Nicolo, Habib, & Naelle enjoy their first Istanbul snow
© Your Middle East
Nicolo, Habib, & Naelle enjoy their first Istanbul snow
Last updated: November 6, 2014

A cultural and political journey, from California to Istanbul and Cairo

Banner Icon This is the story of Charlie Carlo Sciammas and his family – written in Charlie's own words. It's a rollercoaster ride of social change, protesting movements, exile, freedom and falling in love with a city, all over again...

I am living my dream of returning to the streets where I was born and my parents came of age. Our family’s yearlong pilgrimage to my homelands in Istanbul and Cairo ricochets before my eyes. My partner took an 8,000-mile leap of faith and our three children chose a select few belongings to stuff into their backpacks. We left behind the things we recognize with our eyes closed and exchanged them for a rollercoaster of emotional highs, lows and unknowns.  Every frame is filled with a seesaw of revelation.

The culture and politics that we have found is a world apart from the streets where I was born. Throughout the year, we will butt against a kaleidoscope of contradictions, bearing witness to social movements that contest power and then reproduce the same systems, or simply watch ordinary people lose their trust in leaders who unleash the forces of gentrification and displacement.

“My cousin said you haven't truly experienced Istanbul if the police haven’t gassed you.” 

Soon after arriving in Istanbul, my cousin takes me to the protests that have been brewing on the city’s streets.  Block after block, people are making barricades out of wood scraps and oil drums and setting them on fire.  As soon as the first signs of tear gas burst into the air, crowds act with precision to take cover.  Many people step forward to lead.  Some stay back to immobilize the gas canisters with water and wet cloths.  Those who are caught in the line of fire run like mad to escape the fumes. 

My cousin said you haven't truly experienced Istanbul if the police haven’t gassed you.  At this moment Istanbul is seeping into my pores and paralyzing my eyes.  Down the street, the District Mayor, who is a member of the opposition party, has opened the Opera House temporarily to provide first aid.  One arm of the State is terrorizing the people, and another arm offers refuge.  It’s one night in a long string of clashes between protesters and riot police on the city streets. “Whom exactly do these streets belong to?” we are all thinking, as our eyes slowly get numb.

The next morning, I ask myself what zig-zags are pulsating through our family’s never-never lands.  Echoes of our kids’ laughter bounce off the movie reel.  And then, as the reel flutters, tears trickle off in a slow motion.  What will we find deep inside that gives us the strength to weather this journey?  Every moment pulses through my veins and through the ever-widening map that lives inside my mind. 

The Turkish school that we have adopted anchors our daily rhythms.  In my new life as a 5th grade teacher, I utilize the tricks from my former life as a community organizer.  Each morning, I stand at the head of the classroom, pulling out role-plays, dialogues, debates, small group activities and even house visits out of my teacher’s bag of tricks.  Our children are enrolled in the same school where my wife and I teach, making this a magical moment in our family’s lives.  But the magic dims for our kids when the reality of learning in an entirely foreign language settles in.

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In the beginning, our kids fill volumes of drawings in sketchpads and log thousands of pages, reading in class while their teachers teach in a language they are unaccustomed to.  Homework instructions are a total mystery, making it daunting to complete assignments.  My children grope blindly in the dark of their classrooms looking for a keyhole, any keyhole, only to find that they haven’t been given the key.  It will take time, but eventually they will find many keys on the playground, in the neighborhood, and inside their classrooms.

The “New Turkey”, under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan (the “New Turkey”, or Yeni Turkiye, has become Erdoĝan’s latest slogan after his recent election as the president, something that is frequently echoed in many of the daily newspapers), has materialized in our school.  Over the school year, we notice that female teachers are slowly encouraged to cover their heads in observance of Islamic traditions.  In the classroom, boys and girls are rarely paired together to learn, inquire, or support each other.  Male and female teachers are separated by grade level.  Prayer is subtly ritualized in the school’s weekly routine. This is not the vanguard Turkey that established a secular republic out of the ashes of the Ottoman Empire and gave women the right to vote as early as 1930.

In the neighborhood, my daughter fearlessly climbs the play structure in the park that has been a backdrop for our time in Istanbul. The park began as a junkyard. My kids played pirates and made forts. They spent hours scavenging beneath the ominous shadows, finding treasures among the planks of rotting wood and mountains of rusty nails.  Meanwhile, the City drafted plans to transform the reclaimed land into a park.  During the year, the unscripted mystery of the abandoned junkyard gives way to a new set of adventures.

Grandmas flex their muscles on the exercise equipment while grandchildren play hide and seek.  Footballs ricochet across a paved play area while neighbors play life-sized games of chess on a raised checkered platform.  Across the street, families and elders lower and raise baskets from their third and fourth story windows to exchange coins for bread, newspapers, and groceries.  An accordion player wanders in front of the park, exchanging melodies for coins.  All this happens in the shadow of Ali Ismail Korkmaz, one of 11 neighborhood sons fallen by the shot of police officers during protests on the nation’s streets, for whom the park is named.

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My kids are coming of age.  They realize that the tragic Syrian civil war is close by.  They experience first-hand how the Turkish State censors information, banning video recordings on YouTube of corrupt state officials accepting bribes.  My nine-year-old experiences the thrill of navigating the neighborhood streets on his own.  Shopkeepers and neighborhood kids all know him by first name.  When we visit a 1,000-year-old church-turned-mosque that punctuates the Istanbul skyline, and wander inside to breathe the heavy air of contemplation, my seven-year-old takes out his sketchpad and begins to draw.  It dawns on him that he is drawing the lines of history and they lead straight towards the present.  Meanwhile my four-year-old learns to tolerate the incessant squeezing of her cheeks by neighborhood elders and graciously accepts bread, sweets, and snacks from friends and strangers alike who are drawn to sharing with her, like magnets to metal.  My children are now planting their own memories in this once foreign land that flows within their blood. 

During our school break, we travel to Egypt, where my father was born, and from where he was thrown into exile. We first touch the land in Cairo on January 25th, the third anniversary of the revolution. Meanwhile, power struggles ricochet across neighborhood squares and on the government’s stage.  People are being killed in the streets and not everyone has enough to provide for their families.  My mind is stuck on how hard Egyptians are working to make their revolution meaningful.  Organized grassroots political movements and parties continue to do the hard work to try to provide an authentic alternative and give voice to the many peoples of Egypt.  But the right to organize is not protected, and so where do the people go from here?

The reel switches abruptly to a star-filled night in the middle of the Nile River valley.  My two boys are lying on my lap and wife and daughter are cradled nearby as our bus charges through the desert night.  One of my sons marvels at the constellations in the star-studded night sky.  All this time living in Istanbul we had our noses buried in the city’s street corners and sidewalks, and had forgotten about the marvel above us in the open sky.

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Around the corner from our flat in Istanbul is the house where my mom was born.  It is a house that her family lost when the Turkish state seized the property of all non-Muslim families like ours. The wrought iron gate in the entry way still bears the initials of my grandfather, “SJ”.  This neighborhood is filled with proud old-timers, their kids and grandkids.  It is a unique mosaic of mosques, synagogues, and churches that signal a more open time that has long since faded away in Turkey.  Street mural after mural are painted on the walled canvases of apartment buildings.  Sprinkled among the storefronts are print shops powered by cast iron printing presses, large-scale bakeries fueled by wood burning stoves, and street peddlers selling wires, bolts, tools, and odd raw materials salvaged from days gone by.  Neighbors and producers keep the community’s spirit alive despite the chaos that reigns in Istanbul right now. 

Istanbul as a rapidly developing metropolis is being shaken to the bone by cranes and bulldozers.  Here there is a cycle of disinvestment, ruin, demolition, and then building up and up-scale.  People are caught in between.  Development is big money in every corner of the city.  The political elite at both the local and national level is driving this phenomenon.  Massive public works projects and speculative development are fraying the fabric of the city’s neighborhoods as recounted in the film documentary Ekumenopolis.  But the top down approach that characterizes the city’s growth is being challenged in our own neighborhood. 

Neighborhood leaders are chipping away to put people in control of development. Residents have taken over an unfinished apartment building deserted by the bank and its owner.  In its place, they are organizing film nights, neighborhood meetings, and community gatherings.   After years of pushing, they convinced city officials to dedicate an abandoned junkyard towards a neighborhood park. The most remarkable tool of the neighborhood-based organizing is the production of social space to bring everyday people together.

This social space is also breeding political action at a time when it is most needed.  More than any other time in its 10-year history in power, the conservative AK Party (Adalet ve Kalkınma Partisi or Justice and Development Party) and its leader Recep Tayyip Erdoĝan have been tightening their grip on everyday life in Turkey.  We have seen signs of these conservative social policies in our children’s’ school.  The government has flexed its muscles to censor the production of media and news.  It has implemented a wholesale development scheme for Urban Turkey, going as far as accepting payments in exchange for the entitlement of development rights.  When corruption scandals have come to light, Erdoĝan has gone as far as purge his own police force, reassigning as many as 2,500 officers who would otherwise uphold the judicial system, as reported in the New York Times.

“The most remarkable tool of the neighborhood-based organizing is the production of social space.”

As one Turkish writer and journalist proclaimed, “there is little rule of law here, and justice falls victim to power”. When the AK Party achieved an electoral coup over a decade ago, they filled the vacuum left by previous regimes that failed to meet the economic needs of the country’s impoverished masses.  During its first two terms, this AK Party forged a tidal wave of responsive governance and generated a robust economy with a deeper reach throughout Turkey.  But with success came power, and with power came abuse.  In Today’s Zaman, journalist Parvez Ahmed states that “deep down, this crisis exposes the tragedy of Turkish justice.  Whoever manages to capture the state power uses it aggressively, in some cases cornering and crushing all political opposition, and the victims only grind their teeth and wait for their turn.”

As a community organizer in San Francisco, I come from a tradition of grassroots neighborhood change and movement building.  I once believed in the winner-takes-all scenario, as long as social change is on the winning side.  Reflecting on current day events in Egypt and Turkey, I am beginning to wonder if that inevitably rocks our world too violently back and forth.  In reality, elected leaders rarely have the mandate of a vast majority of their constituents.  How can competing interests share power given the legacies of prior injustice?  What is that pure and delicate balance that allows for shared governance and opposing views to be part of the collective conscience, in a truly participatory democracy fashion, feeding and challenging each other, without stifling, oppressing, or exploiting each other?  Our world is yet to learn important lessons about the necessary prerequisites for equitable and participatory democracy. 

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We visit the cemetery where many generations of my grandparents, great aunts and uncles are buried.  It is a rambling hillside now overgrown with springtime poppies that shelter 200-year-old tombstones written in Turkish, Hebrew, and Arabic script.  As we drink from my late grandmother’s drink of choice, raki, we honor those that paved the way for all of us, and begin to think of all the gifts this year has given us that we will bring back home to San Francisco.

I have fallen in love all over again…. with the arpeggio of my cultural life that spans San Francisco, Istanbul, and Cairo; with the satin suede curls that cascade gently over my wife’s shoulders, revealing a fierce, agile, and wise partner and mother; the wisdom, sweetness and resilience, and sweat-drenched odor of my growing sons, and the playful double humor that falls like raindrops from my daughter’s laughter.  This cultural and political journey has deepened the bonds within our family.  It’s been a sobering and precious gift indeed.

Charlie Carlo Sciammas
Charlie is a community organizer with PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights) in San Francisco, California, USA (www.podersf.org). He has a Masters in Urban Planning from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and a Bachelors of Science in Urban Land Economics from the University of California, Berkeley. He authored “Organizing for Public Lands in Community Hands” recently published in www.sendika.org and an original selection of poetry featured in the anthology 12 Ways. As a child, he remembers fumbling around the workbench and tools at his grandpa’s old eyeglass shop in Istanbul that was later destroyed to pave the way for the construction of a new metro line. He remembers being in awe of the old red aluminum tool chest in the garage where his poppa worked as a mechanic. His family, including his mother Suzette and poppa Giuseppe, brother Roger, long-time partner Laura, and children Nicolo Baraka, Luca Habib, and Naelle Slade are the everyday heroes in his life.
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