Following the president to Istanbul

Saturday, April 11, 2009

I’m on my second visit with a group of Cleveland artists to Istanbul, Turkey. Our job is to complete a year-long exchange program that shares how we use the arts to work with at-risk youth. “Engaging Marginalized Youth” (EMY) is the name of the project, supported by the U.S. Department of State in collaboration with the Council of International Programs, Cleveland, and Yoret, a Turkish human services agency. For information on our first trip, go here, here and here.

Here are some highlights (followed by photos at the bottom) of our first, very long, still jet-lagged day:

A short stop at the Hereke Silk Fabric and Carpet Museum, where we saw women weaving traditional Turkish carpets on room-sized looms (not kidding). Unspeakably beautiful silk designs with 100 tiny, tiny knotted threads per square centimeter (no photographs allowed).  The women are government employees, keeping alive the tradition of the world-famous Hereke carpet brand that began with Sultan Abdulhamid II in 1843.

A shorter stop at the “Little Palace” built for Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1894. This is a jewel box of two rooms opulently furnished and used once by the Kaiser for six hours while in transport through the country.

The ‘main course’ of our day was a panel presentation of our EMY project and workshops delivered by the program’s Cleveland and Turkish artists at Kocaeli University, a vast and newly built university on the outskirts of Istanbul. We were warmly received (they use very little air conditioning in Turkey) and the lecture hall was filled to capacity, as were the classrooms where the workshops took place. The students and faculty were all very enthusiastic and participated with great energy and commitment.

We lunched in the student cafeteria with a choice of many chicken and lamb dishes, lots of rice and beans and several soups. The (women’s) rest room featured one stall with toilet paper, one without and one “traditional’ toilet” – a porcelain hole in the floor. 

On the long bus rides to and from the university, we saw the now-iconic image of President Obama on bus stop shelters everywhere. Apparently a local bank was advertising a particularly low interest rate on loans and had an Obama impersonator hawking these loans on television, then transferred the campaign to print.

The president’s visit, ending just before we arrived, was the talk of everyone we met. The general comments indicated that, while there are still anti-American sentiments in Turkey, the scales are tipping in the other direction now. Admittedly, those we talked with tended to be pro-Western from the start. There were questions, though, about why there were no women in head scarves among the students in the televised audience of the president’s speech to university students. 

Because Turkey is not a member of the European Union, there is the sense that the country is not faring as badly in the world economic crisis as the rest of Europe. At least that is what several of our hosts said.

Tomorrow, Raymond Bobgan, producing artistic director of Cleveland Public Theatre; Tony Sias, arts education director for the Cleveland Metropolitan School District; and I audition theater artists for the Cleveland Foundation’s Creative Fusion program, among other things.  More when I get the chance.

Here are some images (click on each thumbnail to enlarge the photo; mouse over a photo to read its caption):

Inside the Kaiser’s “Little Palace”

Ismail Douglas at the start of his workshop

Raymond Bobgan introducing his students to a movement technique

Workshop students acting out each others’ stories

Ismail’s students practicing what they learned

One of the beautiful “marble paper” images from another workshop

Flat Stanley with our program announcement at Kocaeli University

The view from Kocaeli University campus