Raki II

For those who read the last post and are aware of the context in which it was written, I have somewhat revised my views on alcohol over the last 24 hours. Now that I am among Muslims in a traditionally Muslim country (although quite secular compared to most Muslim countries), I consider it just as important to be respectful and sensitive as to have fun — and where my need for fun clashes with the norms of my new home and my home-within-a-home (the hotel hallway where I live among all my fellow students), I will pledge to choose the latter over the former.

I have considered alcohol to be a social substance that builds camaraderie and helps reduce tension, leading to more substantive conversations. It is rare that I drink alone or for the solitary purpose of forgetting. Nonetheless, Friday night helped me recognize that alcohol can also be an antisocial substance if it is not shared and loved by the company one maintains. When my father was inebriated in my presence as a child, it was undoubtedly antisocial — no matter his intent.

On a positive note, I had a wonderful time with my alcohol-friendly friends and ate seafood for the first time since I can remember while looking out over the Black Sea in Sile (pronounced “Shih lay”).

Alcohol certainly has its value, and it goes beyond loosening one’s inhibitions. I saw a documentary on the plane called How Beer Saved the World that argues, among other shockers, that agriculture originally developed around beer (bira in Turkish) production instead of food production, that beer has mystical healing properties, and that beer was the method of payment to the ancient Egyptian laborers who built the pyramids at Giza. I would be curious to know how exaggerated some of these claims are — they are made quite convincingly — but if the short (less than one hour) length of the documentary, which spans thousands of years of history, is any indication, this is the result of shaping evidence around a pre-determined conclusion. I like to call this “historical cherry-picking.” Moreover, the title gives off the impression that this is not a serious film. I did not think that it was for real until the first credentialed scholar appeared on the screen, usually with a beer in front of him. If nothing else, it did make me feel slightly more at ease with my own drinking habits.

Nevertheless, I think I will take it easy for a while and concentrate on reading, studying Turkish, and preparing for my classes. The scenery is intoxicating enough (especially in Istanbul, which I will get to in a later post). I could probably go the next eight months without a drop and be happy.


Raki (pronounced ‘Rahkuh’)

It did not occur to me upon arriving in Istanbul and insisting to my host that we drink raki on my first night that I had already had a similar anise-flavored drink in Palestine. For those unfamiliar with hard liquor, raki is the national drink of Turkey and its Arabic cousin is called arak, which I was served by my Palestinian Christian host in Beit Sahour after he had noticed from my glazed-over eyes that the collective suffering of a proud people had left me unable to enjoy sober conversation.

This could be a noble way of saying that Yours Truly, the former Nazarite (see ‘John the Baptist’ — although I never went so far as to eat locusts because they aren’t exactly vegetarian) does not function well without the occasional drink. My mental and physical tensions can no longer be sufficiently ironed out through education and activism, which was my outlet of choice as an undergraduate — education falling somewhere around  fifth on the list of priorities. My mid-twenties have taken me down a steady path of self-indulgence. I have become what I have coined a ‘hedonistic humanitarian,’ or a ‘humanitarian hedonist,’ if you prefer.

I define this as someone who derives some pleasure from helping others but who primarily looks out for his own needs — yet does not meet those needs by harming others. It is a challenge to the self-sacrificial nature of a pure humanitarian and the self-serving nature of a pure hedonist. I think it is necessary to both understand and embrace contradiction.

I recently heard criticism from some friends here that alcohol causes a loss of self-control. This is a criticism I wholeheartedly shared before I became a casual drinker. Now, I feel that it gives me more control. My former allegiance to abstinence was ultimately out of fear — fear of becoming an alcoholic coupled with the fear of conforming (my sense was that most college students drank, and I didn’t want to be like most college students; I wanted to be like me). Knowing that I no longer have this fear and that it was unfounded to begin with (I am neither an alcoholic nor a conformist now that I drink, and my friends back home can attest to that), I feel much more ‘in control’ of alcohol than I did when I abstained from it. I also know from experience that, despite what some people think, alcohol does not make a person into someone fundamentally different. It reduces inhibitions — so if someone is already a very angry person, alcohol may make them more likely to become violent, but it cannot put anger and violence into the heart of someone who is not angry and violent normally. Moreover, behavior depends on how much you drink, what you drink, and why you drink, and whom you drink with. Drinking responsibly with trusted friends is not the same as getting hammered at a random party.

I do not wish to sound preachy, so I will get back to raki and how much I enjoyed drinking it with newly acquainted friends at Taksim Square in Istanbul. I recall — despite drinking more than two glasses far too quickly — walking through throngs of tourists and locals, worrying that I might lose my guides and have no way of finding them, taking in all the lights and strange monuments, and eating cheese that I remarked was “stronger than the raki.” Then I remember a rustic bar, a refreshing beer, over-salted snacks, and a beautiful woman reminiscent of someone I know from the U.S. who kept coming back and forth to our table. I also remember a long, exhilarating cab ride and the best sleep I had in 48 hours. Not bad for my first night in Turkey.

Don’t Hate Me…

Here is where I’m staying: http://www.bestwestern.com.tr

Not to exaggerate — but at this point, on the first official day of the program, I would call it cultural and intellectual paradise. Never have I been more comfortable with unfamiliar surroundings.

Of course, it’s quite easy to be comfortable when you have your own well-furnished room with a large bathtub, shower, two beds I don’t have to make in the morning (one for a guest), and a balcony. This is not to mention the indoor pool, the outdoor pool, the game room, the exercise room, the sauna, and the classroom only meters away. When I compare this to my freshman dorm at the University of Maryland — well, you get the idea.

I could see this as the beginning of another unfortunate sequel to the sadistic thriller The Hostel, which I only saw because I was seeing a somewhat sadistic woman at the time. On that note — and I promise I will expound on this more later (which you thrill-seekers will undoubtedly enjoy) — the women I have met here so far, Turkish and otherwise, have been exceptionally charming, supportive, and lovely.

Just in case you’re wondering: I didn’t come here for deluxe accommodations. I don’t even stay at hotels unless it’s prearranged by someone other than me. I’m a Coach Surfer, a homestayer, and a hosteler. What makes this work for me is that I’m in such close proximity to my fellow students, so it still has that dormitory feel — if dormitories had mini-bar service. Plus I don’t plan to spend a lot of time here except when I have to study or attend classes. I plan to experience everything Turkey and the surrounding region has to offer, time and resources permitting.

With all that having been said, here are some photos. Still say you won’t be able to visit?





First Reading Assignment/Reflections on Community

I just finished reading an excerpt for my studies from the book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace by M. Scott Peck about community. It was interesting to learn that at least one other person from what is perhaps the most individualistic nation on the planet (the United States, of course) has spent a lot of time thinking about how to achieve true community.

Community is not something a person can possess. It is the manifestation of the best aspects of communalism and individualism (what Peck calls ‘soft individualism’) and must be nurtured over the long term. Community is fluid and, at times, transient. For me it has been a life-long search, but I cannot think of anything more important to seek out. It’s the need that meets all other needs.

In fact, I was talking about the concept of community in our introduction exercises this morning. I told everyone that the thing I needed the most from them was community, which for me includes sharing, support, humor, and love, especially. I also shared a poem about my hometown, a paragon of mindless individualism exemplified by the need to soup one’s car up to the point where it can ‘beat’ all others on the road.

Here is the poem:

I come from…

The well-manicured lawns and two-car garages in front of lifeless, box-shaped houses

The roaring engines of motorcycles, cars without mufflers, and lawn mowers.

Meatloaf, green beans, mashed potatoes, and a mother that demanded I eat everything on the plate.

I come from Pepsi and Doritos. 

…Lately I come from Rum and Coke.

I come from motor oil, cigarette smoke, incense and peppermints.

I come from a neighborhood so dull that everything I do is a novelty.

I come from opportunity.

It Begins…

The prodigal son has landed! I write this at 4 p.m. local time from an apartment in Istanbul. I wish I could say exactly where I am, but my mind is hazy to say the least. I was too excited and preoccupied with the in-flight entertainment (as well as the pain of the pressure building up in my ears) to get my sleep.

I’ll have to write more about the journey. The short version is that it involved three planes, three movies, four German-speaking seatmates, and a delay that resulted in my having to sprint to catch my connecting flight. What matters right now is that I’m here.

I want to give a brief shout-out to everyone who made it to my party Thursday night. I had a fabulous time, and I love you all: friends, colleagues, and, of course, Mom. Thank you for making my last night in the United States this year so special. I wish I had the words to articulate my gratitude. But I don’t…so you’ll just have to fill them in!

I also appreciate the calls from those who couldn’t make it. Let’s definitely keep in touch through Skype, Facebook, e-mail, etc. Feel free to comment on my posts here as well, especially if you can answer any open-ended questions I leave you with or if something in particular moves you.

Right now I’m drinking a glass of what tastes like cottage cheese. Apparently it’s called Ayran. I’ll let you know what the chief alcoholic beverage of this country tastes like after tonight. Stay tuned…

Orhan Pamuk and I

When I ask friends and polite strangers familiar with the region to recommend Turkish authors, they invariably point to Orhan Pamuk, the 2006 Nobel Prize in Literature winner. I have only begun to dig into Pamuk’s work, which is quite extensive (he’s the best-selling writer in all of Turkey), but I can say already that I am most intrigued.

I checked out his Istanbul: Memories and the City from my local library and was able to read through much of it before concentrating my efforts on packing for my trip to the namesake city, where Pamuk was born in 1952. 

The book is a memoir of Pamuk’s experiences as a privileged child in post-imperial Istanbul. What struck me is the many references to Istanbul’s ‘past glory’ as the capital of the dead-and-buried Ottoman Empire. Everything I have heard of the city from locals and internationals alike would suggest that it remains glorious, but Pamuk fills the reader with black-and-white (which he insists are the true colors of the city, as portrayed by European artists) images of wild dogs roaming the back streets, desolate neighborhoods, and neglected imperial ruins alongside modern urban development.

Quite befitting of the black-and-white imagery is Pamuk’s lengthy description of the concept of huzun, which denotes melancholy, but is far more complex, communal, and spiritual than a typical Western understanding of the word. I cannot do it justice but to say that when melancholy becomes a way of life for an entire city, it takes on an entirely different meaning. It’s an expression of the typical sorrow that accompanies the inevitable loss of all worldly attachments and, at the same time, an expression of profound spiritual sorrow that comes from detachment from God/Allah. The second form of huzun is actually a desirable state for Sufi Muslims. 

The brand of melancholy that I am most familiar with — and would much like to discuss with Pamuk if I so happen to meet him in the streets of Istanbul (or perhaps on a weather-beaten bench beside the mighty Bosphorus) — is the yearning for the presence of an alternative world or reality. I associate it with a Bohemian lifestyle because this alternative world need not replace the current one: It can exist within it in small urban enclaves. Before I came to fully appreciate my friends and family in the United States, I saw Turkey (or anywhere exotic) as my ticket to this alternative reality. Now I see it as a breathtaking opportunity to learn and grow.

Rather than melancholy, I hope to experience profound bliss and wonderment — preferably without the loss that Pamuk details in his chapter on his first love. Although I am not a visual artist, Pamuk inspired me to become a painter with his descriptions of the modeling sessions he arranged with his former love in a private apartment when he was 19. I wonder what manner of beauties I could attract if I set aside hours each week to paint my favorites — and was actually good at it. Of course, it could all end tragically as it did for Pamuk: His lover’s father did not want his daughter to marry an artist and sent her away to boarding school in Europe.

Their loss. Pamuk’s the one making fortunes off the story, after all.

Ten Reasons Why I’m Going to Turkey

1) The people

Almost without exception, EVERY Turkish person I have ever met has been not only nice but extremely friendly and helpful. A Turkish stranger at the embassy actually lent me $20 so I could pay for my visa without running to an ATM and refused to take my check for $25. If this is a sign of things to come, I am really in for a wonderful eight months.

2) The history

Istanbul is the former capital of THREE past empires: Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman. Need I say more?

3) The geography

Turkey is pretty much the center of the world. It’s the bridge between so-called Europe and so-called Asia (I prefer Eurasian because any person with eyes can see that it’s a contiguous landmass, which equals ONE continent). It borders Greece, Bulgaria, Syria, Iraq, Iran, Armenia, and Georgia as well as the Aegean, Mediterranean, and Black seas.

4) The politics

Turkey is a very complicated country politically. I can’t speak to it too much because I’ve only begun my studies, and the books I’ve read so far are woefully out of date. Suffice it to say that I find it far more interesting than what passes for democracy in the United States.

5) The cost

I think it says something (bad) about the system of higher education here that it’s actually cheaper for me to get my Master’s in Turkey (including travel and lodging costs) than it would be for me to get it here. Sometimes I think all we get in return for our American citizenship is a lot of empty rhetoric about freedom and opportunity while we get advertisement after advertisement waved in our face as if our only purpose in life is to buy the next iThing so that we can ignore people on the Metro.

6) The timing

It’s not like I’m in a long-term relationship. I’m also not getting any younger. I have to do this while I still can. Plus I really, really don’t want to be here for this whole election nonsense. Bad enough I have to hear all of this fawning over Michelle Obama…as if her speech wasn’t written by some overpaid political operative.

7) The fact that it’s not D.C.

I get tired of being in one place for too long.

8) The march

I got this Mozart piece stuck in my head.


Welcome to my new travel/study blog!

Dear family, friends, colleagues, and supporters:

This blog will serve as my means of documenting my experiences as an international Master’s student at the University of Hacettepe’s new Peace and Conflict Studies program based outside of Istanbul, Turkey. I want to thank everyone who helped make this journey possible and invite you all to visit me, if you are able, between October 2012 and May 2013.

I am writing this from Washington, D.C., where I am attempting to tie up loose ends before I leave on Sept. 21. I don’t have to tell you how stressful it can be preparing for a transition of this magnitude. Despite all this, I hope that you will not hesitate to reach out if you would like to talk to me/visit me prior to take-off.

I hope you will also recommend any books on Turkey, things to do, or places to visit while I’m there that would be of interest. It is my first time, and I only have a handful of contacts (yet the ones I do have are incredible to say the least). I want to make the very best of this experience, which I consider once or twice in a lifetime.

Finally, if you have any questions or comments, feel free to post them on this blog or send me an e-mail, and I will do my best to respond to them either publicly or privately. I will be writing no only about personal experiences but also about politics, culture, language, and whatever else strikes my fancy. Feel free to share.