Modern Mona Lisa: Afghan Girl

Afghan girl

This image is considered by many to be the crowning masterwork of the National Geographic Magazine’s photographers. Taken (a perfect double meaning, as I will explain) by Steve McCurry in 1984, the image appeared on the cover of the June 1985 issue of the magazine, highlighting the refugees of the Soviet war in Afghanistan. She made an encore appearance in the October 2013 issue–the 125th anniversary issue of the magazine, a cover girl again. And in between, she has been used as a model for coffee table compendiums, wall posters and other ephemera.

America didn’t know much of Afghanistan when the photo was snapped. What we did know even then was that it was a place where empires go to die. After all, the Soviet Union’s excursion would set of an economic ripple that by 1989 would level the great rival of the Cold War. Afghanistan was more than the USSR’s Vietnam, it was its Waterloo. As for the girl in the photo, so perfectly composed, so innocent and fiery, so beautiful, Steve McCurry captured humanity in a way that Da Vinci did with his medium centuries beforehand.

National Geographic’s team took this image at a refugee camp in Pakistan in 1984. Her tribe of Pashto Muslims were being exterminated by Soviet gunships. She was orphaned shortly before this photo was taken of her. She was 12, before her age of maturity, before her wearing of the veil, and before her child marriage, as we would learn some years later.

Over the prevailing 17 years, no one knew what happened to “Afghan Girl.” But in America, her image became a cultural icon. Determined to find what had become of the magazine’s most successful cover girl, McCurry headed back to Afghanistan in 2002, with a team of scientist, to try to find those sea green eyes. McCurry found her, amazingly alive. If you are interested, her whole story is recounted in the April 2002 edition of the magazine.

Le Louvre - Mona Lisa

For this posting, I began with a sense of wonder at this image–a true modern icon like that of the Mona Lisa. I thought of approaching it a bit like an art historian, expounding on the composition (filling the frame in a near-triangular composition), use of color (greens and contrasting reds with a sfumato background), medium (glorious old Kodak Kodachome!) and context (as described above). No one who sees this image cannot help but be arrested by those eyes. Only later do you notice the tattered clothes, the dirt and grime and the overall intensity. Like the Mona Lisa, the image has lost some of its impact over time. As a work of art, it is a masterpiece. And the same qualities that make the Mona Lisa an icon are the same for Afghan Girl. For nearly two decades, so little was known about the sitter for this portrait that wild speculation filled the void. And given her age, she remained forever young in the eyes of the Western World, a vibrant gem among the killing fields of Afghanistan.

But that art critique is as far as I could go, for at what expense do Westerners get to exploit the girl in this portrait for art’s sake alone? After all, this is a picture of a pre-adolescent Muslim girl, whose religion forbids the iconic fascination with a “graven image.” While it tells the story of refugees, and surely creates a sense of pathos, I can’t help but feel a bit like a slum tourist after gazing too long. Her adulation by photography critics seems intrusive, if not an exercise in cultural voyeurism.

When McCurry found her years later, she seemed so very worn, so cold. This is of course due to custom–to speak to a man outside of one’s marriage is grounds for death in Afghanistan. Most astonishingly, when asked if she had ever seen this image, she said she had not. What could have McCurry and National Geographic expected? The first image was a photographer’s dream–capturing that perfect instant, serendipitously, and winning accolades. Going back to relive the moment seems a bit like going on vacation to the same place over and over–the first experience can never be recaptured. And in this poignant case, the young girl has grown up. Time has been no friend. Her fearful eyes now flash contempt and confusion.

When I read the April 2002 issue again, I realized the bittersweet nature of this art.  I have been a subscriber of this magazine since I was nine years old–a gift from my great uncle who gave me the world each month in my mailbox. I love their work–they are a worthy institution. They are not above criticism though. Taken once, the photo is artful. Taken and used again and again, this work is exploitative of another culture, and plucks the woman from her context. She is no celebrity, though many have made money off of her. She is no victim either. She is a survivor within her culture. And that to me is the frame for this portrait–a true enigma, like Mona Lisa. We think we know her so well, and yet we do not know her at all.

(NB–I have left out her most recent photo from the less famous April 2002 edition of the magazine. Some things are best left alone. We even know her name, but even that seems like an invasion that I am not willing to pass onward through my own blog. And yet, I too cannot look away.)

Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Sharbat_Gula.jpg (See ‘Fair Use’ Rationale)

Mona Lisa Photo credit: Gregory Bastien / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

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Intermission: Turkey

I am still on “hiatus” as I have just now received my favored computer for writing from the movers, and internet access from the cable guys. I have managed to unpack enough of my effects to feel a bit more at home and in the mood for blogging. In the interim, please enjoy this lovely video from The Perennial Plate, a blog on sustainable living. This video, Faces of Turkey, highlights the faces, foods and colors of the Turkish landscape, culture and palate.

As the Turks would say, afiyet olsun!

Istanbul Rising…and Falling

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Turkey, by far the most western looking and peaceful country in the Muslim world, has been upended by protestors this past week. Outsiders to this part of the world may be confused by what is happening in Istanbul, thinking that this wave of protest and violent government suppression is just like the “Arab Spring” movement in Egypt or Tunisia. In fact, much of the fuss is an exact opposite–it is a group demanding a separation of religion and politics, not a Muslim Brotherhood confluence.

I have a very soft spot for Turkey. My in-laws made their careers there and my wife called Istanbul and Ankara home for much of her childhood. I have been thoroughly steeped in Turkish culture (and cuisine) ever since. And my own experiences in Turkey left me irrevocably changed, as all good travel does.

Istanbul has always been an international and cosmopolitan city, always simmering with the activity of people and ideas from all over the world, and occasionally boiling over. Its strategic location has been fought over in every century since the time of Christ. As ancient Byzantium, it was an trading town.  As “The City” or “Nova Rome,” it was the capital of the aging Roman Empire. As Constantinople, it was the capital of the Byzantine Empire, the last city of Europe and the first city of the rest of the world. Istanbul became the New York of the Muslim world with its conquest by the Ottoman Empire. And it was the launching point of the modern, nationalist state of Turkey, salvaged from the wreckage of World War I. The rather obnoxious earworm below makes for a better summary of “The City’s” history:

Turkey is a secular nation, much as America is. The separation of mosque and state is an important tenet of Turkish life. Yet, the people are religious in private life. Turkey is nationalist first–proud of its modernization. The tensions in Turkish politics are caused by the balance between secular and sacred life. Like America, Turkey has pockets of “blue states and cities” where most people live. But the “red states” make up most of the political map in Turkey. Those smaller towns and villages are more conservative, and voted into office a party that was interested in “reforming” the old secular model of the country. For ten years, the current ruling party has chipped away at social issues, while enjoying political support for an economic boom time in the country.

The latest Turkish tumult is a study in extremes. The protests began modestly enough with a group of environmentally-friendly and preservation-conscious citizens who opposed the demolition of one of the last remaining green spaces in Istanbul— a city of over 10 million people. Put another way, 1 in 7 Turks live in “The City” and there is no Central Park.  The protests began because local authorities, regional governments, and the courts had halted the planned redevelopment of the square by the national government in Ankara, the country’s capital. However, the Turkish prime minister—Recep Tayyip Erdogan (pronounced Reh-jepp Tie-yip Air-dough-ahn) decided to redevelop the property despite the local ruling by decision makers.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan - Caricature

Erdogan is a polarizing figure in modern Turkey. Depending on your political persuasion, he is either the Ronald Reagan (or FDR) or Putin (or Ronald Reagan) of Turkey. He has brought optimism and economic vitality to Turkey while wielding an oppressive fist against opposition parties. Erdogan was a conservative mayor of Istanbul in the 1990’s, who was sentenced to prison for reading Islamist poetry in public as mayor. At the time, Turkish law had severe restrictions on freedom of expression to assure the separation of mosque and state. This separation is a legacy from the founding father of Turkey—Kemal Ataturk—who founded the country as a secular, nationalist state after World War I. Turkey has been a stable ally in the middle east because of this national secularism. While the majority of Turks are Muslim, they do not desire a theocracy like in the Ottoman days or in neighboring Iran.

From jail, Erdogan founded a political party—the “Justice and Development Party”— to oppose the secular Kemalist party, and his party won a majority in the national parliament in 2002. His friend, Abdullah Gul, became prime minister, and he stepped down in favor of Erdogan in 2003. Since then, Erdogan has won three national elections with a majority. Erdogan is the most popular elected official since the country’s founder–Ataturk. And like Ataturk, he has been as polarizing.

Erdogan’s winning coalition is based on two pillars—Turkey’s economy, and Turkey’s countryside. The Turks have enjoyed an economic boom in the past decade. Erdogan has led Turkey’s renewed interest in joining the European Union. And Erdogan has overseen vast infrastructure improvements. Erdogan has calmed the conflict between Turks and Kurds, welcomed the return of Kurdish language and culture on TV and in the streets and negotiated the self-deportation of the anarchist Kurdish Workers’ Party. However, like all politicians, he has used that political capital to cash in on social issues. He forced through constitutional revisions that helped improve freedom of expression—the sorts of laws that landed him in jail. However, he persecuted generals and military personnel loyal to the secularist party. He made pronouncements seeking a “pious generation” in Turkey, pitting the conservatives and the devout of the countryside against cosmopolitan Istanbul. He has pushed hard to severely limit alcohol sales, has been friendly with Iran, has been vocally antagonistic against Israel and held sympathy with the resurgent Muslim Brotherhood in Syria, Eqypt and Palestine.

The protests come on the heels of an economic slowdown that is leaving many Turks frustrated with the Erdogan “Economic Miracle”. Without the economy masking the social change in Turkey, Erdogan’s social conservative efforts have been exposed.

That brings us back to the little park in Istanbul. That park—Taksim Square and Gezi Park—is very symbolic to the Kemalists. The monument to the Republic, with massive statues of Kemal Ataturk—sits at the center of the square. Erdogan has proposed the demolition of the “Ataturk Cultural Center”—a western-style operahouse, theatre and museum, in favor of a “restoration project” involving the rebuilding of an Ottoman-era fortress to house a theatre, mosque and food court of a kind. The project is masked as “economic development” but is a bit more symbolic than that. As Ataturk (war hero, atheist, libertine, boozer) represents everything that Erdogan is not (politician, devout Muslim, conservative, tee-totaller), many in Turkey view this latest effort as an affront to the country’s founder, who they have been raised from birth to revere.

Atatürk in Stone

WE ARE ATATURKS CHILDREN

Erdogan has decided to take his lessons from Putin or more fittingly, a Sultan instead. By denouncing the student protests, and the wide variety of protesters (from Kemalists to Communists), Erdogan is representing the worst in democracy—the tyranny of the majority. Minority opinions have rights in a democracy, and compromise happens in between the two forces. Rather than allowing for peaceful protests, Erdogan has used police brutality. And in a wily manner, he apologized for that brutality, only to double down on it weeks later. He also agreed to meet with select protestors, then scrounged the square with an even more massive response. And now the protestors are expected to kiss the ring of their Sultan.

Erdogan is term-limited as PM, but it is clear he has no intention of leaving public life. He has tried for amendments to the Turkish constitution to give more power to the Presidency, held by his friend Abdullah Gul. Many expect a Putin-esque switcheroo, with Erdogan preparing for a presidency putting him in power for another five to ten years.

Each action in Taksim Square has been in extremes. The redevelopment was an extreme move, the student protests turned into an massive rebuke of the Erdogan era. Erdogan responded not as a democratically-elected ruler but as a oppressor. The narrative plays well in the countryside, but the city slickers are not taking to the heavy handed treatment. And the tensions are high, not only between secularists and the devout, the city and the country, but economic interests as well. Istanbul is in the running to host the 2020 Olympics. Istanbul has been massively and quickly redeveloping land to improve their bid. And these protests might cost Istanbul the honor of hosting the first Olympics in the Muslim world.

The Turkish question is not the same as the Arab Spring. In Turkey, the conservative majority rules. It is the secularists that are trying to claw back their republic. And with the tumult in their corner of the world, Turkish secularists fear the Muslim Brotherhood and theocracy as much as westerners do. Turks are still seeking balance in their lives. Nearly the entire population are Muslim adherents, but they also embrace modernity. They do not evangelize their faith in the ways that other citizens do in other corners of the Muslim world. Members of Erdogan’s party seek religious tolerance but also seek to impose conservative laws–such as the prohibitions on alcohol–on a cosmopolitan city. Istanbul boils over today, but it remains an eternal city, where change is measured in epochs and eras, not days and decades.

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Bosphorus Photo Credit: Stéphane Gaudry / Foter.com / CC BY

Taksim Square Protest Photo credit: Fotomovimiento / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Ataturk Photo credit: Sr. Samolo / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Erdogan Photo credit: DonkeyHotey / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Ataturks Children Photo credit: olive eyes / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Police: http://www.nationalturk.com/en/police-violence-in-istanbul-may-1-protests-turkey-news-37230

The Sultan of Tea

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Turkey and her denizens are nationalist in a way that even Americans might find embarrassing. The Turkish flag waves large and tall over the hills along the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul–from apartment buildings, along the narrow streets, and in every public place. The red flag with its white crescent are everywhere, always reminding the people of their proud, national, secular country at the edge of the Muslim world. Ataturk (translated literally as “Father of the Turks”) is their George Washington and his statue is on every street corner it seems. As a general, Ataturk defeated the British as the Allies sought to carve up the old Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I. Spared from the fate of Turkey’s Middle Eastern nations, Ataturk had won the Turks freedom from colonization, then Balkanization. He founded a republic based on the American idea, abolished the Sultan and Caliphate thus severing the tie between mosque and state. He converted the beleaguered Hagia Sophia–the once cathedral, then spoil of war, then mosque–into a secular museum. Ataturk banned headdress–fez for men and scarfs for women. He gave women equal rights under the law. He changed the Turkish language from its Arabic script to Roman letters. In short, the modern country of Turkey looked west for reform. Think of Texas pride without the swagger. Turks come first in Turkey.

However, some habits are hard to break. And just as Texas has its own toast, the tea in Turkey isn’t just tea, it is Turkish Tea.  The Turks are not going for the subtly of Chinese oolong teas or the ritual of Japanese green. They are purists first–no British adulteration of their topaz delight with cream or lemon. And since the Turks do nothing in moderation, it should come as no surprise that the Turks are among the greatest tea quaffers in the world, second only to India. They do add sugar to their tea, which to me seems less about taste and more about fortifying and amplifying the effects of the caffeine–a supercharged shot. While Turks are more libertine than their Arab neighbors and will drink alcohol, tea remains the beverage of convivial companionship and hospitality. And so, this tea is served continuously and caffeinated, strong and sweet.

Everything about this tea, from its preparation to its presentation is uniquely Turkish. This is nationalism in a cup, in the same way America has its Coke, the Turks have their tea.

Turkish tea is a black tea. It has been consumed since the times of the Sultan, and Ottoman Empire. It is rare to see a Turk in a cafe without the tea standing guard over his plate. The tea is prepared in a double boiler pot. The top pot has the loose tea, which is scalded with hot water, and left to sit all day. The bottom pot has boiling water on reserve. When pouring, the Turks draw off the “strong brew” off the top pot, and dilute the beverage to the taste of the customer with the bottom pot’s clear water. And, as a test of manliness or perhaps courage, the Turks drink their tea very strong and in very small, hot glasses without a handle.

First-time tourists to Turkey will have tea thrust upon them at every turn. Every cafe serves it all day long. Young boys make some extra money running tea from the local grocer down back alleys where Turks may be having as siesta (again, western looking), playing a pick-up game of backgammon. They’ll fetch the tea for you as well. However, most tourists will be served some instant variety, especially in the bazaars, where merchants will ply you with instant apple or herbal teas while they charm, encourage, and shame you into buying that extra rug or bric-a-brac for the house. No Turk would ever drink an instant apple tea–a hot Kool-aid lacking everything that the Turks seek in their high-octane beverage of choice.

The tea grows along the Black Sea. For the beginner and foreigner, the standard tea is Rize (REE-zay) Chai (they use the Indian word), from the Rize region. When I purchased my first pound of tea from the local grocer near my Istanbul holiday apartment, the owner had many varieties of tea behind the counter–Filiz, Cicigi, Altinbas, and so on. Wanting to drink what the locals drink, I ask what we should get.

“Merhaba!” (Hello!)

“Merhaba, Efendim! Hoshgeldiniz!” (Hello, Dear Sir! Glad you are here!”)

“Hoshbulduk!” (“Glad to be anywhere!”)

“Chai var muh, lutfen?” (Where’s the tea, please?)

“Chai? Filiz, Cicigi, Altinbas….”

At this point, the owner of the bokol (the tiny, locally-owned grocer) rambled beyond the scope of my Berlitz phrasebook. Time to turn it over to my travel buddy, who’s fluency in Turkish would carry me to my goal.

What about Rize? (Rize, again, being the tea with training wheels)

“I am from Rize, but I don’t drink Rize, I drink Filiz!”

” Chok Tessekur Ederim, Iyi Gunler!” (Thank you very much, have a good day!)

What is the difference? To a newbie, I couldn’t tell. However, as my tea palate has grown over the years, the Filiz offers a slightly smoother brew. In fact, the variations simply refer to tea growing regions within Rize. Perhaps the soil and air are just slightly different in Filiz. All Turkish tea offers a very slight floral flavor that rises above what might otherwise be politely called a “high-end Lipton.”

Making my own in the apartment, with the double-boiler, I find those little tea glasses. The tulip glass honors the Sultan Ahmed III, the “tulip” Sultan, who loved the flower so much that he adorned the city parks with it. Great mosques were bedecked in ceramic tiles painted with tulip themes during his reign. Since tulips do not have handles, neither do the glasses traditionally. (However, you can buy tulip cups with handles today). The Ottoman Turks were ahead of Riedel’s wine glasses and even brew masters with their pilsiners in crafting a fluted glass that would offer just the right amount of cooling with the right opening to amplify the bouquet of their favorite beverage.

Off to tourist locales, we stop in Ortakoy, where a large square sits right on the edge of the Bosporus Strait underneath the Rococo-styled Ortakoy mosque, another blend of east and west. A ubiquitous cafe with sea-side views offers a chance to relax in the morning sun.

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The glass arrives in a steep red and white saucer, with an ample bowl of sugar cubes, and a rather tiny silver spoon aside the glass.  I like mine chok sekerli (very sweet). In goes the cube, rapidly deteriorating in the piping hot crucible of tea. The spoon is for turning the tulip glass into a centrifuge, spinning the granules through the tea before the sip. The cup is raised with just the tips of the fingers–to much finger pad on the glass will leave a burn mark. The sip is slurped a bit–the air cooling the tea before it hits the tongue.

A blurted utterance, not an “Oww!” but an “Oooh.” I surprised myself.

Looking up from the tea, still spinning a little in the glass, the vista changes. And looking out over the Bosporus, with the minarets of Istanbul piercing the sky, the domes of innumerable mosques rounding out the horizon line, the chatter of seagulls interrupted by a thousand muezzins calling the faithful to prayer, you realize that you are as far from home as you can be, and yet, are comforted by a new, proud, and slightly hyperactive friend.

Turkish Tea Photo credit: Carlo Rainone / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Ortakoy Photo credit: Dietmar Giljohann / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Post-Script: Any vacation will leave the traveler changed for the better.  New ways are learned while on vacation. And the traveler should take something back home from the experience and make it part of daily life. Those rituals can make for a mini-vacation right at home. For me, I can escape to Istanbul anytime, with Turkish tea at home. Of course the experience will not be identical to the trip, but I find a cup or two or five of the tea does change my mood, leaving me literally warmed over with nostalgia.

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Photo credit: iriskh / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

(NB–The Turkish is not the exact transliteration, I tried to add some Anglicized syllables to help the dear reader)