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.

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.


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!

Artisan Antakya: The Art of Roasting

Walking around the market in Antayka this weekend, my nose stumbled upon a shop, selling an assortment of roasted nuts. After tasting a variety of samples, we settled on a bag of roasted cashews. Then the owner, Ismai, came out to greet us and invited us to a back corner for some tea. Bar none, Turkish hospitality is like no other I’ve experienced. Where ever you go, people will eagerly offer you a cup of tea, insisting on continuously refilling it. It takes about three cups to become best friends with someone here! Enjoying our tea and roasted nuts with Ismail, I learned that he has been in the nut industry for quite a while. He first started out by himself, pushing a little cart up and down the streets selling nuts. Now, fifteen years later, he owns his own nut roasting company, and ships to many different cities across Turkey.

His business is in Antayka, the Hatay region, which is close to the border with Syria. Currently there are four Syrian refugee camps located in the Southeast region of Turkey. While some of the shopkeepers have been hit hard during the turmoil in Syria, because it’s harder for people to cross back and forth over the border, Ismail said he hasn’t experienced the same loss of business as others.

Several shopkeepers report  their profits drastically declined because Syrian customers aren’t able to frequent them anymore. But, when talking with these various shop owners, there was one theme in common–empathy. They all expressed in some way that even if their businesses took a hit from the Syrian conflict, the most important issue for them was their Syrian brothers and sisters, as they affectionately referred to them. They displayed such humanity and concern for those across the border who are dealing with violence almost daily.

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.


Tolu Taiwo: On Display

During this trip I’ve been so preoccupied with finding Africans– and so thrilled when I make a connection with them– that I haven’t really thought about how I come across to Turkish people. The African population, after all, while existent, isn’t that big. In Istanbul, there hasn’t been much of a problem. However, Antioch is a different story.

One woman pointed to me, then to her arms and face, and then at my skin in amazement, as if she couldn’t believe that one human could be so dark. One little boy on the street stopped to stare at me for literally two minutes. I tried to engage in a conversation about his bike with him, but he wasn’t having it.

Picture by Caroline Pahl

A local art store owner, though, reassured me that the people’s reaction was not out of spite. “They are not racist,” he said, “but many of them rarely see someone of your color.”

Strange. But fair. No one is disrespectful of me, and no one has denied me anything. Instead of just feeling uncomfortable myself, I need to put myself in their shoes: If I saw someone different from me for the first time, I’d give them a glance, too.

Interview with formerly imprisoned Turkish journalist

I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Ahmet Sik, a journalist that was released from jail just two months. His interview has received a lot of press from social media and networking sites. It has been tweeted and retweeted over one-hundred times including tweets from Turkish press and news outlets. Check out an article I wrote about the interview in the International Herald Tribune: