“Provoke Your Own Illumination…”

While walking towards Tunel Square on Istikal, Megan and I came across an art display in a building. There was no flashy sign outside, and the music wasn’t loud enough to forcefully pull us in. But whatever reason, we decided to go inside and take a look. Unknowingly (but not unwillingly), we stumbled upon “Revolution Revelation,” Mercan Dede and Carlito Delceggio’s (or the “Romantic Rebels”) art exhibit

The six floors (yes, six) capture the work Dede’s and Dalceggio’s have done over the past ten years. Among other things, were was a ten-foot Buddha, multiple “houses” that came alive when you put on 3-D glasses and photo gallery on the top floor that services as a chronicle of their process. Different inspirational messages are intwined with the artwork, such as “Provoke Your Own Illumination Set Yourself On Fire.”

What’s interesting to me is the strong tone the art carries. They aren’t criticizing one leader or government style in particular, but I guess you could classify the pieces as “anti-establishment.” But more accurately, as Megan put it later: “It was a message of religious unification and peace.” A message, I think, that every country needs.

Taking it to the Streets

You are bound to walk through a loud, crowded, chanting group of demonstrators if you ever find yourself on Istiklal Avenue in the Beyoglu District of Istanbul. I haven’t seen many protests in Chicago. In fact, I think I have only seen one. So my first Turkish protest was an exciting and somewhat overwhelming experience. I didn’t know how to react, until I realized that these protests are peaceful. The police are always nearby, ready to intervene. But from all the protests I’ve seen on Istiklal Avenue, I haven’t seen any police-civilian confrontation.

Here is the story behind the very first march I witnessed on Istiklal.

This short montage features various demonstrations on Istiklal. The first clip is a march against the massacre in Houla that’s been making recent headlines. The second is a political demonstration. The third short clip is raising awareness about the government wanting to downgrade May 19th, the Turkish Day of Independence, to an informal holiday. And the last was a private demonstration for an 18-year old who was about to begin his term in the Turkish military.


On the Border

This past weekend our group visited a Southern province of Turkey called Hatay, staying in the historic town of Antakya (Antioch). While famous for it’s archeological excavations and fusion of religions- Christianity, Judaism and Islam- this region is becoming more well-known now for the Syrian refugee camps that it’s housing. During our stay, I was able to visit two of these camps. The first one I visited was a camp in Hatay called Yayladağı. Upon arriving we saw several members of the Free Syrian Army, the rebel group fighting government troops, gathered outside packing their things up to head back to Syria to continue the fight against Assad’s regime.

The camp has 1,950 tents and 6,625 refugees staying there. Security at these camps is very tight and while I was unable to go inside this camp, we were able to speak with refugees brought outside the camp.

Children from the camp playing and chanting.

According to UNICEF over 5,000 of the 24, 564 refugees in Turkey are children, and more are being born everyday.

Because Turkish law dictates that Turkey does not have to accept refugees from the East, babies that are born in the camp are still not considered Turkish citizens. The camps each have a basic hospital for minor injuries and illnesses. Refugees are taken to hospitals outside the camp for serious operations, but it can sometimes take over an hour for them to reach a hospital.

Refugees staying at these camps are not legally authorized to work in Turkey, but many still try to find ways to support themselves and their families. Ayman Karnebo is an artist who sells portraits that he creates out of organic materials that he can scrape together at the camp.

The second camp that I visited was Kilis, which is the largest camp housing 10, 493 refugees.

Unlike the other three camps which are tent cities, Kilis has small houses that are 21 square meters for families to stay in.

This camp has a capacity of 12,000 and took just 3 months to construct, while the tent cities take merely 3 days.




It was incredibly humbling to visit and speak with these refugees, many of which have escaped or witnessed horrible atrocities in Syria, forcing them to leave their homeland. They were all very willing to speak with me because they want their stories to be heard. The refugees are living proof of bravery, courage and perseverance. When you have a comfortable lifestyle it’s very easy to take your freedoms for granted, but these people truly know that freedom isn’t free.



Card games are a universal way to show off talent, learn a new skill or just blow off steam after a hard time at work. And the day we went to the Grand Bazaar, we saw just that: four men, however, instead of of poker or Go Fish, the game of choice for the men was ellibir, or “51.” Many also know it by the name “Okey,” or American Rummy.

Like everything, there are different ways to play the game; the Turkish version usually involves tiles, but that day, the men were doling out cards. Since there were four men, each started with seven cards, and drew more once the game was underway.

The general object of the game is to be the first to get rid of all your cards. You do that by getting rid of a card when you have a “meld.” Melds are created either by getting three or more cards of the same rank (a “set”), or getting three or more consecutive cards in the same suit (a “run”). Players can only form melds during their turn.

Okey players, when they play competitively, get penalty points for things such as 10 penalty points for a stalemate, or opponents receiving 40 penalty points when a player gets seven meld pairs.

Watching the men play definitely didn’t turn me into a ellibar star in 10 minutes. However, it did remind me that despite cultural differences, we’re not that different from one another. After all, we all need to find some way to pass the lunch hour somehow.

Visiting the Basilica Cistern

Yesterday evening, Lauren and I took a quick trip to the Basilica Cistern, or, as it’s called here, the Yerebatan Sarayı (sunken palace). The ancient cistern was constructed during the reign of Justinian I, by the labor of a supposed 7,000 slaves. It was used as a water filtration system for hundreds of years.

Today, the cistern is nearly empty of water, so tourists can walk around on platforms suspended over the water. The place is very leaky and damp – I got startled a few times when a big fat drop would fall on my face.

A big tourist draw to the cisterns are the large stone Medusa heads in the underground chamber. Historians don’t know where the heads came from, why they’re there, or why one of the heads is tilted on one side.

I couldn’t get a good photo of the whole place because it was so dark. I suppose back in the day, this place would have been incredibly eerie. But on our visit, with 100 kids underfoot, the place was booming with echoes. Regardless, it was cool to visit someplace that was so historic and preserved for generations upon generations.


The Children’s Revolution

This is the line that reportedly began it all: “The people want the downfall of the regime.” We’re told fourteen schoolchildren were arrested and reportedly tortured after writing this phrase on the walls of their school in a southern city of Syria last March. Locals reportedly gathered to demand the children’s release, which apparently turned into a demonstration after Friday prayers on March 18th, 2011, when four civilians were killed by Syrian security forces. The conflict has spiraled from a call for freedom into a call for the resignation of President Assad’s regime following skirmishes between the so-called Free Syrian Army and government troops that have resulted in violent acts against civilians, including children, that are making headlines.

The same way that these Syrian schoolchildren adapted this well-known phrase from the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, the Syrian children in these refugee camps have adopted the chants and demeanor of Syrian protestors and demonstrators.


Symbols of the Revolution

As our time in Hatay came to an end, the Syrian refugee who had been working with us gave us gifts of handmade scarves to honor the Syrian revolution. Her generous gift prompted me to look into other symbols of the revolution.

The Syrian flag has red, white, and black stripes with 2 green stars in the center. Demonstrators and members of the Free Syrian Army often wear clothing displaying the colors of the flag.

The word al-thawra, an arabic word for revolution is also a symbol of the Syrian revolution and the Free Syrian Army. You can find al-thawra stitched on garments, engraved on jewelry, and in art pieces like this one, presented to us by an artist in one of the refugee camps in Hatay.

Traditional Soap of Hatay


For years making soap has been a tradition for the people living in Hatay. Known for its ability to heal the skin, soap from Hatay is favored for containing olive oil and laurel, known as defne (daphne) in Turkish.

The legend told by locals says that years ago the Greek God Apollo saw Daphne and fell in love with her. When she fled he followed her. When she realized there was no way to escape she prayed to Mother Earth for protection and was transformed into a Laurel tree.

Historically the ingredients for the soap were boiled over a wood burning fire. The mixture was poured into a pan where it cooled and formed a solid sheet of soap. The sheet of soap was cut into individual bars and wrapped for distribution.

Although today some of the soap made in Hatay is manufactured in large facilities, many  people still make soap at home.

Turkish Newspapers: Newspaper or Tabloid ?

Turkish newspapers are quite interesting, and I’m not just talking about what’s written in them, but how they look, their layout. If you look at some Turkish newspapers, the cover page has short previews of around twenty different stories with a big bold headline in the middle and lots of pictures- some even angled in various directions. It sort of looks like things were cut and pasted onto the cover page. When I asked why this was after visiting a news agency, they said that it is a result of the lack of interest in Turkey to read, especially when it’s about hard news. Which also answered my question as to why pictures of Kim Kardashian and Brad Pitt dominated the cover pages.

A lot of the newspapers here focus more on the entertainment and gossip instead of tackling politics because entertainment news is safe in a country where some journalists have been jailed for writing about politics.


After spending a weekend in Hatay and really delving into the Syrian conflict, I heard the word “Alawite” being thrown around a lot. Who are the Alawites? Are they Muslims?

In Hatay I observed people of many different faiths engaging socially as friends and business partners. I even snapped a picture of these three men who are good friends– One is an Alawite (left,) One is Christian (middle,) and one is Sunni Muslim (right.)

While walking around Antakya, I asked casual questions about what it meant to be Alawite. One man I met at a jewelry shop, Mehmood, was a practicing Alawite, or Alawi. He explained that Alawites are a branch of the twelver sect of Shi’a Islam.

In a nutshell, it seems the schism of Sunni and Shi’a Islam is rooted in a disagreement of the succession of the caliphate after the Prophet Muhammed’s death. The name Alawite is reportedly derived from the name Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the last of the “Rightly Guided Caliphs” of Islam. Shi’a Muslims apparently regard Ali as the first Shi’a Imam.

Our translator Mehmet gave us his interpretation. He said Alawites do not attend “normal” mosques, and he understood that many do not believe in the literal meaning of the Qura’an. They supposedly do not pray five times a day as observant Sunnis and Shi’as do. It is hard to strictly define what observant Alawites do and do not do, since their practices vary across nations and even neighborhoods and are highly disputed among other sects of Shiism.

Alawites are most highly concentrated in Syria, mainly in the cities of Hama and Homs. The current President of Syria, Bashar Al-Assad, is Alawite. While concentrated in Syria, Alawites reportedly make up only about 12% of the Syrian population.

Alawites in other countries are sometimes referred to as Nusairis or Ansaris.There is also a religious population in Turkey known as the Alevis. I find the distinction between Alawites and Alevis to be unclear.

In my quest to define what it means to be Alawite, a few people told me Alawites and Alevis were one and the same, while others told me they are separate faiths within the spectrum of Shiism that should not be confused. Even in my research, some sources claimed they were the same while some firmly refuted the same idea. A few of my questions regarding the Alawite faith are still unanswered, so my quest continues. I’ll keep you updated!