05 June, 2010

Ankara güle güle

Here's three pictures from the past week to sum up early summer in the capital...

Çankaya skyline

Protests, which happen weekly or sometimes daily in Kızılay, 
are more like street parties. Here people dance to Black Sea music.

Ping-pong is so popular here that in Kurtuluş Park, several of these
shelters are scattered through the park, and they are all full. 

Now it's off to ramble some: first stop: Iraq.


backdate: 4 June

On my last night in Ankara, Oğuzhan was kind enough to share is room - and this handy ventilator. What happens when mechanically-minded guys get bored? Well, this evening, together with his cousin, Oğuzhan had devised and computer-drafted a new system for delivering silage to his family's dairy herd. On top of that, he'd converted an electric razor to a personal fan. Which he demonstrated with comic relish.

Kızılordu Korusu

backdate: 3 June

For the past week, billboards around the city have proclaimed in bold letters that Kızılordu Korusu was coming to Ankara. I didn't pay much attention, since it looked like some military band. But after i accompanied Murat Can to his late-afternoon photography class in Çankaya, the instructor and several other students drove us up to the lovely green expanse of Dikmen Park.

I really hadn't been planning to go, but the evening's free concert by the Alexandrov Red Army Chorus (and dance troupe) was certainly a stirring. one. Particularly for my host, who, with Macedonian and Georgian heritage and a command of the Russian language, knew more than a few of the songs. Here, at the edge of Europe where national boundaries bear little relation to ethnic distribution, i am often surprised by the cultural overlap: Çerkez (Circassian) culture occurs throughout the Black Sea region from Turkiye east to Georgia and north into Russia. Mingled with tap and athletic Russian styles (yes, i'm referring to the squat-and-kick thing), Çerkez dance was stunning.

02 June, 2010

People and environment II: Manta rays and subways

Though written together, this is a separate post because, in a way, it is the flip-side of the last one. Where the last one concerned socio-psychological mediation of human impacts on the environment, this post is more about nature's impact on humans. As i write, i've been wondering if there is a better term than "natural"; after all, humans, and their technological artifacts, are a result of natural processes. Something else, something much more difficult to describe, separates the anthropogenic from that which precedes it. And then there is the agrarian, where human and natural merge in an indecipherable dance.

In Yolağzı, the hills are covered with olive groves; the floodplain stretches fertile to the river where every day men are fishing by the dam. Oğuzhan and i find a turrle; he tells me how the storks which nest in the village are accorded special significance as pilgrims, overflying the holy cities of Islam on their migration. He misses the chorus of frogs, a sound absent in Ankara.

During four months in this capital nestled into a steppe valley, the experience of nature has been a dual one. Either i feel its absence keenly, or i do not feel it at all. Before the visit to Yolağzı, i ached for the familiar sound of an amphibian choir. From campus, i see the naked peaks of hills encircling Ankara. But aside from the narrow swath of blooming trees around campus, and sightings of Carduelis carduelis and Garrulus glandarius, i became largely accustomed to the built environment, rich in anthropogenic stimuli, crowding out an absence of nature.

I think for many Anatolians, recent migration to urban areas coupled with the daily demands of life in a developing economy overshadow the need for a connection to nature. Nonetheless, concern for the environment surfaces in unlikely ways, and the positive psychological effects of naturalistic stimuli are introduced in unlikely places.

In a few of the metro stations - this picture is from Bahçelievler - giant TV screens run a continuous loop of reklam (advertisements). A few moments before this shot, i looked up to see a manta ray, almost life-sized, flapping its way across the screen. At the bottom of the screen, a sentence in Turkish gave some information about the animal. Innovative: provide stressed commuters with a broad swath of natural aqua between every few ads, and educate them about biodiversity in the process. Seconds later, before i could grab my camera, the gently flapping ray was (ironically) replaced by dairy processor Sutaşkı's herd of flying cows and the words tren geliyoooor: "the train is coming", with a bovine twist.

Two days later, on my way to the bus stop i noticed for the first time something i'd walked by at least a dozen times - an artificial waterfall. Facing it, underneath several small maples, men relax on a  benches with their backs to a busy intersection. In fact, from the right vantage point, one can be immersed in the cool shade and rush of falling water and hardly realize that this is the side of a train overpass in bustling Sihhiye.

Today in Kızılay i was accosted by Greenpeace volunteers. I'd have asked them endless questions about the experience of being an environmentalist in modern Turkiye - but my Turkçe's still not up to that.

People and environment I: a study in contrast

As things wound down, i found time to at last read a booklet bought my first weekend in Ankara. Found in a used bookshop, it's a bit out of date (published 1992 by a then-newly-formed Ministry of Environment) but "Turkey's Importance in the World of Living Things" manages to pack a thorough overview into thirty-four novel-size pages.

For instance, it describes the country's position at the confluence of three continents. Exhibiting pockets of almost every climatic zone, and with mountain ranges that separate it from other land masses, in a biogeographic sense Anatolia can be considered a continent of its own. Europe has 203 plant families with 1,541 genera and roughly 12,000 species. Though much smaller, Anatolia is host to 163 families (1225 genera, 9000 species). Around one third of these species are endemic to Anatolia, which is considered the genetic center for Achillea, Allium, Astragalus, Centaurea, Iris, Verbascum, Ficus, Vitus (grapes), Vicia (vetches and favas), Linum (flax), and all the major grains (Avena, Hordeum, Secale, and Triticum). Many of the world's major crop plants originated here. In addition, the number of animal species is estimated at 80,000, about one and a half times the number found in Europe. As a bridge, this land is a crucial stopover for migratory birds passing from northern Europe to Africa.

One of the most important things i have learned in the past years is that the terms "biodiversity" and "germplasm" are meaningless to most, the latter in fact being meaningless to my spellchecker. Particularly here, where settlement occurs in dense clusters separated by kilometers upon kilometers of open space, interest in the natural world seems low. A city of roughly 5 million, Ankara has only two outdoor sporting stores; recreational hiking and bicycling are - save for foreign tourists - almost unheard of.

As one moves south and east from Europe, a very different relation to the natural world emerges. In America, a similar gradient is visible as one moves from urban and particularly suburban environments where natural resources are experienced as limited and in need of protection to rural environments where use-based attitudes toward nature (and at times open conflict with it, e.g. the woodchucks in my garden) prevail. One might say that distance, even separation from Nature breeds attachment to it.

Here in Turkiye, another set of factors seems to regulate exposure to nature. Settlement patterns are very different; where in individualistic America urban sprawl spreads cancerous across the landscape, development here is typically dense and clustered. Car ownership is lower, while the infrastructure of sparsely distributed cities lends itself to a well-developed network of public transportation. People here find few opportunities - and perhaps few reasons - to explore the vast, semi-wild interstitial spaces.

Western European and North American societies experienced an environment (in America, one seemingly inexhaustible to begin with) which, with the onset of  industrialization, began to show signs of depletion. The literary and cultural influences of Muir, Thoreau, Leopold, Carson and late 19th century bourgeois naturalists developed attitudes of avocational interaction, conservation, and preservation.

In Last Child in the Woods, author Richard Louv posits a normative nature experience framed on a model of wilderness settlement - characterized (as i recall, perhaps colored by my own theoretical framework) by phases of exploration, use, taxonomy, and preservation. Nature experience, it can be argued, is foremost a phenomenon of sociology: of religion, tradition, and scientific evolution.

I would argue that the attitudes and emotions familiar to a North American are absent in Turkiye. With over three-thousand years of continuous habitation, the cultural basis for nature experience is much different. Think for a moment about the differences between a society where breaking the virgin Great Plains is a recent cultural memory, and one where the land has been worked for thousands of years, where landraces of grains and fruit trees occur in the semi-wild. American conservationists have within their experiential gaze both an oft-romanticized aboriginal lifestyle that existed until the last centuries and a fleeting agrarian vision of preindustrial America. For Turks, Kurds, Azeris, Circassians, Greeks, and others who share Anatolia past and present, the aboriginal is a past too distant to romance; the agrarian, a memory too recent to long for.

As coming generations of urban Anatolians look beyond the built environment of their childhood, a perceived distance from nature may  emerge here as well - but not to be overlooked, the exigencies of learning to share land with other ethnic groups is a far more immediate and important experience for this culture to process.

While a romance of the land seems largely absent, sustainable behaviors are perhaps easier to achieve here. The landscape's limits in proportion to its inhabitants are visible; climactic influences and a weaker car culture are helpful factors. Most important, stronger collectivist values emphasize that the environment is something we hold common.

Sidewalk scenes

Intriguingly enough, after the last post i can no longer view this blog, which is now blocked by Turkish Telecom.

Since the semesters' end, internet cafes are more crowded than before, and beneath sidewalk umbrellas, flat-screen TVs appear. As dusk falls in Bahçelievler, these guys are playing Pro Evolution Soccer 2010, which was my roommates' favorite game.

I'm beginning to think you could find anything on an Ankara sidewalk. On the way back to Dikimevi, we pass a pet shop...


There was no party, no procession, just a slow deceleration - assignments and exams slowed to a trickle, and then i was free - without fanfare, like most of the milestones in my life, a college graduate. I moved my things to a friend's apartment, spending my last few nights in Ankara in his spare room. In the days since, i've stumbled onto a routine that is almost too comfortable to leave.

I wake and walk toward the city center, past groceries and bakeries. At one i buy a loaf or two of bread - small loaves, light and sweet, smothered in sesame seeds, one lira each. To say i am finished with college doesn't mean i lack things to do. Today, for example, i made the commute back to Bilkent to meet an old friend - Emin - for lunch, and to use the library wi-fi to at last file my tax returns.

Over lunch we discuss the recent news - how Israeli soldiers boarded a Turkish vessel bound, bearing aid and activists, for the Gaza strip. Though the soldiers reportedly carried only paintball guns, a violent altercation ensued when they rappelled aboard, as activists defended their ship with kitchen knives and whatever else they could find. The net result: a handful of Israeli soldiers wounded, while dozens of civilian activists were wounded and nine were killed. Turkiye withdrew its ambassador from Israel, traditionally a strategic partner, and this afternoon Prime Minister Erdoğan delivered a speech reiterating his earlier indictment that Israel is "good at killing". Yet despite a sadness and tension that dominated, particularly yesterday, and chanting protestors in Kızılay, it's an ordinary day in Turkiye. Young families walk the Abdinpaşa sidewalk with ice cream cones.

Eight in the evening i board the Bilkent bus to ASTI, whence i take the subway all the way to the other end in Dikimevi. From there it's a little over a mile walk uphill. Last night i made a wrong turn and ended up at a park with a spectacular view of Ankara; it was trash night and - since there aren't trash barrels here - street dogs picked at reused shopping bags lining the curb. Tonight i stop to eat chicken döner and drink ayran, and then buy kavun and beyaz peynir to enjoy with my host when he arrives home in a couple hours. 

Ankara Kalesi

Back in January, i wrote that i'd probably post more about Ankara Kalesi (the Citadel) when i knew more about it. Little did i know the Citadel neighborhood would become a recurrent research topic throughout the semester for LAUD 322, People and Environment. In writing this post, i'm looking back over old scratchings and academic assignments - so it may have a different character than most. Though rather general, People and Environment was an intriguing cross-disciplinary offering – an introduction to  environmental psychology tailored to urban design students – and as we produced the final assignment, we had to choose one social process related to physical space through which to view our chosen site. Territoriality was an easy choice.

There is, of course, ancient history. These stone bulwarks were built in the Hittite Era, commanding an impressive view of this central Anatolian valley and, until the modern Turkish Republic was founded in 1923 and Ankara was chosen as the capital, formed the nucleus of a small settlement. It remained the anchor of Ancyra through Celtic and later Roman tenure, when central Anatolia was known as Galatia. But as i've said before, ancient history doesn't mean much to me: it's a reference point, but in a way it doesn't tell you anything. Ancient history is frozen, immutable, though the telling of it might change with new philosophies, new perspectives, and new victors on the world stage.

As we explored a range of methods for appraising the site, trying to perceive it as a phenomenologist might, i realized that the ancient walls not only demarcated a defensible space for the ancient Hittites; they also enforce a certain territoriality of time. Despite long-held intentions to revitalize the area, it retains an almost rural character, "frozen in time" since the decision to make it a backdrop for the modern city.

In the course of research, i was pleasantly surprised to find a detailed analysis of Ankara Kalesi published by two Bilkent faculty (Erendil and Ulusoy, 2002). While portions of the outer citadel have been transformed into restaurants and tourist shops, most of these buildings have been subdivided into multi-family residences with two rooms per unit, creating overcrowded conditions. This neighborhood has the lowest rent in Ankara.

In the literature of urban planning and political economy, i found a unique definition of territory as a phenomenon produced relationally rather than bounded and static - “a tangled mosaic of superimposed, interpenetrating nodes, levels, scales, and morphologies” that cannot be mapped in any Cartesian sense (Brenner, 2004). And throughout a series of visits to the site, that became the clearest, most convincing way to understand it. We had identified several different user groups - illustrated by female residents who rarely leave the site, merchants who commute to it daily (yet are not an integral part of the social networks within its walls), tourists who may visit it for a few hours in their lifetime, and young male residents who from an early age play independently in small groups in the street, moving freely through both interior and exterior spaces. That last group is, as they grow older, a source of apprehension for others.

Off the record, i would add to the analysis a fifth group: lifelong Ankarites who may have visited the neighborhood once or twice. Altindağ district, where the Citadel is located, has a reputation as the most dangerous corner of Ankara, and whenever i talked to friends about the idea of visiting it at night to see the city spread twinkling below us, they grew hesitant. So at last i went alone. The Citadel tower, alas, closes at dusk, but as i walked down through the narrow cobblestone streets i heard music – a neighborhood wedding party.

One of the tidiest little theories of environmental cognition is Kurt Lewin's field theory. Simply put, you can organize information about life experiences in a diagram rather like a peach. The pit and flesh are areas of familiarity, while outside the skin of this experiential peach lies an area called the foreign hull, a place of mystery, curiosity, and at times, fear.

The citadel environment presents an interesting case. One of the few touristic places in Ankara, it draws radically different socioeconomic layers into contact, something we typically avoid. If you're familiar with Boston, imagine the Bunker Hill monument smack in the middle of a Jamaica Plain ghetto. Older women selling handcrafts along the citadel steps present an aggressive presence that infringes on tourists' personal space (their "portable territory"). Both the low-income residents and camera-toting visitors perceive each other as a curiosity.

From observation, it seemed that differences in territorial cognition are closely related to Lewin's field theory and to perceived threats. That is, individuals for whom the space occurs as a place of touristic interest within the foreign hull will classify it as more public, yet feel apprehensive, perhaps because they subconsciously know the space is cognized by other users as a primary territory. In a cognitive sense, residents (particularly young males) own even the public spaces, yet tolerate the territorial infringement of tourist users for its economic benefits. It doesn't take much empathy to understand that the cognitive and emotional experience of being  a “curiosity” for higher socioeconomic visitors has negative components for residents.

It is uncertain how redevelopment will affect these people – or whether it will come at all. But tourists will continue to ascend the narrow, uneven cobblestone streets past wool and copper merchants and walk beneath the arched Gates. Wherever i am in Ankara – from Sihhiye, Altındağ, or affluent Çankaya – i see the flag perched atop the citadel; like the window-cornices of its old buildings, a place where sparrows nest.

31 May, 2010

Lacing things up

In February, i broke a pair of shoelaces. Trying to find replacements was exceedingly frustrating. Because in Turkiye, you see, one does not find shoelaces anywhere that shoes are sold. Shoelaces are sold on the street. And that is the only place you'll find them. 

When, however, you at long last find them, selection is not an issue.

30 May, 2010


Friends have been telling me for the longest time to attend a fasıl, an evening gathering where people drink rakı and eat mezes (light appetizers like stuffed grape leaves) while enjoying Ottoman art music and other traditional entertainment. Rakı is Turkiye's answer to ouzo, an anise-flavored hard liquor which is often cut fifty-fifty with water (then called "aslan sutu"- lion's milk), and drunk slowly throughout the evening. It has a unique, slightly bitter taste that you either love or hate, and folks recommend pairing it with kavun (honeydew melon) and the slightly crumbly traditional white cheese.

The trouble with finding a fasıl, though, is that it's hard to find an authentic one among the tourist imitations. Duygu suggested a make-your-own "youtube fasıl", finding the right music in that burgeoning cultural library. (It took a couple days to add the link, since youtube is blocked in most of Turkiye, though not at Bilkent.) Well, friend Murat and i took the idea one step further, merging an old tradition with a modern one.

Murat outside Carrefour, one of the myriad small groceries
scattered throughout Ankara

Last night was the final round of the 2010 Eurovision song contest, an event which, with over 120 million viewers worldwide, is the world's biggest telecast. We brought rakı, kavun, and beyaz peynir, to which our host for the evening added cheese curls and potato chips, and when the rest of the food was gone, cooked up sigara boreği.

kavun + beyaz peynir cannot be beat

About Eurovision, what can i say? The contest works like this: as artists perform, viewers can tele-vote, then at the end there's another fifteen minutes. National judges have their say, and the official and public weight is split fifty-fifty; representatives from thirty-nine nations call in and report the voting results, 1 to 7 points, then the 8, 10, and 12 point allocations, as suspense builds. People call Eurovision a political game, and it's true to the extent that Murat could predict with fair accuracy which countries would give each other points based on alliances and, i would add, shared cultural traditions. My personal favorites in this musical Super Bowl were entries from Belarus, Israel (despite singer Harel Skaat's failure to hit the high notes accurately, the melody and vocal power of the song were unmatched), Serbia, an ethnic, rhythmic, and lyrically beautiful entry from Armenia (which got my tele-vote), and Turkiye's own rap-rock band Manga, who with the darkest and hardest sound in the contest (and much more energy than when i saw them live at Bilkent) came in second. But two things seem to have more weight in Eurovision than either politics or musical quality: generic europop appeal, and youth. Hence teenage Lena brought a sweeping victory for Germany.