Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Solidarity amid strife in Turkey

It wasn’t long after the blasts tore through the crowd that the urgent cries began going out on Twitter and Facebook: “O-, O+ and A- blood needed at Numune, Hacettepe and İbni Sina hospitals!”

Next came the photographs of papers tacked to walls: lists of the names of the injured, shared online to get the word out to their family and friends.

As night fell after Turkey’s deadliest-ever terrorist attack, a dual suicide bombing targeting a peace rally organised by trade unions in the capital city of Ankara, the calls for help continued...

The killing of 103 people in the Ankara bombings of 10 October sent many in Turkey, myself included, into deep mourning. One of the few things bringing some comfort was seeing the solidarity and resilience of people coming together to protest the deaths and help those wounded in the attack and the families of those who perished.

This is a difficult moment, however, for Turkey's grassroots, which while revitalized in some ways by the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and subsequent civic organizing, is also under an increasing amount of pressure from the country's government and security forces. I wrote about some of these tensions for Equal Times, a Brussels-based news site that also published the story in Spanish and French.

Read the rest of my article, "The Renewal and Repression of Turkey's Civil Society Grassroots," on Equal Times.

Monday, November 16, 2015

From tourism to turmoil

Early November is typically a tranquil time on Lesbos, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea with some 80,000 year-round inhabitants. Residents shut the doors of their hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that predominantly serve the summer tourism market and head out to their olive groves for the annual harvest.

This year, though, there are “no vacancy” signs in English and Arabic posted on hotel doors in the main port of Mytilene and lines snaking outside travel agencies. The latter are doing a brisk business not in holiday excursions, but in ferry tickets to Athens, the next stop for the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants who have landed on the island this year en route to mainland Europe.

“It’s usually very quiet in winter, but a lot of businesses are still working even now, restaurants, mini-markets, car-rental agencies, so there’s a bit more life in the villages,” says Lesbos resident Aphrodite Vati Mariola. The beachfront hotel her family has operated since 1989 is not among them, however – they closed two weeks early after bookings went stagnant in early September, when both refugee arrivals and media coverage of the crisis increased....

Conflict in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other country is taking a devastating toll on human life and driving millions of people to leave their homes. This refugee flow is also having an impact economically and socially as in nearby countries such as Greece and Turkey as they struggle to cope with the influx. Late last month, I traveled to Lesbos to volunteer and bring back information about the conditions for refugees on this "hotspot" Greek island. I was also asked by the travel website Skift to write about how the refugee crisis is impacting the economy of this once-popular tourism destination.

Read the rest of my article, "Greek Islands Known for Tourism Continue to Feel Impact of Refugee Crisis," on Skift's website.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

A city's buried secrets

Ufuk Kocabaş spent his summers swimming, snorkeling and eventually diving around nearby Marmara Island, where his grandfather and other forebears plied the sea as sailors. At age 14, he stumbled upon his first shipwreck, littered with pieces of amphora — an ancient type of storage and transport container — and got an early lesson in proper archaeological practice.

“I took some amphora fragments [from the ship] to my sister who was studying at university,” recalls Kocabaş, now head of the Istanbul University Conservation Department. “She told me I shouldn’t have taken them from the site, that I should have left them where they were. At the time, I thought this was stupid. It’s my amphora!”

After chiding him, Kocabaş’s sister helped him identify the type of amphora he found. It dated to the seventh century, and they passed the information they’d ascertained about the shipwreck to a museum. “It was an amazing experience,” Kocabaş says. “I started to read about shipwrecks then, and haven’t stopped since.” ...

Last summer, I had the privilege to peek into Istanbul's far-distant past with Kocabaş, who helped lead the archaeological excavation that uncovered perhaps the world’s largest collection of Byzantine shipwrecks, and evidence that the city's history dates back nearly 6,000 years farther than previously believed.

My story about the work of Kocabaş' Yenikapı Shipwrecks Project, and other fascinating urban archaeological digs from Rio to Rome, was published as the September 2015 cover story of Discover, my first piece for the renowned science magazine.

Read my article, "Underground Transit Projects Reveal Secrets Buried Beneath Cities," in Discover.

My story featured on Discover's Facebook page

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

(Olive) oil vs. coal

For seven weeks in the fall of 2014, the villagers of Yirca kept watch over their olive groves day and night, warming themselves around a fire and taking turns sleeping in a small shelter. Sentinels with binoculars were stationed under the pines on a nearby hill with a sweeping view across the broad, flat valley. They were scanning for any sign of movement by the Kolin Group, the company that was seeking to expropriate this land to build and operate a 510-megawatt, coal-fired power plant.

"If the scouts saw anything, they'd get on their phones and call down, 'The bulldozers are coming!' and the people would rush to block the road leading to the groves," says Mustafa Akin. The avuncular former teacher now serves as muhtar—the elected village head—of Yirca, a tiny settlement of 400 in western Turkey, 50 miles inland from the Aegean Sea.

For a time, despite several confrontations with Kolin Group workers, the villagers' vigil was largely successful. But one night in early November, the bulldozers came back, this time accompanied by two busloads of private security guards and a "rapid expropriation" order from the government. Arguments broke out, and then scuffles. Four people were hauled off in handcuffs; others say they were beaten by the guards. Before the sun rose, 6,000 olive trees had been ripped out of the ground....

What happened that night in Yırca shocked people around Turkey, especially coming as it did just a few months after an appalling industrial disaster killed 301 coal miners in nearby Soma. But it is hardly the only place in the country where corporate interests -- particularly those related to the energy and construction sectors -- are running roughshod over nature and rural communities. Earlier this year, I traveled to Yırca to see how the villagers were faring following the loss of their olive trees, and to try and put their story into the context of the larger battles playing out across Turkey.

This reporting appeared as a feature piece in the September/October 2015 issue of Sierra magazine. For a visual snapshot of life in Yırca, visit my personal blog, where I've posted some photos from my trip.

Read my article, "The Olive and the Power Plant," online, or see it as it appeared in Sierra's September/October 2015 issue (pdf).

Monday, August 3, 2015

Renewed worries about human rights in Turkey

HDP supporters celebrate in Istanbul in
June. The mood is much different now.
Photo: Jennifer Hattam
Still reeling from a deadly terror attack in a majority Kurdish town near the Syrian border, Turkey’s Kurds say they are targeted once again – this time by the counterterrorism measures their own government has taken in response.

Since the 20 July killing of 31 Kurdish and Turkish activists in the town of Suruç by a suicide bomber linked to Islamic State, Turkey has rounded up hundreds of people and blocked dozens of websites and Twitter accounts.

“More than 1,300 people have been detained and almost 900 of them are our members and activists; it is a kind of psychological war on us,” says Nazmı Gür, a former deputy from the eastern city of Van for the Peoples’ Democratic Party (HDP)....

The jubilation among members of Turkey's Kurdish minority following the HDP's historic election victory in June quickly turned to fear, anger, and worry for the future as reinvigorated anti-terror efforts not even two months later appeared to many to be aimed less at defeating ISIS than at putting the Kurds back in their place.

I wrote about the current climate in Turkey, and what it might mean from a human-rights perspective, for Equal Times, a Brussels-based news site that also published the story in Spanish and and French.

Read my article, "Rights at Risk in Turkey's Anti-Terror Crackdown," on Equal Times.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Environmental battles along Turkey's Black Sea coast

The mountain town of Yusufeli, slated
to be flooded by the reservoir of a dam
Turkey's little-visited Black Sea coast has become a hotbed of resistance to dams and other environmentally damaging hydropower projects, part of an ambitious national development and privatization agenda that includes the building of coal plants, nuclear plants, and nearly 2,000 new dams, as well as many new mining and other industrial operations.

The Black Sea region’s lush forests and small mountain villages provide a striking backdrop for the fierce battle being waged there, a fight pitting farmers, fishermen, and beekeepers against the powerful government and corporate interests seemingly intent on bulldozing the landscape and damming its life-giving waterways in the name of “progress” and profit.

“We were born hearing the voice of this river and we will die with it” is a commonly expressed sentiment among Black Sea villagers, whose honey harvests, hazelnut crops, and vegetable gardens all depend upon the region’s rivers. Though the threat of dams looms the largest, gold mining and other extractive industries also put people’s health, homes, and livelihoods at risk.

A copper mine and its tailings ponds
loom above the town of Murgul
Local activists who have rallied against such threats often end up facing new ones: lawsuits filed against them by hydropower companies, many with close ties to Turkey's ruling political party; intimidation and even violence from police and other security forces seeking to break up protests; vilification as traitors, communists, or even terrorists by government authorities; and pressure from local officials and religious leaders not to speak out against such projects, and to take below-market buyouts for homes in the path of construction.

With a grant from Mongabay's Special Reporting Initiatives, I traveled this spring across the eastern Black Sea, from the port city of Trabzon to the mountain towns of Artvin, Murgul, and Yusufeli, taking in the gorgeous -- but in many cases already blighted -- scenery and talking to local residents and activists about the threats they and their homes face.

Read my first two articles from this reporting trip on the Mongabay website:

Friday, April 24, 2015

A place at Turkish table for Armenians, Israelis and more

In Turkey, it’s börek; in Israel, burekas, flaky layers of phyllo dough stuffed most commonly with cheese, spinach or minced meat. And the savory pastry isn’t the only thing the two cuisines have in common.

“You find a vast use of fresh vegetables, greens, spinach, olive oil, light fresh cheese, goat’s milk, and black pepper [in both countries],” says Tel Aviv-based chef Ruthie Rousso. Like Turkey, she noted, “Israel gets most of its fish from the Mediterranean, and enjoys the [same] climate and the produce which comes with it.”

Turks and Israelis have few opportunities to revel in their shared gastronomic heritage, however. Political tensions between the two erstwhile allies have been running high over the past six years, with reconciliation attempts thus far unsuccessful.

“Many Israelis wouldn’t dare go to Turkey these days. And I believe it’s [true] the other way around as well. What a loss,” says Rousso, who served as a judge on Israel’s version of the “Iron Chef” cooking show.

But Rousso and others believe culinary similarities might just be a way to bring people back together – not only from Turkey and Israel, but from other countries with strained relationships as well.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Visions of Istanbul

The crystal chandeliers and balustrades of the 19th-century Dolmabahçe Palace soar above the lobby of the Raffles Istanbul, digitally stitched together into a hyper-real photo-collage of ornate architectural details. A full eight metres high, the piece provides a striking focal point for the sleek, airy space, welcoming visitors to a hotel infused with art, and with the city’s history.

In making this signature photographic work, French artist Jean-François Rauzier has “transformed reality, and in doing so launches the viewer on a journey into a dream of historic legend and modern fantasy,” says Matthew Whitaker, director of global art-consultancy firm Canvas, which curated more than 200 original artworks for the Raffles Istanbul.

“Rauzier’s rich and fantastical photographic composition was designed for the Lobby Lounge as a way to introduce hotel guests to The Dream of Istanbul and to draw them into the experience, making them feel that they are enveloped by the fascination and mystery of the city first-hand during their stay,” Whitaker says.....

Read the rest of my article on the Raffles Istanbul art collection, featuring more than 200 specially commissioned works by Turkish and international artists, in the Spring 2015 issue of Selections magazine: "To Sleep, Perchance to Dream" (pdf)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Feeding the homeless, and breaking down barriers

“There’s one!” Hearing this cry from within their ranks on a recent late-winter night, the small convoy of cyclists pulled over to the side of the busy boulevard and sprang into action. A keen-eyed member of the group had spotted a florid pink-and-purple blanket inside a brick archway—a tell-tale sign that someone was sleeping rough on Istanbul’s streets.

The team quickly poured a piping-hot bowl of pureed lentil soup from a large thermos into a takeout container, topped it with a few slices of bread and a plastic spoon, and left the meal alongside the sleeping figure before pedaling off once again toward the city’s 4th-century aqueduct, in search of more mouths to feed....

It hardly compares to covering conflict or crisis, but as an inexperienced (to put it mildly) cyclist, I had to swallow my fear of taking on Istanbul's busy, chaotic streets on two wheels when I approached the members of Engelsiz Çorba about coming along on one of their late-night rides delivering soup to the city's homeless. I wrote about the experience from a personal perspective for my blog, and then an article for GOOD magazine about this unusual initiative that aims to make cyclists, the disabled, and the homeless more visible on Istanbul's streets.

Read the rest of my article, "A Bowl Full of Hope," on GOOD's website.

Friday, February 13, 2015

Restaurant Day: From Helsinki to the world

It's pretty much an urban food-lover's dream: a four-times yearly "holiday" that turns an entire city into a festival of pop-up restaurants, with amateur (and some professional) chefs setting up shop in parks and on sidewalks, and opening their homes to strangers, to cook and serve favorite dishes, from Korean bibimbap to French macarons.

Started in Helsinki, Finland, four years ago, the event known as "Restaurant Day" has spread around the globe, though sadly for this Istanbul-based American, it has yet to get much traction in either Turkey or the United States. Mouth watering all the while, I interviewed a co-founder of the event and numerous participants about how Restaurant Day creates community through food -- and ended up digging in to its broader impacts on urban citizenship as well.

Read my articles for The Atlantic's CityLab and for Zester Daily about Restaurant Day:
Attention, eaters! This year's Restaurant Day events will be held Feb. 15, May 16, Aug. 16, and Nov. 21.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

A full deck of 'Istanbul Secrets'

The "secret" to a good night out in Istanbul? Just pick a card, any card...

The latest guide to the city's eating and drinking scene is a pocket-sized deck of 52 cards, each featuring one of Istanbul's best restaurants, cafes, or bars.

Released this week along with an app version, "Istanbul Secrets" was produced by the Melbourne, Australia-based travel company Deck of Secrets, which enlisted Istanbul experts Serra Tükel of Guruology, Simon Johnson of THAT Magazine, and Başak Miller of NEW-IST, along with myself, to write up some of our favorite haunts.

Afiyet olsun.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Urban planning from the ground (or sea) up

Anyone who's spent any time in Istanbul has probably observed how few public spaces (especially green ones) this congested city has, and how eagerly people make use of unlikely recreational areas --
whether picnicking on a traffic median or fishing from a half-built pier.

Istanbul-based architects Can Sucuoğlu and Elif Ensari noticed the same phenomenon in the coastal city of İzmir, where they saw people flock to the shoreline despite its lack of urban amenities, pacing endlessly or sitting on the pavement just to be close to the sea.

The ingenious solution they devised -- a kind of floating parklet -- was showcased recently at the 2nd Istanbul Design Biennial, along with a kindred-spirit project in Istanbul's Kadıköy neighborhood to create street furniture from recycled materials. Both initiatives, as I wrote for The Atlantic's CityLab site, seemed to offer an alternative to the massive, top-down "urban transformation" projects that have been so disruptive and controversial: "human-scale, easily replicable urban improvements that are responsive to local residents’ needs."

Read my article, "Why DIY Public Spaces Are Starting to Take Off in Turkey," on CityLab.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Rethinking (and reviving) the Mediterranean diet

It’s not what most people think of when they envision the famously light, healthy “Mediterranean diet.” But hearty dishes like smoked game meats; the mélange of cabbage, fish, eggs, cheese, olive oil, pepper, garlic and sweet wine dubbed monokythron (literally, “one-pot”); and the fermented fish sauce garum were once common fare in the region whose traditional dietary patterns are now seen by many as a global model for better eating.

Evidence that the Mediterranean diet as we now know it was not predominant in the region during the long Byzantine era (roughly the years 330 to 1453) has been gathered by Dr. Ilias Anagnostakis from the National Hellenic Research Foundation in Athens. His findings have sparked controversy in his home country, he says...

Read the rest of my article, ‘Traditional’ Mediterranean Diet Isn’t What You Think, on Zester Daily.

Find out more about the Consulate General of Greece in Istanbul's ongoing lecture series Food, Spirits and Gastronomic Traditions in the Eastern Mediterranean” (scroll down for English).

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Two-wheeled revolution?

When you think of bike-friendly cities, Abu Dhabi doesn't come readily to mind. Neither, frankly, does Istanbul. But the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National is trying to give cycling culture a bit of a kickstart in the United Arab Emirates, promoting a ‪#‎CycleToWorkUAE‬ day on 13 January 2015.

As part of the paper's coverage ahead of the event, one of its opinion editors asked me to write a piece about efforts to develop a cycling culture in Turkey -- which, despite appearances, have come a long way in the past decade, though there is still much work to be done to make the streets safe for cyclists, not to mention pedestrians and runners like myself.

I tip my hat to the intrepid cyclists in both countries, especially those in Turkey who generously shared their experiences and opinions with me.

Read my article, "Istanbul Is Slowly But Surely Getting On Its Bike," on The National's website.