Thursday, August 30, 2012

Journey to the bottom of Turkey

Yüksekova, a district of Hakkari Province, is situated close to the border with Iran. (PHOTO: TODAY ZAMAN)


Turkey is a huge land mass, with nearly 75 million people inhabiting a space that spans 2,000 kilometers wide.

With a view to explore this great country as much as I could, I had the fortunate opportunity to visit the town of Yüksekova, which is 200 kilometers further east from Van, and located in Hakkari province. It is effectively at the bottom end of Turkey, approximately 60 kilometers from both the Iranian and Iraqi borders.

Getting into Yüksekova after flying to Van proved a treacherous journey crossing mountainous terrain approximately 2,000 feet above sea level. Rivers flowed beside us as we drove on the rocky roads in earnest, finally arriving in the town of Yüksekova, which is on a flat plain surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides.

According to recent estimates, the town contains approximately 60,000 people and they are all of Kurdish ethnicity. In effect, I was deep inside “Turkey’s Kurdistan territory.”

I stayed with the family of a colleague from my university, İsmail Hakkı. A well-built man in his late 20s, he is a proud Kurd, as are all Kurds I have met in recent months here in İstanbul. I was afforded the warmth, peace and nobleness of his most generous family, including his five brothers, who range in age between the mid-20s and 40. Their mother and father were kind and gave me the freedom of their home as if I were one of their sons. Steeped in traditional Kurdish and Sunni-Hanafi culture, we ate together on the floor, seated on elegant kilims and cushions. The food I consumed was lavishly prepared by the matriarch and her daughters-in-law.

We all ate together, young and old, and by the third night I had them all trying to speak a little English, while I continued to embarrass myself with what little Turkish and Kurdish I so far amassed. What was comforting was the way in which Kurdish and Urdu have so many common phrases and terms. We drew comfort in trading interchangeable Kurdish and Urdu phrases while I continued to emphasize the culture of my parents and how the ways of my hosts were not too dissimilar to them.

Feeling at home
I sometimes regard myself culturally imperialized, disconnected from my heritage through the migration of my parents to England in the 1950s and early 1960s, and now far removed from the place of my birth, the city of Birmingham. Presently living in a land with its own array of peoples and cultures, unified under the banner of a modern secular republic, all the while keeping the deeply rooted cultural traditions of old alive behind the facade of tall residential buildings, I find myself an “alien.” In Yüksekova, I felt at home, or the nearest thing to it, past or present, real or imagined.

There was one embarrassing moment on the third night, however. In Britain, when eating a meal together, it is normally customary to begin when the host begins and to leave the table only when the host decides to. I realized that here in Yüksekova, while we all began to eat together, it is the host who does not get up until the guest decides to. Not realizing this, I waited for many minutes for the mother and father to get up so that I could, too. But they did not. It dawned on me that they were waiting for me to get up, and I duly did in the end but not until some cajoling from İsmail, who asked as he walked across the room, “Are you still eating?” I had in fact been waiting to get up for many minutes, but I did not realize my mistake. Sometimes I feel that as a BBCD (“British-born confused desi”) I do not belong anywhere. While this helps to keep a critical edge when I am looking at the world around me, it is often a lonely place.

The highlight of the three-day trip was “the picnic.” We piled into three cars, driving first to the ancestral village of the Hakkı family, some 50 kilometers away. A brand new family house, only months away from completion, is situated at the corner of the village, surrounded by rolling fields and mountains in the distance. The house will have everything necessary for life there, even wireless Internet. We then drove further on to a place described as “a garden” by İsmail. When we arrived to a space that had nothing but wild growth to show for it at first, I discovered an orchard, with trees and plants of fruit of every variety and hue. A stream flowed alongside, gently humming in the background at all times. I followed the folk deeper into “the garden” to discover strawberries and cherries so vivid in color and so succulent in taste. I last recall picking fruit from a tree and eating it as I did so in the early 1980s, when all the rage for families in England was to visit places such as Evesham to “pick your own.”

Lunch was eventually served, consisting of the meat of two goats slain earlier that morning. We ate it with glee, washing it down with lashings of tea. As the boys and I lounged around, allowing the food to digest, we decided to go swimming in the river. We walked to a point where it was felt safe to do so, stripped down accordingly and took a collective plunge into the cool water that was fresh and fast as the streams from higher up formed a rapid flow below. It was a lot of fun indeed, and we enjoyed those moments of trying to stay standing as the water splashing flights ensued.

Returning to the flock, and after some further lounging around, we decided to climb the nearest mountain. And we did. I struggled a little as the air was light and I could feel how unfit I had become living the sedentary life of an İstanbulite. We got to a position called Govend Rock, at which point we paused and took in the amazing scenery and looked down at the garden, which appeared now more as a forest from high above. The brothers decided to engage in an impromptu dance. Govend Rock means dancing rock. I noted brotherly love unsurpassed as I looked on.

Getting down was far quicker if not more eventful. Using the groove between two faces of the mountain side, where sand and small stones had collected, I was running and sliding down at the same time. With my trendy shoes full of sand and small stones, we returned to the family to be greeted with great amusement that I had actually come back unscathed. As the unfit alien foreigner, all I could do was to empty the sand and stones from my shoes to emphasize my bravery. They were not impressed.

The next day I had the opportunity to attend a Kurdish wedding. Women, who are not always seen on the streets in great numbers, were dressed in long dresses with such amazing shades of purple, green and blue. Gold was adorned around their necks and wrists, and they sat with confidence and poise. It was not the image I had of the cowering Kurdish woman at the hands of the dominant male. While women often remain in the domestic sphere, they have full authority of their domains while maintaining a hold on all family relations. When it was time for the collective dance, which included all, men and women, young and old, I was encouraged to join in. It was at this moment it was confirmed that I indeed have two left feet as I found it hard to coordinate what seemed an easy routine as an onlooker. The pressure of performance took its toll and I quickly assumed the guise of the foolish outsider who wanted to fit in and failed but should at least be given some credit for trying.

At times I was with other people in various new settings that I found myself in when accompanying members of the family, after pleasantries were exchanged between us through İsmail, who acted as translator, and after they asked where I was from and what I was doing in their town, the inevitable question came. What did I think about the “Kurdish issue”? Of course, I am still learning more about this “issue” myself and so I turned the question back on them. Various responses came back, including the idea that discussions are better than they have ever been and that it is possible to be optimistic at some level and that within a year a solution could be had. Others pointed the finger at the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) itself and said that they are the problem per se. Some were of the view that no solution could ever be achieved. For them, the status quo will remain, as it has since the emergence of the secular Turkish state.

There was no overwhelming consensus. However, what is clear is that the local population had a local Kurdish leadership in place. It certainly felt to me that the Kurds were in charge of their local affairs. Even the Turkish police only roamed the streets in bulletproof machine gun-loaded vehicles. Some areas of the town were described as no-go areas for the police.
My own experience of the wonderful family I stayed with was a sense of charm and warmth. I ate fruit from trees, climbed a mountain to get to a rock where a dance ensued and I swam in a river (or rather floated downstream most of the time). I also attended a wedding where I danced with other guests at the wedding party, albeit with two left feet. Time has another dimension for people in Yüksekova, who are rich in tradition and culture, humble and serene.

While I thoroughly enjoyed so much of my time, I had the feeling that things were not calm. Sadly, just over a day I left the town to return to İstanbul, in the Dağlıca area of Hakkari province, 50 kilometers southwest of Yüksekova, near the Iraqi border, PKK members and Turkish soldiers exchanged gunfire, leaving 26 dead, with casualties on both sides. It was one of the fiercest exchanges between these opposing groups in recent years. It has raised further alarm bells among the political establishment of Turkey. But what remains true is that the spirit of the people in deep Kurdish territory will not be unabated. Theirs is a world far removed from high political drama. Their land is in their blood and it pumps through their collective veins with vigor, and in spite of any attempts to make them think or believe anything else.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

[Living in Antalya] Home to roost

Kaleiçi, Antalya (PHOTO Today’s Zaman, Mehmet Demirci)


“Has anyone seen my purse?”“Where did you last see it?”

“Not sure. Maybe when I was out last night.”
“Much in it?”
“No. Not really. Except the pin code for my new SIM card… Oh, well. Shall I go on a boat trip today or not?”

And so it goes on with daughter number one, who has recently returned from her travels around the wilds of India. I can only assume that during those two months, she exerted so much energy in having to be on her guard against the loss of items such as her passport, money, travelers cheques, etc., that she is too exhausted to cope with the pressures of normal life.

“Oh, it’s so good to be home!” were her first words on arriving back in Antalya. After India, she was not fazed by the soaring temperatures and was impressed by the (comparatively) rubbish free roads, the (comparatively) civilized driving and her ability to blend into the background and not attract unwanted attention from locals.

About seven years ago, after my kids had more or less left home, I packed up all my worldly goods, sold the family house and moved 2,000 miles away to set up my new home in Antalya. This was, of course, a far more drastic step than most of my contemporaries were taking in the attempt to make our children into responsible adults. It wasn’t a deliberate attempt to escape the clutches of my brood or to shirk my responsibilities as a parent, but after many years of single parenting it seemed like the right time to make a life change. And in retrospect I would still maintain that it was the right decision. Not that it was without the pangs of guilt at leaving family and friends, as every expat well knows.

Right from the beginning, I encouraged my kids (actually it would be more accurate to say “paid for”) to visit as often as possible. Obviously free holidays abroad are not something that any self-respecting impoverished student is ever likely to turn down. They have made the journey over for exciting times in the winter, skiing and climbing in the Taurus Mountains and swimming and sunbathing during the rest of the year. In all seasons they have availed themselves -- mostly at my expense -- of Antalya’s finest selection of bars, chilled glasses of Efes and the chance to strut their stuff to whatever type of music takes their fancy in the nearby Kaleiçi (Antalya’s old town). In between these arduous activities, they have learnt to appreciate Turkey’s finest cuisine, even learning to cook a few of their favorite mezes. In other words, they have come to appreciate Antalya as much as I have.

So much so that daughter number one spent a four-month stint here prior to her Indian adventures.

She used the time wisely -- learning Turkish, completing a TEFL course, solving the numerous technical problems aged parents like me have with computers, traveling, writing, cooking, drinking, making numerous friends and generally enlivening our lives with her cheery presence around the house. Despite the constant scattering of her belongings -- clothes, phone chargers, netbooks, bags, etc. -- on every available surface, my long-suffering husband found himself, against his better judgment, looking forward to her return.
“Told you she would be moving back here,” he grumbled affectionately, despite my protestations that she would no doubt be moving on to explore another part of the world.
Meanwhile daughter number two has arrived, bringing with her my gorgeous 1-year-old grandson and her partner. So the conversations now sound like this:

“Can you just hold Lewis for a minute?”
“Has anyone seen the baby wipes?”
“What do you think these spots are on his back?”

As far as I am aware they are only here for the fortnight -- in fact, since I bought their tickets, I’m fairly sure of this fact -- and they don’t harbor any long-term plans for relocating to Antalya. But while they are here it’s great to play the role of generous grandmother, buying expensive wooden toys from Tchibo, garish plastic swimming contraptions and, of course, plenty of babysitting shifts.

My one and only son, however, has his own plans. In a month’s time, he and his partner will set off on a round-the-world bicycle trip, optimistically hoping to work along the way to cover their expenses. This adventure is set to take them up to four years, which seemed a long time to me until I discovered that their first port of call is to be Antalya, where with their newly acquired TEFL courses they hope to find some means of earning money. The rumor is that they will be based here for six months or so.

So despite my best endeavors to free myself from my beloved offspring, it seems that they are all coming home to roost. The fact that they view Antalya, which could not be more different from the small, northern town where they spent their childhood, as a desirable place to live is, of course, fantastic news for me. I hoped that they would all want to visit often and the chance to spend quality time with them would outweigh the long periods of time spent apart, but I never expected that any of them would choose to come and live here.

All expats face pangs of guilt at leaving behind family members, parents, siblings or children, but in my experience, my children have all gained a whole new aspect to their lives. Not only do they enjoy all things Turkish, but they have all made attempts to learn the language, to make Turkish friends and to explore independently more remote parts of this hugely diverse country. Despite the growing trend in the UK, brought on by the current economic crisis and lack of jobs, for young people to return to their parents’ homes to live, I doubt very much that any of my kids would have chosen to move back in with me in the cold, damp, dark environment of my former life.

Now, quite what the next generation, namely the lovely baby Lewis, will make of Turkey is another story. Having been abruptly transported from the cool, wet climate of Britain to searing temperatures of 40 degrees and above, probably not very much at the moment -- but there’s plenty of time for him to fall for his granny’s adopted home.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

FORBES - Why You Should Be Smart And Visit Turkey This Year

Istanbul always dazzles; that’s a given. The combination of iconic landmarks like the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace, the maze like Grand Bazaar and Spice Market with up to the minute clubs and restaurants gives this city an undeniable exotic/historic/cutting edge buzz. And it’s always improving.

Click for full photo gallery: Why You Should Go to Turkey This Year

The Four Seasons Sultanahmet was a standout when it opened in 1996, a luxe hotel in a former prison around the corner from Topkapi Palace, and it still is. But in September, they’re opening the terrace, redone in Ottoman sultan style, with its standout views overlooking the Hagia Sophia to non-guests. Having a glass of champagne while watching the lights click on the domes and minarets of this Ottoman/Byzantine beauty is an atmospheric way to start off the night. Tevkifhane Sokak No. 1, Sultanahmet,

Nearby, the most sybaritic way to start the day is in an elegant hamam reopened last year after a $10 million restoration wiped away decades of disrepair and an ignoble stint as a carpet shop. The Ayasofya Hurrem Sultan Hamam built in 1556 for a famous temptress, Roxelana, the former slave who became the harem favorite and then the wife of Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent , has to look even better than in her time: gleaming marble, gently splashing fountains, a labyrinth of corridors, flickering candles. And an attendant to gently lather , scrub, massage and rinse you with warm water, wrapping you in fluffy towels and taking you by the hand to walk you from station to station. You feel like a five year old being tended by a loving nursemaid. Just be glad that you’re not a prospective bride being examined by her future mother in law, as was the practice originally. (Cankurtaran Mah. Bab-ı Hümayün Cad. No.1; 90-212-517-35-35 )

Down the street from the frenzied 61 lanes containing 3000 shops and stalls of the Grand Bazaar is a shopping experience at the other end of the scale: one of the most exquisite stores in town—or in any city in Europe. Armaggan is a four level emporium dedicated to recreating the finest Turkish crafts and elevating them to an elite level. Buttery leather goods, diamonds in unique, modern designs, hand woven silks, marble, silver and porcelain objets d’art and, of course, carpets–everything is made by their artisans and sold in a store so effortlessly stylish that I wanted to live there. It also has a restaurant Nar, that features daily or weekly changing, market driven menus of classic Antatolian and Anatolian dishes created with artisan ingredients. Food for a shopping break that’s as exquisite as the merchandise. (Nuruosmaniye Caddesi, No:65 +90 212 522 44 33,

Art is also a theme at Casa dell’Arte, a family mansion turned exquisite 12 suite boutique hotel in Torba, near the Aegean resort town of Bodrum. The owners, the Buyukkusoglu family, have a museum quality contemporary art collection adorning the sleek, white spaces. They also recently started an artist in residence program, bringing young artists in from around the world for workshops, in which hotel guests can also participate. The house also has a private beach and three yachts that guests can charter, as well as a separate 37 suite family resort in which children are allowed, the art exhibited is by the young artists and any of it can be purchased. Torba Mahallesi, İnönü Caddesi No: 66 Torba (And while in the area, go into Bodrum to the intimate Campanella Bar but make sure that sultry torch singer Gokce Yildir is performing that night. Even if you don’t understand Turkish, her singing will move you. Cumhuriyet Caddesi, Eastern Bay, 0252 316 5302.)

Turkey is known for its antiquities and ruins of ancient cities but one important one was revealed to the public for the first time on May 20 after years of excavations, restoration and truckloads of sand removal (steady breezes blow the sand from the 7 ½ mile long nearby beach onto the ruins). The semicircle Parliament Building of the Lycian League in Patara, which dates back to 1500 B.C., was the inspiration for the layout of the U.S. Congress, as the system of elected representatives, the first in history, served as inspiration for the framers of the U.S. Constitution and it’s an imposing sight, as are the Roman theater and the colonnaded streets. (The best guide : Tolga Kirilen, an archeologist by education, at Equinox Travel in Antalya,

Historic sights of a different kind are on view in Cappadocia: the jagged stone formations called fairy chimneys —towers, obelisks and needles, some over 100 feet high- created through centuries of weather erosion. The landscape is pure fairy tale, and most of all at daybreak, drifting silently in a hot air balloon over the otherworldly terrain of the Goreme Valley. (One of the best: Royal Balloon, And at night, sleeping in a hilltop hotel composed of caves makes the experience come alive. (Argos in Cappadocia, View slideshow to see 10 top Turkish experiences.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Language consistency


Language consistency

When reading up on the challenges faced by many bilingual and multilingual families, I found that many experts stress consistency.
Some insist that you should opt for one method of communication and stick to it. For me, however, consistency is a sticky issue. At home, my son and I speak English together almost exclusively. My son and husband speak to each other in Turkish. Theoretically, according to some linguists, we should stick to this arrangement in order to maintain consistency.

However, it seems that we break the rules all the time. Although English and Turkish are the main languages of our home, we do have a tendency to slip into other languages. Personally, there are some words that I find express feelings or thoughts better in Spanish or Turkish than in English and I code-switch without even thinking about it. The result of my lapses in consistency is that our son has picked up a smattering of Spanish in the process.

Now that our son is learning German and Mandarin, new words are slowly entering our common language mix at home. I wonder what the experts have to say about this situation. Our solution has been to create our own mix of languages that are often used alongside the home languages of Turkish and English. It may not be the most orthodox method, but it is what seems to work best for us. My feeling is that while linguists can offer suggestions of how to raise a child in a multilingual environment, there are times when the rules need to be thrown out the window when they are not practical.

Growing up in South Texas, we spoke English and Spanish at home, as well as a mix of the two languages, usually referred to as Spanglish. Here in İstanbul, our multilingual household often resorts to using a mix of Turkish and English, or Turklish. When our son was small, we did try to speak only in Turkish and English so that he could pick up the languages easier. However, once he became more fluent in both, we began to add our own language mixes that combined two or more languages. This approach might possibly throw purists into fits of apoplexy because it definitely does not follow the rule of consistency.

Because I grew up in a bilingual culture and have since that time studied other languages, I do not think exclusively in a single language. My mother tongue is, of course, English, but I tend to think in a mixture of languages, depending on the situation and location. When I speak Turkish, I think in Turkish. Long gone are the days when I struggled to translate in my head from Turkish to English in order to understand what was going on around me, straining to translate back from English to Turkish to form a reply. There are times, though, when I find myself searching for a word or phrase in one language, and only coming up with the appropriate wording in a completely different language. Dreams, too, are not immune from the blend of languages that make up my life. Like me, my son also dreams in different languages, flowing easily between Turkish and English and even sometimes using a mix of the two.

I suspect that most multilingual families are like ours -- trying to listen to what experts have to say, but discovering that it is just not at all practical to attempt to rigidly adhere to any one particular school of thought on the subject. Changing languages in mid sentence, code-switching, word mixing and even inventing new words are common in families conversing in two or more languages. From personal experience, I feel that families need to be flexible and adapt to changes when necessary. Even though we started out with the idea that we would follow the one parent-one language method, where each parent only speaks their native tongue, once our son was speaking we found it to be too restrictive for our particular needs.

So, what advice can I offer families who are also juggling languages in the home, at school and at the workplace? Is consistency actually as important as some experts will have you believe? All I can say is that it takes time, patience and a good sense of humor to find how best to cope with living in two or more languages. Read what the experts have to say about the matter, but be flexible and adapt their advice to your own particular situation. Instead of fretting over whether or not we are following the right advice in raising our multilingual children, I think it is more important that a family learn to be flexible and creative to find what works best for their personal situation. Listen to what experts have to say, but, in the end, find what works best for your family.

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