The Cairo-Istanbul connection

Cairo is so hot right now. Three of my coworkers have taken vacation there in the last month, as has Jennie, one of my fellow-sufferers in Hakan‘s Turkish classes (yes, I fulfilled my New Year’s resolution to resume Turkish classes with my favorite quintolingual chainsmoker). And of course Kate was there in the fall, stealing the hearts of merchants and taking sublime pictures (scroll down for Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan), as she is wont to do.

The review from these highly respected sources runs something like Samuel Johnson’s assessment of Paradise Lost: ‘it is one of those books the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. No one ever wished it longer than it is.’

Cairo is one of the great cities of history, and the pyramids, like PL, deserve a chance to cast their spell on you. But no one I know seems to want to go back to Cairo. It is disorganised, overrun, filthy. In Kate’s words:

‘I felt cramped, claustrophobic, uncomfortable [in the Egyptian Museum]. In fact, this is how most of Cairo made me feel. It drew many similarities to feelings and experiences I had in Damascus. The same dirty grittiness of that comes from thousands of years of inhabitance. The same overwhelming numbers crowding streets and buses. You could feel the oppressiveness of the poverty. You could see the differentiation between wealth and the lack of it. You could taste the pollution; the smog hangs over the city like a hot summer haze.’

I visited Cairo in 1998, when I was gripped by an Egyptomania so severe I taught myself how to read hieroglyphs. My family fondly remembers how I would correct our clueless guide, Hani, when he botched the stories behind my favorite temples and archaeological sites.

For my part, I have blocked this aspect of my childhood – obnoxious smartassery – from my memory. What I do remember, though, is disappearing into the upper reaches of the bazaar with my brother Edward one day and being offered a fistful of marijuana for about $5. Even in my childhood innocence I could tell that was a good deal (we didn’t take it).

Cairo’s bazaar was the thing that bothered my friends the most. The constant heckling, fear of bag snatchers, and wildly inflated prices do not make for a relaxing vacation. Jennie, who returned last week, had plenty of horror stories about the street scene, and shared some during one of Hakan’s smoke breaks.

‘Cairo,’ she concluded, ‘makes Istanbul feel as clean and orderly as Copenhagen.’

Petri, a forty-something Dutch businessman who recently joined our class, shook his head. ‘If you could have seen Istanbul when I first came here in 1988! It made Cairo look – well, not clean and orderly, but – I suppose cosmopolitan. You couldn’t walk a foot in Istanbul with your wallet hanging out of your pocket. You couldn’t see the other side of the street for all the smoke. And the hecklers would loop their fingers through your belt loops until you bought something from them.’

I was surprised to hear this. I know Istanbul has gone through significant changes over the last 20-30 years: take, for example, the fact that the population has gone from 2 million to 20 million. But to my mind the Istanbul of 1988 was a relative backwater, a faded ghost town when compared to its past and future vitality. What, I wondered aloud, changed between then and now to make Istanbul the relatively clean, European city it is today? Was there some mayor who cleaned up the streets, Giuliani-style, locking up the crazies and making the peddlers buy permits?

‘It’s much simpler than that,’ said Hakan. ‘People got richer.’

Could it be that straightforward? True, Istanbul’s population boom corresponded with a massive increase in Turkey’s wealth: inflation-adjusted GDP grew from $90 billion to $270 billion in the ten years between 1988 and 1998, and to $734 billion by 2008, according to the World Bank. The structure of the economy changed as well, with more than 15% of the workforce shifting from blue-collar jobs in agriculture and manufacturing to white-collar service jobs.

Yet the World Bank statistics never take into account the black market, which in Turkey is generally estimated to account for 20-25% of all economic activity. Nor does it seem likely that all of Istanbul’s 18 million new residents have managed to find jobs more lucrative than begging, petty theft, and selling fake sunglasses. But take a walk down any street outside of Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s touristy center, and you’ll realize something must have worked. You’re more likely to be heckled in Harvard Square than on Istiklal Cd, Istanbul’s main shopping and nightlife artery.

Reason No. 25601 I’m glad I moved to Istanbul: it doesn’t fit the models I’m used to, and so is constantly intriguing. Reason No. 25602: I have too many pairs of fake Ray-Bans already.

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Hipsters, Conservatives, Defaulters (and anarchists!)

For someone who’s spent most of her spare time over the last five years traveling like a penniless bum, I’m very poorly read in the travel classics. I only recently got to Kerouac’s On the Road, that dated instruction manual for the would-be hipster. I liked it, I guess – who doesn’t like the escapism provided by reading about people more dissolute than you will ever be? – but it doesn’t make me long for America. The Road through Denver, New Orleans, New York, and Frisco sounds dull and sordid. Reading about how drunk they all are makes my head hurt. And the diet of apple pie and cheese sounds even less healthy than my current menu of kebabs and dark chocolate.

One thing I have been missing, however, is The Road. There’s just something about a change in the air and having everything I need in a backpack that I find intoxicating. It’s possible to get too much of it – I’d say I was drunk by the Ukraine and nursed my hangover for much of the beginning of my time in Istanbul – but the trip home for Thanksgiving was the equivalent of ibuprofen and a good night’s sleep. I’m ready to start drinking again.

That, and the pollution in Istanbul is getting to me. Artistic wealth, generous inhabitants, and baklava this city has in spades, but emissions controls not so much. My brother Robert is visiting and we spent much of Saturday walking through unexplored neighborhoods and hiking along the top of the 4th century Theodosian walls (the picture to the right is me talking to a dog in the slum next to the northern end of the city walls). Being able to wander aimlessly through centuries of history in a tank top in the middle of winter is a luxury I wouldn’t have even dreamed of in my four years of purgatory in freezing Cambridge. But, greedy as always, I would love to be able to spend the day outside and not feel like I smoked a pack of car-exhaust-flavored cigarettes at the end of it.
And so Saturday night Robert and I caught a bus to Edirne. The city was once the capital of the Ottoman Empire, the base from which Mehmet the Conqueror sent his army to take Constantinople in 1453. Today it is best known for being the border station to Greece and Bulgaria. Oh, and the annual oil-wrestling contests in which mostly naked men cover themselves in olive oil and grope each other. In the words of a friend who went last summer, ‘it’s like the WWF with lube and less clothing.’

The city that most travelers miss – because they are on their way to Istanbul or watching obese oily men perform their homoerotic ballet – has a lot to offer by day and not much by night. I’m taking the word of our hosts Batu and Mutlu (via Couchsurfing, once again) on the night part: there is only one club worth going to, they say, and even that is only really good because you can stop at this sweet kebab stand on your way out. We went. The club walls were covered in fake antiquities. Actually, given the archaeological wealth of this country, they may well have been real. As Eddie Izzard would say, ‘there’re a lot of them about…

By day, there are sublimely beautiful mosques to visit, immaculate streets bordered by crumbling houses to meander, and innumerable tea houses to sit at and discuss the future of Turkey. As a border city, it should come as no surprise that the West, and Turkey’s relation to it, dominates the conversation.

The general consensus among the Turks I’ve talked to is that the EU accession process is good for the country. Regardless of whether or not Turkey joins the EU, the process is stimulating reforms that have been a long time coming, such as a revision of the civil code to allow women to work without their spouse’s consent (passed in 2001) and reducing (though not eliminating) the amount of jail time you may serve for ‘insulting Turkishness’ (2002).

Mutlu, whose name translates as Happy, isn’t as overly enamored with Westernization as many of the Istanbullians I know. I imagine he appreciates the above reforms – we didn’t discuss them – but he thinks that Turkey is held back by the IMF debt it accumulated in 2001. Turkey can’t advance, he says, when it doesn’t have the money to invest in major projects. Turkey’s brave new future can only come about when it stands up to the Western institutions telling it how to spend its money. Presumably by defaulting on its debt.

As a fiscal conservative who relies on a sound financial system, I am obliged to say this is a horrible idea. A pragmatist, however, might say Mutlu’s take isn’t altogether crazy. Argentina, after all, massively defaulted on its IMF debt in 2001 – and then enjoyed an internally-financed growth rate of 8% a year from 2003 to 2007. Turkey’s GDP growth in the same period has hovered around 3% a year. A recent article in the NYT argues that ‘strategic default’ (granted, for homeowners, not countries) is beneficial not only for the defaulters, but for the economic system as a whole, because it encourages more strategic bartering.

It isn’t obvious to my brother, who has now been in Turkey for six days, that Turkey is a poor country. ‘This is confusing,’ he said as we walked through one of Istanbul’s lavish malls on Christmas day. ‘Isn’t this a developing country?’ The bus to Edirne, he noted, had better service than planes in America. A walk through some of Istanbul’s slums on Saturday might have tarnished the impression he was getting of Turkey if it hadn’t been the kind of rare gorgeous day that can make life in an uninsulated shack seem refreshingly simple, a la Walden Pond. Thoreau could have set up shop here, I found myself thinking, when we found a mattress inside one of the old watch-towers on the city walls.

I hardly have more cred than my brother when it comes to getting to know Turkey’s gritty side. The brushes with protestors around the IMF/WB meeting (‘A Tale of Two Tuesdays (and anarchists)’) were dramatic, to be sure, but it’s not the kind of stuff that happens every day. I live in chic Cihangir, the traditional haunt of journalists and gentrified artists. The closest I’ve come to Istanbul’s underbelly is a few tranny sightings on Istiklal Caddesi, the modern city’s main drag, and the uncannily perceptive photographs of Sevket Sahintas.

A major factor in my lack of social conscience is my continuing unmastery of the Turkish language. Therefore, in the spirit of this time of year, I am making my first New Year’s Resolutions since 2002: I will learn Turkish, and I will get off the familiar paths I’ve already carved through this city.

To that end, I just emailed Hakan to see if I can enroll in evening courses for January. If I’m going to learn this language and this country, I figure I might as well do it with a chain-smoking anarchist.

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A Tale of Two Tuesdays (and anarchists)

Charlemagne once said that to learn another language is to have another soul. If the man speaks the truth, I am on a quest for my fifth soul: I started Turkish classes the Tuesday after I arrived.

Pinching pennies as always, I passed on the highly recommended but expensive language school that most foreigners attend and found a discount program taught out of a teacher’s apartment. Hakan, said teacher, is a wiry-haired anarchist who speaks fluent Russian, Arabic, Turkish, English, and Hebrew. He has absurdly wide nostrils – the phrase ‘cocaine pipes’ comes to mind – and doesn’t seem to own anything that’s not black.

The one other student in the class was a Nigerian man who entered Turkey for ‘a conference’ and never intends to leave. After five minutes of Hakan and me trying and failing to pronounce his name, he said that we could call him Nibs (an odd choice, but at least it wasn’t Icemen). Hakan took great pleasure in telling Nibs how to get a job and a visa under the table. He also took great pleasure in teaching us when he felt like taking a break from chain smoking. After the two day free trial I decided this was not the best use of my time and threw my hat to the wind.

The proverbial hat landed at the steps of CNN’s closet-sized bureau in Istanbul, and so suddenly I have become an aspiring reporter. A disgruntled student with an uncomfortable shoe gave me my first clip by throwing said shoe at Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF. But things began to get really exciting on my third Tuesday in Istanbul.

We spent the morning at the annual meeting of the IMF-World Bank conference, which was remarkable most for its complete lack of inspiration. Most of the work of the conference – keeping the pockets of G7 bankers lined, disenfranchising the poor – had been done behind closed doors in committees and seminars over the weekend. Tuesday and Wednesday were for the press and the public.

As we unpacked the camera gear I noticed the cameraman had packed a gas mask. Fat chance we’ll be using this, I remember thinking. We were in a vast conference center protected by a thousands of policemen. They barely let me in the place, even with press accreditation. No shoe-throwing dissidents were going to spoil this party.

Not long after we arrived, I got an email from one of my new friends, a former (?) anarchist turned international lawyer. It was a forward from another anarchist, calling for people to ‘make the streets of Istanbul miserable for the people who make our lives miserable.’ The action was supposed to begin at 10am. We were doing live shots until noon.

Noon came and we went. I was partially right: no shoe-throwers were getting anywhere close to the conference center. They were being blasted by water cannons mounted on Armored Personnel Carriers on the street outside. But I was wrong about not needed the gas mask.

We left the conference around noon and made our way towards Taksim, the heart of modern Istanbul. The maze of ancient streets that radiate from Taksim square are perfect for two things: touristy aimless wandering and playing cat-and-mouse with cops who want to stop you from vandalizing shops and creating general mayhem.

 It wasn’t hard to figure out where to go. We either followed cops or gravitated towards the spots where lots of police helicopters were buzzing overhead. Protesters wearing scarfs over their face threw rocks through shop windows and at the cops, and the cops returned fire with tear gas and water cannons.

My brother has always claimed that you can go anywhere if you look like you know where you’re going. I did not expect this to apply to walking into the middle of a cop-protester skirmish, but our cameraman strapped on his gas mask and walked straight through the police line. I followed.

It turns out inhaling tear gas kind of feels like having strep throat. Reflexively, you start crying, which then psychosomatically leads you to panic, and all you can think of is stopping whatever mischief you are up to and running away. Thankfully, the sensation passes after a few minutes, and quicker if you squeeze lemon juice into your eyes. The correspondent, cameraman, and camera intern were hit much worse than me, and if my internet connection were faster I would link to the footage we shot that was briefly the top hit on CNN.com… I leave that to the more enterprising to Google (and if you feel like posting the link below, that would be great). UPDATE: Here it is!

Who knows what the next two Tuesdays will bring?

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