All posts by Andrew Scanlan

Mist and Reverse Migration in Pokut Yayla – June 23, 2014

 IMG_0290

There’s nothing quite like being jostled around in the back of a Land Rover like a piece of fruit in a toddler’s lunchbox, as one climbs higher and higher on a dirt road in the Hemşin region of northeastern Turkey, a valley or two over from the village of Çamlihemşin.  Past thick evergreen forests, over a reddish-orange dirt road, along switchback after tight switchback on some of the steepest slopes I’ve seen, we bumped and pitched for close to an hour, from the clear, compact torrent of a river below to Pokut Yayla on the very top of one of the steep, jagged, greenly forested mountains that characterize the region.

IMG_0289

Thrusting open the back hatch and staggering out onto solid, stationary ground, I felt a little bit like I’d just been on a rough voyage to some far-off, alien land.  Looking around, I realized that wasn’t so loose a comparison.  The whole area was shrouded in a thick fog; I could see our vehicle and another, the road behind us, a slope with some grasses and shrubs, and a trail wandering up the slope, soon disappearing into the white, wet unknown.  There was a definite sense of mystery about the place; there was no telling what was there beyond the meager 15 feet one could see around oneself before the white shroud started keeping its secrets.

IMG_0305

We walked a while on the thin, muddy trail up a gradual slope through the damp, balmy air.  Then, the fog mooed.

IMG_0434A few steps later, some beige cows came into view, wearing colorful collars with copper bells and grazing next to the trail on the plateau just below their barns.  A few minutes down the trail, we talked to the owner of some of the cows and her friend.

IMG_0318

After talking to these two women while being warmed by the wood-fire inside the one’s house, we walked back along the same trail on the plateau, and now took it into the woods.  The fog had cleared momentarily, so we could see the robust evergreens that markedly curved out of the sharp slope by gravitropism.  Out of the woods, once again shrouded in fog, Uğur – our guide – gave an obscene call to the mist, which replied in kind.  The call is a tradition in some of these plateau communities, both to let your neighbors know that you made it and that the noise they’re hearing isn’t a dangerous animal.  A few more steps into the mist, we recognized we were in another small settlement – one with similarities to the other we’d just been in, but with it’s own distinct character.  We joined a recent return migrant in her new pansiyon (bed and breakfast), enjoyed her delicious Hemşin food, and heard a part of her story.

IMG_0368

Both she and the women on the other side of the trail had told us about being return migrants to the area.  They’d been born and grown up in Pokut Yayla and the surrounding valleys, but moved away to larger cities in Turkey like İzmir, for reasons including more employment opportunities and their own or their children’s education.  It was especially intriguing to hear recollections of growing up in the area (30-40 years ago, if it’s not rude to judge age), such as how they used to have to bring water up from the river in the valley every several days, an arduous task that would take hours; and then, one had to be conservative with the water.  Only about 10 years ago, electricity and water utilities were brought to Pokut Yayla; these, and the labor-saving machines they allow for (like the milking machine) make life much easier on the plateau; but, as her friend of the first woman we met mentioned, they also bring the distractions of cell phones and the internet, interfering with the close person-to-person interactions that made that community so tight when the two friends were growing up.

Of course, the make-up of the community in Pokut Yayla has changed since the women we spoke with were children.  For one thing, many of the residents are now elderly, or at least nearly so.  After all, the women we spoke with weren’t the only ones who left as children or young adults, but they’ve been some of the few to return.  They are valued by the community both for their rarity and their utility: they represent the younger generation, and they can do more work than many of their neighbors.  Yet, even some of the women we talked to will only be there for part of the year; they’ll winter in a larger city.

As we bump and jostle back down the darting, ragged road, I mulled over the interesting situation of the communities of Pokut Yayla.  On one hand, the community needs people to persist, and this is an asset in scarce supply in this region.  And certainly, the women we spoke to are trying to do something about this.  The woman past the woods mentioned that tourism is relatively strong in the region, and evidently she’s trying to bring more of that to Pakut Yayla with her pansiyon.  One of the first women we spoke with remarked that everyone should stop working like a slave in the big cities, and instead come to Pokut Yayla, where they can raise a family on two cows.

IMG_0307On the other hand, though, one gets the sense that if the area were to become flooded with those who had less of a personal connection to the area, something would be lost.  Certainly, the mist would still shroud the wooden buildings, and the newcomers might be just as passionate about the land and its customs as those who call it their childhood home.

IMG_0302

Yet part of the aura of Pokut Yayla is its sparseness, its isolation and its obscurity – the sense one gets that one is in a space apart, separated even from the comparatively cosmopolitan village along the rushing river in the valley below, where we stagger out of the Land Rover for a çay and a seat on solid, stationary ground.

IMG_2729

Sustaining Down Cafe – June 16, 2014

Making a difference doesn’t always require coming up with a completely novel idea.  After all, if there’s untapped potential to make significant impact, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel; or, as a Turk might say, amerika’yı ikinci kez keşfetme: don’t rediscover America.  This is manifested in the success and impact of Vefa Demirkıran, who founded the Down Cafe brand and model.  After a long, long drive through the beautifully expansive plains and stark mountains in Turkey’s southwest, we met him over a restoring breakfast at the Down Cafe in Ereğli district, Konya province.

The reason we were at Down Cafe was not so much for the food (though it was quite good); we were there because of who serves the food, works with meal preparation, cleans and maintains the restaurant, and handles the logistics of the operation (ordering, etcetera).  Except for a few individuals, Down Cafe is staffed entirely by individuals with Down syndrome or other mental illnesses.  Of course, you wouldn’t know it from the service, food quality, or the cleanliness recognition awarded to the restaurant by the local government, but that’s just the point; Down Cafe serves as a face-to-face testament to the abilities of individuals with mild-to-moderate Down syndrome.

The concept of employing individuals with Down syndrome in a restaurant or cafe setting is not brand new.  It certainly wasn’t an original idea of Vefa Bey; when he opened the first Down Cafe in Şişli (a neighborhood in İstanbul) in 2009, there were six other restaurants or cafes in Turkey that made a point of employing individuals with Down syndrome.  What makes Vefa Bey’s brand different is evident in the following statistic: Down Cafe is not only still around, but expanding, while four of those six have since closed or are likely to do so soon.

Much of what makes the difference between the Down Cafe and other similar ventures is Vefa Bey’s attitude toward the venture and his ability to cultivate and work connections.  For instance, before opening the first Down Cafe, he thought carefully about how to name and brand the concept, so as to be the most successful not only in terms of attracting customers, but in receiving support from both Turkish and international sources.  Along the same line, he told us plainly that in managing the venture, he keeps in mind his belief that “if this [Down Cafe] is a business, it’ll be run like a real business” [translation paraphrase].  This mindset is important when considering that Vefa Bey believes what’s important is not so much the idea, but being able to sustain the idea.

Vefa Bey hasn’t only sustained Down Cafe; he’s helped it thrive.  In addition to the original cafe in Şişli and the İstanbul Down Cafe food truck that soon followed, we were sitting at the Ereğli location (where Vefa Bey grew up, and moved back to to raise his children), and there are plans coming close to fruition for opening a branch in the city of Konya with the warm, strong support of the local government.  The local government has been one of the stakeholders with which Vefa Bey cultivated a mutually beneficial connection, and a strong one at that, evidenced by the District Governor of Ereğli’s presence at our table.  Vefa Bey explained that various policies and initiatives put in place by the local government have created exceptional opportunities for individuals with disabilities, such as classifying those workers at Down Cafe with disabilities as belonging to a protected work environment, which means that half of their salary is subsidized by the government.  The District Governor explained his vision to make Ereğli a model city for people with disabilities, in terms of both services and accessibility, but also opportunities for full-inclusion and involvement in society, epitomized by Down Cafe.  Seeing and hearing the local government’s genuine enthusiasm (and the District Governor’s long personal support), and learning about Vefa Bey’s contact with the Sabancı Foundation and others, it’s clear that Down Cafe is being well “sustained,” to say the least.

At the end of the day, though, its social impact alone makes Down Cafe  a social venture worth sustaining.   The testimonies from some of the waitstaff and explanations about societal challenges faced by individuals with Down syndrome gives the best insight into this impact.  With few exceptions like the Down Cafe, there are very few opportunities in Turkey for individuals with Down syndrome following their completion or aging-out of high school.  Vefa Bey characterized it by saying that the various institutions involved acted as though the lives of these people was over after age 18; after high school, they would end up being confined to their parents’ house, hesitant to go outside to join the rest of society – especially never alone – for fear of the ridicule that would accompany their visit to a public place.  Compounding this was the perception that people with Down syndrome need help (believing they are incapable of doing much of anything on their own); yet, there was animosity because of their receiving help in the form of disability compensation from the government.  As Hakan, one of our waiters, said, he was being insulted regularly by neighbors for receiving money from the government without working.IMG_2509

“Now, I am working; I am earning my own money,” Hakan says proudly [translation paraphrase].  He uses his salary to help support his mother; he hopes to buy a house soon.  Eser, another waiter, wants to spread the impact; he hopes to be selected for a municipal position in which he would advise with respect to and be able to aid people with disabilities.  Eser also added that if Down Cafe didn’t exist, he’d hope to create some sort of network or federation to allow individuals with similar disabilities to share with each other and provide mutual support.  Hearing from Vefa Bey’s wife, we learned that the self-confidence of those who work at Down cafe has improved remarkably.  It was the situation that they wouldn’t go in to public alone.  Recently, a few of the workers (and friends) went down to a nearby mall alone, enjoyed tea in public, and paid with their own money.

Certainly much of this transition has to do with increases in the individuals’ self confidence; it feels good to make one’s own money, and to know that one is serving a productive role in society.  Part of the transition, though, is related to changes in the local society’s perception of Down syndrome and individuals affected by it.  Down Cafe has changed the attitude of many in the community about Down syndrome and people with Down syndrome.  As one of the most clear examples, after being featured in prominent advertisements for Down Cafe, one of the workers has become the hero of his village.

Sustaining is not always an important goal for every social venture.  Indeed, some believe that there’s a definite (and short) shelf-life to their idea, or believe that being continually in the “start-up” phase is beneficial.  With so much real impact already, though – changing the lives of individuals, affecting society’s perception, inspiring government to go even further to help – and such promise for even more impact in the future, Down Cafe is certainly an idea worth sustaining.

DSC_0017

Awed by Ephesus – June 12th, 2014

DSC02302Singing in the 3rd century BC amphitheater at the ruins of Ephesus – a city founded circa 12th century BC (in its Ionian form) on the Aegean – I was more than impressed; I was awed.  It wasn’t by the sound of my own voice (I’m certainly not that much of a narcissist).  It was instead that it sounded as though I was singing in my head, so clear and unadulterated was the sound – unlike I’ve ever heard before – even though I was singing in an open-air stone construction of enormous scale (estimated to seat 25,000).  No echo, yet no sound-loss nor dampening.  Truly amazing.  The Ephesians definitely knew acoustics.  With the amphitheater alone, I would have been immensely impressed with the Ephesians.

But that was at the end of our walk through Ephesus, and so much lay behind us that inspired awe of the people who inhabited and built the metropolis that at its height rivaled in population present-day Buffalo, New York (around 250,000).  Certainly, the Ephesians knew how to impress.  The Celsus Library is a prime example, with its already spectacular two-story edifice of columns and statues accentuated by Roman techniques in varying column size to produce the illusion of the building being even larger than it is.  Within (or rather, around) the same construction is another cause for appreciation of the Ephesians’ skill and knowledge.  The library is surrounded by one of the first double-walled constructions, designed to insulate the scroll collection within from extremes of temperature and humidity.  The Ephesians knew how to store and protect.

They also knew how to keep things moving and fresh.  Looking toward the base of one of the steppe, lightly forested mountains that characterize the area, I saw a few of the cisterns, situated in the higher section of the city-proper, along with the baths and government buildings (I doubt the state buildings’ high ground was a coincidence; again, they knew how to impress).  The cisterns were fed at different rates from various sources – which presents its own challenges – and then distributed to public fountains and buildings in the city (homes of the aristocracy, for example) through a subterranean piping system, with the mains following the street layout.  On the other side of the street was what I would consider the more important system – the sewers.  Draining not only the latrines, but several other input sites, the sewer system was not merely constructed; it was maintained. Man-holes evenly spaced in the road – identical to their neighbors except for iron rings in the centers – would be lifted up to allow the unfortunate laborer access to his site.

Man-holes aside, the roads themselves bear other impressive features.  Ephesus was built on a slope, falling toward the sea.  With a bit of water on the smooth stone slabs that served as pavement, every pedestrian and animal on the street would be literally falling toward the sea, were it not for the indentations made for increased traction in the center of the road.  Also in the sloped portion of the road – specifically leading up to the Hercules Gate that marks the separation of the government section of the city from the rest – were slabs that bore additional, larger indentations for mounting a light stand.  The light stand was for more than just convenience; it was a security fixture, both preventing someone from charging the state area head on (especially on horseback, as it obstructed the center of the road) and giving the sentries light by which to identify threats.  The Ephesians knew how to make the most out of their roads.

DSC02254The Ephesians also seemed to know how much they knew, and just how impressive they were.  Something, at least, must have inspired in them enough pride to erect a set of columns and entabulature inscribed with a message to the gods telling them to not interfere with the established laws of the city.  Emperor Trajan was honored in the Ephesian fountain dedicated to his name with his foot resting on top of the world (a round world, it is interesting to note), but even this display of supreme earthly power is more humble than an edict to the gods.  Although I don’t know whether the Ephesians felt as though their laws were violated, I suspect the pagan inscribers would have felt as though the Fates, especially, intervened in the lives of their posterity, in the life of their city.

After all, it is archeologists and historians, not sociologists and anthropologists, who have told us what we know of Ephesus for a simple reason: Ephesus is dead.  The city was abandoned circa 6th century AD when the port naturally silted over.  All the Roman technology, labor, and commitment to restoring their port; all the wealth, size, and power; all the magnificence, culture, and reputation of this once-thriving metropolis could not keep the river from carrying soil to their port by the sea, could not keep the mosquito population from booming, could not keep the malaria from decimating.  So, as I glance back at the grasses at the end of the road that once led to the sea, I marvel at the wonders of the ancients, but look onward to visiting an anthropologist’s field: a place that is alive.

DSC02300

Çöp(m)adam & Social Change at Individual Level – June 10th, 2014

IMG_1662.JPG

 

It’s easy to come across as a lost and confused outsider when you’re at least an outsider on your first morning in a place.  So a group of we students acted on our way to çöp(m)adam, our social venture of interest in Ayvalık, a small and welcoming Aegean coastal town.  As we journeyed down the cobblestone street, passing lines of two story Rum houses – some freshly stuccoed, some long abandoned – and being passed by horse-drawn carts and mopeds, we inquired with local residents for directions to and anything they knew about çöp(m)adam.

If I were to tell you about çöp(m)adam only from what we learned from most of the residents, this would be a very short post.  There were exceptions – some individuals were very much aware of çöp(m)adam and what is done there, but more were unaware, and even the local, newly appointed muhtar  was in the former.  Admittedly, we only interviewed a few residents on our way (still, all of these were on the very street of which çöp(m)adam was at the end).  Yet, the more I learned about çöp(m)adam, the more clear it became that this widespread awareness of the venture itself is neither central nor necessary to its mission.

çöp(m)adam is a play on words in Turkish, meaning something like “Garbage Ladies.”  Far from merely collecting garbage (although a few indeed do exactly that), the women of çöp(m)adam create handbags, totes, aprons, and more from materials that would otherwise be waste.  The women work in various capacities; a few full-time and part-time employees spend their entire work day in the shop, using the sewing machines, hammers, and instruments, and making sales to those who stop by the shop’s quaint location next to a café on an intersection.  Most, though, are piece workers; they come to shop for the materials and a pattern to make a particular item, do the work outside the shop (usually in their home), then return to deliver the item.  Even with these differences in labor structure, some things are held in common between the women of çöp(m)adam.  All employees must come into the shop at least once a week to foster the building of a community of women and the spontaneous exchange of advice, stories, and information.  All employees must be women who have not worked outside the home for a wage before and have present economic need for a paying job.  This demographic is not hard to find in a town – in a country – where few women work outside the home, even fewer outside of a family business.

çöp(m)adam (and its employment guidelines) were the brain child of Tara Hopkins, an American expatriate with a spunky but kind personality.  The women who are a part of çöp(m)adam are far, far more than simply employees to Ms. Hopkins, in no small part because Ms. Hopkins crafted çöp(m)adam to be about far, far more than simply turning waste into salable items (which is certainly no small thing in itself).  çöp(m)adam – as the name and employment guidelines imply – is also (even, predominantly) about the empowerment of women.  From interviews we did with Ms. Hopkins and women in the shop, it’s clear that women are being empowered through çöp(m)adam.  One woman in her late fifties, when asked about the impact of çöp(m)adam, said (paraphrase), “My life changed.  I make my own money; I can be strong.  [My father would have given me money to buy things, but] it is different to spend your own money, that you have earned.”  Other stories were similar, though no less genuine.  We were told about women who were changed by new found independence and some control over their own life.  We were told about women standing up to abuse and oppression with newly gained confidence.  We were told about how ubiquitous low self-esteem was among women when they first came into the shop: “I don’t think I could do this,” a newcomer might say. “Sure you can,” would respond one of the veterans (who might have been just as self-abasing when she first came), adding “Let me show you.”  Ms. Hopkins has created more than simply a workplace; she has created a thriving community of supporters, advocates, and friends, many of whom have been in the same situations as those they are leading, that reaches farther and more intimately than she could as an individual.

Walking away from çöp(m)adam on that same cobblestone street, passing the same Rum houses and some of the same residents of this charming town, I realized what matters in the case of çöp(m)adam is not that everyone knows the venture’s name and its mission.  What matters is that real women are being affected in life-altering ways by çöp(m)adam, and real waste is being upcycled.  If efforts in social change – even systemic social change – are to be actual change at all, individuals must ultimately be affected.  At çöp(m)adam, the social change happens in the way the lives of each individual woman are shaped, and from there, spreads beyond those directly involved to affect the society.  It doesn’t matter whether the name “çöp(m)adam” is known; what matters is that some sister, some husband, some cousin, some neighbor knows a woman whose life has been changed by çöp(m)adam, and is inspired to change his or her own understanding, that even more lives may be changed.

June 1st, 2014 – Layers of Religion in İstanbul and Turkey

DSC01867

The most impactful positive change is made by those who understand the context in which they are working. Part of that context is history: the history of the physical setting, the people who have occupied that setting, and the ideas that have motivated these peoples. Sunday in Istanbul was an exercise in starting to understand a portion of this historical context.

         Walking into the magnificently cavernous main room of the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya), my eyes immediately met a manifestation of the varied and (literally) multi-layered history of religions in Istanbul. On the wall opposite the colossal entrance doors, up high, and only very slightly right of center, a Byzantine Christian Gabriel peeks out from behind an Ottoman green roundel inscribed with “Allah” in golden Arabic script. The portrayal of Gabriel, along with several other Christian anthropoid artworks, have been recently uncovered by the removal of the paint and plaster that was used to cover them after Justinian’s church was converted into a mosque following the Ottoman conquest of Istanbul (Constantinople at the time). And then, across the street from the Hagia Sophia is the monumental Blue Mosque. To see this juxtaposition is a reminder of the dynamic and complex history of the region; rulers and official religions change, but individuals in the citizenry do not always change so abruptly nor uniformly.

         Christian and Jewish populations, though starkly in the minority, remained in Istanbul after the Ottoman conquest. They not only remained, but continued to practice their non-Muslim religions in non-Muslim houses of worship. Indeed, after out tour of the Old City, as we walked up from the Metro into Taksim Square, I noticed a church, featuring prominently on the square. The man who had been our guide in Sultanahmet competed with the call to prayer that was resonating through the square to explain that the church had been built relatively recently (circa 19th century, which is very “recent” in an area that has been continuously inhabited for millennia). He explained additionally that its visual prominence was unusual in Istanbul; the church was built after the Ottomans relaxed their policy on requiring churches to be unassuming from the street, either behind a tall wall, or removed back from the street.

         Walking to dinner down İstiklal Caddesi that evening, I understood what he meant, and why my professor said she was finding “new” old churches all the time. Looking down one narrow side street, I saw an Eastern-style church, shorter than the surrounding buildings, removed from the main road, and unassumingly white, with two subtle but distinct crosses on the front. A few chic clothing stores and restaurants down the road, I came to a set of ornate, yet imposing gates and pillars. Peering inside, down a little slope and set back from the road, I saw part of a church built in a distinctive Catholic style, likely to serve the Genoese population that had had a settlement in the area. The pillars and supported wall obstructed my view of the church tower. Down a bit further was a relatively bold show of Christianity, a small statue and cross on the edifice on the street, and then down a set of stairs, more crosses and portrayals on a building.

         Of course, these are only what I saw walking down one street one night. There is so much more in the crevices of Istanbul, and so much more than only Islam and Christianity. I’m told that several neighborhoods supported thriving Jewish communities, and that there is still a presence today. Stepping further back, it’s informative to realize that although the Hagia Sophia is built atop the ruins of two earlier Byzantine churches, the first of these was built atop the ruins of a pagan temple. And while ruins beneath an existing building don’t grab one’s attention, the Medusa heads that I saw earlier that day in the Basilica Cistern (Yerebatan Sarnici) certainly got mine.

         Beautiful domes dot the cityscape, with minarets aspiring toward the sky; but getting on the ground (and below it), and peeling back a layer or two, it is evident that Istanbul’s religious history – and present – is far more complex and heterogeneous than first meets the eye. Yet all of this – what is below ground, what is tucked behind walls and side streets, what is splendidly dotting the hills and the skyline – all of this is part of the collective stories of these people, of this land. That collective story is vital to the social entrepreneur’s understanding of the context of his field; after all, she’s not writing a new book, only trying to affect how the next chapter is written.