Smiles, Struggles and Turkmen

One of the more useful purposes of social media is being able to stay in touch with my global network of friends and family while exploring events and issues within my local community. Thanks to a certain social media site, I stumbled across a post from a woman asking for help for Turkmen refugees in Mamak, a suburb in an older part of Ankara. So I filled my boyfriend’s car with clothing, dishes, and other random items to donate and off I went to Mamak on a sunny winter Saturday.

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Depot in Mamak

As I stood in the depot shivering from the February air, I gazed around at the numerous middle-aged men talking with the 2 Turkish ladies that had led me to said depot. There were piles of clothing strewn around the studio apartment-sized concrete walled space along with numerous bags of rice, legumes, sugar, bottles of sunflower cooking oil, and jars of tomato paste. My volunteer work in high school and university consisted of, well nothing I can remember, so I was a bit dumbfounded at what was going on. Obviously my lack of Turkish added to this confusion, but I tried to absorb all the sights, sounds and smells I could ingest.

After a lot of back and forth between the cast of characters I was observing, I went upstairs from the depot, with the locals, to the Cağdaş supermarket to buy baby food and bags of rice, legumes, sugar and jars of tomato paste, which filled the shopping cart to the brim. The massive amount of packaged food in one basket was something I had only seen at wholesale stores. This was when I realized there was an issue here.

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Iraqi Turkmens fled their hometowns in the Tal Afar and Mosul districts in northwestern Iraq when ISIL invaded their cities over a year ago. While I don’t personally categorize people (aside from asshole and non-asshole), national conflict, sectarian violence and cross-border war is a result of pigeonholing people for being who they are; whether they claim certain ethnic or religious associations, or are competing for oil. The divisions created among people because someone’s grandfather may have been born near a river in a perceived holy town and may or may not be of a certain descent is a fucking waste of time. I could get into the clusterfuck of ethnic backgrounds in this region and explain that Turkic people exist from the borders of China and Pakistan to the shores of the Bosphorus and beyond who sometimes prosper and are most often oppressed, is best left to social anthropologists. I will say I have been working with Turkmen from Iraq and leave it at that. Differentiating between Sunni, Shiite or Christian is pointless when people are suffering the same fate of displacement and persecution.

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When I met the group of volunteers from Iraq (refugees themselves) in the basement of a supermarket, I didn’t quite understand the gravity of the situation.  Nearly one year into my attempt to save the world through volunteering with the grassroots organization Birlik, I have a bit more grasp on the situation, but more importantly I have a greater understanding of the impact of war on people, communities and countries. AHH_8157

Over 25,000 people-the numbers change almost daily- of all ages have come to Ankara to live in safety, however they don’t intend to stay. There is a camp in Gaziantep in southeastern Turkey, but conditions are terrible according to a family that recently moved to Ankara. Some evacuees in Ankara ran out of money- jobs are near impossible to find in Turkey as the economy is in a rut not to mention the country is trying to accommodate nearly 2 million refugees from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria among some African countries- returned home to Iraq only to discover it was a grave mistake.

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Melek, Muhsin, Sachad and sister

On the first day of my new journey, we (local ladies and Turkmen volunteers) went to visit a family in order to see their living situation.  34 people from 3 families were living in a  2-story flat. There were 2 sofas and numerous foam mattresses lining the walls. As I walked through the home, I saw the rooms were full of sleeping material and nothing more. I was relieved they at least had a soft space to rest their heads, but little else existed there. Compared to the tarp walls of camps millions are living in from Jordan to France, I supposed it was a blessing to live within a concrete structure.AHH_8060

The following months I would visit  different families to take toys, books and sweets to the children. I quickly came to learn this was much like putting a band aid on a scraped knee. It was pointless. After all, people- mostly women and children as men have died or stayed behind-were living in apartments, wore clean decent clothes and served us Iraqi tea with heaps of sugar. Disillusionment kicked in as the haunting images of refugees the media shows us is quite different than what I was witnessing. My perception of a “refugee” changed drastically.

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Muhammed is a 10-year-old boy from Tal Afar who was near a suicide bomber when he was 2. Shrapnel from the bomb punctured his spine leaving him unable to walk. The family’s only request was for diapers. I went with 2 girlfriends to visit Muhammed and his family, which turned out to be a priceless encounter.  Muhammed’s little sisters immediately went to my friends and the smiles were infinite. Though I felt I needed to do more than just visit a family bearing plush toys made in China and cheap chocolate, I realized that creating happiness by showing interest in the peoples’ stories was something better than nothing (from my perspective). When I asked Muhammed questions he answered with a bright smile though he was unable to speak. This was enough to become the driving force behind how I would try to save the world one refugee child at a time.

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Muhammed, Nur, Ayet, Işıl

My close friend who fled Iraq 15 years ago, Mustafa, has been my foundation since the beginning. He is my translator and co-organizer for the events we have with the Turkmen. When he told me stories of trying to escape Iraq it seemed like I was listening to a horror movie script. Human perseverance is something extraordinary. The strongest statement he made regarding his past was that he didn’t have a childhood.

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Canan (volunteer Turkish teacher) and ladies

Fast forward a couple months to having lunch with two world-saving superwomen, one of whom works with violence against women here in Ankara. The organization she works for offers free psychological support to anyone, regardless if they have a Turkish ID or not. Great news I thought as the images of all the young women I had met flashed through my mind. So I took this information with pride to Haydar, one of the volunteers for Birlik “Together”, the organization that registers the Turkmen fleeing from Iraq to Turkey. He has become one of my dearest friends and biggest supporters in trying to help Iraqis transition into a new albeit temporary life. When I told him there is a place for women to get psychological support and did he know of any special cases, he laughed.

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Haydar and kids

Haydar said everyone needs help. His daughter watched a man be decapitated in the street. Some children witnessed their brothers, fathers, or uncles being killed. I had no idea where to go from there.

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Sisters

This may seem far fetched, however there are many signs the Turkish government supports ISIL, in the likes of recruitment camps based in southeastern Turkey, evidence of fighters and weapons crossing the border into Syria freely and illegal oil trading between Turkey and ISIL. The Turks’ hatred for the Kurdish people- the only ethnic group fighting against ISIL in Iraq and Syria and winning- is so deep that they will support the crazy ISIL fucks reigning terror and destroying thousands of years of history they consider haram or forbidden in Islam. Yes, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is a recognized terrorist group that has been waging a guerrilla war in Turkey for the past 30 years, but there is a misconception that Kurdish people support them so there is gaping wound between Turks and Kurds (Turks are mutts from the Ottoman Empire and Kurds are somewhat purebred- generally speaking of course), which is now fueling a civil war in southeastern Turkey at the moment. Innocent people are dying in the name of ethnicity and America is supporting both sides. Go figure. Let me not digress…

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Haydar said organize a picnic so I did. Mustafa, an Irish angel Roisin and I worked a few stressful weeks to create a day of release for 100 women and children. We found a beautiful place, Mavi Gol, for people to run amuck and forget about their lives for a day. Boys played soccer until they couldn’t stand. Young women made jewelry until the beads were gone. My darling friends cooked chicken until they reeked of barbecue smoke. The day was finished with bashing a pinata to ensure the kids had bellies full of sweets. This was a superficial activity that may not create world peace, but the laughter that ensued undoubtedly lasted for days and that was the point. The lovely volunteers consisted of people from Ecuador, Japan, Laos, Vietnam, Spain, Libya, Iraq, Ireland, the U.S. and a few of my dearest Turkish friends who all worked their asses off. When I advertise volunteering to help refugees on social media many people show interest, however so few are willing to actually put in the work. Yet another lesson I have learned during this emigration crisis. Support is crucial.

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Ha, Patricia and Umit

In the fall of this year, I organized an English course for 11 youth aged 10-15 with a core team that is still standing. People have come and gone as many foreigners (Westerners) want to say they help refugees, but don’t have the heart or guts to actually do it, so there has been a lot of disappointment and empty promises along the way. Despite this, I charge forward in my plan to save the world!

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First English class

Many kids don’t go to school here in Turkey for reasons varying from lack of Turkish language skills to mixed classrooms (Turkmen kids generally go to gender segregated schools) so we’re doing our part to keep a small, perhaps minute, percentage of a generation from being lost. For me at the moment the problem isn’t providing food to displaced people, but allowing minds and spirits to waste away. The idea of letting so many children live a life of despair is unacceptable.

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I could go on for days about my experience with these souls searching for a life away from conflict, which has ignited emotions from incredibly enlightening to grossly disappointing, but I think you get the picture.

I gratefully ask you to think, just for a minute or 2, about the millions of people struggling for a better life around the world.  If everyone can have a positive thought for a moment, the energy will combine and reach at least one individual that needs hope.

My heartfelt THANKS goes to all those that have supported me and continue to support me. You know who you are.

Peace.

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Picnic at Mavi Göl

Berlin in Spring

East Side Gallery

East Side Gallery

I’ve been to Berlin a few times over the past few years, and have left each time incredibly hung over and happy as hell. As in my normal life, I experience a wide range of emotions mixed with enlightenment and self-realization, however when I go to

Delicious trout and Miss Maria

Delicious trout and Miss Maria

Berlin it happens within a matter of days instead of years. Perhaps this is why I have a special place in my heart for the vibrant German city that offers proper European

Cem and Maria, tour guides and drinking buddies

Cem and Maria, tour guides and drinking buddies

hospitality. Yes, European hospitality seems like an oxymoron, especially coming from my

Bikes in the Park

Bikes in the Park

life in Turkey, but somehow the city and the people contained within shine like polished gems. And I fucking love them.

My dear friend Maria, who I met in Istanbul a few years ago, was the perfect hostess and tour guide. She made sure we tasted every beer possible, ate all the tasty German morsels, and explored as far and wide as possible. Drinking beer on a rooftop community garden,  Klunkerkeranich, overlooking the city was fucking awesome. Riding bikes around all major historical and government buildings, through parks, and

Art for babies

Art for babies

along the Spree was fucking great. Listening to Hip Hop heads make beats at Cafe Wendel, wandering through Bethanian, an old church converted into art studios, and eating California pulled pork during street food Thursday at Markthalle 9 were, well, fucking brilliant. Let me not forget the May Day festival in Kreuzberg, which was a mass of humanity from all walks of life enjoying live music and life in general.

Cafe Wendel

Cafe Wendel

We heard metal, Hip Hop, and traditional Turkish music all within a 3-block radius, with colorful people dancing tirelessly and imbibing freely.

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May Day

I had the honor of being a “model” for my friend Alesh’s sketch class. While it wasn’t the dreamy, romantic notion of sitting nude, draped in velvet fabric, in front of passionate artsy types, I enjoyed sitting on the pavement, drinking beer and chatting with a

Sketch class with Alesh

Sketch class with Alesh

lovely lady from Hamburg, all the while being sketched.

As I had usually visited Berlin for music festivals and short

Neus Museum

Neus Museum

stopovers, I wasn’t able to absorb the rich history of conflict that is an integral part of the city’s past. Maria is a wealth of knowledge about the GDR, Nazi regime, and the cultural implications both entities instilled into modern

Maria waiting for Korean sustenance

Maria waiting for Korean sustenance

Germany. What amazed me most was how far the German people have come in reversing the damage that was done and how progressive they continue to be. Especially when I compare to police brutality in the United States that hasn’t ceased to exist.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Cem and I visited Sachsenhausen Memorial and Museum, aka concentration camp, a short journey outside of the city. The small town of Oranienburg is very sweet, with colorful houses, children on bicycles and white picket fences. As we reached the camp, the experience became very surreal as the smell of death permeated my nostrils.

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp

While I still have images in my memory from the atrocities displayed in the Holocaust Museum in Houston that I visited nearly 20 years ago, walking on the earth was a completely different sensation. This camp was a “home” for mostly Senti and

Hair and eye color samples to determine race- Sachsenhausen Camp

Hair and eye color samples to determine race- Sachsenhausen Camp

Roma, or gypsies, who are people I deeply respect for their cultural contributions to civilization. Walking around the land, imagining thousands of people forced into a slow demise, was sickening, yet humbling somehow. The categorization of people according to their eye and hair color made me nauseous, but also pushed me to have a better understanding of humanity, both good and evil Hatred for people based on ignorant perceptions is a concept I will never fathom.

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The Victory Column

The moral of my story? Drink beer. Appreciate art. Listen to good music. Respect people regardless of their skin color, gender, or education level. Then all will be well. Peace.

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Maria and Mathias

History Repeated Itself last February

Jumping for Joy

Jumping for Joy

During my formative, albeit rebellious years, aka high school, I fell in love with musicians and photography. I spent countless weekends at local clubs in downtown Houston snapping photos of friends playing in Metal and Hip Hop/Metal fusion bands before they were cool. My best friend and the most influential person in my life during those few years was the multi-talented and incredibly self-confident Geoffrey. He taught me bravery, self-love and that musicians are badass. There was a particular night I “stole” my parents ’86 Chevy Suburban, much too large for my petite self, to see Geoffrey’s band play at Fitzgerald’s, in the once decrepit part of the city. It most certainly must have been his overflowing courage that inspired me to drive the ’86 Suburban that night, fearlessly, like a proper dumbass teenage girl should.

Geoff

Geoff

Fast-forward 19 years. As important life events are always put on social media, I learned that Geoffrey was on a European tour with the sultry Jolie Holland. I searched for flights to Spain and France attempting to find the most logical city to meet my high school sweetheart. Logic aside, Valencia turned out to be the right decision. Unfortunately, there was a massive snowstorm in Istanbul the day I was supposed to fly, so I was grounded in frustration at missing an extra day with my virtuoso classmate.AHH_7936

I headed to the airport the next icy morning, in hopes my flights would be on time and get me to the beautiful Spanish land I had always dreamed of putting my feet upon. On my layover in Ataturk airport, I strolled through the throngs of people from all over the world, (literally people wearing everything from dashikis to stilettos) with a skip in my step incited by excitement of this reunion. It had actually only been 11 years since I last saw Geoffrey in NYC, when we had the privilege of seeing the Beastie Boys play Madison Square Garden, but still. My heart fluttered a bit as I went through the 3rd security check, with everyone around me speaking Spanish. Fuck yeah. Let the adventures begin!

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Geoff eats patatas bravas

 

Naturally, I inhaled a few mini bottles of imported red wine on the short 3-hour flight, as I was unable to sleep due to the flood of memories from three lifetimes ago. It had been a long time since I felt like a giddy little girl.

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Breathing deep once outside the airport in Valencia, I headed to the hotel where I found Geoffrey, sitting on a sofa, in all his Texan glory. It turns out people don’t really change much with age, aside from the occasional wrinkle. He still has the death grip embrace that blesses those lucky enough to experience it. After a quick refresher thanks to the bidet (major swamp ass occurred from the lack of AC on the plane), we hit the city streets chattering away as if we hadn’t missed a day.

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Geoff took me on a tour through the architectural history he had learned in his explorations the day before. We drank delicious wine, climbed castle stairs, and noshed on cured pork and patatas bravas. We spoke incessantly of our pasts, relative presents and new found love for Valencia. It’s a city we could live in, based solely on our minimal hours of experience here. Duly noted in my infinite book of future plans. Part New Orleans, part El Paso and part Game of Thrones, Geoff and I conceded that this Spanish city wasn’t so unfamiliar, yet was different enough to incite a sense of vigor.

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Geoffrey

In the early evening, we were off to sound check at Loco Club, where I met the headmistress Jolie, and band members Breezus, Whoopi, and tour manager Thorsten from Germany. They’re unique characters that produce a band of sedating and lovely players. Speaking with Jolie, much like conversing with Geoffrey, was enlightening, inspiring and motivating. My love and appreciation for musical artists is a constantly burning fire, and these endearing people tossed on logs and spewed lighter fluid.

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Jolie and Whoopi

Jolie appears as the child of Janis Joplin and Leadbelly, who was raised by the nanny Skye Edwards (of Morcheeba). Intoxicating vocals mixed with calculated, yet captivating, guitar picking demand attention on Jolie, despite her distaste for the spotlight. Members of the audience tapped their toes and bounced their heads in the dimly lit dive bar. I felt as though I was in high school again, admiring musicians with guts enough to stand under stage lights while entertaining mesmerized onlookers. The music was a perfect mix of heart warming melancholic melodies and bluegrass enthusiasm that provided the spiritual refreshment utterly necessary for my personal growth.

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Thorsten

 

I joined these beautiful people again the next morning, and watched them eat breakfast as I had inhaled mine earlier at my hotel before racing over to theirs, in fear they would hit the road before I could spend a few more moments with a group of American souls I’ve been missing. (I won’t mention the alcohol had yet to wear off in the three or so hours of sleep that somehow happened so logic didn’t exist yet). Turns out they were still sleeping when I arrived, so my

Whoopi and Jolie

Whoopi and Jolie

indigestion was unnecessary. Ah, we live and we learn.

My final dose of Geoffrey’s utter positivity and smile brighter than the sun prepared me for a day of wandering the streets of Valencia solo, as the band was headed to the North. It was a short, but extremely sweet reunion with the delicate man that remains as my first hero. Death grip embrace number two accomplished, I was ready to take on the world, or at least Valencia city center. We have to start somewhere right?

Breezus

Breezus

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Geoffrey at Loco Club

Walking shoes ready (or so I thought), I explored the architectural wonders of the City of Arts and Sciences. I strolled through a massive kilometer long park full of palm trees, people promenading their spoiled dogs, and children running amuck chattering in their sweet Spanish. To my astonishment, I realized no one was interested in talking to me, and if I knocked elbows or bumped into someone, all parties apologized swiftly. Not like Turkey, where every body wants to ask me where I’m from and overgrown women intentionally “brush” shoulders then scowl at me as if I had run head on into them. It’s quite amazing how a slight bit of decency can change the atmosphere of a city and ultimately, an entire culture. I had almost forgotten what personal space, minding your own business, and respect meant.

Breezus and Whoopi

Breezus and Whoopi

Once my feet were blistered and my mouth parched, I made my way to Mercado de Colon, where Geoff and I made our first pit stop the day before. I sat on a cushiony wicker sofa, kicked up my feet, and ordered red wine. Oh hell yes! Drinking wine on a sunny Sunday afternoon. Yes please. The veggie paella was filling enough to get my shopping legs ready to continue wandering about, with a different focus from history, architecture, and culture. It

was time to find some cool Spanish boots.

 

City of Arts and Sciences

City of Arts and Sciences

Unfortunately, I didn’t find boots, but did manage to understand that “siesta” really means “We will look at you inside the store, but we’re not fucking working.” So I found my way back to the hotel wherein I, yes, drank more wine and ate more cured pork and cheese. This was heaven I tell you.AHH_7899

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The following morning, I somehow jumped out of bed, inhaled the buffet breakfast, and walked briskly to the marina so I could see, smell and breathe in the Balearic Sea (or a cove AHH_7892 copywithin said sea). My spirit and heart were rejuvenated, yet again, this time from seeing nearly everyone on the street walking their pups early on a Sunday morning, some purebreds, some mutts, some big, some small, but all jubilant with wagging tails. I must take a moment to give respect and blessings to people who love and take care of animals.

I made my way back to the hotel with only a few minutes to spare (thank you again my bidet friend) to get my shit and go to the airport. The wind was blowing furiously, and I secretly hoped my flight would be canceled, or at least delayed. Of course it wasn’t, but a girl can wish! As I reveled in my concluding mini bottle of non-imported Spanish wine, I reflected through three decades of existence. It seems the winds of change are a blowin’…AHH_7988

Boys on Bikes and Other Musings from the City

And there we went, on another adventure in travel, sports (not me actively) and general debauchery…

Image    The boyfriend works for Pirelli, the official tire sponsor for the SBK Superbike FMI World Championship in Istanbul September 15th.  He was invited to schmooze with colleagues and/or drool over expensive motorcycles.  And it was an opportunity for me to breathe petrol fumes and watch sexy boys on fast bikes.  It was a win win.

So we headed west into the sunset towards my first Turkish love, Istanbul.  After an only slightly white-knuckle four-hour drive, we arrived at our friend Veli’s to find him busy cooking meatballs and arranging a smorgasbord of Turkish cheeses.  Our conversations ranged from solving world issues to pure absurdity depending on the flow of the wine.

Up not so early, Cem and I filled our faces with a traditional Turkish breakfast of tomatoes, cheese, olives and bread then bounced our way to Istanbul Park for some adrenalin. Image

Unfortunately, Turkey doesn’t have a massive following of race fans (damn my American drag race upbringing), so the crowd was almost nonexistent.  On the flip side of this, the bathrooms weren’t overflowing with human waste and there were virtually no lines for concessions or backed up traffic.  The highlight of the day was watching an incredibly adept and possibly a bit insane young stunt rider from Poland.  Motorcycle stunt riding involves an impressive amount of acrobatics both of the bike and the rider.  Wheelies, stoppies and burnouts are common stunt practices, but words can’t describe the visions of these tricks and the finesse of the riders.

Image    In celebration of being back in the grand metropolis, we gathered friends in central Istanbul, the now infamous Taksim Square in which we drank, sang and danced, as friends do.  I had my snowboarding goggles and handkerchief ready in case of police clashes, which had started again in the major cities across Turkey the week before. The riot police were in full force, occupying nearly every side street, tear gas guns in hand.  Alas, there wasn’t any disturbance and by the time we left the area most of the police had retired to their humble homes as the drunken people stumbled their way to somewhere.

Image Sunday was race day, which motivated us to rise a tad early.  The spectators at Istanbul Park were filling the grandstand and the long-legged beauties sporting various brands across their voluptuous boobs were strolling among the people lucky enough to be in the paddock.  The hero of the race was the one and only Turk, Kenan Sofuoğlu, who instilled a sense of national pride among the race fans.  When he took the win, the people chanted, hollered and waved their Turkish flags.   It was a heartwarming scene to watch the (minor) masses of people full of laughter and camaraderie.Image

Farewell to Konya

As with every journey that comes to a close, a little reflection always helps me understand what I learned about life during a particular time in my reality.

Though I lived in the bustling town of 1 million for only four months, it was as though a huge stone was lifted off my chest when I finally left Konya. Granted, sometimes it was nice to be stared at like I was a celebrity, but that charm wore off and I began to feel as though I had three heads. Based on my lessons from living in Brooklyn, if you stare at someone longer than 5 nanoseconds you best have something to say or crack a smile. A small lesson in cultural learning for me has been that Turks stare for seconds, sometimes minutes with nothing more than a blank stare. My anecdote at first was to smile, which sometimes Rumielicited a slight smile in return or a giggle from a shy child. By the end of my days in this traditional Islamic city, I would say, “Take a picture it lasts longer,” which would make most people scurry away or whisper to their friend that indeed I was a real foreigner. When I told my friends and students in Istanbul I was moving to Konya they all replied with the same wide-eyed wonderment, “Konya?!” Now I understand why.

The claim to fame for Konya is Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, or Rumi as most Westerners know him, or Mevlana as most Turks know him. He belonged to a sect of Islam called Sufism, which (in theory) is based on mystical, respectful, and loving ideals that embraces the earth and humans as one. I suppose in his days of the 13th Century, people were quite receptive to his messages and teachings, but in modern day Konya these positive revelations are optional.   Rumi’s poems are known by people of diverse religious, cultural, and ethnic backgrounds. This is obvious by the variety of tourists that visit his tomb in the city center.

A well-known aspect of the Sufi religion is the Whirling Dervish. The men in white dresses that spin into a meditative fury. I was privileged to attend a meeting at a local dervish lodge one Saturday evening. I walked, my head loosely covered with a purple scarf, into a large room with about 30 men and 10 women

Mevlana (his tomb is turquiose)

Mevlana (his tomb is turquiose)

sitting or kneeling on over sized cushions lining the walls. I immediately darted to the back where the women were sitting but was summoned by my guide to give regards to the Sufi master, Hakkı Dede (“grandfather”) then was given a seat next to him. A young woman, Derya, was called in to be my translator. She lived in England for many years before meeting the Sufi master, which changed her life path and introduced her to Sufism. She was the only person living at the lodge and despite being tightly covered, was very jovial. Between translations of the Qu’ran, she asked me questions about how I found the lodge and other general interrogations about my life. We laughed many times as she translated the verses of the holy book to me, which mostly consisted of people not acting like animals then everyone can live peacefully. She was a pleasant surprise in the pious atmosphere. After Hakkı Dede exhausted his answers to the pending questions about the essence of Allah and humans, we separated to gender specific tables where we shared a delicious chicken soup and broke bread with our fellow attendants.  It was a lovely dinner, but I didn’t taste much of it as I was busy answering a barrage of questions about who I am , where I’m from, where I’m going…

After the meal and continuous curiosity about the American girl in Konya, there was a Whirling Dervish “show.” I wasn’t allowed to photograph as I wasn’t

Whirling Dervishes at the mall

Whirling Dervishes at the mall

there as a tourist but as a student. Musicians came from a back room and began to play traditional Turkish music, with the drums being the centerpiece. After a while of instrumentals, five young men came from the same back room and did the drill of greeting their master then began their spinning. One hand up to the heavens and one hand down to the earth, the enregy of these elements passes through the bodies of the Dervishes. It was fascinating to see these spiritual figures in their element and not in a shopping center or restaurant whirling for the tourists. The spinning continued without stopping for nearly an hour. It made my ankles hurt thinking about how many times they revolved. The scene was quite majestic until, towards the end, when the spirit overcame many of the participants and they started to chant “Allah! Allah!” at a ribcage vibrating octave. Derya, who was sitting next to me, was visibly moved and began sobbing with her entire body. It seemed to be a purging of emotions induced by the spinning men. Or it could have been the overwhelming heat and no air circulation aside from the slight wind created by the Dervishes. At that point, it became somewhat of a cult meeting and I made a mental note to not be brainwashed or sacrificed like a lamb. This was obviously an effect of reading too many stories about modern day cults and I walked out unscathed. I was grateful to have been able to experience the gathering, but was no doubt in need of a cold beer.

national non-alcoholic drink Ayran

national non-alcoholic drink Ayran

Cold beer in Konya is something of a delicacy. There was a bar we frequented often, XSide, which was attached to a

Beyti kebab

Beyti kebab

luxury hotel. The other 3 bars in town were spoken about, but remained a legend. There were only a few places we could buy beer, called tekels, in which our pirate booty was put into black opaque bags as though we had just bought pornography. When carrying multiple bags of bottled libations I often felt liberated, but other times I felt like a whore of the devil. It depended on how many hijab (headscarf) wearing women I passed on the walk of shame to the car.

Other options for alcohol are paviyons, the Turkish version of a brothel. No doubt a haven for sex-trafficked women from former Soviet countries and the East of Turkey, my friends weren’t interested in taking me, even for a beer. I proposed a photo documentary project of these so-called “fun centers,” but it has yet to come to fruition.

There are many gems in this over sized village, most of them food. Etli Ekmek, a flat pizza covered with chunks of

Tirit kebab

Tirit kebab

lamb and garnished with parsley and lemon, numerous kebabs, which is lamb cooked in various ways from şiş (shish) to tandir (cooked in clay pots)  to tirit kebabı (presented on a bed of yogurt). My favorite dish is bamya corbası (okra soup) sometimes with lamb, but if I was lucky, without the animal. The desserts were decadent layers of something made from cracked wheat, dough or nuts smothered in cream, honey or syrup of tooth aching sweetness.

Long story short, a free spirited pain in the ass American girl doesn’t really belong in a conservative religious small town. I thought I learned that lesson living in Northeast Tennessee, but apparently I had to reaffirm the notion.

I’m grateful for the culture, religious and history lessons I gained while in this ancient city. The exceptional gift, however,  is the newest addition to the family and god of the house, Zeus.

Zeus

Zeus

Now it’s time to conquer the capital city of the deceptively democratic reigning regime, Ankara.

Back to the North….

Last week proved to be another eventful adventure….

Burney MC and Friend

Burney MC and I caught the Post bus to Gulu in northern Uganda to attempt to establish End of the Weak in the north.  After the 6 hour bus ride we arrived safely and covered in a fine layer of red dust. The highlight was having grilled bananas, called gonja, so I was satisfied.

Having been to Gulu before, we walked the familiar streets to find the guest house Happy Nest, where we would rest our bones for the few days we were there.  We met with Juma, a radio presenter and local promoter to discuss running the MC Challenge in Gulu.  As it would be, all he really wanted was money as the amount of NGOs and misappropriated money has spoiled the people in this war fatigued area.  We attended a talent show, which consisted of young men and one woman miming over a well-known artist’s song.  Most of it was Hip Hop from the US such as 50 Cent or local celebrity Bebe Cool.  Although Burney and I laughed about it, it is quite disheartening to see these kids imitating Western music instead of creating their own. However, these talent shows seem to take place in so many cities and towns, that this is the entertainment of the times.

I met a producer named Babu who has become my main guide and go-to guy for information about the Hip Hop scene in the North.  He is a man of few words who barely cracks a smile, but he has been honest and helpful.  His partner and co-producer, Ash Bee, has also proven to be of infinite help and is the comic relief in my endeavors to provide a platform to help strengthen and educate hopeful artists in Acholiland.

Burney and I retired to the guest house late that night, discussing the struggles we faced with working in Gulu.

MCs in Gulu

The next morning, we enjoyed our breakfast of buttered bread and coffee, then set off to Babu’s studio for more discussion.  We met Ken, brother to Babu and a jack of many trades. He took us to a T-shirt printing shop where I proceeded to have End of the Weak Uganda shirts printed. Then off we went to meet with local boxing coach and mentor to Stacy, Kidega.  He gave us useful information on how to work in Gulu and with his brother Komacech, helped us gather rappers to introduce the idea of the MC Challenge.  After a brief nap, we returned to Alobo, which is a bar, restaurant and community center.  We met with a few MCs before the electricity went out and more came to speak with us in the darkness of the restaurant. When the power returned, Burney played DJ and the MCs spit their freestyles, most of them in English, which showed us again how imitation of Western artists is their main education.  It was great to meet the guys and see their talents and eagerness for some kind of recognition.

We had more meetings at a discotheque called Herm before going across town with another new friend, Adi from London. Adi is a filmmaker working with Al-Jazeera (largest Arab TV station) on a documentary of people involved in the 20 year conflict with Sudan. He had some interesting stories as the people he had met had experiences common to a war zone.  Talking to people about where they were and what they were doing during the conflict reminded me of my time spent in post-conflict Croatia in Eastern Europe.  There are many people who carry many signs of war, mostly large scars of violence inflicted on them.  After a few more Nile beers, we retired home yet again.

Friday was spent having meetings with radio personality Emma of Choice FM and manager of Herm’s where I intend to have the End of the Weak event.  I battled with them as they wanted too much money, but I think with the proper use of ‘fuck’ in some of the conversation they realized I wasn’t an easy force to battle, like many other dishonest whites in the area. However, they are getting more money than they should as my bargaining skills are developing with every meeting. It was a frustrating day, but we finished it off with spending a comical time with Babu, Ash Bee and friends. After too much booze for Burney, Stacy and I, we slept a few winks before rising for the next day….

Burney headed back to Kampala and Stacy and I headed to Kitgum, farther North.  We arrived in Kitgum, somehow, after the bus broke

Santana and I

down for what seemed like forever.  In a place without AAA, Stacy and I wondered how exactly we would get to our destination if the bus crew had not managed to get it started again.  As soon as we hit Kitgum, we went straight for a lunch of pork at a friends restaurant.  It is nice to be welcomed back with big smiles and warm beer.

It was a big night for Stacy and I, as our friend Hoppy Benny organized a Hip Hop show at Club Galaxy.  Benny’s friend and promoter, Santana, took Stacy on his motorbike and Benny taking me on his motorcycle, we headed to a radio station to promote the night’s event.  The radio show was in the local language Luo, but Stacy and I spoke about our projects in our best English. Although many people in the city of Kampala consider the North to be traditional and uncivilized, the Acholis speak better English than the Bugandas (people in the central where I stay).  After a short but entertaining set on the radio, we went to Santana’s station, which was in a large house and though the equipment is old, it gets the job done. After yet another entertaining 10 minute show, we went back to our local haunt for dinner, of, yes, more pork.

Off to Club Glaxay we went, where we found many young men and women ready for a talent show and Hip Hop event.  We stood outside talking before being escorted in to a large club full of people sitting watching TV. We went back to the VIP room where Stacy and I had a beer and talked about solving world issues while the people watched a soccer game. Once the show started, we went to the main room and sat in the very front row as we were the guests of honor.  Benny and Santana wanted us to speak, but we denied wholeheartedly as being on the microphone is not what we came to do. The  talent show consisted of more miming to Western music and some really great traditional dancers.

I discovered we were true VIPs when I had to pee and had a bodyguard escort me to the back.  He moved people out of the way as if I was Obama and no one could touch me.  I didn’t like the treatment as I don’t want to be singled out, but I imagine I would never have moved forward as many people are interested in talking to a muzungu.

Ice Dream and Chainy Crispy

Benny organized a mini MC Challenge so that someone from Kitgum could go to Gulu to represent a major town in the North.  Organizing this event has proven to be difficult in many ways, and trying to have musicians from many areas represent their local language has been my focus for the past week and will continue for the next weeks.  I was impressed with Benny getting the people together and I am so incredibly thankful to have him on my side.  After the Challenge ended, we were escorted to the back where Stacy and I became surrounded by MCs wanting to talk and see what we thought of their performances.  After many discussions with people we met before mixed with new faces, we were escorted out the back door as though we were JayZ and Beyonce.

After a few hours of sleep, we were up and ready to receive musicians from the previous night to discuss End of the Weak and Hip Hop in general.  Although people were slow to come, their was a great turnout.  Benny is establishing the Northern Uganda Hip Hop Culture to help stimulate and expose the artistic abilities in the North and so we spoke about what Hip Hop means and how it can help guide them.  It  seemed to be a productive meeting, under a tree in what little shade there was, and I hope the meeting will help strengthen the ideas and hopes of these guys.

Stacy remained in Kitgum to run a theatre workshop and I jumped on the Gulu Express bus to finish up my duties in Gulu. I had been told about edible rats in the North, and got to experience it first hand on the ride to Gulu.  They only come around in the dry season and so are treated as a delicacy.  At a roadside market, the biggest selling item was this big ass rodent that had been sliced in half and dried for sale.  With many people buying these supposedly delicious creatures, the bus had a scent of dead animal that would fill the bus whenever it stopped and the air became stagnant. I asked Ash Bee about this source of food and he became very excited in describing how they prepare it.  Unfortunately, or fortunately, I wasn’t able to partake in rat soup.

1st meeting of Northern Uganda Hip Hop Culture

I received a copy of the Sunday Vision, an country wide newspaper that had a Q+A with me.  I was pleasantly surprised to see it and was quite happy with the response from people.  If someone calls me a celebrity one more time though, I’m going to have to look into buying a car as celebrities don’t walk. Ha!

After a mellow night with Ash Bee and a brief encounter with Babu, I slept a few hours before catching the 7AM bus back to Kampala.

the road to Sudan

6 hours and a headache later, I arrived in Kampala where my bodaboda friend picked me up and took my dusty body and backpack home.  My bodaboda friend, Mayaja, being much in love with me, brought me a bouquet of roses and lilies and a chocolate bar for Valentine’s Day. It’s nice to know where ever I may go in the world, there’s someone who loves me.

A day of not much rest, and I had to get the End of the Weak auditions organized for yesterday, Tuesday the 16th……..

Having the day start with monsoon rain and then having people show up late to the venue Club Rouge put a damper on my spirits, but the auditions turned out to be a success.  Although there where minor glitches in getting started, the emcees did their best to display their skills to judges Tafash, a female MC from Kenya, and Sylvester, an MC from Uganda. After a few exhausting hours, Burney and I had accomplished what we came to do.

EOW Auditions

We finished up the night with Spoken Truth, a weekly event for poets and musicians to talk about whatever and then back to Makindye for a night of restless sleep.

Now I will eat my first meal of the day (it’s almost 5PM) then meet with a few End of the Weak partners and champions, who (some) will make their debut on Jam Agenda, a local show promoting music.

Another day down and more hurdles to jump but success remains attainable.

A shitty week….

7 Feb 2010

I started off the week by watching Stacy attempt her first community meal at the Bavubuka House.  She had intentions that everyone who wanted to eat would contribute  200 shillings (about 10 US cents).  So off to the market she goes and upon her return, she was smacked with the reality that the people didn’t understand or just didn’t care.  3 individuals made the meal, but other than that, there was no contribution.  It is unfortunate that in a so-called community house there is no real community.  The mindset isn’t there for the locals to help each other out, they prefer handouts. The only person who has not expected a handout from me is Burney, the emcee who is my partner with End of the Weak.  I’m not sure why he is different, but he is. He understands the value of working to achieve something.  The others just want things given to them.  So my frustration with the kids/adults at the Bavubuka House has been elevated this week, but I learned last year to not give too much of my resources.  Unfortunately, Stacy learned the hard way, as did I, that the most locals don’t understand the meaning of ‘contribution’ or ‘community.’

SP at “Miami Beach”

The funniest day of my life also occurred this week when I went with a friend and MC, SP Omungunjule to his home in the ghettos of Makindye and Katwe.  As Burney, SP and I started our journey in Makindye, we encountered 2 military police who were exiting the ghetto and headed back to the barracks across the street.  They were kind and quite funny, as they just wanted to make friends with a muzungu (white person).  After a few minutes of small talk, we continued our journey through trash filled streets and rows of concrete houses.  SP, being a comedian, jumped a rancid ‘creek’ of water and climbed atop a trash pile.  I jokingly asked if the stream of trash and human waste

ghetto girl

was Lake Victoria, SP responds with, “This is Miami Beach.”  As he continues walking through trash piles, he decides to climb into a ‘shed’, which was a few pieces of sheet metal and wooden boards thrown together, and do a freestyle. Not 1 minute into his speech, he slides backwards into the ‘trash’ pile, his face covered in horror for maybe 7 seconds.  When he realizes where he is, he screams, “Fuck off man! This is a toilet!” As he emerges with one side of his body covered in shit, I laugh so hard I cry.  Burney watches in disgust as his

SP in shit

brother attempts to scrape the human waste off of his pants with a piece of metal.  After a few minutes of hysterical laughter (and me making a video of the whole scene) a man passes by and tells us to follow him to a water spout.  SP washes the shit off him as a crowd of women and children stand and watch. I photographed the kids after my friend was clean as could be, then off we went for more ghetto adventures.  We walked through areas where I usually pass on a boda boda, except for an unfamiliar market area with clean streets.  Clean streets are a rare sight here, as trash bins don’t exist.  As it would be, the market area is for the government, and so it made (some) sense that it is the only clean street surrounded by ghetto.  Then the rain came.  The three of us stood under what shelter we could find, and when the drops slowed down enough we continued walking back to the house.  I’ve since watched the video every day, multiple times, and when any of us that have seen it even speak about it, laughter rises to levels that cause pain.
And so the week continued, with meetings to get sponsorship and advertisement for the next End of the Weak MC Challenge.  I organized the auditions for last night, Saturday the 6th of Feb,

making chapatti in Makindye

at Club Sway, a former hotspot but now dead spot. It began as a positive event, but about halfway through, a manager pulled the DJ out of the booth and cut the microphone.  Apparently, the woman I made the arrangements with either did not relay the event to her manager, or didn’t have the power to give me the space for the time she said.  Or they wanted money or they didn’t like Hip Hop.  Regardless what it was, they kicked us out.  So 30 emcees and about 15 onlookers poured out on the street and watched me curse and talk shit until I calmed down.  The 2 judges that were there, Tafash and Sylvester, said it’s no big deal, welcome to Africa.  And so I  brought my anger down a level and went home to drink.  My friend and housemate who has been in pain for a week, went to the clinic and discovered he has worms. And so we talked about parasites, eating meat, and well, shit.  We compared parasite stories and had some good laughs.
So now I sit here, cold, watching from atop a hill, the rain fall on Kampala, turning the dust to mud and pushing the waste of all kinds through the ditches.  I am still frustrated about last night, as it was a waste of money for many people involved. But, I will book another venue this week and continue on with my plans. As Nelson Mandela said, “The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.”
And so I will fight like hell to continue establishing End of the Weak Uganda, a movement of improvement through Hip Hop.