Istanbul: Captured from Space

This amazing photograph was acquired in August 2012 by the Image Science & Analysis Laboratory, Johnson Space Center.

You can see how wide the city spans, expanding in the West over the bridge on the far left-hand side, past Avcılar to Beylikduzu, where vast apartment, office and shopping complexes have sprung up with immediate transport links to the centre. The feel of the place is as such, quite charmless, despite its proximity to the main city on one side, and the coast and city's (current) limits on the other. 

The Asian side (right of the Bosphorus) is ripe to see this kind of expansion with the new bridge project, and it is there, to the North of Ümraniye where similar heavy development is underway, compromising Istanbul's green belt in scene's as evocative as the photograph on the right, which has been circulating around facebook. The rapid development of the city is causing furor, although this is promoting a long overdue interest in the environment and sustained economic development, evident in many areas, from Greenpeace's more overt and indigenous campaigning in the city, to the release of the movie Ekümenopolis, which I look forward to seeing in full at the end of this month when it comes out on release.

The image below, posted by Dutch astronaut Andrea Kuipas, has a more angled image showing the whole of the Asian side, and the East coast of the European, meeting in the glow of Beyoğlu and Eminönü, the touristic and historic parts.


Sex, Crimes and Videotape

News sites illustrate their 'sex pieces' with images of foreign pornstars, or stock images of scantily-clad women with their faces blurred-out, wilfully ignoring Turkish porn stars like Sibel Kekilli (above) and Şahin K. (below).
Sex, Crimes and Videotape: Porn in Turkey

Sex is on my mind of late. I take as much personal responsibility for this as any testosterone-producing organism, but in my defence, it is quite impossible to escape its ever-presence in today's society, is there? 

Sex is a truly omnipresent psychological force. For example, today's most read article on HaberTürk was nothing to do with the recent Syrian crisis or BDP controversy, but the death of 70s porn star Sylvia Kristel - better known as Emmanuelle. And if that seems surprising, it shouldn't be. Last week Milliyet's celebrity section had the fantastic headline "We fucked like Kenyan Marathon runners" - an intriguing article about American actress Oliva Wilde, which included my favourite quote of the day: "It was as if my vagina was dead", regarding her fling with someone or other.

Our preoccupation with sex is satiated every moment of the day, from TV advertising, to university coursework assignments and public trials.

Ah, hang on, actually that last example might just be Turkey. Allow me to explain...

This week, two former students of Bilgi University, Deniz Özgün and Elif Şafak Urucu (who from now on will be known as D.Ö and E.Ş.U, out of respect to Turkish press traditions), are awaiting the verdict of a trial which could land them in jail for as long as four years, for having shot and produced an unadventurously-titled porno called "The Porn Project", as the final project for their degree in Communications. 

The filming took place in January 2011, and received the lowest possible grading by the professor who apologetically cited its poor technical quality. However, this wasn't enough, and the university then decided to fire three members of staff, only tenably linked to the incident - including an engineering professor. This ignited mass protests by students on campus (shown on the left) last year.

Now things have gone much further, and almost two years after the original incident both students have been indicted by the Istanbul Republic Prosecution group on obscenity charges for having shot the film within the university campus - a public space.

I've learnt two Turkish legal terms today. The first one, stehcenlik, means "obscenity" and is enshrined in article 226/4 of the Turkish Penal Code, the second one, ahlaka mugayir, although translated as "raunchy", actually means "immoral" or "contra bonos mores", to use the legalese. This word was contained in the public indictment against D.Ö and E.Ş.U in court this week, leading some to question if it is "illegal to make a porno in this country?"

On the Rise or Flopping Under Pressure
Turkish Porn in a Historical Context

Pornography in Turkey is a murky issue, and one constantly liable to change. The first hardcore porn film was produced in 1976, Öyle Bir Kadın Ki, but the subsequent wave was halted after the military coup, which attempted to engineer a sense of conservatism in Turkey by legislating a harmonising of religiosity and nationalism by judicial and educational means. Despite this, stars like Şahin K. (pictured, moustached) gained fame making amateur pornography during the 90s, and German-born Sibel Kikelli, now a successful actress in her own right, was filmed in studios in Europe with a wide sales to Turkey.

Although they hire from within the country, Turkish porn studios are mostly based elsewhere, as the fortunes of the industry are always changing. In 2004, the AKP introduced a law banning obscene material, in the form of Article 226/II. By 2006 the Playboy channel was banned along with several other porn channels available on the Digitürk digital agency. In 2008 Edibe Sözen introduced a law banning the sale of pornography to minors, however this soon became redundant with the rise of internet pornography.

It is now difficult to access most pornography websites in Turkey, thanks to the extension of bans since 2008. According to Freedom House, there are currently 15 000 banned websites in Turkey, most are of a pornographic nature with some others representing pro-PKK Kurdish language news, or 'insulting' state founder, Mustafa Kemal. After attempting to introduce a nation-wide filter last year, the option to have unfiltered access was granted in November 2011, to the satisfaction of most of the public.

Distribution is more or less banned, despite the presence of sex shops in many areas of major cities. The banning of distribution is not directly banned, but consequent of the key-wording of a law, updated this summer out-lawing, along with violence and bestiality, "unnatural types of sex", with the maximum punishment for this being four years in jail.

Testing the Limits

It is upon the inclusion of production as well as sales, that the recent pair are currently being tried, as oral and anal sex are being included in "unnatural types" in this case. Yet lawyers are still divided, Mert Şahinci states that as a trade, porn is now illegal, as according to the law it is neither scientific or of artistic merit along with representing a risk to children. However, M. Gökhan Ahi says that "obscenity alone is not a crime", as the law specifically states that it is a protection against children's viewing or involvement, and does not state anything about producing porn for sale or any other purpose.

It will be interesting to see what will come of the trial, especially for D.Ö, as it was his sole wish to shoot the porno to "test the limits", it being in a public university. Actress, E.Ş.U, had the same attitude about production too, stating to a press more interested in what her parents' had to say than anything else, that her "body and decisions are my own".

The Googletrends Test

To those unfamiliar with Google Trends, the website is a God-send for finding information about the computer habits of various times and places. For example, typing in PKK, you will find that searches spike up at the time of an attack, thereby having an idea of the frequency of such attacks. Therefore it is a simple and very useful journalistic tool. You can also find what searches are popular by country-to-country comparison. In the interests of this piece for example, I found that "foot fetish" is endemic to India, "balloon sex" is a relatively Czech phenomenon, and, more importantly, the highest rate of searches for "porno" came from Turkey.

Whatever the controls are, they have not succeeded in curbing Turkey's internet addiction - and an upward rise is visible every year. According to a shocking report earlier this year, Hürriyet reported that every minute 2 million Turks are watching online porn. That's a world record the AKP probably arn't proud of.

Depending on what the verdict of the current trial is, we will perhaps see either directly, or indirectly as a political response, just how dedicated certain sections of the government are to the cause of eradicating "obscenity" from the public.


The Mysticism of Mevlana

Written for Yabangee.com
Mevlana – known more popularly in the English-speaking world as ‘Rumi’ – is the father of the Mevlevi sufi sect. Firstly, to debunk a popular myth. “Mevlana”, real name Jalal ad-din Muhammad Balkhi, born to a family of scholars in Balkh, modern-day Afghanistan, or Wakhsh, modern-day Tajikistan – or Khorosan, modern-day Iran – was not a Turk. Claims to his exact origins are disputed like Baklava, however, he was most likely a Persian who settled in the Western-most area of the Seljuk Empire in the early 13th century – Konya, to be precise.

So why is “Mevlana”, (a title meaning “Spiritual Master”), this month’s Famous Turk? Well, for two reasons: Firstly, origins to one side, the mystic spent many years of his life writing his most influential works in Konya, and the city, as well as the Ministry of Tourism, holds him in the highest regard. Secondly, and more importantly, the Mevlana has a cult following in Turkey unrivalled by any other religious personage after the Prophet. Furthermore, he succeeds in bridging class, religion, gender, nationality and every other major social divide in the country.

This makes him a truly unique figure, and one who has inspired many subsequent generations of writers, artists and theologians alike. Nothing attests to Mevlana’s universal qualities better than the poet’s own, oft-quoted words, addressing an audience that excludes none:

“Come, come again, whoever you are, come!
Heathen, fire worshipper or idolator, come!
Come even if you have sinned a hundred times,
Our’s is the portal of hope. Come as you are.”

The story of Mevlana is a compelling one. His family moved from their original home to flee Mongol encroachment in Central Asia, and they spent many years on the move before settling in Anatolia. During the first leg of their exodus, the young Mevlana was walking behind his father, when the famous dervish poet Farid ud-din ‘Attar instantly identified the spiritual eminence of the two, crying out “Here comes a sea, followed by an ocean!”. Attar gave Mevlana his book, the Asrarnama, which warns against the entanglement of the soul with the material world.

The impact Attar had on the young Rumi is immortalised in the latter’s dedication in verse. “Attar has traversed the seven cities of Love, But We are still at the turn of one street”. For the fact was, that the a rapidly more influential Islamic world, entrenched in political division and materially wealthy, especially in its upper echelons, was felt to be unsettling the humble foundations on which it was based. This undoubtedly increased the influence of the Sufi movement in Islamic discourse at the time. The Sufis were inadvertently founded by Rabia al Basri a number of centuries earlier, who detested materialism in favour of meditation and remembrance of God, or ‘Zikir’. Mevlana’s name is almost synonymous with the Sufi movement. Anyone unfamiliar with the Sufis will surely be aware of one of their most famous sects, the Mevlevis, or the Whirling Dervishes, who perform their Zikir before audiences in Istanbul and Konya.

Rumi's Tomb in Konya is visited by thousands of pilgrims every year
Mevlana would have been remembered as just another scholar, perhaps worthy of a footnote or two in one of the history of Islam, were it not for a chance meeting with a dervish called Shams of Tabriz, which completely changed the course of his life. Many legends surround the nature of this first meeting. One such legend has it that Mevlana was sitting by the side of a lake reading a complex legal text, when a typically scruffy dervish, Shams of Tabriz, approached Mevlana and asked, “What are you reading?”. “It’s nothing you would understand,” replied Mevlana, rather annoyed by the old man. Upon this response, the dervish suddenly snatched the book from his hands, and threw it in the lake. Mevlana was incensed, and waded in to retrieve it. When he returned and laid it out on the side of the lake he was shocked to see that the book wase bone dry and completely intact. He asked Shams to explain how this was possible. The dervish smuggly replied, “it’s nothing you would understand”.

It certainly sounds like the behaviour of the old Sufi dervish, a fact not lost on Shams himself. As one source quotes him, he had been travelling around the entire Middle East looking for someone who would “endure my company,” and decided to seek out the Mevlana. From then on, Mevlana spent most of his time learning wisdom and asceticism from Shams, that could not be found in any book.

The pair were re-popularised in the West and in Turkey recently, thanks to the massive success of Elif Shafak’s latest novel The 40 Rules of Love, which is inspired by their friendship. In Shafak’s own words, the story is a ‘love story with a spiritual dimension’ and jumps back and forth between the experience of a dissatisfied house-wife in 21st century America, and friendship that took place in 13th century Konya. Shafak intended to discuss “love, with its divine and human dimensions,” finding Mevlana’s story a bridge by which to explore both.

Shafak is not the only artist to take the influence of Mevlana’s work, of which the bulk is collected in his masterpiece the Mesnevi. The Mesnevi is known by many as “The Qu’ran in Persian” and contains 26,000 lines of mystical poetry. Many writers in the later period were influenced by the Mesnevi, which cemented Persian culture as the dominant centre around which the Islamic world would pivot for many centuries. Turkish owes close to a quarter of its current vocabulary stock to this period of influence.

In spite of all the last century’s changes and upheavals, the Mesnevi offers a timeless and universal messages of love and respect. It may surprise you how many people from various segments of Turkish society – some with little or no overt interest in religion, can quote some of Mevlana’s most famous verses fully. One of the most popular verse is Mevlana’s seven rules for life:

“In generosity and helping others, be like a river.
In compassion and grace, be like the sun.
In concealing others’ faults, be like the night.
In anger and fury, be like the dead.
In modesty and humility, be like the earth.
In tolerance be like the sea.
Either exist as you are, or be as you appear.”

With such simple, yet eloquent verses, it is not difficult to see the secret of Mevlana’s mass appeal. Moreover, it is no accident on Shafak’s part, for example, that the main character in her novel is a Jewish North American woman with no real religious affiliation. Overcoming the distractions of worldly identity lies much at the heart of Mevlana’s philosophy:

“Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu, Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen.
Not any religion, or cultural system.
I am not from the East, or the West… not composed of elements at all.
I do not exist, am not an entity in this world or the next, did not descend from Adam
or Eve or any creation story.
My place is placeless, a trace of the traceless.
Neither body or soul. I belong to the beloved.”

Mevlana was buried in Konya, where his tomb draws pilgrims from all over Turkey and beyond. His beloved friend Shams was unfortunately killed on the road one night, and an inconsolable Mevlana set off on a journey in order to find him. Once he got as far as Damascus however, he realised the vanity of his search, and came to a life-changing conclusion – perhaps one that should be pondered by those who travel in search of something:

“Why should I seek? I am the same as He.
His essence speaks through me.
I have been looking for myself!”


Interview with Orçun Sünear on Sattas

Sattas: Promo Pic, with singer Orçun in the Middle.

"Music that reflects the rhythm of the heart is bound to move the people"   
Reggae has definitely landed here in Istanbul. As I have often harped on about in this blog, this year has seen some suprisingly big names performing all over the city’s clubs and arenas, as well a surprise announcement of not one, but two Sirenfest reggae festivals based on the Baykuş Beach on the Black Sea coast of the European side.

Sattas have been one of the regular features throughout this burst of activity. Formed in 2004, the band’s popularity has risen dramatically in the last year, which has seen them perform on Turkish television shows and feature full-page articles in the national music press. In June, Sattas released what is celebrated as Turkey’s first reggae album.

Despite the band’s hectic schedule, I got the chance to pin down the enigmatic, if relentlessly humble lead singer Orçun ‘Leo’ Sünear, to ask him about the the band, it’s success, and the burgeoning reggae scene in Istanbul.

It is fair to say that reggae isn’t hugely popular in Turkey, but in spite of that, it is the group’s major influence. How did that come about?
Sünear: We discovered it thanks to Bob Marley. After that, we imbibed countless documentaries and books and things like that. We love this music, it’s incredible, and we are going to carry on with it. However, we are still in the learning process and we have a long road ahead.

In your opinion, does Reggae fill a void in mainstream music here in Turkey?
Absolutely. Music that reflects the rhythm of the heart is bound to move the people. There are a lot of artists who sing pop, under the guise of rock, but their music has all started to sound the same and it definitely needs a different flavour. I don’t want to do down the many great original artists who are out there too, though.

These days Sattas are getting a lot of attention. When you first started did you expect to become this successful?
Of course we didn’t expect it, but anyway, we don’t see ourselves as successful right now – we are just ourselves. We are not in a position to look down on, or even across to, anybody else. Just to have a good amount of concerts and good reviews makes us feel great.

The group’s style comes straight from Jamaica – but are there artists who influenced or encouraged you here in Turkey?
Neşet Ertaş really influenced us, along with lots of other great people. Of course we were born and raised here, so it has definitely influenced us and we will see these influences develop whilst doing the same music. Our music won’t be an imitation though – we are definitely going to stick to the rules of reggae and we don’t want to go outside this framework.

As we’ve already mentioned, this year you have been rather busy. Do you think your success owes to the greater popularity of reggae in Turkey in general, or was reggae already popular?
We have certainly had an effect, but people have started to share reggae all over the place. More people started coming to concerts (other than ours) so of course we’ve had an effect. Before us there were people listening, playing and performing reggae, but now the number has increased and we are taking a share.

Up to now, what has been your proudest moment as a band?
Releasing an album. To release a reggae album in this country gives us a lot of pride.

What are your goals in the next year? Are you thinking beyond Turkey?
Going abroad is our wildest dream. We are doing our best to bring this about. We are getting good reviews from abroad. Jamaica, England and Germany especially excite us. Obviously these countries are very important for the reggae scene.