Friday, November 29, 2013

Down in the Dumps

Turkey: a country not a food .. Food and Guns may not seem to have any natural literary connection to you – but, they are inextricably linked to each other in how we perceive the world, and how we interact with one another, and our future may well depend on recognising that relationship .. 

With Jake and Dinos Chapman’s exhibit The Sum of All Evil showing in Hong Kong and recent events in Kenya, I’ve taken this opportunity to reflect back on a piece I wrote following yet another school massacre in the US .. I’ve updated something I hadn’t posted – but now I just want to rid myself of some feelings so I can continue to earn peace with my own condition in this world .. because it is Thanksgiving in America, perhaps those who give thanks should ask themselves why they feel it necessary to kill and eat animals by the million to express that sense of gratitude ...

I love food, I love to cook it, serve it to my friends, and eat it. A weekly trip to the local market is a vibrant experience that helps connect me to the local community. I love to discover new foods and ways to prepare meals, and sharing with others around the dining table makes it an even greater joy. Thanksgiving in America is a time for families and friends to remember reasons to be grateful for the lifestyle they have today. It is an occasion when food is the centre of a community gathering to share the love of our connections to each other.

Unfortunately, these days most people don’t have time to reflect upon the traditions and comfort that food brings to life, hurrying as we are between schools and jobs and other obligations, squeezing a quick trolley run around the hypermarket into the busy week. Somewhere in that hustle and shuffle we are losing the connection to the land that feeds us, as food has become big business rather than a way to bond with family and friends in a delicious celebration of living.

Do you ever think about how that food arrives in the supermarket to grace your dinner plate? How it gets from the farm to your house? Are you aware how few family farms now exist in relation to a hundred, or 50 or even 20 years ago? Did you know that a few global corporations are buying the rights to food production and patenting the seeds that grow your food, so that farmers are no longer allowed to plant vegetables without their permission? How can we allow a few people to control to the agriculture of the world?

How can we continue to allow weapons manufacturers to control the future of our children? Why don’t these people who collect and use these tools recognise the incongruence between the free access to weapons and everyone else’s security? Is their pursuit of happiness, through killing or having the ability to kill, more valuable than the life and liberty of others?

Why do we choose to accept the decisions of those who would lead us into war, or who continue to sell off the valuable natural resources that we are all dependent upon? Who decided these people were best qualified to lead nations and determine the future course of humankind (don't throw democracy at me - there are statistics to prove that 'most people' didn't vote them into power)? How can the system change to benefit the majority rather than a handful of speculators on the value of our inheritance?

So many questions, and the answers are lost in the confusion of personal interest and greed. Even when those politicians trot out heartfelt and sympathetic concern for the latest victims of liberal gun laws there is an insincerity lurking behind the choice of words in their speeches. When politicians suggest we must do more to protect our children, and ‘we must change’, he or she is really saying we should have more security in schools rather than we must change the actual gun laws. They mean we must have more paperwork before these rapid-fire automatic-reload machine guns are sold at gun fairs.

They mean, ‘we’ the authorities, will continue to be bought and paid for by various lobby groups to continue the manufacture and distribution of weapons to be unloaded on a media manipulated, culturally and socially anesthetized public. And, of course, the old argument of the gun lobbyists, that a free nation retains its independence by having a secure right to protect themselves from over-intrusive government, is pure nonsense.

If lawmakers were to say, “Okay, everyone must hand over any gun not specifically designed for self-defense or hunting,” who is going to be the first to turn their weapons against government agents rather than hand them over? Because in that scenario you won’t be protecting anything, you will be the aggressor, an enemy of the people, you will be shot down, and the media will be quick to splatter your image across the airwaves with the timelessly enduring label 'psycho'.

A shame, but time will witness deadly results to the way ‘we’ have allowed this unabated proliferation of deadly weapons to people who want a personal killing tool.

Time after time it has been shown that though words are spoken no action will hinder the production and sale of these instruments of death; if this continues, the future will be a frightening place indeed.

I believe that apathy to these acts of violence begins on our dinner plate.

 Our general lack of concern with the animal population (save a couple pandas because they are cute, but never mind the millions of chickens and cows and other ‘farm animals’ slaughtered daily) extends to our understanding of death and killing directly. The regular eating of meat without recognising the relationship to killing numbs us to the correlation between violent death and human pleasure. The media contributes its fair share of promotion to the aggressive nature of angry, confused and frightened people everywhere, drawing on the worst aspects of base instinct to muddle the issue.

These issues are related, because without the blood-soaked industry of live food production, which in itself is a further cause of deforestation (to provide feed and grazing land for meat producing animals such as cows), ordinary people would have greater access to resource rich lands to plant crops and establish farms without need for genetically modified seeds to induce larger yields. The infiltration of corporate seed manufacturers into the organic marketplace has created a deadly reliance on these patented genetically modified organisms which will come back to haunt us in future generations, and slowly (regardless of recent European legislation) these altered seeds and pesticide-dependent plants are insinuating their way into your kitchen.

Some of my students over the past year have been agricultural engineers, as this region, with its rich soil and excellent climate, is a veritable cornucopia of food production. I’ve been told many stories of the work they are involved with in the thousands of acres of experimental greenhouse plants. The major producer of patented varieties of seed, Monsanto, sends annual supplies of their newest strains to be tested for compatibility with the soil and sunlight and growing techniques, and these engineers observe and analyse the results. The most suitable varieties are then passed on to the farmers, eventually to end up on your dining table.

Every year the farmers must buy new seeds because the only seeds they are now allowed to buy have been genetically modified not to reproduce naturally. Larger, perfectly uniform red peppers and square watermelons may be aesthetically eye-pleasing, but what purpose do they serve other than making them easier to stack?

Naturally grown and naturally reproduced vegetables taste fresher and are healthier, being filled with more nutrients than these generic, modified organisms, so why do we accept these substitute foods? When did we begin to place greater value on the way things look over taste and our health? At what point did the image of a squash become more important than its direct nutritional benefits? Like a scene from the film Soylent Green we now can watch on media channels the process of turning chickens, if one can call a beakless, legless, featherless life form a chicken, into sandwich filler, and the confinement of young animals to tiny cells in order to boost production; yet still the world consumes these bizarre and unnatural foodstuffs.

Daily I see media images of children who live in and around garbage dumps, who swim in waters clogged with plastic and paper waste, who play in the residue of chemical plants, and it disturbs me to realise that while these children, victims of war and corporate greed, are foraging amongst the discarded detritus of modern lifestyles, most people in the West have become impervious to the discrepancy arising from a very real and yet contemporary technological disparity and disproportionate access to opportunities for betterment.

If these wars were really a battle to improve the lives of these innocent children then perhaps within debate their ends could justify them. If patented food was being used to feed them it could be argued that we are developing more efficient production to service a growing population. However, what we see is continued economic gain for the few and a downward spiral of disillusionment, despair, disease and death for many.

We continue to splatter the big screen of the cinema with images of graphic gratuitous violence and murder and pay to see these blood fests thrown into the popular culture with random abandon for the connection with and consequences of real life. And yes, there is a difference between an ancient Greek tragedy wherein someone is killed by the sword and contemporary cinematic gun battles – there is no moral imperative or punishment in the arbitrary killing of today. Why did he do it? No one knows and no one cares. So, life intercedes and ‘life imitates art more than art imitates life’, to quote Oscar Wilde.

It’s all around us, from those charged with attacking and killing people in other nations for a vague honourable purpose or insane devotion to a perverse religious viewpoint, to those who attack and kill their own neighbours for whatever socially twisted reason, to those who would kill animals for pleasure or sport, and those who indulge in excessive and brutal entertainment.

There are many reasons why these things happen, but the first thing to be done is to remove all the weapons from all people, everywhere. That means all firearms removed from all people. The manufacture and distribution of weapons must be stopped to move forward socially, spiritually and humanely.

Then, acknowledging the harm of violence that contemporary culture has embraced, perhaps we can rid ourselves of the mistaken belief that humans need protein from dead animals to survive healthily. Violence toward animals, in the form of captive consumption, is the root of deathly pursuits – for if we accept killing on the vast factory scale we have embraced today, then by extension we can easily accept the killing of other forms of life. We have become immune to torture and death, we have become anaesthetised to pain and suffering, we delight in the results of this fatal parade of blood-based food. Eating the flesh of mammals like ourselves prepares us to kill. Refraining from this deadly activity opens our minds and hearts to the realisation that we all share basic characteristics of life.

Once the weapons are gone, we can try to recognise what is in our minds; that our spiritual connection with the earth is essential to maintain life on the planet. Then we can act with justice in liberty to free ourselves from these bonds of insanity to discover the roots of truth and apply those principles in our daily life.

As the sun dips behind the mountains that line the coast and sets over the warm, blue sea I consider my options, and realise there are changes to be made in my life too. As I prepare for the next step on my own path, a path that is taking me closer to my home, I hope that others will find within themselves a spark of realisation that we shouldn’t continue to consume and destroy everything in our path simply because we can; having the ability to do something doesn’t mean it’s the best or right thing to do.

As I prepare to move on to destinations new, my prayer of hope is with those who suffer at the hands of these industries, these fanatics and these stubborn fools, anywhere and everywhere. Let’s begin the change to a better world by recognising our place in the process of distribution of death and the part we can play in stopping this madness. If we are to have a reason to give thanks in the future, then surely “we must change” .. indeed! Many Thanks.

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Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Such a Perfect Day

I’ve been to many of the local beaches over the long summer months; with the sun shining in a vast clear sky every day, the water temperately affectionate and every hue of blue and most weekends free to roam, the invitations from friends to swim and bask along the shore have been irresistible. From the peaceful pebbled shores of ancient Phaselis and the delight of the sunset between Roman columns at sandy Side, from cosmopolitan Konyaalti to presumptuously chic Lara, each is uniquely stunning and contributes to making this coastal paradise one of the best places one could hope to live out the dream.

It’s been a remarkable season of travelling and busy schedules that included weddings and birthdays and visitors from near and far, and the weather, perhaps surprisingly, is still beautiful now in October. It’s no longer stifling, with the dense humidity from the mountain passes that settles as an oppressive tempest of moist yet searing heat scorching everyone who dares to test its waning power, but rather a comfortable warmth that encourages evening café walks and balcony breakfasts.

And of course, there is the exciting party atmosphere of Oktoberfest that draws thousands from across the city and region to Ataturk Park where the stage had been set for some of the biggest rock and pop bands in Turkey.

The ubiquitous yellow taxis were doing significant business on this busy weekend of music and mingling. Dozens lined up at the gates in anticipation of shuttling people back and forth from every neighbourhood and hotel as more arrived in a steady stream to drop off arrivals at the park entrance across from the glass pyramid. We hustled over to the ticket booths to claim our free entry badges, supplied by a wonderful friend who manages to keep the local ex-pat community involved in so many events, and made our way through the throngs to find a table at our favourite pub stall near the stage.

There had been local bands playing on the small stage since early afternoon, and jugglers, clowns, popcorn sellers, food stalls and flag-waving patriots all hustled for attention, but it was now time to light up the main stage and welcome the main acts of the evening.

As the first raucous chords blasted out from the massive speakers we grabbed a few beers from the ever-smiling girls at the booth and started as we meant to go on, with bubbly stuff in one hand and arms locked in dance.

By the time we were on the tables for the final encores of the third band we had shared laughter and friendship and hugs and silly stories with the usual gang that includes people from every continent and a few new faces that were enthusiastically accepted into the crowd. I’m blessed to have such a diverse mix of people around me, and to be in a place where so much happens, from the annual piano and blues festivals, the renowned Portakal Film Festival and Oktoberfest, and as you would expect, all the various holiday theme parties organised at local clubs by the group.

Summer is a hectic and fun time in this part of the world; a busy work schedule complemented by a range of activities all available on the doorstep.

The natural beauty of the beachfront and the nightlife of the old town, the mountain treks and the crowded restaurants, the jostle of tourists and the drives to historic sites of variable interest all compete for attention. Driving along the coast with my sons one sunny day, after visiting Saint Nicholas’s church, we stopped for lunch so they could eat crabs fresh from the bay. We fed scavenger fish with the scraps dropped off the terrace over the water and talked of the similarity with the Chesapeake in Maryland, where they first learned to enjoy the flavour of claws from these blue-shelled creatures.

On the way back to Antalya we discovered an isolated beach nestled in a rocky inlet, and decided to take an afternoon swim. Donning flippers, we swam out to the cave we had seen from the road and spent a while skimming soft white stones into the smooth turquoise sea before putting on masks and exploring the underwater caverns teeming with multicoloured fish on the other side of the cove. The sunset was spectacular and as we dried off in the balmy heat the endless sky faded from sapphire to ginger and into inky darkness behind the ridge.

Turkish weddings aren’t at all like traditional celebrations in the West; with no religious sacrament involved and little in the way of ceremonial pomp most of the accoutrements are recent embellishments added by young women who have watched American films and been entranced by the elaborate dresses and oversized cakes. Basically, there is a signing of documents and a shaking of hands and occasional dance by fathers that seal the deal. However, on any given weekend there are dozens of couples exchanging a hasty vow and posing for photographs in the scenic beachfront park.

My lovely friend and colleague invited me along to witness the occasion, so with my eldest son still visiting we took the opportunity to go along for a unique insight into this Turkish rite of passage. We watched in puzzled astonishment as the hasty proceeding finished in a flourish of flashbulbs surrounded by many other couples going through the same ritual before they all ran off to waiting cars to drive themselves home.

Birthday parties, anniversaries and other commemorations of the passing time are generally more interesting affairs, with friends turning out to drink, dance and talk late into the night, often at public venues offering live music and food.

I’ve attended quite a few of these gatherings over the past year; with the active social scene it’s no wonder they turn into occasions for the community to congregate and congratulate with much tipple and many a toast of cheer.

Although the bands at Oktoberfest were energetic and well-known, I’m not overly enamored with Turkish rock music. It’s easy to dance to and hits all the right notes, sounding as much like anything else on the market these days, but for me that’s really the problem with most contemporary bands.

There isn’t anything new and dynamic about this version of pop, beyond the sporadic infusion of conventional beats with traditional melodies played on electric instruments, it comes across as just one more attempt to reach the top of the charts rather than expressing something artistically fresh and unique.

The singers sing beautifully and the keyboards players maintain the melodic harmonies, the guitarists do solos and the drummers thumps their tubs, but the inspiration is lacking behind one more version of a tragic heartbroken love song. C’est la vie, the world turns and the music business thrives by selling cover versions of the same old stuff to a sedated audience, but, at least we could all dance to the recognisable rhythm of good old rock and roll.

It’s now late in the month and Halloween is upon us, there was a costume party I was unfortunately unable to make due to changing plans, but I know I was missed and the heartfelt thoughts of others mean much more than the routine of frivolous action. Memories of great times with friends near and far are the best of recollections. The reminiscences of places visited and the warmth of family comforts are more important than momentary self-serving seeking of fame and temporary acquisition of plastic possessions, and thank goodness, because objects and items don’t last as long as memories.

Like the ever-present sun setting into the sea on a sultry summer evening, the things we leave behind are the feelings of tenderness and love shared with others. The desire to leave a lasting impression is greater than the need to accumulate disposable apparatus of little value; this is part of what drives artists and musicians to create.

But being remembered after death for an accomplishment or article has little significance if there is no knowledge of the sentiment that produced the effect. It is life itself where the art is achieved.

Moments of genuine connection are the best remembrance of success, and companionship with others underlies the sense of victory over death. In the end, when the dust of the day has settled across the beach and the stars have scattered as tiny points of light across the midnight sky, we are left with the knowledge of camaraderie and special relationships that make the struggle for acceptance of self in this life worth the time we spend working to maintain the necessities of living.

To paraphrase the influential recently departed musician Lou Reed, my only hope is to make every day a perfect day, to be glad I spent it with you and you with me, to help me forget my self, and to show me how to sow what others will wish to reap.

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If you're interested in hearing any of the bands pictured above follow these links to the official videos: Model  Yüksek Sadakat  Cambaz

Friday, October 18, 2013

A Life Underground

The sun turned the colour of blood as it cast a brilliant final glow across the evening sky here in the valley of stone mushrooms. As sunset once again drew a veil across the heavens I sat on a cushion across a low table from my sons, smoking the inevitable hookah and drinking a brew of pleasurably spiced tea. This is what I live for, the salutation of the dazzling morning sun that welcomes me to another day, and the evening blaze of colours that announces not the end of day but merely a pause, a suspension of the brightness of the light till it circles back to wake us with its unblinking eye.

Throughout the endless weeks of high school classes and adult speaking clubs that cluttered my waking hours during the summer season I’ve managed to squeeze in some exciting adventures, visiting some now recognizable and a few unfamiliar locations. I enjoyed them all with friends or family members who’ve made the trek to enjoy the scenery, nightlife and the variety of culture and history on offer in this fascinating region of the world.

I’ve been blessed with two sons, and for the first time in a few years we were able to arrange our schedules to meet for a couple weeks at the same time in the same place. One with time off from his job in the Far East, and the other coming from Western Europe for an extended stay before an exciting career change. We decided to make a real holiday of it here at the crossroads of those continents by travelling to places neither would have the opportunity to see in their respective chosen homelands.

At least three or four times this year I’ve been over the Toros Mountains in either direction, to Bodrum to visit friends and Konya to consider a position at the university, and eventually returning again to witness the imposing natural grandeur of Cappodocia. This time I was resolutely determined to investigate the ancient Byzantine churches with their enduring iconic paintings and wall carvings, and journey underground through the once inhabited caves that link as an endless chain beneath those majestic monuments of the natural world.

These troglodyte communities were hidden below the towns and villages of this desert region as protection from advancing armies of Romans, Arabs and Khan's Mongols in succession.

Some of these cave systems are reputedly much older than the early Christian period generally ascribed to them (though I don’t subscribe to the extraterrestrial theories that some have suggested). Evidence clearly shows that Christian settlers and hermitic communes continued the excavations, however no definitive date of origin has yet been determined. The mystery of how and why they were first dug still eludes archaeologists and historians, and entices scholars of ancient culture.

The subterranean town of Derinkuyu, just south of Nevsehir, which could sustain as many as five thousand people, is part of a network of interlaced cavern refuges stretching over dozens of kilometres.

It contained everything the community might have needed to survive for extended periods; living spaces and wine presses, halls of worship and storage facilities as well as cisterns and secreted airshafts. To provide defence during times of crisis there were large, heavy, circular stones strategically positioned beside crucial tunnels, to be rolled into place and secured with a locking mechanism should the need arise.

Wandering away from the beaten and occasionally lighted tunnels is an unnerving experience, and once or twice discovering ourselves in a darkened and narrow channel I was quick to shine the tiny flashlight back to the route we’d ambled down in a crouch.

Hours spent in challenge to discover some key to the reasons for this underground world resulted only in a sense of bemused confusion and nervous laughter as we attempted to find the infrequent arrows that direct intrepid visitors through the warren of chiselled halls and passages.

There are many of these underground cities throughout Cappadocia and some are better preserved than others, though several are as many as eighteen levels deep, containing hundreds of rooms and labyrinthine passageways that meander up and down through eerie cloisters. One can only imagine the bizarre lifestyle of the people who chose such a severe existence in this wild volcanic realm with its suggestively structured landscape.

Heading back into the sunlight from the sheltering grotto of those prehistoric caves we decided on an afternoon hike into the open country. The fairytale mushrooms loomed above and around seemingly distorting proportion and perspective. A ramble through the spectacular landscape is not only breathtaking and awe-inspiring; it raises questions of the depth of faith these anchorite communities maintained across centuries. As if caught in a dream sequence from some childhood story in all its magical intensity we strolled and ran and leapt through this natural wonderland.

Not content to merely admire the rock-hewn churches from without, the next day we made our way through the crowded turnstiles that guarded the most famous post-iconoclastic visual art of these devout ascetics. Bishop Basil of Caesarea (nearby Kayseri) had, in the fourth century CE instructed the residents to dig cells into the soft rock to create churches and dwellings for the growing monastic population, and despite attempts by later settlers dozens of these illuminating sanctuaries still exist; albeit some have become faceless as the Islamic prohibition on graven images persisted past the Byzantine ruling on representational drawing.

The first churches built contained only a minimalist revelation of symbols, though after the iconoclast debate of the 8th and 9th centuries the paintings became vivid and representational. Having previously only seen these images in textbooks and magazines I was taken by three-dimensionality of the figures. I was led to believe that Byzantine art of the period was purely flat and superficial in their semblance to reality, however these works of art displayed an awareness of form and colour I hadn’t expected. No photograph can reveal the depth of shadow and fullness of shape these illustrators had been capable of portraying, more so than early Orthodox icons I’d seen in other churches.

There was a small group of restoration artists from an Italian university finishing their daily work on one of the magnificent wall paintings and I momentarily interrupted to ask a few questions. One young lady was obliging and spoke some English, so we settled into an informative conversation about the rich temperas and use of the inherent shape of the rock basilica to design the anamorphic paintings that covered the arches and ceiling as well as the walls. Apparently there was some restoration in the 1970s that brought out the vibrancy in the dyes and tints visible around us. She and her colleagues were now slowly cleaning an area previously untouched, though she was more artist than historian her appreciation of the meaning behind the work itself was noticeable as she told of the efforts to maintain this historical site.

Christ on the cross, Mary and Joseph at the manger, the Holy Trinity gathered round a feast table, the apostles and supreme winged angels, they were all here in glorious tableau of colour. In several of the churches we visited there were representations of Saint George slaying the dragon, giving rise to the ancient legends that have spread throughout Christendom of this all-conquering hero, or rather posing questions about the adopted patron of England and the Crusaders who crossed this enchanted land in the 12th and 13th centuries, when the last of these rupestral churches was dug into the valley.

These colourful testimonials to an ancient way of life, to a belief ingrained in rock, the convents and churches, the secret underground dwellings and phenomenal sculptures that retain their dramatic impact today, still occupy the minds of academics and artists with their power of faith and incomparable skill of décor in this vast curious landscape.

The complexity of this post-iconoclast art is beyond intriguing from an ethnological point of view, and provides freedom to the creativity of imagination that roams among these mushroom mountains like the eagles that soar overhead into their eyries high among the peaks of the hoodoo spires.

Returning again to these fossilized formations above and beneath the Cappadocian plateau has merely whetted my appetite for further travels. My heart seeks discovery of additional evidence of continuity of revelation by turning the key of awareness that is revealed in the natural world here in this exquisite terrain.

Yet within, I know the art and architecture of devotion is always simply another human attempt to explain the disclosure of self and our connection with each other through time in a diversity of environmental conditions and cultural expressions.

The quest wasn’t yet over for us, more adventure awaited in the coming days, but for this moment our hearts were filled with joy in recognition of mutual interests and the love of life that had granted us time to share on common ground; ground that saints and martyrs, heroes and villains had trod before us.

The shadowy subterranean trails of art that cross this historic site were merely paths on the way to enlightenment for them and now we too.

Their lives, and what they left for us to find are a part of our own history, and so we acknowledged their lingering presence as old friends, as ancestors whose blood unites a family. For blood is the sacred essence that sustains life, a life that continues to remind us who we are and who we have been, as beings in process of becoming, fingertips reaching eternally toward the risen sun.

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