In Istanbul, artists take their ideas to the streets

Story by Hannah Martin // Photos by Valerie Sarnataro

ISTANBUL, Turkey – In a small parking lot off a quiet side street by Galata Tower, color radiates from the wall. Arabic calligraphy in silver and yellow swirls up the side of a building to spell “Allah.”  Tiny characters with melancholy faces populate a tree house that looks like a Tim Burton animation. The ensuing cobbled street is covered with stenciled flies, yellow fists and sundry spray-painted tags – clustered together like a public collage.

At last year's Street Art Festival, German artists One2 and Squarodynamic collaborated on this mural in a small parking lot near Galata Tower.

“You put something to a clean place and afterwards they start to tag and they start to paint,” explained Pertev Emre Tastaban, 36, curator of StreetArt Istanbul, an organization that unites street artists from Istanbul and abroad. “Together, we create an image.”

In the last 10 years street art has been cropping up across Istanbul, the bulk of it concentrated in the hip Beyoglu district. While some basic tags date back to the ‘90s, most of the stylized pieces that fill the streets today are much more current.

“It’s a very new thing for Turkish people,” Tastaban said. “At the beginning of the 2000s, street art was also growing in Europe and came to Istanbul.”

Five years ago, German artist Matthias Wermke (alias: Kripoe) bombed the city with yellow fists – probably the most pervasive symbol on the streets. In 2009, StreetArt Istanbul began organizing festivals and exhibitions and teaching classes at the Bilgi University Youth Center. Just this spring an initiative called Papergirl invaded Istanbul, presenting a new strategy for guerrilla art by randomly pasting paper-collaged stickers across the city’s walls. The product of all this: a sprawling body of work that captures the ideas, politics and mood of the last decade.

This collage cut-out made from screenprinted paper was pasted next to the entrance of Banker Han as part of Papergirl Istanbul's new guerilla art initiative.

Tastaban got his first real dose of street art when he went to Rio de Janeiro in 2004. He knew about what he calls “old school graffiti”– basic spray paint tags and writing in script – but had never seen highly conceptualized murals like the ones he found there.

“I started to think, ‘Why don’t we have anything in Istanbul?’” he said. “It’s all gray. Everything is full of exhaust. We’re gonna forget the colors.”

Tastaban returned to his advertising job of 10 years with a new distaste for his work. He experimented with his own interpretation of street art and learned to make stencils. A year later he quit his job and started tagging illegally under the name Pet05, stenciling the city with robotic-looking dogs expressing his dissatisfaction with urban development.

In 2009, with a wave of “second era” street artists, Tastaban established StreetArt Istanbul, bringing together artists to paint the innards of a seven-story derelict building known as “Banker Han” for a month-long installation called “Morphosis.” Last year he brought in 35 artists (10 German and 25 Turkish) to do a series of large-scale pieces as part of a StreetArt Festival. At the Bilgi University Youth Center in Maslak, he teaches classes that instruct youth in stencil making and other forms of street art.

“You need a good attitude when you are living in a place,” he said. “If you care about your house you clean your place, you make some aesthetic things for your house and it brightens the mood.”

Genco Gülan, 42, curator of the Istanbul Contemporary Art Museum or iS.CaM, said that street art isn’t entirely new and actually has deep roots in Istanbul’s political history.

“We have a strong tradition of graffiti,” he said, explaining the role of highly politicized street writing in the early ‘70s as Turkey felt the reverberations of the 1968 labor movement in France. “All the walls were covered either with extremist rightist or leftist slogans. Students were going out at night and they were painting the walls and if they see each other they were shooting each other…It was a bloody situation for Turkey.”

One common slogan was “Tek yol Devrim,” which translates to “Revolution is the only way.” The streets became a mechanism for communication.

Pertev Emre Tastaban explains the interplay between local street artists in this work at Banker Han. Fly Propoganda stencils a fly, then Osmanox incorporates the fly into a can of bug spray. To his left, another artist E.A.T. has painted a giant green dragonfly.

Today’s scene is less of a bloodbath, but as with every genre of art, there are underlying political messages. The face of Festus Okey, a Nigerian immigrant killed by Turkish police in 2007, has been anonymously stenciled across the neighborhoods. Nalan Yırtmac stencils children on buildings in Sulukule Neighborhood to oppose a plan for gentrification that would leave many homeless.

Not everyone acknowledges the movement, however. MIT sociologist and art historian Pelin Tan, whose master’s at Istanbul Technical University focused on contemporary Turkish art, called Istanbul’s street portfolio “artificial urban entertainment.” She argued that it is simply not political enough to be deemed street art.

“For me, street art should appear in certain conditions through social movements,” Tan said. “Street art has a political role, it is a totally critical act towards institutions, state and urban system.”

Tan said, by her definition, Nalan Yırtmac’s work against gentrification is the only credible street art in Istanbul.

But most artists admit that their work is rooted in politics or societal critique, however haphazard their creations. Street artist Bürkan Özkan (alias: Fly Propoganda), 36, has swarmed Istanbul with his favorite icon: the fly.

A first generation street artist in Istanbul, Özkan, for the past nine years, has expressed disillusionment with contemporary consumer culture by stenciling flies on billboards and banks.

“The fly is my street hero,” Özkan said. “The fly is everywhere. He has no sexuality – you don’t decide that this is man or woman or anything else, you just call it ‘fly.’”

With the rise of stenciling, many artists utilize a similar technique of iconography to build recognition. When Tastaban teaches his classes, this is what he emphasizes: You must create a symbol that will catch on and be easily identified as it pervades the city.

But recognition isn’t everything; a critical element of street art is the discussion it provokes. For this, Tastaban critiques Kripoe, an artist who came, bombed the city with his famous punch, and left, knowing nothing of Istanbul itself. To Tastaban, Kripoe is just an international character looking for fame, creating a symbol that looks revolutionary, but ultimately has no meaning for the Turks.

If anything, the real significance of the punch is the way it illustrates an international conclusion: Istanbul streets are canvases in demand. Papergirl Istanbul, an initiative that started in Berlin in 2006, added Istanbul just this spring to a list of 20 other countries, asking artists across the world to submit stickers or posters that are dispatched on bicycles to randomly selected citizens. Recipients then paste the stickers throughout the city, arbitrarily dispersing the art.

A vibrant pop art paper collage by German artist duo Various, 29 and Gould, 33 is pasted next to the entrance at Banker Han. They came to Istanbul as part of the Papergirl project.

“Istanbul is one of the most exciting cities we have been to so far,” Gould said, explaining that the German attraction to Turkey might be linked to Gastarbeiter issue of the ‘60s that relocated many Turks to Germany. “There is a big, interested audience. The dialogue is on and enriching.”

Despite its rise to international acclaim, Tastaban emphasizes that the scene in Istanbul is still quite small – in the local community there are only around 15 regularly practicing artists.

At Banker Han, where every one of the seven floors is plastered with art, Tastaban explains the game local artists play with one another, creating a dialogue through their work.

“See, Fly did his stencil here,” he explained. “Then this guy Osmanox comes in and does the can.” A can of bug spray has been painted around Fly’s stencil. Another artist called E.A.T. then came in and painted a bright green, wall-size dragonfly.

“It’s like a play,” Tastaban said. “Many things combine to tell a story. You make illustrations that talk to people and hopefully it changes their mood from one to another.”

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As Istanbul’s gay club scene grows, so do concerns over hate crimes

Story by Hanna Trudo // Photos by Erin Strine

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Gay and proud is spotlighted every spring in Istanbul with rainbow flags and the thousands who march in a parade as part of the city’s annual Pride Week, but on any Friday or Saturday after midnight, the city’s pro-gay community is on display just as prominently in nightclubs across the city.

On a warm night in June at XLarge, one of the largest nightclubs in Istanbul, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities meet and dance without judgment. Some men are shirtless while others are done up in stacked heels and blonde wigs. Women are dancing with women, and men with men, but straight men and women are there too on the crowded dance floor.

Men in drag perform a dance number on stage at XLarge night club in the hip Taksim Square section of Istanbul.

“We just finished two years,” said Huseyin Tuncbilek, the 42-year-old owner of XLarge, about the club’s opening in 2009. “[On Friday and Saturday nights] XLarge has between 600 to 800 [people], but not all of our customers are gay. We don’t put a name for sexuality here.”

In most Muslim nations, homosexuality is forbidden. In some areas – Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen, for example – it’s a crime punishable by imprisonment or death. But in Turkey, a 99 percent Muslim majority secular state, being gay is legal. Written laws forbidding homosexuality have not existed since its decimalization by the Ottomans in 1858 – around the same time that Turkish baths emerged as meeting spots for men. The country’s push for further Westernization, however, became the main instigator of homosexuality’s decimalization.

“In Turkey, considering its historical position, it’s hard to equalize it with other Muslim countries because it is indeed secular,” says Juris Lavrikovs, communications manager at Equality for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex People in Europe (ILGA Europe), based in Belgium. “On the European scale, it’s not doing very well, but the legal situation and social situation is very different.”

Homosexual men and women are expected to follow the same Turkish laws that apply to heterosexuals, which is agreeing not to have sex in public places, and not until the age of 18. But gays still do not have the same marital rights as straight men and women.

“Turkey doesn’t acknowledge in any shape or form any relationships between homosexuals,” Lavrikovs says, referring specifically to marriage. “It will probably take a while for Turkey to take such steps. It’s considered a quite sensitive topic [here] as in many countries.”

Nearly seven years ago, at the beginning of 2004, Turkey’s Parliamentary Justice Commission created a “draft law” to make any form of discrimination illegal based on sexual orientation. The clause was removed six months later. Clamping down on nationwide homosexual discrimination is also among the criteria Turkey must meet in order to join the European Union.

“The EU does apply certain legal standards in order for countries to participate,” Lavrikovs says. “There are the Copenhagen criteria – the rules that gauge whether a country is eligible for entering the EU – that requires protection of human rights, democracy and minorities. It is not possible for the country to join the EU if the country still penalizes sexual orientation.”

Hate crimes, many resulting in severe injury or death, are becoming increasingly prevalent against LGBT members of the community, and authorities are failing to clamp down on perpetrators. According to a 2011 report by Amnesty International, a global movement spanning more than 150 countries that aims to end human rights abuses, 16 suspected hate murders were documented by LGBT groups last year in Turkey. Nine of the murders were gay men, six were transgender women, and one was a heterosexual man who was suspected to be gay.

“It’s a recurring issue,” Lavrikos says. “The state actors are not acting how we would expect them to act in any other murder.”

Many people still hide their alternate sexual orientation in Istanbul, and wait for the safer environment of Istanbul’s nightclubs to express their gay life.

Male "go-go" dancers on the bar entertaining the crowd at XLarge night club.

Tuncbilek, whose parents still do not know his sexual orientation, boasts that his club, located in the trendy Taksim Square, gives homosexual men and women a safe and trendy spot to go.

“The customers have to feel free here,” he says. “The Taksim area is mostly gay clubs, but over the last five years, [gays] have become more comfortable and can go other places as well,” Tuncbilek says.

Upstairs, near the bar in the balcony, friends are sitting on plush couches snapping pictures, smiling and watching the night’s warm-up – a choreographed performance to the 2010 hit musical, Burlesque. It’s hard to determine who’s performing and who’s here to watch through the thick smoke and pulsating lights, but the crowd seems unfazed by the routine chaos, happy to have a space to dance and kiss and mingle.

Boysan Yakar, a 27-year-old performance artist and activist based out of Istanbul, visited the club’s grand opening party two years ago, and has been a regular since. “I love the atmosphere. It is big, relaxing. Some of my friends are working [there] as drag queens. We have clubs now that freely announce themselves as gay bars. If you are not going ‘too far’ inside the bar” – having intercourse – “everything is normal.”

Serkan Durakcay, another regular at XLarge, is a 37-year-old devout Muslim and stylist in the fashion business. He prays five times a day, celebrates the Holy month of Ramadan, and reads the Qu’ran regularly. He’s also homosexual with a partner of two years, whose family still doesn’t know he’s gay.

Although Durakcay’s partner is not out, Durakcay told his family and friends when he was 18 years old. They accept his lifestyle, but he admits his family continues to believe the stereotype that gay men are promiscuous and immoral.

“I’m born as a gay,” he says, sitting next to his partner on a loveseat in XLarge’s balcony. “Some people say that they’re not gay because their parents and friends don’t accept it.” Durakcay calls himself an “open-minded gay.” He adds: “Because of this, I am free.”

Today, such open views are uncommon throughout the country; many men and women still recoil from publicly embracing their homosexuality. But, it’s getting better.

“Being an out gay means also taking your reality with you to everywhere in Istanbul,” Yakar says. “It was worse years ago, but now people are much more OK with it.”

And the club scene, many agree, is contributing to that. Although Yakar also visits more “alterative” venues with cheaper prices and different playlists, he says nightclubs such as XLarge in Turkey are full with the kids of non-judgmental people he feels most comfortable with. Of the crowd there, he says: “They are human honey.”

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Profile: A rug craftsman works to preserve Turkey’s ancient masterpieces

Story by Emily Rudisill // Photos by Katie Kriz

ISTANBUL, Turkey – In a city where Turkish rugs are sold on almost every corner, Dinar Hali, Kidir Alan’s carpet and kilim restoration shop, is easy to miss. From the outside, the sublevel space looks less than remarkable. There are no flashy carpets hanging outside to attract tourists wandering through the trendy Sultanahmet area, and no noisy merchant beckoning for passersby to come down.

After removing the old threads, Kadir Alan repairs a section of an antique carpet.

Even on the inside, it doesn’t look like a typical rug shop. Rare and antique carpets hang on the walls as exquisite works of art. Piles of rolled carpets are stacked high in the corner, waiting to be sold to a private collector – not thick-walleted tourists hoping to score a bargain.

On any typical day, Alan sits in the corner sipping çay and working to repair a colorful carpet draped on his lap. He pulls green spun wool through the back of the rug with a hook, closely following the pattern weaved into the rug centuries ago. Again and again, his hands make the same motion, each time adding the tiniest bit more color to what is already a visual masterpiece. With a delicate hand and great care, he puts the thread in place, sure to keep the integrity of the original. He’s methodical and focused and quiet, striking a rhythm that seems more meditation than work.

“I do my job as a hobby or a meditation,” said Alan without looking up. “I have to like it and I have to enjoy it. Then I can help my customers.”

Alan’s clientele consists mainly of international customers who seek him out as an expert of rare and antique rugs. “I have three [types of] customers. Collectors because they trust my taste, dealers because I’m a wholesaler, and private customers who are the users,” said Alan.

Roger Gardiner, a retired librarian from London, Ontario, became interested in oriental rugs after a colleague introduced Gardiner to her own collection. He now owns more than 100 rugs and textiles, several of which he purchased from Alan.

Gardiner met Alan a week after he attended the International Conference on Oriental Rugs in Istanbul. “I was staying at the Hali Hotel near Kadir’s workshop, and as I passed this shop, he popped out and invited me in,” Gardiner said in an e-mail interview. “Having already visited dozens of rug shops in Istanbul, I was somewhat suspicious. However, once down the steps and into his shop, I was immediately converted into an enthusiast.”

Lying on the floor near the front of his shop, Alan had a Yomut Turkemn rug. He had just finished repairing it and, as he often does with customers, challenged Gardiner to find the repair.

Stacks of rare and antique carpets line the walls of Alan's shop.

“I could not. Turkmen rugs tend to be very tightly woven and knotted, far more so than the typical Turkish rug. I thought to myself, ‘if he can do this kind of work on a Turkman rug, he can restore and repair anything.’ After that, I relaxed, while he showed me some of his other rugs and served tea.”

Born in Sultan Hani, a traditional carpet-weaving village located in Anatolia and famous for its Ushak carpets, Alan is a mild-mannered man with thick salt and pepper hair and an inviting smile. “It’s a village where you can find people who repair carpets. It’s a kind of family job,” said Alan. He moved to Istanbul in 1981 when he was 11 to learn the family trade from his brother. “If you want to learn this job and be successful, you need to start at this age,” he said.

Five years later, Alan opened his first shop near the Çemberlitaş neighborhood in Istanbul. In 1997, he moved to his current space and started selling in international markets. He also has a factory with 10 employees located in his hometown where most of the carpets are sent for repairs.

His nephew, Osman Alan has been working with him since 1992. Osman manages the logistics of the shop acting as a second pair of eyes to check for damage or patterns that may help catalogue a piece.

The two men have formed a great relationship over the past decade. “We know each other very well. That’s why when he comes to the shop in the morning I know his mood,” said Osman who looks up to his uncle as both a businessman and a friend. Osman credits Alan for teaching him about business and customer service. “He respect[s] his customer so much,” said Osman. “He is very careful about discipline.”

Rugs have been synonymous with the Turkish region since the 13th century when Marco Polo introduced Anatolian carpets to Europe. The widespread production and sale didn’t begin until the late 19th century when the government recognized their value and began encouraging citizens to open shops, explained Ismail Kaya, owner of Sufi Turkish Fine Arts in the Egyptian Spice Bizarre.

Traditional Turkish carpet art dates back to the early 12th century and continues to draw tourists and collectors to the region to hunt for the perfect rug.

Originally, the carpets were weaved in rural areas and given as gifts to heads of state or those in important political and religious positions. Eventually, weavers began using them in their own homes to insulate the floors from the fluctuating climate of the region.

Alan points out the differences between natural and synthetic dyes.

Each rug is unique and specific to the village and family and use double knot weaving compared to the single knot technique of Persian and Afghan counterparts.

“In the past, in Anatolia, people weaved carpets for themselves,” said Kaya. “They write their history on the kilim by design.” A kilim is a carpet with flat weaving rather than knot weaving.

Today Turkey’s carpet market is declining. Cheaper, machine-made versions of the traditional ones have entered the scene, attracting tourists who are more concerned with price than quality, explained Kaya. “Thirty percent of the carpets are imported from China, Pakistan, Afghanistan and India,” he said.

Once a carpet comes into Alan’s possession, either through a dealer or one he finds during his travels, he assesses the condition and begins researching to identify the origins.

The restoration process can take anywhere from 15 days to three months. But often Alan prefers not to make any major repairs. He’s rather show the customers the current condition so they can decide which spots they would like repaired. Collectors tend to favor pre-restoration carpets because it preserves their authenticity.

“Collectors always look for the extraordinary pieces,” explained Alan as he unpacked some of the rare rugs from his own rotating collection.

Imperfections in the rug’s design, asymmetrical patterns and natural died wool are all important components when identifying a rare carpet.

As for making repairs, it’s important to carefully match the color of the wool to the original. “The colors are very important to the value of the carpet,” said Kaya, pointing to a woven pillow. Different styles of carpet use different colors ranging from soft pastels to deep reds and purples.

Alan uses antique wool harvested from old carpets that were beyond repair. “It’s not difficult to restore [a carpet], but it’s difficult to find the correct wool,” said Alan while pointing out sections of rust colored wool he recently restored. If he is unable to find antique wool, women from his village will spin and dye wool to match the project. “We give the ladies a sample and they spin it for us,” he said.

A day after he returned from a business trip to Colon, Germany, Alan rolls out two of his rarest carpets, which he will keep in his collection until he finds a sufficient home. One piece, a two-foot by two-foot square carpet, is still puzzling him.  His face becomes determined as he explains what he’s researched so far. There is evidence it was part of a larger carpet, he said, and the Holbine, the German painter, influenced the design.

Because Alan deals mainly with collectors interested in the rarity of his pieces, his business was not hit quite as hard as others in his trade. He also attributes his success to his honestly, his attention to authenticity, and to his relationship he has with his customers. “My mentality is to be honest and to do business for the future,” he said.

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Nobody in Turkey wants a dog, but everybody feeds them

Story by Lorena F. Aspe // Photos by Lorena F. Aspe and Erin Kelly

ISTANBUL, Turkey – Every evening before closing, Hoyat Büfe owner Ceger Aydogan places a pile of chicken kebabs and sausages in an aluminum tray and waits for Nazli and Arap to come eat such a feast. At 8 p.m. they show up and devour the offerings. It’s been this way for the past three years.

Nazli, resting on Mesrutiyet Street in front of the British Embassy. Many shop owners put out water and food for stray dogs and cats because they feel compelled to care for them. (Photo by Lorena F. Aspe)

Nazli, a large black and brown female stray, and Arap, grey and brown like a wolf, wag their tails and are more than satisfied. These strays live on Mesrutiyet Street in front of the British Embassy, and are among an estimated 150,000 others stray dogs who live all around Istanbul.

“They are from street,” Aydogan said. “Everyone [around here] care for them, but no one wants to take them home.”

Most practicing Muslims do not keep dogs as pets because they are generally considered unclean. Also, Muslims – who make up 99 percent of the population in Turkey – believe that angels will not visit a home that contains a dog. And finally, according to Sunni tradition – which accounts for 85 percent of the Muslim world – the prophet Muhammad reportedly did not like dogs, so people of that culture generally stay away from taking them in as pets.

Yet, Islam instructs its followers to take care of all creatures, and so many people feel compelled to offer a bit of food, and fresh water, to the strays that live around the city.

“They have to live a natural life, not inside homes,” said Barbaros Ecran, 60, who sometimes looks over a stray female dog, Sonay, that lives in the street where his convenience store is. Yet he too refuses to call her his pet. “They have to be free.”

Even though there are legions of people who “take care” of dogs like these, they do not feel any special responsibility toward them. Adoption of stray dogs is not a common practice in Turkey – which leaves many homeless. In turn, they have become one of the most vulnerable targets of abuse.

Hayvan Haklari Federasyonu, also known as the HAYTAP Animal Rights Federation, based in Istanbul, is the first federation in Turkey to unify all animal rights associations and organizations under one name. Since its creation in 2008, HAYTAP has fought to raise awareness on the violation of animal rights.

Some of their efforts include reaching out to Parliament through court trials, engaging in training activities such as education programs at schools, and using public relations to spread their message. HAYTAP’s main concern is to change the law in Turkey regarding crimes against animals. They believe that the present law does not contain a strong enough punishment for animal abusers.

Ahmet Senpolat, 40, president of HAYTAP, believes that the only way they will be heard is if they create a reputable name and image. “Many animal rights organizations starting off were scattered and unorganized fighting with each other, not knowing what they were fighting for,” Senpolat said. “In order to change the law the demand is not enough. We have to convince society first, a single man’s name is not enough. As an NGO you do not have the power to get Parliament to change the law. That is why we work as a federation.”

HAYTAP includes 19 associations and around 70 representatives all over Turkey. It focused on educating its representatives so that they can gain more validity when they are addressing the people and government figures.

“When they go to speak they are more eligible, they have more knowledge, they know what they are talking about,” Senpolat continued. “So if a challenge presents itself they are prepared.”

Senpolat’s main goal: Educate people about the value of being good to animals. “They are the ones who don’t have compassion towards animals, who abuse them,” said Senoplat. “These are the people we have to educate and reach to their compassionate side.”

A stray dog by Eminonu Metro stop in Istanbul with tag punched into its ear. That's the method used to identify dogs that have been neutered and released. (Photo by Erin Kelly)

HAYTAP does this by using big billboards for posters in cities to raise awareness. They also use conservative words and religious texts directly from the Qur’an to reach the more religious communities in Turkey.

While HAYTAP focuses on the politics of animal rights and education efforts, Sahipsiz Hayvanlari Koruma Dernegi shelter, also known as SHKD, in the outskirts of Istanbul, confronts the issue of abuse by dealing directly with the animals.

Murat Bekhan who runs SHKD, believes in working with local authorities to find a solution to Turkey’s stray dog problem humanely and permanently, mainly focusing on population control. The shelter’s tactic is “neuter – vaccinate – release.”

“There is a very big problem, of course it is very difficult to deal with,” said Bekhan. “Before the government’s solution was to kill them – we are against this. We neuter them in order to decrease the population. We take it step by step, but killing is not a solution.”

SHKD has neutered and released 50,000 dogs since its creation in 1998. This year alone, said Bekham, the organization has neutered 1,000 dogs – noticeable on the strays on the streets by the plastic yellow or metal tag punched through the the dog’s ear. Although the Turkish government has made it a law for municipalities to neuter and release dogs, SHKD officials say the government-run shelters are among the worst in the country in terms of humane treatment.

“Our shelter is a haven for dogs. Municipal shelters in Istanbul are like concentration camps,” said Bekhan. “We do not keep the dogs for very long, we neuter and release. Dogs in municipal shelters are kept enclosed until they die.”

Both HAYTAP and SHKD have taken municipalities to court, challenging their treatment of animals. But this process is long and complicated. Like HAYTAP, SHKD officials also believe that education is the first step to raising awareness among people about dog abuse.

“Public have to be educated,” said Bekhan. “We try to explain to people stray dogs have to be on the streets, because that is their natural home. We do not expect them to adopt them, but to help them out, by feeding or taking them to the vet, and not abuse them.”

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Turkey elections: Same party remains in control, but pledges to work with others

Story by Kaileigh Higgins and Robert Tokanel // Photos by Catherine Strong // Video package by Jessica Gagne

Istanbul, Turkey – Less than 24 hours before Sunday night’s parliamentary elections, the Sultanahmet neighborhood was a campaign battleground. Flags strung between old brick buildings hung like spider webs of laundry, and motorcars blared campaign rants as minivans wound their way through narrow streets.

On election night, though, it was almost silent. At an open-air café in the historic heart of the city, Sertac Ayhan sat alone with his back to a TV tuned to the polls.

A group of AKP supporters celebrate the third consecutive victory of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

The 24-year old engineering student wasn’t apathetic about the projections flashing the names and parties of candidates that had been plastered across the city for weeks. He just knew who was going to win, and he feared what it could mean for his country.

“It’s going to be a monarchy,” he said.

Ayhan’s fears proved unfounded as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) predictably finished as the clear victors, winning 50 percent of the vote, but didn’t score the absolute majority that would have allowed the conservative group to rewrite the Turkish constitution without opposition.

Itir Tocsoz, assistant professor of international affairs at Istanbul’s Dogus University said the AKP’s failure to gain enough seats will force the party to work with rival political parties instead of pushing through its agenda unchecked.

“There will be more negotiations, bargaining and compromises between political parties,” she said. “There will have to be cooperation [because] if they really want to write the new constitution, they don’t have enough votes now to pass it on their own.”

While greater Istanbul was largely quiet Sunday through the election, the AKP headquarters on the edge of the Bosphorus was pulsing with celebration. Shortly after the polls closed, supporters of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s conservative party spilled into the streets honking horns, waving flags and burning flares. Inside, the mood was easy and light.

“Would you not be happy if you won?” joked Egemen Bagis, the AKP vice-chairman in charge of foreign affairs.

There was never a question regarding Erdogan’s re-election; the only uncertainty was how much of a majority the party would gain in Parliament. The Republican People’s Party, or CHP, received 26 percent and the Nationalist Action Party, or MHP, earned 13 percent.

Egemen Bagis,vice chairman of foreign affairs for the Justice and Development Party.

Regardless, Bagis, who is also the minister for European Union affairs and Turkey’s chief negotiator with the EU, said the AKP still plans to move forward with its promise of a new constitution to replace the one written by the military following a coup d’etat in 1980.

“We will establish the government and then we will deliver what we promised, a civilian constitution,” said Bagis. “And we’re hoping to work in cooperation with our opposition.”

While Bagis spoke to the press inside, supporters in the streets were chanting Erdogan’s name. Children lined the edges of a huge white AKP banner, waving it up and down, forming a makeshift parachute. The party anthem echoed from the speakers above the crowd while people danced to the music, even beating drums of their own.

Onur Ata, a 24-year-old law student at Istanbul University, watched over the celebration with his group of friends.

“To see the light of the future,” he said.

The AKP’s victory was a disappointment for many who are concerned about losing civil liberties to the party’s growing conservatism. On her way into the polls to cast her vote, Ece Alkaya, a 21-year-old law student at Istanbul University, said she would be voting for the more left-leaning CHP. When asked why, she simply said “for more freedom.”

Since coming to power in 2002, the party’s pro-Islamist values have been moving toward the forefront of its social policies. Recently, the AKP began efforts to impose restrictions on the sale of alcohol, and the party plans to limit, starting in August, citizens’ access to the web. The party claims these initiatives will protect the people of Turkey, but many see it as religious imposition in a country that prides itself on secularism.

“From the secular citizens of Turkey, we have never experienced such a conservative life in our political system, from our lives and from our fathers, mothers and grandmothers,” said Hakan Gunes, a political science professor at Istanbul University.

Rival parties, such as the CHP, are concerned with the growing religiosity of the AKP, but more importantly are worried about the AKP’s consolidation of power. By law, in order to be represented in parliament, a party must receive 10 percent of the popular vote, leaving the majority of the nation’s parties without representation.

To circumnavigate this rule, smaller parties, most notably the Kurdish Peace and Freedom Party, or BDP, field independent candidates rather than running under the party. For this election, this strategy earned them about 5 percent of the seats.

“Actually most of the parties could not deal with [the 10 percent threshold],” said Gunes. “Some other groups and individuals are doing it this way, but they don’t have a chance. Only the pro-Kurdish independent candidates can get enough votes to become members of parliament.”

Bagis said the AKP will recognize the mandate to work with other parties toward consensus while addressing the people’s most vital needs.

“The Turkish people have spoken and their will is very clear,” said Bagis. “They want us to cooperate, work together, they wanted stability, they wanted justice, they wanted development, economic prosperity. They wanted the growth to continue and we have to deliver.”

By the time midnight rolled around, the crowd outside the AKP headquarters began to shrink, though a few hundred supporters continued with the festivities. A few men danced with one another while women wearing AKP baseball caps over their headscarves hung out of car windows, cheering and waving party flags.

This was how the winners celebrated. In other parts of Istanbul, far from headquarters, the streets were quiet. Whether that was due to the election results turning out as expected or outright dismay will likely not be known until the AKP tries to make the changes it has promised.

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Istanbul’s Fatih district aims to combat mindset of trash disposal, recycling

Story and photos by Lauryn Paiva and Emily Rudisill

ISTANBUL, TURKEY- Hundreds of school-aged children bounce eagerly in their seats recently in an amphitheater in the shadow of the Blue Mosque in the Fatih district in Istanbul.

They sport blue and white t-shirts and green cardboard visors that advertise Environmental Awareness Week over their school uniforms. Behind the crowd is a multi-tiered tree made from 10,000 recycled water bottles. Mayor Mustafa Demir has their attention as he shouts into a microphone at center stage.

Turkey began reforming its waste management system after the European Union put pressure on the state to improve the infrastructure and decrease the negative effects of landfills.

This scene is one of the government’s chief strategies in trying to teach younger people about the importance of recycling in a city where littering has long been accepted.

“Recycling is a pretty new term to Turkish people as well as the local administrations and the government,” said Hakan Tiryaki, chairman of the board at Sualti Temizlik ve Bilinçlendirme Hareketi Dernegi or STH, a non-governmental organization created in 2005 to make the public aware of pollution in Istanbul, specifically marine contamination. “They just started to conceive and work to build the substructure.”

Municipality workers maintain tourist areas, such as the Blue Mosque and the streets surrounding the Grand Bazaar, constantly throughout the day. Bright tufts of grass and sweeping views of the Bosphorous punctuate the pristine streets.

Beyond the tourist attractions, however, the upkeep is less regulated. Tucked into dark corners and side streets of some of Istanbul’s most awe-inspiring landscapes, trash overflows in dumpsters and barrels. Discarded street food and rubbish clutter the roads. And much of it is thrown into, or blows into, the city’s main waterway.

The Bosphorous Straight divides Istanbul in two and creates part of the boundary between the European and Asian sides of the city. Ferries and cruise ships regularly pass through the straight, which connects the Black Sea and the Marmara Sea, carrying locals and tourists.

While the waterway’s surface appears fresh, it is an aquatic dumping ground for food, trash from nearby restaurants and old boat parts. STH has pulled more than 16,000 pieces of solid waste from just a single section of the Bosphorus.

“As part of STH’s Harem Project, it is aimed at one location to be decontaminated completely from solid wastes, regenerated and protected. Since the beginning, in 2006, 15.000 pieces of solid wastes have been collected from the mentioned spot, and recorded,” said Tiryaki.

Turkey began reforming its waste management system under pressure from the European Union to reduce the negative effects of landfills.

According to a study conducted by the Institute of Resources and Energy Technology in 2010, Turkey produces 25 million tons of municipal solid waste annually. Sixty-five percent of the waste is disposed of in open dumps outside of the city. With a population of about 20 million people, Istanbul produces 14,000 tons of waste per day. According to a study conducted by the Turkish Court of Accounts, 34 percent of the waste in Turkey is dumped to these landfills and 66 percent is dumped to forests, waterways or other open spaces.

“The reason behind the recent undertakings concerning environment was the EU criteria, not the demands of Turkish people,” said Tiryaki. “It seemed like a positive progress, indeed, it didn’t work. The European Union just wanted the code of laws, so the government legislated.”

Turkey has been trying to become a member of the EU since 1959. For full membership the state must comply with EU standards covering everything from foreign policy to environmental protection.

In Istanbul, each municipality is responsible for controlling its own waste management program. The Fatih district has 100,000 homes under its jurisdiction. Amid the recycling festivities, Mehmet Arscoyl, the chief of trash collection services in Fatih, explained through a translator the management system.

Every day a structure of three groups, with 100 workers each, sets out in eight-hour shifts to sweep the streets and empty trash cans around the city. A fleet of garbage trucks goes door-to-door to collect household waste and drops it off at Halkali in Sultanahmet, the final stop before the waste is shuttled to a landfill on the outskirts of the city.

“Every minute they are working,” said Arscoyl motioning toward the fleet of orange vested workers scattered throughout the festival, sweeping and cleaning.

A force of self-employed trash collectors who work just as tirelessly to maintain litter-free streets supplements the trash mechanism set in place by the government. Acting independently of the municipality, their sole source of income is the money they collect from recycling centers in exchange for their troves of recyclable goods.

Large numbers of men wielding large, wheeled canvas carts can be seen throughout the cobbled streets of Istanbul scavenging for paper and other recyclable items. While they do not operate within the municipality’s workforce of street sweepers, they are just as much a staple of waste management in the city.

A Fatih municipality worker takes a break from Environment Week festivities in front of the eight-tier tree of plastic water bottles.

Working in the pre-dawn and early dusk hours, they forage trash-infested streets, separating eco-friendly products from the remnants of kabob lunches and other miscellaneous waste. They operate efficiently, running steadily up and downhill with their bulging, heavy carts. The paper and plastics are then sold to recycling companies for a profit.

“We call them environmental soldiers,” said Zeynep Kiliç, an environmental engineering student at Fatih University in Istanbul who was working at the festival.

But with all the mechanisms put in place by the municipality, the attitude toward trash disposal simply hasn’t changed. “Some people just don’t even care. They just throw it outside, but you don’t see it because the government comes quickly to clean it up,” said Erol Karagoz, 24, who works at Cempre Dizayn, a ceramics shop in Fatih.

Tiryaki cites the lack of enforcement of the legal regulations for this stagnant attitude.

“Each municipality organized a number of events [for environment week] which were essential to them but meaningless and ineffective to us,” said Tiryaki. “They brought kids together at the streets under the sun, made them compete with each other, gave speeches, distribute stuff and send them home.”

After the festivities at the amphitheater were over, the children began to file out, leaving behind the bottles from the complementary water and the cardboard hats they were given to wear. Candy wrappers and potato chip bags littered the bleachers and not one child seemed worried about the mess they had left behind. Why bother? Soon, a team of organizers will swoop in to pick up after the crowd.

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Uncovered mosaics at famed Hagia Sophia have art historians anxious to fully restore this national gem

Story and photos by Anthony Savvides

ISTANBUL, Turkey – It began in 1993 – a massive effort to stabilize and restore an architectural gem dating back to the 6th century. But today, a year after the Ministry of Culture and Tourism declared the project finished, there remains concern that work on the Hagia Sophia Museum is still not complete.

“Now, the restoration process has ended, maybe [due to] money problems. There may be some political agendas, too,” said Aslihan Erkman, a professor of art history at Istanbul Technical University who believes that the efforts should have continued.

A recent discovery in the apse, uncovered during the most recent restoration of Hagia Sophia. The angel was found by restoration workers in the summer of 2009.

Before the latest restoration efforts began, a mission to Turkey by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, noted falling plaster, dirty marble facings, decorative paintings damaged by moisture and ill-maintained lead roofing. Progress was clearly made, but not enough, according to some observers.

In 2008, two years before work stopped on the space, Zeynep Ahunbay, a professor of architecture at Istanbul Technical University, talked of her frustration with the process.

“For months at a time, you don’t see anybody working,” Ahunbay told Smithsonian Magazine in 2008. “One year there is a budget, the next year there is none. We need a permanent restoration staff, conservators for the mosaics, frescoes and masonry, and we need to have them continuously at work.”

That’s one view of the project. Others watching during the nearly two decades of work – and after the scaffolding came down – talked of the somewhat complicated history of the space. Visible for miles across the city, the Hagia Sophia is a symbol of Istanbul’s history as well as its cultural and religious clashes.

The extravagant buttresses, grand dome and four brick minarets, towering toward the sky, have been a prominent feature of the city’s skyline since the 6th century, when it was completed in 537. This historic, grandiose landmark intertwines the legacies of medieval Christianity and Islam, and those of the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.

Until the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453, Hagia Sophia served as the religious heart and core of the empire. After the Ottoman conquest of the former Byzantine capital, the building was turned into a mosque, which it remained until the early 20th century. In 1931, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the country’s first president and founder of the Republic of Turkey, closed Hagia Sophia and secularized it.

The Deesis mosaic, which is located on the mezzanine level of Hagia Sophia. It is one of the most well and fully preserved mosaics in the museum. In the depcition is Christ at the center, with the Virgin Mary and John the Baptist at either side, bowing their heads.

On Feb. 1, 1935, it reopened as a museum to be enjoyed by Christians and Muslims alike. The Ministry focused its work largely on stabilizing the landmark in anticipation of an earthquake. Istanbul is built atop the North Anatolian Fault on the boundary between the African and Eurasian plates. That has caused several deadly earthquakes throughout the city’s history, and another strong earthquake is expected at some point over the next 20 years.

“Turkey is a seismically active zone. We need to stay concerned about the long-term stability of the Hagia Sophia,” said Stephen J. Kelley, a Chicago-based architect and engineer who gives consultations to Byzantine churches in Turkey, the former Soviet Union and the Balkans. “However, seismic strengthening of buildings is intrusive, and whatever measures are recommended need to be carefully considered to assure that no damage is done. Though the building has stood now for almost 700 years without a major mishap in an area of the world where major earthquakes occur about every century, this would give no indication of how this mammoth edifice would react in the next earthquake.  So its seismic strengthening is a primary consideration.”

As work continued to strengthen the building, several previously unseen mosaics were discovered beneath the white plaster and metal mask that had covered them since the reign of the Ottoman Empire. These mosaics were from the Byzantine era, when the building was a church.

That pleased Henrik Engelschiom, 49, a Norwegian tourist who recently returned to Istanbul 20 years after his first visit. “There shouldn’t be any resistance to [go back to] Byzantine culture. It was Christian before it was a mosque,” said Engelschiom.

One of the mosaics, visible after the scaffolding came down, revealed a seraphim angel on one of the four corners of the main dome. This was discovered late in 2009.

“It is the first time that the angel is being revealed,” Ahmet Emre Bilgili, head of the Ministry of Culture and Tourism, told the Associated Press at the time, adding that the mosaic angel had been covered with metal and plaster. “It is very well preserved.”

Some tourists, many of whom participate in religious pilgrimages to the city, hope that restoration efforts will continue in the near future. Some experts, however, are doubtful.

Bishop Savas Zembillas, the director of the Office of Church, Society and Culture at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, said in a phone interview that he wishes the government would continue working to restore Hagia Sophia to its pre-mosque, Byzantine state. He believes it will not, though.

“This is an enormously expensive project; they put up 20 levels of scaffolds to reach up to the dome. The main purpose of the restoration process was to brace the building against seismic dangers,” said Bishop Zembillas. “I don’t foresee the Ministry of Culture saying, ‘we’re going to restore it to its former [Byzantine] state.’”

During a recent walk-through, it was clear that many passageways and walls within the Hagia Sophia are still covered in the white plaster and metal mask that was applied over the mosaics after the Ottoman conquest of the city. Should another restoration occur, many believe, and hope, that further mosaic icons will be found hidden beneath.

“[The mosaics] bring us closer to our cultural heritage,” said Bishop Zembillas. “Mosaics began on floors; they functioned like a Turkish or Persian rug would now. They were moved onto the walls to say that our Lord deserves nothing but the best, something that would last. They bring us into closer contact with the past that was cut off from us.”

While many tourists and Christians all over the world are hopeful, the Ministry’s efforts seem to be less concerned with artistic restoration of the majestic structure to its Byzantine glory, uncovering the mosaics, say many observers.

“All the restoration seems to be over, now,” said Erkham, the art history professor. “They removed all of the scaffolds. Hagia Sophia is very important and we don’t want to lose it. [But] the restoration is far from over.”

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