Monday, November 30, 2009

Some holiday gift ideas

Well, the holidays are coming up, and that's something to be happy about! I only get a day off for Christmas, but since Christmas is on a Friday this year, its nice to know we'll be able to enjoy a long holiday weekend.

I've been thinking about gift buying a bit, and I know I have to overcome my procrastination tendencies and shop early, otherwise things won't arrive in Ireland or America until weeks after Christmas.

Anyway, I was also thinking about some creative and helpful gifts to give this year. We are all so fortunate as to have our basic needs met and to live pretty comfortable lifestyles, even despite all the economic difficulties so many of us are dealing with at the moment. I always think that the holiday season is a great time to think about how good our lives are, how much love and support we get from and can give to our family and friends, and to think of how we can spread that love and goodness to people who lack our abundance and good fortune.

I've made a list of some of the charitable organizations I think are doing really important work around the world. Maybe some of you will be inspired to give a holiday donation to one of them. And, as it might not be the easiest thing to ship anything to Turkey for Christmas, maybe you'll consider supporting one of these charities instead of sending me a gift. I won't speak for Richie though! I don't want to deny him any Christmas gifts that may be heading his way!

In Tibet, 1 in 15 women who become pregnant die before or during delivery. And among children born healthy, 1 in 5 will not live to see their 2nd birthday. According to statistics, it is three times safer to be a US soldier serving in Afghanistan than to become pregnant in Tibet.

The Surmang Foundation medical clinic provides valuable healthcare, training for health workers and education support for monks, nuns, and common people of Eastern Tibet. Their important work is improving the lives of so many people.

I hope you will visit the Surmang Foundation's website to learn more about the various projects helping the people of Tibet and consider supporting them in their work through the Prayer Flags: Make a Wish campaign. For a $25 donation, your wishes, intentions or prayers (for yourself or others) will be written on a prayer flag and flown at the Surmang Monastery in Tibet.

Prayer Flag Promotion

Last year I read the amazing novel called What is the What, by David Eggers. It's about the life of Valentino Achak Deng, a Dinka man from Southern Sudan and one of the 'Lost Boys'. His story is so inspiring, and this man not only survived the horrors of the Sudanese civil war, but has earned himself an education in America, has overcome the trials and difficulties of making a life for himself in American culture, and has started a foundation to support education and development in his home region in Sudan. I strongly recommend that you read his book and visit the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation website to see the great work that is being done in Marial Bai with the Foundations support. Also, if you are interested in reading the book, you should know that all the profits from the sale of the book go to the Valentino Achak Deng Foundation. So, you can kill two birds with one stone there!

There are great pictures, videos and information about what you can do to support peace and development in Southern Sudan. You can also make a donation that will really help the foundation continue its education centre project and provide opportunities to young Sudanese people, especially girls, who need a quality education if they are to survive in the world.

The WWF is the biggest international conservation organization in the world. They work on so many projects helping to protect vulnerable wildlife, conserve endangered habitats and work with and assist local people in working towards sustainable development. I think they take a realistic approach to conservation and are also very concerned with the human element involved, making sure that habitats and animal species are saved from extinction while helping people to make a better living and enabling local people to benefit from their natural resources in a responsible way.

You can learn more about the WWF's work around the world. There are many campaigns to support, and you can even write a letter to your local congressman or a government official thousands of miles away to encourage them to protect endangered wildlife. Or you can visit the Gift Centre to symbolically adopt an endangered species on behalf of an animal lover in your life.

Anyway, these are just a few interesting charitable organizations doing compassionate and life changing work in the world. If you support a charity, I would love to hear about it and I will add it to my holiday charity gift list! Please leave me a comment.

I hope everyone's holiday season is off to a good start! Happy gift giving!

Friday, November 27, 2009

Kurban Bayram

Well, today is Kurban Bayram, which is one of the most important Muslim holidays. Kurban means sacrifice and Bayram is the Turkish word for 'holiday'. So, this is the Sacrifice holiday.

This day commemorates the story in both the Bible and the Koran, when God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son. In the Bible, its Isaac whom Abraham is supposed to sacrifice. But in the Muslim version, its Abraham's first son, Ishmael. The founder of Islam, Mohammad, was an Arab of course, and Arabs claim to be decedents of Ishmael, which makes them sort of cousins of the Jews I suppose.

Anyway, God commanded Abraham to kill his son, but at the last minute, God said he didn't have to, and a sheep appeared nearby, which Abraham offered to God instead. In the Bible version, Isaac is said to have had a stutter, quite possibly because of this very traumatic event in his young life. It is a very strange story in many respects. Poor Isaac. Or Ishmael.

So, the custom on this day is for families to buy a sheep, goat or cow and have the animal sacrificed. Because its rather expensive, a few families might cover the costs together and share the animal, or if you are particularly rich, you can afford to buy your own animal. You can then kill the animal yourself, by slitting its throat in the 'hallal' way, or you can have a butcher do it for you. The animal is then butchered and you are then supposed to give most or all of the meat to the poor; perhaps homeless people, or poor people in your neighborhood, or even institutions who will use it for the benefit of the needy.

Near the college where I teach, there have been big tarp tents set up for the past week. Inside are tons of cows, all waiting for today. In Istanbul, being a very large city, there are certain areas designated by the government for sacrificing animals, but I think in some traditional neighborhoods, people ignore the law and sacrifice their animals in their back garden or out in front of their house or apartment. It is sort of strange to think that animal sacrifice is still something that a number of cultures and religions sacrifice. In Christianity, animal sacrifice is something that happened in ancient times, and it seems like a very distant practice.

Actually, I was on the bus leaving school with a couple of my fellow teachers, and we saw all the cows in their tents. One of the teachers commented that sacrificing them is a very outdated practice and really unnecessary. However, one of the other teachers pointed out that really its not much different than having animals killed commercially for food. And at least if you kill your own animal, you have to connect that yummy steak or burger your eating came from a once living animal. I think their are many people who are squeamish about animals being killed, but have no qualms at all about eating them. I don't think that everyone should be vegetarian or anything, but I think that people should be realistic about the connection between enjoying eating meat and the treatment of animals. Another thing I would say in defense of Kurban Bayram or any other animal sacrifice, is that it is a way to redistribute wealth in society. Rich people pay for the animal and then give it to the poor, who might not usually be able to afford the luxury of meat. And I would guess that just about every culture had animal sacrifice at one point in their history. It acted as a way to alleviate the guilt and uncleanliness of killing another living creature by sacrificing it to a god.

Okay, well, anyway, those are my thoughts on Kurban Bayram. Enough of my rambling.

Oh, and for all of you Americans reading this, I hope you had a great Thanksgiving!

Thursday, November 26, 2009

My first conversation in Turkish!

It was extremely short and extremely basic, but I think Turks are very gracious and if you even make an attempt at speaking Turkish you are warmly rewarded with a big smile, a look of pleasant surprise and some good hearted laughter.

I talked with the guy who works in the cafe at the language school where I did a class last night. I was able to say hello (Merhaba), ask him how he was (Nasil sin?), tell him I was fine (Iyiyim), wish him a happy holiday (Iyi Bayramlar) and say good evening to him (Iyi aksamlar). VICTORY! It involved a lot of me looking at the ceiling trying to remember things and lots of 'uuuuuh's but still. This was a major breakthrough!

The Blue Mosque Revisited

Last week myself and Richie returned to the Blue Mosque with a fully charged camera, ready for action. It was pretty annoying last time to have the camera die in the middle of our excursion. So, we took some more photos this time to fill in the gaps.

First of all, when you come to the Blue Mosque, you see a wall surrounding the whole structure. All the mosques I've seen in the city have this sort of outer wall, and in the case of smaller mosques, they keep the inside building from the eyes of passers-by. You get a glimpse of the mosque and some people coming and going from the street, but its as if the inner spaces are protected from the outside world and the curious onlooker. The Blue Mosque is, of course, huge, so it is impossible to hide it behind a wall. But this wall sort of creates a sense of coming closer to a sacred space, and its a little bit quieter, a little bit more peaceful, than the busy bustling world you've just come from.

This garden area is very simple. Just grass, some trees, some simple plants and shrubs. Nothing to flashy or ostentatious. Its just very natural feeling and fresh. Here you can see the place where those heading in to the mosque for their prayers do their ritual washing. It varies with different Muslim denominations, but in general, before prayer Muslims wash their hands, feet and face. I think Turks take the idea of keeping the dirt of the world outside the home quite seriously, and I've read that they are known for having immaculately clean houses. Some of the same applies here. In both a physical and spiritual way, you should clean off the dirt and impurities before you come into a place of prayer. On this particular day, I could see a few men sitting on the marble benches washing their feet.

From here there are stairs leading up in to the inner courtyard. The huge mosque is right in front of you and it is just so impressive. It is such an artistic building, and yet very simple. It is beautifully proportioned, with its six minarets and lovely arches. Above the big door/gate to the inner courtyard, there is a big green plaque with gold script in Arabic. I would imagine this is something from the Koran, but I'm not sure.

So, you go up the stairs, all marble of course, and enter the inner courtyard. Everything is white marble, and clean and crisp. As soon as you enter this space, you can feel the calm and quiet of the atmosphere. The noise of the outside world is far away and all you have is this lovely peacefulness like a blanket around you. This is a place where I would love to just take up a place in the corner somewhere, and sit and sit. It felt so good, especially in a noisy bustling city like Istanbul, to find such a serene space.

That's me in front of the old fountain.

Richie having a look around.

We didn't go into the mosque again. It seemed like afternoon prayers might start soon. So we went for a cup of tea, and then as we started heading home, we did indeed hear the call to prayer. We were between the Blue Mosque and another smaller mosque and it was so cool to hear them taking turns singing. It lasted for at least five minutes I'd say. I really love hearing the call to prayer. When I hear it, it just reminds me that 'Oh my god, I'm in Istanbul!' I like to take it as an opportunity to wake up from my thoughts or whatever I'm doing, to take a deep breath and remember I'm alive and what a wonderful thing that is.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Byzantine Cistern

Today Richie and I visited the Basilica Cistern in Sultanahmet. This underground cistern was built during Byzantine times in the 500s or 600s AD. It was quite amazing. Luckily, pictures can show much better than I can describe it. I love to see buildings and things like this. I can't help but be amazed that hundreds or even thousands of years ago, people were creating such beautiful architecture, despite having much more limited technology available than we do. Also, it is sort of humbling and awe-inspiring to be in such ancient places and to think of how many generations of people lived and died here, and how many layers of history are evident wherever we go.

This stone pillar marked the official centre of the Byzantine Empire. All distances in the empire were measured from this point.

This is the remains of what was once a Roman triumphal arch.

Here are pictures from inside the cistern. There were hundreds of columns, and these were brought from all over the Greek and Roman world. It was fed by aqueducts and stored the water used by the Emperor's palace. Its pretty huge!

This is called the peacock column because of the design carved into the stone. One story connected to the column is that the carvings are shaped like tears, and symbolize the suffering of all the slaves who built the cistern. Very melancholy.

There are tons of fish swimming in the couple of feet of water in the cistern. Some of them are huge! I wonder what they eat? Here are a bunch in the 'wishing well' next to the peacock column.

These are two gorgon heads at the base of two of the columns. Apparently there are two stories about Medusa the Gorgon. In one, the Gorgons are three sisters. Medusa is the one who had snakes for hair and turned anyone who looked at her to stone. In another story, Medusa was a beautiful woman, who was always boasting about her black eyes and beautiful hair. She was in love with the hero Perseus. However, goddess Athene was also in love with Perseus, and was jealous of Medusa. So, Athene turned Medusa's hair into snakes and made it so that anyone she looked at turned to stone. I imagine that this greatly reduced her chances with Perseus. Eventually, in both stories, Perseus kills Medusa by cutting off her head. Then he uses her head to overcome many of his enemies by turning them to stone by showing them Medusa's head.

Since the Gorgons were creatures of the underground, images of them were placed in underground places, such as this cistern, to protect the structure. Their heads are placed sideways or upside down so that the people looking at them won't turn to stone.

Saturday, November 14, 2009


So, Tuesday 10 November was mine and Richie's third anniversary! It was a lovely day and we enjoyed celebrating three happy years together in this great city we're in!

We had dinner at a local place known for its excellent homestyle Turkish food, and went out for a drink and tea and talked and talked. It was great and so relaxing. Can't wait for our other third wedding anniversary in July!

We visited the Museum of Modern Art with a friend. It was interesting to read about the development of modern Turkish art and how politics and art can be so interconnected. For me, not being the most sophisticated critic of art, reading about the history and politics aspect is more enjoyable than actually looking at the paintings.

On our walk back home from the museum I just had to stop and take pictures of some of the beautiful mosques and other buildings we passed. And it was a beautiful autumnal afternoon, with lovely light and clouds, and the sun low in the sky. The mosques were of a very interesting architectural style. Rococo? I'm not sure. Pretty cool though.

Turkish flags and banners of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk displayed in preparation for Republic Day, Turkey's national day, which was October 29th. The whole city was draped in bright red giant Turkish flags.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Blue Mosque

Well, its been a busy couple of weeks, but I think I've found some balance with my new evening classes and everything else. I'll try to keep updating this more regularly again from now on!

Richie and I finally made it inside the Blue Mosque a couple of weeks ago and it was amazing and very beautiful. Sadly, the camera battery died during our visit, so I didn't get to take all the pictures I wanted to. I'll have to go again sometime to really have a proper photo shoot. Here are a few though, to give an idea of what it's like.

The inside of the mosque was so impressive. It is made of huge domes, supported by other huge domes and arches. There is beautiful, brightly coloured tile work, with blues and reds in floral or geometric patterns. The arches are decorated with some similar designs or with extremely artistic calligraphy, which was considered to be one of the highest forms of art in the Muslim world, since Islam doesn't allow pictures of God or saints, as they are considered forms of idolatry.

The mosques open and spacious feeling is enhanced by the fact that there are no seats or pews for people to sit. The floor is carpeted and Muslims say their prayers while standing and prostrating in the direction of Mecca, so seating is not a necessity. Another interesting feature of the mosque is the separate women's area. It is in the back of the mosque, separated from the rest of the space by a little half-wall, and this is where the women say their prayers.

I have to say I found it strange to be in such a beautiful place, where people were praying and hundreds of tourists were wandering around taking pictures of everything. I was one of those tourists, but I always feel strange taking photos in someone's holy space. I was also surprised by the lack of cultural sensitivity many of the visitors to the mosque exhibited. When entering a mosque, proper etiquette is to remove your shoes and women are expected to wear long skirts or trousers and to cover their heads with a scarf. For me, this isn't a big deal. You remove your shoes because the mosque is a holy place and also because this is what Turkish people do in their homes. The world is a dirty place, and they make a point not to drag in the dirt and filth of the street into the home or mosque. Seems logical to me. Also, since Muslims pray while kneeling on the floor, it also makes sense that you wouldn't want to get your 'Friday best' dirty while praying. As for head scarves, women in Western Europe and America used to wear hats or scarves in church, and in some places they still do, so it doesn't seem like a big problem to cover ones head for twenty minutes while visiting a mosque.

I was really surprised though that so many foreign women were not wearing scarves while visiting the mosque. It reminds me of conversations I've taken part in or over heard where Europeans and Americans are discussing Muslim women living in the west and wearing head scarves. Some people argue that Muslims should adapt to the cultures they are living in and change their ways so as to not offend the other people around them. I find it interesting that there were so many American and European people not respecting the culture that they were visiting.

Anyway, enough of my rant. The mosque was beautiful. We also got to see a sort of mausoleum where a number of sultans, their wives and children were buried. There were large coffins for the adults and small coffins for the children, all covered in green cloth (green being the colour of Islam). Coffins for men and boys had a white cloth turban on top. When you visit Ottoman cemeteries around the city, you see something similar. The tombstones will have a stone carving of a turban or fez or other types of headdress. These would have shown the rank of the man buried there. In the mausoleum, it was strange to see the coffins of sultans there in the small room, close enough to touch. They were very simple and unadorned. It was also sad to see so many tombs for small children.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Its finally Friday!!!

Well, I survived another week. This one seemed pretty long and grueling. I'm not sure why. I had my evening class two nights this week, plus my 'normal' three days a week at the university. I know it might not sound like tons, but with all the planning, it really is a lot of work.

This week I started going to yoga, which was great. A friend introduced me to a studio not too far from our home, and its great because they offer a few sessions a week at only 5 TL for an hour and a half of yoga! That's like €2.50! It was great and so relaxing. Plus, they have a sauna, which I'd probably pay 5 TL for anyway. It is great because it makes your muscles heal faster after a challenging workout, and since winter is on the way, a bit of nice warm sauna time will be especially welcome.

Richie did some more job hunting today and has an interview scheduled for next week. Hopefully that'll go well for him. We're not too far away from having our whole job/ income situation sorted out. I can't wait. I want to go to the hammam again!

Well, last week we went to the Blue Mosque and to the Museum of Turkish and Islamic Art. I have some pictures to post, but I think I'll save that for tomorrow. Tonight, I want to celebrate my first real payday with a couple of beers with friends. Its been a long week and I'm ready to have some fun!

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Chance meetings and cultural encounters

Well, this morning I met a friend for breakfast in Besiktas, not too far from our home. I hadn't taken the metro to that area before, so I got there way early and had to stand around and kill time till she came and met me. The winter has arrived with gusto, and the winds were blowing off the Bosphorus. I was just near one of the ferry stations, and there was a little outdoor cafe there, so I decided to have a cup of tea while I waited. It was a nice view, overlooking the choppy waters, and further on, to the Asian side.

I finished my tea and decided to head back over to the pre-arranged meeting place. As I was getting up from my table, a woman came up to me. 'Please, don't go. We want to take a photo with you!' Forgive my lack of modesty, but basically, the group she was with had all seen my eyes and wanted to have photo documentation of being around a blue-eyed person, I guess.

Anyway, I got my photo taken with about twenty people in turn. The woman who initially approached me sat next to me and asked me a bit about myself, where I was from, what I was doing in Turkey, what I thought about various American presidents, etc. I asked her about herself as well, and it turns out, her and all her companions are Iraqi and work for the Department of Sport and Recreation, or something like that. She told me they were all just in Turkey for a few days, on a work trip. She asked if I could speak Turkish, and said that they found Turkish quite difficult. And they were all quite surprised by the cold and said that it was still warm in Iraq. It was pretty cool. They were all very nice, and shook my hand as they left, and thanked me for the photos.

Then, I headed over to wait for my friend, feeling pretty happy about my nice cultural exchange moment. I stood near the metro station and looked around. A young guy came up the stairs from the metro and asked me something in Turkish. I gave him my now frequent shoulder shrug and look of confusion to express my lack of understanding. He apologized to me in English and asked where I'm from. So I told him, and he told me a bit about his brother who lives and works in New Jersey. He told me that he is a Suriani Christain. I'd just been reading about Suriani Christians, so it was cool to actually meet one! I didn't get to talk to him much more than that, since my friend arrived then, but still. It was interesting. And all of that happened before 10 am! Quite impressive compared to what I've usually done by 10am.

So, that's all for now. Heading for the kitchen to cook up some fresh fish for dinner. Yum.