Istanbul: Contrasts and Contradictions July 1998

Every day on the bus I look out the window and I am never bored.  I see a lot of things that make me scratch my head and see the contradictions of a city that is both ancient and modern, developed and underdeveloped.

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domushes by the old walls

First, there is transportation.  The roads in Istanbul are clogged with all sorts of vehicles.  The freeways are packed with new Mercedes Benzes, Fiats, Renaults, and Turkish-made cars.  Recently I even saw a new Lincoln. Among these new status symbols are battered Ladas, old Fords, and even some ancient American cars.  Motorcycles sometimes zip between the cars.  Of course there are large trucks (except at rush hours, when they are banned), large busses, the red and blue city busses, the green double-decker busses, the small yellow dolmushes, and the short busses. On the slower roads (though occasionally on the busy roads) the poor folks, usually gypsies, trot or amble along with their horse and carts (of course it is the horses that are trotting or ambling, not the gypsies!).  The horses look fairly well fed but the carts are pretty beat up.  Often they (the carts) are full of scavenged goods.  Everywhere the yellow taxis drive quickly through the traffic, always on the lookout for fares.  It seems that every driver of every vehicle is beeping his horn, so the cacophony is intense on the busy roads.
Garbage is another topic.  There is garbage everywhere, as people have no compunction about tossing out their wrappers or empty bottles wherever they happen to be. On windy days empty plastic sacks fly in the wind like untethered kites.  In the older parts of Istanbul there are no dumpsters; people just throw their garbage bags in a pile in the street.  The cats love it.  It is picked up periodically by the city garbage service. There is very little in the way of organized recycling here, although there are some places where there are repositories for clear and coloured glass.  The way things get recycled is the scavengers’ systems.  They go through the garbage, filling up large plastic-weave bags with cardboard, pop cans, larger pieces of plastic, and whatever else they find that might possibly be useful or saleable.  There are also men who push a cart down the street calling for junk, which people are glad to give them– broken chairs, ruined vacuum cleaners, parts of lamps, pieces of metal.  Certainly construction materials are not recycled, and in fact the piles might sit there for years.  Turkey could probably cut down a great on unemployment if it hired all of the uneducated manual labourers who come in from Anatolia to pick up the trash that is all over the city.img599 - Copy
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Then there is the greenery of  Istanbul.  For example, sunflowers grow wild in the medians of the highways out where we live.  People eat sunflower seeds and spit the husks on the ground, so of course sometimes there are seeds that get spread that way too.  Here in Sirinevler, which is totally
urban with very little greenery, a solitary sunflower is growing in some dirt by the sidewalk, and someone has even propped it up with a stick.  On the way to Buyukcekmece the other day I was delighted to see great fields of yellow sunflowers with their faces turned towards the sun.  Even ugly apartment balconies and small patches of yard might have roses or other plants growing in them.  The petrol office across the freeway has some particularly beautiful roses growing in its ugly yard.  Vines or ivy might be trained up a squalid apartment building or over a tumbledown shack.  Fig trees, maples, or oaks might shade the same buildings.  On one of the apartment buildings in our neighbourhood there is a four-story tall trumpet flower vine with huge orange flowers on it.  Elsewhere in Istanbul there are incredibly beautiful manicured gardens and parks for nicer apartments or for the public. In addition, offices of all kinds, from dingy dumps to sophisticated places, are often decorated with many plants.
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Construction is interesting too.  Recently the concrete under my chair had to be repaired because my chair had worn a hole in it.  I was appalled at what I saw under the carpet– a sandy hole that was easily enlarged with a mallet.  The hole was filled and the new concrete promptly cracked.  They just covered it up with the carpet.  There were also wires for the phones and the electricity, with wires twisted together but not covered up.  This is very common– the “lick and a promise” approach seems to be the rule of thumb here.  On the other hand, we can go to places such as SultanAhmet, where the ancient stones of Roman or Byzantine ruins are left as decoration
in parks. The ancient aqueducts and protective walls still stand in the city, signs of older times.  They were built to last, with no promises.
People provide contradictions too.  Turks are generally polite and very honest.  The men are chivalrous towards women, and the women take care of their men.  However, it is well known that many Turks do not pay their taxes, bribery or graft is rampant, and of course there are thieves on the streets and the trains.  The thieves who are caught and thrown into prison, though, are the lowest of the low, while murderers are higher in the pecking order because they are usually there for crimes of honour or passion.  Men are very manly, but they love their children.  It is very common to see men carrying their babies or small children, kissing them, or talking with them. People make time for their children and are attentive to them.  But there are also street kids, who hawk tissue or other small items or who are scavengers or beggars.
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Turkey is an ancient place, but there seem to be more young people than old people here.  I have not seen much grey hair, but I have seen a lot of young folks.  Even managers’ jobs are taken by young people in their twenties or early thirties, rather than middle-aged people.  There is an old culture here, which Turks are justifiably proud of.  Men will dance traditional dances, hands on each other’s shoulders, at the drop of a hat, and women do things pretty much the way they have been done for literally ages.  At the same time, every other person here in Istanbul seems to have a cell phone, satellite dishes sprout up on apartment buildings, and there are many cyber cafes.  The textile industry churns out blue jeans and shoes for especially the young people, who wear them to discos where they can dance to American and European music, as well as new and old Turkish music.

The “inshallah” approach is one aspect of Turkey that is hard for North Americans to adjust to.  For example, I see a lot of people who have physical disabilities that could be cured by surgery, but many people feel that God willed these, so they work around them or take them in stride, so to speak.  As far as business goes, often people make promises that they mean at the time, but which may not actually come to fruition.  Then there are many situations where things change quickly with no warning.  The key to doing things here is being very flexible, as well as having deep pockets.

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Friends are very important here.  Friends can be made very quickly, too. Where we may distinguish between friends and acquaintances, that does not seem to be the case here.  When someone needs something, he will call up his “friend” to have it taken care of.  That has certainly been useful for us, since our friend is the governor.  He called his friends to get us phones and he is helping me with my visa stuff, especially now that my passport was stolen.  Having friends in the right places means that a person can circumvent many obstacles.
Figuring out how things work has been quite interesting.  There is a huge bureaucracy here but with the right friends or a donation, one can usually get around it.  However, this is not always true, so then we have to shrug our shoulders and comply.  For example, the Ministry of Education does not recognize my Masters degree, so I have to apply for a residence permit as a manager (which I am anyway).  Hopefully the governor will help out with that!
A few days ago I went to Beyoglu, which is one of the most famous parts of Istanbul.  At one time it was where the foreigners lived, especially the Leventines.  Even now there are old apartment buildings from that era, with open squares inside to let in the light.  It is easy to imagine laundry hanging above it, and women looking out their windows or calling down to their children.  There are also very modern shops, such as Vakko, which is quite high fashion, along with old churches and a smattering of consulates. This is the area for shopping and an active nightlife.
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Often I see a flock of sheep that seems to have its territory more or less around the airport.  There is a shepherd with them, rain or shine.  It is normal to see the flock grazing along the freeway that passes by the airport– in fact the grass there is very green and lush.  A few days ago I saw another flock on a parking lot, sleeping in the afternoon sun.  They are passed by fast moving traffic with drivers who don’t even notice they are there.  Also, these sunny days we can see wool from the sheep that were killed for the religious holiday in April now hung our to dry and air. There has been a process to this, with the pelts hung out a couple of months ago, and now the wool has been taken off the skin.  I asked Tarik, my assistant manager, what they do with it, and he said that they use it for mattresses or pillows.  I had thought it would be spun into wool for carpets.  At any rate, these sights are here in modern day Turkey, old ways that continue in spite of “progress”.
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In many places in Istanbul, and in Turkey in general, there are public water outlets for the people to use.  These were built during Ottoman times and most of them are still being used.  There is one about 10 minutes from my apartment, near the freeway.  At one time it was in the middle of a
forest, but now it is in the suburbs.  People still use it, especially when the water goes off in the apartment buildings.  I think the water comes from springs, so people use it for a variety of reasons.  Also, there are water vendors who come around calling “Su!”.  These days they have little pickup
trucks filled with water jugs, but in the old days, they were strong young men who carried leather water sacks on their backs.  The drinking water we buy is delivered to depots in big tank trucks from various bigger depots. In the old days, it was drawn from the communal water areas.  I even saw a man getting water from a well the other day.  So, we turn water on in our kitchens, but the old systems of water delivery are still in place.
I am sure there are more things I can think of but for now I have run out.  You can see why I think it is so interesting to live here.  The contrasts are great, and the contradictions are enough to make sure things are never dull.  I wonder what Turks coming to our countries would think,
which contradictions and contrasts they would notice first.

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