Monday, May 28, 2007

The teachers at Bob’s school take an annual spring educational holiday. Last year I went with them to Southern Italy, this year Bob and I both went with 35 other teachers and family members to Istanbul.

We left Wednesday evening with 2 holiday gift days from the school and returned on Sunday. We flew from Ljubljana at midnight with the Turkish truck drivers who load their trucks on tanker ships in Koper, Slovenija and then fly 2 hours to Istanbul to await their cargo. Once in Turkey the ride from the airport to Taksim square in the middle of the night gave us an unobstructed view of the city lit for the night; the Bosphorus river, the mosques and minarets, ancient walls of Constantinople and people gathering for kebabs and roasted chicken in the darkness. At first sight it was surprising the number of people casually wandering the streets in the early morning with the unexpected atmosphere of calm and safety linked by sweet smells.

Istanbul, known as Byzantium and then as Constantinople, is now a city of over 10 million people. Because of earthquakes the older buildings of the city are not tall, but they are crowded in together and piled on top of each other. The city has one foot in Europe and one in Asia spanning across the Bosphorus river that links the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara and has been the seat of trade for thousands of years. Artifacts date settlements in this area from 5,500 BC and the history includes anyone who was anyone in the world [Ancient Greeks, Alexander the Great, Romans, Goths, Constantine, first church council at Nicaea, Theodosis I [same one who battled in the Vipava Valley in Slovenija], Justinian, missionaries from Byzantium to Slavic nations, Normans, Venetians, Turkic nomads, crusaders, Seljuk Turks, more pillaging crusaders, Ottoman Turks, countless Sultans, Sultanate women, more Sultans, Austrians, French and British soldiers and Greek forces]. Because of the influence of Mustafa Kemal Paşa [better known as Atäturk, “Father of the Turks”] Turkish land was reclaimed by the Turks, the sultanate was abolished in 1922, the country became a secular republic, the Arabic alphabet was replaced with the Roman alphabet, western dress was encouraged and all Turks were required to claim a surname. The red flag tells the story of the moon and one star reflected in the bloodshed of wounded Turkish soldiers fighting for independence. These are people proud of Turkey; proud of being Turkish and with every greeting they warmly welcomed us to their country.

Modern Istanbul a blend of new buildings, ancient remains, towering mosques, quaint cafés, crowds of people and stores, stores, and more stores. Little hidden stores the size of my bathroom, men with carts, men with card tables in the middle of the street, stores in basements, stores on side walks, stores in every nook and cranny and that is without even discussing the bazaars. It is obvious the Istanbul has been, and continues to be the mecca of trade, and buying and selling is a high art with rich social contact.

The bazaars are unbelievable!! [attached photo] Every arch hides a shop, wares tumble into the street, the colors are vibrant sparkling with brilliance, the air tastes sweet, tangy, hot and spicy, the salesmen call to you trying to guess your language mesmerizing you with friendly infectious charm and shoppers stumble over themselves, each other, the impromptu shop set up in the middle of the sidewalk, and the men carrying goods on their back or pushing wheeled carts. The entrepreneurial spirit has been tradition and culture in the Grand Bazaar since the 1450’s and the Spice Bazaar since the 1600’s. Everything is sold here; there is such abundance that the sheer number of goods in one place is overwhelming. Bargaining is expected and even fun.

We were pulled into a rug shop [“Madame I am proud of my carpets, and I want to show you, with no obligation to buy…. of course.”] and spent the most charming couple of hours with the owner learning about rugs, drinking apple tea and Turkish coffee. We went into the lower level of the shop and there were carpets and kilims everywhere; new carpets, semi old [50 years] and antique. [photo attached]There were 3 carpet rollers who flicked open the carpets at our feet showing us ones made from silk, camel hair, wool, natural dyed, synthetic dyed, tribal designs, floral patterns and each one identified by the area in which it was hand made. Kilims are tapestries that have geometric designs and are woven with a warp and weft rather than knotted like a carpet. The colors can vary greatly within the kilim because of the natural dye and the technique of weaving. Often their original purpose was not to be used as a carpet, but as a bag for carrying things. Because they were designed for use rather than decoration the exactness of symmetry is not important and they have a primitive look that I like very much. Now they are sold as floor or wall coverings and we are the happy owners of one with colors of green olives, red currants, golden wheat, camel brown, white sand, and sunshine.

We visited a number of mosques including Haghia Sophia [attached photo], which was originally an Orthodox church, and then a mosque and now a museum. This church, dedicated in 537 [yes that is correct five hundred and thirty seven], stands on the site of 2 other churches that were destroyed by fire and earthquake. The Ottomans added minarets, tombs and fountains in the 15th century when it became a mosque, walls were supported with buttresses to keep the immense dome intact and many decorative changes have altered the face of the building over the centuries. Glorious Christian mosaics still remain in the second floor galleries [attached photo], and some of the patterns in the ceilings and along the walls are original 6th century decorations.

The Blue Mosque has a much different feeling than Haghia Sophia. It is called such because of the İznik blue tile that covers the interior [photo attached]. This active mosque was built in the early 1600’s and its delicate interior beauty is in stark contrast to the bulbous gray exterior. The Rüstem Paşa Mosque is also an amazing collection of tiles and designs [photo attached]. There are no images of people in any of the mosques only patterns and natural designs. They are very soothing places open without charge to visitors at times when prayer is not taking place. The decorations are so much more peaceful to me than the images of martyrs and Christ hanging on a cross in painful death that we see in the European Catholic churches. The voice from the minarets calls the faithful to prayer, crowds of people slowly wander to a mosque, the men cleanse themselves at faucets provided along the wall before entering the mosque [photo attached], the women come with heads covered and long dresses covered by a floor length coat or a burka, all remove their shoes and the Moslem city prays. The rest of the city continues the hubbub of daily life and doesn’t even seem to slow down while prayers are being said.

Blue Mosque

Rustem Pasa Mosque
Ablutions faucets

Not far from the Hippodrome hidden from view is the Basilica Cistern [photo attached]. It is an amazing store of water from the 532 AD. After the occupation of the city by the Ottomans [in the 1500’s] people collected water and fished for food through holes in their basement floors keeping the cistern a secret for over a century. Now visitors can walk through the cistern looking at the fish, listening to soothing music and marveling at the construction of something so long ago.

We also visited Topkapi palace showing all the treasures of the Sultans in the museum, Galata Tower where we could see the entire city [photo attached] and İstiklâl Caddesi the pedestrian street [photo attached] crowded with people moving like an ant colony with purpose, but no rush or hurry. I was most fascinated watching the people. Beautiful dark hair, dark skin, dark eyes and every other blend of looks, women in full black covering with only their eyes showing and women in skimpy nothings with everything showing, men finding ways to earn money by shining shoes, carrying bread on their heads and bags on their backs and selling everything imaginable. I expected beeping horns, loud shouts and a dirty huge city, but the language is soft so even with so many people in one place the city is quiet, people do not seem to be in a hurry and the streets are clean, lined with vibrant tulips. It was not at all what I expected, we felt safe and welcomed, and we both look forward to the next visit and the discovery of so much more.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

The killing of 33 people at Virginia Tech. University last week has my classes discussing how a mass killing like this could possibly happen. In each class at least one student says that this could only happen in the U.S., and that leads me to try to explain why it is possible in the U. S.

From the founding of our country we were given permission to “bear arms” so that we could protect ourselves in war with the British and the Native people. The fear of having a standing army like countries on the European continent convinced the writers of the constitution that the people must create a civilian army if needed, and for that, weapons were necessary. The mind set from the very beginning was to provide us with the means of protection from the enemy, whom ever that may be.

The enemy is not only a force from outside our nation, but the enemy is the “bad guy” who lives in our community and may want to cause us harm. We are given permission to protect ourselves, our families and our belongings, from those with the intent to rob us of that which we consider precious. The permission to protect ourselves creates a fear that forces us to pass laws that allow us to carry concealed weapons, and gives us invitation to use fire arms indiscriminately, in rage or when frightened and against those whom we should be protecting.

The National Rife Association repeatedly reminds us that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” and guns are not the problem. But we do not kill with knives and we all have multiple weapons nestled in the top kitchen drawer. If one is intent on protecting oneself, or committing a heinous crime it is much more difficult with a kitchen knife. That is a crime of intimacy. One must come close to the victim, make physical contact, eye contact and feel the heat of the other person’s body. The opportunity of a physical struggle is greater and the risk of personal harm is drastically enhanced. A gun is anonymous; a weapon can be engaged from a far distance or relatively close range. The shooter does not need to have contact with the victim, a massive number of bullets can be shot in a short amount of time and the personal risk to the protagonist is limited. Guns are the problem!! If we only had kitchen knives or red Swiss Army knives, killing sprees would be a rare occurrence.

Yet the problem is not only the access to weapons, but also a culture of violence. After WWII we marketed violence as entertainment; war movies, cowboy and Indian movies and television programs. The sight of Native savages and Nazi soldiers falling in massive numbers was the pabulum of the baby boomers. When that became tame the next generation enhanced the graphic depiction and added it to nightly news, prime time television, and popular music. And now we are exporting it to the entire world. The dulling of our sensitivities when we see someone die in the media is supported by a government who spends $.41 of every tax dollar on the military and only $.05 for education. Our priorities are obviously the support of violence. We spend 48% of the military spending in the world and the $415 billion price tag on the war in Iraq confirms that violence is very big business.

All of these things explain why an intelligent yet disturbed19 year old college student was able to kill himself along with 32 of his peers and professors. He immigrated to a country that gave him permission to purchase handguns without psychological testing, classes in gun safety or belonging to a registered hunting club and made his killing rampage possible.

The pattern of this discussion makes me ashamed of the United States. It makes it difficult to explain to my students that I am a normal American [nice, friendly, caring, intelligent]. It confuses them when I tell them that I am not afraid to live in the U.S. I do not fear for my life on the streets of Ohio and I do not lock the doors on my house or my car. People are friendly and hard working they care about their families and the rate of charitable giving shows how much they care for other people. Opportunities abound and creative energy is celebrated as we discover new ways to make the world a healthier easier place to live. Yet millions of our citizens do not have health care, 2million of our citizens [the population of Slovenija] are behind bars, the largest number of prisoners anywhere in the world, we kill criminals with the death penalty, we go to war under false pretenses, our children can buy guns before they are old enough to buy wine and almost 30,000 of our citizens are killed with hand guns each year.

It is hard for me to help my students understand all this, because I do not understand any of it myself.