Istanbul and it’s street cats

               Changes can sometimes be perceived in small signs that function as a symbol for deeper lying norms and values I said in the blog I wrote two days ago, see: I found another of those small signs in the life of street cats in Istanbul.
Twenty years ago, street cats in Istanbul had a very hard time. They were very thin, always looking for food and also very scared. Meeting with mankind was not something to advice to those poor cats, because they wouldn’t be treaten well. People would rather kick them or tease them than be good to them, so they carefully stayed under cars, rocks, inside empty houses and all those hiding places that only cats can find in cities. Sometimes you’d walk into one of those skinny cats that made you think: it’s not going to survive the day of tomorrow. They were sad and lonely fighting animals with a miserable city life…
This has changed a lot. Although there are still many street cats that don’t have enough food or are even ill, you don’t see them skinny and miserable the way they were in the 20th century. They are less afraid, which means that they noticed from experience that people are not such a threat for them any more and quite a few are even affectionate, asking explicitly for human attention 🙂 And they get food in many places: Istanbul citizens are putting specific catfood in safe places for cats on the street side, thus helping the poor animals out. Or they even give them some fish, like the cat on the picture in this blog. That cat also got an improvised home which is not exceptional; on many more places, people have made homes out of boxes for the street cats. Isn’t that sweet?!
If these are signs that function as a symbol for deeper lying norms and values, what are they? I think this symbolizes great progress in wealth and education in Istanbul. Istanbul twenty years ago was very much a survival of the fittest. People were striving to take care of themselves every day and a large part of the street population was uneducated. Hundreds of thousands of people moved from the provinces to the big city of Istanbul hoping to find a better life and the city had problems to embrace them all. Street cats, harmless and defenseless, were on the lowest spot of the ladder and paid the price.
Nowadays, it is clair that the people in Istanbul have time and energy left to take care of animals like the streetcats. Being valued as a human means that one can value an animal as an animal and embrace animals in their very existence close to mankind. Once the concurrency for food and survival is gone, care can be deployed. The conclusion is that Istanbul as a whole goes better because the street cats go better!

Istanbul: mysterious tickets after Süleymaniye Mosque donation

              On leaving the beautiful Süleymaniye Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque) I gave a donation to a guy sitting at the exit of the Mosque with a sign ‘donations for the Mosque’. As the entrance was free and usually the maintenance of this kind of buildings is enormous in costs, it seemed reasonable to have some contribution. I gave money and got a few blue tickets in return for that. I looked at them and thought, why do I get this kind of tickets? I gave a donation, but what is this for?
As my brains couldn’t find a solution, I started to think the Dutch way. This must be a proof for tax administration that a donation was made, I thought. In the Netherlands this exists; for income that is spent in gifts to good aims, citizens don’t need to pay taxes. But you must be able to proof that you gave away that money. I suggested the Turks might have the same system and that the tickets I got at the Süleymaniye Mosque served to prove to Turkish taxes that this money was really spent as a gift. But I also know that perspectives can be coloured too much by national perspective. The reason why I got the tickets could be completely different.
So in the restaurant, close to Süleymaniye, where we had dinner after visiting the Mosque, I showed my newly acquired tickets to the staff and asked them for the meaning of them. The staff was very surprised about it: ‘we have never seen these tickets before’. They started to question me ‘the Mosque is free to visit, why did you give them money?’.  I tried to explain to them the idea, or should I say idealism, of donations but my table company destroyed it all by saying ‘she wanted to feel good about herself’, making everybody burst out in laughter as if I were the kind of fool that was hardly seen in this part of Istanbul.
The restaurant staff explained to me ‘the government takes care of the Mosque, they don’t need your money’. Hey, I don’t give up that easily so I responded in an utmost surprised way ‘ah, I thought Turkey has a separation of state and religion’. ‘Well yes’, they replied, ‘the state doesn’t pay any money but local government does, the city of Istanbul is taking care of the Mosque’. I thought that the separation of state and religion also involved local government as well as national government but they thought that local was completely different from national and showed surprise that the City of Amsterdam is not giving money to churches or mosques ‘Istanbul is very social but Amsterdam is not’.
Soon enough, we started to talk Turkish instead of English and we jumped from the way Christians were treated in the South-East of Turkey to the way Muslems were treated in Greece and Bulgaria. I got a bit upset and so did they, and they had the superiority of language, meaningful in situations like the moment where I said that the monasteries in the North (güney) had a hard time under Turkish government when they declared there were no monasteries in the North – like I usually do, I mixed the words South and North (kuzey versus güney); a problem of mastering a language that weakened my arguments because they wouldn’t notice that I was not telling an ‘untruth’ but making a language mistake.
We didn’t really find a solution for Muslems in Greece and Bulgaria or for Christians in South East Turkey but we had a drink together to close the discussion. The only problem that lasts now is that my question about the tickets was left unanswered: why does a tourist who gives a donation to the Süleymaniye Mosque get tickets showing the period, the amount and the purpose of the donation? If you, reader, know the answer, please send me a message because I really like to know after all…


Istanbul and souvenirs with a religious component

  Changes can sometimes be perceived in small signs that function as a symbol for deeper lying norms and values. One of those signs in Istanbul is the way souvenir shops deal with presents that have a religious component. When I was here twenty years ago, the presents with different religious background were thoroughly separated from each other. For example in the jewelry market, jewelry with the ‘bismallah’ sign were sold in shops with a muslem owner, golden crosses were sold in shops with a christian owner. In that time there was no mixed collection of presents with religious component to be found at the same shop; absolutely nowhere!
This is something that has really changed now. In many shops it is possible to find articles with islamic, christian and jewish meaning all together not just in the same shop, but also on the same shelve. For someone like me who missed 20 years of Istanbul development, it feels like a radical change. I asked some questions about it in one souvenir shop and the workers there kindly explained to me that they believe in and respect all the prophets. I tried to explain them how this was in the years ’70, ’80, even begin ’90 but they kept telling me how they feel about it now. They couldn’t explain history to me, why it was different before and why it changed. They had Maria and Jesus hanging in their shop next to islamic holy artefacts, see the picture above, and considered that as normal.
I cannot analyze this yet, it would need a more indept insight but as said I have seen this mixture in many shops in Istanbul city already. These are small signs for what could be a more fundamental change. My first and overall impression is that the selfconfidence of the Turks has increased a lot in daily life, and tolerance often comes with selfconfidence. Another way of looking at it could be that the Christian minorities form no more threat whatsoever to the Turks which allows a different attitude. Finally, it is also possible to look at this businesswise. The Turks were always good in customer service, eager to help customers out, create strong relationships and earn some money; maybe they have just added these new products to their buckets…

Istanbul: no regret for my changed decision

  My last visit to Istanbul was over 20 years ago. Did it change?, I thought when I booked for my fifth trip to Istanbul. 20 years is a lot! My first trip to Istanbul was short after the third coup in the early eighties. I was a student for the first time in a country where the army played a big role and looking back I think I was partly unaware. There was a soldier on every corner of the road in Istanbul and there were hardly any tourists. It was a strange time and as a student, I was very excited, curious, eager to learn more about the world.
In 1990 or 1991 after quite some travelling in Turkey during the years, I decided that I was at last really fed up with the behaviour of Turkish men who wouldn’t let western women any freedom; I will never go again, I said, and focussed since then on Turkish Cyprus as one of my favorite places to be.
However, not every decision can last for a life time and now I am back, enjoying to be back really! By now I have walked around Istanbul all day in snow and wind and I found it both familiar and renewed. Familiar is the way of life, the simits and marrons and lots of other stuff one can buy in the streets, the friendliness of the people, the silent and thankful smiles when a tourist appears to speak some Turkish. Renewed is the pavement of the roads, the electricity that I remember, at that time, had open cables everywhere, quite dangerous in a busy city. The city is definitely a lot richer, the pavement of streets has been taken care of and the garbage in this intensely lived city is now none compared to my memories of the 20st century. Religion is more present in daily life than it was before, but women seem to be more free in the meantime.
A city that has existed for so many ages wouldn’t radically change: it keeps it character but it develops, that is my conclusion. And it is nice and beautiful as ever!

Freedom Day Northern Cyprus


Today I met with an old Cypriot friend. He sees his identity in the first place as Cypriot, then also as Turkish Cypriot. We saw each other in the center of Girne (Kyrenia) in the very North of Cyprus where the celebrations for the freedom of Northern Cyprus, the Turkish side of Cyprus were fully happening. 20th July 1974 the Turkish army started their action to take over charge of this part of the island, a peace operation in the eyes of some, an illegal invasion in the eyes of others.
Many people came today to the harbour of Girne to see the military flight show that was indeed impressive. I tried to take some photographs but the jets should have slowed down a bit for more succesfull pictures – you see some poor results above this blog, couldn’t do any better. Discussion was heard whether showing freedom by military force was:
1. a male expression of freedom – women would show it otherwise
2. a middle eastern way of expressing – western europe would show it otherwise
3. a way to impress and frigthen the Greeks – in this version, the jets first made a tour around the green line to make the Greeks nervous before arriving in Girne for the show
4. just fun – it was indeed a perfect and exciting show
5. a way to make the Turkish Cypriots feel safe: look how much power we have, and we protect you
My friend as well as many other Cypriots was desillusioned when there was a referendum for the unification of Cyprus in 2004 and the Turkish Cypriots said yes while the Greek Cypriots said no. Strange enough the Greek Cypriots were consequently rewarded by EU membership and the Turkish Cypriots were left out. Time will show whether this was the last (spoiled) opportunity for the Greek Cypriots to restore a common Cypriot identity, above national ‘homeland’ feelings and group identities. The North of Cyprus is now developping as a more independant Turkish identity, mainlanders start to live there and bring an ‘all Turkish’ culture in – the Turkish Cypriot identity is hardly surviving in these circumstances.
When I met my friend earlier today he asked me ‘did you really come over to see this event?’. I said in a joking tune, I wouldn’t miss any opportunity to celebrate Freedom Day on Northern Cyprus. ‘Oh, I feel so free’ he said. He didn’t travel for many years because the Turkish Cypriot passport would not be recognized by any country but Turkey. The Greek Cypriot passport does not apply. And he refuses to ask for a Turkish one that indeed he can obtain and that will be recognized. His identity does not formally exist.
The Turkish army, I do believe that, has guaranteed safety for the Turkish Cypriot community here. But after 37 years they are still on this island because the necessary followup – the political and economical support for Turkish Cypriots – was never realized.  So the question is not: why are there military flight shows? But the question is: which politicians and entrepreneurs will bring better alternatives for Cyprus?!