Friday, May 31, 2013

gezi parkı

I have to interrupt the posts from Urfa because I find what is happening in Taksim, in my home, disturbing. For the past three days, people have gathered in Gezi Parkı in Taksim to protest the removal of trees for the massive construction project that the government begun last fall. The plan to turn one of the area's last green spaces into a shopping mall, moved people to peacefully occupy the park. In response, police have attacked protestors with tear gas and water cannons, injuring many, hospitalizing some. I do not know the exact figures, nevertheless, when I came home from work today, my neighbourhood looked like a war zone. My eyes and throat burned, I saw legions of riot police forming a wall on the other side of the newly built tunnel, blocking the square. Then, POP-POP-POP! I turned around and saw a thick yellow cloud rising, moving towards me.

Unarmed citizens are being gassed, sprayed point-blank in the face with chemicals, and assaulted by high-pressured water cannons.

They even gassed the metro. The metro.

This is not right.

Please be warned, some images are graphic:
Occupy Gezi on Tumblr
Photos on Hurriyet Daily

Monday, May 27, 2013


It was a fine afternoon for exploring, so we headed south to the town of Harran, famous for its beehive-shaped adobe houses. There is evidence that the area has been continuously inhabited since the Early Bronze Age, and the earliest records of an actual town named Harran date back to around 2300 BCE. The beehive shape, which is said to have remained unchanged for 3000 years, serves to cool the interior of the house during the relentlessly hot summer months. Over time, people abandoned the beehive houses for more modern abodes in the village, leaving the old adobe structures for the tourists.

Upon entering Harran, it was clear that the village was not doing so well. Gangly kids with smeared faces played in the dust, while adults eyed us intensely from dilapidated homes. Within minutes, we were approached by a young man on a motorbike who insisted that we follow him. He offered us protection from harassment, and presenting a weathered university ID card, claiming he was also a guide. We explained through the half-rolled car window that we didn't need a guide, and even if we did, we didn't have any money left to pay for one. He frowned in offense at the mention of money, and assured us he didn't want anything in return— he simply wanted to show us the beehive houses and treat us like guests. Having heard the very same lines before in other parts of the world, I was suspicious, and doubted his sincerity.

"No money, you promise? We do not want a guide."
"No, no! I don't want anything! I promise."

We were led to a courtyard edged with a row of conical mud houses converted into one long gift shop packed full of gaudy trinkets— some of which had me searching for the 'Made in China' sticker. A lady in a glittering magenta robe with a hard look in her kohl-rimmed eyes followed us, half-heartedly insisting that I buy a new scarf from her. She rolled the edge of my cobalt cotton scarf in between her fingers, then dismissively tossed it back to the place it was previously resting, against my chest. My raised brow incited a peal of laughter from her, and I shook my head with a smile, leaving the shop for the courtyard, which had gathered a small group of people.

At this point the man who had brought us there had become edgy, and urged us to leave— we shouldn't stay with "these people" any longer, we should rather go with him to see a tower somewhere outside of the village. There was no way I was going with this guy anywhere, and told him that we would stay with "these people" for a tea, and do some sketching of the beehive houses. As soon as Pedro and I pulled out our sketchbooks, there was a flurry of excitement expressed in a mixture of Arabic and Turkish. The lady in pink introduced herself as Jamila. She led me to a little stool with all the excitement of a child, and asked me to draw her.

"You make my face, then you give me!" She grinned.
"Tamam, Jamila, ok."

She sat up straight, lengthened her neck and tried not to smile, but she was beaming from ear to ear. I felt strangely relaxed— I'm usually too timid to draw a portrait on demand, preferring to capture my subject unawares.

It was a quick sketch. I would have liked to have coloured her vivid scarf and dress, the lovely tone of her skin, and those blackened lids, but we needed to move on. Our 'non-guide' was pestering us to leave with him, and I suspected that he was going to ask us for money soon. I carefully tore the sketch out of my book and placed it in Jamila's eager hands. She showed if off to the other ladies with pride, who muttered maşallahs at me in appreciation. Jamila and I exchanged a series of thank yous, in both English and Turkish, and I headed back to the car with Pedro.

"Where are you going?" The young man asked. "Don't you want to see the tower?"
"No, I'm sorry, but we need to leave."
"But, you need to see the tower! Just come with me, I will show it to you."
"No, thank you." I firmly replied, climbing into the car.
"Well, I took you here. You should pay me for that!" He suddenly became the harasser, who he assured us he would protect us from. 

"Remember, you promised me." I reminded him with a wag of my finger. He then spun around, jumped on his motorbike, and angrily sped away. I looked back at Jamila and the others, who were happily chatting away, inspecting the sketch. It made me feel better.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

göbeklitepe, sketched

The left page of the top spread is a sketch of the fox and rabbit relief which Mahmut bey explained to me, and upon the facing page, perhaps another fox, and a boar with those unmistakeably curved teeth. No one seemed sure about the bird-like creatures in the second spread— this animal motif was repeated quite frequently on other pillars, and seemed almost duck-like. This motif quickly became my favourite for its roundness and content expression. I wish I could have done more!


Pedro and I left the hotel around seven. The light was pale and golden, and the sky seemed forgiving— though I suspected a drizzle was on its way. As we slowly drove through undulating fields of yellow and green grain, Crested Larks and shrikes went about their morning business, hunting for insects. Invisible partridges called out from somewhere in the wheat, and a little owl glared at us from a rock pile we passed.

We arrived at the entrance to Göbeklitepe at the agreed upon nine o' clock, but the rest of the group was nowhere to be found. After waiting for some time I called Ayşegül, who told me there had been complications, and that they would meet us at the site at around ten. Since we had an extra hour to ourselves, we decided to try and enter the site and get a head start on some sketching.

The actual temple site was a lot smaller than I had imagined, though no less amazing— I couldn't believe I was standing at the very spot I had read about, and the guy in the green shirt just on the other side was the Klaus Schmidt, the German archaeologist who first began excavations at Göbeklitepe in 1995. I wanted to bother him with all sorts of questions, but since he and his crew were working, I thought it best not to disturb him. I wondered if we were allowed to just walk right in, but no one stopped us. We each picked a T-shaped pillar and started to sketch.

As I mentioned in the previous post, Göbeklitepe is the site of a Neolithic sanctuary built by nomads in the region, around 10,000 BCE. The sanctuary is a series of circular arrangements of T-shaped pillars, which vary from 3 to 6 metres high. It is believed that the T-pillars are stylised representations of the human form, as some have reliefs of arms carved into them. What I found most intriguing were the beautifully rendered animals— foxes, boar, birds, and other animals were carefully carved into the faces of the pillars, some with great detail. Göbeklitepe is the oldest example of a religious site ever found, and its complexity is baffling.

While sketching, a man with an impressive beard and brow greeted me with a smile. His head was wrapped in a red checked scarf, and he donned a long black robe over his plaid shirt and shalwar pants. He wore a name tag that read "Mahmut Yildiz"— and it wasn't until I returned to Istanbul that I learned that Mahmut bey is the owner of the land upon which Göbeklitepe sits. He leased the land to Klaus, who is working with both the German Archaeological Institute and the Şanlıurfa Museum to unearth the sanctuary. Mahmut bey told me that the animal on the pillar I was drawing was a fox, then pointed out a small, faded rabbit shape, which I had neglected to notice and include in my sketch. I thanked him and pencilled it in, which pleased him.

At around half past ten the artists from karala(ma) arrived, along with Turkish archaeologist Mehmet Önal, and members of the university who were documenting the event. The artists took to drawing immediately, spreading out along the wooden walkway with tools and books in hand. I was impressed by the speed of their sketching— I was still on the one I had started an hour and a half ago!

Me, Pedro, and Orhan, one of the founders of karala(ma) 

I felt so lucky— lucky to be sketching this monumental piece of human history, lucky to be drawing with a group of Turkish artists, lucky that it didn't rain. The stone pillars at Göbeklitepe were more impressive than I had imagined, so well preserved and readable. What did these animals mean? Why did nomadic people decide to haul and erect 40– 60 tonne stones here? I wish I could have stayed all day and sketched every single pillar, but eventually we had to move on. There was still a lot to see.

Monday, May 20, 2013

to urfa

Back in March, I had the good fortune of meeting French Urban Sketcher Sylvie Bargain, who introduced me to Turkish mosaic artist Ayşegül Güvenir, and her friend Nur, who is also an artist. We sketched the Perşembe Pazarı fish market, ate some fish sandwiches, and formed a friendship. I am continually amazed by all the wonderful people who have come into my life because of sketching—in fact, if it weren't for sketching, I wouldn't have met Pedro.

Ayşegül asked us if we wanted to join a group of Turkish artists called karala(ma), who were invited by Harran Üniversitesi to sketch around Urfa, a city in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border. One of the highlights of the trip was an excursion to Göbeklitepe— the thought of which sent me over the moon. Göbeklitepe, or "potbelly hill", is the site of a Neolithic sanctuary dating back to around 10,000 BCE. I had been doing a little independent research on Göbeklitepe for a class I'm teaching on Paleolithic and Neolithic depictions of the human form in art, and this was too amazing of a coincidence. Before I knew it, Pedro and I were on a flight to Urfa, sketching gear in the overhead compartment, and nestled in the seat pocket in front of our knees.

As we were hoping to do some birding on the trip (the nearby desert region of the Middle East brings with it some special birds who cannot be found in other regions of Turkey), we decided to rent a car at the airport for more mobility. The process of renting the car was quite mysterious, as many things are in Turkey, and after completing the necessary paperwork, we were told to wait outside for a Hyundai, which would arrive in five minutes. The sky turned black on the horizon with an advancing storm, and I wondered if sketching at an outdoor archaeological site would be possible, as we discovered rain was on the forecast for the next few days.

"Five minutes" in Turkey is a relative term; to the car rental agent it meant fifty minutes. The deliverer of the car was a young guy who looked ready for a night on the town, hair coiffed, tight shirt, scented with cologne. We looked over the car, documenting a few minor dents, and when we opened the trunk to load in our bags, I began to suspect that this rental car doubled as a personal car. Several plastic bags of clothes and an instrument case were hurriedly removed by the agent with an embarrassed grin, and we were asked by the fragrant guy if we could give him a ride back to the city. I had my doubts, but we accepted, hoping for the best. Upon exiting the airport, the storm poured down in sheets.

Eventually we made it to Urfa, dropped off the grateful young man (who in the meantime had spritzed himself with more cologne), and began to look for our hotel. Ayşegül had told me that the University hotel was an old converted stone house, but when we finally found it, we were surprised to discover it was grander than we had expected. Our room was gorgeous. Stone walls, high vaulted ceiling, elegant woodwork, and three beds... a far cry from the kind of place we usually stay. We spent a few minutes looking around the room in awe and gratitude, before venturing out for some dinner. A jovial group of people passed us while wandering through a quiet little street, when Pedro suddenly yelled out "Ayşegül!"

Ayşegül introduced us to Ayşe, Aysel, Orhan, and Ayla, and we were happily reunited with Nur. Our group headed to a nearby ciğer joint, ciğer kebab (liver kebab) being one of Urfa's specialities. Pedro indulged, but since I'm not a big fan of liver, I ordered a çöp şiş instead— a kebab of little cubes of spiced lamb. The kebabs came with a dish of spicy caramelized onions and a heap of mint, perfect to cool down your burning tongue.

Urfa felt Syrian. I never had the chance to visit Syria— my Tante Leyla and I had a trip planned to visit Damascus, Aleppo, and Qamishle, but then the war began. I wanted to see where my father was born, in that little border town, where his mother bought chocolate through a fence from a Turkish bakkal. I wanted to learn about my grandparents— my grandfather, the quiet, compassionate doctor, and my grandmother, his fiesty and passionate wife. As I discovered in Antakya, Urfa had all these Middle Eastern touches. There were checked scarves artfully wrapped around the heads of many men, embellished stone houses, and a blend of Turkish and Arabic which produced a delightfully heavy h and kh.  I wondered about the people not far from where I stood, the horrors and loss facing them. It made my heart ache. 

Friday, May 17, 2013

and now for something completely different

An adventure in southern Turkey, where I spent last weekend sketching with Pedro and a group of Turkish artists— eating the most amazing kebabs, visiting the oldest temple ever found, searching for the Iraqi Babbler on the banks of the Euphrates, and hanging out in a cave.

There are sketches, oh yes, and loads of photos coming your way!


As the story goes, in 1917, three children came face to face with an apparition of the Virgin Mary, while taking their flock of sheep out to pasture. Mary told them to return to the site at the same hour on the thirteenth day of the next five consecutive months, which the children did faithfully. A miracle was promised, and on October 13, Mary appeared once more, asking that a chapel be built upon the site in her honour. Soon afterward, 70,000 people witnessed the sun "whirling on itself like a wheel of fire, (and) it seemed about to fall upon the earth."

The chapel became the enormous Santuário de Fátima, where pilgrims from all over the world come to show their devotion— some walking across the country, some shuffling upon their knees from the entrance of the complex to the chapel. There were people from as far away as Venezuela and Korea, people in wheelchairs, people with desperation on their brows, people who looked overjoyed.

What I found interesting, were these beeswax sculptures of body parts, located near a fire pit into which pilgrims tossed enormous candles in prayer. The sculptures reminded me of Mexican milagros, little folk charms used for healing. Milagros can be made of anything really, but are typically found embossed in tin, and can be rather ornate. Here in Fátima, prayers for healing took the form of wax body parts, softly molded and pale. The image of a child, of hearts, a pancreas, and a pair of legs, brought a pang of sadness in my chest. I hope the people who left them there get what they need.

The air was hot, and fragrant with that sweet honey smell of beeswax.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

dinner in spain

When going to Spain is simply matter of crossing a bridge, it's ridiculously tempting to cross that bridge. While staying the night in Vila Real de Santo António, we decided to have dinner in Ayamonte, Spain, just on the other side of the Rio Guadiana. Suddenly, there's wailing flamenco music on the radio, the lispy s, and obrigada becomes gracias.

Mind you, these are not the nicest photos (my camera was still having issues with focusing and adjusting to light), but our meal was quite tasty. We dined on ray in paprika sauce, fried cuttlefish, fried anchovies, and hake roe, drank two beers, and headed back to Portugal.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

three lunches

These may look like scrambled eggs, but they are oh so much more. It's asparagus season in Portugal, and every so often along the side of the road, crude little stands laden with fresh green asparagus tempt the eye and belly. After a visit to a heron colony (where I delighted in watching Spoonbills preening) we stopped for something asparagusy at Café do Parque in Benavente. Eggs scrambled with the little green spears sounded like a perfect lunch, with a plate of river shrimp to accompany them.

These were the most amazing eggs I have had in my life. Ever.

Until this moment, the best eggs were a buttery scramble I devoured in Prague, but these... oh man. I have no idea what was put into them (other than the asparagus), but the flavour was unreal. These were magical eggs, with the ability to transport you from your current state of being into a blissful hum. I longed for more at the very last bite, but settled for the salty sweet river shrimp, which were pleasing, but those eggs!

At the end of our meal we met the chef and his wife, who, after hearing the compliments we bestowed upon her husband, stated with a grin: "I tasted his food, and I had to marry him." They invited us to sit for a spell, and offered us both a taste of some fine, homemade firewater. I felt so at home, so touched by their kindness.

In contrast with the warmth at Café do Parque, our second lunch brings us to a bustling café in Vendas Novas, the self-proclaimed capital of the bifana. I've hardly touched upon my deep love for the bifana— steaks of pork hammered into tenderness, fried in butter and garlic, then slipped between two pillowy halves of bread. With some squirts of tangy sweet mustard, happiness is yours. You can practically taste the bifana effect on your waistline in each bite, and I can tell you from personal experience that a bifana a day will surely round you out in no time. Back in January, Pedro and I began a scientific search for the most delicious bifana in Portugal. We had at least one each, every day, and by the time I got back to Istanbul, my pants refused to button.

Naturally, when I heard about this "Capital of Bifanas," we had to test the goods. I forget the name of the café— as every single one in Vendas Novas advertised their famous sandwiches as being the best. We picked the busiest one and eventually managed to get a table, gluttonously ordering two each for comparison purposes. While the pork was ever so soft and juicy, there was no hint of garlic whatsoever. I'm not Portuguese, but to me, a bifana without garlic is a little sad. Everything else was lovely— the bread was soft, the meat was perfection, but I missed the garlic...

Our third lunch takes us to the Castro in Castro Verde, where we dined on more pork (some of you may remember my ferocious appetite for the other white meat from this earlier post on pork) and  migas. Migas are comfort on a plate— a squishy crumble of softened bread cooked in lard, and since it was aparagus season, the migas we ordered came with hints of green. Paired with pork that melts in the mouth and a lovely green wine, I found myself eating ever so slowly to make the meal last longer. I really don't remember much about the dessert— I know it was good, but oh how I can still conjure up that delicate flavour and cosiness of the migas in my mind.

You really do eat well in Portugal.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

driving south

the necessity of quiet

Not too far away from Évora, near Guadalupe, stands the largest group of standing menhirs in the Iberian peninsula. The Cromlech dos Almendres is a double ring of 95 stones, some carved with mysterious patterns, the oldest of which date back to around 6000 BCE. It's smaller than Stonehenge, but such a lovely place— no one around but the birds, bugs, and cork trees. Being a fan of both Neolithic structures and lichen, I was happy to spend an hour watching the shadows from the stones lengthen, examining the different patterns and colours of the lichen. It made me miss calm green spaces, which are so hard to come by in Istanbul. With the horrendous traffic, the few parks available feel so far away, and it often seems as though you're swimming in a sea of concrete. If you cannot see the Bosphorous, you can begin to feel a little suffocated. I was thankful for this little cromlech, for the twisted corks and olive trees. We all need expansive sky and quiet every now and then.