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    August 2nd, 2011adminIstanbul

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    January 24th, 2011adminFood, Istanbul

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    October 18th, 2010adminCrafts, Folk Culture, Gypsies, History, Imagination, Istanbul

    A photo taken, near my friend's flat, in the slum district of Tarlabaşı -- a mixed neighborhood, including families, petty thieves, prostitutes, small businessmen, Kurds, expatriates and an assortment of Turks.

    As I’ve written in the past, history is plainly different here. In America, I fantasized about the rollicking saloon past of San Francisco and Portland. I wondered what New York City and Washington D.C. looked like 200 years ago. I imagined the old factories of Chicago, the blues joints and robust German immigrants and newly arrived Greeks and Irishmen. But did I feel the history? Could I really conjure it? No.

    In the United States, economic progress was so fast — and so great — that cities barely resemble their past, barely have remnants of even 150 years beforehand.

    Drying clothes in Tarlabaşı in the last days of summer.

    In Istanbul, I sense history. I don’t “feel” it completely — so much has been expanded or redeveloped. But history is also very much alive. Because it never completely went away.

    A man, hand-sewing blankets, in his shop, which overlooks hip art galleries, featuring political art work. The juxtaposition can be fascinating or, if you see it every day, totally average.

    For example, I live in Mecidiyekoy, a very modern district. My bedroom window overlooks the new Trump Towers, glossy and boastful elements of the modern age. But what’s directly below the towers?  Burnt, charred homes, with cardboard roofs, occupied by gypsy families, living (more or less) like they did a century ago. I pass some of the gypsy families every day. They smoke cigarettes, play cards, and keep an assortment of animals — chickens, roosters, dogs, cats. They are a part of the neighborhood — just as much as the corner store, mosque or police station.

    Of course, there is a huge textile industry in Istanbul and most people here just use factory-made, mass-produced items. But these shops exist, too -- and that's important.

    And this is not tokenized history.

    When I visited friends in New York City, I saw advertisements for a museum (and tour) of former 19th century tenement life — interesting but also long gone. Also, if you’re visiting the Western states, the Lonely Planet guides like to recommend former brothels and other former venues of licentious activity. But how silly, right? How strange. The unruly, anarchic and passion-filled past is made into common tour. You’re left to wonder.

    Perhaps if I lived in Appalachia, I would feel differently — maybe history would be more ever-present. But, in urbanized America, history seems so hyper-branded.

    Of course, there is historical tourism here. And waiters wear gimmicky Ottoman clothing, at times, mimicking a time that is long gone.

    But there is also a tremendous sense of cultural and historical preservation. In Istanbul, history is a continual thing — something that extends so far back, and still seems so ever present, that the crumbling buildings and old folk songs seem relevant — somewhere between historical and contemporary.  And, as a history nerd, I can’t help but feel enchanted by the intermingling of past and present here.

    A watermelon cart in Cihangir, a yuppie/bohemian district bordering the Taksim area. I also took this picture walking home from a friend's flat. In Istanbul, you don't need to look for photo moments -- they're constant.

    Here's Cihangir -- modern, pastel and safe. Contrast Cihangir with Tarlabaşı...

    I know I have written multiple times on the old/new element of life here. But I’m honestly not tired of it yet! Perhaps it’s my favorite part of Istanbul. So in this blog, I’ll come back to it, again and again …just like my daily life …walking up and down streets and passing faces and doorways that could be 20 years old, or 200 years old — as if it even matters at all.

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    Taksim Performers

    Performers from Ecuador in Taksim Square.

    I met Ecuadorian performers in Taksim Square. They knew very little English and practically no Turkish, except “on beş” (meaning “fifteen,” the cost of their audio disc). So, we spoke in Spanish. The girl (pictured above) explained that they come from a town outside Quito. She arrived in Istanbul, along with her family (uncle and brother) and close friend (pictured above), a few weeks ago. They plan to spend time here — about 2 months — playing music, dancing and, hopefully, making some money. Then, they will return home.

    Singing for their curious Istanbul audience

    The Turkish audience members were interested, no doubt. But they also seemed confused, as if they didn’t know how to act/what to do. A large circle enveloped the performers while two gypsy children ran through the crowd, playing games.

    “The South American performers began coming here about two years ago,” my friend, Fatih, explained. “That’s when I first saw them in Istanbul.”

    Tourism is a strange thing. When I watched the performers, I thought about being an “outsider.” For example, I’m an outsider here in Istanbul. I’m the recorder. I’m the observer. ..taking photos, writing blog posts.

    But, at that moment, the Ecuadorian performers were outsiders. Loud, excited Turks took flash photos — displaying the Ecuadorians like tourists sights — like the Louvre or Acropolis.

    And, in a way, the Turks were outsiders, too — peering into a very foreign culture, probably tailored to seem even more exotic and strange, even more indigenous and removed than the real lives of the performers in Ecuador.

    And I wondered ..was this even their “indigenous” culture? The clothing and dancing seemed American Indian, like Cherokee or something — not Andean/Ecuadorian!

    The whole thing was a bit surreal — the Ecuadorian performers, the awe-struck Turks, the rambunctious gypsy youth. And me.

    Most people didn’t buy the music or donate money. They were  just interested from afar.

    And the experience was both obnoxious and a strange relief — to not be the recorder for once.

    Dancing for the audience

    I tried to ask the girl what she thought of Istanbul — the people, the food, the life. She didn’t have much to say. She was more quiet, perhaps. But very kind. And her friend — the young guy — was so charmingly youthful. I figured he must be a  playful jokester back home.

    There were so many questions left unanswered. No doubt, it’s expensive to fly out four people to Istanbul, especially during the tourist season. What do they do in Ecuador?

    But, most of all, I wondered about their daily lives in Istanbul, before they hit the streets in the evening. What do they eat? What do they do? Who do they talk to? And when they go home in the morning, after a hard night’s work …what do they think of the whole thing?

    Gypsy kids running through the half circle surrounding the Ecuadorian performers. A surreal blend of old world Europe and the globalized tourist industry.

    Gypsy/Roma kids taking a seat by the subway entrance to watch the Ecuadorian performers.

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    August 15th, 2010adminFood, Islam, Istanbul, Religion
    Ramazan Bread

    Ramazan Bread, as seen from my bedroom window

    I worked today. During lunch break, I met with a teacher to discuss some things. So, I had a short lunch break — in fact, I rushed to a food stand, ordered my köfte sandwich for 3.5 lira (that’s $2.30) and headed to class, just as the bell rang. So, there I was, scarfing down my sandwich, shuffling my books around, and greeting new students in a frenzy. And, then, OOPS, I remembered that it is Ramazan (they say “Ramazan,” not “Ramadan,” in Turkey), all while I’m passionately devouring my sandwich. Of course, some people don’t keep Ramazan. And nobody cares if I don’t. But I felt a bit rude …because I was so involved in my sandwich. So single-mindedly devoted to eating it! But whatever. I put it away and finished it on break.

    To be honest, it’s funny I forgot! I mean, Ramazan is SO noticeable. There are posters advertising various Ramazan events all over the city — Ramazan Caz (“Ramadan Jazz”), Ramazan Osmanli History (i.e. an Ottoman ceremonial re-enactment with an actor playing Sinan, the 16th century architect!) and advertisements for Ramazan culinary specialties. One special food item is a bread, pictured above, which is chewy and pretty good.

    But the MOST noticeable — and, honestly, most annoying  — aspect of Ramazan is the A.M. activity. Often, I am woken up by a devastatingly loud drum procession (one drum, a few men, and a few stray dogs), accompanied by a baritone man’s voice, hollering something in Turkish, at 3:30 am. The drumming is meant to wake people up for breakfast before sunrise — like a “last call” at the bar (yes, I know that was a really un-Islamic reference). Then, I’m woken up AGAIN at like 4:20 am, as the muezzin delivers the call to prayer (an hour earlier than usual). It’s very hot this summer — the hottest in the last 20 years in Istanbul — so, I sleep with my windows open. Unfortunately, I hear the muezzin loud and clear. And the drumming loud and clear. And don’t even get me started on the gypsies’ roosters, which often hobble down my alley, and wake me up at ungodly hours. So, in conclusion, I wake up a few times every night.

    But, despite all this, I’m still much more energetic than many of my students. They are running all day on zero food or water. I mean, Jews just fast for one day (Yom Kippur) and water is allowed. And I honestly don’t know if Christians ever fast all. In short, this is pretty hardcore. Especially in the grueling heat. And especially in a modern city, with full work days and the demands of the office.

    Now, off to eating more food …and not keeping Ramazan.

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