Incredible Istanbul

Ortakoy Mosque with people enjoying the view.
Ortakoy Mosque with people enjoying the view.

Iskender Pala Writing
“The relation of a city to water is the kind of primal wedlock; and it is first the water, the most extravagant lover of all times, who embraces the lovers belonging to no one but each other.  No city is possible to build up where no water flows; and it is water that builds them up.  When brilliance and grace pours forth into the streets, all the lavish wall fountains, springs, cisterns come to light all around.

One’s lifetime in the city is on par with what a stream of water does so being always protected by the never-ending time… Water is the basis on which all life comes about. As in the way plants blossom when aroused by water.  Only then comes the hope for fleshy fruits to sprout over their branches.  The Holy Koran can be quoted in point as saying “from water have we created all embodied in a form with life” which, in Istanbul, takes shape into a spirit with mostly flow-easy, but sometimes level looks.

Water is the humankind.  It is to the water that humans are born and decease.  They wash you up at birth, they wash you up at death.  Water implies crossing a threshold; a transition, a new phase, an act of transcending the older one.  The way being in Istanbul feels epitomizes feeling wholly rejuvenated in a city.

Water is the beloved.  Into the water do all the poets with a yearning for the beloved gaze.  Expressions of the ultimate remembrace come often through a yearning, a saudade for water.  The saudade permeates Istanbul…

Whirling Dervish Painting - View from Above.
Whirling Dervish Painting - View from Above.

Water is the lover.  Lovers have always visited their sojourns in water, sobbing out sad stories bringing tears not only in their eyes, but also in others’.  Istanbul is a bushfire of love concealed as a teardrop…
Water is the panacea to both the love and the brushfire; it is the ultimate reunifier, and a sedative for many yearnings.  Water is itself love, at its purest, just like the chemistry of H2O itself with elements to not only burn, but also extinguish fire.  Just think of the romance of the wild-at-heart fighting back tears.  Istanbul refers to water at its state of love, to water reuniting the seas that flow apart.

Istanbul is peal made in water; just water, perhaps, to quench your thirst…But whatever the thirst is for, Istanbul is a generous as water just as in rain whose job is to rain.

Come over!… Of whatever time and place you might be, just come over!… Istanbul is full with life.”
<Iskender Pala>

Street Dog & Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)
Street Dog & Blue Mosque (Sultanahmet)

Istanbul 2010 – European Capital of Culture
Istanbul, Turkey has been named the “European Capital of Culture” in 2010 (  A city that literally forms a bridge between the Occident and the Orient, it welcomes visitors from all over the world to experience its beautiful setting of contrasts and culture.

Although I’ve never lived in Istanbul, I regard it as a second home (or third home now that I’ve moved to London!).  Most of my maternal family has lived in Istanbul at some point during my life and I’ve had the pleasure of visiting eight times since I was six years old.  In my adult years, I’ve traveled more often to Turkey and attempted to visit every two years.

My recent visit was the first since I had moved to London as an expat American-Turk.  Because I’m less than a four-hour flight away from Istanbul, my visit has been a little less hectic than usual, mostly because I know I will be back again soon.  Although friends and family love to surprise me with fabulous outings to Ortakoy, Nisantasi, Taksim, Sariyer, Sultanahmet, Sezen Aksu concert, and the Hidrellez Festival.

Personal goals for this visit were to spend time with my anneanne (maternal grandmother), visit with other family and friends, and expose David (my partner) to my other cultural identity.  He’s known me as a “yank” and now he’s seen me in action as a Turk as well.

I made a wish and tied it in the tree at the Hidrellez Festival (Ahirkapi).
I made a wish and tied it in the tree at the Hidrellez Festival (Ahirkapi).

My identity is something that I can never fully describe.  Now that I’m living in London, it’s become even more difficult.  I find myself protecting America, the UK and Turkey when I speak to people who aren’t familiar with those countries.  I have ties to all three places and feel obligated to serve as an unofficial ambassador.  In the ambassadorial spirit, I’d like to touch on a few Istanbul experiences associated with: language, culture/religion, and the natural/built environment.

Although I’m not as fluent as I’d like to be, my conversational Turkish is sufficient to communicate basic thoughts and responses to family and friends’ many questions.  After my nervousness subsided, I successfully translated for David what was being said around him.  I paraphrased most of the conversation topics as my brain began to hurt.  Luckily, most of my family and friends know a bit of English, so they would help along the way.

I found my Turkish improving as I engaged in challenging situations.  Unfortunately, my grandmother was not feeling well during my trip.  I was thrown into situations that I had never navigated in the context of healthcare.  My sozluk (dictionary) was of no help as I communicated with doctors, pharmacists, and laboratory personnel.  These difficult situations forced me to muddle through explanations allowing my Turkish fluency to progress.  I still have quite a way to go to be fluent in a professional manner, but I’m proud of my accomplishments in less than 2 weeks.

Hurrem Anneanne (grandma) giving Namik Dayi (uncle) a farewell smooch!
Hurrem Anneanne (grandma) giving Namik Dayi (uncle) a farewell smooch!

Culture is a set of shared community values that have become an accepted “way of life.”  For example, greeting each other by kissing twice on the cheek is a cultural norm in Turkey.  David was a bit shocked that men also kiss each other on the cheeks as he was only used to that occurring between opposite genders.  But, he was relieved to see that you only touch cheeks rather than lay two big wet kisses on the other person!

Turkey is undergoing an ideological shift toward embracing Islam as part of the political arena.  This departure from the secular democracy espoused by Ataturk (father of modern Turkey) is demonstrated not only in the political context but also in the day-to-day, secular way of life.  As an example, covering hair in accordance with Islamic rules for females is a matter of choice for most Istanbul women.

However, growing tensions are visible between women who cover their hair as well as their bodies in black burkas and long gowns and those who chose to keep their hair uncovered.  I experienced a hostile verbal encounter on the street between my pro-secular-government friend and a woman covered in black.  Personally, I have mixed feelings.  On one hand, I am a proponent of free speech, expression and religion.  As long as no one is physically hurt or threatened, I encourage people to live in accordance with values that make them feel comfortable and encourage the fundamentals of being a good person.  On the other hand, I’m quite proud of Turkey’s secular democracy and the distinct separation of church and state.  As long as the fundamental political structure remains the same and Turkey continues to be a bridge between east and west, I respect everyone’s personal cultural and religious choices.

Sisli Streetscape demonstrating a lack of development regulations.
Sisli Streetscape demonstrating a lack of development regulations.

Built/Natural Environment
What can I say about the built environment in Istanbul?  From a city planner perspective, I’m not sure whether to be incredibly shocked by the extremely organic and obviously unplanned built elements, or to be proud that the city environment has taken a unique design that cannot be duplicated.  It’s hard to grasp how old the city is.  As the capital and center of three major empires: Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman, it’s undergone transformation after transformation – a true example of urban redevelopment, regeneration and revitalization.

“No city is possible to build up where no water flows; and it is water that builds them up.” – Iskender Pala

Istanbul is a city encompassing two continents – Europe and Asia – bisected by the Bosporus Straight.  The Bosporus and adjoining water bodies connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea is magical and carries centuries of man’s history.  Some of the most breathtaking places in Istanbul consist of Bosporus Straight views.  The mélange of old and new architecture on rolling hills is bordered by scenic views of the water.  Istanbul’s built environment and natural environment are symbotic and work together to create an unforgettable place.

Nisantasi Commercial District in Sisli one street away from the old part of town.
Nisantasi Commercial District in Sisli one street away from the old part of town.

In our current age of technological advances, Istanbul is embracing sustainable development concepts and investing in developing transportation and cultural infrastructure.  I look forward to Istanbul demonstrating these built/natural environment elements, and especially the social component of sustainability with a focus on people programming as the European Capital of Culture in 2010 (  I encourage you to visit Istanbul too and share your thoughts with me.

Making Pickles

Mish in Antalya, Turkey 2006

Am I Turkish? Am I Ukrainian?  Am I Jewish?  Am I Muslim?  Am I Christian?  Am I American?  My cultural identity is a bit confusing.

My mother was born and raised in Istanbul, Turkey and immigrated to the United States to attend college.  Her family sent her to stay with her aunt in Las Vegas, Nevada to ensure she obtained a good American education at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.  At school she met my father, an American man whose Jewish great grand parents emigrated from Kiev, Ukraine.  After 13 years of marriage, my parents divorced, remarried and started new families.  My mother introduced me to my future stepfather when I was 12.  Although he was also a multi-generation American, his family was Norwegian/Irish Christian Baptists.

I grew up in a household that was definitely multicultural.  Not only did I celebrate Turkish/Muslim holidays like Şeker Bayramı and Kurban Bayramı, I received Hanukkah gifts under the Christmas tree for most of my early childhood.

Being exposed to many different cultures and religions during my youth provides me with a unique perspective on multiculturalism, and what I believe is the essence of being an American.  The “melting pot” turned “salad bowl” analogies resonate with me strongly.  Envisioning a melting pot demonstrates a loss of one’s original culture and yields a completely new one.  The salad bowl, on the other hand, infers that your original culture is successfully maintained while creating a heterogeneous mixture with the others.  In my opinion, both scenarios apply when you are either indigenous or an immigrant in America, and each generation has a unique experience.

Although I have a diverse genetic and adoptive culture through my paternal ancestors, I was most influenced by my Turkish mother.  My personal challenge is attempting to hold on to my Turkish culture and not allow it to completely melt in the pot.  And, if a cucumber represents being Turkish in America’s salad bowl, I’m turning it into a pickle and telling everyone about it (by the way, I highly recommend Turkish pickles called turşu).

Raksat Al Zaman Oriental Nights 2005
Raksat Al Zaman Oriental Nights 2005

Mastering “Turk-lish” as I translated between my English-speaking dads and my anneanne (maternal grandmother), fusing traditional Black Sea folkloric techniques with modern jazz dance, and not knowing that there is a big difference between using sen (“you” used in informal settings) versus siz (“you” used in formal settings) when I met the President of Turkey, are just a few examples of my earlier experience making pickles.

I am proud to identify myself as a Turkish-American, and I am fortunate to be exposed to other cultures, including my Jewish heritage (which I have recently begun to explore).  Although I don’t feel “Turkish enough” among Turks and “American enough” among Americans, I have created a new space for my identity and attempt to bring my cultures together as often as possible, and in as many social and physical spaces as possible.

Shaping the built environment, mentoring women leaders, and learning about my own heritage and other cultures in the community, collectively have become my passion.  In 2004, I was a founder of the Orange County Turkish American Association and subsequently served as the Chairman of the Board for three years.  In addition to providing cultural programming for Turkish Americans in Orange County, we also dedicated our time to education and outreach in the community.  Participating in events such as the Irvine Global Village Festival, screening Turkish films for the Irvine Multicultural Association, and performing Middle Eastern dance and music has exposed me to a rich multicultural community in Orange County.

Unfortunately, space is always a challenge.  Multicultural activities are usually initiated by the non-profit community and spaces need to be affordable and accessible.  In response to this need, I became involved in is a grass-roots community organization called the Orange County Multicultural Coalition.  This group consists of multicultural organizations and individuals dedicated to supporting the development of a Multicultural Center at the future Orange County Great Park.  This master planned metropolitan park encompasses approximately 1,300 acres at the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro in Irvine, California.

Sustainability is the cornerstone of this future public space and it includes a variety of elements from a sports park to a wildlife corridor that offer social, recreational, and ecological conservation opportunities to the community.  Planners often focus on the environmental and economic elements of the sustainability definition, but how can we enhance the social equity component?  As a member of the multicultural community and as a planner by profession, I view the Orange County Great Park as a unique opportunity to highlight social equity in the context of a sustainable, physical space.  Whether this space becomes one building, a series of buildings, structures, and/or gardens, developing a Multicultural Center could represent social equity efforts in the context of sustainability.

Sustainability’s “social equity” is hard to define.  Personally, I view it as a mechanism to improve quality of life by enhancing and highlighting social capital such as community organizations, multiculturalism, interfaith organizations, languages, education, and civic engagement.  The Multicultural Center could capture these elements.  It could encourage equal access to these opportunities to address common needs in the community and consider diverse interests in a fair manner.  “Could” is the operative word, and we need to continue encouraging its development and other spaces like it in our communities.

This brings me back to pickles.  Whether you think about our community as a melting pot, salad bowl, or something else entirely, you have a role here.  Your work as a planner, parent, interfaith supporter, friend, entrepreneur, world traveler, and/or legislator, can contribute to a more sustainable community, especially if you focus on augmenting your social capital.

Making pickles is not easy.  They take time and energy to make, they look and taste very different from a cucumber, and not everyone likes them in salad.  But, I think pickles make our community salad delicious and pull together the ingredients by highlighting their differences.

Go ahead; make your own pickle and add it to your community salad.  I bet someone will enjoy it.

<Article Published in Orange County American Planning Association Spring 2008 Newsletter & Winner of Diversity Award>