Turkish Referendum Looms on April 16th

Once again, I’m compelled to post a missive from my dear—albeit anonymous— friends in Turkey. They remain anonymous with good reason.

As you may know, Turkey faces a referendum that will strengthen the power of the president, effectively weakening the country’s parliamentary system and the government’s checks and balances. President Erdoğan, now in his fourteenth year in office, could remain in power another 13 years. He has already used the coup attempt as reason to close  down liberal newspapers and television stations and jail hundreds of military and education personnel. He has unabashedly used government funds to promote his move toward dictatorship for Turkey. Frightening.

Here’s the news from my friends on the inside:

No! No! A Thousand Times No!

The cruise missile attack by the Trump administration on a Syrian army base this week, in addition to further delaying an end to the slaughter and destruction in our neighbor Syria, has added another layer of anxiety here in Turkey as we head toward next Sunday’s referendum. The attack has put more wind in the sails of our President, who has been militating for the overthrow of the Syrian government since 2011.

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
The Grand Bazaar on a National Holiday demonstrates the patriotism of the Turkish Republic

We suspect that our readers by this time have heard about as much as they can take about the Turkish referendum. The authors of this newsletter have certainly had enough and can’t wait for the campaign to be over. Fortunately for our sanity all campaigning has been banned during the coming week leading up to the vote. We’ve been suffering from a form of political bi-polar disorder – one day hopeful, next day down in the dumps. So we will not belabor the point. Our final appraisal is this: Should ‘Yes’ win, the results can have no legitimacy in the eyes of any impartial observer. Why?

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
A Turk selling flags  the New Mosque

1. The referendum is being conducted while Turkey is being ruled under a State of Emergency, giving authorities limitless powers to intimidate and crack down on free speech, the media and the right to assembly.

2. The third largest party in Parliament, the Kurdish-based HDP is under severe attack, its leadership in jail, and the municipalities it administered seized and placed under receivership. Even their ‘No’ campaign song in Kurdish has been banned. (Probably because it’s cute and catchy, anathema to most Turkish politicians. Plus, you don’t need to know Kurdish to get the message.)

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
One of my favorite photos—a patriotic Turk walks the Istanbul Marathon

3. The President and Prime Minister have unabashedly used the resources of the state, paid for by the taxpayers, to campaign for the ‘Yes’ vote.

4. The media, and especially the TV networks, have shamelessly favored the ‘Yes’ campaign in their news coverage, and this in a country that has the highest level of TV viewing in the world.

5. Thug attacks on ‘No’ proponents and their meetings have placed serious restraints on the ability of the naysayers to campaign. No wonder so many people say they are undecided in poll surveys.

6. And finally, the yea-saying government has total control over the entire referendum process, including ballot counting and handling of any challenge to the results that might arise.

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
An Ataturk monument to a secular democracy, Arnavutköy, Turkey

In spite of the ‘Yes’ campaign’s apparent total dominance, most opinion polls say it’s still too close to call. Whatever the official results on April 17th, Turkey will remain a deeply divided country with an uncertain future. However, should a ‘No’ vote prevail against all odds, it would mean a humiliating defeat for those who have been curtailing the most basic democratic rights and closing down political space for those struggling for social justice.

We say No! No! A thousand times No! in the referendum and No! to the continuation of the war in Syria.

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You must only to love them
This colorful patriot could often be seen on Istiklal, Freedom Street

*  *  *

As a follow up to our ‘Turkish Hairlines’ newsletter posting, we can’t hold ourselves back from reporting that the Turkish President, during a ‘Yes’ campaign rally at the presidential palace entitled “‘Yes’, of course, for a beautiful Turkey”, signed a decree under the State of Emergency (!) authorizing beauticians at beauty salons to do laser hair removal. This is an extremely popular procedure among Turkish women which was formerly restricted, for safety and health reasons, to dermatologists in government-approved hospitals and clinics. Was this an indication of the kind of Presidential decrees we can expect if ‘Yes’ prevails on April 16? Another reason to vote ‘No’.

Istanbul, Turkey, election, annmariemershon.com, You Must only to love them
Oh, what lies ahead for the Turkey I’ve grown to love?

A Turkish election about presidential power

I just received this message from friends in Istanbul and wanted to pass it on to Turkophiles like myself. They prefer to remain anonymous.

“On Sunday, April 16th, Turkish voters (including yours truly) will go to the polls to vote ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to the package of constitutional amendments that, if passed, will change Turkey’s governing structure from a parliamentary to a presidential system. Supporters of the ‘yes’ vote say that a president with strong executive powers will mean a strong and stable Turkey, be good for the economy and put an end to terrorism. Supporters of a ‘no’ vote claim that the kind of presidential system being proposed would severely weaken parliament, increase political pressure on the judiciary and open up the country to the real possibility of authoritarian one-man rule. (We won’t have any pesky judges, for example, overruling presidential executive orders since the president’s influence over high judiciary bodies will be greatly enhanced.)”

Turkey, elections, Erdogan, presidency, annmariemershon.com
What is the future of the Turkish secular democracy?

And they continue,

“The campaign will most likely be a very intense – and ugly – one. Both the president and prime minister have drawn a virtual equal sign between voting no and supporting terrorism. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who has been advocating the change for some time now, his ruling AK Party and the nationalist MHP will be going all out for a ‘yes’ vote. The main opposition CHP and the Kurdish-based HDP, the other two parties in parliament, are strongly opposed to the amendments. Current polls predict a tight vote. The fact that the referendum vote is taking place during the State of Emergency and with the main leadership and much of the secondary leadership of the HDP in jail on charges of supporting terrorism means very tough going for the ‘no’ vote campaign.”

Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
A president seeking more power: Recep Tayyyip Erdoğan

I’m not sure there’s anything we can do to influence the vote, but it’s important to keep informed. If you have contact with Turks, it might behoove you to do some campaigning to keep the country secular and the courts strong.


An update from Turkey: OHAL

Many people have asked me how things are in Turkey since the coup attempt. In addition to a devastating downturn in tourism, life has changed—a bit for some and incredibly for others. My favorite ex-pat couple wrote a blog about Turkey for years, but because their interests lean toward the political, they’ve shifted it from the web to an e-mail format. Sad, but understandable. They’ve given me permission to share their most recent missive, though they asked that I not use their names. Sad again, especially since Turkey was lauded as a secular democracy. Was.

Turkey, annmariemershon.com,
The domes of the Blue Mosque now attract fewer tourists.

Here’s their update on how things are going:


Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
The Chief: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan

If anything would stimulate a person’s desire to turn on, tune in, drop out and forget about it all, it’s some of the happenings this year in Turkey. What with suicide bombings, seemingly endless internal and external savage war, the July 15th summer surprise coup attempt and the resultant mass exodus of tourists and foreign residents, the temptation to seek comfort in strong liquid refreshment is compelling.

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The Galata Tower watches over a quieter Istanbul.

However, that outlet is not considered available for observant Muslims. But just to be sure, the governor of the central Anatolian province of Yozgat recently announced that under the authority of Turkey’s State of Emergency imposed after the coup attempt, he was closing all places serving alcohol as, in his opinion, they constitute a threat to the family. Although he subsequently backed off of a blanket shutdown of every single such place, we’re certain that it will be even harder to enjoy a drop in Yozgat than before, and even then it was a pretty dry place.

Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
Now who will buy the colorful Turkish carpets?

The State of Emergency (OHAL) in Turkey, recently given a 3-month extension, has become a source of major trauma for a huge number of people in Turkey. More than 100,000 people have lost their jobs, many of them teachers and other public employees, all of them alleged to have either links to the Gülen movement, blamed for the coup attempt, or to the PKK. Hundreds of businesses have been confiscated by the government due to supposed links to the Gülen movement. Dozens of media outlets have been closed, including many pro-Kurdish or left-leaning newspapers and TV stations, on allegations of spreading terrorist propaganda. Finally, more than 30,000 people have been jailed, including a number of prominent journalists, intellectuals and authors. To make room for them, an equal number of prisoners were discharged from the prison system. All of these measures have turned the OHAL into a powerful tool for the gradual consolidation of power in the hands of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (aka ‘the Chief’), who has declared that even a year of emergency rule may not be sufficient.

Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
Turkey’s stunning beauty is enjoyed by fewer tourists.

Getting back to our Yozgat governor, an understandable resultant side effect of this massive purge has been the spectacle of Erdoğan loyalists falling all over themselves opportunistically trying to outdo one another to prove their devotion to the Chief. Pro-government newspaper Yeni Şafak columnist Aydın Ünal writes of the emergence of individuals and groups who he describes as sycophants and flunkies who declare themselves “the most pro-Chief,” “the genuine pro-Chief,” “the essential pro-Chief people.” These self-promoters do all they can to criticize and taint others by calling into question their devotion to the Chief.

Turkey, Istanbul, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
Who will enjoy the culinary treats of the now-deserted Istiklal Caddesi?

Where is this going? Hard to say, but we would guess that one outcome may be that we’re headed for a new constitution which includes a change to a ‘Turkish-style’ Presidential system with, you guessed it, the Chief at the helm. Barkeep, another round, please! … Barkeep! Uh, barkeep?

Turkey, OHAL, annmariemershon.com
Beer drinking may go to the dogs with OHAL.


I extend a HUGE thank-you to my dear expat friends. Good information, delivered with a touch of humor. Love those guys! By the way, they make the best martinis on the planet. If they can find the liquor.

(The photos are mine.)






Disturbing Protests in Turkey

I’m haunted by news of protests in Istanbul, praying that this upheaval is followed by another of the governing party in the next election. Under the rule of the AKP (an Islamist-leaning party), the country is moving away from the secular democracy established by Ataturk in 1923. In recent years more than 180 military leaders have been jailed by this government, along with more journalists than in any other country in the world (even China). What kind of democracy is this? Now the government is tearing down one of the city’s only parks to build a mall and an Ottoman barracks as a museum. WHAT???

bp1Photo of protester from Boston.com

My former Koç student, Cansu Ozgul, explains the situation succinctly and effectively. Kudos to her efforts—I’m doing my best to pass it on.

Ann Marie

Here’s Cansu’s message:

June 2, 2013

Dear Friends,

We would like to call your attention to the recent turmoils in Turkey, because we believe it pertinent to all those striving to live in peace and with dignity, and because we really need your help.

Right now, in Turkey, innocent people practicing their democratic right to peaceful protest are suffering at the hands of government organized police brutality. This urgent issue, which threatens the very notions of natural and democratic human rights, is one of universal relevance. And it must be affirmed, in front of the whole world, that government oppression will never be tolerated – not in Turkey, not anywhere else; not now, not ever! And this is why we’re reaching out to you, calling you to action.

A peaceful sit-in in Istanbul’s Taksim Square in protest of the attempted demolition of a beautiful public park to instead erect a commercial mall, faced violent police crackdown on May 31st. The brutality began with the police burning protesters’ tents, and continued to escalate with the police making heavy use of water cannons, throwing excessive tear gas at groups, and shooting rubber bullets targeted directly at people. There are even reports that the police have now started using the infamous chemical Agent Orange, once a war weapon, against its own people. Hundreds of serious injuries, as well as fatalities, have resulted by this unprovoked and disproportionate use of police force.

taksim_2579289bPhoto of protest from Boston.com

What began as a peaceful environmental protest has now grown into an outlet for the Turkish people’s grievances against an authoritarian regime. The protesters have remained peaceful, but police brutality has been increasing steadily. We fear for the safety of our families and friends at the hands of such relentlessly excessive police force. We further worry that the government has not only remained silent in the face of this violent injustice, but has even stood behind it.
The local mainstream media has effectively been censored. The potential of trouble if they cover events that shed an unflattering light on the current government seems to have deterred the media from providing informative, objective and comprehensive coverage. Given that thus the Turkish people are left in the dark with very little recourse, we must call on the rest of the world to pay attention to our plight and stand in solidarity with us, with all those fighting for democracy.

Governments all across the world, international media, our fellow humans: We need your support. And it is our ultimate hope that with international encouragement, the Turkish government will finally listen and respond to the peaceful, rightful voice of its own people. It is our hope that those responsible for allowing this massive violence against innocents to perpetuate, such as Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, resign their posts. And we need international support to get our voices heard.

bp8Photo of protesters from Boston.com

What you can do: Get informed and spread the word. Some videos and news articles are attached below, which you can start sharing via Twitter and Facebook. We are counting on the intellectual prowess and human sensitivity of our amazing friends. Please stand with us, please speak up with us.

With wishes that peace, freedom and kindness prevail everywhere, always,

Cansu Ozgul

Twitter hashtags: #direngezi #direngeziparki #occupygezi #occupyturkey

Several videos:




Health care comments from Turkey and the U.S.

I was astounded at the many warm thoughts that came my way after my surgery, but even more intrigued by the astute comments about health care in both the U.S. and Turkey. I decided to post them in my blog so you can peruse them as well. Pretty interesting–and they run the gamut.

I’m recuperating well, and I go back to school on Monday, just two weeks after my surgery. Amazing.

Though I think I’ve spent some lazy weeks at home, I haven’t wasted all my time. I’ve finished knitting a sweater and most of a vest, read five books (a few on my Kindle), watched videos of House, The Wire, and Monk (thanks to kind friends), and solved innumerable Sudoku puzzles. I’ve also corrected three sets of papers for school, read and prepared for discussions on Animal Farm, and written an article on Istanbul for U.S. newspapers. Whew! Give a woman a few weeks to herself…


A photo of my tangible Recuperation Accomplishments

…and my sidekick Libby.

– – – – – – – –



Jacqueline Mallais, Istanbul teacher

So glad to hear you’re doing okay. Your stay at the hospital sounds like mine when I had a cyst removed there a few years ago – 5 stars all the way! I was told that flowers weren’t allowed in the rooms because of potential bombs being planted in the flower pots… or was that my strange understanding of their Turkish explanations?! Happy recovery, Ann Marie!

Terri Bakken, Mexico City (former Istanbul teacher)

I hope you are mending and feeling better every day.  Sounds like you went through a lot!  Am especially glad your hospital stay was so cheap.  I remember just having to pay for meals, which I think came to around $25, what with the extra meals for my nonexistent guests.  Our health care here (in Mexico) is not nearly as good.  Hence, we hardly ever see doctors.  Every illness has to be paid at around $250 before the insurance kicks in, so if you get a cold and then another in a couple months, it is a separate illness.  So, we often just ask a pharmacist to prescribe something if we are not dying!  And wellness is not covered at all, so if they run tests for something and don’t find it, you pay.  I think  I told you medicine is often expensive.  Sure wonder why meds aren’t high in Turkey, when everything else from foreign countries is?  But that’s a good thing.  Medicine should be cheap.  (One of our first grade classes closed today because of the flu, but we haven’t had any closures in months.)

While your hospital room was very nice, mine (at Johns Hopkins hospital in Istanbul) was swanky.  Totally deluxe.  Perhaps the Johns Hopkins hospital is newer.  Looks like yours was really comfortable, though.  And I am glad you had such good doctors and nurses.

Mike, English teacher in Izmir, Turkey
Blogsite: http://nomadicjoe.blogspot.com/

Happy to hear you made it through ok. Like you, I think I would be scared witless if I had to undergo surgery in Turkey. I had a minor heart glitch- stress and poor diet- and had to go to a hospital here. I was sent to the 5th floor and the elevators weren’t working. That in itself might have been the test. “You made it. You’re ok.”

But your stay doesn’t sound bad at all… if you don’t include the pain, of course. Geçmis olsun.

An anonymous friend, former Istanbul teacher

It’s good to hear from you, though I’m very sorry that the context is that you’re in trouble. I know exactly what you’re going through; it’s nightmarish, especially for such an active person as you and I don’t see how you could tolerate this level of pain and disability for much longer.

I’m always reluctant to advise anyone about anything! But my own personal experience with the American Hospital was outstandingly good. My surgery was very complex and the surgeon – Dr Mehdi Sasani, an Iranian – used techniques which aren’t yet available in the States. It didn’t cost me a cent, as the insurers covered it fully. I haven’t had as much as a twinge of discomfort since the operation – I feel rejuvenated by it,in fact – and I recovered a degree of flexibility which I hadn’t had in years. So I feel that you should go for it; lower back pain is a crucifixion that nobody should have to put up with.

Gilbert Evans, science teacher, Koç School, Istanbul:

Don’t ever put down Turkish hospital care. You’ll only confim in the minds of those readers who don’t live here that Turkey is backward in this regard.

As our friend [above] told you, his operation was a great success, and a cutting edge (excuse the pun!) technique. Have you forgotten about Leonard [Gilbert’s son]?! Open heart surgery on a two-day old baby! – in Bakırköy. My carpal tunnel release operations, done at Acıbadem hospital. There is no reason, other than personal prejudice, why anyone should need to travel ‘back home’ for an operation. In fact, many of the private hospitals in İstanbul have patients coming in from other countries because of the good value for money they represent.

As for the cheap medication, that’s done by government subsidy. Something that President Obama is trying to do for the US, finally.

Melissa Altintaş, teacher, Istanbul

I have to share my recent experience last summer with my father after he suffered a major stroke in a hospital in Ohio — and in which he fell out of bed because “they were understaffed and couldn’t didn’t have anyone to sit next to him” even though he was labeled a fall risk. That and my experience three years ago when Orhan [Melissa’s Turkish husband] had a double hernia repair at the American Hospital and Pelin’s experience of having a baby at the American hospital (they even sent a hairdresser to cut and blow dry her hair after the birth!) have all left me feeling less worried about the possibility of ever having a major health problem here in Istanbul instead of the States.  I actually think I might prefer to be here in so many ways.


Ani Pierpont, writer, California
You are [not] missing out on all the fighting here on who justly deserves medical services.  I think the far right would feel that your pain was from some evil thought, thus no help for you.  The far left would pay for all care because no one should profit from someone’s medical misfortune.  We will get some “mashed potato” in the middle that I believe will not help much.  Americans don’t travel to foreign countries enough to know how we are getting screwed on pharmacy costs, not to mention all medical costs; $1.60 there $150 here—ouch.  Single payer is out of the picture, and I think that’s the only way to go.  When I hear how great our medical facilities are [best in the world] I laugh because, as you found out, they’re doing just fine elsewhere, and even better than here in many instances.

A place for the friend to sleep!?!?!  Where!?!? Two years ago my father had heart surgery in San Francisco, and it was an hour and a half to get there each day to help out.  I got him out of bed and moving, then walking around the hospital to build up strength.  Got him extra fruit and food from the cafeteria to make sure his diet was balanced, made sure he sat up in a chair for awhile and then did the breathing exercises so pneumonia wouldn’t set in.  He was out of there in record time to the surprise of all [at 89 only 9 days.]  I was a wreck from the stress, being there all day and the 3 hour commute.

I’m so happy for you to be out of pain.  By the way, what did all this cost a foreigner? Americans need to know.  And you didn’t pay $100 for the toiletries!?!?!!! wow.

[Note: My entire surgery, doctor fees, lab fees, and 4 days (5 including the surgery day) in the hospital cost a total of $13,000. I paid $2000 on a co-pay. A.M.]

P.S. from Ani on Health Tourism: In today’s on-line Zaman site there is an article on Turkey as a medical destination with 33 hospitals accredited, more than any other nation!  Turkey has a “superior health care infrastructure” it goes on to say, and 200,000 medical tourists come each year!!!!  WOW!!!  They pay 30-80% less than in the U.S.  You found this out the hard way but now your recovery is almost in the ‘rear view mirror.’

Anonymous friend, Grand Marais, Minnesota:
So glad you are mostly out of pain.  Amazing story of their health care system.  Why can’t we get some of that kindness (people able to stay in your room) and the low drug costs.  We think we are so above other cultures in so many ways, it drives me nuts how naive we are.

Anonymous friend, rural Minnesota

Actually, I just read in the paper the other day that Minnesota, under Governor Pawlenty’s leadership, is currently ranked 43rd among the states in our nation for overall medical care for our citizens.  That is very alarming, and of course, the poorest among us are also receiving the inferior care.  I’m sure you’re aware of the GAMC debate that continues to go on here.

Mary Bebie, Grand Marais, Minnesota

We, Roger, Badger and I, are so sorry to hear about your back.  So glad you were able to find a doctor that was able to help you so quickly.  We do hope you are back on you feet soon.  We were so impressed with the hospital and drug prices.  This is an American dream.  Do rest and heal quickly.

Christy Buetow, Grand Marais, Minnesota:

(recent heart transplant recipient at Mayo Clinic in Minnesota)

It was so good to get your e-mail and read your story.  Annie had let me know about your back and need for surgery.  I’m so glad that things went well and that you’re recovering well.  It’s so interesting to me that we ego-centric Americans think we’re the best at everything without giving credit to the skill, training and innovation of other countries.  It seems like you’ve just experienced that first hand.

Tom Mathews, retired journalist, NY

Your report on the American Hospital and the followup from your friends was fascinating. The NY Times Travel section should run your story. Everyone in this screwed up country of ours that still believes we have the absolute Number One Best health care system in spite of all the evidence to the contrary and who insists on seeing hospitals abroad as hell holes should read your story.

Gecekondu? What?

A home near my apartment was demolished last week, a disturbing situation at best. I asked an English-speaking neighbor about this shocking incident. “Oh, it was probably one of those illegal houses,” he said. “There are a lot of them, you know. You’re probably living in one.” Well, let me tell you, that information was none too comforting. (I later learned that my apartment building was, indeed, built illegally.)


Last week this was someone’s home.

Though I don’t expect anyone will come and smash in my apartment this week, this event motivated me to do some research on Turkish property laws. I’ve heard lots of different things in the past. I was told that Turkey has squatter’s rights, which means that if you build a house overnight, you can legally live there even if it’s not on your property. I’ve also heard that you don’t have to pay taxes on apartment buildings if the top story isn’t completed, which explains why many Istanbul buildings have an unfinished top floor. They say that many old Ottoman houses are crumbling because no one claims ownership or the ownership is in dispute, and it’s illegal to destroy them until they collapse.


My apartment building–in jeopardy?

Time to sort fact from fiction.

It’s all about history. In Ottoman times (1299-1923) all the land belonged to the state—the sultan. Ownership was a totally different concept then, which must affect the hazy property laws of modern Turkey. It’s sort of like the Native American theory that everything belongs to everyone, right? I think the Native Americans were clever to take mirrors and trinkets in exchange for land, since they were getting paid for something that belonged to everyone. With my students I use the example of air. When I offer them each one dollar for a square foot of the air in the classroom, they all take me up on it. Why? “Because you can’t own air,” they say. Well, in Turkey people built houses in any available space, using whatever materials were available to them. It worked.


Another view of the demolished apartment…


…and a lovely Ottoman home a few doors away.

In 1923 when the Ottoman Empire ended, Ataturk founded the Turkish Republic and instituted numerous reforms, including a huge population exchange— mainly between Turkey and Greece. Turkish Christians were deported to Greece, and Greek Muslims were imported to Turkey by the hundreds of thousands. Just imagine all the vacated homes in both countries, all there for the taking. Unfortunately, many were left vacant. Kayaköy, a city frozen in time, is one of a number of completely deserted cities in Western Turkey near the Aegean. At any rate, the population exchange confused property ownership all the more.


Kayaköy, a city abandoned after the population exchange.

P1010482Kayaköy’s crumbling cathedral (Susie and Shelley in the foreground–2007)

In recent decades there’s also been an exodus from rural Turkey to the cities, with many people moving into makeshift housing until they can establish themselves. Here’s where we begin to see “overnight constructions” called gecekondu (pronounced GEHjay-CONEdoo). In Turkish, “gece” means “night,” and “kondu” means “put.” According to a recent master’s thesis posted online entitled A study of the Gecekondu in Istanbul, Turkey (Miranda Iossifidis, 2008), these houses have been legalized:

The “Gecekondu law” was passed in 1966, and was necessary due to a legal loophole that enables constructions to remain intact if they are built after dusk and inhabited before dawn breaks, without the authorities noticing. This globally singular predicament means that legal proceedings take place, instead of the dwelling’s destruction. The law states the following in article 2:

“In this law, the term gecekondu refers to illicit constructions, that were built regardless the general regulations and directives determining construction work requirements, regardless the soils on which building is permitted or not, regardless the fact that land do not belong to the builder and that gecekondu are being built without the owner’s authorization.” (Turkish Law, Gecekondu Law No. 775)


Someone fixed dinner in this kitchen just weeks ago.

A few years ago my Turkish book group read a book of stories recounting the trials of people trying to establish a gecekondu community, Berji Kristin: Tales from the Garbage Hills, by Latife Tekin. A rather bizarre series of tales, it opened my eyes to the tribulations of these “shaky” communities.

So—after reviewing the history, what’s the reality here in little Arnavutköy, which I’ve grown to love?

Well, the reality is that among and between all these incredible mansions (I’m surrounded by them) are many makeshift homes, mostly concrete-and-brick construction. Could they have been built in a night? I find that hard to believe, but who knows? Take a look at the Google map of my little neighborhood. My apartment building is about 50 feet across the front, so compare that to the mega-mansion across the street, complete with a pool and 8-foot fences all around it. The tiny little apartment up the street (maybe 20-25 feet square) is now rubble. Though it had a makeshift corrugated roof, its brick, stone, and concrete construction was typical of the area.


My Arnavutköy neighborhood. Most of the smaller roofs are gecekondu (upper left).

I talked to my neighbor Candan about it one morning on my way to school. As he dragged his big bulldog Pablo along, he explained that the land belongs to the Orthodox church, and that they probably ordered the demolition. “The little place next to it will be destroyed as well,” he said. “It’s a terrible time to do this, in the middle of winter, but these houses are illegal.” He continued to explain that although religious minorities are protected under the Treaty of Lausanne (1923), they are not allowed to build anything new in Turkey. He’s quite sure they can neither sell nor develop the property, so I don’t understand who benefits from this demolition.


Yet another view–what’s the fate of the woman working outside the right-hand apartment?

In discussions with my peers I’ve learned that political ties (or the lack thereof) can mean the destruction of a home, a business, or a school. In fact, this fall a relatively new school in Istanbul, the Kemer School, was bulldozed two weeks before school started. Apparently the school was built illegally, which is the case with many schools and buildings.


The Kemer School being demolished (photo from baktabulum.com.–see below)

For more information about this event, go to http://www.baktabulum.com/english-world-news/216947-municipality-demolishes-private-school.html. The Koç School (where I taught for 2 1/2 years) was built illegally, too, but they turned away the bulldozers and were allowed to stay open. I heard, too, that the head of the foundation that built the Kemer school also runs the Vatan Gazette, a newspaper often critical of the ruling AK party. Hmmm…

It makes one wonder—and worry.


I feel compelled to do a bit of ranting about grades. Hope you don’t mind.
Today is the sixth and last day of final exams here at Koç. The kids sit two exams a day, ranging from 40 to 80 minutes. Most students go into an exam knowing exactly what percentage they need to earn the final grade they seek. Weird, huh?

A few weeks before exams—Friday morning blues on the 3rd floor

Grades are the Be-All and End-All of the Turkish educational system. That and the Ö.S.S., the university entrance exam (but that’s another story). Actually, I find the grading system here both unfair and enabling. Hence, my rant:
First of all, 45% is a passing grade in Turkey (in the U.S. it’s 60%). Here’s the curve:

  • 85 to 100%  is a 5, the top grade (no pluses or minuses, thank you)
  • 70 to 84% is a 4
  • 55 to 69% is a 3 (considered average)
  • 45 to 54% is a 2 (still passing, but unimpressive)
  • 25 to 44% is a 1, not passing
  • 0 to 24% is a 0, a dismal failure

Each student has 1-3 oral grades (usually class work) and 2-3 written grades (exams) for each class in a semester, depending on how many times the class meets per week. The system for oral grades is determined individually by each teacher, while the written grades come from uniform common exams. For example, we have about 10 or 11 sections in each grade, and all those sections take exactly the same exams for each course they take. That’s to keep things equitable.

The kids arrived bleary-eyed today after a week of late nights studying.

The other thing we do to make grading fair is moderation—sometimes a struggle. Everyone on the English team grades the same 2 or 3 exams according to the rubric, then we compare the grades we gave. Next we discuss differences and figure out how to adapt our grading to an agreed-on norm. It’s hard. After hours of grading our own students’ papers, we have other teachers re-grade (moderate) some of them, particularly the highest and lowest ones. It’s VERY time-consuming, but it’s important in this culture where parents sue the school over grades. Really.

Few studied this morning, though other days they were more focused.

At least a few of the girls studied…

…as did a few in room 304.

Now, imagine a teacher who feels philosophically opposed to grading in the first place, and plunk her in a situation like this where life is all about grades. I’ve had to rethink my approach to education and move from my preferred  +, √, —  “evaluation system” and go back to a traditional 100-point system. ARAUGHH!!!!
Oh—but there’s MORE!

My own juniors (in another testing room), focused as usual (that’s Nisan waving.)

In the end, the student who squeaks out a low 4 with 70% gets the very same 4 as the student who earned 84%, fourteen percentage points higher. Enter: THE BEGGARS. Yes, folks. We have them. They’re well-intentioned, of course. “Oh, it was so close, can’t you just give me/him/her a few more points?” Grades are so important here that parents get into the act along with their kids. Not only is final exam time stressful, but it sets off a barrage of BEGGING! PLEADING! BARGAINING! (Gosh—I haven’t been offered a bribe yet. Hmmm…)

Hard at work on the history exam–one more to go!

Think that’s enough? Well, there’s even more, my friends. It’s the way the grades are averaged. Within a semester, grade percentages are averaged together to find a numeric percentage, which determines the semester grade. BUT—the two semester grades are averaged in a new and enabling way. If you get the same final grade both semesters, that’s all well and good. A 3 and a 3 average out to a 3. If you do better one term, though, the top grade rules. For instance, a 3 and a 2 make—not 2.5, but 3! (Remember, no pluses or minuses.) So, for instance, a student who finishes the first semester with a low 3 (55%) and does a bit of slacking off the second semester and barely squeaks out a 2 (45%) should have an average of 50%. Right? Well, that 50 magically becomes not a 2 (which it should be) but a 3, just the same as the student who earned 69% both terms for an overall average of 69%, a high 3. There’s nearly a 20% difference over the year for the same grade. Hmmm… Something’s wrong. It just doesn’t seem fair.

Saffet takes every exam seriously. He wants 5’s, and usually gets them.

I figured out that a student who fails with a low 1 first term (25%) and a low 2 the second term (45%) ends up with a passing grade of 2—with a mere 35%, ten percent below the (already low) passing grade of 45%. Such a deal for the low achiever!
And there’s MORE, my friends. If, after a dismal year a student is unhappy with his or her grade, there’s the option of taking a grade-changing exam during the summer. These exams are difficult, but for the intelligent but lazy student, they’re a godsend. I don’t even want to KNOW more about them.

They’re all focused—except Yunus. No surprise.

Zeynep just asked me, “Are you writing about grades in Turkey or grades at Koç?”
“Aren’t they the same?” I wondered.
“I think it’s worse at Koç,” she said. “There’s more pressure here.”
Point taken. Poor kids… No wonder they dragged themselves to school this morning with bleary eyes and collapsed into their desks. Six days of this would undo anyone.
If I sound biased, I am. I hate grades, and it breaks my heart that they’re so important in this country. I also hate it that the system is so unfair yet at the same time so enabling.
The flip side is that it’s been a joy to teach these kids. I love them, and somehow we slog through the grading mire together. We get through it, and my hope is that they learn something in the process.
I always thought education was more about learning anyway. Did I miss something?

Mount Nemrut beckons…

When I first came to Turkey, I was alerted to the possible dangers for a Western woman traveling to Eastern Turkey. Well, last weekend was my third foray into the East, and I’ve never felt more like a celebrity in my life.

Friends Stella Risi (South African), Lorna Richardson (English) and I (American) took advantage of our three-day weekend to visit the famed Mount Nemrut—the one with huge carved heads sitting atop its peak.

Me, Lorna, and Stella in Malatya (though how woud you know?)

We arrived mid-day on Friday and checked into our Malatya hotel, a VERY weak 4-stars. Like two. Oh, well. We dropped our gear and headed off to find lunch, which was thankfully a mere block from the hotel. We had Mercimek çorba (lentil soup), çoban salata (chopped tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions), bread, and an entrée (I had köfte, grilled spiced meatballs) for about $5 each. Go figure. Food is MUCH cheaper outside Istanbul, and delicious to boot.

A favorite lunch–mercimek çorba (lentil soup), çoban salata, pide (flat bread)

Next we headed off to explore Malatya, our intent to visit the street bazaar. Within minutes we were adopted by a group of three young men eager to guide us. It took us two kilometers and a few cups of coffee to shake them off, friendly though they were. That was just the beginning. Everywhere we turned, people were chirping, “Hello!”, “Hi!”, and if more fluent, “What is your name?” or “Where are you from?” It was fun, actually. I’d say we chatted with at least six groups of people of all ages, both male and female. Tourists are rare in Malatya, especially in early May. (Stella said it was Lorna’s and my blonde hair—bless her heart. We’re both pretty white-topped, if you ask me.)

Friendly girls welcome us to their town with their limited English (…and Stella)

The highlight of our explorations was the market, where we found scrumptious dried kayısı (apricots—the area’s specialty) and a few blocks where metal workers toiled right in the street. Welders with no eye protection, copper workers pounding on pots almost bigger than themselves, and knife crafters plying their trade. Pounding and banging, drilling and sawing sounds filled the air as we walked the streets, mesmerized with the scene.

Metal workers labor on the streets of Malatya

A copper worker pounds the bottom of a copper pot

Later we discovered a vegetable market, another place filled with a cacophony of sound, and everywhere there were kayısıcı, apricot vendors with every type of apricot you could imagine, including the pits, which are much like small almonds, and nearly as good.

A peek inside the Kayisici apricot seller’s shop. ALL apricots!

Then more tea, more wandering, more chatting, and finally dinner at the Kent Lokantasi (Restaurant), where we’d been treated to tea earlier that afternoon. Delicious, cheap, and FAR too much food. Sigh…
Saturday Lorna slept in while Stella and I headed off to explore near the hotel. We discovered a railway station where learned that the train from Istanbul costs a tenth of what we’d paid for airline tickets—but it takes ten times longer (30 hours). No way!
As we wended our way back through a small residential area near the station, we encountered a woman scrubbing her carpet in the street. I snapped her photo, asking for advice on rug-cleaning. She hoses down the rug, sprinkles laundry detergent on it, and scrubs it with a long-handled brush. Then she rinses it off and hangs it out to dry overnight. Easy, she said. Right. I can just see myself scrubbing my rugs on the Devil Track Road!

THIS is how you clean a Turkish carpet.

She invited us for coffee (I expected Nescafe), produced small stools from her house, and treated us to the most delicious Turkish coffee I’ve ever tasted. As we sat, more and more neighbors joined us, all tickled to chat with the yabanci (foreign) women. Sheer delight. One of the ladies beckoned us over to a shed across the street to show us a litter of newborn kittens.

Stella and I posed with the first neighbors who joined us. The boys spoke a little English.

At noon we departed for our 22-hour tour of Nemrut. Our $60 fee included mini-bus transport (with 5 other delightful tourists, a Turkish family and two young women from Malaysia), a lunch stop, a sunset visit to the top of the mountain, lodging at the Güneş (sunshine) Hotel on the mountain, a second visit to the summit (sunrise this time), and breakfast.

The very basic but charming Güneş Otel. Romantic? Umm…

The concrete “mock rock” decor of the hotel stairway.

We had great fun getting to know each other and sharing the adventure of a frigid hotel experience (no heat), the fascination of the mountain ruins, and the camaraderie of shared wine (brought it up there), soup and bread, chicken shish, and evening games (poker and checkers).
But the amazing thing, of course, was Mount Nemrut. At the top of this 2100-meter mountain sits a collection of statues and fragments dating back to the Kommagene dynasty of 80 B.C. to 72 A.D. Overlooking the Euphrates River (Turkish name: Firat), the ruins on the mountaintop were never a community, but a shrine to the gods and to the ancestors of the dynasty.

Zeus watches over the mountains from the Western Terrace of Mount Nemrut

According to a website about Mount Nemrut, “The well-preserved colossal statues overlooking the court on the east are made of blocks of limestone and measure eight to ten meters in height. The figures are shown in a sitting position. Inscriptions identify the statues on the eastern terrace from left to right in the following order: Antiochos, the goddess Kommagene, Zeus-Oromasdes (the Graeco-Persian sky-god and supreme deity, and also the largest-sized statue), Apollo-Mithras, and Herakles-Artagnes. On either side of the divinities stood a guardian eagle and lion.

A lion guards a platform on the East Terrace

The heads of all the deities have toppled over onto ground in the intervening centuries. Their finely worked facial features are striking examples of the idealized late Hellenistic style. The gods wear Persian headgear.” (Ozduzen, Nezihi. “Mt. Nemrut National Park.” All About Turkey. 6 May 2009 <http://www.adiyamanli.org/mt_nemrut.htm>.)

The headless, seated bodies of Nemrut’s  collosal statues

Unfortunately, the heads have fallen from their seated bodies, but they’ve been set up so that they can be admired. Perhaps these multi-ton heads will once again sit atop their bodies. It was all truly amazing, particularly as we viewed the statues in the slanting rays of the late-day sun.

Heads on the East face of the mountain—Antiocyus Theos and Zeus

Our bonus, too, was a traditional dance performance by a group of children from a nearby village, probably in honor of the May 1st holiday. Lucky us, huh? Of course, I haven’t mentioned that it was incredibly cold up there, well below zero, especially the next morning before the sun came up .WINDY!!!!

Young dancers on the terrace as the lion stands guard

They danced over a half hour in the bitter cold

They were tickled to pose with a yabanci (foreigner).

Although we didn’t get to see it, Mount Nemrut is the site of history’s first known astrological symbol, part of a lion statue which is presently being renovated (in a locked building).

Sunset over Nemrut

After breakfast we returned to Malatya and spent the afternoon exploring Eski Malatya (ancient Malatya) a small city about 11 kilometers away. There we explored the renovation of an old caravansaray and the newly-renovated Ulu Cami (mosque). Both lovely.

The newly-renoated interior of the Ulu Camii, in Eski (Old) Malatya

Peering up into the dome of the mosque

Detail of ceramic decorations in the mosque–tiles nearly 800 years old

Before we knew it, we were thronged by a herd of little boys eager to show us their village. They helped us find a restaurant, then waited outside, watching us eat our lunch of mercimek soup and coban salata—always our favorite lunch.

Rather than fend them off all afternoon, we caught a bus back to Malatya, where we meandered lazily back to our hotel, soaking in the sights and the sunshine, sampling coffee, tea, and sweets along the way.
Each time you eat a dried apricot, it probably comes from Turkey—from the area around Mount Nemrut. Imagine!

A Trek to Eyup

It never ceases to amaze me. Istanbul. This city that straddles two centuries—sometimes three—as well as spanning two continents. Talk about diversity!

Last weekend my friend Dee and I trekked from Sultanahmet up to Eyup, through the most traditional sections of the city. We started our mini-pilgrimage at Eminönü, the ferrystop along the Golden Horn just below Sultanahmet. Once we crossed the Galata bridge, our world shifted. It was like stepping back in time. All of a sudden the tourists were gone and we were among Turks, and more traditional Turks at that. The first things we spotted were three boats moored by the quay, one with triple copper onion-shaped domes. Hmmm…

Fish restaurant boats along the Golden Horn at Eminönü

As we drew closer, we realized they were fish restaurants, with fish-flipping chefs resplendent in traditional Turkish embroidered vests. They filled crusty poor-boy sized loaves with piping hot fish fillets, which they handed off to waiters waiting on the pier.

The fish hand-off

Low tables and stools filled the quay, some under tent roofs, but all with happy Turks enjoying their fresh fish sandwiches. YUM!!!!

The fish restaurant with the boat in the background

Beside these open-air restaurants, vendors worked from quaint food stands selling—what? Something red and lumpy in a clear red juice. Whatever could it be? It looked like a pink parfait of some kind, but on closer scrutiny we realized it was TURŞU—PICKLES!!!! I’m still not sure about the red juice (cherry?), but people were buying and thoroughly enjoying pickled cucumbers, carrots, peppers, and cabbage in something red. Hmmm…


Sorry that we’d already eaten, Dee and I trekked on to find the bus for Edirnekapı, our first stop. A friendly driver left his bus and walked us to where he thought ours might be, checking with that driver to be sure. Typical Turkish helpfulness. (I love it.) Though we had to stand, we were happy to be on our way. We rode about 15 minutes to Edirnekapı, where we hopped off and waited for a mini-bus to Eyup. Within moments we’d paid our fare (collected in a tray beside the driver) and were on our way. Once again I was standing, but a sweet man took his 11-year-old grandson onto his lap to make room for me. The boy, I think, was bigger than his grandfather. I knew better than to refuse, and took the kindly proffered place. I shared that I’m an English teacher, then asked the very shy boy a few questions, like “Are you happy there is no school Monday?” That brought a smile! (We were given the day off because of Sunday’s elections, which were to be held in the schools. Apparently they needed Monday to count ballots and put things back in order.)

Election banners for the Sunday election hang all over the city.

Before long we were in Eyup. We’d stepped from modern Istanbul into a world of capped and bearded men with women in scarves and veils. So different for us…

Traditionally-garbed Turks enjoy a Saturday promenade by the Eyup fountain.

We snapped photos of the mosque and fountain, then found our way to Eyup’s famous tomb, from which it takes its name. Eyyub al Ensari was a close friend of the prophet Mohammed, and he supposedly lost his life there during the Muslim siege of Istanbul in the 7th century. Wow. His tomb, now known as “Eyup Sultan Türbesi,” is located in the main mosque complex near the Golden Horn.

Traditional Iznik ceramic tiles with the very rare green shades as well as red and blue

Dee and I donned our scarves (you never tour Turkey without one, as it’s required garb in mosques), took off our shoes, and followed the devout into the tomb. Instead of standing with hands together as Christians do, the Muslims pray with cupped hands, palms up, at about chest level. Everyone paid their respects to Eyup, many reading from the Koran along the perimeter of the ornately decorated room, then they backed out of the room, always facing the tomb. All very silent and respectful. And there we were—tourists. Ah,well. Tourists among the pilgrims.

Worshippers at the Eyup Sultan Tomb

A koran vendor on the streets and one of the many lanterns outside the tomb.

Our next stop was the top of the hill above the famed Eyup Cemetery. Thousands of ancient tombs climb the hill to a high point at the end of the Golden Horn.

The men’s tombs often have a fez or turban atop to show their status.

Ancient, tired, leaning tombstones on Eyup’s hillside cemetery.

The famous Pierre Loti café sits atop it all. Tables and tables of tea drinkers relax to enjoy the incredible view of the city from one of its highest points. On a clear day you can see all the way to the Blue Mosque and the Haghia Sophia. It wasn’t that clear on Saturday, but it was gorgeous nonetheless. In case you didn’t know, Pierre Loti was a French writer who fell in love with Istanbul and often wrote sitting at an outdoor café on this very spot.

The Pierre Loti cafe kitchen

The Golden Horn view from our table

Oh, dear—I’m writing too much again. Sigh… It’s hard to stop, you know. Well, welcome to the traditional side of Istanbul, high above the Golden Horn at Eyup’s Pierre Loti Café.

Lovely. Incredible Istanbul.

The Bulgarian Iron Church—a Christian steeple along the Golden Horn

The Scarf: Oppression or Freedom?


When I walk the streets of Istanbul, there are always women in scarves. In more traditional communities it’s a majority, while in more modern, upscale communities, it’s less common. Older women are generally scarved, and younger women less often.


A lovely Muslim “Princess”

On rare occasions I’ll see two women, arm in arm, one scarved and one with tresses flowing free. It makes no difference to their friendship, though I find it a startling contrast.


Ceramic artists in Iznik, Turkey

I’ve tried to accept this part of Islamic culture, and I’ve come close, though I still struggle with the unfairness of women being covered when men aren’t.

A book entitled Nine Parts of Desire: The Hidden World of Islamic Women, by Geraldine Brooks, enlightened me somewhat on the topic. Apparently the theory (Islamic) is that women are incredibly sensuous beings; Allah granted them 9 parts of desire, giving men only one. Therefore, women have to cover themselves in order to keep the world from descending into chaos (of a sensual nature).

Since the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923, it has been unlawful for women to wear scarves in public buildings, including schools. Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, Turkey’s revered founder, was adamant that Turkey be a secular state even though its predominant religion was Islam. That is still true in this country, which is 99% Muslim. Turks take great pride in their secular government, a model of democracy in an Islamic world.


Sweethearts in Antalya, Turkey

Before I moved to Turkey I read Orhan Pamuk’s book, Snow, a fictional response to the issue of scarves and education. In this novel, a journalist travels to Kars (“snow” in Turkish), a city in Eastern Turkey, to investigate the story of girls whose religious convictions to wear scarves has driven them to suicide because of being denied access to education. Pamuk’s approach is a critical one, though illuminating in its understanding of the issues faced by these young women. It opened my eyes to the passion many of these girls feel about covering their heads.


Scarved women of all ages in Göreme, Cappadocia, Turkey

Well, the deed is done, as you probably know. Amid great turmoil, Turkey has passed legislation allowing women to wear scarves in universities, as long as their faces aren’t covered. There are two sides to this issue, and both make sense.

Proponents of the ruling insist that it’s a move toward freedom for all and access to education for women, not a step towards an Islamic state. That works for me. In America many girls attend school scarved. (Of course, America isn’t a neighbor to a country that requires head-covering.)

Opponents feel that this is just one of many moves toward breaking down Turkey’s secular government, that it’s like a “test case” to amending the constitution away from secularism. They also view the headscarf as a symbol of political Islam. So who’s right?


A young kilim-weaver in Cappadocia

I discussed this issue with a few university women, and they find it upsetting. They see both sides, yet feel threatened by the acceptance of scarves in their educational environment. “I worry that the pressure will be on me to take the scarf, or maybe on my daughter. We have a name for that social pressure in Turkey; it’s a lot like peer pressure, and it’s strong in our culture. I don’t want my country to go that way, but what can I do to prevent it?” one of them said.

A teacher friend shared that she’s unhappy with the ruling as well, although only a few of her university students appeared in scarves this week. She’s a liberal-minded woman, like many educators, and she feels the classroom isn’t the place for religious posturing. She commented, “This issue takes attention away from our country’s real problems: a shaky economy, lack of education, and ‘ugly’ world policies.” She’s not alone in this view. Many people have expressed a concern that much broader issues plague Turkey, and this issue has just been a governmental smokescreen to avoid tackling them.


Worshippers in the traditional community of Eyüp

Though many people feel that the wearing of scarves is on the rise, a survey of women across Turkey in 2006 showed a decline in scarf wearing. In 1999, 73% of Turkish women wore a headscarf, while in 2006 the percentage had declined to 63%.* It is true, though, that many families choose to keep their daughters out of school once they reach puberty. Turkey has sponsored many programs to promote the continued education of girls, with limited success.

I’m sure the CHP (secularist party) will bring this decision to an appeals court on the grounds that it’s unconstitutional, and no one knows where that will go. The Turkish military, which is charged with the responsibility of upholding the constitution and the secular state, doesn’t look kindly on this action either. It remains to be seen, though, whether they will intervene. It looks for now like things are settling.


Two generations of scarf fashion in Cappadocia

In the Best of All Possible Worlds, this would be a positive step. The problem, though, is mistrust and unspoken agendas. Time will tell, I guess. Until then, women will be free to wear scarves in Turkey’s universities.

*The survey was conducted by the Turkish Economic and Social Studies Foundation (TESEV)