Turkey in the News…Again

You may be seeing stories about the protests in Gezi Park, near Taksim Square.  For four days now, an increasing number of protesters have tried to save the park from being destroyed by the massive development project in Taksim.  Turkish police are no stranger to big confrontations…the country has a long history of various, at times violent, unrest.  A typical response is to use water cannon and tear gas.

In the six months we’ve been here, I’ve frequently heard complaints about the “mall-ization” of Istanbul.  The current government undertakes huge development projects, some of which reportedly involve privatization of public spaces.  My research of complaints includes a lack of transparency and public notification and involvement, destruction of archaeologically significant sites, and enrichment of the few at the expense of the many.

The ruling party is largely composed of conservative bourgeoisie Muslims.  It looks a lot like the US Republican Party to me.  Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the founder and first president of the Turkish Republic in 1920, decisively separated the new republic from its Ottoman, thereby Muslim, past by deeming the country definitively secular. He made radical changes,one being the alphabet, thereby immediately rendering the entire population temporarily illiterate!

Saving the trees in Gezi Park has become a symbolic protest and criticism of heavy-handed, autocratic actions and policies, including a speedy parliamentary ruling limiting hours for sale of alcohol, the harassment of journalists and political opposition,  and even a PR tiff naming ayran – a yogurt drink I happen to love — as the national drink over rakı, the Turkish equivalent of Greek ouzo,  One blogger portrayed the national drink as çay (tea), which feels more true to me, so this particular political tit for tat will likely disappear.

We all know the varied outcomes of these sorts of political uprisings, from Cairo’s Tahrir Square, to Sidi Bouzid in Tunis, Zuccotti Park in Manhattan, Oakland City Hall in California, and so on.

Personally, I am surprised at the unchanging response of the Turkish police in Gezi Park.  Tourism is a key industry – who else are all of the shopping malls for?  Turkey is continuing along the path towards EU membership (although, I suspect if they ever get there, they may choose not to join), and they are in contention for the 2020 Olympics, to be awarded this fall.

International media is speculating on the emergence of a “Turkish Spring”.   I just hope the ruling party pays honest and meaningful attention to those citizens of this fair country who differ with them.

You  don’t have to worry about us.  We live on a different continent from Gezi Park where the Occupy protest is occurring.  Jim and I understand the first rule of avoiding the wrong place at the wrong time…don’t go there.  We did not go to City Hall in Oakland either, and the distance and situations are pretty similar.

In fact, generally what we observe in Turkey, reminds us of corollaries we’ve seen in US politics.  I love Turkey, and I hope for the health of her peoples and their governments.  This may be an emergency for the current party…and I hope they show some leadership out of the problem.

Istanbul is a big city.  The warm stiff breeze this Friday evening has turned the normally placid Marmara Sea across the street from our apartment into a raging beach.  Young peoples’ singing in the park along the water is wafting through our open windows.  Taking Lucy for a walk, we collected dondurma (ice cream) cones from famous Ali Usta – a warm weather Istanbullular pilgrimage destination each weekend.  Jim had iki top (2 scoops) of çikolata parça (chocolate chip) with çikolata sosu (hot dipped chocolate sauce), I had iki top, çikolata and şamfıstığı (pistachio) dondurma with çikolata sosu and kıyılmış cevizi (chopped walnuts). Life is good.


The Prince and the Pigeons

In spring and summer, when school is out, seeing boys dressed in all-white suits with faux fur-trimmed flowing capes and plumed hats is a common sight. We were on the Hippodrome in Sultanahmet, the U-shaped Byzantine promenade which Constantine renovated and used as a horse-racing track, watching a boy dressed as a king.  His cape became his wings as he swooped with the pigeons on the square.

Wings unfurled, he's ready to fly.

Wings unfurled, he’s ready to fly.

He was in the midst of celebrating his circumcision.  That which might be discussed between expectant parents and then quietly dispatched by an infant’s pediatrician in the US is a rite of passage in Turkey.  

Ready for launch.

Ready for launch.

Though the tradition is evolving, many Turkish families observe the event to some extent.  Rural and religiously conservative families may continue the practice of actually  performing the circumcision during the festivities, with the newly minted little man resting on a fancy bed in a corner while being distracted by gifts and sweets.  The Sünnet marks the first step in a boy’s road to manhood.


Though urban or secular parents may choose to circumcise their sons at birth, some still host a traditional party when the boy is of age, generally between the ages of 4 and 12.  A single son celebrates at 6 or 7, but  financial economy may dictate a shared event for multiple sons, at younger and older years.  Municipalities and political parties may also host circumcision parties for less affluent constituents.


The religious procedure is called the “first joy” as a step into religious life.  The urban and secular , may debate carrying on the tradition, and parents may choose to circumcise so their boys conform socially.  Some grown men reportedly remember their circumcisions as scary and painful.


The traditional event can include a parade astride a pony or car followed by all invited guests and passersby, gifts, dressing in ceremonial finery, a feast, and generally being the center of attention. Celebrations may continue over a few days until the boy has healed, or in the days prior to the event the costumed boy may visit, kiss hands and collect gifts.


I love the pageantry of the fashion apparel and the excuse for celebrating, but as a bystander watching a costumed boy, I can’t know whether the deed is done and he has nothing to worry about, or whether the kid is blithely racing around showing off without a clue as to what comes next.  Knowing what might be coming for an unsuspecting little one makes me cringe.