History is alive in Antakya

Antakya -more commonly known as Antioch to most Christians- is an outstanding place. Obviously, it has religious significance, but people tend to forget that many of history’s  ‘A-listers’ had a personal connection to the area.

According to local tourist brochures, Cleopatra and Antony were married here; St. Luke and St. Peter preached here; Alexander the Great fought here; the Greek goddess Daphne died here. The list could go on.

History shrouds the city of Antakya- the churches, the museums and the people.

Walking around the main bazaar, you’ll find craftsmen keeping history alive through their work- many of them learned their craft from their fathers, who learned from their fathers, who learned from their fathers, and so on. Consequently, trades that were almost entirely driven out of Western cultures years ago often thrive in this historic city.

One such business is the shoe repair, these shops pepper even the most touristy of areas. The shoe repair men (and they are always men) are not relics from the past, but skilled workers that the whole community employs.

“Westerners are shocked. They are always stopping and taking pictures of me. You all throw shoes away like they’re nothing so you aren’t used to the idea,” said Muhammad, a local shoe repairman who opened his shop 13 years ago. He began learning the business from his father at age 15.

A variety of tools are scattered across his very cluttered work station which reeks of fresh leather and noxious glue. Using an old, giant sewing machine, a couple of “shoe stretchers” and a variety of large shears, he can remedy most shoe problems -too tight, too big, too tall, too short.

“It depends on the shoe, but it can be fixed maybe three or four times,” he said.He noted that the most common problem he fixes is “shoes that are worn away on the bottom.”

The bin of shoes next to his table are broken and dirty; they look entirely unfix-able, but he’ll give all of these old, dilapidated shoes a new life.


A green city with a black mark

We made headlines last week when we met with the Deputy Mayor of Kocaeli, Turkey – the district with highest national GDP. We discussed the business sector, the environment and the construction after the 1999 earthquake. Click here to read more about our visit. 


Kocaeli is a province involved in an odd dichotomy: it is the most industrious municipality in Turkey as well as the most environmentally friendly – at least, according to Deputy Mayor Özak Zechariah.

The deputy mayor and his translator presenting us with gift bags

Yeah, I was skeptical too.

However, after meeting with Zechariah, it was hard to argue otherwise; especially after drinking Kocaeli’s superb bottled water – bar none, one of the best I’ve ever had- which is processed right in Koccaeli. The water quality reflects the municipality’s water system which is reported to be the world’s largest privately financed water supply project and boasts 7,000 kilometers of underground water tunnels.

Even Kocaeli fish drink clean water now that the local government put restrictions on what nearby chemical, automobile and steel plants can pour into the the Gulf of Izmit, according to officials. For many years, the gulf was fair game and neighboring companies used the waters as their personal waste-basket; as Zechariah put it, “everyone used to know the Gulf of Izmit by its smell.”

But he says the government has worked hard to make the area, along with the entire municipality, more eco-friendly. Ford, Bridgestone, Toyota, Goodyear and others have major plants  in Kocaeli – and Zechariah said they have faced some opposition to their green initiatives. One such initiative is SCADA, a control system that monitors what type of waste companies are putting out; he says Kocaeli is the first and only province using this advanced system.

And he says it seems to be paying off.

“For the first time in many years, we can actually see dolphins in the gulf now,” said Zechariah.

Could it be true? Was Kocaeli really the most industrious and the most environmentally aware? I was one water in, and my skepticism was beginning to fade. Kocaeli’s convincing credentials and witching water had swayed me.

After coming home and doing some research, things got murky.

According to the European Environment Agency, Kocaeli, or more specifically Izmit, is home to Izadas, the only hazardous waste site (there are 3 total) in Turkey to accept waste from a variety of industries across the country. It has the capacity to hold 790,000 cubed meters of waste.

Zechariah failed to mention that.

While this bit of information certainly doesn’t discredit all of their advances, it does make the situation more complicated than their PR-driven facade suggested. I have to say, it leaves me wondering, what else weren’t they telling us?

Crash-course in Turkish comics

Highly sexual, uncommonly progressive and entirely anti-establishment – Turkish newspapers are a haven for radical thought and political dialog.

Ha! Only joking.

This actually couldn’t be further from the truth. Journalism in Turkey is monitored to the point that it is now nothing more than a propaganda machine for various political interests.   Currently, there are 95 Turkish journalists in jail and Turkey ranks 148 out of 175 countries on the Reporters Without Borders index. Journalists are afraid to critique those in power, and of even those brave enough to do so face imprisonment and, in some cases, assassination.

But x-rated, anti-establishment material is still widely available in Turkey- just not in writing.

Enter comic books and papers. For years, Turkish comic books have gone surprisingly uncensored despite their overtly political messages; the highly charged and often vulgar comics make New Yorker’s famous cartoons look innocent.

This panel from popular comic Girgir is one of the less offensive images I found. Nudity and sexually explicit acts are often depicted in shocking detail.

Turkish political comics aren’t nearly as popular as they were when they were first mass produced in the 1970’s; Turkey’s most famous comic, Girgir, peaked with a circulation of 1 million in the 1980’s making it the third-best selling comic magazine in the world.

Government opposition – specifically, the military coup of 1980 – hampered the growth and added to the decline of political comics in Turkey.

But comics are very much alive and well today, much to the chagrin of President Erdogan, a favorite target of today’s political cartoonists. Erdogan is beginning (in the past few years) to attack the anti-government publications through lawsuits and fines. Recently, the offices of Penguen were suspiciously torched by unknown arsonists. However, I wish the president luck. No other leader before him has been able to squash the comic phenomena with any real success.

Why is this? For starters, comics can be cheaply and independently produced and are usually very well-liked. They are not newspapers – they do not hold any power in political spheres and they don’t claim to be factual.

But they can make President Erdogan and all of his friends look like fools. They can also talk about openly about sex, relationships and political scandals in a refreshingly blunt and hilarious way.

Not to mention, some of these comics are surprisingly informational- albeit, they are very biased,  but they are still up-to-date. By flipping through one issue of Girgir, Penguen or any other comic, you can learn a lot about the Turkey’s political climate; I learned about two current government scandals just by looking at today’s front pages.

Honestly, it’s perplexing how a journalist can be thrown in jail and a paper shut down for critiquing the wrong person, but comics can explore every Turkish social taboo with much less interference.

Dört cheap: lessons in haggling

Eyes wide and camera ready, I walk around one of Istanbul’s most magnificent tourist meccas: the Grand Bazaar. I haven’t taken twenty steps before a young, eager merchant springs out of his chair and into my face.

“Where are you from? Paradise? It must be; you are angel,” he coos, “Come, I give you good price!”


Let me translate that for you. It’s easy, really- just substitute “paradise” with ‘”America”, “angel” with “tourist” and “good” with “extra expensive” and you’ve decoded this charming young merchant’s message.

Make no mistake, sellers at the Grand Bazaar will know you’re a tourist and they won’t hesitate to capitalize on your bewilderment. The key to surviving in this haggling haven is simple: do your research.

Kathy Hamilton, an American textile collector living in Istanbul who leads guided tours through the bazaar, is an expert bargainer. She gave me some helpful tips before turning me loose into the chaos. Now, drawing from Kathy’s advice and my personal hassles, I’ve compiled a my own guide to help future bazaar goers.  Continue reading

Don’t wanna be an American idiot

Americans need to get over themselves.

Those aren’t my words (although I agree with them), but the words of Christy Quirk, an American who has lived and worked in the Middle East for over a decade.

Christy, who works for the Democratic party, conducts focus groups in Middle Eastern countries; she has worked in places like Azerbaijan, Yemen, Syria and is now located in Istanbul. During the focus sessions, she talks to concentrated groups of people about their opinions on Democracy and politics and has some invaluable insights into a culture most Westerners know nothing about.  Continue reading

Cat culture

They’re everywhere. Screeching late at night, napping in every windowsill, scurrying across the street: Istanbul’s wild cats seem intrinsic to the city’s culture.

Seeing  eight or nine cats strolling along a single street is not uncommon and most are quite social; one of them even greeted President Obama on his visit to Istanbul (Youtube it!) causing Obama to pause and pet the feline as Turkish President Erdogan smiled on.

Many Turkish people don’t actually keep pets in their homes, cats or dogs, but they take excellent care of their street-dwelling pet population. Often, people leave out animal carriers and makeshift beds equipped with pillows and carpets – cat hostels, if you will -for cats passing through the neighborhood.

Food is also provided. Most often, you’ll see bowls of food and water tucked away in street corners, but sometimes people will actually leave their leftovers on a tray outside their door; I came across one dog feasting on someone’s leftover pasta with meatballs.

Wild dogs are also prominent in Istanbul’s street culture though not as well liked as their feline counterparts. More often than not, people will stop to pet cats; not so much with dogs. I read that there are well over 100,000 wild dogs roaming the city, with some estimates being upwards of 150,000.

Most wild dogs, much like the cats, are social and well-adjusted; we actually had a dog follow us down Istikal after we stopped to pet him. He barked at anyone who came to close, as if he were really our pet. After about 45 minutes of proving his loyalty, we named him Scraggles.