Goodbye, Eventful 2013!

With ‘Çekirdek Direniş’ (‘Seed Resistance’) at the Chamber of Planners exhibition, Ankara

(Excerpts from my annual New Year Letter to friends, written shortly before the corruption scandal erupted in Turkey on December 17, 2013)

As another year rolls by, let me send best wishes for a Happy New Year! May it bring you good things.. good health, love, success, fulfillment… We are all in pursuit of a good life, and in my own pursuit to this end, I have had a rather interesting, and perhaps even special, year of efforts and events.

Shortly before the New Year, I moved my belongings, my cats and then myself from Abu Dhabi to Istanbul. I left behind a life built up over close to five years, made up of a wonderful, international mix of friends, a well-paying government job in cultural heritage (a miracle for this sector!) of some status and responsibility, and the lifestyle opportunities of a young, rich country optimistically looking forward to a bright future. It may sound crazy to do this, but I knew it was time to move out and back into my own country. Because there was also some kind of a life that continued to exist there for me, both personally and professionally. And the United Arab Emirates is a place of transience, especially if one does not have a family with them there to give a sense of home and stability, and if one is not an Arabic speaker (at least for me, who would like to understand the local culture more deeply). Being a true part of a place, preferably as a citizen with stakes and rights in the local governance, feels to me like a fundamental need. As a government employee (even an expatriate one), one had a certain extent of involvement in how the country was being developed, but the limits of attachment and belonging became clear sooner or later.

I am a ‘third culture kid’ (TCK) who continued to be a nomad during graduate studies and working life, and I must say I enjoy participating in the ‘international life’ (being with people of different cultures, traveling often, observing and interpreting intercultural relationships, etc.). However, the issues of ‘home’ and ‘stability’ have continued to bother me throughout this time. I know I am not alone in that, as I hear other TCK or expats talk similarly. I suppose a balance is needed. For me, the solution of the moment has been to move to Istanbul. A completely new experience (as I had previously lived not there but in Ankara), and an exciting, challenging city with some cosmopolitan character, though not as much as it historically had and not as multi-cultural as the UAE. Still, Istanbul nowadays is a ‘happening’ place (I love that many friends flying from the Middle East to Europe or North America transit in Istanbul and we can meet up), as the cultural and economic heart of Turkey, which is also a ‘happening’ country (!).

Until this spring, Turkey was interesting for the world because of its economy doing so well in contrast to the crisis-stricken Eurozone, and its apparent ‘moderate Islamic democracy’ working as a model for the Muslim world and the Middle East. As of May 31, it became yet more interesting with the Gezi protests erupting in Taksim, Istanbul (the district to which I had just moved, as luck would have it!), after police pepper sprayed civilians in Gezi Park and set their tents on fire. The protests, as you would have seen in the news and through our tweets and Facebook posts, started as a peaceful ‘tree hugging’ event to defend Gezi Park, the equivalent of Hyde Park in London or Central Park in New York City, against an unlawful mall construction project, but became symbolic of all that was wrong with the current government of Turkey (increasing Sunni majoritarian politics, suppressing Alawites’ rights or dismissing through token liberties those of the Kurds; one-strong-man rule by Erdoğan; threats to liberal, secular lifestyles through legislation, public narrative and behavior regarding issues like alcohol, women’s rights/segregation and education), as it spread to 79 out of Turkey’s 81 provinces.. #direngezi (‘diren’ meaning ‘resist’ in Turkish) and #occupygezi were popular hashtags and ‘çapulcu’ the nickname for a Gezi protester, going around and inspiring a whole variety of others..

Having attended the protests starting from those first seminal days in late May, I feel lucky to have witnessed this historic event, only getting a mild dose of police violence, in the form of pepper spray (a few times on the streets and once in my 4th-storey flat, about which I began taking legal action but could not follow through to the end when I lost focus). The only time I thought I was in real trouble and headed for the Beyoğlu police station was when a friend made a prank phone call impersonating an officer investigating my online social media activity. I really did believe him! There had been a few people arrested on that charge, and in the environment of repressed dissent and extreme worry, it was not so far from plausible.. Thankfully, I did not get into any trouble, and have continued to tweet away like millions of others. In the most heated days, many of us here had their daily routines completely disrupted, being glued to our computer screens till the small hours of morning for days on end. I seriously started to sleep around 3 or 4 am regularly for a few weeks during the summer.

Now, the protests are not as visible, first having been channeled into the park forums all across big city neighborhoods after the park was evacuated and cordoned off by the police, followed by several separate events like the ‘staircase painting’ protests and those against the road project cutting through my alma mater Middle East Technical University in Ankara. However, it is still a common feeling, amidst continuing distress about the deteriorating institutions of the secular Republic, that once the ‘Gezi spirit‘ has been awakened, Turkey has not been and will never be the same again. We certainly hope for positive change, as the local elections of March 2014, presidential election later next year and the general elections of 2015 approach. Although the AKP still has a wide supporter base, especially among the conservative Anatolian hinterland, the emerging voices of dissent from high-ranking members of the AKP and the rupture between AKP and the Fethullah Gülen movement (the influential ‘imam’ exiled in the US) are all interesting signs we are watching as signals of more change to come. We shall see. Sorry this is a big load of Turkish politics, but it’s what life in Turkey is like for intellectually and socially aware people- more urgent than ever an issue in our consciousness..!

This all said, it is true that daily life does indeed go on despite all politics. Coming back to how my year has been on a personal level, I can describe it as the partial realization of a long-awaited ‘sabbatical year’, where previous structures were dismantled, and I have had quite a free daily rhythm. Something very welcome, particularly in the early months and when the weather got better in the Spring. Having no regular job (except for the odd small freelance planning job for my old employer or thesis editing), I spent the first part of 2013 focusing on my ‘house project’, finalizing the renovation and then the furnishing of my new flat in a historic building near the Galatasaray High School on Beyoğlu’s İstiklal Avenue, overlooking the neo-classical palaces of the French, Italian, Dutch and Russian Consulates and the Tuscan-looking landscaping of historic Pera’s diplomatic quarters, as well as a side view of the Hagia Sophia and Galata Tower. The apartment has no elevator, which means a steep climb of four levels up to the flat, and I sometimes don’t feel like going out at all! I have developed some nice relations with my neighbors, both in the building (I became manager of the flat and mobilized the neighbors to have our basement cleaned, after which we are now working on some repairs on the façade and interior shared spaces) and on the street (a lady feeding the street cats, the grocer, the ‘bakkal’ (corner shop/ drugstore), the frame shop, the vintage/ costume boutique owner, two real estate agents and the parking lot attendant have become occasional chatting stops on the more leisurely days). However, the streets, both mine specifically and those generally in Istanbul, are seldom easy terrain to negotiate- the steep slopes, the badly-maintained sidewalks/ street surfaces, the often aggressive metropolitan pedestrians and unruly motor vehicles, especially the less well-behaved men who take women for granted as easy targets for mild visual and verbal harassment, all keep one on the alert against possible mishaps. I walk a lot now, which is great after limited facilities of this in Abu Dhabi, and use the more pleasant modes of public transport such as the ferry across the Bosphorus (usually from Karaköy to Kadıköy to see my sister in Moda, but sometimes also Kabataş and Beşiktaş), the tram and the metro. Even though I have set up/ been living my daily life in a comfortable circuit mainly confined to Beyoğlu, even that can be quite tiring, and I cannot foresee how long it will last, given my current transitional year not expected to go on forever!..

Which brings us to the Fall 2013 Semester, when my rhythm changed and I started a post-doc at the Research Center for Anatolian Civilizations of Koç University, one of the more established and well-reputed private universities of Istanbul (the Koç companies group have also earned the ‘çapulcu’ reputation, as they sheltered injured protesters and are now under all kinds of weird audits by the government). I applied for the senior archaeological site management fellowship at RCAC in January and was awarded it in April, as a non-residential, one-semester fellow. I am working on a site management plan for the town of Mudurnu, which was also one of my PhD case studies. A lot of traveling there, meeting local officials/ stakeholders, running after official letters of endorsement, researching methodology, etc. Not sure if it will be a successful plan, but a worthwhile process which I am thinking of following through after my fellowship period as well, to get true results, which takes time. Hopefully it will be possible to devote the necessary time, either by arranging funds to pay me a fee, or doing it free but at a more leisurely pace beside other work.. The group of fellows at RCAC, about 30, are an interesting mix of international + Turkish doctoral candidates or post-doc researchers, and the environment of scholarly debate, regular seminars, field visits and some accompanying drinks in the evenings, are intellectually nourishing. I am grateful for this step into academic life in Istanbul that RCAC has been providing.

Academic/ professional life has also provided occasions for trips abroad, namely a study tour of the University of York Conservation Alumni Association to Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina in April, and the annual conference of the Scientific Committee for Vernacular Architecture (CIAV) of the International Council of Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) in Portugal. (I am glad to have been accepted as a member of ICOMOS Turkey this July, and hope to make the best of that responsibility/opportunity). I also traveled to Abu Dhabi in March for some remaining personal business and to see friends, which was nice in terms of letting me feel I could return now and then and continue that piece of my life over there. But in general the trips have been quite expensive, and now more of a luxury compared to the financially comfortable Abu Dhabi life! It has been nice to catch up with friends abroad who visit Istanbul/ Turkey, though, both from Abu Dhabi and elsewhere.

Apart from the fellowship, my longer term professional plans involve being a part-time freelance consultant and part-time lecturer at one or two universities, based in Istanbul with short-term business trips as needed. I have a few connections and options under discussion, none of which have been confirmed yet. This does not throw me into panic, as the whole philosophy of going on a sabbatical type of year was not to rush but to explore, be strategic and find the best fit for what I aspire to and can best manage to do. This new lifestyle, preferably, will have more time for art and creative pursuits in it. So far, the main activities on this front have been joining a weekly life drawing group, formed maily by art-loving Istanbul expats (see and participating in an art exhibition organized by the Chamber of City Planners in Ankara with a cement + olive seed installation (see photo).


I will leave you at this point… Again, may you have a blessed New Year, 2014..!

Mutlu, sağlıklı, başarılı, sevgi dolu bir Yeni Yıl dilerim!


(Well, now that all hell broke loose in Turkey, and everyone is wondering not ‘whether or not’, but ‘how much’ hardship 2014 will bring to the country, let us add an extra wish to be optimistic and keep the chin up, no matter what!)