Moving on…

I finally got around to blogging again, after an approximately two year hiatus. The demands of teaching and committee work hit me like a semi-truck, and honestly I just didn’t know what to write anymore. I was, after all, eating pork products a couple times a week now. And no künefe. It was criminal, really.

I have been back to Istanbul twice since returning, for shorter trips to continue the research I started during my Fulbright year. It was different being a tourist, a visitor. In some ways, it was less pressure. No one expected me to speak Turkish (really, no one expected me to speak it when I lived there, save my tutor, since I look obviously foreign). And I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to get to the other side of the city for a meeting or interview, and then get back during rush hour in time to pick up my kids from the school bus. But it was bittersweet; I didn’t live in this amazing city anymore.

My life and work have changed so much that it didn’t seem right to continue this blog. My year without bacon is over. But I created a new venue in which I can write about my work and the work of other migration scholars in ways that I hope will be engaging and thought-provoking (and hopefully dispel a lot of awful myths about migrants that I circulating right now). That venue is A Place to Call Home, and I hope you’ll visit and continue to engage with me.

Teşekkür ederim!

Vertigo Leaving Istanbul

So I was kept off of the blog due to a crazy travel schedule, including 36 hours in Antalya followed by a three days in London for conferences, plus the usual insanity involved in trying to wrap up work and moving a family across the Atlantic. I’ve had ideas for posts swirling through my head, but haven’t had the chance to write any of it until now, sitting in my sister-in-law’s kitchen in Chicago, surrounding by a ridiculous number of suitcases (225 EURO in extra luggage fees!).

One thing I’ve been thinking about is all the everyday things that I came to take for granted and accept as a normal part of my everyday life. These are the ubiquitous moments of life in Istanbul; fellow Istanbullites will understand.

1. Using Roman aquaducts as geographic markers when giving people directions.

2. Cigarette smoke. Everywhere.

3. Turkish men sitting in tea houses and tiny bistro tables on sidewalks, looking surly and drinking tea from delicate tulip-shaped glasses. In the U.S. such tea drinking habits are more commonly associated with femininity, but in Turkey tea houses are men’s spaces. And of course they are always smoking.

4. Walking on cobblestones in high heels. Elif Şafak has a wonderful scene describing this challenge in the opening chapter of The Bastard of Istanbul.

5. The smells. Such an array of smells! And even the unpleasant ones were delightful, because they reminded me of where I was. Rose, cigarette smoke, roasting meat, begonias, fish, fresh-baked bread, cinnamon, cat pee, salt water, roasted chestnuts, tomatoes, human sweat, and in the spring and summer the occasional whiff of fresh-cut grass. And I swear that stone has a smell. There’s the smell of it after a rain, when it reeks of earth. It has a different smell when it is hot under the sun, and another when it is cool and lines the walls of a dimly lit hallway.

6. Walking. We had no car during our time in Istanbul, and I don’t think I would have driven if I had the money to buy one. It was stressful enough taking taxis. Everyone now comments how thin I look. My secret is 10,000 steps a day and as much dairy and baked goods as I feel like eating. The olive oil probably helps. As an aside, walking is a great way to get to know Istanbul.

7. Taking a ferry as an everyday form of transportation. We took a ferry tour of the Bosphorus, but most often we just hopped on a ferry to get to the Anatolian side of the city. I did once take the new Marmaray metro line that runs under the Bosphorus, but that was mere convenience. The ferries are all about the experience. My kids cried whenever I suggested we use the Metrobüs instead.

8. Along the transportation theme, I’m really going to miss dolmuş. These shared taxis are a super convenient way to get around the city; they connect neighborhoods like spider webs stretching across the massive sprawl of Istanbul. I needed to go to Koç University during my second to last week; the campus is located waaaaaay far north near the place where the Bosphorus and Black Sea meet. I dreaded it; I thought I would need to take a taxi much of the way, and was imagining the expense and possibly 2 hour+ trip. But then a friend told me to catch one dolmuş at a metro stop, then transfer to another dolmuş. Boom! I made the trip in just over an hour, and it costs me the equivalent of a couple dollars. Every large city should have dolmuş.

9. Mezes. It’s hard to go wrong with food cooked slowly in olive oil. It’s everywhere.

10. The history of everything. The imperial mosques and Ottoman palaces are obvious, but every interaction you have, everything you see, has a history to it. And you can’t quite understand it until you know the history. From the kind of head covering that women wear to the way food is cooked to who shows up at what political rally. It’s not just some individual choice; it is the culmination of events taking place over the course of years and sometimes generations. I often walked away from situations feeling like I could have used a history lesson beforehand.

11. No rodents. Just cats. EVERYWHERE! I decided that when I got back to the U.S. I would get a cat. His name will be either Mehmet the Conqueror or Suleiman the Magnificant, depending on his personality. Or Roxelana (Suleiman’s wife, and a prominent figure in Ottoman history) if she’s a female.

It will be strange not to have these things in my everyday life anymore. It’s so nice to see family, and I’m looking forward to seeing other family and friends soon. But I’m also plotting my return to Istanbul.

Galatasaray Football: Women and Children First!

Actually, last Saturday was women and children only at the Galatasaray versus Erciyesspor match. Erciyesspor is the team from Kayseri, a city in the Cappadocia region of Turkey. Galatasaray is, of course, the greatest football team in Istanbul, according to my five-year-old Meredith. We came to Istanbul as nominal fans of Galatasaray, since our best friends here were fans and it just felt like we had to pick a side as soon as possible. But Meredith jumped into fandom feet first, and started requesting a jersey after our second month here. We finally bought her one as an early birthday present, along with matching shorts, socks, and a scarf. Here she is in her regalia, with her friend Zeynep who also has a larger-than-life personality.

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Saturday’s match was closed, meaning that the team was not allowed to sell tickets as a punishment for some violation. The violation in question this time? Their fans were caught cursing during a previous game. Calling that a violation makes Turkish football matches sound like chaste affairs. They really, really are not. Yes, people swear at American sporting events, but rarely with the vehemence, the passion, nor the violence with which Turks swear at football matches. And everyone is doing it, collectively. They have regular chants that involve promising to have sex with the opposing team in ways that are clearly not about a consensual, mutually pleasurable interaction. “We’ll f— you in the shower! We’ll f— you in the street!” Such language regarding another person’s mother is especially insulting, and so rape threats against the other team’s mothers are popular when Galatasaray plays crosstown rival Fenerbaçhe.

With cursing so endemic at football matches, why is every other match not a closed match? Well, political symbolism is more important in Turkey than practicality. So a message is sent that swearing is unacceptable, even if everyone is doing it.

Closed matches used to be entirely closed, meaning the team played to an empty stadium. But the league decided that that was a bit too humiliating, so they allow women and children to attend these matches, for free. It works great for everyone; the league sends their message, the players get cheering fans, and I am able to get a ticket to a game I otherwise would never get into without my kid developing a Turkish vocabulary that consists solely of “hello,” “thank you,” and “f— your mother.”

The stadium wasn’t even half full, so the crowd wasn’t usually as loud as Turk Telecom Stadium gets during regular matches (you can read a description of that on Rich’s blog). But I was impressed with the sound level the half-full stadium produced. Women are enthusiastic football fans too; many had their Galatasaray jerseys, with some hijabi women coordinating their headscarves with the team colors of red and yellow. The metro was filled with lion hats (the lion, or aslan in Turkish, is the symbol of Galatasaray), noisemakers, banners, and chanting. Meredith was in awe of the collective energy. This was her first professional sporting event, and I am sure she is hooked.

There were also many references to the Soma mine accident that had happened earlier that week. At least 301 miners were killed when a transformer in a mine in Soma, Turkey exploded and started a fire. I write “at least” because accurate information has been hard to find. The government and the mine company at first downplayed the number of dead and missing, dismissed anger over lack of safety precautions at the mine (the ruling AKP party had earlier voted down increasing safety requirements; they now are backing this CHP-led legislation), and people who protested when Erdoğan showed up in Soma (some of them miners themselves or family members of miners who were also mourning) were met with derision, slaps, and kicks. Seriously. A miner who had survived the accident and was owed back pay by the mining company was held down by soldiers and an aide to Erdoğan kicked the guy while he was on the ground. The aide, Yusef Yerkel, was put on medical leave. Apparently he hurt his foot. He did finally get sacked this week. Well, sort of. He was “reassigned.”

So anyway, there were signs showing solidarity with the miners and residents in Soma:

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At the beginning of the match there was a moment of silence for the Soma miners. There were signs that read “today we are not red and yellow; today we are all black as coal.”

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There was even a group of young women wearing coal mining helmets with black smeared on their faces.

Galatasaray won the match 2-1. Meredith was quite pleased.

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As we exited the stadium a group of young women chanted “did we give it to them?” The nature of the “giving” was left implied.

A Trip to Ankara in the Midst of Protest

I had been meaning to go to Ankara for some time to talk to US Embassy staff working on trafficking, and hoped to see other people while I was there. I made one foiled attempt in March, when I was trapped in the airport in Trabzon and ended up missing the entire day’s plans. This week I was finally able to nail down appointments and fly to Ankara for a short 36 hour trip. It’s amazing how much can happen is such a short time.

First, there was the mine disaster in Soma, some 95 kilometers from Izmir as the crow flies. It is the worst mining disaster in Turkish history, claiming the lives of at least 274 workers with different reports on the numbers still trapped inside. There is evidence that this accident was preventable, and in fact that efforts to prevent it were thwarted by ruling party leaders. So not surprisingly, many people are enraged at the government and protests have happened around the country. When I checked in at the ARIT hostel (American Research Institute in Turkey) where I was staying, I was told to avoid certain areas because of protests. I only saw one small group of people by the miner statue near downtown Ankara as I was leaving. But here is some video of what it looked like earlier in the day. Things got really ugly down in Soma, where an advisor to Erdogan kicked a mourner who was being held down on the ground by military. Classy.

Then there were the Afghans. UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) has suspended resettlement of Afghans currently residing in Turkey; this comes just as Afghans have started entering the country in what one asylum lawyer told me was a “flood.” UNHCR has a global policy of focusing resettlement from the country of first arrival (which in the case of Afghans is mostly Pakistan and Iran), in order to avoid encouraging refugees to travel through many countries, which is usually a dangerous journey physically and politically. Still, what are the Afghans here in Turkey to do but protest? They have been outside the UNHCR offices in Ankara for over 30 days now protesting the close of the resettlement program here. Some have been on hunger strikes, and several sewed their lips shut.

In the midst of all this, I am going from office to office, meeting with people to learn and talk about trafficking, forced servitude, deportation, and other violations of human rights. And then I stop for lunch. Obviously I still need to eat, but sometimes engaging in the banalities of everyday life gives me vertigo.

After having coffee with a couple people from UNHCR, I spotted a restaurant that looked appealing; Mardin Lokantasi. Mardin is a town in the southeast part of Turkey, very close to the Syrian border. Here it is on a map:

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I generally loved food from this region, so I went in and hoped for the best. And it did not disappoint. In addition to the Mardin kebabs are ordered (which tasted good but not widely different from any other kebab I’ve had), the owner brought me a sample of mezes: stuffed grape leaves and stuffed onions; smoky eggplant salad; stewed onions with charred tomato sauce and spices; cold yogurt soup with chickpeas, rice, and dried mint; shephard’s salad (tomatoes, parsley, cucumbers, olive oil, and pomegranate molasses) in which I think the tomatoes were charred, çiğ köfte (fine-grained bulgur wheat mixed with tomato paste and spices and cooked so that it is malleable like dough, always served with iceberg lettuce and a squeeze of lemon), and a plate of pickled vegetables. He served me the meze with bread that I think he called göbek (Turkish for belly), and it did indeed look like a puffy little belly with sesame seeds. He also talked to me quite a bit in Turkish baby talk (leaving out advanced verb tenses), so I understood most of what he told me. I didn’t bring a camera so I couldn’t take a picture of the beautiful spread, but I did take this photo of me drinking my ayran (plain yogurt with water and salt) in the most beautiful copper cup.

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That is the owner behind me; a very nice man who encouraged me to eat my göbek when he saw that I had overdone it on the pickled hot peppers and had water streaming from my eyes. He also chased me down the street to bring me my laptop, which I had left on the table at the restaurant. Typical absent minded professor.

So this is what my life is like now; I go from discussing cases of human trafficking and refugees trying desperately to find a permanent home to delicious food and friendly conversations in broken Turkish. I share pictures of my kids with a political officer at the US Embassy and then talk with her about the desperate situation of Syrian refugees. I listen to Syrian refugees give me first hand accounts of their desperate escapes from their country, and then I listen to my kids tell me about their day in school. It’s horror mixed with delights. And it leaves me dizzy.

Will Turkey Provide Permanent Protection to Syrian Refugees?

The Refugee Convention of 1951 is the legal framework that provides the foundation of international law around protection of refugees. Along with the 1967 Protocol, these documents codify the responsibilities that signing nation-states have to refugees within their borders. It provides the definition of a refugee – in a nutshell, a person who is outside their country and cannot or is unwilling to return because of experiences of or fear of persecution. As a matter of international law, no country is suppose to send a person back to their country if that person will likely be persecuted (referred to as non-refoulement). But signing the Refugee Convention obligates a country to provide permanent protection to the refugee. That is why many Convention signatory countries try very hard to keep refugees from stepping onto their sovereign soil, as that would obligate them to assess their eligibility for, and likely provide, protection.

The Syrian crisis, not unlike many other areas where massive violence and displacement are occurring, is happening in an area where many of the surrounding countries are not signatories to the Refugee Convention. That means that Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, and Iraq are not protected by the Refugee Convention because those countries are not signatories to the treaty. Those countries have stated that they will provide temporary refuge to Syrians (although Lebanon recently announced that they were saturated and could not accept any more Syrians, Jordan’s resources are also thin, and Iraq still struggles with its own stability). But without the obligation to Convention, that hospitality is offered, and can be withdrawn, at the pleasure of the state.

Turkey is the only country receiving large numbers of Syrians that has signed the Convention. But there is a catch; Turkey ratified the Convention back in 1968 with a “geographic limitation,” meaning that they would only obligate themselves to protect refugees who originated from Europe. Back in when the Convention was first written (in response to the displacement of the World War II), such a geographic limitation might have made sense. In today’s world where few refugees are coming from Europe, this limitation is a hindrance to providing full protection to people subjected to the kinds of horrors Syrians are fleeing.

Turkey’s government has made it their goal in recent years to become a major political player in the region, which has involved taking moral stances that have moved them away from narrow nationalistic interests. Included in these actions are the greater openness to discussing the genocide of Armenians, and decriminalizing the use of the Kurdish language. Government officials in Turkey have also taken great pride in the humanitarian assistance that they have provided to Syrians, and at least up until recently the border between Turkey and Syria remained largely open.

Perhaps not surprisingly, then, there has been some talk from government officials that Turkey will lift the geographic limitation. They had the opportunity to do this in domestic law, with the Law on Foreigners and International Protection that passed last year and took effect April 11, 2014. But that law, while a vast improvement from the previous patchwork of migration-related legislation, still only guarantees temporary protection to non-European refugees until they are resettled. But resettlement (in which refugees are given permanent protection in a third country) is available to less than 1% of all refugees worldwide. There simply aren’t enough countries willing to accept refugees in countries like Turkey. For example, you can see here that the number of refugees that countries have committed to taking (just over 20,000) is barely a drop in the estimated 9 million Syrians who have been driven from their homes within Syrian and the 2.5 million that have already sought temporary protection outside of the country. Granted, that number does not include U.S. resettlement, which is an open-ended right now and will probably be the largest number of refugees accepted by a single country. Still, the majority of the Syrians in Turkey right now (at least 736,137 as of May 7 but probably close to a million when counting unregistered Syrians) will remain in Turkey indefinitely.

When Syrians first starting coming into Turkey, everyone hoped that this would be a temporary situation, no more so than the Syrians themselves. Everyone now knows that this is not a short-lived crisis. The end of this crisis is no where in sight. The people who have fled Syria will still be tormented by the family and friends that they have lost, and that they have left behind. There is nothing that countries like Turkey can do now about the cities that have been leveled, the culture and history that has been destroyed. But Syrians in Turkey can start rebuilding their lives, if they know that Turkey will provide them a permanent home should they choose to stay. And Turks can start planning for a more certain future that will include Syrians. But no one, Syrians nor Turks, can get on with their lives and move forward without the certainty that permanent protection provides. For the sake of the Syrians here and their Turkish hosts, the government of Turkey should remove the geographic limitation.

Open Letter: Immigration Bill 2013-2014

This letter isn’t directly related to Turkey. But it is a good example of the kind of public intellectual work in which migration scholars are increasily engaged, and as someone who considers herself at least a part-time public intellectual, I want to publicize it. It is also a great example of political engagement that is possible with independent institutions where members do not fear challenging government policy. This is what is possible when you have democracy.

Action Against Racism and Xenophobia

Dear Editor

We are writing regarding the UK Immigration Bill 2013-14. We feel compelled to speak out against the Bill: as researchers who dispute the assumptions that underlie the Bill; as educators concerned about the impact on our international students and colleagues, who form a substantial presence in our programmes and critically contribute to academic life; and as members of society concerned by the likely human and social impacts of the Bill (See Migrants Rights Network briefing).

The underlying discourse of the Immigration Bill blames immigration for the intense insecurity and fear for the future that so many of us face, and pits the interests of migrants against the interests of ‘British workers’. It is based on the false division between ‘us and them’ – and the assumption that if migrants are not excluded then they will take British workers’ jobs and place an unbearable strain on state finances and…

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There Is Green Space in Istanbul (If You Go Far Enough)

My son frequently asks me why there is not more color in Istanbul. He sees the various shades of grey and muted earth tones on the buildings around our congested and somewhat aged neighborhood in Şişli and thinks that all of Istanbul looks like that. Plus, drab is the color of winter in Istanbul; overcast, the Bosphorus turning to slate, the terra cotta roof tiles going from burnished in the summer heat to a cold, flat brownish red in the chilly winter wind. Orhan Pamuk, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of My Name is Red, reportedly loves the look of winter in Istanbul, but I am partial to the explosion of color in spring from Tulip Time in April and the azure of the Bosphorus in summer.

Yesterday was one of those days when you can feel summer approaching, the sky blue and the sun warm, and so I thought it was the perfect day to take a boat tour up the Bosphorus. Being a Sunday and the early part of the tourist season, we had to brave significant crowds to get a ticket. But thankfully we got tickets; it cost 25 lira each for Rich and I, and a pat on the children’s heads from the ticket seller for Henry and Meredith. We took the ferry boat that runs from Eminönü just south of the Golden Horn all the way up to Anadolu Kavağı, the old Greek fishing village where our friends Melikşah and Gamze took us a couple weeks ago. Lunch was nearly as delicious as our dinner had been (we went to the same restaurant, and almost the same table), although I have to admit that the company this time around wasn’t nearly as… civilized, let’s say.

We did not make it all the way to the Byzantine castle; the climb up the hill was more difficult with no car and little people with little legs. But there were so many wonderful views from as far as we got up the hill, and from the boat where we could see the city withdraw and the forests emerge from between the buildings. Buildings with lots of color, by the way.

Here are just a few pictures that prove that Istanbul still has green space.

This photo shows how the other half lives in Istanbul; it’s the Anatolian side, and I had to climb over a bunch of people on the ferry to get the photo.
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More places I could never afford, but they are pretty to look at. Too bad there is not more public space along the Bosphorus. Still, much of the coast line on the European side is interrupted by parking lots, so this seems better to me.
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After awhile, this is all you see. So peaceful. And technically I think this is still Istanbul.
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Here is a shot of the Byzantine castle ruins from the Bosphorus.
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There is, of course, the omnipresent cargo ship. This is one of the smaller ones we saw that day.
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And then beginning of the Bosphorus where it meets the Black Sea (and the scars dug into the forest from the building of the dreaded third bridge).
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We also great views of well-known landmarks, like the Rumeli Castle.
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And of course the Bosphorus Bridge, one of the most notable landmarks in the city.
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Here is a view from the Bosphorus from about 2/3 the way up the hill to the castle ruins.
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Here is the restaurant (Yosun) where we had lunch, right on the water.
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By the time we got back on the ferry, some people were pretty tired…
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It was a truly beautiful day to see another side of Istanbul.