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.


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!

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.

Platform for Global Challenges

Besides hosting prominent journalist professor Ahmet Sik, Istanbul Bilgi Universitesi at Santral is home to “Platform for Global Challenges,” a think-tank that works to tackle global and regional problems. This non-governmental organization informs the public by posting reports and articles in publications and on their website. Platform for Global Challenges also brings a keynote speaker to the campus every year, such as Tony Blair or Bill Clinton.

Platform for Global Challenges, Santral office. Only six months old, it's stationed in the heart of the campus, sharing a bright, one-story building with other academic units.

Idris Kardas, the General Coordinator, notes the benefit of integrating the organization into a higher education climate.”When we work with the University,” said Kardas, “we can work with academics more easily. Because we’re a new platform, we can use the University name, since all people know the University name.”

Ay Yildiz and Old Glory

In Istanbul, every day is the Fourth of July, so to speak. Even though Turkey actually declared its independence on May 19th, 1919, the amount of flags you can see waving on any given day is comparable to what you see in the US on our barbecues-and-fireworks holiday.

The crescent design of the Turkish flag is inspired by the old Ottoman flag, which also featured the color green. The new Turkish flag, however, incorporated the color red to symbolize the new secularism brought on by the beloved national hero Mustafa Kemal, who is often simply referred to as “Ataturk.” Images of Ataturk are often juxtaposed with the Turkish Flag. As the honored “Father of Turkey,” he is compared to Presidents Washington, Lincoln and Kennedy.

The Turkish flag is called Ay Yildiz, or Moon Star in the Turkish national anthem, much like how we refer to the American flag as a Star Spangled Banner. The vertical crescent and star are symbols of Islam, the dominant faith of Turkey. Flag etiquette in Turkey is also similar to the United States. The national flag flies above all other flags, it should not fly tattered or torn, and should not touch the ground.

I find it interesting to contrast the patriotism of my country, the USA, with that of Turkey in regards to flying a flag. While we proudly display our flags all over our communities for one day over the summer, the Turkish flag can be seen on almost every building, federal or not, every day of the year.

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