Sixty five children with Santa hats laughing and singing Christmas carols, hollering with excitement after opening gifts, running around with glee. If you grew up in the U.S. or Europe, it’s easy to imagine such a mirthful scene at Christmas.

But this wasn’t at a school or family gathering in America, it was at a Syrian bookshop in Fatih.

“Happy Christmas hour with Syrian children,” as it was known on its Facebook invitation, attracted dozens of Syrian refugee children from across Istanbul — and at least 15 mostly expat volunteers who brought gifts, ornaments, face paint, puppets, and lots of enthusiasm.

Since opening six months ago, Pages bookstore cum cultural center has been written up in blogs and media outlets such as NPR. It’s located in an old, modest home two blocks from Chora church in Fatih’s Ayvansaray neighborhood. The ground floor has a cozy coffee bar, books for sale in Arabic, Turkish and English, as well as Syrian sweets.

But it was up two flights of steep wooden stairs where the thumping of little feet on could be heard on the floorboards.

Maisa, the event organizer, had the kids sing Jingle Bells in Arabic, and unrolled a giant paper for the kids to draw on. She had to ask volunteers to go downstairs on a couple occasions because it was so crowded. Surplus volunteers mingled, hoping they could get a chance to play with the kids, painting each others faces and making faces at children too young to participate. My wife carried a donation box around.

Among the volunteers was a Haitian university student on a Fulbright scholarship, a Venezuelan MBA student at Istanbul Ticaret U., an American English teacher who’s been here five years, a Taiwanese woman working on the third airport construction project.

“The situation in my country is not so good and I know how hard is to be an immigrant in countries without proper planning,” said David, the Venezuelan MBA student. “In past occasions unknown people have given me a hand without expecting back in return so every time I have an opportunity to payback I just do it.”

As I stood there talking to my peers instead of brightening a child’s day, I couldn’t help but have a bit of volunteer guilt. My wife noted that the children there came from more well to do families than those at the border where she worked with Doctors Without Borders, distributing not gifts, but essential non-food items.You feel good about the fact that you did something — anything — at the holiday season, but wonder if these are the people who need it most. How many of us volunteers people could donate a couple days or weeks to work in refugee camps in Kilis or Reyahnlı?

So..Christmas is actually a big thing in Syria

With all the news of large swaths of Syria falling to radical Islamic crazy people who are willing to kill not only Westerners, but Muslims who are even the slightest bit critical of them, it’s easy to forget the place that Christmas has (or had) in modern secular Syrian society, according to Samer, a former book publisher from Damascus and owner of Pages.

Why do a Christmas event? The vast majority of Syrian refugees are Muslim, I implored the slender, long-haired Samer.

“We celebrate it. This is what a lot of people in the world don’t know. Yes. I am Muslim, for example, but every year I make the tree at home. It’s a good idea to celebrate with the tree. in Syria, all people put up a tree. I take it as something good,” he replied. He noted that there are far more Christmas decorations on streets, businesses and homes in Syria than in Istanbul.

From Japan to Turkey, India to Malaysia, beyond the obvious capitalist motivations, it’s easy to see why malls and homes in non-Christian countries are adorned with the Christmas spirit. The broad inter-cultural appeal of Christmas/New Year’s transcends cultural barriers, and gift giving — it’s a proven fact that gift giving increases happiness — is something we all love to take part in.

NOTE: This post does not detail instructions on foreigners buying property under their names only.

Recently, my Turkish wife and I set out on buying an apartment in Istanbul. For those who don’t know, real estate prices in Istanbul only go one direction: up.

But it’s not always that easy. This post is intended to help people look deeper and realize that buying a flat — even if you or your Turkish spouse have citizenship — is not so straightforward.

We had (and have) been looking for a good opportunity to buy for the past couple months. With the exception of a property in a site (condominium complex) in Ayazağa (near Maslak), we have been looking on the Asian side, near the coast: from Kadıköy and along the Bağdat Caddesi corridor to Maltepe. We had a limit: a total price of about 300,000, and we would be taking out a home loan.

Tips while saving your money and searching for flats

Sahibinden's real estate search page with criteria.

Sahibinden’s real estate search page with criteria.

It’s all on Sahibinden. Sahibinden.com has a great filter which includes price location, floor, building age, accepts credit, etc. Emlakcilar (real estate agents) say that other sites, such as Emlakjet and Hurriyet emlak, are passé. Often the place an emlak will show a flat on sahibinden just to get you to call them. They often have more flats on offer that they don’t advertise.

Look for a newer building (5 years old or less). While older buildings can present great opportunities if they are in good locations (and if you have the connections, time and money to fix them up), newer ones are what Turkish people want. Older construction in this town is mostly done by unskilled muthaitler (unskilled builders) who looked to build and sell as fast as possible, so there are issues with plumbing, heating, etc. In older buildings, these could turn into big headaches.

Sock your money away in dollars/euros. Pretty much a no brainer here. Even the AKP “stability” that was supposed to give the lira boost only lifted the exchange rate of a few kurus to date. The lira is weak. Plus, interest rates are high. High interest rates and a weak currency are a bad sign for the economy.

Have a solid down payment. Shoot for at least 30 percent. Why? You don’t want to pay interest out the nose, and banks usually won’t accept less anyway.

Konum, Konum, Konum! (Location, location, location): Kadıköy, Beşiktaş, Bostancı, Şişli, Levent. Unless there is a major economic crisis, these places will always hold there value and will always be desirable areas to live in. An older, dark 300,000 TL flat in Kadikoy may be better investment-wise than a two-floor brand new flat in distant Sancaktepe. Plus, you can rent it in about 5 minutes to a rich student or young professional.

Look for possible “kentsel dönüşüm” opportunities (loosely translated as “urban renewal”). Kentsel dönüşüm is when a builder approaches the owners of flats in a building (or visa versa) and offers them a new building. In other words, they offer to knock down the old building, build a new one, give them a new flat in place of their old one, all the while paying the owners’ rents in temporary apartments during construction. What’s in it for the

You could make a pretty penny on knocking down your older flat with kentsel dönüşüm -- if you can wait!

You could make a pretty penny on getting your older building knocked down with kentsel dönüşüm — if you can wait a while!

construction company? They get at least few flats of their own (they make the new building bigger than the old) to sell at premium prices. You get a new flat worth a lot more than your old.

My friend Fidan did this. She notes, however, that this can take a long time if the building is big. In her case, all 32 owners in the building had to agree on which construction company and which features they wanted in their new flats. “I waited for three years, then it took two years to finish the construction, even though they said it would take one”. However, at the end of the day, she got a flat worth 450.000 whereas the previous one was valued at 250.000. It now brings in 2000 in rent.

When you get serious

Type of title. Ask the owner and agent about this. The type of title in newer flats — called kat mulkiyet — is a better type of title because it states that the owner owns exactly the flat she purchased, including square meters and the floor its on. Most flats older buildings have kat irtifakı titles, which means you are guaranteed a certain percentage of the building as a whole, but it’s not a reflection of the finished building plan. Kat irtifakı titles can usually be changed into kat mulkiyet deeds. All newer buildings are divided into kat mulkiyet titles. More on this here (in Turkish).

Negotiate the agent’s fee. They say their fee is 5 percent of the sale cost, which is generally split between buyer and seller, but this can be negotiated down to around 1 to 2 percent of the sale cost.

Negotiate the apartment’s price. Ask for 15 to 20 thousand lower than the asking price and go from there. Don’t be afraid to walk away. The agent has come that far and he wants your business.

When choosing a mortgage plan

Pay it off reasonably quickly. You are not going to make money if you rent here anyway, as you can in many places in the States, for example. The rents just aren’t that high. For a 300,000 TL or less place with a 30 percent down payment, you are looking at at least a 2500 TL per month payment, and the rent you could make on a place is unlikely to exceed 1500 TL (if it could, the house would be worth more than 300,000!).

Negotiate the interest rate. Find the bank with the lowest rate online as a start, but go around to different banks to see what kinds of fees they charge (inspection, earthquake insurance, etc.). If you want to stick with the bank you do your banking with, find the lowest possible interest from another bank and ask your bank to match. This is Turkey, after all.

So what about us?

At the end of the day we found a fully and newly renovated apartment in Küçükyalı. We had looked at three apartments in a couple hours. We negotiated the price from 275 to 267. We

The column missing from the flat that doomed our home purchase is circled in blue.

The missing column (kolon) that doomed our home purchase is circled in blue to the left.

negotiated the emlak fee a bit (but probably could have gone lower than 5,000). We got approved for the loan on condition of the inspectors approval. The inspector came to the home and scrupulously inspected the flat and others in the building.

His decision? A column that was crucial to the structure of the home was removed by the builder! While we were saddened that we didn’t get a nice rennovated home at a good price, we were relieved that we didn’t put ours and our renters’ lives at risk. 

Fate, destiny, kismet, kader, whatever you want to call it. We decided the missing column was a sign. We want to pursue other areas, namely our graduate studies.

This was our lesson in Turkish economics from the school of real life.

May the halay live on

October 10, 2015

A still of a video from alocal lnews agenc shows students dancing and chanting as the bomb goes off behind them,

A still of a video from alocal lnews agenc shows students dancing and chanting as the bomb goes off behind them,

The halay is a symbol of everything that is right with Turkey. It’s a dance. A simple dance. It is equality. It is equality because anyone can participate — young and old, Turkish and American, Kurdish and Armenian. It’s equality because it is a circle: no one dominates. It is equality because it can be danced to any music. It is free. You can come and go as you please, and no one is excluded. It’s equality because everyone links their pinky fingers together joining for a moment in harmony. We danced it at our wedding on the Bosphorus, at our engagement in Sile, at various fasil nights in Istanbul. It’s not unlike a lot of ethnic European dances: the hora of Ashkenazi Jews comes to mind.

You may have seen the halay video from the attack today. When the bomb in Ankara went off today claiming the lives of at least 86 people, one video that has made the rounds of major news organizations shows young people dancing the halay and chanting slogans for peace a fireball blasts in the background. Everyone runs for cover. They gathered for peace. They gathered to express unity. What better way for humans to do this than dancing together.

May we never stop dancing the halay.

A victim of the bombing in Ankara draped in a flag from the protest. Egitim Sen is a union of Turkish educators which raises awareness of education issues in Turkey. (Photo from the Telegraph)

A victim of the bombing in Ankara draped in a flag from the protest. Egitim Sen is a union of Turkish educators which raises awareness of education issues in Turkey. (Photo from the Telegraph)

My Turkish Engagement Ceremony

September 15, 2015

The salty Turkish coffee. The cutting of the rings. Requesting the bride’s hand in front of the whole family.

Getting engaged in Turkey (nişan) is more than just popping the question in a romantic spot. We made the video below to help shed some light on this modern version of a centuries old Turkish tradition.

Video: Sureyya Yılmaz Dernek

Editing, Subtitles & Commentary: Ezra Mannix

Have you ever passed an attraction in Istanbul, or (insert famous place) in your hometown that you’ve never been to and thought “Hmm, I really should go there, you know, while I’m living here…Eh, one of these days”?

That’s how I felt every time I passed an Okey salonu (Okey room) or kiraathane (which literally means “starkly lit, tackily decorated storefront coffeeshop filled with unemployed men serving bitter tea and overpriced sodas”).

The ıstıka, or okey tile holder.

The ıstaka, or okey tile holder.

The game of okey had always been something that I though I was going to learn one of these days. I was never in any burning rush to learn it. I always figured my time would come, that I would be in a social situation, with, say, my Turkish in-laws at their summer house, sitting around on a lazy evening in the dog days of summer, when one of them would jump up and say “hey, let’s reenact the Battle of Galipoli!” then someone else would say “nah, we don’t have enough plaster cannon balls…I know! Let’s play okey!”

You can hear the sound of okey being played all over Turkey: the gentle clicking of the off white tiles on cheap table cloth or felt topped tables, as a one of the players mixes them around in circular motions with his hands, as if he were waxing the hood of a car with a tissue. The tiles are played from the ıstaka, a two-floor holder of wood, like a double decker Scrabble tile holder. People then seemed, to my untrained, passing eye, to be laying the stones down in patterns, as if playing dominoes.

Actually, the game is really a tile version of rummy…yes, that rummy you played in Mr. Van Ness’ 8th grade homeroom. The object is getting straight sets of all your colored tiles, be them in different numbers, same color (suites, in cards) in numerical order, or three of the same number, different colors.

The twist is keeping an eye on the joker, the wild card, aka, the okey.

Except if no one explains to you, or doesn’t use the article the while explaining a game, you can run into problems, as I did the first time the tile “hand” were laid out before me on the ıstaka:

My wife Zeynep pointed to an upturned red 3 tile in the middle of the table.

My wife: So this is okey.
Me: Why is it okay?
Her: Because we picked it randomly, so…
Me: Okay, but are my other tiles not okay?
Her: No.
Me: Why not? They look fine to me.
Her: Yes they are fine, but they are not okey.
Me: Ah, you mean the okey piece?
Her: Yes! You got it?
Me: Okay.

Me: So what if I get the okey, and I pass it on accidentally to my opponent?
Her: No, that’s not okay.
Me: It’s not? I thought you said red 3 was the okey.
Her: It is!
Me: Okay, okay, let’s just play already.

I think we had this conversation at least three times that evening, leaving me more confused than when I started.

For some reason I had the idea for all these years that it was mind-numbingly simple game. I think a bitter expat told me that once. I suppose it isn’t very complicated. In fact, it involves about 40 percent skill and 60 percent luck, so there is a lot of things that are out of your control, but there is a fairly high degree of skill going once you get in to the team level (four players, you team up with the person sitting across from you). You can play defensively, passing tiles to your neighbor he doesn’t need, even if you yourself need them, and so forth.

Mixing the okey tiles before a game.

Mixing the okey tiles before a game.

Another bizarre thing about the game is the way the tiles are randomized to ensure fairness. Instead of shuffling them 32 times and having the opponent cut the “cards”, each player stacks the tiles five deep, and puts the stacks into rows. Then each person gently plows them toward the middle, rendering the ıstaka multi functional roulette shuffleboard thingy.

Then comes the Byzantine (Ottoman?) process of distributing tiles to the players. It goes a little something like this. The person to the right of the “dealer” roles the dice once to determine who to distribute the first stack of tiles to, then he rolls again and counts that many stacks to his left, and gives the second stack to the same player, then he goes back the first number of stacks back to his right and adds one and gives that next stack plus four to the left again and gives those two stacks to the next guy. Then, the person counts how many times he/she has eaten liver in last year and divides that number by the number of the last okey tile, or something like that…You get the picture.

When it was my turn to deal, my father in law basically guided by hand like a kukla (puppet). I still say swishing the tiles around and picking 14 is the best way, I mean, we aren’t card counters from MIT.

Once I got the hang of the game, it was pretty fun. Similar to Mahjong and Rummikub, okey can be very competitive, yet it is entertaining and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s fairly straightforward, but a game can turn on one wrongly discarded piece.

Tournaments are held in kiraathanes and summer house complexes (siteler) all over the country. Tavla seems very one dimensional by comparison, so if you get bored of backgammon, and your Turkish father-in-law opponent is basically moving the pieces for you because you are playing too slow, try okey.

Okay?

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