It was field work day. Everyone, or most, had their own plans to venture out into Istanbul and collect information on their topics. Or maybe it just happened to be a coincidence.
We started the day split in two groups, and I went to a Syrian Refugee School. After that, I hopped on the metro to go across Istanbul.
I was on my way to Bogazici University to meet Professor Can Candan, director of “My Child”, a documentary on the accepting parents of lgbti children in Istanbul who have formed a group called LISTAG in the search of acceptance and rights for their children as part of a collective unit.
I had to take the metro and then transfer to a bus, which took more than 2 hours in all.
I thought I was late when all was done due to the bus being a bit delayed getting there due to an accident in the road and a man laying on the street. Anyway, luckily he had emailed me as well (I only got it when I got to campus…oh the struggles of no wifi) and was going to be an hour late anyway. That felt like fate was on my side.
So I was waiting there for a bit, but when he arrived, he gave me so many perspectives regarding the sentiment of Turkish people of various groups on the LGB and TI populations, as well as socio-economic implications and political motivations. We talked for about an hour and a half. He also put me in contact with various other Turkish LGBT rights organizations including the main political one in all of istanbul.
At the University, I also noticed a much higher percentage of open same sex couples, clearly engaging in amorous activities. It showed a difference in generational perception on the subject and most likely a difference in acceptance based on education level.
Upon walking through Istanbul, one can see the multitude of Ottoman culture, through Turkish historical relics. With a closer look, one can perhaps draw a connection between original Ottoman culture and later structures, or see how historical structures have been modified to fit contemporary life.
Through my visiting of the Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque, I noticed some worthy similarities to structures elsewhere. Firstly, a little news stand and convenience store at the corner of a street near out hotel had a similar outward-spreading dome roof and multi-faced design as a structure that seems to have been added to the Aya Sofya during its transformation into a mosque. This structure was on the outside corner of the Aya Sofya.
Street-side news stand/convenience store.
Part of the Aya Sofya
While waiting for a taxi around Üsküdar, I noticed a communal water system in which it seemed the community gathered for clean water. Finding it a novel sight at the time, I snapped a picture- only to realize later that it was somewhat similar to a structure attached to the historic wall near the Gülhane metro rail station, and similar to a structure I found inside the Blue Mosque (an enclave with pointed top, faucet, water basin). Perhaps the similarities point to religious and cultural influences onto modern day. Or if the water station in Üsküdar was historic, as well, perhaps this shows how people have worked themselves around these structures. Personally, I found the bleached stone of the Üsküdar water station more current-looking than the other two examples, hence more recently made.
Communal Üsküdar Water Station
Structure inside Blue Mosque
Of course, these observations require a bit more backing, but interesting, nonetheless. Also, a good start to conducting some research and literary review to delve further into the cultural influences into a contemporary Istanbul.
On Sunday, Mar.1st, we met with Muge Yorganci, a city planner who participated in the Gezi Park protest. The protest was against an Ottoman Style Shopping Mall project, proposed by the Prime Minister Erdogan of the AKP party. Erdogan tried to mark this project as a cultural facilitates to be a symbolic architecture for the new Turkey Republic. However, to the people, it was purely a symbol of the right for unlimited use of land of the central government.
The protest was large-scale and very influential. Most citizens including supporters for the CHP party, Kurtish people, LGBT group, and women participated. People criticized the project as it only revealed the commercial value and the political power while neglecting the cultural importance of the Taksim Square to the citizens.
As my project is on how different actors try to benefit from industries related to tourism, I focused on her discussion of international real estate corporations’ influence. As she implied, large portion of Istanbul economy is focused on construction sector. The construction of the shopping mall will give huge benefit to the real estate corporations behind the project and economic side of the government.
On Thursday, Mar. 5th, I met with managers of several branches that belong to international hotel chains.
The first one is Mercure hotel, the 5th branch opened in Istanbul by the international hotel chain Mercure. This new one was opened 10 months ago in May 2014. The customer manager of this hotel told me that the company valued great future potential of Istanbul. “Istanbul attracts many tourists in middle east and also in Europe. It has many historical sites, shopping malls that have great prices. Many international conferences and exhibition are held here. Also, transportation system is pretty much developed so visitors can easily go around.” They’ve witnessed constant growth of popularity during the past 8 months and are optimistic about the market in the next few years.
Next, I visited Intercontinental and Grand Hyatt. Both of them are closer to the Gezi Park and have longer history of being in Istanbul. They expressed similar opinions about the future in Istanbul. When asked about their loss during Gezi Park protest, manager at Intercontinental gave out specific numbers immediately. “18% decrease,” He said, “It was really severe in influencing our profits so every one remembered this number.”
There was a morning when half of the group went to meet a reporter in a newspaper, and half of us went to a Syrian refugee school. I went to the latter.
It was my favorite part of the entire trip, mainly for the humanity of it all. The Syrian conflict is so little talked about, and when it is, it is painted in a war-like or statistical point of view, often including distrust. These were hardworking men, women, and children. There were grades ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade, all of whom seemed happy in their situation. The children did a formalized greeting and spoke Arabic, Turkish, and usually English. It was quite good.
They also were not asking for pity in their situation. The owners of the school made us a giant feast with Syrian falafel and such, as well as coffee and tea. They wanted to welcome us and treat us as an honored guests. They even made crafts in order to raise enough money on their own without begging for hoping for charities to come along.
This, for me, was the most fulfilling part of the trip. It shows the connections of people and the real ramifications of such actions. The Syrian struggle seems so distant in America, but it is real and not slowing down; if anything, the advent of ISIS just added a new layer.
Sitting in the back of the classrooms, listening to lessons and hearing the students talking about us or to us, was priceless and unforgettable.
There was a transformation in Turkey after the Gezi Park Protests. On March 1st, we went to where it happened. We arrived in Taksim Square early in the day and saw what we thought was a protest. The group went near it and took pictures and posed and took notes, only to find out it was a funeral or something like it. It still looked the part, so it wasn’t a total loss. Then we met with a real protester from Gezi who happened to be a city planner. She explained the intricacies of Gezi, the transformation of Taksim in what seemed like overnight, and the gentrification and building projects of the federal and local governments in the surrounding area. I was told how big a part the LGBT community played in the protests, and although it was not in her area of expertise, there seemed to be a melting pot of acceptance via the younger generation and the protesters to the LGBT cause as a result of Gezi. In Gezi, I also happened to try salep for the first time. That orchid root does its job and more; it was heavenly. Anyway, I then went to visit the rainbow stairs not very far from Taksim, which were painted over continuously by the municipal government in an attempt to not allow such LGBT symbolism; they were soon painted back so many times that the government itself painted the stairs. There was a lot of information discovered, especially in the persistence of the Turkish spirit.
On March 3rd we met with a vice-mayor for the Zeytinburnu Municipality in Istanbul. The current Istanbul mayor appoints the vice-mayor and both represent the AKP party. At the time of the meeting, we’d been in Istanbul for a little more than three days, so I already had some opinions based on my observations of women throughout the city. However, talking to the vice-mayor gave me an opportunity to compare my opinions to a somewhat major political actor’s opinion. However, when questioning the mayor about women’s role in politics and his views about women’s issues, the answers seemed rather generic. When questioned about women’s political role in the AKP party, he cited a party-wide sentiment of gratitude and credit for women’s aid in the party’s rise to power. However, when I expanded my questions to the current political and social issues faced by women in Turkey, I received a more generic answer that, although it acknowledged Turkey’s lag in certain gender equalities, failed to offer any hint at solutions.
My experience in Izmir on March 6th with mayor Aziz Kocaoglu provided an alternative outlook on the status of women’s issues. Given that Izmir’s culture differs greatly from Istanbul’s and mayor Kocaogul’s association with the CHP party, I expected different answers and opinions. On the day we visited the mayor, he also participated in an International Women’s Day activity involving the construction of a wall protesting acts of violence against women and memorializing those killed.
Through his participation in the activity, sponsored by female mayor of the Konak district Sema Pekdas, the mayor already demonstrated acknowledgement of women’s issues in Turkey. Further, when we met with the mayor after the activity, he spoke to solutions for women’s issues rather than a simple identification of the issue’s existence. For example, he spoke of educating men and women about how to better cohabitate and the importance of giving women better educational and business opportunities. Overall, he emphasized Izmir as a place that is progressive, accepting and tolerant towards all groups.
In both Istanbul and Izmir we were fortunate enough to meet with a vice mayor and the mayor, respectively. The vice mayor of Zeytinburnu, a wealthier district in Istanbul, did not have much to say about public transportation. He simply said that the district is fortunate geographically; it benefitted from the red line to the airport and Marmaray line under the Bosphorus. In contrast, the Izmir mayor, Aziz Kocaoğlu, was very excited about public transportation in his city. He announced that just a few hours prior to our meeting he had signed a contract purchasing eighty-five new subway wagons. In 2004 when he took office, the rail system was only 11km long and he plans that in the next few years it will reach a total of 186km. Already under construction is 100km of subway. Additionally, he said that there would be commuter rail out to the surrounding commuter suburbs. This was a notable difference compared to the response of the Istanbul Ulasim man who when asked about the possibility of commuter rail responded in a politically correct way (although perhaps mockingly so) that even with the third bridge there will be no new communities that would need commuter rail. Kocaoğlu was also pleased to say more ferries would be added for both cars and people and that all current bus lines had been renewed. Moreover, before I even asked my question the mayor had already mentioned the cities sustainability and his wishes to choose expansion of the subway over buses. I had also noticed that there was a bike share program along the coast that looked both well maintained and well used (although this could arguably be more for tourists than a part of a functional transportation system). Thus, it was obvious that he took the improvement of transportation in the city to be an important issue for moving forward. That being said, Izmir is not the monstrosity that is Istanbul, nor is it as hilly, both of which must make it easier to service. Furthermore, it is a more liberal city and as Kocaoğlu said, the central government in Ankara generally leaves them alone.
On Wednesday, March 4th Saehoon, Tulay and I met with EMBARQ Turkey, a non-profit organization for sustainable transportation. The meeting was informal and the three women who met with us were very candid. Although the organization focuses on “pedestrinization” and bike-ability of areas in Istanbul, the conversation rapidly turned to the larger problems of Istanbul’s transportation system. They blame immigration, the consequent sprawl, the mega-projects and the urban transformation law for the issues the city faces with mobility. They said the monorail project was announced only for the elections, but will not actually come to fruition. Likewise, the BRT was built very quickly because it was an election tool and this is part of the reason it had some many problems at first. The women admitted though, that transportation has improved in the last ten to fifteen years and that the BRT has helped. The main problem they had with the Metrobus system is the accessibility, which I had noticed in the morning when Jyra and I had to spend ten minutes walking from the station just to get to the beginning of a block of buildings. In addition to the long distances, they cited the narrow walkways, narrow stations and the placement in the middle of the highway as accessibility issues. The narrowness makes the BRT stations too congested and the highway placement is the reason for the poor placement of the stops in relation to destinations. While this latter point makes sense, I was still surprised by the complaint about the BRT being in the middle of the highway. Even though Istanbul’s is the only one in the world currently placed as such, I know that Houston’s BRT considerations have the system similarly placed as the wide shoulders on our highways could be converted relatively easily. With this prior knowledge I thought it logical to have the system in the middle of the highway. Finally, the women mentioned that the BRT is not handicap accessible. To me, this was almost amusing given that the entirety of Istanbul seems handicap inaccessible due to the hills, general danger of crossing the street, and the similar inaccessibility of the tram and regular buses. Overall, the meeting was very interesting and I was glad they were more open to discussing the problems of the system, especially compared to some of the responses from Istanbul Ulasim we heard the following day.
On Wednesday, March 4th following the advice from Tuna Kuyucu, Jyra and I rode the BRT during the morning rush hour. We left the hotel at 8:23am and headed for the Sirkeci tram station. Only two minutes after arriving we boarded the blue line and made our way to the end of the line to catch the funicular up to the green line. The transfer was easy and the ride up to Taksim quick. At the station we had a long, underground walk across moving walkways, up and down escalators and through many corridors. The station was well trafficked with people dressed for work. Reflecting the busy-ness, the green line was crowded but we only had two stops to go. Finally at the Sisli-Mecidiyekoy station we found the Metrobus (BRT). The station was well marked and crowded.
We boarded a bus almost immediately and prepared for what we thought was going to be a long ride of standing. Instead, despite the fact that our bus was crowded, we realized we were opposite of morning commute traffic as we headed down to the Zeytinburnu station still on the European side. The bus ran in its own lane in the middle of the highway and we could see the traffic piling up in the direction opposite ours and the buses on the other side of the station looked uncomfortably crowded. We were surprised it only took us twenty-five minutes to go the twelve stops to Zeytinburnu. When running the numbers, however, this is averaging between 22mph and 43mph (with the latter assuming a minute was spent at each stop; the time varied depending on the crowdedness at the station). Thus, when going the direction opposite traffic, the BRT did not make sense as an option unless one was without a car. But, if traveling towards the Asian side where there was stop and go traffic on the highway, then perhaps the BRT, even with frequent stops, would be faster, albeit more uncomfortable.
After getting off the bus we stood at the top of the long pedestrian bridge above the highway. I noticed that the buses traveled in packs of up to ten buses (each with two sections) and came frequently. With this, it was easy to see how the system reached its impressive capacity. All in all the trip from Sirkeci to Zeytinburnu took an hour and cost 8.50TL – neither ideal for everyday. I plan to research further what kind of payment options the system has. One positive of paying at least was that despite changing between different modes of transportation the same card worked at all turnstiles. Additional good features of the system included announcements in both English and Turkish, real time information at the funicular (the rest seem to come so often it is probably not necessary to have it), electronic maps of the routes on the vehicles, and ample and easy to follow signage when switching between modes (easy integration). Unfortunately, the one complaint about the system that did turn out to be true was the poor placement of the station in the neighborhood and the long walk through nothing that it took to get us to an actual destination of sorts. In conclusion I was pleasantly surprised with the trip and although it may not be sufficient to solve the city’s transportation problems, it at least alleviates some and is a promising start.