One man’s opinion

The cobbleslopes of Galata are running with water now as I came up to one of the Istanbul-hipster coffee shops I knew would be open late on a Sunday in these strange times. Last night the party I ate with actually got kindly asked to leave at the late hour of 9:30.

Istanbul shut down yesterday but the melt is already on. In times of slow business, or when you turn up to a place they don’t normally see tourists, Turks are very happy to speak with you, especially if the language allows.

Last night I met a middle-aged small business owner who speaks five languages.

In the cold street, I told him about a Syrian friend who fell in love with a Turkish girl. Both parents disapprove, one’s a refugee without great status, and after two years the relationship fell apart.

“Yes, it is a big problem, it would not be such a problem if it were the other way around,” he suggested.

“Turkish people like Arabs as customers” he explained, “but not as friends.”

If you can believe it, this guy had been to Iqaluit, Nunavut. Some ‘research’ trip that had also led him to Newfoundland, Quebec City, and Greenland. I obviously found this astonishing. He couldn’t believe the social discord in Iqaluit, to the point where he asked if the people there were even officially Canadian. On the low quality of life:

“Iqalit is fucked up. There is so much pedophilia! And drinking — everyone’s an alcoholic and how can they afford it? One beer is $9! There are 7,000 people there, one local was telling me this guy’s fucked with his little cousin, this guy’s done that. Why don’t they do what we did, fly one hour to Quebec and go to a tittie bar? Problem solved.”

He was speaking frankly. This anecdote from someone north of Istanbul, a European Turk, where they “Like fish. Not like in Gaziantep, just heavy meat and kebap and super sweet desserts. I guess that’s the tradition there, they keep a culture from the old times.”

Today I walked through Ayasofya, Hagia Sofia, nearly alone. On the gallery level I took this shot with my bad camera phone (despite the GoPro in my bag). I am a bad photographer and loathe to improve.









That’s what the hotelier told me first thing this morning — “Ice! Pure ice.”

Sultanahmet is beautiful right now and there aren’t that many tourists out. So I’m going to see if I can sneak into Hagia Sofia (Ayasofia in Turkish) after posting this.

I was supposed to give a workshop today on English CV-writing, for an NGO I’ve been doing some English proofreading for called Afkar. Unfortunately it was postponed because of the snow.

The organisation is expanding. Yesterday I checked out the space they’ve leased in Fatiah, a central district of Istanbul.  They are planning and running various classes — I am hoping to attend beginner’s Arabic at some point in the future.


We had Syrian for dinner afterwards. Why ever go back to normal rice?


If you click on this link it should send you to a video news report on Afkar’s most well known work, an orphanage in Eastern Aleppo (they evacuated the children to Idlib province recently).

For dessert we had probably my favourite Syrian food, Halawet El-Jibn, حلاوة الجبن. White cheese pastry rolls with pistachio and sugar drizzle. My new friends let me have the lion’s share of what is pictured. I didn’t hesitate too much.






DSC_0040.jpgIstanbul’da means “in Istanbul” — I don’t know how to use that properly in a construction. I arrived to Gaziantep airport late this afternoon and snuck a portion of katmer (pictured) into my mouth at the gate.

Katmer is fried pistachio phyllo pastry. I like it with an espresso on the side. Many places in Gaziantep serve it for breakfast and sell out by noon.

The more I learn about the Turkish language, the more I like it. I wish I had invested in learning it at an earlier juncture. But of course we feel this way about all languages, at all times. My friend Mustafa, fluent in Turkish after four years away from Aleppo, always tells me Turkish is easy, pointing out that if you think otherwise you’ll only make it harder on yourself.

Taksim is empty despite perfect crisp temperatures. I grabbed a kofte sandwich from a street vendor and headed to Hafiz Mustafa, a dessert cafe here that is open 24 hours. Some patrons were irking me there. There are more beggars in the square today than tourists, all asking in Arabic. It is a poor location to gauge poverty, certain beggars being schemers, compared to the outskirts of Turkey’s cities, from Antalya to Gaziantep to Istanbul. And the state of construction never changes in Taksim, the government can’t seem to finish the same sidewalks after four years.

More rain today in Gaziantep. At the gym today I met a Turk originally from Istanbul who had lived the last ten years in Cyprus. He had come to Gaziantep for a few months training “And then back to Cyprus [forever I gathered]. Enough time here! Why did you come to Gaziantep? It is not a tourist city.”

If I escape the rain, I’ll be glad to fly to Istanbul. But I think there are clouds everywhere over Turkey these days. I notice the latest attack really affecting the moods of those in my network. Someone was going to visit me in Istanbul Sunday, but cancelled, yesterday the last straw. When I checked up on people’s New Year’s, most had had the air taken out of their balloons.

I walked to the çarşısı (bazaar or pazaar in Turkish, I think) with a couple from Hama in the early afternoon rain. There we met a man named Ali who sells antique carpets — Turkish, Kurdish, Iranian, Iraqi — some over 100 years old. There was a language gap (I had the best Turkish of the three of us, problematic), but no matter, we were received warmly and served çay. Despite a limp, Ali was rolling out antique carpets for my appraisal. They looked old and battered. “If you gave me one, I wouldn’t put it in my home,” my friend said. Some did look positively derelict.


I noticed yesterday a number of my Syrian friends on facebook had birthdays. If you don’t know the day of your birth, just the year, it is common to enter it into facebook (and more official documents) as January 1st. I know a lot of my Syrian friends also don’t use their real names on facebook, so it is also a method of anonymity.

The media here (twitter too, of course) seems to be now splashing the killers’ face everywhere it can, his selfies, his videos. I suppose that can be justified while he remains on the loose. But still — perpetrators gain renown while victims are swallowed by anonymity.


That is one thing that struck me from the beginning. Despite all the talk of technological change and surveillance and satellites, there are people at the bottom of the Mediterranean who sunk without a trace or an inquiry or a paper trail and there are people who died whose stories were lost immediately and forever because no one interested knew where they were at the time.

“You die twice, the second time when you are forgotten,” I paraphrase what an Irish friend quoted to me, north of Dublin about a month ago. The second time should take a while, I suppose, but some Syrians experienced both at once.




The sun has returned to Gaziantep.

Last night around 21:00 I was walking home when I saw a Syrian woman and her two children rooting through a dumpster. It isn’t unusual — they have a method and a cart for collection. The economic situations remain largely unchanged for Syrians in Turkey.

When I woke up this morning there was news of another attack in Istanbul. I am flying there Tuesday; today is the day to book a hotel surely.

Sanko Park was not open. It’s a mall here, with a Starbucks, a movie theatre, an ice skating rink, a pool hall. Usually it opens at 10:00 but as of 11:48 they were still not letting people inside — many tried, to be turned around by security, and then waited in a conspicuous crowd right outside the mall’s metal detectors.

So I sat in the park nearby re-reading Antifragile by Taleb. Finally the weather allowed this. The thrust of the book is that antifragility is undervalued, underconsidered, and wholly distinct from robustness or resilience. I think post-traumatic growth is a useful term (mentioned by the author).

We know the idea of antifragility intuitively, that if you sit as a couch potato, you’ll decay, but the opposite, vigorous exercise, fasting, sweat, et al can strengthen you. This positive reaction to stress is not the same as resisting harm, where you remain unchanged, neither fitter nor fatter, after exposure.

In any case I came across this early on in the book,

For revolutions feed on repression, growing heads faster and faster as one literally cuts a few off by killing demonstrators.

Hydra is the metaphor of course (Taleb loves eight or more analogies to make every point). (italics his, and I shudder at the diction).

I am not so sure how well this fits with the Syrian revolution. When the Hama massacre happened, my understanding is, this ushered in nearly three decades of uninterrupted suppression — the kingdom of silence. And it is well named a massacre — the Assad regime killed a lot of innocent people that year. A couple paragraphs later,

It is that political movements and rebellions can be highly antifragile, and the sucker game is to try to repress them using brute force rather than manipulate them, give in, and find more astute ruses, as Heracles did with Hydra.

I guess the out here is ‘can’ — Taleb isn’t making the mistake of claiming to understand the nature of reality. He is just saying ‘this phenomenon sometimes acts in this way’ where the phenomenon is rebellions and antifragile is the way. Insofar as I understand Hama, brute force did work for the regime.

Brutal force did not work in 2011 — news of the regime locking up, torturing, and killing fourteen year old boys in Deraa, while its agents taunted their parents, stoked the uprising. And as the army began shooting protestors, more protests erupted, Syrians began getting more organised — repression fed the revolution in 2011, but didn’t in 1982.

But look at that second half of the second quote — “manipulate them, give in, and find more astute ruses.” Assad has played a very good manipulation game. He gave in every where it didn’t matter. He waited out the revolution as it changed. So has the conversation.

For example the idea that Assad was, is, and will be, a protector of minorities in Syria has made a comeback. It has been repeated to such an extent that some people believe it. The arc of its believability has not been steady, it is more believed now than it was in 2013, but less than it was in 2010. Of course it was never true. The regime has always used each minority individually as it suited its interests, straight out of Machiavelli’s playbook. Yet some slice of those who considered themselves informed count protection of minorities as a point in Assad’s favour. In that vein, they also frame matters as a dichotomous choice, clarified by tallying a scoreboard of points, for and against the regime.

So repression rightly tuned succeeds. The problem sometimes with Talebian claims that include phrases like “more astute ruses” is that they risk boiling down to saying “better solutions work better.” But Taleb would be the first to point out that theoretical, universally applicable explanations of the world — actually he despises such foolish ‘platonicity’ —  are inaccessible. He uses the bed of procrustes often to illustrate that you can’t fit everything in the real world into some theoretical framework.

Instead we have piecemeal wisdom and habits and practices — aphorisms and human attempts at their application.




An Artisan’s Speakeasy

I know a clean cut Turkish guy who repairs clocks. Let’s call him Emre.

At every opportunity, Emre offers me something. When I pass by his shop “Come in, come in, how are you?” Çay? Coffee? Juice? This summer I asked for water. Against all protests he marched out to buy some, commanding me to stay put. Unsure of my preference, he returned with all varieties.

I met him exactly one year ago. I was waiting for a friend in the cold outside his shop and Emre beckoned me inside like no man has ever beckoned anyone before. Uncold, I wanted to stay visible. But, alas, this could not be communicated.

He doesn’t seem to resent the paucity of my Turkish. He supports the Syrian people and keeps Syrian friends. A lot of media come to Gaziantep to do some reporting on Aleppo or Syria (sensible if not sensical) — and once BBC, cameraman and reporter, stopped him on the street and asked him what he thought of all the Syrians living in the city. “I am Syrian!” he flourished them in perfect Turkish. His point was, belief is, we are all the same. He supports the weak against the strong.

Yet. Every apartment in his building, according to him, is full of Syrians — and he hates the constant Arabic barking. He thinks Muslims are troublemakers –“Müslüman — çok problem!” — describing his own confession as a faith in Allah, sans contrivances of man. Like many in the Turkish working class, over five years he has seen his change from a quiet, uncrowded, cheap city, to one that’s overfull, loud with construction, with a rising cost of living. He works late into the night.

Is Emre in contradiction? He will go out of his way to help his Syrian friends (seen firsthand), but won’t hesitate to belittle Arabic or Arab culture (as he stereotypes it). He despises certain high-profile politicians, nationalism, and racism. In his youth (he’s in his fifties now), he went to Europe illegally and experienced the racism that exists there against Turks. Someone reported him to the immigration authorities.

When I first met him Emre kept two Tweetie birds in his store in a yellow cage near the entrance door. One day they were gone. “Syrians.” he told me. Someone had broken his door, too. I don’t know if he knows who it was or was not. But this xenophobic dynamic is at work: any problem that had not visited him before, but visits him now, is wrapped around those who are here now, but weren’t before.

In this case, that happens to be the 400,000 Syrians currently in Gaziantep. And this disposition from an anti-nationalist, predisposed to equality, liberty, and fraternity. So imagine. efes-pilsener-premium-lager-beer-500ml

There is a fridge and a couch in the back of the shop. Last night were we drinking Efes there — out of sight of Muslim eyes (his words). When it is colder outside than inside his fridge, he puts a tall can in a small bag and sits it in a flower pot for a couple hours.

As I went to leave last night he told me if I ever had any problem or ever needed anything, anything he insisted, I could come to him. I’ve started some Turkish classes, so next time, I told him, I’ll bring my homework, and some whiskey.


“….the reason we can talk about “them” as a problem, a plague on our borders, is because we don’t see them. If any of these refugees knocked on any of our front doors and asked for help, we would give it. We would insist they be protected and offered a chance to be doctors and civil engineers, nurses and journalists. We would do it because we are…good and kind. It is only by not looking, by turning our backs, that we can sail away and think this is sad, but it is not our sadness.”