It’s raining feral cats and dogs

I try to avoid the city bus when possible, especially on the weekdays. It’s a popular mode of transportation for students of all ages because of the monthly cards the company issues making it exceedingly uncomfortable–nothing like being pressed up against a particularly unmotivated male student for twenty minutes…

But on occasion, I do ride the bus. A few days ago, I was lucky and I got a seat (!!!!), I patted myself on the back as student after student poured onto the bus. With the vehicle beyond capacity, we lumbered through Degrminalti, the student village. I relaxed looking out the window, enjoying the ride and the newly emerged spring sunlight when I saw a pair of dogs come bounding down a side street… and into the main road… right in front of our bus.

There was a collective ghasp followed by a lurch as the driver hit the breaks.

But, with a bus bursting at the seams with passengers, there wasn’t much to be done.



I heard about the feral dog and cat problems in Turkey, the way I heard about the coal pollution, the trash collection problems and the obsession with tea. Over time, I discovered that each of these really are as crazy as originally presented,

During orientation we spent no less than a half hour discussing with an RN from the Embassy about how to react to a dog bite. Should we get a rabies shot? Should we not? Do Turkish hospitals stock rabies shots? Should we call in the Marines?

At the time I thought this attention excessive. I mean, really, how bad could the situation be? Plus, given the way Turks drive, I figured city officials probably refrained from euthanizing the feral dogs and cats because the nation’s drivers had more or less solved that problem for them.

(Horrifying I know, I know.)

As it turns out, Darwin could have used the feral populations here as a case study in survival of the fittest. Cats camp out in trash containers and outside fish restaurants. They’re agile and freaking terrifying. I saw one a few days ago that would have made a Maine coon cat soil itself. The thing could have eaten a toddler. In fact, it probably subsists on them.

The dogs are smart. They travel in packs of four or five, they’re playful but you wouldn’t want to get one fired up. They’ve learned to wait at crosswalks for the lights to change. They sit patiently, four or five of them, watching the little red man, waiting for him to turn green and mimic walking. In the student village they run up and play with students who stand smoking in packs on the corner. They beg for attention, and usually get it. Some lucky ones are adopted by local vendors who feed them scraps from the kitchen and rub their bellies when business is slow.

When talking about Turkey to Turks, they’re often curious to hear what I find strangest about Turkey. I usually start with the coal pollution, but typically second is this strange abundance of cats and dogs. I have tried to explain the concept of government sanctioned spay/neutering but they seem unfazed by our bizarre American solutions, because really, are the cats and dogs actually a problem?

This got me thinking, in the nearly eight months I’ve been here, this is actually the first time I have been witness to a dead cat or dog.

So, props to Darwin, the man was on to something.


Party Taxi

You know that person that slams their foot on the invisible break while sitting shotgun? That’s me. And, because I’ve had a car at my disposal since the age of 16 it hasn’t been much of an issue. But, it has lead to the reinforcement of my dislike for long trips. Because I’m always the one in the driver’s seat, I’ve never been a good traveller. I’m impatient too. I like going new places, to be sure, but I hate the jostling of travel. I would much rather choose one city and spend a week exploring than hitting seven countries in seven days. And, since I only have Fri-Sun to travel due to my work schedule, most of my trips feel rushed. I’ve never been a “its about the voyage, not the destination” kind of person, but this past trip to Bulgaria has started to soften this resolve.

Kara, Lucian, Cass and I left Friday morning, with Joe making a surprise appearance at the bus station. We pow wowed for the trip to the Bulgarian border, taking turns telling stories about life at home and in Turkey. After arriving in Burgas, we quickly discovered that there were no busses and due to a strike, no trains that could take us to our destination.

While debating what to do, we were approached by a taxi driver, sporting a US Marine Corps Veteran baseball cap, with the rim still flat as a board, who then asked us in English where we wanted to go. I know no Bulgarian beyond voda (water) avutogara (bus station), shkembe chorbaya (tripe soup) and da/niet (yes/no), and had spent the morning digging through the annexes of my memory for any remnants of my German, since that seems to be the only foreign language spoken by Bulgarians who are employed in the transportation industry.

But English! And a faux American Marine Corps Vet?!

He laughed when we said Veliko-Tarnovo.

Lucian asked him, playfully, how much to take the 5 of us. Nikolai’s wheels started churning, doing the math. 280 leva. Ha! 200, we countered. After going back and forth we settled on 220 leva (~$160, about $30 a piece). Pretty reasonable we thought, for 250 kilometers (about 3 hours).

Nikolai stuffed our belongings in the trunk of his car, next to the gas tank, then borrowed a spare tire from a friend and off we went. Well, off we went to the gas station where Nikolai suspiciously disappeared for 10 minutes as the attendant pumped the tank full of petrol. As the gas poured in, the tank rattled and shook, making a grating, growling noise. We could do nothing but laugh, so we laughed historically as the attendant peered in on our snuggle-fest in the back seat.

As it turns out, Bulgaria has the best radio I’ve heard in a while. While Turkish music is entertaining, after a while, it all sounds the same. Bulgaria has the classic European love for American pop and rock, and we benefitted. We heard Natalie Imbruglia, Spice Girls, and other 90s singers who graced the top 40 once and disappeared into the depths of cocaine addiction and reality TV. Nikolai dodged traffic police, announcing POLIS! whenever he spotted a speed trap. And, because we were an illegal four in the back, Lucain would dive down between the seats, I’d cover him with a jacket, and we’d pull seat belts across our shoulders. We told stories of college breakups, worst first dates, and best stories from our placements in Turkey.

About 12 hours after embarking on our voyage, we arrived in Veliko-Tarnovo. The weekend was phenomenal, the city was beautiful, the hostel cozy and it’s staff friendly and obliging. The weather couldn’t have cooperated more. We ate delicious food, full of pork. We drank lovely wines, for reasonable prices. We celebrated 25 years of Hayfa, another Fulbrighter, by dancing in a bizarre Bulgarian night club (they had uniformed dancers who body slammed poles and danced on balconies). But, the best part of the weekend was those hours spent en route, where we had nothing to do but entertain one another.

I’ve been picking on Turkey lately, and for all its faults, it’s making me  a more interesting person. I’ve learned to roll with the punches, take cleansing deep breaths when necessary, and occasionally give in to the voyage, because it can outshine the destination.

Stuffing a man under a bus.

Sitting on the evening shuttle, on the cold, faux-leather seat, I watched a group of visiting students pile into a beautiful modern inter-city bus. The bus driver rounded the side with a student in tow. He opened up the luggage compartment underneath, where the young man piled into the space, securing himself between a stack of cushions and a pile of what looked to be burlap sacks of potatoes. The driver shut the compartment door, secured it and made his way back to the driver’s seat.

There was a time when this would have surprised me. But, rather than thinking the bus driver a lunatic, my thoughts went to the unfortunate young man now trapped under the bus. The roads here aren’t forgiving, and his underside would soon be regretting his new seating arrangement. The floor of the compartments is made of intermittently raised metal grating. I imagine the design keeps spilled liquids from pooling and destroying everyone’s things. But, that poor man’s tush! it would soon be all kinds of bruised.

I think this is a hilarious demonstration of problem solving here in the Republic: rather than risking a ticket it is routine for drivers with overstuffed busses to yell to everyone to crouch down when passing police.

Now, I’ve gotten lots of questions lately about the safety of this part of the world. And, while I may emerge with black lung from all the coal/trash burning that goes on in this city, and while bus drivers may on occasion stuff excess passengers under the bus, Turkey is, on the day to day, a lot safer than most large American cities.  But, given the recent Arab uprisings, and some clear misconceptions that apparently abound, I want to dispel any myths being perpetuated by the typically uninformed American mass-media regarding this part of the planet. Turkey is: 1. Not an Arab country 2. A country that practices free and fair elections 3. Not teetering on the brink of destruction.

There have been recent developments that have tarnished Turkey’s position of “the model nation” in this part of the world. To what do I refer? During the protests in Egypt, many in both the east and west suggested that Egyptians look to the Turkish model for ideas of how to form a functioning democracy that meshes human rights with Islam. And, while I want to again, dispel any misconceptions that Turkey is anything like Egypt or Libya, it is not the perfect portrait that these scholars have been painting.

Most recently, there has been a major crackdown on the freedom of the press. And, while the Turkish concept of freedom of the press varies significantly from that of those in the west, things have certainly taken a turn for the worse. In the investigation of a plot called Ergenekon, the government recently arrested over 80 individuals and then only last week arrested a number of well-respected journalists. These journalists had not been supporting the government’s line regarding Ergenekon: an alleged plot that aimed to orchestrate a military coup that would dislodge the current ruling AK Party.

The AK Party has edged its way into the daily life of the average Turk, but they have such a strong mandate that one can argue that their amendments to laws are actually the will of the people. And, isn’t that the beauty of democracy?

The beauty stops here.

There is currently a war being waged between several journalists and the government. It’s a standoff that has been decades in the making. The newly appointed US Ambassador Ricciardone made statements regarding his surprise at the current administration’s flagrant disregard for press freedom laws, to which the Turkish Interior Minister Beşir Atalay comically responded, “Turkey in terms of press freedom is much more independent a country than America… Turkey is a country where there is more press freedom than other democratic countries.” I’m not sure what Atalay is sniffing, but there is no way that this statement could possibly be understood as true.  He then showed the level of his ignorance by suggesting that Ricciardone should spend some time in a country before making such statements: Ricciardone speaks fluent Turkish having already served two stations in Ankara.

It would be funny if it weren’t so horrifying.

The press has been under a vice, slowly being tightened at intervals. This vice has been wound too tight lately, and journalists are feeling the panic that comes from being crushed to death. And, you can’t blame them: in one of the current court cases, the government recently entered into evidence recordings of phone conversations of a journalist who they had illegally tapped. Nobody in the government seems the least bit upset by the brazen disregard for basic civil liberties.

My question is, what about this is supposed to make the Turkish people proud? Is this the democracy they have earned?

Like the bus driver who decided that he wouldn’t risk getting a ticket for an over stuffed bus, and therefore decided on the far more dangerous option of stuffing a passenger in a place the police would never look, the government, rather than risk it, is plowing down those who they perceive as standing in their way.

Like stuffing a passenger under the bus, this is a far more dangerous option.

For more information:

Something rotten about the state of press freedom in Turkey

AKP attitude to press freedom a tasteless joke

Turkey slammed by international groups over detaining of journalists

International Women’s Day

Today is Mardi Gras, and while revelers in New Orleans shake their boobies for crowds, let’s pause for a moment to remember that it is also International Women’s Day.

On the bus from Ankara about two weeks ago, there were three of us, leading to an unfortunate seating arrangement that put my colleague in the seat behind myself and our mutual friend. Luckily, she’s a chatty Kathy and she quickly made friends with the woman seated next to her. The woman was very conservatively dressed, and was accompanying two foreign women who were also quite conservatively dressed.

There are different levels of covering that go on here. Some women are as comfortable bearing their skin as your average American teenager. Others opt for high collared shirts and nothing shorter than knee length. For the more religiously observant, there are varying levels of covering. One woman I met vacillates between covering her hair and having it done at the coiffeur’s, while others donne floor-length trench coats over long skirts, and top it off with a brightly colored silk scarf that is neatly wrapped around their hair and neck. There are also those who have chosen the “Saudi” look, for even here, they’re referred to as Saudis: its the all black, head-to-toe look required in some of the world’s more autocratic nations.

The women on the bus were nursing students at a university in Ankara, something that only recently would have forced them to choose between their headscarves and their education. The two asian women were from Indonesia, they spoke lovely Turkish and were also nursing students. The jury is still out on how and why women from Indonesia would speak Turkish, but the internationality of it all struck me.

Turkey is an interesting place that people try to characterize as wedged between east and west. I think this designation misses the mark spectacularly for the simple reason that Turks are Turks. Turkey is a muslim country to be sure, but they are about as similar to the Arab nations as Greece is to Norway: yes, they’re historically of the same religion, though the brand they practice is different, but ultimately the similarities stop there. That said, Turkey has some major issues it needs to work out, and this being International Women’s Day, I’ll focus first on women’s rights.

A report was recently released that shows how under-educated, under-utilized women in Turkey remain, even today. Violence against women has increase a frightening amount in the past few years, and there seems to be little the government is doing to protect women from their partners. The media glorifies the rage and passion of the male assaulter/murderer, and plays up the moral shortcomings of the women in question. The photos depict only the woman, often the perpetrator’s name is withheld from the press, while the woman’s is published for all to see, and judge. There are currently 5 women murdered each day in Turkey. And while this is not all caused by domestic violence, the numbers aren’t looking good: violence against women has increased 1,400% in the last seven years.

“One in every three women in Turkey is exposed to domestic violence and 40 percent of them accept this situation as normal,” said Aydeniz Alisbah Tuskan, the head of the Istanbul Bar Association’s Women’s Rights Center. “The problem lies in the fact that abused women are afraid their financial support would be cut if their husbands go to jail.”–Ipek Ekmeksiz

This is an issue in every country of the world. It’s something that crosses borders and transcends race and religion. I was surprised earlier today when I laid eyes on a student of mine who had what looked to be a nasty black eye. Upon closer inspection, it became clear that she was wearing makeup. She and two friends had put on fake bruises and cuts and were handing out pamphlets around school about International Women’s Day. In a country where I have seen tough social issues buried time and time again, I was thrilled to see these female students tackling something head on.

There needs to be a paradigm shift, and women are essential, but the macho ethos of the men here needs to change. And quick,

Traditional perceptions of women as long-suffering wives and self-sacrificing mothers need to be challenged, but so does a construction of masculinity based on violence and tough talk. What makes a man choose to kill his wife rather than grant her a divorce? His act will destroy the entire family unit, cause lasting trauma to his children and land him in jail. And why do so many men resort to physical abuse to resolve minor domestic dispute?– Nicole Pope

Women in Turkey are the matriarchs, they care for their families the way a lioness does for her own. They’re a powerful, opinionated bunch. They’ll tell you what’s what, and they’ll not hold back. This is what Turkey needs, a powerful, articulate group of individuals to grab violence by the balls, to demand the respect of their peers and to instill that respect in their children. But, a lot still needs to change. I am optimistic that things in Turkey are on the up and up. The question is will the women demand what is rightfully theirs? Will the men realize what useless children they would become without the women in their lives? Will an open dialogue begin?

Today is International Women’s Day, and I am a woman. Today, my lovely cousin personified the glory of the female condition and gave birth to her first son.Today is a good day, but let’s make tomorrow better.

For more:

Turkish women blames police after beating from husband

Equal opportunity top issue on Int’l Women’s Day

Boys to men

Two young boys, maybe 11 or 12 years old greeted each other on the dolmuş the way men do: they shook hands and leaned their cheeks in bumping first right-to-right then left-to-left. They sat there across from one another, when one reached his hand behind the other boy’s head, holding the back of his neck as the dolmuş engine revved, drowning out their intimate conversation. It’s something that strikes me; the transition from youth to semi-adulthood here is something I still haven’t been able to understand.

Working in a university, I have been witness to an appalling lack of maturity displayed by a number of my students. They show up ten minutes late, without pens, paper or books. They interrupt grammar lessons with questions like, “Teacher, how old are you?” “Teacher, are you married?” or perhaps some less grammatically correct version of these. They scribble on desks, use cell phones to text friends, talk over both their fellow students and me.

This is perhaps why I am always struck by the formality of greetings, by the mature displays of affection that young boys display for each other. They seem out of synch with other displays of immaturity. And, even as boys mature into men, these physical interactions continue. On the servis last week, the bus was particularly packed. One man stood in the aisle and another in the stairwell by the sliding door. The man in the stairwell made some comment about the other’s suit jacket.

His jacket was a bluish gray corduroy blazer. His friend in the stairwell grabbed both lapels of the jacket, stroking the fabric between his fingers. And, while I couldn’t hear the conversation, not that I would necessarily understood even if I had, I imagine the discussion was about this choice of jacket. And, while this seemingly mundane interaction continued, it’s familiarity struck me. These men, in close proximity to one another had no physical boundaries.

Another common scene I’ve encountered is that of two men strolling together, arm in arm. Something solely reserved for sweethearts or a combination of the elderly and the young, typically of opposite sex in the west, the physicality of it all was something that I couldn’t let go of. It’s something that I have still not acclimated to either. I think about the conversation that leads up to that interaction, “Mehmet, would you like to go for a stroll with me down on the waterfront, its such a lovely day.” “Sure Ali, I’d love to. Meet you in five by the Liman Çay Bahçesi.”

As I’ve mentioned before, not being a man limits my ability to understand these interactions, but I can’t imagine most men of my acquaintance having such a conversation. In my experience, male interaction in the west is circled around some activity: fishing, camping, food or beverage consumption, sports spectation to name a few. Here, there is a significantly calmer attitude toward activities, there is a lot of strolling, a lot of tea consumption. A lot of lounging. A lot of touching.