The New Constantinople
PUBLISHED: Dec 5, 2013 4:21 PM
After four tireless, sometimes unbearable years of journalism school, I didn’t think I would be the millennial who couldn’t find work. The current unemployment rate in the United States is roughly seven percent, 14% for young people.
I’m an impatient girl. It’s natural for me to lose sleep or disregard advice from elders when I feel that I’m deserving of merit. This summer wasn’t easy, particularly. I left my comfortable three-bedroom apartment in New York City for the spellbinding lifestyle of a foreign correspondent in Istanbul, the cultural capital of Turkey. My arrival came at a turning point for the inhabitants of Turkey. On May 31st, a civil revolt ensued.
Three weeks prior to the protests across Turkey’s largest cities, the government signed a bill to allow the demolition of nearly 600 trees and installation of 19th century army barracks at Gezi Park – the hub of Taksim Square. The square (no relation to Times Square) was a two-bus ride away from my dormitory. But the pressure from polis to allay foot traffic at Taksim made the commute a nightmare. My translator and I would board a bus that drove past the construction site of Istanbul’s Besiktas futbol stadium and footed the remaining dusty, crooked sidewalk.
Feeling like I was melting each time, there was a subtle right turn that signified I arrived. Standing across the street from Gezi Park and ogling at the draping of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk – leader of the Turkish War of Independence who modernized several reforms for the nation including women’s suffrage – this would be home for the next month.
My place of solace was in Besiktas – a young area with Western undertones. Before I give you the skinny, here’s a briefing of how I got there. I first learned of the internship abroad program in a mass e-mail sent by the internship coordinator at Stony Brook’s School of Journalism in Long Island, NY. I forwarded the message to my father (essentially, giving him a nudge) and promised myself that I would end up in one of the program’s following destinations.
Now, Besiktas looks like any urban area – my former neighborhood in the Bronx; the Lower East Side of Manhattan; Astoria, Queens. There were enough eateries and shops to lure anyone into launching a business. If you wanted to sell calling cards, you could. If you wanted to swindle travelers into buying your posters, you could.
I felt most accepted in Besiktas because the people didn’t seem fixated on my outer. In fact, it is almost as if I studying university, which I sorta had been, because why else would I have been there?
The most fraught reason for any foreigner, outside of lodging, is navigating a new place for the first time. The small things you normally take for granted like ordering lunch or hailing a cab to get from point A to B could be the scariest moment of your day. (Revisiting the idea, even, is causing anxiety.) Not to mention the horror stories you hear about women disappearing, like the Staten Island mother of two who was killed while vacationing in January.) There’s the feeling of being bamboozled into giving money, or worse, getting pick pocketed and losing your passport. Fortunately, none of that happened.
Hours settling into Istanbul, I become conscious of my table etiquette. I was obviously American: summertime brown-skinned, curly hair in a pulled back ponytail, a septum illusion piercing and a smile like I hadn’t shown in months.
There wasn’t a plan to show up and eat immediately. Three housemates and I spotted an outdoor seating table. A middle-aged waiter greeted us with menus and helplessly inquired about our countries of origin. There was a freckled faced girl with beach hair, a guy with a soft-spoken Indian accent, another guy with dark curls and a round nose, and myself. How could you ignore our group’s dynamic? The waiter’s English was the first sign of how advanced (and accustomed) he was in communicating with tourists. This was a great sign, as I am foreign language-challenged. Everyone ordered their various Mediterranean-style dishes. Once mine had arrived, I thought ‘why does this look so familiar?’. I was immediately disappointed by the food that I could see in the states. I was phased out of my choices and opted to sample the national drink called “Ayran.”
An easier thing to digest was the people. I was awe-struck at the street style of many Istanbulites – men donned in white robes; out-of-town Muslimahs in their abaya; women in matching hijabs and skirts; and the locals who played backgammon throughout the day. I noticed everyone and there wasn’t a person who hadn’t noticed me. “[They] don’t see your race; only color,” said Dr. Ahmet Kaza, a family doctor and Gay activist who I interviewed for my story.
For a country that straddles two continents (Europe and Asia), heterogeneous is plain as day. Turks, Kurds, Greeks, Arabs, Gypsies, Syrians, the Christian minorities, sometimes blend so fluidly that even the smartest traveler could be fooled into thinking they’re all the same. Being in Istanbul for a short time, meant that color wasn’t anything to be up in arms about. Though I gave it special mention on Facebook: “Whenever I see black people in Istanbul, I get reallyyyyyy happy.” #blackpeopleruletheworld.
My colleague, Alex Estrada, a California native and fearless photographer wanted to speak with refugees in Tarlabasi (“front field” in English), a heartfelt community where plights of African and Syrian refugees, gypsies and street walkers lived. Alex wanted to gather reactions from refugees facing expulsion in this part of town. His idea came too late in the program and cut across spotty communication lines with the news agency where we sent stories to. But the thought of helping him communicate with some of the refugees made me realize my own language insecurities. From a distance, I noticed the wave of Black Muslims – normally in pairs (husband and wife) carrying on in transit and at markets. Frankly, I felt like the one thing that I had missed in Istanbul was connecting with its black faction – the very thing I’m accustomed to doing in the states.
Between sight-seeing and reporting, I spent a lot of time in tourist-central Sultanahmet, where every businessman has two agendas: selling you something, and then selling you something else. (Even, vying food vendors in 30 degree weather in New York aren’t as pushy as the sellers at Grand Bazaar.)
My mind was fertile in purchasing gifts and since I had never been to the area, I didn’t know what was appropriate to buy. I had minimal knowledge about sports in Turkey; however, quickly caught on to its presence. The Besiktas Soccer Club has wide popularity among Turks and even rose to prominence during the Occupy Gezi uprising. Members of the fan club reportedly distributed gas masks and delivered aid to injured protestors. Besiktas [the futbol team] stood in arms with fellow teams, Fenerbache and Galatasaray as “Istanbul United. Since 31 May 2013.”
The reason why I choose to return home with a futbol jersey had little to do with this. Futbol hit Africa during European imperialism in the 17th century and influenced the faces you see in EU teams today. In 2010, African history professor Peter Alegi stated that more than 80 percent of Africa’s world cup players are based in Europe. My father played soccer in the late 70s, so it was an automatic acquire for me.
Before a line of jerseys reflecting emblems of Brazil, Mexico, and the United Arab Emirates, I singled out a navy blue and yellow-stripped FIFA shirt. Normally, I don’t negotiate items – I either pay or don’t. He said 25 lira. I unknowingly had 20 in my pocket. He settled. Deal.
Some days I slept in past noon. I wasn’t of the bunch that had to show up for Turkish language instruction, but I felt compelled to at least pick up some colloquial language. I found The paranormal view of the second Bosphorus Bridge from the district of Bahcesehir leaving around 8: 30 a.m. very alluring. Because I had creative control of my assignments, I often burned time skirting the scene in between classes while waiting for my advisor to help with edits.Many afternoons I sampled a rich pilaf drenched in a soft zucchini stew and egg yolk in the cafeteria – either alone or with house mates.
One afternoon, eating the same meal, I made contact with a beautiful boy.
He was lithe and had razor-sharp cheek bones. “Where are you from,” I said, feeling my voice crack in anticipation of his answer. “Sudan,” he replied and continued to head in his direction. It was a short lived moment, but one that would linger for days.
Other days I didn’t feel so alone. My translator, a bilingual university student, had taken on the tasks of dealing with two [pushy] interns. Like other translators in the program, she had to coordinate with my schedule and remain hers open for possibility of double-booking.
Upon a mild-hot day from Europe to Asia, we set off via the 5:45 p.m. boat to attend a women’s rights meeting at Yogurtcu Parki, a space known for hipping people to the latest changes in awake of social and political upheaval, such as the Occupy Gezi riots.
Since I missed a lot of the action at Taksim Square, weeks prior to arriving, this marked a turning point in my reporting chronicles. Nearly a hundred attendees showed to air their grievances during the protests. So here I am, language-illiterate and walking past tie-dyed shirts and children swinging on a seesaw pendulum, eager to take [physical and mental] note of ramblings at this good ol’ park showdown.
Attendees cited would-have-been legislation to ban dresses in public and red lipstick for flight attendants in the airport as evidence of polarizing women in Turkey. Others chose to focus on the positives: homage to the LGBT community and women who were on the frontlines of protests and solidarity for all of Turkey.
If I may add, I was waist deep into this assignment so I didn’t stop there. Later that evening, I waited by the bus stop in Besiktas and approached different women about their sexual freedom, specifically how they use oral contraception.
You want to know the most spellbinding aspect of being a foreign correspondent in Istanbul?
The small acts of kindness.
Humbled folks including the first woman I approached about contraception, who basically said “My English isn’t perfect, but I want to help you”; the stranger who invited me to learn about “Why they became Muslim” in the form of a paperback edition at the Sultan Ahmet Cami; the children of Balat who sang American classics like “If You’re Happy and You Know It” dubbed in Turkish for me and my visiting friend; the concerned patron who cautioned me about traveling with my bookbag open on the tram; Saniye, the cook, who wouldn’t stop feeding me feta cheese and olives for my last Sunday feast; the Enrique Inglesias look-alike hair dresser who told me that my hair was ‘rough’ and proceeded to handle it with diligence and complimented it profusely after; the random people who snapped a photo of me while they thought I wasn’t looking; that moment I shared with the masseuse who blew air bubbles the size of pillows down my breasts and vagina at my first-ever Turkish bath; the stick poster I was given at Istanbul’s largest PRIDE parade saying “We are lesbian”; the invitation to meet other travelers on scholarship at the Turkish Coalition of America office. And it continues.
These small acts of kindness dispelled my qualms of traveling alone and left me with nostomania –and an obsession with returning.
Months later, I’m neither unemployed nor underemployed – I’m distressed.
With trial and error, chronic afternoon naps that cut into non-journalism class time, abysmal news quiz scores, production run through for a school play, sushi for breakfast, lugging 25lb camera equipment, excruciating weekend commutes home, all-nighters in the newsroom, and a few “My Life As” segments that j-school professors mandate for extra credit and the ‘knowledge’ that I adapted the role of the backpack journalism in today’s changing media landscape has me in distress about fighting to keep the good fight.
Youngsters in Europe are facing unprecedented levels of youth unemployment. It is as high as 56 percent in Spain and more than 17 percent in Turkey. The crisis is global, and I could imagine how my contemporaries are handling the murky situation. The same dilemma that I’m facing at home is the sole reason why I’m working to document that of others overseas. Through faith and the warmth of family, I’m writing down a new reason to remain hopeful each day.
Pope Francis said it best: “A whole generation of young people does not have the dignity that is brought by work.”
Hearing that and cycling is the solace that fuels me to continue.
This story was curated by Ariam “Ah-loo-lah” Frezghi.