backs.  They then proceeded to lash my refrigerator onto the padded baby seat of the little guy – and when I say little, I mean maybe two inches more than my tiny stature of five feet, one and half inches - and bent over like a man with a really bad case of osteoporosis, with sweat dripping down his nose, he hauled the frig down the narrow steps, out onto the street, down the block, down the three sets of steep, broken concrete steps to the street below, and then up the two flights to my new flat. 

Meanwhile the second man, tall and lean, lashed about five boxes onto his back and bent over like the number 7, holding tight to the ends of his canvas straps, he followed in the same path as the little ‘strong man.’  They were like two beasts of burden piled beyond comprehension. If they had been donkeys, animal rights sympathizers would have held a protest.

And I ran alongside them, opening the door of my new flat and then ran back with them to open the door of the flat I was leaving.  Back and forth. I felt like i was in training for the step marathon. But I was just carrying a plant or two each time.  Or a light box of something fragile.

Then a locksmith came to put some real locks on my door because the locks that were on it were made for an inside door.  I could have broken in.  A three-year-old could have broken in. 

So a friend found me a locksmith/carpenter.  In his fifties, tiny and slim, gray hair and close-cropped gray beard, in well-creased brown slacks and a striped shirt, he scrutinized my door.   “Maybe two hours,” he said in a dialect that was hard for both me and my friend to understand.  Chuckling and rubbing his beard, he asked for tea and set to work, while I rummaged through unpacked boxes searching for a cup to pour his tea into. 

Four hours later he demanded food, and my friend called the kebap shop at the top of the hill and asked if they could deliver some food. Meanwhile, I realized there was no drinkable water, so I ran out to the ‘bakkal’ to get a large bottle of water delivered.

When I returned the locksmith was continuing to gouge out holes in the door, drill, and pound.  The light left the sky.  The moon rose, and finally, he told me he had to go.  The bottom lock worked from the inside, but not the outside. 

I was a prisoner in my own home with nothing to eat other than some stale bread and tahini.

He didn’t return until the following afternoon.  He asked for his tea and again began drilling and pounding and banging and screwing.  I watched him try turning the keys to no avail, and then unscrew, hammer, bang, pound, drill, screw and try again.

The sky grew dark.  The moon rose.  Darkness descended over Istanbul.  The iman sang out his ‘Call to Prayer’ and still the little locksmith continued. 
“You can lock the bottom lock inside and outside.  I’ll come back tomorrow and finish,” I managed to decipher his strange dialect.

it took him 3 days of banging and drilling and then taking everything apart, and then trying again, over and over, until my friend arrived and made him go to a hardware store to buy a metal casing. And even then he kept screwing it into the side of the door, trying the locks, finding they didn’t match up, unscrewing over and over, until he finally got it to work.

My door looks like it was attacked by an enraged bear.  The top lock on the inside of the door just has a gauged out hole for the key.  But at least i can lock it from both the inside and the outside.

At some point I had visions of this little, elderly locksmith always being there.  Always drilling and pounding and hammering and screwing and unscrewing-- kinda like Sisyphus and his rock--and me getting older and older, sitting at my kitchen table with thick black eyebrow hairs curling across my forehead, an old lady's mustache and beard grizzling my aged, wrinkled face, and the locksmith still drilling and pounding away.


And when you move into an unfurnished flat in Turkey, there is absolutely nothing in it.  No lights.  No appliances.  Nothing.  So, in order to move in, I had to get someone to come and install lights and light fixtures so I could have some light.  But there were strange dangling wires and electrical sockets left over from the middle ages to be dealt with.

And at the end of my first day.  Filthy, exhausted, I got into the shower only to find the hot water didn't work!

And I can't get the Water Company to disconnect the water from my old flat because I need to give them a copy of my landlady's identity card.

But one day down the road, I'll look back on all this and laugh! Ha Ha! As I happily sip tea and gaze out onto the Golden Horn in my lovely new apartment.

Want to move to Istanbul?

Friday, 21 February 2014

Arambol - the third time around

By my third stay, the bizarre has become normal.  I no longer marvel at tourists adorned in a mixture of Mad Max extras meet San Francisco "be-in" hippies.  Dreads piled like top hats atop the heads of bare-chested men wearing dusty-orange sarangs; tattoed women with one side their heads shaved, attired in scanty garments that look as if they had just been ripped off some wild beast, torn  by hand, and wrapped  around their tan bodies - this is the norm.

I start my day at Mahi's yoga class.  Here classes last 2 hours.  Mahi has me wrap a canvas strap around my sacrum and invert myself.  I hang upside down, knees wrapped around the canvas swing, souls of my feet touching as if in prayer, arms dangling on the ground,  swinging like a happy monkey.

After splashing pitchers of cool water over my body in my hut, I dress and head to Mohan's.  This is where all the musicians meet.  Yesterday, I sipped sweet milky chai with the Ukranian accordian player Topor, my Turkish friend Cabbar and 3 of the U.K. based world music group, The Turbans.  Hugs and kisses all around, we sipped and chatted as the parade of colorful characters strolled by.  Cabbar told me he sleeps on the rooftop of Ava Maria "hippy-style" with 20 other people.

I am thankful for my own little room with clean white tiles and its own fairly clean by Indian standards bathroom.  It costs me the equivalent of $6 a night.

My breakfast is baji - a savoury chick pea and potato coconut curry. And of course a glass of masala chai. Across from Mohan's the coconut wallah lobs the tops off fresh coconuts.  A young woman dressed like a collision of rainbows patters by on bare feet followed by a calf.  I'm reminded of Mary and her little lamb gone neo-hippie.

Slowing down on his motorbike, a middle-aged man with a wild aura of an orange Afro shouts in 3 languages (French, Italian, and English) "Today at 3:30 - Carnival! Wear a costume! No toplessness but wearing coconut shells is ok.  Bring an instrument!"

collision of rainbows patters by on bare feet , follow

Monday, 19 August 2013

The Balkan Blues

 She wraps her thick black hair into a knot on the top of her head.  Pulling a small mirror from her large synthetic-leather bag, she plucks some wisps of hair from the knot and arranges them carefully to look careless. 

Sophia is Serbian.  She’s on her way to Montenegro to meet some friends for a holiday. She occupies the window seat next to me on the bus from Dubrovnik to Budva, Montenegro.

“Do you know any cheap place to stay,” she asks me.

“I’ll stay in a hostel.  It’s 11 Euro a night,” I tell her.

She stares at me, her eyes wide in dismay. “Oh,” she says, “Why don’t you stay in a room? People tell me there are rooms in houses cheap. I hope there are, because I can’t spend so much money.”

I reassure her that usually local people show up at the bus stations offering cheap rooms in their homes.

“How much are these rooms? I am kindergarten teacher,” she tells me.  “I have very little money. I left Serbia and went to Zagreb for work.  But really, there is no work.  I graduated from Tourism and Culture, but I can’t find job, so I take job in school with babies.  I hate it.  Their parents are very rich and they are very spoiled.  I am like baby sitter.  And they pay me so little.  But what can I do?”

The Internet source ‘Balkan Insight’ writes that 500 people a day become jobless in Serbia. They state 27% unemployment with an average salary of 380 euro a month.  

Outside the bus, green cliffs drop to a turquoise sea. Traffic halts. The coast road along the Adriatic Sea from Croatia to Montenegro is clogged with vacationing tourists.


I had stayed one day and night In Dubrovnik.  I was fortunate enough to have a friend living there who offered me the hospitality of a stay in her home.  We had met the year she had lived in Istanbul.

Dubrovnik proved a bizarre scene -  scantily-clad, rich foreigners parading about with their well-tanned, well-oiled skin on display, wearing extremely expensive but outlandishly skimpy outfits.

Entering the Old Town of Dubrovnik I felt strangely unhinged.  I knew I was outside, but  felt like I was inside.  Walking through the gate into Old Town was like entering an open-air museum.  Unlike Sarajevo where shell-pocked areas are filled-in with a blood-red laminate to mark the spots, and walls of buildings are a bullet-ridden pattern of past carnage, Dubrovnik has erased any and all traces of war.  It stands like a Disneyland theme park for adults: every stone of every building, every marble cobblestone on every street and alleyway shimmering in an alabaster-white sheen of prosperity and security. A scrupulously polished playground for the rich.

The women strutting Dubrovnik’s Old City were equally unreal.  Three women passed me and I had to repress my urge to stare.  Wearing skin-tight, crotch-high, cleavage-revealing dresses, they hip-swayed over the glimmering white marble lanes, one stilettoed foot in front of the other.

Ah, they’re top fasion models on a shoot, I thought to myself. But there were no camera men.  It wasn’t a shoot.  A few minutes later, along came another pair – with legs just as long and shapely, in equally short, tight, outlandish dresses, and equally high-heeled shoes. In twos and threes they strutted their way along the slick streets as tourists sipped fine wine and twirled expensive strands of spaghetti dishes on their forks amidst laughter and holiday good times.

“Yes,” said the Croatian friend I stayed with in Dubrovnik, “Old City Dubrovnik is called ‘the Longest Catwalk in the World.”

“Do you ever go to the Old Cıty,” I asked her.

“No,” she said, “only when I take someone who’s visiting me, and then I try to send them by themselves if possible.  I really never go there.”

“And what about work here??

“Well, in the summer there is work in tourism.  In the winter there is no work.  My degree is in design.  It’s impossible to get a job here.  Maybe if I went to Zagreb I could find something.  That’s why I was in Istanbul.  I found work there for one year.”


Things are even worse in Sarajevo.  Neno leads a free walking tour of Sarajevo, depending on the tips of tourists.  He’s passionate about his subject.

“My mother is Muslim.  My father is Serb, but of course he stayed with us during the four years of the war.”

“What about school during those years,” I ask him.  “How did you go to school?”

“We had classes in basements in different neighborhoods.  We ran through sheltered streets to these underground schools.  My mother is a nurse.  And she refused to stay home.  Everyday she walked to the hospital where so many people were injured and dying.  And my father fought for the resistance.”

He points to one of the “roses” on the street. – a shelled area filled in with red. I stand and look, try to imagine what it must have been like to spend four years being shot at by men on the hills surrounding Sarajevo. To be a moving target in a life and death game of chance.

Now the hills are green and verdent.  An early morning mist hangs like wisps of gauze over them.But the people of Sarajevo are still struggling.

“There is 65% unemployment in the winter among the youth of Sarajevo, only 45% in the summer,” Neno tells us. One online source states that  1.35 million Bosnians live abroad out of a total population of 3.752 million. One survey of Bosnia’s  young people states that 81% of those polled stated they would leave tomorrow if they could, in order to find employment opportunities.

On the Balkan Express mini-bus from Budva, Montenegro back to Bosnia, the road winds up into the mountains from the Adriatic sea.  Suddenly I look down and see a river that’s a shade of milky tourquoise.  We continue to serpentine along the Tara River Canyon gorge.  No people.  No houses. Only craggy gray cliffs, deep-green-leaved trees, and a wide party ribbon of turquoise at the bottom. 
When we go uphill, the driver cuts the air-conditioning.  The steward opens the air vent in the roof.  The mini-bus huffs and puffs it’s way up the steep canyon like the little train that could.  The passengers pant and sweat in the heat. We make it to the top of the ridge and begin our descent, finally traveling alongside this incredibly startling light-blue river. It pools into lakes, then swiggles into a river again. 

Eventually we come to a town and stop at a tiny bus stop/cafe.  Passengers slide out of the bus covered in slick sweat.  The driver shouts something in some Balkan language.  A tall, long-haired, natural blond steps out before me.  

“How much time do we have?  Is there enough time to use a toilet?” I ask.

She smiles a charming, white-toothed smile.

“Yes.  Yes.  Come quick with me.  I take you,” she says.

When we get to the toilet, both myself and a young English girl traveling on the same bus fumble for correct change to pay the toilet attendent.  The long-haired blond pays for us and instructs us to go ahead.
When I exit the toilet I try to pay her back.

“No. No, please,”she smiles.  “Is nothing. You are guest in my country. Come sit a minute with me.”

Her name is Jelena.  She comes from Foca. I force a euro into her hand.

“How did you learn to speak English so well?” I ask her.

Her face brightens into a big smile.

“Really? You think I speak English well? .”

“Absolutely,” I say, “and I’m an English teacher.”

“I never took a course,” she says, speaking quickly.  I didn’t go to university.  I just watch TV shows in English and listen to music and learn.  Also this way I learn German.”

“You are so smart,” I tell her.

“Really” But I just work as au pair in Germany - Frankfurt,” she tells me.  “But people are not good people,” she says.  “They tell me they pay 300 Euros a month, but they only give 200.  They say I get 2 days off every week, but I work 7 days a week.  But what can I do?  If I leave, then what will my family do?  I’m only one with job now.  If I leave, we don’t eat anything.”

She roots through her yellow plastic hand bag and pulls out a pack of cigarettes.

“Would you like one?’

I decline.

“I never smoked before, but I get so nervous in Germany I start.”  She scratches at her arms and legs, draws on her cigarette, compulsively scratches some more.

“I am not lucky,” she tells me.  “I was born here.”

The bus driver honks the horn, summoning the passengers back into the bus.  When she gets off at Foca, she smiles and waves to me. I continue on, returning to Sarajevo.

In the morning I walk up the hill to the war cemetary.  White stone markers pop from the ground like a field of death flowers.  I gaze down at the red  tile roofs, the domes and minarets of the mosques, and tall crosses and church steeples.

Sarajevo is such a lovely, tranquil place now. On the 16th, the Sarajevo International Film Festival will begin. It will be packed with tourists. 

The war with bullets and mortar shells has ended.  But the war with poverty rages on.

Friday, 7 June 2013

Dancing at the Bakirkoy Mental Hospital

When my friend Cabbar invited me to come to the annual party at Turkey's largest and most famous psychiatric hospital, I wasn't sure if I would go.  Cabbar is a musician who had been invited to come and play music with his group for the party.  Knowing how much I love to dance, he asked if I wanted to come along.

Always trying to be open to new and potentially uplifting experiences, I decided to accompany this group of young, alternative Turkish musicians to their gig at the mental hospital gardens.
The hospital sent one of their vans to Beyoglu to pick us up, and twenty musicians, jugglers, and myself climbed in along with musical instruments, amplifiers, hula hoops, and red clown noses. The sky was filled with dark ominous rain clouds when we left.  The smell of rain was in the air.

By the time we arrived, the sun was shining.

My musician friends took the stage and set up their equipment as the clowns/jugglers donned their red noses and gay apparel and juggled, hula hooped, and circulated through the throng of patients, visitors, nurses, orderlies, young, old and everything in-between inviting people to join the festivities.

When the music started everyone took seats in front of the stage, sat and listened.  But to my mind, music is made for dancing.  It has always seemed a cosmic wrong not to dance when good music is playing.  And so I began to shake and shimmy, swirl and twirl, inviting people to join me.  Soon the people were on their feet, patients' faces lit up in huge, joyful smiles.  Nurses and patients, orderlies and visitors, clowns and children all dancing together.    

At one point, the musicians broke into a lively, well-known Turkish song.  The patients formed a huge circle, holding onto each other like a long conga line.  A bit out of rhythm.  A bit clumsy.  But one hundred percent joyful they danced around in the sunshine in front of the stage, then broke away to dance with other visitors, clowns, jugglers, and me.

All of us celebrating the music and the moment and life.

Wednesday, 5 June 2013

Shoulder to Shoulder: Gezi Park

Today: Gezi Park.
I walked up from Besiktas on Gumussuyu Ave. for the first time since the protests began. As I emerged from the steps that lead up from the waterfront, the hair on my arms stood straight up. The cobblestones and bricks had been pulled from the sidewalks to create blockades on every street. Blockades erected to deny the police access. Cobblestones, bricks, outdoor cement tree and shrub planters, plasterboard siding from construction sites, signs - anything portable had been stacked by protesters to deter the police.

Then i reached the top and the sight of Taksim Square filled my eyes with tears. Everywhere. Everywhere flags of every color and shape fluttered in the wind. Red, yellow, orange, blue, white. Flags, banners, placards.

I had wondered, by day 6 would the people's energy weaken?

There were more people of more diverse backgrounds than before.

A group of leathery-faced Alevis (Muslim's most oppressed sub-group) marched and chanted as the crowd applauded them. Behind them, pot-bellied union workers waved flags. They were followed by blithe university kids whistling and singing and clapping. With the passage of each group the other people around would clap and cheer. Bodacious mustachioed Kemalists cheered a group of Kurkish protesters. Football team antagonists marched shoulder to shoulder. Opposing party members helped opposition raise their banners in trees.

One middle-aged woman stood on the steps up to the park waving the Socialist flag. "I have a son," she told me. I don't want him to inherit a world of injustice. I'm here so he can have freedom and a better life."
She hugged me and thanked me for coming and supporting the Turkish people. A young woman came up to us offering us free sandwiches from a large plastic bag filled with sandwiches.

Other young people roamed the park offering various free food items. Some appeared to be pastries donated by bakeries in Taksim. O
ther volunteers moved silently through the crowd picking up trash.

Under trees heaps of cat food lay in mounds. Along one wall supplies were stacked on the ledge of blocks: antidotes for tear gas; bandages for wounds; antiseptics; concoctions of water and Talcid; biscuits; water.

At one station people come and donate supplies as volunteers sort and dispense.
On the crest of one hill, a sound system has been set up. Between rousing speeches musicians come and play. People form circles and dance traditional Turkish folk dances.

Young, old, fat, thin, left, right are joined in a common cause: freedom