Monday, June 28, 2010

Full Moon Fever

I've gone through four versions of this post, and eventually I decided that the best information in some cases is no information at all.  Through no fault of anyone, I had a pretty crappy evening of the type that makes you want to curl into a ball and apologize for everything you've ever done wrong.  When I sat down at my computer to Skype my mom and cry, I looked out my window and saw the almost-full moon rising over the Bosphorus, with a few wispy clouds floating near the moon.

My great-aunt Sally always used to call this a buttermilk moon, because the full moon lights up the clouds like bright white milk in the sky.  I wish she had lived to see me take this job - I think I got the itch to travel from her.  But now, when all I need is a hug from a loved one, and my nearest family member is 6,000 miles away, I feel like I got my hug tonight.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Conspiracy Theories!!

I'll admit it.  Part of the reason why I love the Middle East is the batshit crazy conspiracy theories people come up with here.  I'm sure it's the same in most of the rest of the world (I mean, that's why Snopes exists, right?), but there's such a potent mix of politics and drama here that it's hard to beat the awesomeness of the rumor mill.  Today at work, one of our local hires was translating an op-ed in a prominent national paper for us.  Let me see if I can get this straight.

The PKK has teamed up with the two leading opposition parties to release a sex tape of one party's leader shacking up with an MP from his party, precipitating the resignation of both officials.  The PKK did this so that the ruling party will call early elections and as a result the two opposition parties can form a coalition government.  And that's why the PKK has ramped up its campaign of violence across Turkey in the last month.

After the summary concluded, there was a long moment of silence, and then one of my coworkers asked, "Was there not enough room in the column to include Mossad?"

It's not just here, of course.  When I was in Riyadh, decades-old Singer sewing machines were selling for about $3000, because the red mercury that was inside the stitching needles gave people the ability to summon the djinn.  I am now on the hunt for the Grand Unified Conspiracy Theory (GUCT), which will enable me to tie together the Kennedy assassination, the Lindbergh Baby, Opus Dei, Haile Selassie, and Pope Joan to explain why the world is actually getting cooler.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Random Thoughts from Taif

NOTE: when I changed the template for the blog, somehow this post (and I suspect others) were rendered into all-caps.  Working on figuring out what went wrong - but until then, my apologies for the poor aesthetics!

As I was packing out from DC, I came across a scrap of paper that I hadn't seen in a year or more. (I'm not really clear how it made through a few moves safely.) Last spring, I took part in the Jeddah consulate's culture fair in Taif doing the consular section brief, because at the time Jeddah didn't have anyone in the consular section who could answer student and tourist visa questions. I did our standard visa presentation and question-and-answer session every few hours for the fairgoers, and in the downtime I talked one-on-one with students or attended other info sessions.

A bit of an introduction - Taif is a beautiful town, set in the mountains above Mecca (as close as I'll ever get, sadly) with a relatively cool climate and a flourishing agriculture economy. Some of the best fresh fruits I've ever had came off a roadside stand there (and I'm still trying not to think about the practice of using 'black water' for irrigation). Taif is the traditional place where the Riyadh elite escape during the summer, and there are even branches of the major government ministries there so work can continue while everyone escapes the heat of the Nejd.

Taif is also a common starting point for Saudis going on Hajj; many of the men on my flight from Riyadh to Taif were in their special Hajj clothing, two white towels folded a certain way, and I saw many people checking in and out of the hotel in the same gear. (Abbreviated version - pilgrims are supposed to wear this clothing 'on their way' to Mecca. Varying interpretations and piety indicate whether that should be from the point of origin, wherever that may be in the world, or just from the edge of the sacred zone around Mecca that also serves as the boundary beyond which non-Muslims cannot pass.)

We held our fair in one of the big hotels in town, and like any other public event in Saudi, we had to have gender segregation in our main presentation rooms. We had two seating areas set up, with a long screen between them (reminding me for all the world of an Orthodox Jewish wedding reception). In the front of the room, we had two separate screens for showing video or powerpoints, and while speaking, we had to wander back and forth from one section to the other, or have a person watching each side for hands during Q&As. This is not something that normal public speaking training teaches you how to handle!

An ESL teacher from the State Department's English Language Program did a fascinating presentation to a group of Saudi teachers of English. One of the goals of this office is to offer tips on how to make language training more interactive and fun for students. Much instruction in Saudi Arabia is still done in old-fashioned, rote memorization drills, and it's hard to learn a language that way. The Saudi instructors knew this, so they were excited to hear about methods that might increase their students' learning and comprehension.

The ESL teacher did a number of activities with the group of teachers to emphasize that creativity in the classroom encourages language learning. One of the exercises involved someone from one side of the room starting a sentence, "If I were a ____..." while someone from the other side answered, "...then I would ____." Lots of potential for creativity here, of course, and the fact that there was a physical barrier between the authors of the sentence halves added to the fun. Normally, in events like this, the two halves of the room are kept completely separate, with no interaction whatsoever between them - if a question is asked on one side, the speaker repeats it so that everyone can hear it (or acknowledge it). So this was a challenge for these teachers, some of whom had never even been to the US or Europe before, to interact with the other side of the barrier. I was sitting in the back observing during this session, and I have to say that these sentences were some of the most thought-provoking, heart-breaking things I've ever heard.

Man: "If I were a woman..."

Woman: "...then I would travel the world!"

Man: "If I were a child..."

Woman: "...then I would kill my husband!"

All this in a place where a woman can't leave the country without her male guardian's permission, and where there is no minimum age to marry.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Crittenden County, Once Again, Obstructs My Civic Goals

Even though I probably will never live there again, I still maintain legal residency in Arkansas.  I vote there, my driver's license and car tags are all there, I pay taxes there, and my home leave address is even there (because I can't afford a hotel in Hawaii for five weeks every few years).  I don't mind paying into the state coffers; Lord knows the state can use the money, and feeding the Arkansas state school system is not a bad way to use it.

Nerd moment: my mother took me to vote with her in every election that I can remember as a child, and she let me pull the levers in our Johnson-Administration-era voting machines.  Ever since then, getting to vote with everyone else on Election Day, seeing the excitement, talking to the campaigners who are outside that magic hundred-foot line from the front door...  I love it.  What can I say.  But I have only gotten to vote "regularly" in an election once since I turned 18: it's all been absentee balloting or early voting.  In 2004, I had to vote early, because I was an election judge outside my district; in 2008 I was overseas.  2006 was the only time I actually voted when and where I was supposed to vote.  (It was the day after I passed the FS Oral Exam, actually!  I drove home from Chicago early so I could make it to the polls in time.)

I've gotten used to the fact that my vote never counts for anything in Arkansas.  If it's a district-wide election, the Democrat wins with a crushing margin; if it's statewide, the Republican almost always wins.  This year, however, something interesting happened - our senior Senator, Blanche Lincoln, faced a primary challenger who somehow managed to make it a real race.  When I went home to say goodbye to family a few weeks before I left for Turkey, I got to vote in early voting at the county courthouse for a race that mattered - no absentee ballots!  Sweet!  (This was also my first time voting on a touch-screen machine.  VERY weird.)

However, as luck would have it, the one time my vote contributed to a very narrow election margin, it went to a primary run-off in early June.  This left me with an interesting conundrum: I was in Arkansas for the regular vote (ish), but I needed an absentee ballot for the runoff.  Hmm.  So my mother, in her saintly willingness to help, offered to talk to the county clerk's office and to turn in the necessary paperwork for me.  Now, last time was hard enough for our precious elected officials to handle (see previous struggle here).  I knew the odds were slim that I would get my ballot in time despite requesting it in mid-May, but it was much, much worse than I thought it would be.  It appears that my absentee ballot was mailed AFTER the primary run-off, which the incumbent won by a significant enough margin that the challenger conceded that night.  Oh, and I didn't get it until today - ten days after the run-off, and the deadline by which absentee ballots must be received in Arkansas.

Thanks, Crittenden County, for a heaping dose of failure, again.  Overseas, I help register Americans who live abroad to vote.  Wish I could do the same thing in the county and state where I choose to domicile.  And here's for you, Bill Halter...  the vote that wouldn't have pushed you over the edge but that I wish counted towards your total anyway.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Getting Around in Istanbul - Everything but a Tuktuk

Istanbul is big.  Really big.  The official population is around 12 million, and the unofficial estimates go even higher.  (14?  18?  Who knows?)  It's grown quickly and haphazardly, spilling across the hills on either side of the Bosphorus.  Traffic is horrific - not just the drivers, but the congestion and the lack of major thoroughfares.  All those people have to get around somehow, though.  Like a good European city, Istanbul has a massive public transit system.  Like a large Middle Eastern city, it's incomplete and not quite logical.  However, with a bit of creativity, patience, and perseverance, it's not hard to get around the city in one way or another.  You could take a cab anywhere for reasonable fares, but where's the fun in that?

The mass transit system here is truly a system - unlike Washington, where your only options are bus or train, Istanbul has multiple overlapping methods of transit, including both public and privately run vehicles.  There's a single device, an Akbil, that allows a traveller to pay fares on almost all of the transit systems (except for the very smallest, private busses) and that offers discounted transfers between different methods of transit.  Supposedly the Akbil system will be upgraded to handle fares for everything in the city - cabs, museums, you name it.  I'll believe it when I see it, although the market penetration it already has is pretty impressive.  (WMATA, you're on notice.)

The first method I figured out was the metro, because I live right by one of the stations on line M2, which also gets me within an easy cab ride or a twenty-minute walk of the Consulate.  M2, as you might surmise, is the second metro line in the city.  However, it doesn't connect to M1, the metro line that runs to the airport - so there are two subway lines running in isolation.  (I hear there are also subway lines on the Asian side, but I haven't been there yet to verify this fact.)  You can connect between the two subway lines by using the tramway, which runs through the heart of the tourist district on a dedicated track - convenient for getting to Ayasofya, but not made for commuting.  Of course, this is the modern tramway, T1, and not the aptly named nostaljik tramvay, which runs down a pedestrian boulevard in the heart of the city and is roughly equivalent to the cable cars in San Francisco - for tourists only.  Also, when I said that you can connect between the subway and the modern tramway, I skipped one step - the funicular line (one of two in the city) that connects the M2 line to the T1 tram.  It's a two-stop cable car that runs back and forth from M2 to T1, and it's designed to handle the steep incline between the two lines in a way that a regular subway car couldn't.

Are you confused?  Take a deep breath - the cars are all clean, new, and shiny.  People here are incredibly polite, with no shoving and passenger rebellion like you'd expect in DC.  Besides, we haven't even gotten to the bus system yet.

Busses - there are a lot.  They helpfully have signs in the front windows that tell the major neighborhoods/transfer points their routes include.  Unfortunately, the downside of the bus network is that they are subject to the rules of the road here, which means A) they're affected by traffic congestion and B) the drivers are locals.  On Friday I was caught in a traffic jam for 15 minutes while one bus tried to negotiate its way out of a one-way street into a roundabout, going the wrong direction all the while.  There is also a rapid bus line that travels in dedicated lanes on one of the major highways, the belt road.  It provides easy access to the Asian side, major bus transfer points, and most of the various other transit systems.  There are also mini busses, privately run passenger vans for about 15-20 people that follow set routes.  You need cash for these, but they replicate a lot of the major bus lines and move much faster than the city busses do.  Their drivers are also the biggest jackasses on the road I have seen to date.

These are only the systems that I've taken.  Other options include light rail, heavy rail, ferry boats (!), dolmuĊŸ busses (possibly the same as the mini busses?  I'm not clear about that), and aerial cable cars.  Oh, and all of the rail lines are rapidly expanding.  Pretty much all we're missing is a tuktuk network.  So come on to Istanbul - bring your adventuring hat.  I'll have a spare Akbil for you.

Friday, June 04, 2010

72 Hours in Istanbul

[Friday 3 June update: just now got internet going at my house.  Here's what I wrote last Sunday, before all the madness with the flotilla emerged.  Needless to say it's been busy.]

I got here safely, albeit tiredly, on Thursday afternoon.  I'm not sure when I'l get internet access in my apartment, so I've been keeping ideas in my notebook for things to write up when I get the chance.  I was considering turning them into longer pieces, but I rather like the idea of contextless paragraphs - since I'm still getting used to the time change (I accidentally overadjusted and set my biological clock to somewhere in Central Asia, so I'm re-acclimating now), these disjointed paragraphs are a pretty accurate representation of how I got through this weekend.  


Sitting in an outdoor cafe in an alley under the Bosphorus Bridge with friends in town for the long weekend from Embassy Riyadh, drinking tea, smoking shisha, and laughing in sheer, silly delight at the colors and sounds around us.  So different from Saudi Arabia!  We could never do this there.


First call to prayer - I feel like I'm back at home, even though I would never call Riyadh home.  I'm in my element here.

Seeing the skyline lighting up with fireworks commemorating the 557th anniversary of the Ottoman conquest of the city.  Seeing billboards around the city wishing the people a happy anniversary.

Young boys diving into the Bosphorus in their underpants while people play backgammon at the waterside cafes around me

Walking down the western bank of the Golden Horn, coming across a flotilla of apparently old-school wind-powered ships, with masts and sails and the whole nine yards (nine yardams?), from a dozen different countries, each crew speaking Arabic, Indonesian, Polish, Dutch, German, Russian...  the ruse was revealed when I saw the nuclear logo on the side of the Polish ship, and when I saw them set sail as a group towards the Black Sea an hour later, sails still furled.

Warships, cruise ships, cargo ships, sailboats, fishing boats, ferryboats....

Seeing two giggling teenage girls sharing an ice cream, one veiled and in a knee-length cloak, the other in a miniskirt, both texting frantically and eyeing the guys walking by

My oven is somehow a microwave at the same time??!  

Not being screwed over by a cabbie - what a glorious feeling.