Well, my time here in Istanbul, and in the Eastern Hemisphere, is beginning to reach it's end, and I thought I would post one more time before I head home.
In short: my time in Istanbul has been simply unbeatable. I am very serious when I say that this is the world's best city.
Classes finished last week, and I have had the pleasure of having two great visitors: Rosa and my Mom. For those of you who may not know Rosa, she is one of my oldest friends from elementary school, and she spent the semester studying in Amman, Jordan. She is currently part-way through a two week Euro trip, and she chose to make Istanbul her first stop. It was a blast to be with Rosa, and we visited all the big spots, along with some of my favorite local ones. Unfortunately, like a bonehead, I neglected to get a picture of the two of us together.
Just one day after she left, I had the distinct honor of talking my mom into making the pilgrimage around the world, and we too had a ball together. She was here for 4.5 days, and we covered most of my favorite parts of the city. She was here for New Years, and it was a delight to be with her to ring in 2014.
Momma and I in front of the Hagia Sophia
The NYE street party in Nisantasi
I have also now completed my internship with BAU. I want to thank Sean (my boss), and Sinem, Mert, Gulsum, and Dilan (office mates) for making my time in the office so enjoyable. I will miss the moments when my officemates would talk rapidly in Turkish and I could understand 0% of what was said, but laughed anyway when everyone else did.
I also need to give a huge thank you to my program leaders. Burak, Erika, Sidar, and Alex made all the difference in the world this semester, and I can not express my gratitude to them for all they did. I can only imagine the logistical nightmare of figuring out how to juggle the needs and issues of 16 college students for an entire semester. You guys deserve a mighty helping of baklava. In particular, I would like to thank Burak for not tearing my head off every time I would ask him the same question 3 or 4 times before I listened closely enough to digest the answer.
Our whole group in Assos, on the Aegean Coast of Turkey, picking olives
I am also immensely grateful to my new friends out here. Simply put, all of you made this semester great, and I feel truly blessed to have met all of you.
Since I got here, I have struggled to articulate what exactly it is that makes Istanbul so special and I still am unable to do it justice. But, the best way I can describe Istanbul is to call it a place that has made the best out of it's identity crisis.
The cliques are abundant. Istanbul is where the East meets the West, where Islam meets secularism, where democracies can have authoritarian leaders. But the depth with which Istanbul toes the line between various mentalities and descriptions is the precisely what makes this place so great.
And Istanbul itself is still very much unsure of what direction it is heading in.
Now that my time is over, I can share some thoughts on the protests that have dominated the talk in this country since this summer. Many of you may have heard about the protests that turned into violence over the summer in Istanbul. While these protests started as environmentalists protecting a park from development, the original cause was lost quickly. The real motivation behind the protests is a general anti-government sentiment.
Tayyip Erdogan (Er-doe-ahn) and the AKP party are the current rulers in Turkey. They are conservative Islamists who have been steadily desecularizing the country and cutting many civil liberties away from its citizens. According to many, including a number of academics who professionally study this sort of thing, this regime has crossed over from a democratically elected government, into authoritarianism.
Thus, the young people in cities like Istanbul have begun pushing back. In truth, there has not been much activity since this summer, but I have been seriously downplaying the tensions, mostly for the sake of my mother. But of course, the very first night Mom comes to visit, we were planning on going to eat dinner in the Taksim/Istiklal area of town until I received a text from my program director reading, "Dear all, police intervened to protesters in Taksim. Please don't go to Taksim tonight."
Of course, for me that was the most tempting two sentences ever written, but I figured I would spare Mom the stress of rubber bullets and tear gas. However, I did monitor Twitter the rest of the night and next day (because of gov't censorship of media, Twitter is really the only outlet to find updates on anti-government anything -- fun fact: Turkey has the most jailed journalists of any nation in the world. So much for freedom of speech). These pictures were all taken from the twittosphere:
Istiklal Street blanketed in tear gas. This is arguably Istanbul's largest central area, it is just down from Taksim.
An image of the rubber bullets the police shot at protesters. Apparently these were covered in some sort of powder that made people cough and itch.
In an attempt to fight back, the protesters began throwing fireworks at the police
These protests and how they have been perceived around the country and world are a perfect example of why Istanbul is so different. The complexity of Turkish politics (including the growing evidence of the "Deep State") would require many many blogs, and I have no intention of trying to be the person to educate everyone. What I will say is that the fact that American political leaders (both Democrats and Republicans) will defend Turkey as our most valuable ally and an exemplary democracy in the Middle East, which seems ludicrous when you look at these images of police forcibly disbanding peaceful protests so violently.
But paradoxes like these are commonplace here, and Istanbul's identity crisis is it's best feature. Istanbul is not Western, it is not Eastern, and it is not Middle Eastern (this may come as a surprise to some, but it's really true), it is not European nor Asian. The government is democratic, but historically, transitions of power have only come with military intervention, and government suppression of opposition is not unique to the protests this summer (in fact, those are relatively tame compared to some instances in the past). Most people identify as Muslims, but few actually visit the mosque five times a day and many drink. Covered women walk the streets and giggle with others wearing lipstick and high heels, and the list goes on.
Some parts of this city may frustrate some, but I have grown fond of all of Istanbul's dysfunction, and I have justified many frustrating moments with the simple sentence, "If it made sense, it wouldn't be Turkish." Traffic can be crippling, and trying to navigate any sort of bureaucratic process as a foreigner is an exercise in futility.
But this city has taught me more than I could have hoped for, both in terms of personal reflection and in terms of history, culture, and so on. If nothing else, it has spurred me to think, hard. And that alone makes it all worthwhile.
I am grateful beyond measure for the experience I have had here, and I am only sad to see it all end. I will try not to get too deep and sappy with all that I have learned. That type of thing may bore people, and is better left for face-to-face interaction anyway. But I will say that my worldview has shifted dramatically, and I will never see a foreigner of any kind, but particularly someone from the Middle East, in the same way ever again.
I will be home soon, and I hope to see all of you quickly thereafter.
From the world's best city,