17/01/2009

Erasmus Life

A bit of therapeutic writing here, my original contribution to Middle East Technical University's magazine for International Students. Thanks to having completely avoided the subject of how drab and miserable a place to live Ankara really is, it has since been translated into Turkish on METU university's website.


WEEKLY NEWS FOR METU EXCHANGE STUDENTS BY ISES Volume 2, Issue 3

Liam Murray

At Kocatepe mosque, arabesque meets classical Turkish design – the great domes and minaret visible for miles around. Inside, the eye is immediately drawn to the great chandelier, a sphere of glass shimmering like a thousand stars. The hall faces south, so at midday prayers the light filters through the stained glass illuminating the congregation.

This is the Turkey of European fantasy. For one step outside and I have to remind myself where I am. For a second, I could be any European city. The buildings, the traffic and the pace of life here reminds me of home somewhat. But you only need scratch the surface to find that Turkey is something quite apart.

At this point I could list the novelties of Turkey – such as the fine cuisine, arts and music, describe the beauty of the country itself and probably dedicate a short treatise to the joys of
nargile smoking!

However all this would be in vain, as nothing really demonstrates the nature of Turkey better than the Turks themselves. Last week Monika extolled the famous Turkish hospitality and good nature, and for fear of this going to our host students’ heads I do not wish to repeat her. But I
think I can speak for everyone when I say that these are qualities that have really made the difference during some of the most daunting and hectic moments of the first two weeks here.

There is something about the Turkish way of life which completes its culture. For instance, what is the good in having a rich cuisine if you can’t enjoy it with friends? What is the good in having music if you can’t dance? It is this instant informality and intimacy which has really helped me settle in since I arrived here, and I look forward to what the next six months have to bring!

16/01/2009

Turkish Rock

Ataturk's regime in the fledgling Turkish state, constituted a highly illiberal era for the country where no aspect of public or private life failed to come under the scrutiny of the state.

The 'immortal leader' (as he is referred to in the 1982 Constitution) once stated that "The capacity of a country to change, is demonstrated by its ability to change its music"

According to my unusually critical guide to country by Rosie Ayliffe "he set about exacting just that, by prohibiting the distribution of Arabic-language musical films, and by banning music sung in minority languages from the radio... Genuine folk and Western classical music were decreed to be the oddly-twinned musical destinies of the country. Accordingly, musicologists fanned-out across Anatolia during the late 1920s, charged with the responsibility of collecting, archiving, and recording material that would flatter the racially-based vanity of nationalist ideologues".

Although such policies did incalculable harm to minority cultures and the classic styles enjoyed at the time - their success was limited. Today, 'Arabesque' music - a melancholic Arabic style which drops the classical maqamat in favour of more poppy western scales - is still widely loved.

However, thanks to Ataturk's equation of simple Turkish folk with the bombast of the Western Orchestra - Turkey's taste in music has always been an eccentric mix of traditional 'Halk', and the latest fads transported from the west. Thus, Turkey has replicated the pulse of British, American, Latin American and Jamaican youth through punk, reggae, hip-hop - and even the rock ballad.

Nowhere in ex-Ottoman lands but Turkey, could you enjoy Bulutsuzluk Özlemi's Sözlerimi Geri Alamam.

Graffitti For Gaza


Birmingham born-n-bred artist Mohammed Ali, bringing his unique 'Aerosol Arabic' designs to the streets. Here is him having a head-to-head with PC Ali.

Below is the final product - which all-in-all took about a day. Considering, the attention to detail is staggering. Some features may not be immediately obvious, such as the rather wry fact that silhouette Palestinian is not throwing a rock, but actually a shoe towards the incoming helicopter gunships.


The piece is visible from the main road cutting across Small Health (more popularly known as "Somali Health") - a constituency in which 48.8% of registered voters are Muslim. The piece superbly demonstrates the Islamic community in Britain's sympathies for Palestine, being signed in the top right-hand corner with a simple "Bismillah" - "in the name of God". Palestine as a nationalist struggle is represented by the prominent flag, but it is equally significance is portioned to the injustice if the crisis, and the need for solidarity with the Muslim 'Ummah'. This solidarity is only reinforced by identification with a fellow minority community, which has been shunned by the wider community.

Islam in Britain still suffers from an inward-perspective, shown in its firm abidence to doctrine compared to other urbanised Muslims living in the Islamic world. The challenges represented to the community in the last several years in the rise of religious extremism on one hand, and Islamophoebia on the other - had given way to an understandably defensive position. Muslims in Britain have often expressed under pressure from both sides

Art has lead the way considerably in opening-up to society; Giving some Muslims the opportunity to apply their religosity to creativity, to harmonise community relations between different kinds of Muslim and to contribute to the culture of their communities. The success has not ended on street corners however.

Mohammed Ali is just one of many such artists to display work in British galleries and even link communities in America, Dubai and Malaysia with various exhibitions and workshops aimed at promoting the arts amongst disaffected youth, in particular.

The success looks likely to continue in affirming the identity of British Muslims, but this goes hand-in-hand with political cohersion and projects to increase social equity.

Memoirs of Middle East Technial University, Ankara

I was asked to write a 'few words' for the old Turkish university, in diplo-speak for the new incoming students. So naturally I had to stop myself from going on and on, and ON. Here's what I limited myself to...

ODTU

In the first few weeks of my study semester in ODTU, I volunteered to do my bit for my host community and write a short article for the Erasmus Life. I recall with nostalgia struggling to decide what aspect of my mini-adventure I should focus my attention on; the new sights, sounds and smells overpowering my imagination, and an endless bureaucracy slowly throttling it . Now that it is all over, I am confronting the same struggle for words - this time to take some of the experiences, thoughts and feelings of possibly the most eye-opening six months of my life, and churn them into a few short paragraphs for your skim-reading pleasure.

But for the sake of brevity I shall focus on the university itself - as for the country and people; the work of an unlimited number of historians, diplomats and journalists, and even more psychologists, would never help you understand.

But you can hope to become gradually enlightened. And coming to ODTU is to view Turkey from a unique lens. The university is as famous as it is controversial. Originally funded by the Americans to recruit the best minds in the Middle East for the forces of capitalism (and duly designed in the shape of gun aimed towards Moscow) it is a great irony that it is now almost synonymous with Marxist-Communism and student radicalism. I had the pleasure of meeting some of its first students - now in their 60s - on a trip to the island resort of Bozcaada. “ODTU is a very special place” the old man beamed at me - “It really was revolutionary".

Evidence for its revolutionary past are everywhere, preserved in campus folklore and of course, the great centerpiece stadium whose main stand is emblazoned with Devrim - Revolution. Here, protests and marches run like clockwork.

Although most of the students, if asked, have no idea what form this devrim would take and, if quizzed long enough, would probably conclude that another radical coup would be devastating for Turkey, this is all done in the name of tradition - just go along with it, and for God's sake - don't question it.

Alternatively, you can march to your own drum quite easily; ODTU offers a beautiful and serene campus for you to explore and there are always the amenities; tennis courts, gym, swimming pool, football pitch, music and dance studios - all of which you will inevitably regret not having used while you spent most of your day sipping chay in the many cafes open around the clock.

Turks take food seriously, so it is just as well that there are enough restaurants and cafes around campus - and you will eat better than you ever did at home for half the price. If you’re from the UK anyway.

And another point - especially for my fellow Britons; EU institutions are taken seriously when you leave the island - even in Turkey! Prepare to find out why on the word Erasmus is almost synonymous with having fun, making great friends and ending up in the most bizarre situations you’ll ever be in. There are trips and socials planned tirelessly by the Erasmus co-ordinators on campus to make you feel at ease and to help you get to know cool, interesting people. And with so many nationalities and personalities it is sure to be a great experience for all.

Have fun arkadeshlarim!

P.S.. Learn Turkish!

14/01/2009

Gaza; How Long Can We Sit on the Fence?


12/01/09

And so, after nineteen months of continuous blockade, three weeks of relentless bombardment, a thousand dead and another four thousand injured, Israeli spokesmen reveal, that Israel is “advancing towards the end game”.

With foreign journalists barred from entering, we have no choice but to rely on UN reports from Gaza, telling of a humanitarian catastrophe unfolding for a "trapped, traumatised, terrorised" civilian population. Such a crisis makes threats to effect a “bigger holocaust” on Gazans, by Israel’s deputy defence minister - seem all the more unsettling. Meanwhile, both sides gear-up for an intense battle in the centre of the besieged city, where many civilians formerly living on the outskirts have been forced to flee.

It is difficult to see exactly what Israel has sought to achieve with this debacle. Prime Minister Olmert has publicly denied attempting to enforce ‘regime change’, or another occupation on the Gaza strip; thus we are left to assume that the current crisis is just the bloody crescendo of a grand, macabre strategy to collectively punish Gazans for their support for Hamas, which seems nothing but emboldened by Israel’s measures. A bonus however, could lie in whipping up nationalistic fervour in support of the government in time for the upcoming Knesset elections.

Whatever Israel’s gains - one thing is for sure; whatever it has achieved, has already been far outstripped by what it has lost in international credibility.

The turn-around in public opinion has been immense. Even American news networks have been shocked into reminding viewers that it was indeed Israel who initially broke the truce which lead to the current crisis. Within Israel itself opinion is divided - but there has been considerable discontent observed by the organisation Jews Sans Frontieres, who have so-far amassed at least 2000 signatures among nearby Israelis in protest to the continued violence. Last weekend’s protests in London managed to draw a crowd of over 100 000 from across the political spectrum. This is all the more significant considering the deflated, post-Iraq public mantra of “protesting won’t make a difference” - which unfortunately seems to sum-up the attitude to our democracy these days.

Despite lack of a Palestinian Solidarity Organisation in Keele, our students have made a show of support - petitioning and raising awareness on the Concourse on Thursday evening. Contributing to many thought-provoking speeches, Glen Watson - coordinator of the Socialist Students, reflected upon the demonstrations in Tel Aviv to reinforce the point that this conflict is not one of “creed vs. creed”.

But does this new spirit of open criticism reflect a growing public outrage against the state of Israel itself? In a word, no. It is certainly a divergence from the zealous neutralism that has carried the debate so far. However, isolating, and flagging-up a case of injustice committed by one party, does not equate to supporting the other extreme - far less, denying that party’s very existence. Injustice has gone on far enough that we can discard this mentality entirely.

Politics will - as always, take time to catch up with public discourse, but this discourse is now one of serious human concern - not a great leap on the anti-Israeli bandwagon. I genuinely believe that the power of anti-Israeli sentiment - often discarded as borderline anti-Semitism, may one day seem as genuine as the virulent (and often petulant) anti-Americanism which has characterised Britain and the rest of the world during the Bush years. An attitude we were quick to extinguish, getting caught up by the idealism of ‘hope’ and ‘change’.

Israel is as capable of effecting a similar change in public opinion, as far as it actually makes that change.

Only public action can spearhead political reorientation on this issue. Despite everyone from Berlin to Baghdad eagerly awaiting Obama to step in and save the day, essentially, governments and states the world-over are content to pick and choose which injustices should be confronted and which can be allowed to continue. Two conditions must be met before our government will act. 1) They must see an opportunity to represent public sympathy - the PR factor, and 2) they must see that this sympathy is joined with real action. In this context - the economic factor.

Naomi Klein, writing in the Nation earlier this week, has joined calls for a publicly-guided strategy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanction of Israel, which has been gradually gaining ground since 2005. The plan is ambitious but simple in its approach; that a grassroots boycott of Israeli goods will provoke companies concerned for their profits to divest from Israel, and give the international community the confidence to threaten economic sanctions if the first two measures yield no results. Punitive measures will alienate rather than persuade Israel, on the merits of its reckless disregard for human rights, humanitarian law and the moral high ground - which they are more than capable of achieving by perusing diplomacy and abiding by UN resolutions.

Everyone is capable of contributing to this campaign, and raising awareness of the issue. Information is widely available on the internet, and a number of protests are being organised across the country. Palestinian Solidarity Societies and campaigns can be formed to work at a local level. Essentially though, it is up to the individual to do what they can for the cause, and wake people’s consciences to the dangers of letting this event become nothing but a comma in the tragic history of the conflict.

The tick-box stances of ‘pro-Israeli’ and ‘anti-Israeli’ have run their course, and have only impeded finding a resolution to the conflict. Rather, we must take a firm stance supporting justice. Without this there can be no lasting peace. In practical terms, this means getting off the fence and showing solidarity with those who are suffering.