Bomb anniversary

Eleven years ago Istanbul experienced appalling events involving bombs. From time to time smallish bombs had gone off, usually with few casualties. However, in November of 2003, four bombs went off that shook the city.

I was living on Luleci Hendek Street at the time. One morning as I was getting ready for work, I heard a big thump and thought that someone living upstairs had dropped something very heavy. I mentally shrugged my shoulders and continued to get ready to leave. From that house I did not go through Galata, as that meant I had to go up a very big hill. Instead, I walked down a hill and over to the tunel so I could ride up and then walk up Istiklal Caddesi. As I walked up towards my office, I saw people standing in front of the Arcelik store looking at the television sets. Even without the sound, it was clear that two bombs had gone off. One was in front of a synagogue in Sisli and one was in front of the synagogue in Galata. I was horrified and then understood what the thump had been. I continued on to work and of course there was a lot of talk about the bombs. The one in Galata had blown a big hole in the street, as well as windows all along the street. Some of the places across from the synagogue had been destroyed, killing the people in them. These included a bakery and a light shop I used to patronize. Those shops and the people in them had been blown apart.

After work I walked to Galata Square and found a very sombre mood. People were upset that their area had been invaded by evil people. No one in the synagogue had been injured, as the place is like a fortress. Fifteen years before that, a man with a rifle had infiltrated the synagogue and killed several people. After that, entrance was very controlled, as it still is. Even Jews have to make an appointment to get in. There was also a back exit so people could escape. It happened that a bar mitzvah was being held when the bomb went off, but everyone got out safely. However, the street was a mess and stayed like that as the police and other security forces came to investigate. Interestingly, Israel sent a crew to help investigate and to counsel those affected. The Israelis that came wore yarmelkes and had full beards and looked very much like haji, the men who make the pilgrimage to Mecca– they also wear knitted caps and full beards.

It turned out that the bombing had been done by Hizbullah or Al Qaeda. It was especially shocking to people in Galata, for historically it has been an area where Jews, Greeks, Levantines, Armenians, and other non-Muslim people had lived for millenia. Galata today is mostly Muslim, like the rest of Turkey, but the people there are probably more open-minded about others because of the history. Local shopkeepers lost their fellow ‘esnaf’, business owners, and of course realized that it could have been them. For a few years afterwards people talked about how they too could have been killed if they had walked down the street five minutes later or if they hadn’t missed the bus or if they hadn’t had something else to do. It was too close for comfort. However, people got out their brooms and started cleaning up and the city got the street fixed fairly quickly, since it was one of the main streets of the area.


Another day soon after this I went to meet my assistant who was coming with me to the studio, as we were making a ‘learn English on video’ set of CDs. We took a taxi to Eyup, up the Golden Horn. The studio we were working in was at Kanal 7, so of course there was news coming in. As we were getting ready to film, someone rushed in to say that there had been a bomb on Istiklal at the mosque (there is only one mosque on Istiklal, which is like Main Street Istanbul). People were very upset even though the details were still not clear. I decided that we would not film that day and Gulin and I left to find our way back to Taksim and our office. We tried to take a taxi but the driver told us that no taxis could get to Taksim. As a foreigner who had been taking tourist friends around, I knew there was a ferry on the Golden Horn, so I had him take us there. We took the ferry as far as Kasimpasa and walked up from there. As we got closer to Galatasaray, we saw glass from blown out windows and groups of policemen running by. Finally we got to our office and could find out more details.

It turned out that someone had driven a food delivery van into the British Consulate and promptly blew it up. The British Consul was killed, along with a few other foreigners, but as usual, a lot of Turks were killed. Although my office was on the 7th floor and faced the consulate about a block away, none of my windows had even cracked and nothing had fallen onto the floor. However, looking out, I could see blasted and broken windows all around. Over the days that followed I could see people struggling to repair their shops and of course the mayor had to come to make his statement (don’t worry, etc etc). Once again people were appalled. The same day the big HSBC building further out in Levent was also bombed. More people were killed, more damage.

day2odakule  day2repair  my pix 393  day2bankwindows2  hsbc  day2mayor3

It was a terrible time in Istanbul. Many people lost loved ones, many shops were damaged or destroyed. However, most people pitched in to help put back the pieces. The city did pretty well and within weeks things began to look and feel normal. At the time I was struck at how the place could indeed return to some semblance of normal, while in neighbouring Iraq, bombs were striking every day and there was little hope of repairing or restoring infrastructure while this was going on.

I myself did not feel afraid or targeted, though of course foreign embassy warned their citizens in Turkey to be vigilant. It was like the earthquake– you were in the right place at the right time or you weren’t. As the Turks say, kismet– fate, destiny. I wish that some people were not such hateful idiots and that we could all live our lives in peace.


Savasi Hayir Lest We Forget

This was written more than 10 years ago and how little we expected things to get so chaotic! Pandora’s box was opened yet again. Still people protest against war, though it seems not as much as before. And wars in the Middle East have proliferated for many reasons, among them rampant fundamentalism and capitlaistic gain. On Nov. 11 we see a lot of “Lest We Forget” reminders, but our human memories are very short and we seem to forget very quickly that war kills people and causes great hardship. Savasi hayir!

March, 2003

Actually, it is savash-a high-er—no war.  That is the tone here.  I thought perhaps some of you were curious about what the deliberations about war mean here, so I will tell you what I understand of it.

turkish flag

A few days ago, after some months of negotiations with the US, the Turkish parliament voted against allowing the US to use Turkish soil to invade Iraq.  It was a very gutsy move, actually, as a lot of issues are connected to it.  For example, the US has been handing out money, or at least promises of money, left right and center.  They offered Turkey billions of dollars in free money and loans, including some money to revamp some military bases in SE Turkey.  That money is already coming in and is being used, though it is not considered war money.  Turkey’s  economy is still suffering from lost revenue due to the Gulf War.  Iraq is on the Turkish border, and it used to be a trading partner.  Turkey is aware that its economy would tank in the event of war, so the government is trying to get what it can without looking like it is being “bought” by the US.  Turkey is in a ticklish position, because it borders Iraq and Iran, among other places, and is a secular country (though 99% Muslim) in a rough neighbourhood.  It is also more prosperous than some of its neighbours, though it is certainly not rich.  People are aware the population of Iraq is Muslim, even though many are Shia, which is a different sect than the majority Sunnis here, sort of like the difference between the Pentecostals and the Episcopalians.  However, the people here express concern for the people in Iraq, because they know a lot of innocent people will die.  Turkey does not want to upset its neighbours.  It also does not want to upset the US, and I think this no, which was totally democratic, and for once went along with the majority of the people, will become a yes in the future. This is the bargaining process. However, at least Turkey made a stand, and that is very admirable.

mid east

There are several complicating matters for Turkey in all this. One concern about the border with Iraq is that it is in the area where there was a lot of strife with the PKK, one of whose aims was to set up an independent Kurdistan in that area, along with Kurds from northern Iraq.  Even now there are Turkish Kurds in Iraq and Iraqi Kurds in Turkey, for various reasons.  Already refugees are starting to trickle into Turkey, another kind of financial and moral burden.  The Kurds in northern Iraq are afraid that Turkey is going to take over that area and Turkey is afraid that that area will try to become a kind of Kurdistan.

11 behind the barrage

There have been quite a few war protests for some months now.  The day that there were protests all around the world, there was a big one here in Taksim.  I did not go to it because I was having house problems.  There have been smaller ones, including one of Kurdish women marching up Istiklal Caddesi in their colourful clothes, along with earnest young students in jeans, chanting “savasi hayir”. At a small protest that I walked by the other day as I was leaving work, there were two busloads of police officers standing on the street in helmets and batons, and a small group of people collected to chant slogans.  People walking by looked with curiosity, but mostly kept on walking. It is starting to get old hat, and, besides, the government had just voted no.

There is not much of a concern for safety here.  One person expressed some fears about chemical weapons reaching here, but that is unlikely, and it is unlikely that Istanbul would be attacked for any reason.  The main fear is the economy, as it has already suffered some jolts in the recent past.  However, I know that everyone, including me, will deal with it, because there is no other alternative.  Turks know how to live cheap, and so do I.  However, it will cause hardship for many people who are already very poor.  A lot of them live in this neighbourhood—they live on anything from $500 to $800 a month, or less.  Already gas has gone up in price, a peace tax, the government called it.  Prices are always going up anyway, but the big fear is that the Lira will drop drastically, like it did a couple of years ago, dropping by 50% literally overnight.

us flag

I don’t have any sense of anti-Americanism, not towards individuals.  Yes, I know I am Canadian, but for most people outside North America, I look American (and what does a Canadian look like, anyway?  Or an American, for that matter?).   People are completely against George Bush, and I certainly agree with them.  He has successfully turned the world against the US and made it a scarier place to live.   He is not respected here.  In contrast, Bill Clinton is spoken of with great respect and affection.  However, now the US is not looked at kindly, but most people seem to make the distinction between the government and the people.  I think they also recognize that many American people do not want the war, and it is mostly perceived that it is Bush and his cronies that want it.


So, a little perspective.  As I sit here at my  laptop in my kitchen, I look out across the Bosporus to the Asian side.  I can see the ancient Chalcedon and the shores where people have lived for more than 3000 years.  A little closer, I can look out at the palace that rises above the Golden Horn and the ancient Byzantine walls.  Over these three millennia, those walls have been attacked by Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Genoese, and Turks, among others.  There have been skirmishes, sieges, and outright wars just across the water from where I live.  There was intrigue in the palace, there was negotiating and fighting.  Somehow it seems different, since it was long ago and then men fought hand to hand.  Now war is even dirtier, with high tech weapons allowing men to kill each other from afar. evetopkapi

In the end, however, life goes on.  I will continue to get up and walk to work along the most famous street in Turkey.  If the war happens, it will be very far from here, though it will affect us all.

My First Rosvet


I have always known that the police (and many other civil workers) take rosvet (roshvet) or bribes, but I have never seen it done.   I knew that traffic police in particular take bribes, but I didn’t know how much the going rate was.  Today I experienced it for myself and it was actually kind of fun.

traffic polis

I had just dropped a friend off and was going along a road I had only gone along once before, so I was driving by the seat of my pants.  I went through a red light on a curve, which I rarely do, but I thought “Burasi Turkiye” (this is Turkey-with a shrug) and kept going.  As I was going up the cobblestone hill a motorcycle passed me, but I didn’t think much of it.  Then I noticed it was two “sahin” (shahin—traffic police), who were gesturing, but I still didn’t pay them much attention—until they pulled up beside me and waved me over.  Gulp.  The one in front very severely told me (in Turkish, of course) that I had gone through a red light and it was very serious and they were going to write me a ticket.  I went into the “not much Turkish” routine, but it was enough to allow me to mostly understand.  He informed me that the ticket was 40+million (about $30).  Huh? Oh, I didn’t know, I didn’t see it, etc.  This was the first time in my life I ever did it, etc.  He asked how much he should write it for, and I said 20 million.  He laughed.  Then he asked for my papers and my license (from Oregon).  Around then I casually asked if he knew my friend Ali C.  This is the sahin I went out with for a while a few years back.  It turned out that they both knew him.  Hmm, that put a different slant on it.  The first cop backed up the motorcycle and said he was going to make a phone call.  I didn’t look to see if he really did, actually, but soon he was back.  How did I know Ali?  Oh, he is the friend of my friend’s husband, they are both from Gaziantep. So, obviously I really did know Ali.  It was better not to say he was my boyfriend.  The cop pulled out his pad to write the ticket and said he wanted 20 million.  I pulled it out with a poor me attitude, and he said (freely translated), “Oh, OK, give me 10 million.”  Then he asked if I wanted anything from him.  Later I wondered if he was offering himself, but I just said, no, thank you very much, and drove off.



So, now I know how to give rosvet.  It is sort of like bargaining for a carpet or for something else.  There is a level at which the bargaining goes on where it is not quite overt.  It is an “I’ll give you this, you give me that” situation that has a politeness and ritual to it.  Having connections—those six degrees of separation—oils the gears, talking around it sometimes keeps it going.  Being direct and to the point right away, if ever, does not work because it is not the way this game is played.  I never asked the policeman directly if he took rosvet—that would be insulting.  I had to assume that he would and give him the opportunity to allow it to happen.  Knowing Ali was certainly an asset, though.  Funny!

Of course there is the ethical issue surrounding giving bribes.  A friend got a speeding ticket near Samsun during the holiday, and didn’t play the rosvet game.  He told the guy to go ahead and write him a ticket, which turned out to be 40 million.  I think he either disapproves of giving rosvet or isn’t good at it.  I know the police don’t make much money (the equivalent of about $300/month when I knew Ali) and if I can pay less on a ticket, I don’t mind.  I know sometimes they stop people for no reason and ask for money, but not in my case.  It’s good to know they also do their job!  Occasionally.  At any rate, it is part of the system and on this level it is ok with me.  Giving someone big bucks to let them avoid prison for a big crime, or something like that is another matter.  This is the equivalent of a white lie (yes, you look great in that), as far as I am concerned.  The coolest thing is that I was able to do it on my own and it worked out fine. Another story for my repertoire, at any rate.


Several people I know don’t like the bargaining ritual, partly because they are not good at it.  You have to tune into the other person and often culture gets in the way of that. If the personalities don’t match, it won’t work well.  And if you don’t try it out and practice it, it won’t work well either.  I feel that I have had lots of practice the last few years and I am getting better at it.  I am more comfortable with it and know better how to do it.  This experience with the sahin reinforced that.


The pink and grey brick road

April 2004

Bad roads follow me.  There was the muddy cliff road in Tarabya, under construction for 10 months.  Then there was the newly bricked road on Luleci Hendek St.  Now my street and the ones around it are being bricked.


However, now that I can lean out my front window and watch closely, it is an interesting process to watch.  I was shocked to come home one evening, the day before a party I was giving at my house, to find my whole block with the asphalt jack-hammered up.  Now, my whole street is only a block long, so it is sort of a microcosm of the big street bricking that is going on in the ‘hood.

The day after they chewed up the asphalt, a front-loader came to load it into trucks, which would presumably take it for landfill or recycling.  It smoothed out the road bed a bit, unearthing a few old bricks from previous roads.  In fact, you can tell that the roads are old, because many basement windows are actually sub-basements now. This is yet another level of probably hundreds, since this area has been occupied for more than 2000 years.

So, after the asphalt was hauled off, trucks brought big gravel and sand.  Those were dumped and smoothed over.  The front-loader actually did a lot of things, and it was very interesting to watch how delicately it could move earth around.  Once the roadbed was fairly smooth, bricks were delivered.

street woman two

The bricks are grey and pink.  The roads are laid with interlocking diamonds of these colours.  However, first the gutter bricks are laid, following a string that the architect has directed.  Sometimes the road is dug up right to the brick of the buildings on it.  This means that they were also building sidewalks.  They didn’t build parking spots—in fact my street lost the few it had.  On my street they also took out a chunk of the small fenced park, so now it is about 3 meters sort of square, actually heart-shaped, a surprising little piece of green in these small back streets.

christmas tree 2

Once the bricks were laid between the gutter bricks and along the sidewalk, the finishers came.  They dug up some bricks in a square. Squared off special bricks were laid to make the square, and then one man came to dig a hole.  These were planted with trees.  Another man  laid rounded bricks along some buildings and also made steps.  He smoothed the sand and laid the bricks, and then cemented them together.

This was all accomplished  with much brute labour.  Men used shovels to help smooth the gravel and sand and to dig it out from where it shouldn’t be.  They laid the bricks on their hand and knees.  Some of them started out wearing rubber gloves, so the sidewalk was littered with rubber gloves that were worn through.  As a result, they continued barehanded.  Some men were assigned to filling up wheelbarrows with bricks from the pile that was dumped.  Later they went to where there were random piles of bricks and found whole bricks to be used further down the street.  These men worked from about 7:30 or 8:00 in the morning until late at night.  The jackhammer was going until 10:30 or 11:00 at night, and some of the bricking went on all night.  These streets are used a lot, and time is of the essence.

Most of the store owners were pleased with these new roads.  They are more attractive and invite walkers.  Word is that one day these roads will actually be closed to traffic, except for deliveries at certain times.  Soon the subway will open and even more walkers will come to this old tourist area, my neighbourhood.  All they have to do is follow the pink and grey brick road.

Once again I went to the library and stocked up on more books. Of the four I returned, I did not read one, as it looked like it was going to be a somewhat hard, depressing read. Nope, don’t need that. When I brought this latest batch home, I was thinking how starting a new book is like plunging into a river. Is it going to be cold? Will it carry me away? Will I enjoy it? How is the scenery? Some books have illustrations, like the Leacock book I just read. Do those illustrations match my imagination? Do they detract from the book? Is the writer trying too hard to be artsy? Does the story flow well? Am I entranced by it, surprised by it? As you can see, I have a lot of expectations and questions as I jump in. in fact, the library books have a last page with stamps on it for people to express brief opinions– good, bad, so-so. I haven’t expressed mine there– I save it for here.


Some people are switching to Kindles, Koodos, and other electronic reading devices. I am not one. I like feeling the heft of a book, turning the page as I predict the next word and the next sentence, the next idea. I can look ahead to see how many pages remain before the chapter ends. I have a variety of bookmarks so I can see where I am in the book. I like the feel and smell of books and I like the covers. Especially old books have an association with other readers.

coffee trader

So, from the last batch, I read The Coffee Trader by David Liss. Truthfully it kind of dragged, but at the same time it was interesting to read about the Jews in Amsterdam at the time of the Inquisition. The protagonist, Miguel, was a converso from Portugal. He was living in his brother’s basement because he had lost his money in a deal gone sour. The story was about his attempts to make money on coffee trades, a new market, and various characters who helped or hindered him. I think the book would be more interesting to someone who does business and the story did not move very quickly.

willful behavior

Yesterday I chose one book at random and gobbled it up. This was Willful Behavior by Donna Leon. She write mysteries set in Venice. I had heard of her when another mystery writer, Barbara Nadal, did a reading in my cafe. Someone there commented on how some writers did that, setting their stories in a certain location. I would say that Leon is the better writer, but then I read Nadal’s books with a very critical eye, since I knew Turks and Turkey. At any rate, the story revolved around a young woman who had been inquiring about how to get someone pardoned posthumously. It turned out that her grandfather was an agent who bought art at very low prices from people who were trying to flee Italy during the Mussolini regime. There were comments by various people about the current Italian amnesia about those times and the lingering effects. Guido Brunetti was the policeman who investigated the girl’s death and this investigation had him meeting the girl’s ‘grandmother’ who had been in love with the grandfather and now in her 80s lived in poverty in the midst of priceless art. This was a very good story that moved well in an interesting setting.

cleoptras sister

Another book that I got was Cleopatra’s Sister by Penelope Lively. In fact, this sister was a very small and part of this story. The first part of the book was developing the characters, which I found very brittle. It also developed the story of Callimbia, a nonexistent country between Egypt and Libya, which puts it as part of Tunisia. I found some of the descriptions rather stereotypically wrong. In addition, from time to time there were small sections in italic that seemed to be rather incongruous and did not add to the story at all. The second part of the story was more interesting, as the two characters happened to be on a plane to Nairobi which was diverted to the capital of Callimbia. This part had more action, including the two characters falling in love with other. All of the British travellers were basically imprisoned, first in a barracks and then in a former convent. Along the way they met the current leader of the country, whose mother was British, and who was a fat somewhat mad dictator. Of course all’s well that ends well and the two characters are returned to England, where we assume they went on with their lives. I almost abandoned this book, but I did get sucked into the second section, which had more action. It was a mediocre read, all things considered.

fakir wardrobe

A rather silly read that I enjoyed was The Extraordinary Journey of the Fakir Who Got Trapped in an Ikea Wardrobe by Romain Puertolas. The hero was a fake fakir who had been sent by his village to Ikea in France to buy a new bed of nails (called Hertsyorbak). First he rips off the taxi driver with a fake euro note, which causes said taxi driver, a gypsy, to come after him. Then because he has no money he decides to sleep in the store. He hears people coming, so he hides in a wardrobe and then the adventure begins. He is shipped to the UK, meets some African refugees en route, sent to Spain, where he encounter the taxi driver and family, to Italy, to Libya, and back to France on his own, where he reconnects with the woman he met in the Ikea cafeteria. It is an improbably story, but at the same time, it offers sympathy for many people, most of all the refugees. Some of the word plays were a little tiresome, but mostly it was great fun to read.