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The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria
Polyarchy by Robert Dahl
The Nazi Seizure of Power by William Sheridan Allen
Terror and Liberalism by Paul Berman
The Moon Is Down by John Steinbeck
Inflation and Mosques and Futbol
We all know Turkey is notorious for its high inflation rates, but I never expected to see it so fast. When I first got here an ice cream at Burger King was 450,000 lira. Yesterday it was 500,000 lira. It's incredible (and no, I haven't actually had a Burger King ice cream, I'm just saying is all - ed.). It seems that when Turkey tied its currency to the dollar for so long, and until 1989, it was setting itself up for a major fluctuation in the real value of its currency. Ever since 1989 prices have been out of control. Prices aren't necessarily high here, in fact most are slightly below American prices as would be expected, but the fact that the money has half a dozen zeros on it isn't a comforting sight. Things are slowing down, but Turkey's inflation rate is still much higher than its neighbors or other comparable countries. Someone should work on that. :)
In other news, we had a whirlwind tour of the old part of Istanbul today. We visited the Blue Mosque where I learned about how religious leaders in Turkey are paid by the state in order to keep an eye on them. We looked around Hagia Sophia, the 6th century Byzantine Church/Ottoman Mosque/current Museum. We had lunch at a beautiful restaurant overlooking the Bosphorus on the lower grounds of Topkapý palace, the lavish residence of twenty Ottoman sultans. There we saw the imprint of the Prophet Mohammed's foot, saw his sword and heard a reading of the Koran. I was surprised something as important as the Prophet's sword would be so accessible, but then again, this is Turkey.
At Topkapý I saw the sultan's treasures, including a diamond found by a poor peasant in the trash who sold it for three spoons. It's as big as my hand yet it was at one time made into a ring. A ring that big puts J. Lo and Kobe's wife to shame (no pun intended). As if that wasn't enough, we then continued on to the Grand Bazaar. Again I didn't buy anything, for I have no idea what I would do with anything I bought at this point, but there were several items I intend to come back for.
Tonight I'm headed to a soccer match between Fenerbaçe and Elazið. Fenerbaçe is the local club from the Asian side of Istanbul (not the European side, that's BJK who's stadium is right outside my window), and Elazið is a team from eastern Turkey. Look for a Fenerbaçe blowout. :)
I went to Asia today. It's quite a thrill to take a ferry from Europe to Asia across the Bosphorus and see Istanbul from the perspective that history has seen it: from the water. Minerets rise up above the horizon on the Golden Horn, the historic and original section of a city that has grown to encompass the entirety of the Bosphorus and Marmara coast.
In the section of Europe just north of the Bosphorus, the area where I am staying just off Taksim square, larger buildings dot the coasts and out of place skyscrapers are all over the area. Looking out my window here at Istanbul Technical University I see a beautiful view of the Bosphorus and its Asian coast, but then I also see the 40 floor Ritz-Carlton as a glaring example of why Istanbul needs zoning laws. Now. It sticks out like a sore thumb.
Once we got to the Asian side, we took a nice little walk through the streets which are just as crowded as the ancient Golden Horn part of the city. Ice cream was one and a half million lira. That's right, one and a half MILLION lira. This is going to take some getting used to.
On the way back from Asia we took a dolmus (imagine that 's' on the end has the little hook thing on the bottom and then pronounce it as 'sh'), which is basically a group taxi. We took the 7th longest suspension bridge in the world back across the Bosphorus, but first we promptly got into our first Turkish traffic accident. Frankly I'm surprised it took this long. With the way taxis drive here, I'm amazed Turkish traffic fatalities aren't ridiculously high. No, wait, they are. I knew the driving would be bad when I saw Turkey had a specific warning about driving on the State Department's travel advisory list. It is, in fact, just as bad as the warning advises, with little regard for human life shown by Taxi drivers and merchant carts alike. In fact, I didn't see a traffic light or a stop sign in this city until I went over to Asia today. What a novel concept. Stopping for pedestrians! Staying in your lane! Driving with more than 2 inches of cushion on the sides of your vehicle! Wow!
By the way, I was fine and so was everyone else. My dolmus driver was probably to blame since he was flying down a hill and trying to cut off an entire lane of traffic, but to his defense the other car did have its front corner sticking out into his lane. I guess its not his fault that he hit him, huh? My driver conveniently pulled over not at all, stopped in the middle of traffic and got out to yell with his fellow bad driver. After a minute of fruitless argument, both men got back into their largely unharmed vehicles, swore under their breath in Turkish and took off to deliver me and my fellow travellers to Taksim. What an experience. What a city.
Merhaba! I made it to Turkey just fine on monday and have been settling in at my dorm at Istanbul Technical University, getting a feel for my first classes and enjoying the protein-rich Turkish cuisine. This really is a beautiful city. I lucked out and my room here at ITU faces the Bosphorus so I get a bright sunrise every morning that looks out at the many ships that pass from the Sea of Marmara to the Black Sea. With my window open I can hear the calls to prayer five times a day and I can look down into the soccer stadium of one of the Turkish club teams.
Turkish society is quite unique. Each night I've been here I've walked up and down Istikal Caddesi and through Taksim Square and each time I've been amazed by the diversity of the culture. It truly is an open Muslim society. Women dressed head to toe in black burkas mix with women dressed for a night of clubbing. Each has her own style and beliefs and each is respected whatever that belief may be. This is what a Muslim society can be. Free and strict, secular and religious, trendy and traditional - Turkey understands the importance of tolerance.
After being here just a few days I've already had half a dozen near death experiences with taxis. No, I've only been in one once so far, but danger does not limit itself to the realm of taxi passengers. Istanbul is a city nearly devoid of traffic lights, stop signs or passive drivers. One crosses the street at his or her own risk. Last night with my Turkish friend we risked life and limb to cross a three lane street - a rarity in itself in Turkey - and barely lived to tell about it. Taxi drivers race down eight foot wide roads in their 7 and a half foot wide cars with few worries; it is of little concern that the road they carry out this stunt on is at a 45 degree angle - a few million Lira are at stake.
And that's another thing: Turkish money. It's worse than monopoly money. I sent two postcards yesterday and it cost me 1,400,000 Lira. Expensive? Not at all. That's about one dollar.
Turkey is a great place. No doubt this will be a wonderful experience. Here's hoping the tolerance doesn't dry up, the taxis don't kill me and the money doesn't float away from out of control inflation. What a ridiculous and awesome place.
I'm leaving the country later today for the wonders and excitement of the Turkish republic. By noon tomorrow I'll be stepping off the plane at Ataturk International Airport for four months of study and culture shock. It should be interesting. Any words of advice?
I'm not exactly sure when my next post here will be - it could be tomorrow, it could be in a month. I'll work for the former.