As you all read this, I am probably somewhere in the sky, filled with emotion as my body is in transit from Istanbul to one of the temporary homes I've created for myself in The States (Fort Lauderdale, New York City, Syracuse). Everything has its time, and my time in Istanbul has expired. Leaving with me is not only my sm-exy metallic silver luggage set, but memories, growth, and a refreshed perspective on life, people, and myself within it all.
Friends and peers have always raved about studying abroad and damn, they told no lies. It will be hard for me to express all of what I've learnt in a simple blog post, because there's so many levels to this experience. However, I won't filter too much, I will say everything necessary, and hope that by the end, it has all come together*.
There were so many signs that this was where I was to be at that time: A program director who was too perfect to have even dreamt up, the ties to tourism in Cappadocia (Kapadokia) that reminded me of my short 10-day Jamaica program trip just a few weeks prior, the tour director's odd charisma that reminded me so very much of my older brother, the people I surrounded myself with that made relationships and bonds so easy, the encouragement and honesty from those around me, the intimate moments with myself, the time I missed a photo shoot and the reflection that followed, the person that prompted that reflection, the inspiration I have gained to now pursue new post-graduate plans, my soul -rediscovered & refined. Despite this seemingly unrelated grouping of moments, they all came together, making for an abroad experience so distant from what words could truly ever capture, but yet, here is my attempt.
If you leave your study abroad experience with an overt sense of difference to the community you were engaging with, you probably did it all wrong...or in a way that was of the least benefit to you (and maybe even the community you left). I came to Turkey with no expectations. I quite literally chose it because as a Video Art major, there aren't many study abroad courses that can count for my major; Istanbul, was the only one. Since I was already behind on credits, and my plans to study in S. Korea had fallen through, I went for it. I was like a child. No direction. No real understanding of what it meant to be an 'Islamic democracy.' No sense of the culture, belief systems, I didn't even know how much I would stand out as a black woman with a moderate to large 'fro. So. Many. Differences. And yet, only six months later, I am leaving Istanbul feeling as though I left a place that I rediscovered & refined myself.
The importance of the place is secondary, as its the relationships and interactions with the folks of this city that will resonate with me the most. I have met people here that I hope to never loose contact with. I have met people who I will probably collaborate with in the future. People that are passionate about living their life for the greater good, knowing that their works are only the beginning of the work left for those to come. To say the least, these people are extremely humbling, and their energy is magnetic.
Though location is secondary, it is of great importance nonetheless. A Jamaican-American black girl taking on the streets of Islamic ethno- nationalist Turkey. If that doesn't give you some perspective on the level of learning that is possible then I will attempt to summarize that here: I was once approached by an older woman one night out on the town in Taksim**. She approaches a young man in the group and tells him "Don't talk to black woman. They are not good..." Despite mild intoxication, I felt the need to go back and have a chat with her. And no that isn't code for introducing her to my two friends "Knuckles & Fist", but I really felt sorry for how mis-informed this woman must be. Well this young man is now ironically my future roommate and upon leaving Istanbul, I have now gained a new sense of pride in who I am. Rather than feeling removed from my heritage, I feel rather harmonized. #Black&proud. However, this has not only been developed through overt racist encounters, but also in moments where identity has been complexed.***
Turkey's nationalism and the Turkish identity is a construction. Ataturk, Father of the Turks, and a figure you can not leave Turkey without having encountered, is known for creating what we now know as Turkey after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. In the Ottoman Empire, there were 'millet systems.' These systems were used to separate folks based on ethnicity, but in a way that was arguably more beneficial than decremental (not comparable to separate but equal law in The States). Each community lived rather peacefully within its own, and interacted with other groups as well, despite common occurrences that highlighted class differences. An ethnic group within this system were the Africans, they were slaves brought over during the Ottoman Empire. In Izmir, and various parts of Southern Turkey, you will find 'Afro-Turks'. They endure much discrimination, and are still wildly undiscussed in the history and representation of Turkey. They are mimicked and called 'Arabs.' Despite being native to the lands for what would probably be close to 200 years, they are still highly ostracized, and live rather quiet lives, never really unpacking their histories for obvious reasons. With the help of Mustafa Olpak 'Father of the Afro-Turks', visual artist Ahmet Polat was able to spend eight years unpacking and documenting the visual history of this community through photography. This is the person in which I was working along-side.
When I say I've met amazing people, understand how much I mean it. Understand that the moment we try to create walls of unqualified separation between us and others, we are ultimately stumping ourselves and our abilities to grow. Understand, that there are so many connections in life that have yet to be built, but are necessary for productive development. Understand that this is not an easy practice, but a simple philosophy. Stay open.
I think if I go any further, I'll loose you. So I'll end here for now. I will continue to update my tumblr with film scans while in The States (and maybe even potential post reflections), but I'm sure there will be trickles and remnants of my time here in Istanbul spread through-out future posts.
* - moments that prove, I am not a journalist.
** - also the night of my god-forsaken chin on pavement encounter with Taksim square. I would have stopped myself if only my instincts weren't five seconds too late. Typical. #Americancollegegirls.
*** - That wasn't really a summary huh? Basically, differences take a back seat, as you learn to respect the experiences of those around you, by developing and understanding from an entirely new perspective.