Istanbul Redux

If you’d asked me a week ago what I thought about my experience abroad I would have said, “I want every moment of the rest of my life to be like the last three months.” On the ferry from Beşiktaş to Kadıköy, while Istanbulites busied themselves with their evening commute, I had that peculiar sensation of having nowhere in particular to be when everyone around you is in a hurry. For two lira, the price of a pack of gum, this ferry takes you across the Bosphorus Strait from Europe to Asia. The idea of crossing continents, a momentous event for most people, is just part of the everyday grind of a rush hour commute for the people of this magical city.

Europe as seen from the ferry.

This time has been filled with all the lush clichés of travel narrative. I overcame the depths of disabled despair and had the trip of a lifetime.  I fell into the ecstasy of love with countless people, places, things and, above all, foods. Every day was a new adventure to discover the myriad wonders this world has to offer. Words trite enough to make an English teacher queasy, and arguably I’ve been conditioned by the literature to feel this way, but all of it rings undeniably true.

At the Fenerbaçe football game

When I first arrived, I was taken aback by the aggressive Turkish nationalism that pervades every aspect of society. Yet, I quickly learned that such passion applies to Turkish art, music, cuisine and especially the polarization of domestic politics. At the risk of making too broad a generalization, Turks are simply a passionate people. The people of Turkey are right to be energized and proud of their country. Turkey has gone from an impoverished backwater to one of the most prosperous, dynamic countries in the world over a period of time that even teenagers can remember.

Ataturk institutes the language reforms

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Jordan

Our last group excursion was to Jordan where many of our friends from Georgetown had spent the semester studying Arabic. Jordan is a country filled with beautiful desert landscapes and friendly people. I’ve been particularly struck by the excellent Jordanian sense of humor, which seems to be a universal feature of the people here.

Habiba in downtown Amman is a local favorite for desserts

We arrived late at night at the Farah hotel in downtown Amman, a modest hostel that would serve as our home base in Jordan.

Sam overlooking the agora at Jerash

The next morning we took a tour up to Jerash and a few other sites in northern Jordan. These consisted mainly of Roman ruins and castles.

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The Political Economy of the Burqini

As seen in The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs 

A new fashion has arrived to accompany the alcohol-soaked beach resort hedonism of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Alongside bare-breasted Scandinavian tourists, women sporting the latest designer burqinis splash in the waves and build sandcastles with their children. A burqini is the crossover between a burqa, the traditionally modest Islamic dress, and a bikini. The innovative combination of these two seemingly irreconcilable articles of clothing represents the interwoven contradictions that comprise modern Turkey.

In recent years, Turkish politics has taken a culturally Islamic and economically neoliberal direction. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which came to power in 2002 espouses a brand of Islam that embraces Western-style capitalism. This represents a stark departure from the Turkish Republic’s strictly secularist roots.

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Up the Nile

Our cruise down the Nile River from Luxor to Aswan was among the most relaxing and spiritually refreshing experiences of my life. The ancient Egyptians regarded the river as holy for the obvious reason that all activity in Egypt is concentrated around this thin strip of life that carves its way through the desert. Millenias-old temples line the banks and the call to prayer emanates from the small river towns along this flat, lazy stretch of river.

We boarded our Faluka in the morning. It is a moderately sized sailing ship. One of the key features of the Nile, is the prevailing winds always blow south against the current. In order to go south, one simply puts up the sails and to go north one simply floats. The boat is intended to sleep perhaps twenty passengers. The three of us shared the boat with four Australians and our captain, Enrique, along with a friendly crew of indeterminate size.

On the deck

The first day we took lunch with the men and I’ve finally begun to get the hang of Egyptian colloquial Arabic, which is somewhat different than the classical Arabic I briefly studied at Georgetown. I asked the men of the crew about their families and their impressions of Egypt after the revolution. Against a substantial language barrier, the gist of their responses was “Mubarak bad, democracy good.”

Enrique, our spiritual guide for the journey.

For the remainder of the day we lounged on the luxuriously padded deck of the ship and swam in the swift currents of the Nile. The men assured us there were no crocodiles in this region. In the evening we dined with the ship’s captain and owner Enrique, an enigmatic Harvard man and Paris-based world traveler, who recounted to us tales of his exploits around the world. Hoping for more detail, I asked him in private, “Que faites-vous exactement à Paris?”

He responded simply, “Je vis.” Continue reading

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Luxor

Luxor as seen from a hot air balloon

Authors note: This narrative begins partway through my journey to Egypt after my experience in Cairo. I apologize for being preoccupied with other writing earlier in my trip. If I can ever find the words to express a fraction of the magic and energy that was Tahrir Square and revolutionary Cairo, I’ll be sure to publish them here.

Arriving at 5am by sleeper train in Luxor, we called the Princess Hotel from the guidebook. The French-Egyptian couple that owned the establishment left behind a younger brother to look after the place during their absence in France. He picked us up at the train station. The Princess Hotel, more like a hostel, had a lot of character. The dimly lit entry way led up to staircase with several floors, but only the second floor was fully constructed, while the remaining floors were simply concrete slabs with bits of metal reinforcement poking out of the roof.

Our room consisted of three beds and a bathroom with an arrangement in which the entire bathroom was a drainage basin for the shower. It had bright pink walls and in one of the windows had been blocked off with a leftover cardboard box of Dasani water bottles. This box flew out of the window when we turned on the fan. We may have been the only guests at the hotel.

In front of Hatchepsut Temple

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Whirling Dervishes

Author’s note: For last week, I wrote a post on the state of Turkey’s economy in which I criticized the country’s tariff policy that prevents the importation of quality electronics. In a bout of comically absurd irony, the post was deleted when my hard drive crashed and I was unable to get it fixed because the necessary parts could not be imported or purchased.

Last weekend we traveled to Konya, a large city on the Anatolian Plateau. Konya was the capital of the Seljuk Empire, but it is best known as the home of Rumi, the great Persian poet and Sufi mystic. He founded the Mevlana order of Sufi mysicism. This order is best known for its whirling dervish ritual.

The ceremony begins with the Sheik giving his blessing to each whirling dude.

We happened to be in town for the 804th anniversary of Rumi’s birth and were lucky enough to witness this elaborate ritual performed in his honor. Also, through some stroke of Georgetown connection magic, we got to meet Rumi’s great great great… (x26) granddaughter before the ceremony.  Continue reading

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Stuffing Myself in Turkey

Let me begin by saying that I have yet to try any food in Turkey that I did not immediately like. I’m the kind of person that is willing to try almost anything, but I also like to think I have high standards for judging food. I would rate my experience with Turkish cuisine just below Italian and on par with French cuisine. Upon my return, I vow to crusade against whatever set of unjust immigration and trade regulations that have prevented Turkish food from becoming a staple in the American diet.

The basic unit of Turkish food is the kebab, which refers to a wide variety of meat-based deliciousness. Turkish cuisine incorporates elements from Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Balkan traditions. Here are some of the most memorable meals from Istanbul:

4 course meal at Ottoman Hotel Imperial: The theme of this restaurant is to recreate actual meals eaten at the Ottoman court. The restaurant had hired our guide Günhan as an advising historian to ensure that the dishes were made with historically accurate methods and ingredients. My favorite dish was Mutanjene: Sun- dried Apricots,Raisin,Shallot,Honey & Almond flavoured diced Lamb Casserole.

There is an invisible layer of melted butter too delicious to be captured on film.

Iskender Kebab: I had dinner with some university students, one of whom did not eat at all because he had “eaten Iskander Kebab today for lunch.” I later understood what he meant when I sat down and proceeded to ingest upwards of 4,000 calories in one sitting without pausing to breathe. Iskender Kebab consists of very thin slices of grilled lamb meat with tomato and pita, which is then fully saturated in butter and yoghurt. The waiter came by every few minutes with a bucket of melted butter to pour over and replenish the meat. Continue reading

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