Eid Mubarak!

Eid al-Adha started on Wednesday in Aleppo, as people began visiting family and large numbers of sheep appeared in the streets. Katie tells me that in Istanbul people buy shares of cattle, and that there are specific places in which ritual slaughter is acceptable, but in the old city of Aleppo, it seems, anywhere is OK. In both places, one is to keep some of the meat, share some with family, and distribute the rest to the poor.

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A few years ago, Turkey and Syria agreed to a holiday exchange to allow visits to family members who had ended up on the other side of the border. This year, Syrians went to Turkey on the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, and Turks came to Syria for this Eid.

That explains why Katie was unable to find a bus or train seat to Antakya until Thursday. When I crossed the border into Turkey on Friday morning to meet her, I was stunned to see the huge numbers of vehicles, stretched across all available “lanes,” bringing Turks to Syria. Our minibus had to wait until police opened one lane so cars trying to get into Turkey could get around the press of vehicles trying to get into Syria! The vehicles all had large yellow flyers in the front windows announcing they were participating in the exchange, and their passengers already had their permission to enter the country, having been vetted days earlier.

When we pulled into Turkish customs, there were large piles of tea, sugar, and biscuits on the curb. Food is quite a bit cheaper in Syria, and the Turkish customs officials were clearly trying to prevent holiday-makers from doing imports.

I found Katie in Antakya, where we ate terrific Iskender kebab (unavailable just across the border) and kunefe, then walked to find the lot where there are usually many drivers trying to find passengers to fill their cars heading to Aleppo. This day, the area was mostly deserted–all the vehicles in the area had left many hours earlier, that large contingent I’d seen at the border.

We finally found our transportation, and arrived in Aleppo quite late for our wonderful going-away party. (Nadine, our French housemate, Makiko, our Japanese housemate, and William had all cooked wonderful food, and even our friends from Damascus came to wish us goodbye!)

The next morning, we decided it was finally time to see the citadel, but couldn’t get close to the ticket booth. The entry was jammed, and Turkish was the only audible language. The suq was similarly full of visiting Turks, and suddenly the linguistic border seemed to have moved. (I looked unsuccessfully for the numbers of Turkish visitors. Please post if you find them.)

December 26, 2007 at 7:29 am Leave a comment

Moving Day (What, no insurance?)

Our plane ticket isn’t until December 28, but Eid likely begins on the 19th, and generally lasts four or five days (but after the last holiday some people didn’t return to work for a few days extra), so we needed to get all of our things packed and to the shipper TODAY! The past few days have been a bit frenetic, as I tried to finish the last chapter (which, alas, has become only the penultimate chapter), and we looked for a shipper, had a carpenter make us a box, bought our Christmas gifts, decided what we would take with us to Mali, and packed everything else.

Our wonderful friend Muhammad took William to an amazing wood shop in a very old hammam to order the boxes, which were delivered the next day. Together, they formed a meter cubed.

The boxes were too big for a taxi. But Aleppo has a cargo equivalent, a Suzuki fleet of privately owned old battered pickups that charge about $4 to haul stuff.

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Muhammad brought a Suzuki, a driver, and the driver’s 16-year-old son over this morning, and we loaded our two wooden boxes, our two suitcases, and assorted packets of gifts and books. We followed the Suzuki through a remarkable maze of mud-covered pavements (the rains have been continuous, and the drainage seems overwhelmed), watching the young man bouncing in the back of the truck (as I thought about seatbelts). 

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When we reached the Atlas office, we unloaded the truck. We put the suitcases and assorted small packages into one of the wooden boxes. We were delighted to learn that it would all fit into just one of the boxes. But then we discovered that the thing weighted 150 kilos, heavy enough that one of the workers was convinced the bottom would break. It was completely fascinating to watch the conversation. Six men discussed the various options. Divide everything into the two wooden boxes? Ship one wooden box and one cardboard box? Three cardboard boxes? What about the tray? Two tape measures, one scale, six men. Everything came out of the wooden box. The wooden box weighed 30 kg. empty. We repacked it all into two cardboard boxes. The shipper needs a complete list. Can’t send CDs because the Syrian government won’t allow them. US government prohibits sending medicine and needs a breakdown of everything in the boxes. Syrian government wants to know what kind of books and posters I am taking out of the country. Everyone was very helpful, lots of advice all around.

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We just had a few questions. What would the insurance cover?

Insurance? Muhammad asked. Haram! You don’t need insurance. No one will take your things. Why would you need insurance? I know these people, my things always arrive safely.

We explained that things get taken in Washington, the destination for the boxes. No one ships anything in the US without insurance!

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After repeated phone calls, the Atlas manager insisted it was impossible, but promised a manifest that he would sign. His signature would indicate that our things would arrive safely. Why would we want insurance?

Suddenly insurance had become a sign of our distrust. It was one of the clearest examples of cultural dissonance I had experienced in Syria– and perhaps ever. We called our bi-cultural friends. “Of course not, we never do insurance.” He called his friend, who ships containers of furniture to the US. No, he does not get insurance either.

We now have a small, green piece of paper promising that our two boxes will arrive safely in Washington, DC a few days after our return from Timbuktu. And as Muhammad points out, we have his friend’s promise, and Atlas has never lost anything, even in Washington. Why would we need anything else?

December 18, 2007 at 10:23 am Leave a comment

UNHCR Damascus

I asked for the United Nations Refugee office, and the driver took me way out to the edge of Damascus to the UNRWA office. The UN Relief Works Agency, created for Palestinian refugees after 1949, still only serves Palestinians, who have never received the full complement of rights guaranteed other refugees.

One of the guards at UNRWA found another taxi for me, and sent me to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) office. The driver didn’t actually know where the office was, or much about the neighborhood in which it is located. Syrians do not seem to learn map-reading in school, street names are not generally known (or signed), and people navigate by landmarks. Fortunately, taxi drivers here (all of whom are men) are not subject to the same hesitation so stereotypical among American men that it is a common topic among standup comics. The driver stopped every block to ask someone where the building was, at one point picking up his next fare, who helped identify it.

I spoke with Sybella Wilkes at the UNHCR Damascus office two days after busses left Damascus to return hundreds of refugees to Iraq. My only “research” into refugees was in 1998, while I was waiting to read some other documents at the League of Nations archives and found catalogues of the Nansen papers.  Nansen was a Norwegian working to assure rights for refugees from the catastrophic Great War (1914-18). Chief among the protections he advocated was the right of refugees not to be forced to return to a place where they fear persecution. This right was included in the 1951 Refugee Convention.  UNHCR’s statements that day were very careful. On one hand, they recognized the political pressures that weighed heavily on all the parties connected to Iraq’s refugees. On the other, as Ms. Wilkes informed me, UNHCR’s mission is based on the Refugee Convention. If Iraq remains too dangerous for their UNHCR staff, making it impossible for them to investigate the safety of local conditions, could they really support the busses carrying Iraqis home?

Ms. Wilkes was very clear about the huge role the government of Syria has been playing. The Assad regime has welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees. Their hospitality has been hugely expensive. Food, fuel, medical care, education, and nearly everything else in this country is subsidized by the government. That means Syria is paying millions of dollars to host people displaced by a war in which the Syrians had no part. Their generosity is stunning, especially in comparison with the closed doors of almost every other country in the world. (See Human Rights Watch.)

The outlook for the refugees is growing worse. In the face of continuing widespread violence, Iraqis have nowhere to go.  Syria has just recently begun requiring visas that must be obtained in Baghdad. Jordan has closed its doors. In Iraq itself, internally displaced people fleeing violence are no longer allowed into 11 of Iraq’s 18 governorates.

Many of those who made it to Syria were middle class people, professionals, academics, artists fleeing violence. They left behind their homes, their jobs, and all the things that made them like me, Sybella explained. UNHCR uses its limited funds to provide medical care and living expenses to elderly and ill refugees, and to families with no means of support (often women with children but without husbands). UNHCR has produced a CD of Iraqi music by refugee musicians, and there is terrific artwork hanging on the walls in the Damascus office. Ms. Wilkes told me that they had been painted by some of Iraq’s most famous artists, and are available for purchase. (I can’t find a place on their web site where either the CD or the art is sold.)

December 8, 2007 at 6:56 am 2 comments

Miracles

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Malika took us to see the house/shrine Wednesday evening. Twenty-five years and two days earlier, a young Greek Orthodox bride (the new husband was Greek Catholic) noticed that her postcard of Mary and baby Jesus had begun to drip olive oil. Rumors began to circulate around the neighborhood, and in a short time, the security services came to investigate. They tore off a small corner of the icon, found nothing unusual, said God is Great, and left the woman with her icon, still standing in a bowl to catch the oil that continued to drip.

Over the years, the house has become a shrine. Mirna has reported visitations from Mary (who speaks in colloquial Arabic) and Jesus (who speaks fusha, the formal language). Pilgrims visit from many places to give thanks, to pray, to ask for Mary’s intercession. The pilgrims include Christians and Muslims alike.

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There is a sign asking that people do not contribute money, and balls of cotton with the special olive oil are freely given. We had just missed the anniversary celebration two days earlier, in which, we were told, hundreds of people held a candlelight procession and prayer service.

But we did get to see the shrine, in the central courtyard space of the family home just outside Damascus’ Bab Touma, in a small neighborhood called Soufanieh. Mirna still lives there with her husband and two children. People are welcome to come any time of the day or night. A small publishing phenomenon has described the olive oil, the icon, the stigmata on Mirna’s body, the messages from Mary and Jesus, and associated phenomena. To get a sense of its scope, Google “Our Lady of Soufanieh.”

December 3, 2007 at 11:19 am Leave a comment

Assad Library, Access to Information

We spent two wonderful evenings with Raghda and Faraj, another of UNC’s terrific group of 2004 Humphrey Fellows. Faraj works as a consultant based in Ramallah, and, as many Palestinians, is “stateless.” He has no passport, and has to work out “coordination” with other governments in order to travel abroad–a bit of a challenge to anyone, especially a consultant who works internationally. The Syrian government refused his recent request, so to see him, we decided to go to Amman again, where he was training teachers in new reading techniques.  When Faraj returned to the West Bank, we left for Damascus.

In addition to the Turkish newspaper published in 1930s Antakya (currently housed in the Antakya public library–I’m still awaiting Turkish government permission to read it) there was also an Arabic newspaper. Hoping to get access to at least one of the newspapers, I took a taxi to Assad National Library, directly opposite the Opera and down the road from the University. I showed my passport to the guard at the security gate, and walked into library, a very modern four-story building. The woman who took my bag sent me to the second floor, where the reference librarian used a computerized catalogue to find not only al-Uraba, the newspaper, but a variety of other books and documents about Antakya, Turkey, and the French mandate.

I had a bit of trouble finding the microfilm collection around the construction of the fourth floor, and when I arrived, the librarian looked at the print-out from the reference desk. She unlocked a microfilm reading room, set up the reader, and told me what kind of information they would need if I wanted copies (3 l.s. a page). I was disappointed to find that the newspaper (which the French shut down in early 1938 after only 117 issues) had many editorials but little actual news and no photographs. I gave the librarians a list of the pages I wanted copies of, and asked where I might find the two other items I was interested in. Sawsan, one of the librarians (the great majority of the library staff is women) walked me from floor to floor, staff member to staff member, trying to help me find out how I could find the materials. When we finally got to the right reading room, the librarian told her that I needed a card.

Oh, no! After repeated requests and months of waiting over the years for permission to use various libraries, I feared this had been too easy. Now they were going to ask me for an application and tell me to wait.  Instead, the library manager, another woman, filled out a slip of paper, told me I could copy some pages but not entire books, and sent us back to the reading room.  Sawsan left me (I was quite grateful for all her help!), the library staff soon brought the books, and I worked for a few hours.

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I wanted to make sure I got to visit the history department at Damascus University, but when the driver let me off, I was very unsure which way to go. I asked directions from a young woman wearing a pink coat, white pants, a pink headscarf and sandals (the weather in Damascus has been warm and beautiful!). Hiba is a student in the English faculty, right next to the History faculty, and she took me all the way into the building and up the stairs. There I met a young professor, Mahmud, who teaches Ottoman history, Ottoman paleography, and modern European history. He offered me tea, explained that the rest of the faculty members had already left for the day, and suggested I return the next day, when he took me to the library, found me an MA thesis on my topic, and introduced me to some colleagues.

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Damascus University is enormous, many thousands of students spread over both academic and professional schools. There seem no real gathering places except an outside park in the center of campus, which was alive with small groups of students walking, sitting, and talking. I am quite grateful to the two women and my new colleague for their help getting through the day.

I have found myself musing intermittently over the past few months on the nature of open societies and police states. Now I have another confusing example: democratic Turkey tightly controls access to information, even published information in public libraries. Syria, on the other hand, allows free public access to published information in public libraries. Turkey blocks wordpress blogs, while Syria blocks blogspot blogs (and for a few days recently also facebook and skype).

December 2, 2007 at 4:22 pm 1 comment

Ruwwad

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Razan picked us up at our small hotel, and as we drove past the KFC’s, McDonalds, gleaming new office/shopping plazas, and continuous construction of West Amman, she told us that she had worked for GE when she graduated from the university. Two years into the job, a friend asked her for a ride to Ruwwad to tutor that day. Curious, Razan went inside and began reading to some of the children. She promised to return the next day, and soon was a regular volunteer. Months later she had left GE to become Program Coordinator at Ruwwad.

Ruwwad is located in Jabal Nathif in East Amman, across an invisible boundary between the eastern and western part of the city that seems to divide very different worlds. The area has been populated mostly by Palestinian refugees since 1948. The people who live here are very poor, but since the place was never designated as an UNRWA facility, they get no help from UN funds. Until Ruwwad provided the space, the Jordanian government provided neither a health clinic nor even a post office. The government has just recently promised to create a police station. The schools were unimpressive, in sum, Jabal Nathif was a very “under-served” area. Ruwwad has done more than offer services. It has allowed the local children to think about opportunities that they could not have even imagined two years ago.

Ruwwad was Raghda Butros’ dream. When we met her in 2003 she was a Humphrey Fellow at the University of North Carolina, in transition between jobs. After she returned to Amman, she decided she could actually carry out her project. Of the many things I admire about this woman, one is her ability to do things that I would find unlikely at best, and probably impossible.

When we first saw the Ruwwad site in the summer of 2006, there was little but a shell of a building and Raghda’s dreams to fill it. Now, Razan was taking us through three stories filled with children, volunteers, staff, and a flood of remarkable ideas they seem able to implement almost as soon as they arise. Raghda explained that the staff had decided to move its offices out of that initial colorful structure, leaving the first building to the programs and the children who had, by that time, moved into every inch of it. They found that the children followed them into their offices in a neighboring building-–Raghda’s has not only the desk, books, and computer one would expect in an NGO director’s space, but also puzzles, books, and bean-bag chairs for the children who drop by to hang out while she is working.

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Ruwwad opens into a library full of children’s books. (They could always use more…) It is brightly painted, and furnished, like most everyplace else in Ruwwad, by the refurbished castoffs that the volunteers and staff collect, clean, repair, and decorate with great imagination. (The kids even designed the ngo logo.) After an existence of less than two years, Ruwwad’s two buildings today offer a computer lab, a library, courses, a preschool, a furniture-refurbishing shop, and a large meeting space.

The programs that fill the place, though, are the most exciting. “Windows” offers local kids an opportunity to do art, usually available only to Amman’s wealthier children. Adults attend literacy classes in Arabic and English classes offered by volunteers. The large conference room on the top floor is the setting for monthly discussions about topics chosen by local high-school and college-age students, conversations often taboo and unbroached at home or in school.

These older students are often recipients of Ruwwad’s scholarships. Each scholarship student, in addition to attending community college or university, is required to volunteer for the organization. These volunteers provide the labor needed to improve local homes and to build new ones (with the local Habitat for Humanity chapter).

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Rami was with us as we toured the facility. At 17 and in 11th grade, he has made a gradual transition from a local ringleader to one of Ruwwad’s big neighborhood supporters. His friends have followed him, providing a huge support to volunteer efforts to rebuild the community. He came along as we went to a neighbor’s house for sweet, minty tea. Our host has four daughters and three sons. The youngest child, Sarah, is four months old.; the oldest is in her 20s. We met three daughters, including one about to take her exams to get into the university. The family’s house used to consist of one room, an entryway beside a small, walled-off toilet, and a moldy kitchen. After Ruwwad’s volunteers moved the toilet onto the patio and installed a shower, they recreated the entryway into a second room, essentially doubling the usable size of the house. And they treated the mold and repainted the kitchen. Our host, now in her 30s (she married at 17) seemed quite delighted–and delightful. After tea, she urged us to stay for coffee and lunch; when we declined, she insisted that we return another time.

Still less than two years old, Ruwwad now employs 23 people. The programs seem both remarkably innovative and very comprehensive. I keep deleting the words here, because I seem unable to convey the complexity of the program that Raghda and her staff have created. I am used to writing in a linear way, but the varied parts of Ruwwad’s program seem so connected to other parts, it would be more comprehensible with a diagram than a paragraph. I’ll try to give a sense of it. Their varied activities enrich the lives of residents physically (improving living quarters, providing job skills through volunteering, and finding funding for urgent medical situations); academically (offering scholarships, tutoring, literacy programs, English lessons, and encouraging reading); socially (providing volunteer opportunities, creating community cohesion, offering youth a space and resources to talk about important issues); and emotionally (improving living conditions, creating community, responding to urgent local needs). All who benefit are expected to give back through volunteering, which, of course, provides more resources to the Jabal Ndif community. Why didn’t we all think of this decades ago?

The Ruwwad web site does a much better job describing this remarkable place.

November 29, 2007 at 3:51 pm 1 comment

Istanbul

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Istanbul

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It’s difficult to write about Istanbul. I arrived for the first time 25 years and one month ago as a graduate student on a Fulbright scholarship hoping to carry out dissertation research in the Ottoman archives. I’m sure that I was struck then by the strangeness of the city, the challenge of the language, the confusion that results whenever such large groups of people share the same space, to say nothing of the frustration of the bureaucracy that refused me access to the archives for three months, and the remarkable camaraderie and generous assistance of all twelve of the regulars in the Ottoman reading room when I was finally permitted entrance.  (The archives some years ago moved to a larger location with better light, and when I last visited, almost 100 researchers were working there.  Some things haven’t changed–I’m again waiting for research permission, this time to use published newspapers in a public library.)

I’m no longer struck by the city’s strangeness, which may be partly because Istanbul has changed; it’s probably more because I’ve fallen in love with Istanbul over the years, and perhaps because I’ve now spent time in places even less familiar.  

Istanbul is beautiful, stunning, shockingly appealing. We approached it this time from Anatolia, riding the train for many kilometers from the furthest suburbs into the heart of the city, then taking a ferry across the Bosphorus to the old city. The skyline has changed in the past 25 years–sort of. To the right, there is a second bridge connecting Asia and Europe; straight ahead there are large skyscrapers jutting above the older buildings. To the left, though, are those seven hills and their spectacular domes and minarets. At the risk of sounding like one of those nineteenth-century Orientalist travelers, I admit that the view of the old imperial capital from the water is breathtaking.

I had three goals for this trip. I wanted to spend time with Katie, who is teaching English in Istanbul; I needed to talk with colleagues about some research questions before finishing the last chapters; and I planned to make some logistical arrangements for the student group I hope to bring with me to Turkey for seven weeks this summer.

Katie is wonderful. So is her school. The day after we arrived, she took us to see the place she works, and rumors circulated that Katie’s mother was visiting! I was reminded of that first time, when Katie was a toddler, that I heard a child’s loud whisper in an auditorium, “That’s Katie’s mom!” I’ve been quite delighted to be “Katie’s mom” ever since. Now some of her more courageous young students stood outside the door to the English department office, trying to catch a look. Two actually came inside, probably 4th graders, who ventured to answer my questions about their names and their favorite football teams. (Fenerbahçe and Galatasaray have been engaged in fierce competition this season.)

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We saw her house, up five longer-than-usual flights of stairs in an old building on the Asian side of the city, in the not-yet-gentrified outskirts of Moda. Her house is in the process of becoming heated and furnished, and the neighborhood is terrific. She walks through a wonderful fish and vegetable market on the way up the hill every day as she returns home from work. She has developed a new set of friends, partly through work, partly through old friends (Katie came for the first time 21 years ago), partly through the local couch-surfing group.

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William and I were staying far from the real world of Istanbul, in the part of the old city near the great monuments most frequently haunted by carpet dealers. Within five minutes of stepping out, someone finds a new and creative way to suggest you go into his shop to look at his rugs. As I found myself warning new tourists about these men, I realized that I must sound quite like them when I suggested that the new tourists go to my long-time carpet-seller friend instead to look at his carpets!

William has been sorely missing the NFL season, and we were delighted when Katie invited us to visit one of her friends and watch a Packers game. Our Turkish host was little interested, but William was thrilled.

The rest of my time was spent walking, drinking Turkish tea, talking with friends about my book, and making arrangements for the summer. That summer plan made it just a bit easier to leave Istanbul this time.

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November 20, 2007 at 12:52 pm 1 comment

To Istanbul

We decided to try the train to Istanbul, but the closest place to get it is Adana. The bus ride from Antakya to Adana took me through places I’d been reading about for years, the mountain pass town of Belen, the port city of Iskenderun/Alexandretta, Dörtyol right on the previous border between Syria and Turkey. We got to Adana just in time to eat some spicy kebab, try the locally-favored beverage (salty turnip juice), sit in the “wait foring room,” as the sign read, and chat with the staff before boarding a sleeping car for the 19 hour trip.

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The trip was so wonderful we decided to return by train, too. We were accompanied by a large group of women on their way to an Amway convention in Istanbul. They had brought huge quantities of their own food, and took over the dining car and kitchen, laughing and talking as they prepared a spicy bulgar/vegetable/hot pepper paste dish I had never seen before.

The scenery was spectacular. I’d once driven through the Taurus mountains, but was so nervous about the trucks that I didn’t appreciate it as I should have. This time, we sat watching out the window (when we weren’t watching the food preparation).

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November 19, 2007 at 1:07 pm Leave a comment

Antakya/Antioch

Our driver began speaking Turkish with me immediately. I asked how he knew Turkish. “I’m a Turk,” he answered. As we made our way through Syrian customs and passport control, he spoke Arabic with the officials. Back in the car, as we crossed into Turkey, I asked when he learned Arabic. “I’m an Arab,” he responded. We arrived in Antakya (Antioch) two hours after leaving Aleppo, half of it at the border. Before the city became part of Turkey in 1939, no border crossing would have been necessary.

The book I’m working on tells the story of how Antakya and the province around it were detached from Syria and joined to Turkey. But it focuses largely on national identities, how people decide to which national group they belong. Our driver made it quite clear that no choice actually needed to be made. He claimed that 70% of the people of Antakya spoke Arabic in addition to Turkish. Since only Turkish is taught in schools, however, many remain illiterate in Arabic.

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The city seems much more than a few kilometers from Aleppo. The color is striking on the Turkish side of the border. Syria has a monochromatic color scheme: the streets, the buildings, the walls, are all made of stone, and everything is white. Turks paint their houses, sometimes outrageous colors (lavender apartment blocks?). Turkish signs and billboards are all in Latin characters. And most women don’t cover their heads on the Turkish side of the border. Turkey’s enforced secularization actually prohibits women students and state employees from covering. Women at Mustafa Kemal University in Antakya stop at a phone booth right inside the gate to remove their scarves as they enter campus. I waited to make a phone call as one student checked her hair in the little mirror above the phone. She giggled when I asked her if the mirror was hers. Apparently, it is a collective mirror for use after removing scarves on the way in and replacing scarves before going back into the street.

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Our days in Antakya were enlightening and enjoyable, thanks largely to our “host,” Koray Cengiz. He runs the local university’s international exchange programs. I found him through “couch-surfing,” a movement my daughter introduced me to. Koray made us a reservation at Mustafa Kemal University’s guest house, scheduled appointments for me with local historians, introduced us to some of his friends, and walked and walked through the city with us. By the end of our visit, we had learned about the Erasmus program, teaching English in Turkey, the city, and the university. He had learned more than he had probably ever wanted to know about Antakya between 1936 and 1939.

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  William consults on 1936 map: Where are they now?

William and I walked the routes of the myriad demonstrations during that period, nearly all of which focused on the bridge over the Orontes River. We found the best Iskender Kebab in town (maybe even in Turkey), and sat looking at terrific photos of Antakya in 1940. Our waiter called the phone number attached to the photos, and soon we sat in the office of the photographer looking through prints he had made of his first professional shots, when he was still in his early 20s.

By the end of our stay, I became convinced I had never seen such a bi-national city. On one hand, Turkish flags and pictures of Ataturk were everywhere. I was surprised by the huge number of flags displayed, and Koray explained that flags were flying throughout Turkey in response to the recent attacks on Turkish soldiers further east. There were few remaining signs in Arabic, even fewer than we had seen in the summer of 2001 when we stayed in the city for just one night.

On the other hand, the bazaar looks and sounds like Syria’s suqs, though more of the shops have glass fronts. There is a distinctive smell in Aleppo’s markets that I noticed in Antakya, too, some combination of cardamon-flavored coffee beans, roasting nuts and corn, grilling meat, and open barrels of spices.

On the bus back to Antakya from Istanbul, we sat in front of a father and son whose conversation mixed Arabic and Turkish within sentences. As we stood waiting for our bags in Antakya, I greeted the man, explaining that we were living in Aleppo for a few months. He immediately responded with a dinner invitation, which I was sad to have to decline. The amazing propensity toward hospitality seems as ubiquitous among Turks as among Arabs–no national choice necessary.

 Thanks to Russ for posting the previous three entries.  WordPress.com really is blocked in Turkey!

November 17, 2007 at 3:34 pm Leave a comment

Victoria’s Wedding

Wedding

Victoria and Hanna married last night in the Church of Saint Elias, after a ten year courtship. Hala introduced me to her best friend soon after I arrived; Victoria, an Armenian, teaches French at a secondary school in a nearby village. We met Hanna at our party in late September. He is Greek Orthodox, the rite in which the ceremony took place. Hala and Victoria both reassured me that it is no problem for Christians to marry other Christians, regardless of the sect. Marrying a Muslim, they tell me, would be inconceivable, it would alienate their families too much.

There were some 150 people at the church last night, a very recent structure that looked like nearly all the non-cruciform churches I have been inside, with the addition of a large dome. William and I arrived very early–we hadn’t known how long the ride would take, and we didn’t realize that even weddings don’t begin on time. The people from the floral shop were still finishing their work, which was quite extensive. Hanna arrived soon after, looking quite handsome in his charcoal gray suit, if a bit anxious. He explained his nervousness to William. This is a big step–in his culture, he said, you only get to marry once.

The guests stood as the wedding party walked down the central aisle, without music. First the parents, then two attendants, both relatives of the bride and groom. (Huge retinues of attendants, I’m told, are not done here.) Victoria and Hanna walked in together, then stood on the steps facing the priest, their backs to their friends and family. Their attendants stood by their sides, holding candles. Much of the service was conducted in Greek, some in Arabic. (William commented that it was the first time he had heard Allah called upon in church.) One priest on each side of the podium participated in the service, much of which was chanted.

Although there were two completely adorable small children, a boy and a girl, who walked in with the wedding party, neither seems to have been a ring bearer. No wedding rings were exchanged. Instead, around the middle of the ceremony, a priest chanted while he placed a gold crown on Hanna’s head, then more changing and another gold crown on Victoria’s head. He continued chanting as he changed the crowns from one head to the other a few times.

Wedding Church

Soon after, one of the priests, swinging a ball of incense, led the couple and their attendants in three circles around the alter. At each pass, the members of the wedding party kissed the cross held by another priest. In half an hour, it was over, the priest blessing them and wishing them health, happiness, and peace.

The bride, groom, and attendants signed some documents, then posed for a few pictures, before processing back down the central aisle to form a receiving line outside. (The church was being prepared for another wedding.)

Victoria was as radiant as a bride should be. She looked completely stunning–and here I wish I had the words that wedding writers used. How would they say it? She wore a long floor-length white gown with a long white train, a fitted bodice embroidered and sequined, with neither sleeves nor straps; her shoulders and arms were bare to the tops of her long white gloves. Her large diamond earrings reflected the light of the many candles that had been lit around the church; actually, they even seemed to reflect her smile! Hala tells me that professionals always do the hair and makeup of the wedding party, and whoever had done Victoria’s was terrific. She is beautiful without it, but looked completely amazing after he (the best ones are men here, she says) was finished.

I was quite curious about what people would wear to a church wedding. Fifty-something women and older wore nice suits and sensible shoes. Only two of us had gray hair. The styles for younger women were remarkably revealing–lots of bare shoulders, more than a few bare backs, shoes with impossibly high heels, a few discrete shoulder tattoos. One woman covered her head. Men wore suits. I’d been impressed in Morocco, Syria, and Jordan that men have such a wide range of types of clothing to choose from, but apparently those are not appropriate for urban church weddings.

Family and close friends moved on to a local club for festivities. William and I returned home in the care of a nice taxi driver (American people are great! he told us. But the president…)

November 11, 2007 at 9:38 pm Leave a comment

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