Saturday, August 16, 2014

August 15-16, 2014: In the Home of the Union Jack

August 15-16, 2014: In the Home of the Union Jack - Keep Calm and Carry On

After a long day of travel on Friday, including a 3 hour layover in Athens, I landed in London's Heathrow Airport at about 3:30 in the afternoon. My mother's dear cousin Nader picked me up outside of customs with a small sign with my name on it. It's nice to be recognized when you face the anonymity of traveling alone.

The customs and passport check had been more difficult than I'd expected. They were scrupulous. At least they didn't rifle through my bag.

As someone who most often is the driver when I ride in a car,  I found sitting in the driving spot but riding as a passenger, quite nerve wracking. I kept glancing at Nader driving to reassure myself that I wasn't riding in a driverless car. To make matters worse, I found that central London was full of one way streets, so trying to figure out which lane we should drive in, or turn on to, seemed mysterious. I will never, NEVER, drive in London. Never.

British fashion on Oxford Street
I immediately got a sim card for my cell phone, and bought a week-long transit pass, then I was on my way out the door to explore Oxford Street, which was a few short blocks away from the room that I'd rented. I found Oxford Street to be a bustle - a mix of so many people speaking so many languages. I barely heard any English actually; mostly Arabic, with some Turkish, French and German mixed in. Is this Istanbul or London? Young Arab couples rode on the back of bicycle buggies that were blasting Arab music, and singing along to the music. There were many, many women in Islamic veils, and I passed by cafes where men were smoking water pipes, just like I had done the night before.

I was really impressed by the area right around my building on Marylebone Lane. Narrow, cobblestoned streets and fashionable clothing stores. And the young men in the pubs, they were all dressed in great looking suits and button up shirts. I really liked the fashion I was seeing.

All the restaurants look popular: pubs and a super fish n' chips place just two doors down. When I woke up Saturday morning I used Yelp to find a great breakfast place and had the most attractive set of poached eggs that I've ever soon, along with a roasted tomato and portabello mushroom, bacon and a sausage. Terrific.

I freely jumped on whatever double decker bus that came by, and got off whenever I felt like it. The line 23 passed by most of the major sites so it was like a low cost London tour! It turned down Regent Street, with its posh shopping spots, and passed by Fleet Street (synonymous with Britain's national press), Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, and St. Paul's Cathedral. Wow.

Saturday I visited Harrod's department store, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, the House of Commons, and the Winston Churchill museum. My feet are aching!
A gold car parked outside of Harrod's in Knightsbridge
My Aunt's sister, Leila, got in touch with me and took me out to dinner to a bustling Lebonese restaurant. She explained that after Ramadan, many Arabs travel. Those that are wealthy ship their fancy cars over so they can show them off, such as the gold car we saw outside of Harrod's. It was actually gold. I'm off for more adventures tomorrow....

Friday, August 15, 2014

Thursday, August 14, 2014: Parting

Thursday, August, 14, 2014: Parting

Thursday was my last day in Turkey, and I spent it out and about, mostly in Beyoglu/Kabatas and Sultanahmet. Here are my parting snapshots and a video.

The view of ferryboats from the Galata Bridge. This is a very busy port. One can catch a ferry from here leaving every 20 minutes or so, to most port destinations.

A very old samovar providing tea to a waterside
cafe in Kabatas

Heading out of Üsküdar
.......and by night, loud music blaring.

The new Karaköy Cafe district, by day

Beautiful graffiti in Karaköy

Children's suits for sale in Eminonü

Yeni Cami (New Mosque), build in the early 16th century

Kabatas waterside, just north of the port. Poor boys who just got off their shift selling water bottles on the city bus, stripped their clothes and took running jumps in to the water. The day was hot and sticky and they were joyful as they played.

At the Kabatas port. When I returned to the port at midnight, the fruit seller was still there trying to sell his watermelon.

Nargili! Water pipes in Karaköy. Turks sat for hours and puffed their white smoke in to the air while sipping tea.

Of course I had to try it.

Me and Nükte

Our last goodbye "selfie" as it is also called by Turks.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Tuesday, August 12, 2014: Twenty-one Things I will Miss Most aboutIstanbul

Tuesday, August 12m 2014:   Twenty-one Things I will Miss Most about Istanbul (when I leave on Friday)

The Show of Color at each Vegetable Stand

Waterside restaurants

The sudden peek at the Bosphorus you might get as you pass between two buildings

Turkish breakfasts

Ice cream on Burgazada at 11:30 at night

The slow approach to Galata Tower from Karaköy

The calm grace and subtle colors of Suleymaniye Mosque

A summer rain in Kuzguncuk

The docking of ferry boats

The close calls between ferries, tanker ships, speedboats and windsurfers

Phaetons of the Prince's Islands

The cunning shows of strength and political will in unlikely places

Watching Nükte's daughters become strong and beautiful women

Dinner and political talk among friends

Turkish mezes (appetizers) in lots of olive oil

Swimming in the Marmara Sea as ferry boats float by

Discovering a litter of kittens as you walk down the street

Learning to cook from Vincent

The view from Müge's and Alp's living room

The lights of Istanbul after dark
And, last but not least, the proximity and intimacy of being near two of my oldest and dearest friends

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Sunday, August 10, 2014 Part II: Election Day Commentary

Sunday, August 10, 2014 Part II: Election Day Commentary

Watching election results
on our iPhone
I spent the evening at Müge's house - a lovely dinner as a cool breeze blew in from the Bosphorus: salmon, rice, beans, salad. Müge and Nükte's parents joined us, as well as Vincent and the girls. The election results were the main subject of the evening. How many polling stations were reporting? How can poll watchers help avoid AKParty cheating at the polls? How many people voted and which districts voted for which candidate? (To read my initial commentary about the candidates, read my previous blog post here).

Already by 6:00 pm there were 30% of the polls reporting and Erdogan was clearly ahead. Then, once darkness had settled and lights twinkled on the European side, I saw fireworks over the water, and heard honking on the streets. The results were in - Erdogan had won.

What does this mean for Turkey? Erdogan has made no secret of his plan to consolidate power under the presidency, and weaken the parliamentary system that has been in place since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk established the Turkish Republic in the 1920's. Nor has he avoided strong religious imagery and symbolism in his campaign videos, despite Turkey's historical, but wavering, secular identity.

Erdogan with Obama
The Turkish Parliamentary system was designed to work as a balance between various arms of the government: Parliament, or the Grand National Assembly as it is called, is charged with the legislative power, executive power falls to the Council of Ministers (at this time it is 25 different heads of various ministries, and the Prime Minister is but one of the 25) and the judiciary stands separately. The Prime Minister in Turkey has had greater power than the President, who has been simply a figurehead much as the Queen is in England. Was it current Turkish President Abdullah Gül that you saw alongside President Obama on the White House lawn for a press conference? No, it was Prime Minister Erdogan.

But unable to run again for Prime Minister (his AKParty has been in power for three terms in parliament) Erdogan has selected the presidency as his next platform, and he intends to exercise his full presidential powers, unlike past presidents that have remained ceremonial.

But Erdogan has vowed to not stop there. He plans to change Turkey's constitution to establish a full executive presidency. In the U.S. an executive presidency is designed to be balanced by a powerful legislature, the judiciary and a strong tradition of freedom of speech. In Turkey journalists remain censored as they attempt to keep an eye on Erdogan, and his AKParty continues to dominate the Parliament. A stronger presidency with Erdogan in control, and a reduction of influence by the Council of Ministers, may spell further trouble for civil rights.

Even Erdogan's critics cannot deny that there have been some positive changes during his term as prime minister. While his display of religious fervor has been controversial, he also has brought inflation under control, and has delivered a strong message on the international stage which has further strengthened Turkey's role as a regional leader.

And why should U.S.ers care about who leads the Turkish government? Turkey has been a bulwark against religious extremism, a canary in the modern Islamic world coal mine that has been an important ally to the U.S. when things have heated up in the region. Turkey is a member of NATO and a key leader in engaging other Middle Eastern states in dialogue, as well as a member of the G-20, recognizing its role as a major economy in the world. As the physical link between Asia and Europe, Turkey has been an important example of how Islam can co-exist with, but not interfere with, matters of governance.

So, in the end, Erdogan won with 51.8 percent of the vote, merely 1.8% more than he needed to win outright in the first round. İhsanoğlu received 38.5 percent and Demirtaş obtained 9.7 percent with 96.5 percent of the ballot boxes counted as of 2 hours ago. Turnout was lower than expected at 74.4 percent, which means that 5 million eligible voters stayed away from the polls, likely a good number of them secularists disenchanted by the choices or the potency of their vote. It's 12:30 a.m. Monday now, and the cars are still honking along the Bosphorus.

According to CNNTürk, Erdogan, on his way to Ankara to deliver his victory speech, made a stop at the Eyüp Sultan Mosque in Istanbul, a pilgrimage site for Muslims, where he "symbolically performed a prayer of gratitude for his election victory." The Eyüp Sultan mosque was historically the first stop for Ottoman sultans, as well as caliphs, after they ascended to the throne. Multiple generations of Turks have now had the benefit of Turkey's secular outlook and only time will tell whether those that have benefited from secularism will value it enough to protect it.

An Erdogan political commercial on youtube

Sunday, August 10, 2014: Election Day

German journalists were there to observe the voting

Heading to the polls

Sunday, August 10, 2014: Election Day in Küzgüncük

Polls opened at 8:00am, but despite some initial concern about lines, we didn't intend to be up and ready to walk up the hill that early. We started over at 10:00am, joining a march of Küzgüncük residents as they treaded up the steep hill to the primary school.
Residents filed in and found their polling rooms
 Unfortunately for the turnout, but fortunately for us, there were no lines at all. Residents kissed and greeted each other in the hallways of the school, and neatly turned in to the room corresponding to their address. The only issue on the ballot was for whom to vote for president, and with the three choices well known to all, it took hardly a minute to stamp their choice and submit their ballot in a neat envelope to the poll worker.
ID Cards were checked and ballots distributed
After this photo I was asked to put away my camera
Checking the for their name posted outside the door

When done voting, signs welcomed voters to relax in the
garden or the tea room

We suspected that the members of the
AKParty we saw in the garden were not locals.

A voting official present in the garden suspected that turnout would be low: 60-70%. High for American standards, but low for Turkey. Results won't be official until the end of the week. Supporters for either of the two opposition candidates are hoping for a runoff, but the fear is not whether Erdogan will win, but just by how much.