Monday, July 15, 2013

Grim future for historical gardens?

Walking the 6.5-kilometer length of the city's ancient land walls my first year in Istanbul, I was delighted to discover lush green vegetable gardens (photo, right) growing in the shadow of these 1,600-year-old fortifications. Later, I learned from a historian specializing in Ottoman gardens that these small market plots -- known in Turkish as bostan -- were established on very fertile soil and had been handed down from generation to generation for hundreds of years.

As with so many other things at that time, it seemed perfectly reasonable to assume that tradition would continue on for many more generations to come. But this summer, with the dust from the Gezi Park turmoil not yet settled down, I received an urgent message alerting local press that bulldozers had moved in to raze some of these gardens near the Yedikule fortress.

With tensions high in the city, a fellow foreign journalist and I who arrived on the scene to report on the story became embroiled in a heated conflict over the future of the gardens -- and even targeted as interlopers by supporters of their destruction. The angry rhetoric being spread at the highest levels throughout the Gezi Park protests was on full display.

Shaken but undeterred, I wrote a piece for The Atlantic's CityLab (formerly The Atlantic Cities) about the threat to the bostan and how it ties in with larger issues of urban planning, public space, and public participation that are currently the subject of hot debate in Istanbul. My story was subsequently picked up by the regional news sites Eurasianet and Green Prophet, and my photos of the bostan used by the ecological agriculture website A Growing Culture.

Read my article, "Centuries-Old Gardens Are the Latest Battleground in Istanbul," on CityLab.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Orchids and ice cream

Clad in a red vest with gold embroidery and matching fez, the ice cream vendor rings a bell hanging above his booth on Istanbul’s busiest pedestrian thoroughfare, then grabs a long stick and plunges it into a vat in front of him, churning its contents with great effort. Triumphantly, he raises what looks like a football-sized mass of taffy into the air, spins it around, and then drops the ice cream back into its container as the first customer of the day steps up.

What gives Turkish ice cream (maraş dondurması in Turkish, after the Kahramanmaraş region in the southeast of the country where it is believed to have originated) the unique firm, chewy consistency that allows it to be slung around or cut with a knife has traditionally been salep — a powder made from tuberous orchids....

Read the rest of this article, "Orchids Under Threat, From Turkish Ice Cream," on Zester Daily.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Gezi on my mind

During the last week of May, I found myself walking through Gezi Park at some point most evenings, drawn to the scruffy, neglected green space near Istanbul's Taksim Square to see how the crowds had multiplied since a few dozen protesters trying to block the
bulldozing of trees there as part of a controversial construction plan were teargassed by police.

Each night, there were more and more people in the once largely disused and ignored park, talking, singing, painting signs, picnicking, and pitching tents. And each morning, those who remained at dawn were teargassed once again. After waking up to this news one too many times, I sent off a story pitch about the protests to The Atlantic's CityLab (formerly The Atlantic Cities), which commissioned an article for the next day.

As I reported and wrote, the story changed rapidly; by the time my article about the Gezi Park protests was published, much of Istanbul (and then other cities around Turkey) had erupted into mass demonstrations, with protesters clashing with police late into the night. After a fragile peace was restored in Taksim Square and Gezi Park, I wrote a follow-up piece about the Occupy-style "mini-city" created by protesters, complete with libraries, food tents, and infirmaries.

As the Gezi Park protests drew renewed international attention to Turkey, multiple guest-blogging offers came my way. I wrote two posts for, where I previously served as Istanbul correspondent: on how the nationwide demonstrations started with a local effort to defend a park, and on some of the other environmental threats facing Turkey and the risk of a damaging "nature" law being pushed through the Turkish Parliament while all eyes were elsewhere. I also spoke live to CTV News Channel in Toronto about the mood in Istanbul following a promise to put the fate of Gezi Park up to a referendum.

With the protests continuing at full force well into June, there was only one choice for the cover story of the July 2013 issue of Time Out Istanbul, the monthly magazine I was editing at the time. I commissioned stories about the music inspired by the protests, the street art both humorous and biting that was popping up everywhere, the free public library that was created, the role of Istanbul's LGBT community in the demonstrations, and a personal essay by a Turkish author about her time in the Gezi Park community. I also wrote a piece on the "urban transformation" of Istanbul, one of the sparks of the unrest, as well as one on three documentary films that foreshadowed the upheaval. I also co-wrote a piece on the political and social context behind the protests that was eventually pulled amid fears of government retribution.

Living just a few blocks from the protest epicenter, I had some of my own experiences and observations to share too. On my personal blog, The Turkish Life, I wrote about the rapidly changing scene in Taksim Square during the early days of the protests; the spontaneous pedestrianization of the area; and the aftermath of the forceful clearing of Gezi Park. The biggest hit among these posts, though, was my guide to the language of the protests, from "AVM" to "zıpla."