Toward the end of our trip, our group met with Turkish transportation officials. We discussed various issues related to transportation policy. One of the issues we talked about was the creation of female-only transportation cars to cater to women who feel unsafe or uncomfortable in a crowded area with males. This could create an environment where many of Turkey’s citizens feel safer.
Another issue we talked about was the creation of a more efficient transportation system that would not be as crowded. Many of Istanbul’s public transportation facilities get extremely crowded, and this can create an unsafe and uncomfortable environment for many of Turkey’s citizens. The creation of a less crowded transportation could reduce crime and make people feel more comfortable in Istanbul’s transportation infrastructure. The decrease in crime could also lead to a reduction in tensions between the police force and the civilian population in Turkey.
As part of our trip to Turkey, we visited the the Taksim Gezi Park. This park has been the site of various protests in recent years. Muge Yorganci, a graduate student who is studying urban planning, gave us a tour of Taksim Square and took us to the site where some of the protests happened. She told us that she had participated in some of the protests herself.
In 2013, the government had plans for a military barracks to take the place of the park, and many people were disconcerted with this arrangement. This led to the well-known 2013 Gezi Park protests.The protests started as a peaceful sit-in protest. However, the protestors were brutally removed by the police force and this led to more widespread protests in the park. These protests ended up being the largest in recent Turkish history.
There has been much tension in the relationship between the police and the citizens of Turkey. The police have been known to use tear gas, pepper spray, and even torture against the citizens of Turkey. When people were camped outside Gezi Park to prevent the demolition of the park, the police employed the use of tear gas and even lit fire to the tents that the people were inhabiting. This kind of violence has led to significant mistrust between the police force and civilian population of Turkey.
These observations relate directly to my project, which focuses on the police force and the factors that lead to crime in Istanbul. I enjoyed this tour and especially enjoyed going to such a historic site in Istanbul where so many events had taken place. The knowledge that I gained from this tour will be invaluable for me as I continue research for my project.
One of the most fulfilling experiences in Turkey for me was visiting a Syrian refugee school in Istanbul. I went in expecting a small rundown school, but what I came across was an extremely well-organized school. The children all seemed excited about learning and even more excited to learn more about our group. The teachers seemed highly competent and were very enthusiastic about and supportive of the kids they were teaching.
We visited various classrooms, and each class greeted us with a lovely welcome chant in Arabic. The students inspired me with their high spirits and enthusiasm. Everyone seemed happy and excited to be at school learning about the world. The teachers there especially impressed me. Despite their situation as refugees, they seemed to be making the best of what they had. They were incredibly friendly and seemed genuinely interested in having a conversation with our group.
The administrators of the school even went so far as to provide us with a wonderful meal consisting of falafels, hummus, and bread. We didn’t ask for it, and yet they insisted on us eating all the food. What surprised me even more was the low level of funding that was being provided to the school. What was impressive was how the people there had still managed to create a top-notch school with the few resources that they had.
The visit to the Syrian refugee school was my favorite aspect of our trip to Turkey. Rather than just reading about the Syrians and their lives as refugees, I got to witness their lifestyle firsthand. The observations I made also relate to my research, much of which explores how the Syrian refugees have adapted and how the increase in Syrian refugees has changed the atmosphere in Turkey.
In our trip to Istanbul, we met with Syrian opposition leader Khaled Khoja. It was an extremely interesting experience meeting such a major player in the Syrian conflict. Mr. Khoja walked into the restaurant with what seemed to be armored cars and a bodyguard to protect him. These precautionary measures show how serious the conflict that Mr. Khoja is involved in is.
Mr. Khoja started by telling us about his background and how he got reached the position he is at today. Mr. Khoja was born in Damascus and earned a degree in medicine from a university in Izmir. He has also established many opposition groups against the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad. For example, he helped establish the Syrian National Council in 2011. The Syrian National Council is an opposition group based in Istanbul formed as a reaction against Assad’s oppressive actions in Syria.
Mr. Khoja is now the leader of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. He quite candidly discussed with us the conflict in Syria and what measures he is taking to combat Assad’s regime. He said that his main goal is to bring an end to the adversity that the Syrian people are facing under Assad’s regime. He emphasized to us the atrocities being committed by Assad’s regime and told us that his peoples’ suffering is what motivates him to be a part of the opposition. Having been born in Damascus, he has direct ties to the people that are suffering there.
Much of the information I learned in this meeting directly relates to my research, as part of my research explores how the increase in Syrian refugees has affected the socioeconomic and political atmosphere in Turkey. The discussion with Mr. Khoja highlighted the plight of the Syrian people and the dangers they face. I now understand what the Syrian refugees in Istanbul are up against. This is certainly not a meeting that I will be forgetting, and it has provided me with great insight into the Syrian conflict and the status of the Syrian refugees in Istanbul.
One of the most salient issues our group encountered throughout our adventures was on decision making and who had the final say. In theory, governments receive legitimacy from and reflect the will of the people. While this is true in Turkey, there are certain limits to full democracy within Turkey’s system. First, in order to receive any amount of representation in Parliament a political party must get at least 10% of the popular vote. This system heavily favors the AK party which has amended Turkey’s constitution in favor of the highest electoral threshold in Europe. Certain parties, such as the Kurdish party, are systematically kept out of the Turkish government and their Parliamentary seats go to the winning party.
Not only does this expand the AK party’s power, but systematically shuts out groups of people that have a different stance on certain issues. The worse aspect of the entire process is how much power the AK party, headed by President Erdoğan, has and the way it often demands top-down results. In both the ‘Constructocracy’ lecture and meeting with Zaman correspondent Sevgi Akarcesme, skeptical and disheartened comments on Turkey’s political reality peppered zealous accusations of Erdoğan’s authoritarian like rule. In numerous cases we either heard that the central government, namely Erdoğan, had dismissed Istanbul’s ‘master plan’ and decided to build another mosque, airport, etc. or that the local governments loyal to AKP were falling in line with development plans regardless of previous plans. The perception was that where the AK party ruled Erdoğan got exactly what he wanted no matter the cost. In Izmir we learned from the mayor that this was not true. As a representative of the opposition party, the CHP (Republican People’s Party), he said that though the central government does not completely dictate urban development and that they receive little monetary support in funding efforts that would undoubtedly be more bipartisan.
So yes, authority is vested in elected governments but party politics are always present. Another argument convoluting the dialogue of Turkey’s power structure is that regardless of lack of certain political rights (censorship and attacks on freedom of speech), the average person is more worried about economic stability and providing for their family. The importance of Turkey’s construction sector in providing jobs is not to be underestimated. Though numerous corruption charges were filed against Erdoğan’s ministers, a blatant crime against the state, public outcry has been minimal because of the general good associated with increasing production of urban living space and access to employment. If the media is further prevented from addressing the blatant illegal actions of Erdoğan’s government then the average Turkish citizen will still vote to keep the AK party in power. So who has the power if government can convince you that some political rights are better than none?
As a coffee enthusiast I always excited to try new blends and flavors wherever I go. Besides being served tea on numerous occasions I made a point of tasting several lattes and cappuccinos. The average latte was too foamy but always strong and the cappuccinos were too frothy. The best part, however, was actual Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee differs from percolator and instant varieties, in terms of the way it is grinded and served. Coffee beans are roasted a few times and then grinded very fine. Turkish coffee is prepared in tiny pots called cezve, which can be used to make two cups of coffee at each shot. It was very dark and the grounds were heavily based at the bottom of the cup. It tasted sweeter at the top and was heavier and stronger towards the bottom.
My favorite part of the Turkish coffee was the fortune telling associated with it. After finishing as much of the coffee as you can tolerate, you are supposed to place the cup upside down on the saucer it was served with. You wait a couple minutes as the remaining grounds slide down the cup / wait for the grounds to change in whatever way they will. For divination purposes, the coffee cup is considered in two horizontal halves. The shapes in the lower half talk of the past, whereas shapes in the top half talk of the future. The shapes that feature on the right side are usually interpreted positively, while shapes on the left are interpreted as signs of bad events, enemies, illnesses, troubles, and the like. After interpreting the shapes on both the inside of the cup and on the saucer the individual is left a little uneasy because you realize how accurate it is. Regardless, whether or not you truly believe it is a fun activity to connect you to a rich culture filled with mystery, intrigue, and of course, fortune.
Izmir seems to be the clear opposite of Istanbul. On Friday, March 6th, we witness a very interesting construction process, the wall of women victims of violence. We were there participating the demonstration, learning about women’s rights, and even contributing to the construction of that short and powerful wall. We luckily shook hands with the woman mayor of Konak, Sema Pekdas. She was an activist on women’s issues and now still advocating passionately for the gender equality. Later on, we met with the Izmir Metropolitan Municipal Mayor, Aziz Kocaoglu. We were lucky enough to have a conversation with him.
Personally, I enjoy being at the city of Izmir. There was blue sky, blue sea, and clean air. We went out almost every night when we were in Izmir. Drinking did not seem to be much of a taboo there. We certainly had much fun. Media was at the construction of women victims’ wall too. So far, I have not heard much opposition of that event. When I was at the meeting with the mayor, I asked him the question: what kind of city image do you want to create for Izmir and how do you want to convey this image. His emphasis was on creating Izmir as a livable city. Sustainability and environment are also major focuses. When answering the latter part of the question, he talked about his trip for applying for world expo and how he worked with the media to create this positive image for Izmir. The rather harmonious relationship between government and the media is surprising and interesting. I believe Izmir is a good example to be compared with in my research.
Demonstration site for the construction of victim's wall
My interview with Sevgi Akarcesme, Columnist at Zaman Daily News and Correspondent Today’s Zaman, is without doubt the highlight of my trip. We met with her on Wednesday, March 4th. She writes for the biggest independent newspaper Zaman Daily. Its English version is Today’s Zaman. Before I met her, I read her column, commenting the presidential election that happened last year. She spoke bravely on calling the people to stop Erdogan from becoming the president of Turkey and creating a totalitarian regime. When I met her in person, her words and wisdom did not let me down. She first elaborated how the fact that Turkey is a secular state yet the majority Turkish population practice Islam helped Erdogan appeal to the Turkish citizens’ needs. She also gave more background of Erdogan’s ruling, from his first term to current days.
The most important part of this interview is when she explained the development and severity of the media censorship in Turkey. According to Akarcesme, on December 17th, 2014, there was a major police investigation on the biggest corruption in Turkish History. And president Erdogan is involved. Erdogan’s fear for being convicted for corruption made him tighten the freedom of press. He then started serious persecution of independent journalists and editors. The editor of Today’s Zaman was also detained for a while. Apart from arresting the journalists, the government also controls the media by tighten the newspaper advertisement of public corporation. Today’s Zaman does not receive any advertisement revenue from the public owned companies.
I admire her courage for speaking out about the current serious situation of this country. I also respect Today’s Zaman’s determination for being an independent media. Any society needs this passion and courage for truth. Her words also provided me a direction on how to pursue this research topic.
The Bosphorus river
On March 2nd, we went on a bus tour with Orhan Esen, who is an architect and a commentator. He showed us the construction sites in North and West Istanbul. And for the first time, we actually experienced the scale of these “mega”-projects. The tour was amazing and made me feel like I am experiencing the creation of history. We travelled to some mining sites that are left from the past industries, newly created suburban area, Gokturk, and the construction site of the Third Bridge. Orhan is very informative. He explained to us the history of the villages in these areas, how they transform from agricultural based to mining industry based and now to construction based. He also helped us to connect the dots between the construction of the Third Highway and Third Bridge, and between the Third Bridge and the construction of the second Marmaray, tunnel under the Bosphorus. The Third Bridge is an extension of the third highway. For constructing the Third Bridge, the government sends trucks of trucks of construction garbage and dumps them into the lakes. We actually witnessed lines of trucks along the mountain, waiting to dump out their sand and bricks. Because the construction of the bridge is massive, the government is running out of the land fillings. That’s why they started the construction of the second Marmaray.
I value this experience where we take an excursion to other sides of Istanbul. We were not visiting what has been left from the past as most of the tourists are doing. We were witnessing the construction of the future. Especially because these projects are highly controversial and undemocratic, it makes me wonder the future of them.
This bus tour is relevant to my research projects because Orhan mentioned that these construction projects are the major source for government corruptions. Media censorship is a main approach for the corrupted officials to bury what they have done to the state.
The construction site of the Third Bridge
On March 1st, Sunday, we went to Taksim Square and met with Muge Yorganci. She is the Urban Design Projects Supervisor at Dome Mimarlık. She gave us a very extensive tour around the Taksim square, introducing us the historic and political importance of this city center. The statute at the middle of the square marks the establishment of the Republic of Turkey and it is almost the last public space of the city where people can convene and demonstrate their political inquiries. During the tour and while we were having tea at the Gezi Park, a beautiful green space right next to Taksim square, she elaborated the political protest that happened last year.
The prime minister of Turkey, Erdogan, announced a decision for replacing Gezi Park to an ottoman styled shopping mall in May 2013. It would be a mixed-used cultural and financial center with the incorporation of residential buildings. People are surprised and angry about this top-down and un-consulted decision. They convened at the Gezi Park and protest. The peaceful and quite protest attracted more and more citizens. The police ended up using tear gas and other violence forces to suppress the protesters.
I find this tour very powerful. It was the first time for me to hear from someone who has experienced a major political demonstration, someone who feels so strongly about something that she would risk her safety and reputation to speak up for the cause she believed in.
This tour is also very relevant to my research topic. Media often play an important role during political uprisings. I asked her questions about how the media reported on the construction decision before the Gezi Park, and the Gezi Park protest. From her words, I found out that quite many mainstream media groups are involved in business with the government. They distorted the situation and neglecting the substantial issue of the Gezi Park protest.
Gezi parkPeople gather at Taksim square for a funeral service