Friday, December 31, 2010

Spanning years, cultures and creativity

Our avatar is a detail from a suzani, hand embroidered silk and cotton textiles traditionally begun at the birth of a daughter for her dowry. A suzani’s circular motifs represent Gardens of Eden, reminders of an abundant life here in an earthly paradise.

These circles imply connection, the arcs of bridges spanning divides and even cultures. Colorful rainbows leading to brighter futures, eternal curves encompassing the hands-on-hips symbol of strong women, as stitched in Turkic handcrafts for millennia. In 2011, we'll take the energy of this sustaining form into creating a culture in which girls and women, from Turkey, but also from around our globe, draw from the strength and beauty of these cultural arts and remake them to empower themselves, their families and their communities. 

It's now 2011 in Turkey, where Abit is, and still 2010 in California, where I am. We're temporarily bridging years for these 10 hours, but I'm eager to get back to being our creative, craftivist force for bridging cultures.

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year, wherever you may be!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Manifesting Destiny

It took a random trip back to Istanbul in 1998 for me to recognize that I could create any kind of life I wanted.  I didn’t have to follow the American Dream to ‘success’:  the corporate high salary job, a big house, the nice car with the hefty lease.  I was living a good life in Los Angeles, but one that felt directionless and shallow.  

I was in a multi-cultural city, but that place did not reflect me.

A friend asked me if I wanted to travel with her to Turkey and Greece. I immediately said yes, since I rarely turned down a chance to do my favorite thing – travel. Istanbul had been my favorite place to work, the business trips I’d made there several years before.  The Turks I’d worked with had quite unlike the Japanese, the Chinese, the Indians, the Italians and other nationalities whose offices and factories I’d done business with as a clothing designer.

My agent and his employees in Istanbul went out of their way to make sure I saw their city, whirling me through Sultanahmet, along the Bosphorus, taking me to the latest hot restaurants and nightclubs. I didn’t realize that the agent’s wife Asli was one of Turkey’s top fashion designers at the time, until we were followed around one night by paparazzi and appeared in the local gossip pages the next morning. I was suddenly the ‘famous American designer’ gracing Turkey with my presence.

One afternoon, Asli took me to Pandeli in the Spice Market for lunch. But not until I’d visited the vast closet in her home with the Bosphorus view, donning heels, flowing silk, and a fur coat, since it was late November. Clearly my casual American work clothes had not met with her chic Istanbul standards. Cinderella stories like that never happened to me in the US, even in the fashion business.

With great memories of that amazing city that reminded me so much of a far more colorful and infinitely more social San Francisco, we planned our trip to Turkey and Greece. But just before we were about to leave, my friend went cold on Turkey.  She was afraid to travel the Western Turkish route I’d mapped out, though perhaps Istanbul might be safe enough for her to see before we left for Athens. We agreed to meet on a certain date at the Empress Zoe Hotel in Sultanahmet, near the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace.  

Once on the road, I was happy to be on my own.  I’ve lost friendships with people who were fine at home but could not handle the daily stresses of travel. I’m most alive when I don’t know what’s around the corner, or where a fork in my path will take me. Traveling with someone who wanted to plan every move would have been agony.

Turkey solo was a challenge.  I’ve never talked to more strangers in my life! By the time I got to the small Aegean town of Selcuk, next to the Greco-Roman ruins of Ephesus, I was talked out.  I’d over-shopped too, and was cursing myself for lugging an over stuffed duffel bag as I struggled up a small lane from the bus station after a bus ride from Pamukkale. Why do Americans think they can see half of Turkey in 1 week’s time? I’d barely scratched the surface in three.

I’ll save the rest of the story for my book. But that day in Selcuk, I met my husband Abit, who has called Selcuk home since the age of 13, though he’s also lived for 10 years in Istanbul and in Belgium for 3. If I’d turned down another street, we never may have met. I might have returned to California, settled back into my life. The life that was comfortable, but didn’t quite feel like mine.

I did ultimately meet up with my friend at the Empress Zoe Hotel, that trip in 1998. As kismet would have it, the narrow wooden building on Kutlugun Sokak, Auspicious Day Street, where Abit and I lived and had our textile shop this past summer -  is right next door. 

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Full bloom

Until I moved to Turkey in 1999, I didn’t fully realize that a person could have more than one home, more than one country, more than one culture. That we don’t have to choose.  Having a personal connection to multiple cultures is the best way we’ll learn to get along with each other on this planet.

Living in Istanbul, we all know the cliche about this city and the country of Turkey being a bridge between East and West. For the year of 2010, to celebrate Istanbul’s status as a European Capital of Culture, there’ve been big banners on the Galata Bridge in Turkish and English proclaiming that Istanbul is “building bridges between the cultures.”

 I’m working to bridge cultures creatively, a passion that I’ve long had, but which has only recently come fully into focus. And largely thanks to that ambiguous, magical catalyst called Istanbul.

The bridge metaphor makes sense to me. But I also like how my friend Tara Agacayak talked about the indefinable Turkey in her post on Turquoise Poppy:

The cliché about Turkey is that it is east and it is west. It is old and new. It is modern and ancient. Europe and Asia.  Religious and secular. The juxtapositions are numerous but they demonstrate something. They show that a place can be both, it just depends on where you choose to draw the line.

She goes on to write that line is imaginary – we can draw it anywhere we chose. And in 2010, I chose to draw it in Istanbul, where all my passions intersect. I can create a life that combines them all: creativity, culture, fiber arts, language, community and of course, love.

The tagline on Tara’s blog is Bloom Where You’re Planted. I’m a late bloomer because it wasn’t until I moved to Turkey in 1999 that I really challenged myself well across all lines, proved to myself that being a hybrid of multiple cultures can only make me stronger. Let me tell you how I got here.

I grew up in a California beach town, Santa Barbara, before it was overrun with celebrities from Hollywood. It was a lovely environment, with whitewashed, red tiled buildings that were required by code to reflect the Moorish, Islamic decorative architecture of Andalusian Spain. But the residents were a little homogenous, a mostly white population, though at least 30% of the residents were of Mexican ancestry. I identified with that Hispanic culture, never thinking it was a separate culture from my own.

When I went off to Los Angeles to study textile and clothing design, I got a taste of what it was really like to live in a multicultural city. My third job as a clothing designer in my mid-twenties launched me headfirst into global business travel, when the president of the company I’d just joined publicly fired the head designer at the first sales meeting I attended, then announced to me and the audience of maybe 100 that I’d be going to Hong Kong in the morning to head up the young menswear division.

Working in the clothing industry was a great lesson in trial-by-fire living, a constant test to prove myself since I was only as good as the success of my latest collection. A designer must constantly reinvent herself, be able to turn trends into something that reflects her customer. Learning that the only thing constant is change truly prepared me for expat life, for living in a global world.

10 years on, after living in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Portland Oregon, working in about 20 countries and traveling for pleasure to at least 25 more, I returned to UCLA to study interior design and architecture.  These fields still allowed me to work with my three favorite design elements: color, texture and pattern. Those three elements form a universal language to me, whether you’re creating embroideries, mosaic tiles, carpets or stair railings. Understand the language they speak, and you can design almost anything.

But I also learned that just designing something was not enough. You had to know how to build it. The loveliest of environments could live in my head, but if I did not have the skills to make it real, it was only a dream. While I was successful in creating items and environments that suited the needs of my buyers and clients, I’d yet to create a life for myself outside of business that truly suited me.  It took a random trip back to Istanbul in 1998 for me to realize that I could create any kind of life I wanted.  A life whose seeds were planted in Turkey a decade ago.  A life coming into full bloom the spring of 2011.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Putting our lives on video: East meets West


When it comes to squeezing your mission in life into a 3 minute video, it's not the simplest thing. Especially since I've never done one before. But I have an urgent need to communicate a really big idea. An idea so big that it consumes my every waking moment, and often my dreams as well. So exciting that I am amazed that everyone else doesn't already know about it, and I really want them to. Perhaps that's slightly egocentric, but I've been pleasantly surprised to learn that, yes, there are a lot of people out there who do think like I do. The girl effect and the hundreds of wonderful words and images out there have been launched, and I happily stumbled into their midst. 

It's important to remember that change for the good can take time...but slowly, it will happen.  
We will be useful. We will make a difference.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

The 'girl effect' hits home

This past winter, as I worked one more time in California to bridge the financial gap that always occurred each winter in Turkish tourism, with economies tightening and a decade that has seen wars, terrorism, earthquakes tossing in more than the occasional challenge to making a living, I decided to work with a life design coach. While I’ll always love finding and selling the vintage textiles of a former generation, I felt it was time to get back to expressing myself directly through making my own work, to clarify my focus. And I felt the need to involve and help other women, especially the strong women of our Kurdish family, who had great crafting skills but had been afforded little education. So if they worked outside the home, it was to do the back-breaking work of picking cotton or fruit. 

The galvanizing moment in my winter work to recreate myself one more time and to do something to help others came when Rose Deniz posted a story on her blog Love, Rose about a 16 year old Kurdish girl in Adiyaman named Medine Memi. Medine had been buried alive by her family. Her transgression? She talked to boys. The media was full of stories about backward Kurds, how Islam made them do it, and how Turkey could never become part of the EU.

One journalist, Mustafa Akyol of Hurriyet, explained such honor killings by pointing to the topography of the southeast “It is a very mountainous region, which is inhospitable to trade routes, railways and highways. Hence its inhabitants have lived almost isolated from the outside world for centuries and have remained largely untouched by modernity.” he said.

Though I agreed with him that Kurds have largely kept to their tribal ways that include many traditions that existed well before Islam, they are not as isolated as everyone makes them out to be. Kurds live all over the country and it's only a small percentage that still thinks in these archaic ways. 

I commented at the time, “I'm in shock when I read of another so-called "honour" killing...there is nothing honorable about it. My heart breaks for this girl. As traditional as my Kurdish family is, I cannot fathom them condoning such barbaric behavior."

And I can't. But I know that education is the key to stopping such horrors, and education starts with the women of the family, so they can teach their children, boys and girls, how to behave as decent human beings. While taking on the problem of honor killings would be a huge undertaking, I knew that if my large family of uneducated women were sometimes having a tough time making ends meet in the sleepy but lovely town of Selcuk, what must life be like for similar women from the east who had moved to sprawling Istanbul? 

Rose wrote in her post about those Turkish women journalists and authors writing about Medine and honor killings that “there are female voices here that are not passive, but strong, and that their discourse must be acknowledged for contributing to building a safe place for women worldwide.” 

A safe place for women. How could I do that? I knew that every woman in my family knits or crochets. Designing knitwear is one of my favorite things to do. I knew we could share the language of craft, even if we barely spoke each other’s language, for although I speak Turkish, I don’t speak Kurdish. I could start a cottage business, and eventually work toward the goal of creating handmade products that benefits not just Kurdish women, but any woman who needs extra cash so perhaps her daughter can go to school, or her son does not have to carry around a scale for people to weigh themselves on the street. 

So this summer my husband and I moved to Istanbul’s Old City, to test our idea to launch a workshop to support these local unsung artisans: women who still weave, knit, and crochet in the traditions of timeless Turkish handcraft. While there are educated women reviving crafts as a hobby or a career here, I’m more concerned about those other women with fewer opportunities who’d like to earn money within a safe community of women. Our workshop will also give traveling women a chance to meet Turkish women through classes we’ll offer and craft tours we’ll host about yarns, knitting, making oya, traditional kece or patterned felt work – there are so many ideas here. We hope to engage hands to learn new skills and teach traditional ones, to spin yarns, clack needles and drink tea together. 

This next decade of my life, I will be a creative force for bridging cultures. Starting next spring in Sultanahmet, we’ll share the common language of craft, tell stories about our cultures, educate against our prejudices, create beautiful new traditions. We'll make a difference in each others’ lives. 

And today, because the Universe always knows what I need, my Dialogue 2010 sisters Rose Deniz and Anastasia Ashman were there to motivate me and reinvigorate my purpose. A world of thanks to Tara Sophia Mohr for inspiring them. 

And to my Kurdish sisters – may your children never experience the difficulties you have, but may they inherit your grace, beauty, compassion and love. 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

A verdant world within borders

After nearly 12 years in Turkey and a lifetime of loving weavings and embroideries, I’m hardly an expert despite a formal textile education. In a city like Istanbul, I’m surrounded by generations of rug merchants who could offer the equivalent of a PhD in techniques, styles and the various regions from which their wares come. While I’ve met a few visitors to our shop who have astounded me with their knowledge, most people know next to nothing. I play the role of enthusiast, trying to open eyes to the beauty and history within each unique piece. 

Like this Shiraz carpet from Iran, for example. What attracts me most about this piece are the colors – a warm chocolate brown combined with two vibrant shades of turquoise, instead of  the usual deep red and blue. These hues are offset by the rich indigo – a more typical color, though here it’s only used as a backdrop for the central field. Best is the strong acidic green used to highlight most of the motifs, though a fairly rosy pink is less successful and fortunately not used much against the brown. This weaver was not tentative about departing from tradition in terms of colors, which seem quite modern to my eye.

It’s logical that settled tribal weavers near Shiraz, this southwestern city of roses, poets and nightingales, would choose to create a lyrical garden full of floral, water and mountain motifs. These are arranged in an abundant but formal manner for most of the design, though the flowers playfully scatter at each end. The borders, like the tightly fitting triangular mosaic work for which the city is renown, contain the gardens in a series of narrow and wide boundaries. The remnants of Persepolis and Darius the Great’s Palace are only 70 km away. I like to think the stylized trees of life recall the Lebanese cedar beams and those funny motifs floating on the indigo ground are stylized animals, inspired by the palace’s two-headed animal sculptures.

Lastly, I’m attracted to the Turkish and Kurdish geometry of this piece, even though it’s single knotted in the Persian style, The center diamond-shaped lozenges, typical of the Shiraz style, have stylized crosses at their centers, symbols that have been used as far back as Catalhoyuk in Central Anatolia. This ancient motif protects against evil by dividing it in four pieces. The outermost border reminds me of the stylized bands of folk dancers that ring the outside of Kurdish kilims, heads and shoulders together, binding the community together with movement and music.

What do you see in this carpet?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Building up steam...

Our workshop project has some good exposure this week in Hand/Eye Magazine, a publication about connecting cultures and inspiring action, goals we can really agree with. Read more here:

Friday, October 1, 2010

East meets West: knitting up cultural exchange

We've launched a project on Kickstarter, the creative arts crowd-funding site, to help us fund our East meets West fiber arts workshops, in Istanbul's Sultanahmet, starting March 2011.

  • Can fiber arts bridge cultures? 
  • Will women from multiple countries knit up new versions of traditional skills?
  • Is there a common language of craft?

Read the whole story here and spread the word. Thanks!

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Bridge to the future, unknown

Nationalism. Ethnicity. Religion. Economic status. Politics. If I had to pick a way to save our troubled world, to guide us beyond these barriers that divide us, the tool I’d start with to bring us together is music.

Monday night, I was among the 50,000+ people who made the long journey to an isolated corner of Istanbul, to a stadium built for Olympic dreams yet unfulfilled. A good friend invited me along when she realized she had an extra ticket; someone else’s ambivalence led to my good fortune. As trite as it may seem to attend a concert by an iconic rock band, experiencing the phenomenon of U2 was a revelation I deeply needed right now, as Turkey decides its future this weekend, and Abit and I reevaluate our personal and professional dreams as well. It’s a new moon, an auspicious time for beginnings.

On the12th of September, 30 years to the day of a military coup, Turkey will be holding a complicated referendum in which voters are evenly divided about whether to lessen the power of the military and increase the prime minister’s authority to appoint the judiciary, among many other issues too convoluted to elaborate easily. After 12 years of living here, I’ve got my opinions but no vote, and concern about what will happen after this Sunday. Even a seasoned journalist may not quite get all the nuances of a culture after years of living and reporting from here, if some spirited commenters are to be believed. Is Turkish society so deeply divided that the referendum’s issues will further alienate and stagnate its forward progress? 


But this situation is not as baffling as in my birth country, where the population is psychologically terrorized in these days leading up to the 9th anniversary of 9/11 by a mainstream media obsessed by Koran burning ministers, Obama’s religion and the real motives of a Sufi imam in NYC, because the concept that peace-seeking moderate Muslims exist is impossible to fathom. Turkey’s political issues may be complex, but those in the US are well beyond belief.

This was U2’s first concert in Turkey. They’d stayed away in the past due to Turkey’s troubled human rights record. It is symbolic that they relented during our European Capital of Culture year. Banners on the Galata Bridge in Turkish and English currently proclaim that Istanbul “builds bridges between cultures.” That’s a message I’m sure resonated with the group, ambassadors that they are for fighting poverty, hunger and the elimination of AIDS.  

Turkey has cultural bridges to build within the country, as well as in our troubled neighborhood. Which was why Bono not only called on Washington DC to listen to the people of Tehran and Palestine, and sent a candlelit message to Burma’s Aung Sun Suu Kyi that she is not forgotten, but reminded a Turkish audience about a Kurdish journalist, Fehmi Tosun, who ‘disappeared’ in the southeast in 1995, a public reminder that may get an average citizen prosecuted.

Bono then brought musical legend and UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador Zülfü Livaneli on to sing his “Yiğidim Aslanım”(My Brave Lion), about a man imprisoned and killed for his political struggles. Livaneli wrote the haunting soundtrack for Kurdish actor/director Yilmaz Guney’s classic and controversial film Yol (The Road), about the aftermath of that September 1980 coup.  

Livaneli said that he and U2 were “song makers”. That’s a humble description for what these men do. To stand among tens of thousands of people singing as one, many with tears streaming down our faces, Bono with his hand over his heart and showing emotion himself, reminded me of the power of music. A song can link human hearts and let us feel that strong current of common connection we all share – beyond those barriers of politics, ethnicity, and religion.  


Several songs into their two hour performance, Bono commented that “What is happening in Turkey now is important for the country, for Europe and the world.” That statement was met with cheers and applause. He went on to say they’d walked across the Bosphorus Bridge the day before with Minister of EU Affairs Egemen Bağış, a mention greeted with boos by much of the crowd, since Bağış is part of the ruling party pushing the referendum reforms. A surprised Bono reacted quickly, saying, “Okay okay! I won’t mention any more politicians, but can’t I be a tourist and walk across the bridge? It’s a beautiful bridge. It’s not just from Europe to Asia, not just from the religious to secular, but from the past to the future, from where Europe has been to where Europe needs to go.”

Where Europe needs to go. I wonder what leaders in the EU make of that statement? Real leadership requires visionaries, who sometimes come in the form of rock stars, while we the people get stuck with power-hungry politicians whose vision stops at the size of a corporate donation. Bono meets with politicians like Erdogan and Sarkozy, attempting to sway their views with his charismatic charm braced with knowledge. He champions that all-too-rare belief that with fortune comes the responsibility to give back, setting an example that democracy requires active involvement from all of us, regardless of our economic status.
Massive events like this concert are theater, I know. But human beings have been brought together by drama, by comedy, though performance arts since before recorded history. Though melodies and languages change, story-telling through song is in our collective blood. No one is immune. Some showmen are all smoke and mirrors, little substance. We listen for a good time, to dance and sing, to forget our daily lives. But Bono and U2 speak to something much deeper than mere entertainment. Not everyone may like their music, but it’s tough to disagree with the message: We’re all in this together.

Bono introduced “One” by saying, “We're going to change the name of this song to 'The Bridge' ". That metaphor is a cliché to those of us who live here, but that is the role that Turkey could provide with its unique position in the world. “We are one, but we’re not the same”, the song goes. It’s truly as simple as that. One planet, one human family in all its glorious diversity. That we fixate on those differences and ignore our commonalities is unfortunate human nature. But sometimes, even for two hours, a crowd of at least 50,000 people from not only Turkey but all over the world, can be on the same wavelength, can be reminded that there are many in this world we must help, can realize that we are in charge of removing those barriers.

Wherever we are, we are ONE. This is why I love U2 – the music is riveting and danceable, yes – but they have the courage to speak their hearts, and ours.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Suzani gardens...

It's late summer and our Etsy shop is blooming with vintage gardens, an abundance of colorful silk and cotton suzanis from Central Asia. Each hand embroidered treasure tells a story of prosperity, fertility, longevity and love. To bring these beauties into your home, visit our Etsy shop! 



Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Sultanahmet late summer

Tuesday, early evening, the last full week of August,
in the month of Ramazan. Our window on the fourth floor faces east, overlooking the
mouth of the Bosphorus. I've taken to working here each late afternoon
until the sun sets. Sounds from outside float in over a strong,
cooling breeze; after so many weeks of excessive humidity, I'm almost
tempted to throw on a shawl. Above my head outside, hanging from the
flat roof one level up, a drying carpet hits the side of the building,
fringe dancing in the wind, clanging an occasional rhythmic chime as
the corner hits the window glass.

The imam from the mosque a short distance away is softly singing the
Koran; the acoustics of 600 year old bricks magnify his lilting voice.
Waiters in the hotel garden below are filling glasses with tinkling
ice cubes. Ferry boats and oil tankers are chugging through the strait
200 meters away; a buzz saw and hammers from a neighbor repairing his
roof add their syncopated beats. 
 Over it all, the whirling seagulls cry in perpetual motion.

The imam at the Blue Mosque to our south bursts into the call to
prayer; other mosques in this ancient holy district join in. The men's
voices rise and fall in the same phrases, but all with differing
inflections, timing and tonal skill. They harmonize in a communal
chorus, for the third time of five a day. As the last voice disappears
on the wind, a rooftop restaurant in the street below tunes up some
cool jazz, in preparation for this evening's crowd.

My husband comes in and turns on an old film with a soundtrack of
funky Turkish R&B, about gangsters, cabaret singers, frequent
fistfights and gunfire, and predictably, a man in drag. The slowly
setting fun bounces off the yellow wall opposite, the red tile roof
sags from age and a profusion of squawking birds, searching for bread
crumbs tossed there by the carpet repair man, who feeds them even
though he himself will not eat for another few hours.
The film ends. Abit goes back to work in the shop downstairs. Another
tanker rumbles along the Bosphorus, and I continue to write.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thicker skin

: a blog-ring project of Dialogue2010
You met our multinational cultural innovators this spring in a roundtable discussion of hybrid life at expat+HAREM. Now in these interconnected blog posts they share reactions to a recent polarizing book promotion at the writing network SheWrites. Join the discussion on Twitter using #HybridAmbassadors or #Dialogue2010
Looking like a tourist while living in Sultanahmet
, the touristy heart of Istanbul, it’s obvious I’m going to be taken for a visiting foreigner. Even though I walk like a Turk along the narrow cobblestone streets, someone is bound to say in English “Hello, the Blue Mosque is this way”. I’m perfectly comfortable being the only ‘one like me’ when I’m on the road. 

But now I’m home. I don’t like to be a foreigner on my own turf.

This is not about my ability to speak the language or to behave as local women do. This is about the outside package: what I look like, and people’s reaction to me based on purely that. Multinational visitors to our shop show little hesitation in stating, “You’re not Turkish” before I’ve even opened my mouth. Do they expect an explanation, an apology? Is that a polite thing to say to someone you don’t know in any culture? And why can’t I be Turkish? I respond that I’m a hybrid, which stops most from asking further, and gets an excited reaction from those who know what I mean.

This week, as I was sitting in our shop, a Turkish woman about my age and her daughter came in to try on some vintage Turkmen clothing we sell. She sat down and launched straight into telling me about a gathering the next morning, a festival of sorts, about an hour’s journey up the Bosphorus from here, and asked if I would be free to come. For a Turkish woman I’ve just met to invite me somewhere was totally normal in my experience…until she continued, “There will be others there – from Spain, Germany, Italy, as well as some British friends who live in Capadocia.
When I saw your face, I thought maybe you’d like to join us.” She even gestured to her own face to make sure I understood.

Granted the Turkish I speak is far from perfect, but I’d just been thinking as this woman and I spoke how lovely it was that we conversed in unhalting Turkish, that we could communicate. But she’d invited me because of my face, not because she liked what I’d said or even that I was a foreigner who speaks her language.

Perhaps I need to develop thicker skin. A funny phrase when it is indeed my skin, my features, at odds here. It intrigues me that she didn’t think it was wrong to call me out as the ‘other’; in fact, she was pleasant while direct – my face was why she was interested.  

My appearance put me firmly in the category ‘foreign’, that large block of humanity that is anyone different than you.

Quite like a conversation the previous week, involving a black American author who’d posted an entreaty on a writers website asking for ‘White Ambassadors’ to promote her new book. At first, the post read as an awkward joke, until it became obvious that the author really did want to appeal to “
White people”, another homogeneous block of humanity. The friend who called this anachronistic article to my attention had been deemed ‘uncivil’ when questioning the writer’s manner and motivation. Perhaps the post was meant to be a humorous way to draw attention to the very real fact that the US publishing industry pigeonholes writers by race, sex, religion…whatever narrow ways they have to define us. But here it was again – this time I was wanted not because I was foreign, but because I was white.

In an age when identities and boundaries are increasingly blurry and lifestyles are becoming hybrid, I understand the confusion and fear that arise. I wanted to comment to that author that I’d be happy to read and recommend her book if I liked the subject and her way of telling the story, but now I’d be averse to doing so because I don’t like someone who wants to put me in a box. Just like the Turkish visitor to my shop. 

Is it just me, or are other human beings rankled when they are grouped like large herds of anonymous sheep, expected to follow the latest shepherd in any direction they are prodded?

I could have posted this opinion while defending my friend’s truthful and direct criticisms. But since living in Turkey I’ve learned to stifle my strong opinions about controversial subjects in public forums, though in private I rarely keep my mouth shut. Not because I’m a foreigner here and will always be considered so, but because my husband is also an outsider of a different kind: an ethnic Kurd. Now, while Turks will claim that there is no second tier of citizenship in this country, there is an underlying and easily understood rule that everyone here must be Turkish, end of discussion, no hyphenated ethnicities need be added.
Happy is he who calls himself a Turk”.

Not such a different situation than black Americans have, when they assert they have their own culture, way of speaking and want to keep both that heritage as well as fit in and be accepted as a part of the larger American whole. But when I’ve questioned looks of consternation after I mention my husband is Kurdish (from my husband as well, for he’s been conditioned to keep ethnic issues private), or equate Kurdish identity in Turkey with any ethnic civil rights struggles that I’ve seen in the country of my birth, those looks become stony and cold. 

After all, I’m a foreigner from a very young country. What right to an opinion should I have?

Worse yet have been reactions online, when I’ve posted my thoughts about anything pertaining to the Kurds in Turkey. I’ve been told by Kurds (especially those living in Europe), by Turks and by Americans that I can’t possibly know or understand, that no one would honestly tell me the truth of their feelings or beliefs, that I’m unable to walk a mile in their shoes. 

After more than a decade living with my husband and to a large extent his numerous Kurdish family, spread out all over not just Turkey but the globe, I find it heartbreaking to again be the ‘other’, the perpetual foreigner.

So that may be why I left the defense of my ‘uncivil’ friend to other mutual friends and writers: to our strong-willed woman of color, who could state what we all thought, though we ‘White people’ could not; or to our two European sisters, who could compassionately or cleverly say what we as Americans must not, or be considered ‘uncivil’, a catty comeback women use to bat down assertive female behavior. Insiders, outsiders, each in our own boxes. 

Will we ever be able to state what we feel without all the identity baggage attached, and leave those boxes curbside?

I don’t want to develop a skin so thick that such subjects no longer rankle me. If that 1% difference that we human beings have in our various facial features and skin colors is enough to keep us at odds, what hope do we have of ever reconciling cultural, moral and religious differences? It’s been 18 years since I watched
Rodney King utter that famous cliché on the TV in my Los Feliz living room during the Los Angeles Riots, but truly, “why can’t we all just get along”?

More thoughts on this subject from my fellow HYBRID AMBASSADORS:

Catherine Yiğit's Special-ism

Anastasia Ashman's Great White People Book Club
Sezin Koehler's Whites Only?
Rose Deniz's Voice Lessons from a Hybrid Ambassador
Tara Lutman Ağaçayak's Circles
Judith van Praag's We Write History Today
Elmira Bayraslı's The Color of Writing
Jocelyn Eikenburg's The Problem with 'Chinese Food'

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Spark into flame

 The Romans thought of artists as “having a genius”. Unlike the modern humanist idea that artists ARE geniuses, they believed that artists were visited by entities that gave them a spark, an idea that either burst into creative flame or was dumped on the ash heap. Whatever happened, the artists had a partner in success or failure. Their “genius” brought them divine inspiration. This notion, learned from a TED presentation by Elizabeth Gilbert of “Eat Pray Love” fame, makes total sense to me. Great ideas do seem to spark out of nowhere…or more likely, from everywhere. 

My genius brings me vintage textiles, imbued with the spirits of the women who made them so long ago. These bits and pieces are sometimes buried in other works or in plastic garbage bags in the corners of carpet shops. They wait for my genius to strike a match, to bring them back out into daylight.

Like the small Uzbek embroideries I’ve been carrying around with me for the past 7 months. Originally parts of hats, belts and robes, these painstakingly hand-stitched wonders came to me as part of a poorly executed new patchwork quilt, used as centers of cheap bright polyester squares. Such small pieces, less than 8” square by the time they come to me, are often from a larger original work, so some of them ‘match’. They are of little value to wholesalers no matter how detailed the handwork, in comparison to other complex pieces like a silk carpet. But a woman still poured many hours of her life into designing the intricate patterns and stitching each tiny stitch.

So I save them, until I decide what new life they’ll have. These red remnants just called out to be slippers. There is a certain magic to red, the color that represents love and prosperity here in Turkey, in fact all over Asia. What better color to dress your feet?

I cut the embroideries into toe shapes – this is always an approximation, starting larger until I get it right to fit a small to medium sized woman’s foot in this case. Dense woven pieces like these have no stretch to them, which is why I make the rest of the slippers from pieces knitted in cotton so they will conform to the wearer’s foot. I especially love the floral patchwork on the backs of the embroideries. No scrap was left unused in the household of the woman who stitched these!

The soles are a double-ply of true tomato red and black cotton in my favorite alternating rib pattern. The backs are in red cotton ‘lace’; using delicate patterns in thick, sturdy yarns compliments the delicate looking but durable embroidery. Finally, I knit an I-cord drawstring to ring the top so the wearer can securely keep the slippers on her feet.

The first slipper goes together with some trial and error, but that’s part of the fun. The pieces are hand-sewn with cotton thread, then all seams are chain-stitched for extra strength. As with all two-piece projects, my greatest challenge once the first slipper is made is finishing the second one. If only my genius knew how to use a needle!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Mavi Marmara

Outside our 5th floor window, the white cruise ship with the huge red star and crescent flag in the nearby Bosphorus Strait loomed over Sirkeci Station. In the week I’d lived here, I was used to seeing ferry boats docking, but any vessel this big was usually across the Golden Horn at the larger Karakoy docks. For quite some time that afternoon as I worked in our apartment, I could hear various people on a sound system, occasional music and organized chants. Helicopters circled overhead. I was just far enough away not to really hear what was said, but by the sounds of it, the mood was festive, with a more than a ting of expectancy. This could not be a normal holiday sendoff, but I was too tired to leave my ivory tower to check it out. Eventually, to fireworks and the Turkish national anthem, the ship left harbor.

Later when Abit came home from work, he turned on the news. “What was that event at Sarayburnu Port?” I asked, pointing out the window toward where the ship had been. “Oh, that was the Mavi Marmara. It’s full of people taking aid to Gaza.” And there it was, on TV.

I’d been proud of Prime Minister Erdogan’s efforts to speak for the majority of his Turkish citizens, to focus the world’s attention on the 2008 military operation against Gaza and later the UN-outlawed blockade. Erdogan became a national hero when he had the guts to speak his mind and walk out at Davos. Perhaps he lacked a certain diplomatic polish, so passionately and publicly cursing Shimon Peres like he did, but I admire a politician who’s not afraid to speak his mind to the world. Turkey may have been Israel’s closest ally in this fractured neighborhood both countries live in, but being a real friend means telling that ally when they’ve done something wrong.

I remember thinking, “What brave people on that ship – I hope nothing happens to them.”
Then I completely forgot about the Mavi Marmara, the aid workers and the Gazans, until this past Tuesday afternoon. Caught up in our new Istanbul life (and a problematic wireless connection), I was oblivious to events until then.

I now wish I’d had enough curiosity to walk the short distance to the Bosphorus shore.  If I’d known what the rally was about, would I have felt comfortable mingling with the crowd? Just as I wish I’d had enough courage to walk the 20 minutes west to the Fatih Cami on Thursday, where huge crowds held a service for the nine Turkish men, ages 19 to 61, murdered on the Mavi Marmara, their plain wooden coffins draped with the red star and crescent flags that had graced the side of the cruise ship. One crowd, jubilant, yet with full knowledge that they may never return. The other, in deep mourning and asking how in God’s name another country believed they had the right to kill as they did. How would either crowd have felt to have this American woman in their midst?

I don’t have the guts to put myself in harm’s way, even though I know that one person can make a difference. I still perhaps naively believe that dialogue, elections and leaders can bring about change their citizens want, but this year that belief has been sorely tested. I wish President Obama had Erdogan’s audacity. Obama needs to speak the truth about the United States’ dysfunctional relationship with Israel.

I have no ties to Israel, only good memories of design trips there, the same itineraries taking me to Istanbul and Tel Aviv before heading east to Hong Kong. I have no ties to the Palestinians, yet have had my view of the conflict completely changed by living in Turkey and hearing their side – a perspective sadly missing from the American MSM. Israel all too frequently calls itself “the only democracy in the Middle East”. They are not. Because I too live in the neighborhood, what happens between my two countries with Israel and the Palestinians matters greatly to me.

These past days the opinions I’ve read online made my head reel. The television coverage here has been comprehensive; the interviews with the survivors riveting. There is hand-wringing, flag-waving and plenty of emotion; in all my years here, I’ve never heard “Allahu akbar” chanted in Turkey as much as this week. If the West is worried about Turkey becoming increasingly Islamist, Israel’s actions added fuel to that fire.

But Turks are talking about this from all sides, and as I’ve seen happen before with big issues (like whether to grant permission to the US to use Turkey as access from the north in the buildup to the Iraq War), truly taking the time to deliberate what the country’s reaction should be. One late-night news debate had a closing song over images of the injured returning to Istanbul: Sting’s Desert Rose, with the haunting vocals of Cheb Mami. One telling lyric: “These dreams are tied to a horse that will never tire.” I could not think of a better way to sum up the will and strength of the Turkish people.

Yes, Turkey has much in common with Israel besides democracy and military partnership. Turkey has treated its minority populations with the same paranoia, fear and violence. True, those minorities have also used violence in attempts to make themselves heard. In fact, the PKK attacked and killed 6 Turkish solders in Iskenderun the same day as the ‘flotilla fiasco’. At least one of the solders killed was Kurdish. Nothing is black and white in this part of the world.

31st May 2010 will be a day long remembered here for more senseless deaths in this troubled neighborhood. “An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind”, Gandhi said. Will blindness in this region prevail? Or will we someday be able to mark this week as the one in which we all truly began to take seriously the words “Never again?”

What Israel did Monday was wrong, just as Turkey’s past actions have been wrong. The difference between the two countries is that Turkey has had the courage to start looking at its history, to open public dialogues, and to make real change.

Israel and the US – do you?

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Orienting expressed

In 1890, the newly opened Sirkeci Station was the last stop on the Orient Express, that fabled train route that led from staid Vienna to exotic Istanbul. Then and now, it is as far east as one may travel by rail, arriving in the Old City along the shore of the Bosphorus, skimming the outer edge of Europe.

The building itself is small. But the ornate, eclectic architecture - compass rose windows under variegated stone arches, vivid plaster echoed in the solid red brick and white marble façade – does not hint at the final decades of a crumbling Empire, but of the entrance to another world. 120 years later, Sirkeci Station is the anchoring point to our currently charted journey, as new residents of Istanbul.

Abit and I have taken up temporary residence at the end of the line. Literally, as the Sirkeci train tracks end just beyond our street (that narrow space to the right of the ‘hotel’, above). It’s somehow welcoming that those tracks, which long travel east and finally circle the Old City, end up heading west for their last few hundred meters, since we frequently find ourselves traveling in multiple directions.

The end of the line has become our beginning. The hustle and bustle that encircles us will invigorate our days here, after long times in quiet, out-of-the-loop places. The trains to the north of us and the trams that endlessly wind their way through this ancient neighborhood remind us to keep going forward, their (thankfully) near-silent electric powered movement the backdrop to planning our future in this megacity.

If the streets become too hectic, we can look toward the water, just beyond the station, from our 4th-floor windows. Or walk the few blocks to Gulhane Park, the rose-filled green oasis surrounding the Topkapi Palace and the Archaeological Museum.

Beyond the roofs to a compelling view of rolling if densely populated hills, massive bridges and a busy waterway, though this photo is atypically devoid of traffic.

Our street is lined with buildings soon to be torn down to make way for the new underwater tunnel that will connect Sirkeci to Hadarpasa, the station that links greater Istanbul with Asian Turkey…in other words, 97% of the country. But for now, we can see the dome of the station as we walk home to our small studio, a nondescript but extremely affordable interim home (with the window open and hinting pink, top left corner)

Five minute walks south takes us to the tourist mecca of Sultanahmet or the vast shopping area of the Grand Bazaar. Places we’ll be spending time in by day, researching and developing, or being inspired by the Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque, to name just two on a very long list of nearby wonders. And by night, mingling in the restaurants and listening to the Babel of languages spoken in this crossroads of the world.

Otherwise, while we’re getting our bearings within the coiling lanes of this timeless place, I’ll be here by the window, gazing out across Sirkeci Station and the Bosphorus and plotting new directions.

What reorienting moves have you made lately?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Grist for the mill

SFO International Terminal. The flowery taste of jasmine tea takes my mind back to those years I spent traveling to Hong Kong, Osaka, or Seoul from this very airport. 16-hour slogs across the Pacific, flying most often into the old Kai Tak, coming in so close between the highrises you could almost see what families were eating for dinner.

Today, I’m also headed back to Asia, but to the other side of that vast continent. No, wait. I’ll only be seeing Asia at the end of this journey, 14 hours airtime, inshallah and volcano willing. I’ll see it when I look out the windows of our new apartment in Istanbul’s Old City.

After years of living in Anatolia, technically Asia, we’ll be living for now in Eminonu, near Gulhane Park and the Topkapi Palace, at the mouth of the Golden Horn. Technically Europe, within the 3% of Turkey that sits on that continent. Within sight of the massive San Francisco-style bridges that span the narrow waters between Europe and Asia. A more profound concept than merely connecting San Francisco and Oakland, though visually there’s not much difference.

Another six months spent working away from Abit behind me, with any precious downtime spent plotting our next move, I’ve plenty of grist for my mental mill. Inexplicably tethered to another winter toiling amid the grapevines of Napa’s lovely valley, I constantly found myself drawing comparisons in appearance to our Aegean valley. But I realize now that both valleys, while enticingly full of comforts, offer little in terms of long-term sustenance.

I’ve determined to leave them both behind, to pursue a vision that better suits us. No more skimming along the surface of our creativity…time to dig deep in a place that better provokes our muses. No more half-years tending to the whims of clients, no matter how spectacular those before-and-after interior photos may be. My interior renovation, another new space that Abit and I will create together, may be a work in perpetual progress, but it’s work that is so much more satisfying.

So, after one last sumptuous almond croissant at Bouchon, and a few macaroons for my family, who are the major bright spot of any time spent in California, I’m leaving this golden state with its current economic woes. Like that old song, I do leave my heart here when I go. Or maybe I have multiple hearts, because high on a hill in the Old City, that one’s calling me back to Turkey. More than one heart, more than one home, more than one way to live. Seeking out places where parts of me blend, yet other parts don’t. Instead of viewing it as various parts of me though, I’d rather see myself as being a cultural chameleon – having the ability to recolor myself, wherever my heart takes me.

And to keep building bridges across continents, and between cultures. 

What interior renovations have you made recently?