Friday, May 25, 2012

Preserving the future

Turkey is the youngest country in Europe. The average age of its population is below 30.
It is also the most ancient. An invaluable cultural heritage is concentrated there.
Try now to imagine all this heritage covered by water.
This is what happened to Allianoi, an archaeological site from the Roman era flooded last year by the construction of an irrigation dam.
Archaeologist Ahmet Yaras tried for years to save the site. A handful of intrepid diggers, from different cities and different backgrounds, came all the way to Allianoi to support him.
My report for euronews and more (in 11 languages, Turkish included) on Generation Y

Monday, October 24, 2011


If you want to help, you can find all the information on this page. Thank you in advance.

Earthquakes in Turkey: a nightmare repeating itself

The devastating earthquake that struck Turkey yesterday is unfortunately only one of the many seismic events occurring periodically in this country, which has a complex tectonic structure. Everybody's mind goes back to the 1999 earthquake, in the Northwest, which had a dreadful death toll. Orhan Pamuk remembers those dramatic moments in his book Other Colours.
I was awoken between midnight and dawn - at 3 a.m., as I was later to discover - by the first jolts. It was August 17, 1999, I was in my study in our stone house on Sedef, the little island just next to Büyükada, and my bed, which was three yards from my desk, was swaying violently like a rowboat caught in a storm at sea. A terrifying groan came from underground, from what seemed to be right under my bed. Without pausing to find my glasses, following instinct more than reason, I rushed outdoors and began to run. (...)
The first tremors lasted forty-five seconds, claiming thirty thousand lives; before they were over, I had climbed the side steps to the upper floor where my wife and daughter were sleeping. They were awake and waiting in the darkness, afraid and not knowing what to do. The electricity had failed. Together we went out into the garden and the enveloping silence of the night. The awful roar had stopped, and it was as if everything around us were likewise waiting in fear.
But I want to remember now another, slightly more recent earthquake that took place in the South East of Turkey - like the latest one - on May 1, 2003. It happened in the Bingöl province, or to be more precise,
The Kandilli Observatory and Earthquake Research Institute (KOERI, 2003) of Boğaziçi University estimated that the earthquake centered at 39.01 N and 40.49 E, which places the epicenter about 15 km NW of Bingöl city.
According to official anouncements the earthquake caused the loss of 176 lives and injured about 520 people. About 362 buildings collapsed and/or were heavily damaged, and 3026 buildings were moderately-to-lightly damaged in Bingöl city center. The number of collapsed or heavily damaged buildings in the whole earthquake affected region is announced as 625 and a total of 3650 were subjected to damage of different degrees. (Japan Society of Civil Engineers, report The Bingöl Earthquake of May 1, 2003)
Non-official sources speak of more than 180 dead. 84 were children aged between 7 and 17 who were sleeping in the dormitory of their collapsed school. But it was not just a random tragedy.The Turkish State had its share of responsibility in the disaster.

The site near Bingöl where used to be the school destroyed by the 2003 earthquake
But something positive came out of it as well: a group of architects and engineers founded Bindepder, the Association in Solidarity with the Victims of Bingöl Earthquake, intending not only to intervene in times when earthquakes strike, but also to inform people before and after seismic events. I met their President, Hayip Yolcu, in Bingöl on March 2005. He explained me how dangerous this area is, how many fault lines cross it: "Bingöl is in the middle of this region, - he added-, so it's possible to reach all the cities, all the provinces around here, so it's important that this association was founded here. In the aftermath of an earthquake we don't want trained people to come from the West of Turkey to work here. We want them to come here and share their experience with us. It's important to reach people in the 6 hours following an earthquake, because you have a chance to find them alive. But after 6 hours your chances get fewer and fewer, and it takes time to come from the West, so it's essential for us to be able to be immediately operative on our own. After that, we do want the experts from the West to come, so that they can share with us their experience, information and the equipment they use".

Hayip is very critical towards the government. One example: "There was an earthquake in 1996 in Varto. After that, the government built houses for the victims. Now, during the 2003 Bingöl earthquake those houses fell down. Only two houses are OK, and if you ask people why, they answer: 'because we built them'. It's the houses built by the government that collapsed".

Hayip Yolcu showing a shoe found among the debris
It was a different government. But things don't seem to work much differently with the new one: "We know that money arrived to the government from the European Union. We know three schools were built in this area. But this money was given to people who are close to the government. For example, there are villages where the schools were not heavily damaged, but the money went to these villages, where the municipalities were close to the government".

He then brings me to the place where the school used to be. On the site, there are still trousers and shoes, macabre reminders that real children were here on that night, and that they don't need those things any more.
The new buildings
A new school has been rebuilt since, a little further away, but always on the fault line. Besides, Hayip explains, the new buildings are not earthquake-proof: "First of all, there are four floors while there shouldn't be more than two floors. Second, the restaurant should be in a separated building, while it's situated on the ground floor, where there are gases that might explode during an earthquake".

A teacher tells us what happened that night:

Hayip showing children trousers
I used to live in the school apartments. I was sleeping, and first there was a small earthquake. I went out, but it was dark, so I could not see anything. I heard voices shouting, crying... I didn't think the dormitory had collapsed, I just thought that maybe the students were crying out of fear. But then a car passed by, and when the lights fell on the school, I realized the amplitude of the destruction. Immediately, we ran to help the children. That night in the dormitory there were 199 students and one teacher. Around 50 of them managed to escape. I took my car and went to ask help from the army. People from the village and from all over the region came with lorries, and we all tried to reach the children under the debris. During the day many groups from all of Turkey arrived, but they did not have enough material, they did not have the necessary equipment. It was such a painful day, we do not want to see that happen again.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Turkey's first Kurdish dept opens amid political tension

From Hürriyet Daily News:

The beginning of Turkey's first undergraduate Kurdish program has been welcomed but the development comes amid charter-related tension
After years of efforts, a number of rejections and strong debates, Turkey’s first undergraduate-level Kurdish language and literature department is welcoming students for its first class today in the southeastern province Mardin’s Artuklu University.
The beginning of the first undergraduate-level Kurdish program, which many consider a positive development, comes at a time of recent tension over discussions on Turkey’s new constitution, which are about to commence between the ruling and oppositional parties, including the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), which is primarily focused on the Kurdish issue.
While tension among the delegates is expected to rise especially on the first three articles, which discuss “the characteristics of the Republic,” an academic move to officially integrate Kurdish culture into Turkey’s education system is already regarded as a sign of development.
“When we established the School of Eastern Languages, I had planned to set up a Kurdish Language and Literature Department and kept re-applying to YÖK [Higher Education Board]. This city is the center of upper Mesopotamia, and Kurdish [culture] is a major part of this,” Artuklu University Rector Serdar Bedii Omay said.
Full story here.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fatih Akin presents Law of the Border in Lyon

The theatre is full of people. Even I, with a press pass, have to sit on the floor. I must admit I didn't expect all this success for a Turkish film from French - and especially Lyonnese - people.

Fatih Akin (right) with Thierry Frémaux
It's October 4th. Fatih Akin is here, at the Institut Lumière, in Lyon, at the exact spot where cinema itself was born. The occasion is the Festival Lumière, a huge international event that Lyon people are rightfully proud of. The great German-Turkish film maker is here to present the restored version of Hudutların Kanunu (Law of the Border, 1966). The screenplay was written by Ömer Lüfti Akad, who also directed the movie, and Yilmaz Güney, the Kurdish popular actor and film maker author of the Cannes Palme d'Or winner Yol (1982).

This version of Law of the Border has been released this year by the World Cinema Foundation at Cineteca di Bologna. The restoration "was made possible - the World Cinema Foundation explains - through the use of a positive print provided by Nil Gurpinar, daughter of the film’s producer, and held by the Turkish Ministry of Culture. As this print is the only known copy to survive the Turkish Coup d’Etat in 1980 – all other film sources were seized and destroyed – the restoration required a considerable amount of both physical and digital repair. The surviving print was extremely dirty, scratched, filled with mid-frame splices and sadly missing several frames. Although the film was shot in black and white, it was also printed on color stock resulting in significant decay. The restoration work produced a new 35mm dupe negative".  It's pretty much what Fatih Akin tells us, adding that a full 15-second scene is missing as well.

Akin is introduced to the audience by Thierry Frémaux, manager of the Institut Lumière where the film is shown. When Frémaux thanks all the Turks present in the theater, the room is shaken by clapping and roaring. Which explains the success of this event.

Akin explain why this film is so important: "Before this movie Turkish cinema was just a sort of fairy tale cinema, with white skinned Turks and blond women. Law of the Border was the first film to show real Turks".

The role of the main character is played by Güney himself: "The film gives you an idea on how and why the Kurdish question started - continues Akin. - Güney was born here, and put much of his story in it".

Silence now. The film starts. And it is powerful.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

The new French war on religion

It's the title of a column (hereby linked) published on April 15 on Hürriyet on line. The article could be the usual attack by a Muslim to a Western country, but when a Turk attacks France the issue is always larger than that, and in this specific case the author, Mustafa Akyol, shows a remarkably moderate tone, he makes his point without shouting, and with a certain amount of criticism towards Turkey itself.

The issue is, ça va sans dire, as follows:

The burqa, the all-covering face veil, which is worn by very few women in France, is now banned by law. So, French policemen are fining veiled women, or, far worse, dragging them to their headquarters to admonish them about the right way of life.

And Akyol's point is:

Meanwhile the zestful president of the French Republic, Mr. Nicolas Sarkozy, is enlightening us about the virtues of this ban. It is for upholding "French values of equality and secularism," he says. I bet it is. The problem is that those "French values" do not seem to honor the right be left alone from government interference. Alas, they even justify a tyranny, which mirrors that of the Taliban: while those Afghan despots force women to put the burqa on, their French counterparts force them to take it off.
Now, what you and I think about the burqa does not matter here. In fact, I am among those who believe that it is a bad medieval tradition, which has nothing to do with Islam, and should better be abandoned. So, if the women in that excessive veil asked my opinion, I would advise them to take it off, too. But advice is the furthest point that I, and anybody else, can legitimately go. We cannot use state powers to "liberate" those women from what they wear out of their genuine convictions – just like the fact that an ideological nudist cannot claim to forcefully "liberate" us from our shirts, pants and underwear.

The attack to Sarkozy goes even farther than that:

Mr. Sarkozy, whose il-liberalism is only matched by his arrogance, heralds even more fronts in this culture war. He says he wants “no halal food options in school canteens, no prayers outside and no minarets.” Just replace the word “halal” with “kosher” here, and the “minaret” with “star of David.” You will get the poisonous French anti-Semitism of a century ago – the times of Captain Dreyfus. The difference today is just the change in the composition of the hated Semites – now they are the Arabs, and, by extension, all Muslims.

For a country where anti-Semitism is a sort of taboo (you might end up being label as "anti-Semitic" just by criticizing Israeli's politics), this is quite a blow.

But here comes the real issue, the one that Turks are sick of having to swallow all the time:

We in Turkey very well know that this rampant Islamophobia in France is the main reason why the majority of French society is categorically against Turkey’s accession into the European Union. That’s why we are not terribly impressed by the French critiques of our democracy, such as Ms. Marland-Militello, the parliamentarian who questioned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on religious freedom in Turkey in Strasbourg early this week. Erdoğan’s rhetoric was indeed a bit harsh in the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, or PACE, meeting, and a few of his arguments were really not convincing. But his reaction to the self-righteous and overbearing attitude Turks have being facing from some Europeans, especially the French, was understandable.

Here comes now the self-criticism, and the reason why every attack to France from Turkey, and vice versa is more like the rage of Caliban seeing his own face in a glass.

We in Turkey are also realizing these days that some of our misfortunes in the past century stem from our big mistake of taking France as a beacon of modernity. We imported the fanatically anti-religious laicite of the Third French Republic, which not only brought oppression to our believers, but also paranoia to our seculars. Similarly, we imported the assimilation-focused nationalism of successive French Republics, and were drawn into a madness that our Ottoman ancestors would have never dreamed of: banning languages and cultures other than Turkish. Hence we created our own “Kurdish problem.”

Read the rest of it here.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Turkey going nuclear: follow-up

It might seem a bit out of touch with reality, with all that's happening in Libya, to get back to the nuclear issue right now. But on one hand, the problem is certainly not solved, and it's only yesterday that <a href="">activists in Turkey and <span class="yshortcuts" id="lw_1300561879_1">Cyprus</span> protested against Turkish government plans to build the country's first nuclear reactor</a>. On the other hand, I have a duty to update you on what I anticipated in my <a href="">previous post</a>. Fact is, the <a href="">International Tourism and Media Conference</a> in Bursa was canceled at the last minute.
The official reason given to us is as follows:

<blockquote>Many participants have very recently informed us that they could not come due to the ongoing problems in the Arab world and the tragic situation in Japan which keeps them buys at home.

Meanwhile we also thought that it would not be proper to hold a "tourism and media conference" while millions are mourning in Japan for the loss of possibly over 10 thousand people and decided to postpone our conference. </blockquote>
The real reasons, I was told by independent sources, appear to be linked with the current situation of journalists in Turkey, with arrests and the growing censorship situation condemned exactly by that <a href="">European Parliament report</a> I quoted in the previous post.