Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Spinning the Wheel

One of the lessons I use to generate conversation in my classes is to ask the students to come up with a directory of the most important inventions in history, making the initial distinction between invention and discovery, of course. As I write their suggestions on the board, reminding them to say, “I think the most important invention …” we travel through time, discussing reasons and needs for each object on the list. One of the first things every class mentions is the Internet. However, it is surprising how few students are quick to point out that in order to use this medium we need electricity, and to have energy at the flick of a switch we must have power station dynamos, and to have those things we need: the wheel.

That seemingly simplest of inventions (or was it a discovery?) is paramount in creating the world we have fashioned today. This doesn’t even begin to tap the requirement of rockets to put the satellites into orbit in a circle around the earth so that communication can happen with the touch of a finger.

There are many paradoxes in the culture of life beyond the edge of the map. Straddling East and West, the mix of past and present collide, creating unique and often complimentary traditions. Although it generates many a faction within the nation, most Turkish people, especially those living in larger or more cosmopolitan places like Istanbul, embrace the present and look to the future in various ways.

English is taught in state schools and language exams are required for acceptance at most universities. Fashionable clothing, the latest mobile phones and new cars are much sought after, representing western values and a homogenisation of culture that suggests an evolving contemporary global identity. As a point in case, one of the highlighted attractions of the 2010 Capital of Culture celebrations was the widely publicised concert of the rock group U2. The fact they were on tour and would be performing at other venues throughout Europe seemed to make little difference – this mega band’s appearance provided public recognition that Istanbul had arrived in the twenty-first century.

As a people, the populace of this nation-state recognise the complex and often interchangeable nature of the history of this vast country. Over the six millennia that this land has been inhabited there have been many kingdoms and empires, often with competing aims and ideologies. From the Turks, Ottomans and the Romans to the Byzantines and the Hittites, not to mention several ancient rulers who left incredible monuments to their existence, like those giant heads reminiscent of Easter Island – yet more intricately detailed, at Nemrut Daği (who made them and why?)

The future is hotly debated. Significant minority groups such as the Kurds have fewer fundamental rights than those who can claim Turkish ancestry. English and Germans among other ex-pat groups, who provide sizeable revenue for ‘resort’ communities, are constantly being hit in the pocketbook with additional taxes, and many resent the unfair nature of their position, which according to the current government requires selective economic sanctions. European status is contested regularly in the political arena as well as the cafes, schools and street corners where the ‘ordinary’ people mingle and share views.

There are many opinions on the possibility of joining a union with the other states further west. Many feel they are economically better off now than ten years ago, and having to adhere to regulations coming from Brussels would seriously damage this progress. Additionally, if they were part of a diverse but interlinked economic zone any failures beyond their control would adversely affect their own stability. Like many Brits, they fear the Euro could drag everyone down if there were serious problems in less developed nations, as was witnessed with recent events in Greece, as well as Ireland, Italy, Spain and other once mighty European nations.

Many feel an imbalance of trade in certain goods, designed to redistribute wealth throughout the union, would hamper their own agricultural development, and the possibility of providing a haven for often wealthy Westerners might diminish as well. Also, they fear this would impose a loss of free trade with non-European nations on their other borders.

Also, the US is a strong military ally regardless of what rhetoric is employed in the media and various (Wiki) leaks that filter out through less mainstream sources, and becoming part of Europe could reduce their role as a major player in the emerging new order that includes China, Brazil and South Africa, especially now that Turkey has the fifth largest army in the world. Although privately, many quietly voice their concern over the apparent power these other nations have within the borders of their homeland. Some view this intervention with suspicion while others accept the inherent obligations to protect a way of life that has made them amongst the wealthier states in the region.

However much the economic progress of recent years has helped develop a better lifestyle for most people the influx of foreign visitors has changed the face of this modernising nation for better and worse. Although money from external sources creates job opportunities, tradition and culture is impacted in other ways, not always benefiting the indigenous population. Pollution, in the form of rubbish and sewage, create their own environmental concerns, and the boom in property sales has helped fuel inflation in the housing market that seriously affects lower paid workers.

There are positive factors though, and most people are quite happy about perceived progress as the infrastructure is improved and luxury goods become more widely available. Most people have computers and all the conveniences of modern living, and many people drive cars whereas not only did most not have the opportunity to own such a vehicle twenty years ago when I first visited the roads were fewer and less well-paved.

Westerners are slowly waking from their consumer dream to recognise the environmental devastation caused by the advance of industry, and yet most will never freely give up their personal luxuries such as automobiles, satellite phones and air-conditioning. However, when it comes to developing nations governments in the West, pressurised by growing popular opinion, seek to limit growth and a potential progress that generally involves deforestation, dam-building, nuclear power facilities and strip mining. The attitude seems to be, ‘we chopped down our trees and irrigated lands by rerouting rivers, we poured toxins into the air and the earth and we now have all the benefits, but it would better serve the future of the world if you didn’t do this while we utilise your underpaid and under-privileged labour force.’

It is difficult to explain to people from poorer nations with abundant resources why they should slow or halt development when they see free enterprise working for Western economies. It suggests an ulterior motive to maintain poverty and minimise standards of living for those outside the bubble of 20th century technological expansion.

How can we expect people to care about the environment when they see the acquisition of consumer goods as the method to equal opportunity? What can Western nations do to share the wealth and still effect positive change for the environment? How is it possible to alleviate ecological damage while accommodating the needs of others to have the equal access to the contemporary comforts of life?

Clearly, we can’t continue to deplete the resources of earth at the current rate with the impact of pollutants ever greater, yet it is understandable that those without should desire the same luxury and comfort available to the wealthy.

Who doesn’t want a hot shower or instant fire to cook with? Who could do without electric lights or central heating? Television is everywhere, and the media sells dreams of bigger cars, faster computers, integrated phones, imported food and travel, not to mention thousands of products we're required to buy regularly, from shampoo and perfume to clothing and compact discs. When do we finally have enough to be satisfied? Contentment, it would appear, is the enemy of consumerism, and so the wheels keep turning.

As the world spins on its axis, and communication is enhanced between those in far-flung nations the distance in culture is narrowed to a point of contact. The homogenisation of culture is approaching through media and technology, and people have developed shared interests that span the globe. The Internet has opened a window and though the sun shines in to light the way, the wind of change is howling.

The place where people meet, clasp hands in friendship and see eye to eye is the start of honest discussion, and talk these days is about equality and freedom and the suppression of the interests of the majority by the few. Those who control the churning wheels of the machine want to maintain growth of industries at the expense of many, but who among us has another way? What message is powerful enough to alter the spinning wheels of progress? Can words of truth, peace and unification be heard above the constant crackle of communication? And is anyone really listening?

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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

What..! Sacrifice ..?

For most people in Turkey this is a long weekend off work and the time to visit family. I decided to take advantage of a few days without classes to get into the sunshine and take pleasure in the wonders of nature and the mingling of the holiday crowds. As it was yet another beautiful day with temperatures still hovering in the low 20s (bottom end of the 70s Fahrenheit) I hopped in the car and drove along the coast to enjoy lunch in a seaside town, take a wander around the traditional markets, shop for some warmer clothes in ancticipation of the cooler season approaching and pay my respects to a few friends.I had planned a busy day.

This week is an important occasion that marks the 72 day period between Ramazan, with its carnival atmosphere at the end of the daily fasting during the holy month, and the commemoration of the Kurban. Turkish people call this holiday a Bayram, as they do with most national or religious events that embrace celebratory activities and time off work. Bayram translates literally as ‘festival’. Muslims in other parts of the world generally call it Eid.

With most people free from employment obligations for at least four days and many off work for the week the usual tourist areas swell for one last big occasion before winter closes the seasonal activity.

Grabbing this opportunity the local businesses put on sales and special entertainment to entice potential consumers, and it offered me the chance to revel in the culture and customs as well as the sensations of the bazaar. So, after my usual breakfast of fruit-laden cereals and bread dripping with fresh honey, I set off on a mini-adventure (yes, like this Blog it seems some things never change; I’m happy to say I might not either).

The souk in the old town consists of hundreds of stalls with their many handcrafted goods and delicious and unique foodstuffs, ancient shops built into the old city walls selling magnificent hand-woven carpets and skilled art works and dozens of tiny teahouses bustling with the commotion of customers and older men, obviously the regulars, playing backgammon at low tables. I made a couple purchases, including a fresh from the docks balik ve ekmek (fish sandwich) with salad and chips, and then spent time chatting to a couple locals as young men brought teas on silver trays.

Naturally, there is more to the festivities than simply eating and drinking and everyone is aware that at this time the sheep are slaughtered and meat donated to the poor by those who can afford to purchase an animal and put it to the knife. Several years ago the government outlawed the public practice of this massacre, calming the outrage of some sensitive souls who eat meat but don't want to see the action involved in getting it to their table - but it was still happening everywhere when I first visited Turkey nearly twenty years ago. Although nowadays most people either conduct the ritual on their own land or have the gruesome deed performed by a licensed butcher and collect the meat packaged supermarket style, back then it happened in the middle of the street in practically every town.

I was driving with my two companions from the same coastal area where I now live to Istanbul, and after travelling all night we arrived in Yalova, across the Sea of Marmara from the majestic city. We shared breakfast and after a boost of strong coffee headed into the early summer morning sun for the final leg of the journey (in retrospect we should have taken the ferry but the way we entered the city is a memory I’m sure none of us will ever forget). Suddenly, as the clock struck eight, the air was filled with the cries of fear and the terror of anticipation as the smell of blood hit the nostrils of every sheep and cow within miles of the town centre. As we stood outside the hotel where we had eaten a basic meal of eggs, cheeses and bread, hundreds of sheep were being flipped onto their backs and having their throats slit. The dark red blood ran into the cobbles of the road as if tracing its way around a maze toward the gutters, which quickly overflowed with the life of so many dying animals.

This weekend I was invited to come to a friend’s farm to witness the affair, but after some thought I declined, as my conscience wouldn’t allow me to go through that again. Instead, I’ve enjoyed the peace and quiet of the town I live in now that the overseas visitors have all but disappeared for the year, watched some football with the ex-pats who live nearby, and toured the nearby countryside to watch the last of the cotton being harvested and gathered before shipped off to the mills.

Some people it seems don’t get time off, and the temporary labourers and farmers work from daybreak till after dark to ensure the cotton is collected at the right time. Soon these buds will be turned into fabric and the cloth sewn into the clothes we wear. Many of the items will be available in local shops and everyone in the chain of growth, production and sales will receive a small portion of the receipts, however throughout the world many people are working in less comfortable situations to supply shops in Britain, the USA and other nations who exploit the poorest to maximise profits for 'brand name' merchandise.

Last Friday I was teaching an evening lesson and thought it would be a good idea to discuss Kurban Bayram and explain the origins of the festival to those who only experience it from within the sanctuary of experience of family and cultural tradition, intending to stimulate conversation about this ancient holiday. Tracing the roots of the events that have culminated in the mass killing of sheep we touched on the culture of food, the distinctive practices of various regions and the evolution of religion through the shared history of Islam and Judaism as well as drawing comparisons with other celebrations throughout the world and of course, speaking in English.

It all led to the eventual discovery by the students that the festival was a commemoration of the moment God (Allah/Yahweh) demanded that Abraham sacrifice his son (in Judaism Isaac, in Islam Ishmael) as proof of his devotion. At the last minute God tells Abraham he has passed the test of faith and tells him to sacrifice a sheep instead, and so to this day a sheep is offered in the morning. At temples, mosques and synagogues around the world sacrifices are made in the name of God, and surreptitiously to feed the less fortunate, though not everyone recognises the underlying resons for these shared events. Although several of the students were aware of the purpose of the Bayram, they were surprised to learn that Kurban actually means ‘sacrifice’.

Looking out over the harbour at one of my favourite castles as the sun set and the cruise ships departed, carrying their wealthy foreign guests to the next destination on the itinerary, I sipped a last coffee before heading back along the sea road to relax for another day, and of course put together lesson plans for my classes returning later in the week.

I’ve sacrificed the warm blood of meat for many years, although not putting mammal flesh into my personal temple of this body hasn’t felt like giving something up, but rather as lifting myself toward a higher passion. It’s been another gorgeous weekend in this wondrous land, but every day in the sunshine is another day of life to delight in; if living with the curious culture of a diverse people means I wake to the light of the sun in my eyes, that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to accept.

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Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Natural Terror

I’m fortunate to have awoken to beautiful scenery and sunshine this past week  ..

However .. Just over a week ago, on the 23rd of October, a massive earthquake rumbled Turkey near the city of Van in the Eastern part of the country, and the people who live there awoke to terror. I’d like to thank everyone who enquired after my safety and sent good wishes by email, facebook, skype and the other media outlets. Fortunately, I’m far from the epicentre of the quake zone and suffered no ill harm, however, I do know several people with family in the area and wish them the best in these difficult times.

Five days before the unsettling tremor, on October 18th, 24 Turkish soldiers were killed and 18 others wounded when an attack on police and civilians occurred near the Turkish-Iraqi border as the PKK once again set out to make their point for Kurdish independence in the region. At least 21 PKK militants were also killed attempting to flee back into Iraq after their raid on the border towns.

The town of Ercis, the most devastated of the crisis caused by the natural disaster is also located in the mainly Kurdish region. This raised the question once again of Turkish-Kurdish relations and the spectre of terror that haunts the two distinct cultural groups that live in this nation.

As the Turkish government and healthcare professionals, including people I know here on the coast, rallied to send aid and provisions as well as 250 doctors and a 900-person team from the Emergency Aid Team, another bomb went off nearby killing several more people, courtesy of a female suicide bomber.

The death toll from the devastating earthquake has now risen to 596 with more than 4,150 people injured. We have all seen the pictures of babies pulled from the wreckage, but how many have stopped to consider the longer term rebuilding efforts this will necessitate? The water network has been damaged and sewage may be seeping into the pipeline polluting drinking supplies, and of course many thousands have been left homeless and grieving.

Given the area’s large Kurdish population, the knee-jerk reaction of many, as seen on various social media, was that this was “divine retribution against separatist Kurds for PKK attacks.” SEMİH İDİZ http://www.hurriyetdailynews.com/n.php?n=earthquake-brings-out-best-and-the-worst-2011-10-27

I was visiting students in a nearby town this past week and those of Kurdish ethnicity are often quite vocal about their desire to have autonomous political control in the region many call Kurdistan, although they are more concerned with maintaining their ‘cultural identity’ and perceive the Turkish-led government as attempting to eradicate their history and language. People who consider themselves true Turks are divided on this issue, with many believing peace through talk is essential while others think all Kurds are part of a terror plot, sending the money they earn to the violent opposition. Most Kurds I meet simply want to integrate into a ‘modern nation’ with the same opportunities as all other citizens.

Naturally, I support those who seek peace. Peace and compassion combined with outreach to communities in need are our most valuable assets in times like these – what potential disaster is needed for all people to recognise our reliance on each other for existence in the face of tragedy? In 1999, when a massive earthquake struck in Western Turkey, killing many thousands, the Greek state quickly sent assistance, leading to renewed understanding of their common heritage and better, more peaceful relations between the two nations, an achievement politicians had previously failed to accomplish with all their posturing.

Let’s break down the walls of inequality and remove the barriers to peace to recognise our common humanity for the benefit of all people who encounter these obstacles, for there are no greater threats in life than the unstoppable power of nature and separation from loving human interaction. I have always believed that a truly civilised society is judged by the way it treats the least of its citizens. When someone is hurting, do not turn your eyes away, but wipe away the tears and help them to smile again, the world will be better for the little effort it requires to be decent, especially to those less fortunate.

In these days of occupation, whether on the streets or in far away lands, try to occupy your mind .. with thoughts of peace ..
 Over the past few days unseasonably cold weather brought deep snowfalls to parts of America’s East coast, including those places where I lived for so many years. Already people are dying from this latest onslaught of nature. My thoughts are with my friends and family there – hopefully it isn’t an indication of the winter to come ..

While you’re at it, spare a thought for those suffering in the floods of Thailand, and save a thought for how lucky you are to be reading this instead of struggling with one of these tragic events .. No one is immune from the power of a shifting environment, so, if you happen believe there is karma at work in any of nature’s actions, shouldn’t you be trying to ensure positive vibrations to counter the terror ..?

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