*Author’s note: I hesitated for two years before writing this piece, thinking I had no business discussing women’s issues as a man. That’s why I’ve tried very hard to exclude my own voice here, leaving out my (entirely unqualified) opinions, analysis, or explanations. However, having had the privilege to interview several leading Turkish experts, activists and ordinary women about this issue during the course of reporting other stories, I was left with thousands of words of extra material that I think warrants sharing. Please enjoy. [Photos mine]
It’s a crisp, clear evening on November 16, 2011. Twenty-nine year-old Mülkiye Demir couldn’t be happier as she speeds through the narrow cobblestoned streets of Istanbul’s central Beyoğlu neighbourhood on the back of her friend’s motorcycle.
Mülkiye is excited because tomorrow she’s getting married. She’s also happy because earlier that day she sold a large order of books at her job in the Mesopotamia Culture Centre, known by its Turkish acronym, MKM. The left-leaning MKM promotes Kurdish culture and its bookstore sells highbrow works of literature and political philosophy.
Suddenly Mülkiye and her friend are pulled over by an unmarked police car. She’s nervous because the police have recently been arresting a lot of people she knows, but she’s not scared because she knows she’s done nothing wrong. The police ask for their IDs and take them into custody without explaining why.
“Çok ayıp!” I scream at the battalion of riot police, momentarily losing all semblance of journalistic objectivity. “Shame on you!” They resemble fascist astronauts with their black uniforms, white helmets, glass visors, and gas masks. Many of them are practically children. I’d finally lost my temper after a blast of pressurized water from the hulking TOMA water-cannon truck nearby soaked me and my camera and launched my phone from my hand.
A few small brain chunks are all that remain of the man on the street. My girlfriend Mahi and I walk past the lurching throng of crying Ethiopians. Myself, a thoroughly desensitized Westerner, feel only a detached curiosity, and perhaps a hint of jealousy at how emotional Ethiopians can be. If onlookers at a car accident cried in New York, Toronto, or London, they would be subjected to a flurry of bewildered and even mocking looks. This uncontrolled show of empathy contrasts sharply with the seemingly total disregard for human life one often sees in this part of the world, exhibited in the way people drive or how police beat the hoi polloi at the drop of a hat.
I remember it more like a surreal, misty dream than a real memory.
Seven years ago, I was living in the most beautiful city in the world – Istanbul.
I taught English there after graduating from university in Canada. For a 23 year-old Winnipegger who had never travelled before, the city was impossibly beautiful, like something out of my childhood imagination. I felt like I had stepped into the pages of a forgotten fairy tale.
“If our lives are dominated by a search for happiness, then perhaps few activities reveal as much about the dynamics of this quest – in all its ardour and paradoxes – than our travels.”
“Journeys are the midwives of thought.”
– Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel
He wonders why he is here. Why did he flee from such comforts? Why forgo the hot, pressurized water, the ever-present super high-speed Internet, the machines that do the laundry and dishes for him, the voicemail, the ubiquitous coffee to go, the gargantuan stores that supply his every need, the clean, comfortable, safe lifestyle, and the obese GDP? Why go from the rich to the poor?
The Traveller’s story is a tragic one. He will never catch what he is chasing, never escape from what pursues him. Telling himself that home is everywhere, he fears it is nowhere. As though there are hot coals beneath his feet, he cannot stay in one place. Like the Flying Dutchman, he is doomed to sail the seas forever. His tortured soul is disillusioned, disappointed, distant. He chases a mirage. He is condemned to travel.