Friday, July 29, 2016

After a 5-minute deliberation or a 15-minute drivearound, I parked the car on Esplanade by North Derbigny. It looked safe enough to escape a parking ticket, yet shady enough to warrant an overnight break-in. At this point, I rated the former over the latter. I got out of the car and looked around. The driver of the car behind ours was inside and gestured at us. He was about to rest the case on both parking tickets and safety. He was to be the Damiel, watching over Wim Wenders's Berlin. 

He came out of his car and asked for some change. I gave him the four quarters I had in my pocket and turned to him to add: "I only have four quarters in my pocket." 

He replied, with his thick Southern accent: "I need the cash for the tank, man. I need to get to my job." By this point in the trip, I was able to articulate a fair ratio of the Southern accent thrown at me. By this point in life, I was able to articulate largely how genuine such requests were meant. But I only had four quarters in my pocket and I gave him all.

I knew exactly which direction we needed to be headed. I played dumb to waste time, so I could observe the man's next moves. If he were to break into the car and even if that took place hours later, I had a sense I could be able to tell, if I observed long enough.

I turned to Z. and pretended to check our destination on Google Maps. Damiel came forth and asked if we needed help. We didn't need any help. Not from him, nor from Google Maps. I knew exactly where we were going. 

I turned to him and said: "Sure, we are trying to get to 623 Frenchmen." We were following the advice of S. who was going to host us the next evening, whom I had not seen since we finished Uni. The Spotted Cat was one of his favourite in town!

Damiel knew. He lifted his head, quickly turned his slender body on his feet and walked back towards his car, murmuring: "just hold up, I'll walk you there."

"You don't need to bother man, but as you please" was a redundant British politeness. The Creole kindness swiftly ignored it.

We crossed the street and started walking south. By the next block we were already back in French Quarter keeping our direction until Burgundy, one of the few southeasterly crossing diagonal streets into Frenchmen. He exchanged greetings and handshakes with a few people on the Esplanade. I asked him about the devastation caused by Katrina. He told us everywhere around us flooded except for Bourbon Street: "the rich are always protected!"

He wanted to make sure I knew exactly where we turned left and then right again, so I could find our way back easily. But we weren't walking back to the car at the end of the night. We didn't sleep in our car. He did.

Damiel was a 53-year old man who occasionally did labour work. Whenever he could find one. And whenever he could put together enough money to put gas in his tank to drive there and pay the $10 upfront to secure accommodation and shower for the three days he would spend out there. He had three daughters, aged 31, 29 and... before he could tell us the other's age, he got interrupted by a local. They've had a quick chat.

"Aaahhh, you want to know more about Katrina", he said half jokingly when I asked him another question. He hadn't seen his daughters in many years. They lived in Texas with their mother. Did they now also have a stepfather? He was living to see them again, as soon as he could. He lost them, as he lost all else to the storm.

"If I came to your town, I would want locals like you to show me around. That's why I am walking you to your destination" said he, while pointing out at a few restaurants and bars he said we could check out. We knew exactly where we were going. He knew exactly where we were going. He was sharing his life, and his city with us. 

He didn't mix Turkey with Kentucky when I told him where we were from, unlike that young police officer on the highways of Mississippi who stopped me the day before. That officer had advised me "to watch yourself in New Orleans; it can be a dangerous place." So far, it was nothing but a city watched over by angels.

"Are you Muslims? I turned to Allah one day" he exchanged. He would later leave us with an "alhamdulillah".

15 minutes had passed since we started walking. The mild tunes of jazz had started to mix with the progressive drum beats as the scent of gumbo was merging with the stench of running sewer. We were treading less carefully to avoid the dirt. His large feet were on auto-pilot. His large smile would reveal his missing teeth. His large soul kept us company all the way through.

We exchanged hugs and went on about our dues. As Damiel left us, he noted: "You left your car in a risky spot. But for tonight, it is the safest in town."

A gig followed the dinner. We ran into K. that evening and talked about how New Orleans made us feel. She'd been there for a few weeks, we had, for just over 24 hours. Z. and I shared the mutual feeling of magic. Post-Katrina gentrification had so far taken little out of it.

I made the quick walk next morning to pick up the car. Z. was preparing to check out of the hostel. It was yet another very warm and humid late-May morning. The previous day's long walks through Treme, Bayou St John, the City Park, Mid-City and Algiers would leave way to a very long drive via Alabama coastline and Selma to Atlanta. The city was preparing for the Memorial Day and the long-weekend holidayers were slowly getting ready to hit the roads back. The river breeze washed over the fresh beignets.

Most of the cars parked around ours had seemed to have left long ago. Ours was  intact. Damiel's was behind it. He was sleeping in his car. I hesitated. I struggled to leave without a goodbye, I struggled to decide whether I should wake him up to offer more money; not in return for his company or even guardianship, but because he said he needed it. I thought better of waking him up. How difficult was he finding to fall asleep? 

How little did I know about the sleeping rituals of a man who had to make a habit of living in his car. He was under a blanket and that is when I had realised, in broad light, how crowded inside of his car was. It was as I was leaving him I realised, we never learned each other's names.

Monday, July 18, 2016

When J. pulled me aside, my phone had been dead for just short of two hours. When he reluctantly asked if I knew what was going on, he probably did not genuinely think I did not. Despite our age difference and having only seen each other a few times in our lives, I trusted he knew me well enough to recognise a man in me whose ears were often on the ground. He might have also sensed that I am someone who emotionally connects to those, who may be thousands of miles away.
That reluctance, helped by A.’s initial support would do just about enough to keep my nerves in check. Now I knew for a fact that the sickly feeling I had been having in the past hour was telepathically linked to what was going on back home. J. looked worried, though. For a man who made the bold decision with his wife to take their family to a 10-day long trip across the country on the day its main airport had seen the worst terror attack in its history; for a man whose country has seen no fewer problems than mine, his eyes laid bare the truth. Things looked to be seriously getting out of control.
I rushed downstairs to make a few phone calls. Had Z. found a safe haven? Mom and Sister should have been alright, far from the centre of it all, but how did they feel? Where was Dad? They must have been trying to reach me… People around me started to ask how I felt, a question I thought I’ve heard all too often lately, in between Brexit and all sort of troubles in Turkey. Somehow, I was unable to give a concise answer, the painful indifference I wanted to resort to, I too often have in the recent past, was nowhere to be found. Lack of a clear answer to the simple question of ‘what is going on?’ was weighing too heavily. After all, this wasn’t one of those events with grave consequences on my life in which I had no say, or those where the privileged status of mine and those around me would keep us ‘statistically’ safe. This was a moment of great uncertainty, and was already traumatising those I most cared about.
As the sense of urgency started to give way to confusion and disgust, I tried to collect myself, and decided to follow A.’s advice, not to spend the rest of the night on my own. The inevitable death to my phone’s battery in a few hours’ time would also mean an unavoidable distancing from constant flow of information. It didn’t mean emotional detachment, but gave enough breathing space to avoid suffocation through the thick and humid air of Venice.
Wherever I went over the weekend, I was greeted with the natural, inevitable question – trying to make sense of the events with the little information at hand and communication I could keep with those back home. There has recently been a running gag with friends back home: how the UK politics, for once, has stolen the scene from the Turkish political landscape. While I heavily continued to comment on mainstream British politics recently, I felt at such unease to even come up with meaningful deliberations of thoughts and feelings in this latest saga. It was not all that different from June 2013 – where I would find my hands tied, fully submerged in front of my office computer in London on a Friday evening, watching developments unfold thousands of miles away. My boss R. would sympathise and let me take the earliest possible flight so I could be with those who I loved – the same R., who on Friday night put his head against mine and consoled me. No trip was to be had, though, all access was removed.
Over the years, I’ve reluctantly learned to tame my emotions towards incidents that are out of my immediate control or reach – at least to such an extent that I surprise myself as remaining one of the calmer people in a group of acquaintances when a major incident takes place. Combined with our day’s horrific sense of the normalisation of the evil, this has helped me distance myself from the immediate feelings of devastation and threat… an involuntary and compromised resilience of some sort. I am also trying to take the optimistic view on things in life, often conflicting with my true feelings and often with the risk of appearing naïve or ill-conceived [legitimising the evil] by those whose opinions I care about.
One of the greatest travesties of our times is our indifference to the nuances of mass sufferings around us. There are too many of them and adjusting our moral compasses to build a hierarchy amongst them has not helped either. The mainstream media has a lot of blame to take here. And what little of the nuances mainstream foreign media covered over the weekend has been short-handed, if not ill-conceived. It was almost a return to the early days of Erdogan’s ascendancy to power – the simple narration of dichotomy had prevailed.
And it is then, I finally started to reflect on the numerous conference sessions and exhibitions I experienced in the last few days and search for a meaning behind the events over the weekend and how to position one for the future. Forensic Architecture’s work at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale (…/reporting-front-ven…/) is one of those few pieces that respond directly, and with strong relevance to its title and its brief – Reporting From the Front. Visually constructing the scenes of drone strikes at victims’ households by weaving forensic data into a re-rendering of architectural details communicated through various forms of narrative, the exhibition shakes your indifference and detachment from all forms of physical and geographical sense of being and puts you right into the thick of it. Three case studies follow the scales of Afghan families’ kitchens to Gaza residents’ streets and the vast Mediterranean that migrants so desperately try to cross. To those who pay even the minimum of attentions, there is no catastrophe deprived of our senses.
Perhaps the inability to 'report from the front' as I often do, was what was getting to me. And perhaps, unlike Gezi Park, but in light of all these sensations, I was internalising and was internalised in the events that unfolded over the weekend – distancing was ever more difficult but somehow the rupture felt ever more real. So much so that my often-found optimism left its way to confusion and a form of mutism. As the aftermath started to unfold through Saturday and Sunday, it was more apparent that the necessity to own the narrative of inclusion, togetherness, and resistance to oppression and the tyranny of the majority is urgent. For everything we would wish to turn a blind eye, we shall be reminded of our collective duties. And for every moment we lose hope, we need to keep investigating, forensically, to find and pave our path to recovery.

Saturday, July 02, 2016

2 July 2016 Remain March

Few images from today's march; and some thoughts on it:
I can't remember the exact number but it is probably already over double-digits, the number of marches and protests I have attended in London. This is one of those that I wanted to take part in, but found it a little difficult to associate myself completely, for a number of reasons.
First of all, it would have benefited everyone if this were held before the Referendum, not after. As in this case, as a protest march, not only were its effects very limited; had it been held before, it could have helped expose the bitter lies of the Leave campaign before voting took place. Whether that would attract attention and swing votes, we'll never be able to know.
The march started at Park Lane and ended at Parliament Square, a very familiar route for anyone who's attended one of these. Last year, following an unprecedented surge and devastating loss of lives at the seas of migrants hoping to flee hardships in their countries, we marched on 12 September 2015, in solidarity with them. Sadly, it had very little effect on government policy: Prime Minister Cameron had announced UK would help a mere 20,000 refugee seekers until 2020. The Home Secretary Theresa May is now hoping to replace David Cameron as the Tory leader and future PM.
Ironically, that march took place on the day Jeremy Corbyn was announced as the new leader of the Labour Party, trying to heal wounds caused by a slightly unexpected defeat at the general elections earlier in May. The newly elected leader, and a beacon of hope for the progressive sects of Labour supporters (and others), addressed that rally
I felt similar vibes along the march today: there was definitely more of a 'feel good' atmosphere than one would expect. It was more of a celebration of London's multiculturalism and diversity, as a reminder of its richness that, as the argument has long taken hold, is under threat with Brexit. As BBC has put it, "... [t]here is barely an organiser in sight and what police presence there is is very low-key - but this outpouring of feeling is also quintessentially British: Calm, polite and orderly."
I find this optimistic attempt naive and problematic. It is detracting from the root of the problem and runs the risk of creating a false sense of solidarity at a time of great uncertainty. There are battles to be fought, and it requires energy, long-term strategy and resilience.
More problematic is the view that many Leave voters will take, with this march: at worst they will see it as divisive, both in terms of its narrative and its geography; they will certainly feel as if their vote is being dishonoured; and at best, as a naive attempt with no result whatsoever.
The march and some of the slogans / banners, along with the debate in the past week or so expose some great democratic deficiencies in the United Kingdom: many now wish the Parliament to resolve the Brexit issue over a vote. My initial reaction to this is simple and straightforward: it was the Parliament who voted to take Britain to war in Iraq.
That those who are not happy with a public opinion in the form of a Referendum would wish to use liberty to change the rules of the game can be damaging in the long run, as it creates institutional discrepancies. I will not go into another debate on the extremely significant methodological deficiencies of a Referendum and its validity here, as I have done that earlier.
But, it helps to remember some of multiple issues with the system we have here: from lack of proportional representation, which was challenged and quashed by a vote on Alternative Vote Referendum in 2011, to the deeply entrenched and male-dominated power politics within the mainstream Labour and Conservative Parties in Westminster. What we have been witnessing at the Parliamentary Party level debates in both since the Referendum results is testimony to that.
What this march, both at a personal and a general level, helped uncover, once more: how people organise through social media to gather in thousands within a week and demand their right to protest and receive the necessary support to use the city infrastructure to hold it.
This, viewed in light of how such demands are handled in Turkey, despite spending almost a decade here, still amuses and inspires me. In Turkey, such events often end with tear gas and water cannons... and speaking of water cannons, by the way.
The march once more exposed the toxic, disgusting lies the Leave campaign threw at the British public, and as much as it inspires me to continue helping this exposure, it further breaks my heart to see how a large part of the Leave voters believed in them, wholeheartedly. At a personal level, I have been trying to expose these and will try to continue doing so.
Finally, as I was gathering my thoughts on today and in general, lying down on the grass in Hyde Park, I was overhearing dozens of conversations around me, in almost as many languages. A moment of thought of London losing this very character that makes it so special weighed heavily on me.