“I don’t believe in nations, I believe in geography”

IMG_0283Today we headed to SALT Beyoğlu, a beautiful and contemporary art center in Taksim, İstanbul. We journeyed up to the top floor and entered into a serene and lush greenhouse. Who knew that such a place could exist directly above the chaotic foot traffic of İstiklal Street! We were greeted by Defne Koryürek who runs a Slow Food convivium in İstanbul. Slow Food is an international movement whose mission is to counteract the dependence on fast food and to bring awareness to local, clean, and fair food practices. After introducing herself, she explained that Slow Food was a “movement” rather than an organization, because there is no hierarchy and people are able to work autonomously on local initiatives. To her, a bottom-up approach is highly important for addressing social changes, especially those that relate to the environment. One of her convivium’s main initiatives has been to bring awareness to the overfishing of lüfer (bluefish) in the Bosphorus.

Defne told us, “I don’t believe in nations, I believe in geography.” I found this to be an interesting comment because when thinking about global spaces, I naturally organize them by nation. When looking at a social problem such as the depletion of lüfer, the issue involves a specific community made up of people from different countries. While the community may involve many Turkish people living in İstanbul, the problem is not very related to people living in other parts of Turkey. While I think that nations are important for generally organizing geographic spaces, Defne allowed me to question whether we sometimes view these borders too literally. These abstract lines become so ingrained into the process of dealing with issues, that it is often difficult to take a step back and think reflexivity about the system itself. This reflexive thinking is very important for social innovation because it allows an individual to think critically about what is in place and how it can be modified.

Defne mentioned that bottom-up and small-scale approaches are particularly important for Turkey. She explained that, to her, “Turkey is still a third world country” because rules are not followed, and thus changing them does not matter. I found this to be an interesting remark. Regardless of whether this is true or not, it has influenced the way what Defne has addressed the lüfer. Her convivium established a lüfer festival, which entailed a fishing competition to see who could catch the biggest lüfer. She explained that an event like this, engages the community and spreads awareness about the proper keeping sizes for the fish. Attendees are able to celebrate the cultural significance of lüfer and develop a personal connection to fishing regulations. When addressing social problems, change makers must understand the cultural context of the space with which they are working. If Defne focused on addressing this issue through solely government policy, she would be ignoring the cultural norm of rule ignorance, which she feels exists. Defne’s unique perspective was very thought provoking for all of us. Her ideas reminded me of the importance of reflexive thinking for social innovation.

Cansu generously invited us to her house for dinner tonight. We took the ferry over to the Asian side and had a wonderful dinner with Cansu’s mother and sister. We all enjoyed hearing about her family history while eating delicious food!

Juxtaposition between Bebek & Balat

photoOn Tuesday (06.03.2014) we were assigned to go to the field and explore Bebek and Balat. As a Turkish girl, I already had expectations in my mind about both places. In Bebek I was expecting to see luxurious restaurants, fancy cars, and well-dressed people in addition to people who jog on the boardwalk. Several months ago I watched a movie called ”Bir Küçük Eylül Meselesi” and the main actress’ well-being was represented with the setting in which there is a very popular restaurant Lucca, a sports car in front of it and  a good-looking, chic woman. Actually my expectation about Bebek was no different than that, but after a while, I found out that I was mistaken. After seeing the ”bright side” of Bebek, I got involved in three conversations with local people who are street vendors. The first man was a simit seller and he told me that he was not happy with new Bebek all the restaurants, bars, and fancy cars in it and he continued saying that there are only five or ten people in Bebek who are originally from Bebek. According to him, people are here just to show their wealth and as far as I understood from this speech he thinks that people behave here just like they are on a catwalk. The second man was an ice cream seller. He had a small store and he told me that he is really content with the population in Bebek and the crowd that makes him earn much more than before, so even though there were twenty inches between the two sellers, they had totally different opinions. The last man, a flower seller, was the one who complained the most about Bebek and told me that people are no longer noble and generous like before.  They will pay $50 for a hamburger menu but won’t even buy a bouquet of flowers for $5. Additionally, he mentioned also about not making money like ten, fifteen years, so also according to him people choose this place just to pose and impress the crowd or just the person they’re with.  It was actually not the thing I was expecting before coming to Bebek, because I have never been into the other side, which is the side of the street vendors. Two vendors showed me how this life affected them in a bad way and how depressing their situation was because there is a huge wage and class differential  between those who want to make money and compete with the restaurants or other luxurious places. These short interviews showed me how  a municipality can actually be a heterogeneous place because when people talk about Bebek, the first thing comes to people’s mind is wealth and welfare. In reality, it is not applicable for everyone.

Afterwards we went to Balat, which is also near the sea, and had our lunch there. During our lunch we had a conversation with the owner of the restaurant who is 85 years old. He told us his story. And this was the thing I don’t think we can experience in restaurants in Bebek because usually everyone is in a hurry.  They just  do their jobs and don’t even get involved in conversation because time is money.  After having lunch we went to Çarşamba, where Greek Orthodox churches and mosques are located.  Actually, this neighborhood is known for its residents’ religiosity and there I had a chance to interview two men with one of my friends. In the first conversation the man didn’t even look at my face. He talked to my guy friend and I wanted him to acknowledge me and wished that I worn something much more modest. Even though I felt that I didn’t belong to this life style, what I experienced there was real. I didn’t feel like I was surrounded by catwalk models and fancy cars. After this trip, I came up with the idea that the West’s definition of the East can’t be applicable to every land because even in Istanbul people’s way of living, dressing are completely different from each other. We can’t base our definitions on stereotypes which are extremely biased. And you can only recognize the biases by being there.



Social Entrepeneurship 101

Ashoka meetingMonday truly felt like the beginning of our experience here in İstanbul. The first few days were sort of like a hazy dream, from being the guests of the Nilüfer Belediyesi to peeking into the lives of the bustling İstanbul intelligentsia. Monday’s meetings covered topics that directly related to the backbone of this course, the social entrepreneurship component. A lot of what we saw over the weekend was a cultural introduction to Turkey, but what we saw today was a little more specific and tangible, it was an introduction to what we’re going to see over the course of the next few weeks.
First we talked to Nick from Ashoka at the Grand London Hotel, with a beautiful view over the Golden Horn. We learned about a number of different social entrepreneurs in Turkey that are Ashoka fellows and got an initial indication about what we are going to see during our trip. It was an exciting foreshadowing to the rest of our trip as Nick remarked that we were meeting with very interesting people and headed to beautiful places. After this meeting we headed to Kadir Has University across the Golden Horn. There we met with Levent Soysal, the head of the İstanbul Studies Center. He made us more familiar with the city and explained the different developments that are taking place in İstanbul over the next few years and how the city is changing. He also delved into how the city perceives itself and what categories it fits within, either designated by itself, or by others. This prepared us for our next day around town when we were able to map the changes around the city by visiting two very different neighborhoods, Bebek and Balat.



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


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.


Gezi’de gezdik!


police picnic

May 31st – Day 3

Up early and back to Istanbul! After a wonderful exhibition on the Gezi Protest in Bursa, we boarded a ferry back to Istanbul, as Cansu carefully monitored which roads and bridges would be blocked. Word on the street was that the police would preemptively block any travel into Taksim in order to stop any potential anniversary based protesting. By the time we reached Taksim, it was apparent that we would not be able to stay in our hostel- so we decided to hunker down in Lisa’s apartment instead. But, half of us needed to go back to our hostel to pick up extra clothes and toiletries. In order to do that, we had to cross through Taksim, which had an estimated 25,000 policemen.*Cue Mission Impossible theme song* Looking as tourisit-y as possible, Lisa talked our way into Taksim. Soon enough we were exactly where a CNN reporter had been forcibly taken for questioning by the police. Being naïve, I took a few pictures (below), before realizing that 25,000 police were staring back at me- the very same police who assaulted and killed protestors one year prior. I’ll remember this experience for the rest of my life.

Finally, we returned with our belongings to Lisa’s apartment. With the Turkish news playing in the background, we prepped for dinner. The five of us gathered around the dinner table for a quick lesson on how to make köfte, and tried our hand at preparing a traditional Turkish meal. Meanwhile, Cansu made Turkish coffee. We sipped down our drinks as fast as we could so that Cansu could tell our fortunes with the coffee grounds. I’m trying not to jinx anything, but my future is looking pretty bright here in Turkey! J

Attila arranged for a dinner party of friends and family for the night, so the apartment was buzzing with life as we dug into our köfte, rice, and salad. At all corners of the house, we engaged in discussions about politics, American foreign relations, music, and art. We challenged each other in our views, especially concerning Orientalism. Finally, I was able to recall and use my opinions on Edward Said in a constructive way! Our Turkish friends were very aware of American politics, but I knew very little about Turkish politics- hegemony at its best! We talked for hours and hours…(until 3 am)…but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. If this is the Turkish way, I am so happy to be a part of it!

<3s and love,



Bu Daha Başlangıç

We have arrived in Turkey! After a delicious meal in İstanbul last night, we headed to Bursa this morning to attend an art exhibit called “Bu Daha Başlangıç”, which translates to “This is Just the Beginning”. Attila is the curator of the exhibit, and I was very excited to not only meet him, but attend this excited event as well. The exhibit featured photographs by Kemal Aslan that were taken of the Gezi Protest last year. Today is the one year anniversary of the protest; however, many have said that they do not call it the “anniversary” because the word indicates that the movement has ended.

Before the event, we stopped by the “Koza Han” silk market. This was originally a part of the Silk Road and is currently home to smalls shops that are filled with beautiful scarves, and pillow cases. The colorful rows of brightly colored silk, peaceful sounds of ezan (the call for prayer), and reoccurring images of Ataturk remind me that I am not longer in the United States.

The “Bu Daha Başlangıç” exhibit was filled with a range of different people, many of whom attended the Gezi Protest last year. The emotion of each photograph took down all language barriers. The photographs captured the pain of tear-gassed victims crouching in the street, the aggression of fully equipped police men, and the bravery of teenagers who peaceful face armed forces. The determination and importance of this movement amongst the people becomes powerfully transparent. The exhibit made me realize the effectiveness of photography as a medium of exchange for both knowledge and emotion. Part of social innovation requires the ability to communicate an initiative or mentality to a larger audience. When dealing with language barriers, photography provides a platformfor people to engage regardless of whatever language they speak.

After the exhibit, we attended a dinner with Kemal Aslan and many individuals who are connected with “Bu Daha Baslangic”. The dinner was hosted by the Nilüfer Municipality. I sat across from a man who described himself as a social media expert for an activist organization. As we ate a delicious meal, I listened to his experience at Gezi last year. He told me about his persistent frustrations which the national government and the Adelet ve Kalkinma Partisi (AKP). The AKP is an Islamist party that is currently ruling a secular state. The man feels that the government only listens to the demands of a specific population demographic and that many feel as though their needs and beliefs are never considered. Gezi is a part of a much larger and ongoing movement for a secular Turkey.  As was start our one-month jounrey, I am facisinated to see how this movement is impacting other parts of the country.

After one day in Turkey, I already know that this trip is going to be powerfully informative and emotionally inspiring!