Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Back in the US

I’m on a flight from Istanbul to New York. After landing in New York, I’ll take a small flight to Boston, and be home soon thereafter. I’m in a bizarre state of mind right now. I will miss Turkey deeply and I’ve determined I’ll be back. Not just once for a visit or a tour around the country, but to stay for a long period of time, to live once again among the mosques and the bucolic scenery. I plan on making Turkey somewhat of a second home.

I’ve learned a great deal, much of which has already been mentioned, and it’ll be interesting to learn more from my experience upon reflection. I remember returning from my semester abroad in Egypt and slowly witnessing how my experience there affected me back at home – how it slowly unraveled, forever altering, or giving consciousness to, my American reality.

For that, I am grateful. And having lived in Turkey for 9 months has allowed me to conceptualize the world in an entirely different way all over again, though more so than I thought possible. It is unimaginable to those who haven’t experienced life in another country just how connected humanity seems. It requires, I believe, more than a trip here or there to get a taste of it. It requires a prolonged stay and conscious openness.

I spent my final day in Turkey in Istanbul. I fortunately woke up early that day and had a good amount of hop around and see what I had wanted to see before leaving. I wandered through the chic neighborhoods of Bebek and Ortakoy, lined with cafes overlooking the Bosphorous. I even decided on a Bosphorous tour – essentially an hour boat ride with no real agenda. The tour boat just kind of drifts around for a while before returning to the dock, but it’s relaxing. I had coffee with a friend near the Yeni Camii, where fishermen populate the bridge over the Golden Horn. It's a busy place, with boats speeding in and out, and craft dealers begging the attention of wandering tourists. Dinner was at a swanky restaurant in Sultanahmet, where the famous Blue Mosque and the Aya Sofya solemnly stare each other down not a thousand feet from one another. The food was decent, but the view of the ocean was spectacular.

The evening was special. I went, with a few friends, to a nargile cafe in an ancient stone marketplace near Sultanahmet. We sat, chatted, took in the ambiance, and met a few others’ in the mostly crowded space we occupied. In true Istanbul fashion, we met a few people from Iran and ending up sharing their birthday cake. It was delicious and a nice, celebratory way to end my time. The mix of Persian, Turkish, and English swirled about the room like the smoke from our water pipes.

Back at the airport my friend and I shared the surreal experience of abruptly being tossed back into the US. A few observations through the lens of an American turned Turk turned American:

- Americans are a shabby bunch. Since when did sweatpants and shorts replace trousers, hmm? I felt like I was I was at a huge slumber party rather than JFK.

- Americans work hard… but they’re miserable (this is based on 5 of the 6 cashiers I saw).

- Americans drink comically huge beverages. Why order a glass of water when you can order a tub of cola for 25 cents more!?!?!

I’ve been back for a few days now. It’s an indescribable feeling, really. The first morning back, I struggled to order an iced coffee. I think I’ve become rather soft-spoken after 10 months in solitude. I tried coughing out the words only half-successfully.

It’s not as if things seem new to me again. Actually everything seems familiar, only undercut by a sense of weirdness. I may be feeling some residual anxiety about being back. Because I’m newly returned, my surroundings have adopted a foreignness despite their familiarity. It’s as if there’s something mildly “off,” and I have yet to determine the roots of that strangeness.

So I reckon it’ll take a little while to feel completely re-acclimated. I’m sad about not hearing the call to prayer anymore. Though by the end of my time in Turkey I had barely noticed it, I feel its absence.

My Fulbright experience will only grow on me. I will continue to miss what is no more. I will strive to hold onto the values of a society more devoted to community. The selflessness I received from colleagues and friends and students will forever remain appreciated and loved.

Lastly, I am most grateful for a new perspective – a more broad view of the world that will carry me far and compel me to pursue peace and equality in an effort to bridge the seemingly vast differences we choose to exploit amongst one another. That being said, my experience has given me faith in peace and in the propensity for humanity to grasp onto links, no matter how fine, that draw us closer together and give us a sense of our identities as members of a greater human family.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Outside of Chora Church, Istanbul.

June 1st

The God's are telling me to go. Either that, or I've gone off the deep end. Too much alone time? Too little English? Hormones? All of that. Not only was I the only American at the track today, but I was the only person wearing shorts. And if those two characteristics aren't strange enough for the covered elderly couples who monopolize Edebali Stadyum between the hours of 3 and 7, than the fact that I was running barefoot was.

In radical, hasty decisiveness, my roommate moved to an apartment sans electricity. Having just returned from a baklava and karisik kebab bender in Gaziantep, I needed a comfortable spot to be. I've serendipitously come full circle, now residing in the hotel I was kept for the first month or so when I first arrived. Only this time, it's me, not the University, paying the bill. The stress of having to deal with sudden homelessness, compounded with my final trip to the Rector's Office for a quick gesture of appreciation, and where I was subject to a not-so-subtle anti-semitic lecture/narcissistic diatribe, was a bit much. I checked into the hotel, flung my belongings on the ground, and reached for my running sneakers. But they weren't there. Though my roommate didn't care to move my luggage with the rest of the apartment, he still managed to take my running sneakers. But after a long day - one rife with homelessness and anti-semitism - I had to take it out on the track. Lack of sneakers wouldn't stop me. I slid on my running gear and... my slip-on boat shoes... and trudged up to the stadium. Yea, it was weird, but I needed to burn off the stress and excess baklava.

I'm once again living out of my suitcases. I'm about all packed up, which is a weird feeling. And tomorrow, I'll spend the day making the rounds, saying good-bye's and see-you-later's. Everyone I run into is asking if I'll be back next year. It's sad telling them I won't, but they're excited to hear that I'll continue learning Turkish and that, one day, inshallah, I'll be back.

Now is your opportunity to ask for things. I'll hopefully print out a number of my better photographs and perhaps use them for gifts when I get home, but if there's a certain something you're dying for, something sparked by a mysterious, Orientalist, fantasy you've had since your childhood, I can try to find that certain something in the marketplace. Things I can't take home: monkeys, swords, carpets of the flying variety (they take themselves home), those ridiculous Aladdin pants (out of principle).

This is 100th post. I'm bound to write one more, probably on the melancholy flight back to America when I'm finished watching 'Karate Kid' and 'Kung Fu Panda 2' on the tiny screens embedded in the headrests.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

May 24th

My time here has come full-circle. Hot, long days remind me of when I first arrived in Bilecik having no idea where this journey would lead me. Turns out, it lead me a few directions, from Istanbul to Adana, from Ayvalik to Antalya. It also allowed me to confront, in a deep and personal way, the particulars of my life that have caused frusteration. An opportunity to step aside, to live on my own for a year, cultivated a sense of self that won't be broken. Moreover, I've deeply valued my chance to connect with Turks - to put a face to the unfamiliar and the often misunderstood. I'm an American, yes, but more than that, I'm a teacher and a friend.

I know its been overstated, but my heart is overflowing with gratitude. I'm leaving Turkey in a few days, but Turkey will always be a whisper in the back of my head, compelling me to return. And return I will, not only the beautiful city of Istanbul, or to the sites and visions that spawned great civilizations, but to my hometown of Bilecik, pop. 48,000. Humble mosques in tiny villages, snow capped mountains, rolling fields and olive groves, the generosity of local vendors, and the blue of the sea have dug themselves into my conscience, where they will remain for the rest of my days. Turkey has both effortlessly and relentlessly taken hold of me.

But I'm not going back to a hapless existence in all-to-familiar America. I'm moving on with my life in DC for the next two years. I'll continue to study Turkish, and to study Turkey's layered and complex political culture. It's important that, beyond my face-to-face diplomatic presence in Bilecik, I contribute to peace and understanding between America and Turkey in other capacities too. My tenure as a Fulbrighter far from over. I am now able to offer up a rich portrait of a country so misunderstood by Americans. It's more than kebab and baklava, chief.

Last weekend, I took a trip with a few friends to the coastal town of Ayvalik. There I was, an American, sitting on a Turkish beach, a French family to my left, reading the Indian Rushdie's book on Nicaragua, The Jaguar Smile, listening to Rihanna blaring through nearby speakers, and sipping something from yet another country. The year has brought the world together for me, not only in the superficial way globalization has transformed sleepy Ayvalik beach into the UN, but mainly in the way intellectual connections minimize differences between people of (not so) different cultures and societies.

I'll go back to my flat now, and mill about in the living room for a bit before falling asleep. I'll cherish every moment of it too.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Restored Ottoman houses in Eskisehir

May 13th

I write to you on the official beginning of my summer vacation. I celebrated in the most honest way I could, sleeping in late, going for a run, listening to NPR, eventually getting breakfast (it was 2:00 by then), and relaxing at a favorite cafe surfing the web and reading as the sky outside changed from grey to dark grey. It is raining now, which isn't unusual in Bilecik. But because I've already touched upon the weather in previous posts, I need not go there. the weather is, however, one of the few things I can comment on in Turkish, so it's something I'm especially keen towards. You never know when that everyday conversation about weather can turn into a Turkish vocabulary lesson.

I plan on visiting Istanbul as early as tomorrow to relish in the urban magic for what may be one of my final chances to do so. The pages are running out on the Bilecik experience. Istanbul, however, is the most beautiful city in the world and the subject of countless chapters of books, and artist's images and compositions. It is the heart and soul of Turkey's past, present, and future, swiftly flying forward while keeping it's eyes fastened on the richness of its very own history.

I friend of mine, on a Watson Fellowship, has just settled down in Istanbul, on the next leg of her journey through 7 (?) countries. She's an artist, truly and completely, and I'm grateful for her exposure to such a lavish Well of inspiration.

Perhaps it's my own fault that I haven't tapped into the artistic consciousness of Turkey. I've grappled more so with the layers of identity, and the political push and pull of the government. In fact, my only exposure to Turkey's art movement were the articles and images I digested of the Monument to Humanity, representing friendship between the Turks and the Armenians in the eastern city on Kars. It's deconstruction so moved me that I acquired a sour taste concerning the governments lack of openness and compassion. It was an uncomfortable narrative to follow, especially in awareness of the strong undercurrent of guilt and shame bubbling up within the soul of a country manipulating history to fit what it wishes to have happened.

I watched a YouTube video last evening of Dr. King describing the difference between non-resistance and non-violent resistance. The provocative nature of non-violent resistance was intended to place great shame on the white population at the time. It effectively ripped the white conscience from its contentment, compelling it to stare strait into the eye of injustice; to confront its vile guilt. It reminded me of the monument, the necessity of art as a means by which to evolve not only on the basis of a singular event, but in terms of overall thought. Art does what academics fail to do in revealing not only the intellectual, but the wholly human side of things. The academic, the journalist, can report on the deaths of a thousand. The artist, however, can make you feel it. I regret the monuments destruction. I applaud its capacity to have done forced one step closer, an accurate view of the past and a hopeful image of tomorrow.

I remember reading Reza Abdoh for the first time in an Contemporary Drama class at Wheaton. I felt literally ill, nauseous reading his play. The gruesome imagery, over-the-top violence, perverse sexuality, and the grandiosity of it all prepared me to march into class the next day and vilify Abdoh's identity as an artist. All I really needed to alter my view of the drama, however, was a brief backstory of the artist. Iranian-born, gay, dead of AIDS at 32. His work was a giant F*CK YOU, compliments of the powerless and the voiceless. The visceral response emerged from reading his work was a projection of his very own reality - an image of the world I wasn't prepared to confront. I dismissed the genius of Abdoh because I couldn't, at the time, face the music. What does it mean for one's village to be bombed, to be imprisoned and under siege? Turkey, I feel, is dealing with the same thing, albeit with a frightening degree of intolerance. We can hope and pray for art to emerge as a powerful medium of intellectual and spiritual enlightenment amidst societies everywhere.