‘Tit for Tat’ — A Way of Life?

A week ago in class I was introduced to the work of Robert Axelrod, namely his Evolution of Cooperation. Although it might seem paradoxical given the name of the long-term winning strategy in his ‘prisoners’ dilemma’ experiments (Tit for Tat), this strategy, if replicated in daily interactions, can produce more peaceful and sustainable relationships. Here are the basic principles — framed in my terms:

1) Be Nice

This is pretty straightforward and obvious. It helps to be nice to others as it tends to lessen the amount and degree of negative interactions and increase the positive. In this context it means to not start trouble (more so than to smile at people, give compliments, etc.). Nice does not mean pushover — as we will see in the next principle.

2) Be Provocable

This does not contradict #1. Think of it in terms of self-defense. If someone starts trouble with you, defend yourself proportionally. This could mean that if someone was supposed to show up at 6 p.m. for dinner but showed up at 6:30 without a legitimate excuse, you could respond by asking them to pay for your appetizer. Or let’s say your roommate borrows your favorite shirt and returns it with a stain that cannot be removed — you could ask him to buy you a new shirt, or you could refuse to let him borrow any of your clothes again. If someone insults you verbally, you can insult them equally (this might sound harsh, but the 4 principles must work in tandem for the overall strategy to work. Numbers 3 and 4 will serve to alleviate the tension).

3) Be Forgiving

This could also be translated from the experiments as ‘be fair,’ but to me the concept of fairness is more complicated than forgiveness. Either way, the idea is to not press the advantage. If you have the upper-hand, forgive instead of becoming bitter or vengeful. This was a difficult lesson for me to learn once I started building my assertiveness over the past two years. It is difficult, if not impossible, to sustain relationships of any kind of you are too hard on people and not willing to let small things (and even big things!) go. Accept people’s apologies and believe that they are sincere — but at the same time hold them accountable when they slip up (see #2).

4) Be Clear

Transparency and clarity, far from being a weakness, can actually be a major strength. Sometimes entire relationships are based on misconceptions that could have been avoided with one honest conversation in the beginning. It doesn’t always have to be positive either. You can be clear about the things you can’t stand, and then feel a lot more justified in practicing #2. I sometimes tell people that I can’t handle flakiness. Sometimes I never hear from them again afterward — but if I couldn’t handle them anyway, it’s probably for the best.

Memories from my Weekend in Istanbul

1) Visiting a miniature version of the famous Dome of the Rock mosque in Jerusalem in Miniturk. I visited the big one this past July. Just imagine miniature versions of every important building in the entire country in an area less than a square mile. From a distance it looks like a miniature golf course. I think every country should have this attraction. If anything, it saves people the trouble and expense of having to visit all of these places (not that I don’t want to try).

2) Seeing this giant Medusa head in the Basilica Cisterns near the Hagia Sophia and wondering what the hell a basilica and a cistern is. My art history and Latin teachers would be so disappointed… Although my Greek mythology teacher (if I’d ever had one) wouldn’t be upset because I remembered most of the Medusa story. If I could turn men to stone with just a glance, I would start with Mitt Romney.

3) The Hagia Sophia in all of its immense size and glory. There’s nothing like Christian iconography in peaceful (though somewhat awkward) co-existence with Islamic floral patterns and Koranic verses. My art history teacher would frown once again for my not taking the opportunity to talk more about the history of this one-of-a-kind church turned mosque turned museum, but I will leave that to the experts.

4) Playing three-person chess. I thought it was completely made-up when I first saw a picture of it on Facebook — but through some twist of fate, my host/friend for the weekend had it in her house. The two-player game just isn’t as interesting anymore. Plus the red pieces look really cool. The Red Army prevailed this time!

5) Watching seagulls eat pieces of bread in mid-air. This was a form of on-board entertainment while I ferried to the Prince’s Islands south of Istanbul’s center. I didn’t get this dude’s name, but if he’s reading this I hope he didn’t take offense to my comment that I would throw him overboard if one of the passersby decided to shit on my head — I didn’t realize he could speak English at first. Oh, and two other interesting things happened on the same ferry ride: I met a very friendly and beautiful Saudi woman with her family on vacation whom I mistakenly tried to speak Turkish to, and I got to watch two different traveling salesmen attempt to sell us the types of contraptions you might see on late-night television in the United States (the kinds of things that look cute but that you would never, ever actually buy). The Saudi woman used to live only a few miles from my apartment in D.C. I would say ‘small world,’ but it’s a boring cliche, and every true traveler knows that the world is pretty damn big.

6) The Orthodox monastery of St. George. The island itself, Buyukada, was a lot larger and more difficult to navigate than we had thought, but cheap bike rentals made it possible for us to visit the main attraction. It came with a spectacular view of the Sea of Marmara and Istanbul off in the distance on two sides (it’s a very, very large city). Other than bikes and pedestrians, the island is filled with horse-drawn carriages (there is no motorized transportation). I can still smell the horse shit as I write this, but it was a small price to pay for taking what amounted to a pilgrimage on a sunny Sunday afternoon to a relic from the Byzantine period. 

Turkish Hospitality

For those who are unfamiliar with Turkiye and Ataturk, one of his famous quotes, which I was reminded of during a visit to Minaturk in Istanbul, is (roughly translated) happy is the one who calls himself a Turk. After this past weekend — combined with other weekends before it where I experienced Turkish hospitality firsthand — I would like to memorialize another quote: Hospitable is the one who calls herself/himself a Turk. But I need to amend it slightly when I think of my Kurdish friends:

 Hospitable is the one who calls herself/himself a Turk or a Kurd.

And if my readers will indulge me, my attempt to be more gender neutral has made the quote somewhat clunky, so I will further amend it:

 Hospitable are the people who call themselves Turks or Kurds.

Now I’m still left with a dilemma because the revised quote could be seen as implying that Turks (and Kurds by extension) are not happy — as was claimed in the original from Ataturk. I do not wish to suggest this at all. Both seem very happy to me. Of course, I have encountered a few angry Turks here and there (especially on the Metrobus in Istanbul), but on the whole it’s a happy, friendly place. I have never felt as at home here as I do now. Yet, of course, it has only been a month, and I have many more ahead of me that will undoubtedly bring challenges of all sorts (some likely involving things other than hospitality and happiness) — but nonetheless it’s great to feel so comfortable in a foreign land so soon after arriving.

I am completely won over by the concept of taking pride in caring for others. There are many things that people take pride in that I find quite negative, such as how nice their car/house is; for me this is one of the most positive. We should take pride in being kind to those who are in need or who are looking for a good time and hoping to learn about a new culture. I say this after feeling it firsthand, and I am now committed to being a more hospitable person myself. We can all use our gratitude to ‘pay it forward’ instead of to pay back, which has a negative connotation in more communal cultures (where individuals are more likely to see their actions as serving a broader community or familial purpose rather than as merely helping another individual, who then would owe a debt of some sort). This is how peace is cultivated.

The Black Sea and Sile

Why is it called the Black Sea or Kara Deniz (in Turkish)? It’s quite blue just like most other seas. Because I am too lazy to look up the real reason for the name, I will stick with my working theory that there is a black hole in the middle of it. It’s also a way of explaining why a handful of people disappear under its waves around Sile alone each year. I’ve heard it’s due to whirlpools, but I don’t buy it.

I actually took a nap on one of its beaches today — yes, it is still warm enough to do that, even though it’s mid-October. That nap was interrupted by a strong breeze and a fly that wouldn’t stop biting me on the legs as I walked back to the road. It’s interesting how deserted the beach is these days. There aren’t even lifeguards this time of year and no sign of tourists except for an older German couple I met today. The beach has a completely different feel to it when it isn’t crowded. There is only the gentle sound of the waves.

The town itself is also quiet and peaceful. There’s a large hill behind our hotel that I climbed once and took photos overlooking Sile. I got a little scared when I noticed animal feces, but when I thought about it, I was pretty sure that it belonged to wild dogs, which are ubiquitous in the area and generally harmless (although hungry). The only thing living I saw in the highlands was a lone tortoise.

This is not an easy place to meet new people, which is a bit of a shame, but it’s as good a place as any to study — and write. I will have to do plenty of both over the next year. I think I will take up writing poetry again and attempt to translate what I write for the locals. This was once my favorite method of seduction. So much of this country has already seduced me, so it is only fair if I return the favor.

Turkish Manhood

I never thought I would say this, but being in Turkey makes me feel like less of a ‘man’ at times.

What does that mean exactly? What does it mean to be a man? Is it a concept, an ideal, or a living organism? It’s unclear to me because less than a month ago in Washington, D.C. I was fully a man, and now it seems that in order to be a man in Turkey I have to eat meat, smoke cigarettes, drink alcohol (of course, I already do that), and worst of all — I have to be jealous when it comes to my relations with women. The last attribute is what I want to explore here because it’s come up numerous times since I arrived. I should note, though, that I am not quoting from any official ‘how to’ manual on manliness when I cite these attributes. Yet, they are not so far-fetched — as some friends have already attested.

What is jealousy? Is it a normal response that arises from true feelings of love or affection? Or is it representative of an underlying weakness — an insecurity? Back in D.C. I strongly agreed with the latter explanation (assuming there is no third theory on jealousy), but I must say that I can see the other side — not only because I have felt the sting of jealousy (and the accompanying rage) myself but because I have just been made aware that it is possible that some may interpret a lack of jealousy as evidence of weakness. No man, no matter how progressive, wants to be perceived as weak. Still, I wonder if it could be a ‘both and’ (we are learning in our classes not to see everything in terms of ‘either or’) — could it be that men are weak when they are jealous and weak when they are not? Men are far from perfect after all. Maybe a tinge of jealousy is ideal. On the other hand, it could also be a tinge of weakness.

I don’t have the answer. All I know is that I would never want a woman to feel a jealous rage on account of me that would lead to any pain on her part (or lead her to hurt someone else). I do not associate that with love. Of course, it is less socially acceptable for women to act that way in most cultures than it is for men. There is no way for me to know if I am really progressive on this or if I am just keeping with the gender stereotypes. Further evidence that I am only keeping with gender stereotypes is that I (admittedly) am enticed by the idea of being given a long leash (in other words, freedom) by my partner. I would not associate a person allowing me freedom with having a lack of feelings for me. Maybe it’s arrogance and/or narcissism  but I think just about every straight woman either secretly or not-so-secretly adores me (or they would if they knew me better). Narcissistic though it may be, it is likely the antidote for jealousy. If a woman gave me freedom in a relationship, I would just assume it was because she cared about me, my interests, and my needs.

I wonder if it is in any way compatible with the dominant Turkish view of manhood. Then again, why do I care? I hardly ever follow the dominant view on anything.

Muslims are NOT ‘the enemy’

I will concede that I am not a typical Westerner, so when I talk about relations with the Muslim World, one must keep in mind that this is the third Muslim country I have visited and that I have dated not one but TWO Muslim women in the past. This is atypical for someone who was raised Christian and taught that Muslims were violent and misguided by nature.

I can still recall my uncle’s mindless responses to the news reports of the Second Intifada when I was half the age that I am now: “Kill ’em all!” I remember questioning the logic of that statement even then, but it was not until a couple of years later that, after being excoriated by older friends far more knowledgeable than I was about the Middle East and Islam, I came to realize the poisonous bigotry that had overtaken me. While it was rather humiliating to receive The Complete Idiot’s Guide to World Religions in the aftermath of that exchange,  I swallowed my pride, started thinking for myself, and realized they had made a good point. They were two of the best and brightest to ever matriculate from my high school, and they remain my friends to this day. 

I certainly owe them a great deal of thanks. It would have been a tragedy if I had continued down that path and cut myself off from 2 billion of the world’s citizens whom I had never bothered to know and understand. I can’t imagine what my life would be like now if I had remained brainwashed. I sure as hell would not be studying peace and conflict in Turkey. 

I also want to make it clear to anyone listening who is not as familiar with U.S. policy as it relates to the Muslim community: Do not be so brainwashed as to think this recent wave of violence (namely the regrettable killing of the U.S. ambassador in Libya) was caused by some third-rate propaganda film against Islam. That view in and of itself reflects the arrogance of the West, whose concept of free speech extends far and wide when Muslims are the subject of derision but has little to say about this precious liberal value when its own crimes are exposed by the likes of Julian Assange. Has the West honestly forgotten the plethora of reasons that Muslims would have to be angry and, perhaps, murderous? I might attempt to list them here, but I would like to sleep tonight.

Yet, if I allowed myself even to think about these crimes against humanity committed in crusader fashion against an undeserving people, I would not be able to sleep. Whatever enemies the West has in the Muslim World it has made through its own doing. It will not be redeemed until it takes responsibility for its actions, drops the arrogance (coupled with ignorance) that I myself fell victim to as an adolescent, and recognizes that the real enemy is the fear of the unknown — which could be known if one only dared to try — and the guilt and shame that accompanies privilege. True freedom comes by acknowledging the latter and facing the former — it cannot and will not be achieved by hiding behind a flag or a Bible. 

The Father of Peace Studies

Johan Galtung is a man that we are all quite familiar with after week two. If you are not familiar with the so-called Father of Peace Studies, you are at a loss but are not alone. Peace and Conflict Studies as an academic field is only about 50 years old. While facing mandatory military service in Norway in the 1950s, a young Galtung was shocked to discover that while there were numerous arguments against war, he could not find research on a single positive argument in favor of peace. He then devoted his life to changing that reality.

And change it he would: Since then he has published more than 150 books and 1,500 articles and essays on peace and conflict resolution. He is also the founder of TRANSCEND Peace University and is perhaps one of the most well traveled men in the world — although this fact did not spare him from excessive attention at Ataturk Airport, as his driver (our program assistant, the self-declared ‘Swiss Army Knife,’ can attest). He liberally applies his TRANSCEND method to just about every conflict you can imagine — everything from feuding married couples to the ongoing war in Syria. This is what appeals to me the most about his work. It is so easy to understand and universal that I have already applied it to some of my own conflicts. TRANSCEND presupposes that a conflict is a contradiction in goals between two or more parties (key point: each party’s goals, along with the attitudes and behaviors that reflect those goals, are what are in conflict as opposed to the parties themselves) and that a solution can come from a creative mixture of those goals, provided said goals are legitimate (i.e. they do not trump basic human rights). It would be the role of an impartial mediator to discover this solution and propose it to the parties after engaging in dialogue with each of them individually. The best solutions involve some type of ‘both – and’ arrangement rather than settling on a compromise — whereby all parties give up something to gain something — a win-lose scenario, or a lose-lose scenario. This is not legalistic by design and reminds me of Gandhi’s decision to step out of his role as a barrister representing a wealthy Indian man in a lawsuit against his own brother and guide them to a settlement where they could both retain their dignity.

A more basic example is a disagreement between a brother and sister over who gets to have the last orange in the pantry. After deliberating with both parties, the mother determines that the brother wants to eat the orange and that the sister wants only to use the peel for a science project. The solution is self-evident and leaves both parties happy.

While most conflicts are far more complicated and serious, mathematical people will especially like Galtung’s approach. He even has a formula for peace:

Peace = (Equity x Harmony)/(Trauma x Conflict)

I’m still trying to wrap my head around it, but it’s refreshing to know that someone has given so much thought to a concept that is so readily dismissed by academics and world leaders alike. It was dismissed just today by the Turkish prime minister in remarks about border clashes with Syria. Peace, you see, is not merely the absence of war — and it certainly cannot be achieved through war.

I am hoping that a new generation (dare I say ‘army’?) of peace workers will follow in the aging Galtung’s footsteps. He has helped lead the way toward an entirely different understanding of peace and has given us the tools to achieve it. I, for one, am fascinated by the idea of sitting down with armed actors, heretofore dismissed as fundamentalists/terrorists/psychopaths, and asking them what a better community/country/world looks like to them. From what I learned from Galtung’s experiences, their answers may surprise and inspire me.

Istanbul – City of Past Empires and Present Beauty

Istanbul is a city I never paid much attention to growing up. I had learned about it in high school Advanced Placement European History class — namely that it was once called Constantinople and was the heart of the Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman Empires — but it never made my short list of places to visit. It was a relic from the past that had no bearing on today as far as I was concerned.

Reading he work of Istanbulu Orhan Pamuk (see earlier blog post) only strengthened this perspective. I almost expected to encounter a decaying, empty, colorless city — magnificent ruins but ruins nonetheless. This is not the reality through my American eyes. I was mesmerized by its captivating beauty: from the Bosphorus to the Blue Mosque to the women walking through Taksim Square. It’s splendor can be fully appreciated only from above, where I went with my Kurdish friend Firat to the top of a fifth century guard tower that is the oldest of its kind still open to tourists. If it weren’t for the over-crowded platforms and staircases, I would have felt like I was in some kind of fairy tale or Disney movie involving a small boy lost in a fantasy land he can neither comprehend nor navigate. The Disney scenario would not be such a stretch given that I knew next to nothing about Istanbul (or Turkey, for that matter) prior to leaving for it on a one-way ticket.

It is enormous in size and includes everything you could ask for in a city except simplicity. I can’t even imagine trying to get around it alone, especially without speaking more than a few words of Turkish. I also can’t imagine having a boring moment there. It was even interesting using the public toilet next to the Hagia Sophia because I had to pay for the privilege of peeing in a hole in the ground.

Two things struck me especially: 1) There is an entire map of Istanbul marking the final resting places of dead rulers and 2) Istanbul is actually two cities separated by the large Bosphorus strait that separates Europe from Asia (a geographical distinction fraught with perils that I hesitate to recognize). I am not implying any connection between these two interesting facts — and they are just two of the many. I have not even scratched the surface of this city.

Eight months may not be enough time to see it all.