The Highlands of Peru and Reverse Sensory Shock

Like many frequent travelers, I stopped regularly experiencing “culture shock,” or reverse culture shock, a long time ago.

That’s why, on of my recent returns to New York City, it was unusual that I felt noticeably more disoriented and challenged than before I had left. This city is never easy, but everything about it seemed harder than ever to parse and absorb and digest and cope with. Inside, my Manhattan apartment was a sensory deprivation box. Outside, crowds were overwhelming. When crossing a street in Midtown, or navigating a sidewalk, the pedestrian flow came at me in a bewildering onslaught. The subway was intolerably claustrophobic. I felt hemmed in by other people’s proximity, assaulted by the discrete sights, sounds, shape of their presence. I interrogated friends: Is something going on? Isn’t New York more crowded than usual? I questioned myself: Why do we live this way, crammed together in a suffocating mass?

I had to admit that it wasn’t New York, it was me: I was undergoing a kind of reverse culture shock— or more accurately, sensory shock. Just prior to this episode, we had spent a week in highland Peru. It was a short but intense period. We were in the Andean altiplanos, in some of the highest-altitude regions and settlements in the world, where the distances are strikingly vast and apparently empty. You can look across a valley or field and see what seems like nothing, for miles. After a while, on a hillside in the distance, you notice some specks of white. Are they flowers? Alpacas? Sheep? Houses? Rocks? The distances are so vast, austere, and featureless, that scale or depth is no help, and it takes effort and the rallying of all your senses to form a guess. Driving through passes in the highlands, you often don’t see a single person for hours. Or, think again: straining your eyes, you may spot a small figure engulfed in the vastness of the landscape.

After acculturating and sensitizing yourself to this environment, you come to know it’s not empty. It’s full of life and spirit. Condors ascend miles out of the blue depths of the Colca Canyon and you squint and strain your eyes to see their form take shape out of the stark blue sky. Vicuña flicker in and out of vision against the craggy background. You are led to a sacred place where the apu is said to live. From a distance, it looks like a pile of pebbles, or a small hill, but as you move closer, it becomes a massive volcanic formation towering high above. Climbing inside, you find an intimate plateau carpeted with soft greenery and tiny orange flowers. From that vantage, soft white llamas extend and blur into the soft white clouds in the horizon.

In the process of opening your senses to perceive all that lives in the stark landscape, the landscape comes into you, and opens you.

Returning from this context, back to the city, was jarring. The close quarters of small apartments and restaurants felt stifling and sensorily deprived. Crowds and commerce were overwhelming and abrasive. My senses, adapted as they were to the Peruvian highlands, were a liability here. It took some time to recalibrate to the urban environment, and I did, but the question has remained in my mind.

Why do we live this way?

Age is Not a Number

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“The useless days will add up to something. The shitty waitressing jobs. The hours writing in your journal. The long meandering walks. The hours reading poetry and story collections and novels and dead people’s diaries and wondering about sex and God and whether you should shave under your arms or not. These things are your becoming.”

— Sheryl Strayed, Tiny Beautiful Things

I’ve always suspected that age is a flexible construct.

When I was 12 years old, I knew with certainty I was not a teenager, and did not want to be a teen, yet. Therefore, on what would have been my 13th birthday, I resolved that I was not turning 13. I announced that everyone around me continue to regard me as 12 years old. I didn’t have many friends my age, and the adults around me obliged. I still consider myself as never having been 13.

It’s not just me. Others have this intuition. When I later agreed to turn 14–as I did in the end–I was such a serious, stoical kid that people started saying of me, “She’s 14 going on 40.” There are other related formulations, including “I’m 54 years young,” or “I’m a grandma on the inside.” You can see it in this interview with Maurice Sendak (“I’ll never turn 10”) or this interview with Kanye West (“forever the 5-year-old of something”). We all are in our own ways trying to manipulate, subvert the rules of numerical age, to escape stereotypes of our empirical age group, our generation, or to try to represent some deeper truth of our selves and our personal identities.

But the rule-bending, I suspect, is indicative of a deeper problem: age is not a number. Of course, there are exceptions if, let’s say, you are a medical doctor examining a person’s physiology. But the truths that most of us seek when we ask someone their age, or that we communicate through the construct of our age, cannot be encapsulated in a digit.

Therefore, I believe the whole idea and practice of communicating age has to be deconstructed and redesigned.

What if instead of “I’m 26 years old,” I could say, “I am 23 countries, 3 major heartbreaks, 2 higher educational degrees, 3 emergency room visits, 5 tear-gassings, 1 house explosion, 5 internships, 1 near-death experience, 10 jobs, 3 divorces and 3 step-parents, 20 house moves, 60 students, 3 languages, 9 memorized poems” old? What if our age wasn’t a single, dry number? What if our age were the essence of our experiences and worldview? What if ever time we said our age, it was a story, an oral history, an epic poem, a song, a dance, a word?  What if our age were tied to something else, anything else more idiosyncratic or meaningful than a 1 – 3 digit number that represents a psychologically arbitrary number of planetary orbits around the sun?

If age were not a number–how old would you be?

Top image source here. Bottom image mine, taken in Jodhpur.

Growth comes from inside

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Once, there were two brothers who farmed a rice paddy. When they came of age, one brother announced, “I will now seek wisdom and enlightenment by traveling the world.” The otherbrother announced, “I will become wise while staying right here.” The traveling brother donned his pack, and left. 40 years later, the traveling brother returned, a halo of enlightenment surrounding his visage. “I have seen cities and villages, deserts and seas, affluence and destitution,” he proclaimed, “and I am enlightened.” The other brother turned, and a halo of enlightenment was also illuminating his visage. “I have never left this plot of land. I have watched the sun rise and set over the same hills, the plants sprout and wither in the same earth, the waters rise and fall in the same river. I am enlightened.”

I heard this parable in high school. I have never again heard it anywhere since, and the exact words have long since escaped me–but yet, as I have beaten my own paths through cities and villages, deserts and seas, mountains and steppes, the message and question have stayed with me. What is the source of growth and wisdom? Is it something we go into the world and seek through a variety of experience–or is the potential to grow a power that we had inside of us all along?

In Defense of Not Having Goals

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Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.

—Soren Kierkegaard

I always admired my goal-oriented friends. They had 10-year plans outlining their career trajectory; graphs predicting their millionaire status by age 30; real estate purchases and investments charted; and one individual even delivered a “quarterly report” on his vaunted progress toward his inexorable success. It was charismatic, visionary, and I was drawn to it, aspired to it.

But applying their approach to my own life never worked. I could rarely see more than one step ahead of where I was. Trying to determine my destination in advance that way felt inauthentic, ingenuous, a bit self-absorbed, in a way that I couldn’t articulate. I was satisfied with my work and play and life. Yet in the back of my mind, my seeming inability to set and commit to a big goal left me feeling inadequate in relation to my hyper goal-driven friends. I assumed that, despite my contentment, my efforts weren’t as good–because they didn’t obviously add up to an audacious outcome.

In time, I learned to resolve this internal conflict. Now, I can see that I just have my own approach, it just happens to be quite different from the one followed by my goal-oriented friends. I call it a process-oriented approach.

In my approach, I don’t try to define in advance the outcomes of my efforts, and then reflexively prescribe myself the process and practices that will get me to that outcome. I have come to believe that this goal-oriented approach has some major flaws. What if I don’t enjoy the work, the lifestyle, the process of reaching the goal? What if I don’t want to make the world conform to my singular vision of myself? What if I want to serve others rather than make the world serve me? What if I had to ignore other opportunities, neglect curiosities, and delay many a great many gratifications in order to stay on track toward my goal? And worst–the question that always plagued me when setting goals–what if, after everything I’ve invested or sacrificed, the destination isn’t what I thought it would be?

Instead, I order my life the other way around: I start with the process and leave the outcome open-ended. What activities, tasks, and projects do I like doing and being part of? Does the work I’m doing enable me to support myself? Am I interested and challenged and enriched by the work I’m doing and the play I’m engaged in? How often am I bored? How often am I challenged? Does my work and leisure time align with my values and principles? Do I have freedom and autonomy, but also the embrace of a community? Does my work generally support efforts that aim to expand beauty and fairness in the world?

These questions–not “where will I be in 10 years”–are my guiding ones, and they have worked for me so far. In fact, a recent article vindicates my approach. According to one professor, the process-oriented approach not only has the potential to provide more overall happiness in life. It can also get you to outcomes in the end:

…I recommend … an alternative approach, which is to become a little more aware of what it is that you’re really good at, and what you enjoy doing. When you don’t need to compare yourself to other people, you gravitate towards things that you instinctively enjoy doing, and you’re good at, and if you just focus on that for a long enough time, then chances are very, very high that you’re going to progress towards mastery anyway, and the fame and the power and the money and everything will come as a byproduct, rather than something that you chase directly in trying to be superior to other people.

I’ve become content with my lack of discrete goals and comfortable with the possibility that my existentialism-infused, process-oriented days either may, or may not, add up to the “big goal” that my goal-oriented friends’ will. But I will have lived each and every day in a way that suits my interests, challenges me, captivates my imagination, and aligns with my values. To me, that in itself would be a worthy goal.

Snowstorms, Anarchy, and New York

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“Each city receives its form from the desert it opposes.”

— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities

When I was a student, I attended boarding school in a cold Midwestern town where it snowed a lot and often. After a big snowstorm, the roads would be impassable by car, so I would take walks through the middle of the streets. It felt transgressive and a tinge anarchistic, to be a pedestrian strolling where normally only automobiles could pass. I would recite poetry or entertain apocalyptic fantasies of being the last person on earth. I could have been the survivor of an apocalypse because I was always alone, the only one treading the snowy street of the small town.

In the aftermath of a snowstorm in New York has the same transgressive feel. Stores, restaurants, and workplaces shut down. Snow gets plowed from the roads and piles up on the sidewalks. Transport stops on the roads. Blizzard winds roar over the Hudson and whip through the city streets into fierce wind tunnels while streetlights alternate colors impotently. We can live without cars and buses and streetlights–what other institutions can we tear down? What if the entire city got buried in snow, and a new city was built on top of the clean white layer?

In New York, I still walk in the middle of the street during a snowstorm and entertain these fantasies, but the difference is I am not the only one in the middle of the street. There are sledders and tobogganers; joggers; dog walkers; hide and seek players; football catchers; hooligans climbing on mailboxes; sirens in the distance and Latin music emanating from 24 hour delis. The streets empty except for people roaming through them are still subtly anarchistic and apocalyptic, but I am no longer alone at the dissolution of society and the end of the world.

Amor fati: The anti-carpe diem

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My formula for greatness in a human being is amor fati: that one wants nothing to be different, not forward, not backward, not in all eternity. Not merely bear what is necessary, still less conceal it—all idealism is mendacity in the face of what is necessary—but love it.

—Friedrich Nietzsche, “Why I Am So Clever,” Ecce Homo (written 1888, published 1908)

Amor fati is all about living with no regrets, but not in the modern way. Carpe diem means making daring decisions, so as not to feel regret later on, whereas amor fati means (among other things) learning to love the choices you’ve already made, daring or not.

— Oliver Burkeman, “No Regrets? Why not?,” The Guardian (2015)

Social Justice Arguments for Working at a Rich School

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Two years ago, I accepted a position as a curriculum developer at one of the most prestigious and affluent K-12 schools in Istanbul. It was a departure for me because up to that point (apart from a stint at a well-to-do preschool) I had only worked in under-resourced schools or at educational centers serving at-risk, minority, or poor populations. Even when I worked at a huge public university in central Turkey, many of my students came from lower-middle-class families, had a hard time meeting the costs of living, or could barely afford the IELTS or TOEFL fees.

My choice of where to work was by design–like many of my idealistic young peers of our generation, my self-proclaimed mission has been to increase educational and life opportunity for marginalized individuals and communities, no matter how problematic or quixotic that endeavor may be in our prevailing world order. Such a mission means making the intentional choice to work in poor schools in some sense of the term: schools in poor neighborhoods, schools with many poor students, or educational centers lacking in financial and material resources to serve their students.

The school I worked at in Istanbul was decidedly not poor in any meaningful operationalization of that descriptor. The school did offer several need-based scholarships each year to a few students with academic merit, but scholarships were not a central aspect of their mission. Most students came from elite or well-to-do families and spent their summer breaks in England or Switzerland or the Gulf. Yearly tuition was over the moon, and my starting salary put me in the top 11% of earners in Turkey at that time.

For the educator whose self-proclaimed mission is to serve the most at-need students, is there any way to rationalize or justify working at an affluent school? After my experience, I could come up with two arguments for working at a rich school. The first one is weaker and more problematic, while the second one is potentially more robust.

1. Impart values of social justice and service to future leaders of society. The assumption is that children from affluent backgrounds who attend elite institutions will eventually end up in positions of power in society, whatever those may be in the given society, so we should try to influence their ethical mindset while they are still young and malleable. In fact, this is how I ended up in education, nonprofits, and development. I attended elite secondary and post-secondary institutions where I was made aware of the various injustices of the world and implanted with the urge, and the skills and connections, to address those injustices. The value-driven nature of my Jesuit university education influenced me to pursue education as a career.

But the effect wasn’t consistent–not all of my classmates who were subjected to that same education went into jobs or careers focused on social justice. And in any case, it’s a problematic notion that the way to achieve change is by means of the prevailing power hierarchies and elite networks–this is not really a transformational approach to the realization of a just and equitable society. And ultimately, if the educational institution as a whole does not happen to be aligned with the mission of social justice, and is not receptive to it, then there’s very little a single instructor can do.

Still, there’s always the central tenet of faith at the heart of teaching: you never know what a kid will take away from a lesson, and what can happen by getting through to one child.

2. Learn how the rich kids are educated so that you can bring that high-quality education to poor kids, or empower them to counter it. At this rich school in Istanbul, I worked alongside some of the most talented and experienced language educators residing in the city at that time, worked under some very effective leaders, and worked on ambitious projects that stretched my skills and my technical abilities. Now I can take all that cumulative experience and share it with students and educators in more vulnerable and marginalized communities who can’t afford to buy that kind of talent and expertise. (This is based on the assumption that elite schools make use of high-quality, progressive pedagogical practices–not necessarily true. Some elite North American private secondary schools are known to be held together based on stringent traditionalist discipline and the ability to expel troublesome students at whim. However, assuming that you’re working at an institution as I did that offers high salaries to attract quality candidates, and which makes an attempt to follow educational research and trends, you’ll probably learn something useful.)

I also, at this school, potentially witnessed or heard of some ethically murky practices such as padding numbers so that a parent wouldn’t complain about a student’s low grades. Such phenomena are of course related to contextual or social factors that an individual teacher or school, even a rich one, has no power over (high-stakes tests, nationwide ubiquity of cheating)–but basically, if that’s how some rich kids are getting ahead, then it’s worth being aware of it and considering the implications for the children and communities we are trying to serve and empower.

These are the two arguments that stuck out to me and, in the end, I was motivated by both of them. When I had the chance to write lesson plans at my old school, I would integrate or emphasize topics related to urgent world issues or pressing human needs. And I am currently using the curriculum development skills that I honed at that job, to write curriculum for a school serving refugees in Cairo.

Of course even children who happen to be born into well-off families deserve a great education, and there are many ways to “serve” in our local and world communities besides teaching or direct service. But thinking specifically about myself and fellow social-justice-oriented teachers who have interests in teaching abroad, the international schools and elite private schools are often the only viable option, given the high degree of visa bureaucracy support required just to be employed abroad and the American-sized debts and needs we bring with us when we immigrate (very much out of proportion to the average teacher salaries in the places we immigrate to). For educators with social missions, it’s worth reflecting on how this might put us into the position of enforcing power structures abroad that we might not stomach at home, what that means, and how we can counteract or transform it.

Note: Terms like “poor” and “rich,” “affluent” and “needy” are problematic and need to be problematized, and certainly mainly of the communities we consider “at-need” are only so in relation to our prevailing ideologies, and in fact have deep funds of knowledge. I only used such crude terms to get my point across more quickly–and to speak frankly about frankly stark divides.

Above: Detail of a school mural. Photo by me.

Whispers of history

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In the older neighborhoods of Istanbul, one often finds these heavy doors, tightly locked and decorated with crosses or Hebrew inscriptions. But no matter how many times you circle the walls, there is no church or synagogue in sight, only a an enigmatic wall enclosing an apparently abandoned lot.

I always feel a bit spooked by it, like I’ve seen a ghost or a corpse. When did these churches close up and bolt their doors? What was the community like that used to sustain these places of worship? Where did those people go, and where are they now? What kind of property dispute might still be going on for the land behind those walls?

Doorways, inscriptions, fountains, walls, fragments… Istanbul is replete with whispers of past history that are not audible on a cursory visit. Being able to hear them, as haunting as they are sometimes, has been one of the most rewarding parts of living here.

Boys, girls, and curricula

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Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?

— Walter Dean Myers

Cross-posted at cassondrapuls.com.

A few weeks ago, the time came to select textbooks, workbooks, and readers for the upcoming year. My working group had already held several meetings to discuss books for the students in our grade level. It’s a torturous process complicated by the need to identify books that are at the same time thematically and linguistically appropriate for our students’ age and their English level. It’s also complicated by the fact that many wonderful English young adult books, which would be appropriate for our purposes, are simply not available for distribution in Turkey.

On each occasion, I have made an observation and a request: Most of our books this year had boy protagonists and male themes. For the upcoming year, can we include some books with girls as the main characters? And I suggested a few possibilities. Each time I got the same answer: That’s a nice idea, but imagine how the boys would take it! If we did that, we would need to provide another choice for the boys, and that would be unwieldy.

In this situation, I find myself torn.

On the one hand, girls are measurably more successful in school while boys are less engaged and more at-risk for low achievement, low attendance, behavioral problems, and dropping out. Christina Hoff Summers wrote that this is because the “scales are tipped…against boys” in schools in terms of institutional social pressure and that school policies are “hostile” to boys. Schools, as Summers insists and as my colleagues intuit from years of experience, are  challenging places for boys because they “punish the distinctive, assertive sociability of boys” such as competition and heroic play. Boys’ alienation leads to misbehavior in the classroom, in turn degrading the teaching and learning experience for everyone, both boy and girls. Catering to them, my colleagues presume, reduces classroom conflicts–improving the educational experience for boys and girls alike–and raises their achievement, while the girls will still do well.

On the other hand, we don’t want our curricula to perpetuate biases and social injustices. Why should it be acceptable for girls to tolerate boys’ themes, and boys’ perspectives, and boys’ experiences, but boys cannot do the same those of girls? We criticize society for privileging male narratives, and male characters, and assigning men the status of “default” human while women are considered supporting actors in the drama of men’s lives. We criticize this, but how can we change it if that’s how children even experience it in school? And anyway, what kind of standard are we setting for boys–that we believe they are not capable of empathizing with perspectives different than their own?

Part of the problem is systemic: most English-language young-adult books available for distribution in Turkey are about boys, and the ones I indicated with prominent female leads are not available. Thus the market gives society what it wants, society takes it, and two create a mutually reinforcing cycle of privilege. And it is privilege–as author Walter Dean Myers wrote recently, “Books transmit values. They explore our common humanity. What is the message when some children are not represented in those books?”

Of course, this is not an either-or–either use boyish books or girlish ones, either have a girl-friendly school environment or a boy-friendly one–and some of the most progressive schools in the world such as those in Sweden even downplay and reject the terms “boy” and “girl.”  In the near future many other factors will play in, such as the expansion of e-reading platforms which will extensively expand the readers a school has access to and obviate the challenges of hard-copy book distribution. But the debate in my mind showed me the current challenges of sustaining a gender-balanced curriculum and the many factors. How do you maintain “balance” on the scale when the weights you are working with are irregular and misshapen, or when you can’t even agree on the relative weight of one thing to another? The scale will tilt to one side or another according to someone.

In the end, my working group submitted almost exactly the same book list, still dominated by books about boys, soccer, and fighting.

Photo: Readers and books in the English Department in the Primary School.

Real-time Radicalization

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On Sunday, the day after the relatively intense anti-censorship protests in my neighborhood, I noticed that the row of four ATMs up the street from my house, which I usually make use of, was violently demolished. Their consoles were smashed in, the facades spray-painted and graffitied with Hırsız Tayyip (“Thief Tayyip,” referring to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan). The radical members of the demonstration had vandalized and defaced them in the night, before they were all dispersed by water cannon, tear gas, and plastic bullet.

At first I felt a wave of disappointment: destructive acts like this quickly cause a nonviolent resistance movement to lose sympathy from its vital base of mainstream members, and give the enemies of the movement an easy way to tear down and delegitimize the protesters and their demands. PM Erdoğan last year called the peaceful demonstrators “looters” (çapulcu); this was a joke to everyone else at the time but now it seemed to be almost true.

Then I looked at a wall across the street. It was a plain, bald wall, only it had incongruous blocks of opaque grey paint splayed across it. Clearly the night before, some of the more benignly destructive protesters had spray-painted slogans on the wall–against which municipal workers immediately deployed their infamous grey paint, covering up the words in the wee hours of the morning before anyone else awoke and could be affected by their seditious message.

After I thought of all these grey walls in Istanbul, I thought of Gezi Park in its heyday with its harmlessly resistant tents which the authorities first burned, then gassed, then sanitized out of existence. I thought of the peaceful masses who simply tried to gather and shout cheers together and were suppressed and silenced. I thought of a well-known band I saw a few weeks ago in Taksim, which requested the crowd not photograph or video tape them, out of fear of being found out and persecuted for their anti-authoritarian lyrics. I thought of the harsh Internet censorship bill imminently to be signed into law by the president.

I do not advocate destruction of private property, and I have no illusions contrary to the fact that some or most of the youth who threw rocks and painted graffiti that night were out for a subversive thrill, but all the same… When all forms of legitimate expression are being gradually whittled away, can you entirely blame people for trying to express themselves in some more permanent manner that might not be covered up in a few hours?

And in the end, the Hırsız Tayyip graffiti was painted over with grey paint by Monday–though the machines themselves remained shattered, the sole remaining testament to the past night’s events.

Photo: ATM machine with “Thief Tayyip,” and a grey wall with the words “Grey, grey, grey, you bore me.”

“They call it chaos. We call it home.”

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There is a fairly well-known graphic t-shirt in Turkey. On the front is a convoluted cat’s cradle in the shape of Istanbul. Underneath are scribbled the words, “They call it chaos. We call it home.”

Every big city, of course, is organized chaos. At any given moment there are political deals and drug deals, protests, train accidents, silent auctions, job interviews, commutes, orgies, massive feasts and struggles to survive–parallel worlds existing side by side creating a chaotic urban universe. But even by the standards of big cities, Istanbul seems to me particularly schizophrenic in all the multitudes it contains. I experienced this acutely when, during the course of my day, I had to pass through Beşiktas–the site of the stadium of Beşiktas, one of Turkey’s top three teams–where, unbeknownst to me, I ended up in the crossfire between two rival groups of football fanatics firing themselves up before the start of the evening’s match.

After disembarking from a bus (traffic was at a standstill, so I decided to take to foot), I first noticed the sharp smell that immediately invaded my mouth and nose–tear gas. Then, the nearby public park completely trashed and filled with debris, then the overturned dumpsters in the road, and finally the slews of jerseyed fans aggressively hollering chants and slogans, uprooting trees and tearing out signposts from the sidewalks, sprinting around frenetically, pitching glass bottles and rocks at the gang of fans on the other side of the road which was being actively restrained by a row of security police. I stared at the scene for awhile, frankly intrigued by the pointlessly destructive behavior (What are they going to throw next?), Then came the shouting, crowds sprinting up the road past me, then the explosion, then the pungent smell of fresh tear gas, stronger and closer this time.

In the past I’ve often gone looking for trouble of this sort (a couple weeks ago I followed the Labor Day marches in Eskişehir to see if any scuffles would break out, and last week I put myself in the line of fire of thousands of three-foot-long flaming rockets) but in this case I had no intention to do so and was in no mood to find it. Shaken and wanting to avoid the gas, which was starting to affect me, I quickly left the scene and hiked up the road, seeking the escape of the nearest metro station. After a mere 10 minutes of walking, it was as though I had hit hyperdrive and entered another urban universe. People strolled around contentedly, shopping bags, ice cream, and Starbucks in hand. Being among this complacent scene, while tear gas still reeked in my sinuses and the clash was still raging a few streets away, jarred my senses, perhaps even more so than the initial shock of the street battle.

How can there be such placid normalcy alongside so much  chaos? And, if I end up moving there later this year, will I be able to make this chaos my home too?

Photo: Football fans on the streets in Besiktas, and security police on Istiklal during a communist protest I ran into the same day.

Bursa postscript

When we visited Bursa in October, the mosque at the Muradiye complex was undergoing restoration and renovation. The workers there told us that after removing old paint from the facade, they found older paintings hidden underneath. They are images of the Greek flag, apparently painted on there during a brief period of Greek occupation after WWI, in 1922, and then subsequently covered up after the occupation ended.

It reminded me of the fresco restorations that were done in the Ayasofya a few years back. At the time, they had to remove relatively newer Islamic calligraphy to reveal the older frescoes underneath–ones that depict faces and therefore contradict orthodoxy regarding proper Islamic iconography.

It made me wonder: When history is painted over our world in layers, how do we decide which layers to expose and which to hide? Which ones to destroy, and which to preserve?

Power is not evil

“[L]et us take sexual or amorous relationships: to wield power over the other in a sort of openended strategic game where the situation may be reversed is not evil; it’s a part of love, of passion and sexual pleasure. And let us take, as another example … the pedagogical institution. I see nothing wrong in the practice of a person who, knowing more than others in a specific game of truth, tells those others what to do, teaches them, and transmits knowledge and techniques.”

–Michel Foucault, “The Ethics of the Concern for Self as a Practice of Freedom,” in Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth, quoted here.

Power is not intrinsically evil: both love and pedagogy depend on power relations. The question becomes: how do we bring about a world where power is wielded transparently, with justice, and in pursuit of mutual human flourishing?

Thoughts inspired by this podcast. Image is Chagall.