Saturday, August 11, 2007

The End/A New Beginning

This is important: please check out and learn more about Darfur, maybe make a video, or support the effort to end the genocide there.

I'm back home in California enjoying my family and garden once again! I managed to bring back a bottle of Cappadocian wine for George, but not without being stopped multiple times by airport security. I left Ohio in a thunderstorm, as you can see in this first photo. But at 35,000 feet above Indiana the sky became splendid. And as I approached the West Coast the scenery became even more interesting; you could see all those mountain ridges; they looked like one of those fake plastic three-dimensional maps.
Then the massive mountains became even clearer; I kept thinking about Lewis and Clark as they explored. By the time we approached Salt Lake City, Utah, the sun began to set, and after a long lay-over it was too dark to take pictures out the plane window. I'm happy to be home, especially because while in Ohio I realized that I felt a bit melancholic, which is expected after such an intense time abroad. But then as Yuko and I drove around, it occurred to me that it was the same sort of melancholy I felt among the ruins in Turkey, the same kind that Orhan Pamuk describes in his memoir, Istanbul: Memories and the City. In Turkey, Pamuk writes, it's easy to feel hürzün, because the physical remains of decay and destruction are clearly visible everywhere; broken remnants of grandeur loom. In central Ohio there's the same kind of permeating low-grade sadness, because, I think, you're surrounded by so many old houses, the majority disheveled, and beautiful yet abandoned brick buildings that had once been used for all sorts of industry--so much seems to be in need of repair; so much seems to be at its sunset. And in the summer heat and humidity, as in the bitter cold and snow of winder, the streets are deserted; everyone seems esconced in their airconditioned corners of the world. Of course, like in Turkey, if you look closely, if you delve beneath the surface, you'll see much newness, excitement and pulsating change everywhere too (just look at some of my favorite pictures), but because of the overwhelming decay it's easy to feel melancholy, hürzün.

Orhan Pamuk explains that there are two different Muslim traditions that help to define and clarify hürzün: one derives from the Koran and likens hürzün to deep spiritual loss (such as the one the Prophet Muhammad experienced the year he lost both his wife Hatice and his uncle Ebu Talip), and to agony and grief at having invested too much in the transitory material things that can and will be lost.

The other tradition is rooted in Sufi mysticism: it likens hürzün with the gnawing awareness of our inadequacies, of how, for example, we can never fully understand or be close enough to God. Symbiotically, though, if we don’t experience hürzün we feel empty and derisory. Pamuk writes that in Sufism it is “the failure to experience hürzün” that leads you to feel it; you suffer because you haven’t suffered enough. He writes that it is by following this logic that Islamic culture has come to hold hürzün in “high esteen.”
Hürzün is produced by living in and with decomposing fragments—by living in and with the ruins that constantly and concretely remind you that once there was a great Ottoman Empire, and that perhaps such grandeur can never again be reconstructed. Hürzün in Turkey, Pamuk says, has evolved into a cultural concept that equates to an attuned awareness of worldly failure, listlessness and spiritual suffering and that it is often associated not just with the loss or death of a loved one, but also with other spiritual afflictions like anger, love, rancor, defeat and groundless fear. So... the symbiosis in that concept is surely worth further consideration, don't you think?
In the Muslim writing tradition travelers keep a Rihla, a journal that documents a trip taken precisely to learn (as in the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca)--to learn about yourself, about a country, another culture, its people, habits, quirks, sorrows and delights; in other words, to learn by entering and immersing yourself in that new setting, which, of course, if done right, requires that you dispel preconceived notions. That kind of stripping of yourself is very difficult, but surely beneficial. I started to learn to step out of my own tiny box a very long time ago, when my family emigrated (and when, perhaps consequently, I began to yearn to travel) and then when I started to read travel narratives like those by Ibn Battuta. Ibn Battuta started traveling in the year 1325 when he was 20. His aim was to partake of the Hajj, as all Muslims do, if they can. And the purpose of the Hajj is not just to pay homage; it is also to seek knowledge, to learn and then DO something worthy with that newly gathered information. But the Hajj to Mecca wasn't enough for Ibn Battuta; he continued to wander for about 29 years through 75,000 miles and visited what was then the Muslim World, Dar al-Islam, through (what today would be considered) 44 modern countries (e.g., Turkey, Morocco, India, China). And through it all he kept a Rihla, which today allows us to understand him, and the people and places he met and visited. Without his Rihla, we'd have a more limited view of him and that world such a long time ago. (There are many books about Ibn Battuta; a good starting one is The Adventures of Ibn Battuta, a Muslim Traveler of the 14th Century by Ross E. Dunn.)
Today the connotation of the word "rihla" is different than it was when Ibn Battuta traveled. Back then, the word was more directly linked to the Prophet Muhammad's traditional injunction to "seek knowledge," which legitimated the need to travel beyond doing the Hajj, and probably fed wanderlust. That injunction gave rise, in the Islamic middle ages, to the concept of al-rihla fi talab al-'ilm, travel in search of knowledge. Then, in Islamic North Africa in the 12th to 14th centuries, as paper became increasingly available, educated men began to write and distribute their first-hand descriptions of their pilgrimages to holy cities and beyond. Such an account was called a rihla, or "travelogue" (which was both a memoir and most definitely a work of spiritual devotion), and it combined the writer's observations and responses to the Hajj with geographical and cultural information about the places and people he met along the way. (And I say "he" because in the Middle Ages very few women traveled and wrote about their experiences.) Today, Rihla is most often directly equated with "travel journal."
I won't catalogue what I've learned, since that'd take pages and pages, besides, I need time to truly reflect and understand before I can describe those lessons. But, I can say for sure that I am changed, changed because I have learned about myself and about others. And that change is good, good because it produces valuable insights about how to continue to navigate my life in productive and engaging ways.
I've enjoyed keeping this blog. It provides a fun record of the highlights of my adventures during summer 2007. That's important to me; I'm an archivist (since, I believe, that too is the essence of history and of what, consequently, constitutes individual and collective identity). I'm used to writing compulsively in my journal, but this blog has required different skills from me. It's caused me to exercise different writing muscles. Simply, writing specifically for you (and for those readers I don't know personally who might happen upon this blog) has required that I think directly about my audience. That is more about omission than it is about inclusion, more about what I leave out than what I choose to reveal to you.

Thank you for reading my blog, for being curious and interested in my adventure. I hope that you walk away with some thing, some idea, some feeling--however tiny--that will grow in you and maybe even provide you joy, gratification and impetus to live a fuller life.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Americana: Ohio

Hello from Ohio where I'm spending time with Yuko! I was ready to leave Turkey, but I must admit that it was indeed a little sad to depart. I'm glad to be back in the States, though. This is my second to last blog posting; when I get to California I will compose a final reflection on this summer's learning experiences. In the meantime, I thought I'd share more "Americana," since that's how this blog begins; I thought you'd like to see a couple of the things I've seen these past few days here in Ohio, starting with a beautiful thistle that we encountered on the way to the farmer's market near Yuko's house. Doesn't it look just like the one in Turkey? I photographed it on a cloudy rainy day (it's been pouring pouring every afternoon!), so the color is not as vibrant as the one in Turkey. And then there are all these beautiful red berries blooming everywhere.
The other day, Yuko and I went to see the memorial near her office at Kent State University. No matter how many times I visit, it's a moving site, but now, given what's going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, and given the lack of true activism in the States, this memorial is particularly relevant. Aside from the four marked actual spaces where the students where shot dead, a short distance up the hill there are four granite casket-like sculptures (reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial in DC), and an Ohio Historical Society plaque with these words:

May 4, 1970
In 1968, Richard Nixon won the presidency partly based on a promise to end the Vietnam War. Though the war seemed to be winding down, on April 30, 1970, Nixon announced the invasion of Cambodia, triggering protests across college campuses. On Friday, May 1, an anti-war rally was held on the Commons at Kent State University. Protestors called for another rally to be held on Monday, May 4. Disturbances in downtown Kent that night caused city officials to ask Governor James Rhodes to send the Ohio National Guard to maintain order. Troops put on alert Saturday afternoon were called to campus Saturday evening after an ROTC building was set on fire. Sunday morning in a press conference that was broadcast to the troops on campus, Rhodes vowed to "eradicate the problem" of protests at Kent State. On May 4, 1970, Kent State students protested on the Commons against the invasion of Cambodia and the presence of the Ohio National Guard called to campus to quell demonstrations. Guardsmen advanced, driving students past Taylor Hall. A small group of protesters taunted the Guard from the Prentice Hall parking lot. The Guard marched back to the Pagoda, where members of Company A, 145th Infantry, and Troop G, 107th Armored Cavalry, turned and fired 67 shots during thirteen seconds. Four students were killed--Allison Krause, Jeffrey Miller, Sandra Scheuer, and William Schroeder. Nine students were wounded--Alan Canfora, John Cleary, Thomas Grace, Dean Kahler, Joseph Lewish, D. Scott MacKenzie, James Russell, Robert Stamps, and Douglas Wrentmore. Those shot were 20 to 245 yards from the Guard. The Report of the President's Commission on Campus Unrest concluded that the shootings were "unnecessary, unwarranted, and inexcusable."

I will add that none of the Guard who shot the students were prosecuted or penalized in any way whatsoever.

Another day, Yuko and I went to the world's largest Amish community in Holmes County in the middle of Ohio, mainly the towns called Millersburg, Berlin, and Walnut Creek. There we enjoyed the beautiful pastoral scenery, drove by many farms with corn and soy beans growing lushly, ate a hearty homemade lunch, shopped for hand-made quilts and furniture, and actually drove after one of the many buggies that clip-clop along at snail's pace while cars zoom by them. Once we caught up with the unsuspecting buggy, I got out of the car to ask if I could take a picture. The only "driver," a woman, said sure--as long as I left her out of it. I did; the picture is above.
Of the 267,000 acres in Holmes County, 172,000 are farmed. What amazes me (and the reason I ran after buggies so I could capture their image) is the fact that since the 1900s the Amish community has fought so hard to stay the same and still be relevant. That's a huge challenge! But they've managed to retain their values, lifestyle and identity and yet remain economically viable; most no longer farm and have opted to become furniture manufacturers.
And... having just returned from Turkey, a Muslim country where very few women cover their heads, and living in the States where stereotypes about Muslim women's scarves are wild and rampant, it's fascinating to me to walk among Amish women. They never cut their hair, and typically wear it in a braid or a bun on the back of their heads. Like the Jewish Orthodox women I have met in Brooklyn and in the Catskills of New York, Amish women must always conceal their hair with a small white cap called a "Covering." An Amish woman can never be seen outside her home without her Covering.
The Amish in the United States are direct descendents of a 16th century European religious sect called Anabaptists. They challenged the reforms made by Martin Luther during the Protestant Reformation, mainly rejecting baptism early in infancy and favoring baptism in adulthood once able to make a conscious decision to be Christian. They were one of the first groups to insist on separating church and state. One of their first leaders was the Dutch Anabaptist Menno Simons (who lived between 1496 and 1561), and that is why the community also became known as Mennonite. When their religion began to be persecuted, the the Amish/Mennonites fled to Switzerland and other remote parts of Europe. In the 1600s a large sub-group led by Jakob Ammann broke from the larger Swiss community, because they disagreed over the strict enforcement of Meidung (which means shunning, that is, excommunicating members who don't follow rules), the practice of foot washing and the wearing of particular dress. That group that broke away is the group that then fled to the United States and settled mostly in Ohio.

The first sizeable group of Amish arrived in America around 1730 and settled near Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They also settled throughout twenty-four other states, in Canada and in Central America, but about 80% located in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana. The greatest concentration of Amish people is in Holmes and adjoining counties in northeast Ohio. Next in size is a group of Amish people in Elkhart and surrounding counties in northeastern Indiana. Then comes the Amish settlement in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.

Today, the Amish population in the United States is more than 150,000 and it is still growing; they have large families, seven children on average. Up until the early 1900s the Amish were no different from others, but in an effort to follow their founder, Jacob Amman, they began to resist change. To me, the Amish are indeed fascinating because they're clearly a reminder of how Americans used to be, and of how "minorities" can be successful--albeit marginal--components in American society.

I will end this blog entry on a happy note by showing you my dear friend's watercolors. Yuko shares my need to learn and my wanderlust; those are two of the many reasons we've been close friends for over 20 years. In this first watercolor she's depicted Dragor in Denmark, which she visited just last year. And in the second watercolor she's shown Fredericksberg Park in Copenhagen.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007


I started this entry almost a week ago, but I did not finish it because I've been traveling through Cappadocia and was staying at a hotel without wi-fi. I want to share these pictures with you, so I'll write little and simply post them.
During the first part of the week I was in Göreme, a town not far from Ortahisar. Göreme is bigger and a bit more touristy. It seems to be a backpacker's haven. During the two nights I was there the hotel was packed with several groups of Spanish trekkers. I stayed in a Cave Hotel, that is, a structure that had been originally carved out of one of the soft rock hills that dot this area, like the dwellings that early Christians carved for themselves in order to flee invading Arabs. I visited one such cave city and the Open Air Museum. In the immediate area of these two towns alone there are over 100 churches; the one at the Open Air Museum has gorgeous frescos (better preserved, of course, because they're in caves).
The Fortress in Ortahisar: This is what I saw from my cave room. It's an impressive huge rock rising out of a rubbled-filled valley with radiating winding roads. The carved dwellings in each of the visible openings have been long abandoned; today you can climb the Fortress up a series of long stairs and from the top you can see a panoramic view of the town of Ortahisar and beyond. In the center of the village there are many coffee houses; once a week there's a local produce market that is very colorful.
All of Cappadocia is extremely beautiful and surreal. The rock formations and colors are indeed uniquely exquisite. Above you see two of the Three Beauties (called "chimney" or "mushroom" rocks), the iconic symbol of Turkey that appears in the 50 lira bill. Together, the three represent a family. The smaller of the three, the one you can't see clearly in this picture, is the child.

These next several pictures are from the Outdoor Museum and surrounding area. I find it joyful to see that in a very parched land colorful flowers still grow. (Well, because this is volcanic rock the area is in fact very fecund: fruit threes and vineyards are plentiful.) I will write more later.

Monday, July 30, 2007

My last day in Istanbul

I spent most of it on a ferry going up and down the Bosphorus once again. In this photo journal I give you a glimpse of what I saw.
This is the map that IDO, the company that owns the ferry, gives out.
I walked from my hotel to the Eminönü ferry pier (see the bottom of the map), a bustling place!
Off I went on the churning water.

Houses (called yalis) from the 19th century are particularly beautiful because of all the gingerbread embellishments. Some of them are in uninhabitable condition. The European side of the Bosphorus, especially, is lined with palaces and modern houses. On both sides you can also see tiny beaches, makeshift sunbathing spots, ancient ruins and mosques. Two major bridges expand across the water. Of course, there are swimmers and numerous ships and sailboats everywhere.

The last ferry stop is at Rumeli, near the mouth of the Black Sea, then it turns around.

Each of the ferry stops has an architecturally and historically interesting building.

There are many images that I did not photograph but that are still very vivid in my mind, for instance:

On the roof terrace of the Sultan Hill Hotel, between the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia. Twilight. Only the calls to prayer can be heard, not in unison, but as if in a methodically choreographed sensual dance to call and response rhythms. The Sea of Marmara shimmering and its warm winds caressing me.

Driving around trendy Ortokoy. Midday in the worst of a gripping heat wave, trudging ever so slowly in thick traffic, but talking happily with a colleague in the comfort of her airconditioned car. Sudden silence. Out the window... a middle aged woman, dirty, wild hair, languid eyes staring in our direction, her bare breasts hanging, hanging long toward her belly.

The park in Uskudar. I am seated on a bench eating a simit. A man, his wife and their baby sit on the edge encircling a glorious fountain. The sound of splashing water synchronizes with the laughter of children. The wife picks up her baby, takes off his booties, lifts him way up high, then lets his toes touch the water's surface. He giggles. His father laughs boldy, the lines around his eyes gathering upward as his large hand extends to caress his baby's head. His wife smiles.

Walking back from the pier at Eminönü. Noisy. Congested. End of a long hot day. My feet are heavy. I am hungry. Ahead, up against the wall, there is a small brown bundle inside some sort of semi-clear green plastic. It moves. I'm startled aside. A young blackened face peers out and wimpers. I walk faster but in a block I am compelled to return to buy a simit and a bottle of water, which I offer to him, but he simply weakly shakes his head. Much much later, I eat the simit.

On Kennedy Boulevard, far from Sultan Hammet. I don't realize I've dropped my small package; when I do, I turn and see a woman, her head scarf blowing as she walks briskly toward me. "Thank you" isn't enough. Without thinking, I place my right hand over my heart and lower my eyes. Without thinking, she places her right hand over her heart and lowers her eyes.

At the entrance of the mosque in Bursa. An old man, wearing an uncomfortably smelly and worn caftan sits at the entrance, his hand extended, three fingers missing. His shriveled face contorted, deeply sunken eye lids revealing he has no eyes.