Wednesday, 28 March 2012


Before Christmas 2010, I spent a couple of
days in Western Turkey. On a sunny
Sunday, I was walking up a hill behind
the old town in Izmir. 

In his small shop, a tailor was using an old
German sewing machine.

Fruitsellers were selling fruit, children played in the streets, women were sitting in the sun, and an old men attentively read the daily newspaper:


On top of the hill was the castle of Kadifekale, first constructed by one of Alexander's generals around 316 BC. Most of the walls were probably from newer times, but looking around one could still easily imagine Alexander's armies passing by, with one of his generals saying: "Let's build a castle on this hilltop, because this is a good spot to build a castle!".

And a good spot to build a castle it was, widely overlooking the harbour and the sourrounding countryside:

After dreaming for a while about Alexander's armies riding east, I walked down along the other side of the hill. Turning a street corner, I found myself all of a sudden in the middle of what looked like an earthquake-zone. Most of the houses were completely destroyed, and people were sorting throught the rubble to safeguard pieces of wood and iron:

Walking around, I met a young girl. She told me that most of the people living here were Kurds, that the government had torn down their houses, and that everything was very bad. She was a very bright person and eager to communicate, but unfortunately I missed many of the things she told me, as I basically don't speak Turkish. But we walked around for a long time, and she introduced me to her neighbours and friends:

Intrigued about what had happened in their district, I started to make some research when back home, but initially didn't find much. Until I was looking again a couple of days ago, when I found a very well written and interesting report by two economists from Izmir University of Economics and Middle East Technical University, Neslihan Demirtas-Milz and Cenk Saracoglu:

The Urban Renewal in Kadifekale, Izmir: The Crossroads of Neo-Liberal Restructuring of Urban Space and Migration Through Internal Displacement (2011). 

Demirtas-Milz and Saracoglu place the problem into the wider context of the transformation of gecekondu (i.e.squatter) districts in big Turkish cities. Often located near the city center, these neighbourhoods of low-income housing are inhabited mainly by Kurdish migrants from eastern Turkey. As land near the city centers is valuable, migrants are increasingly evicted from their houses and settled in social housing projects along the city outskirts (Saracoglu has also written a book about the subject).

Kadifekale is a special case though, as the site is allegedly placed in a hazardous landslide area, and is supposed to be transformed into a park. At least in theory, evicted inhabitants should get compensation, and are eligible to buy appartments in subsidised social housing projects. However, many of them do not have formal ownership titles, and thus have no right to get compensated. And then the social housing is generally far from the city center. As most migrants work on local markets, they would lose their jobs if having to leave the area, in addition to losing the social ties and connections that existed in their old neighbourhood.

Wednesday, 7 March 2012


Driving south from Tripoli along the Lebanese coast in the evening, you get a beautiful view of the sunset behind Beirut:

Beirut is one of the most interesting places I know. Although
the destruction caused by the civil war (1975-1990) was still
visible in December 2011, the city is incredibly dynamic, bustling with life.

Car horns are honking, building sites are everywhere,
and in the evening thousands of people enjoy walking
through the newly restored city center or along the seafront.


One evening, walking along the corniche, I stumbled on a TV discussion being recorded on a rock in the sea, just below the promenade:

People were sitting in boats to watch the filming:

Beirut is incredibly diverse. In East-Beirut, the streets often look like those of a noble suburb in Paris, and loudspeakers from a Christmas-tree shop were blaring out petit papa noel.

Around the centre, one can still find the odd Ottoman or French-mandate building that has survived both the civil war and post civil-war reconstruction efforts:

Muslim West-Beirut is where business is done, with the streets around the American University busily bustling with people. In the southern suburbs, Hezbollah has a strong presence, with support for Syria extensively displayed:

Just a couple of minutes walk from this place, you come to the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila. Since the massacre of 1982, the once low-rise refugee huts have been transformed into high assemblies of concrete blocks. The streets in between are so narrow and dark that even during the heat of the day, you feel a cold shiver. The picture below is a street along the border of the camp, not far away from the Ramallah Primary School operated by UNRWA.

When I passed by the gates of the school, I had to think about Omar Yussef, headmaster of an UN school for girls in Bethlehem and main protagonist of an excellent and  insightful series of crime novels about contemporary Palestine, written by Matt Rees.

Just afterwards, I met these guys. The one on the right was a baker, who invited us all to an excellent éclair au chocolat:

An omnipresent figure in Beirut is the late Rafiq Hariri. Although assassinated in 2005, his picture can still be found on every street corner:

Hariri made a lot of money in the 1970s, owning a construction firm used by the Saudis. Once he became Lebanese prime minister in the 1990s, he was the main figure behind Solidere, the company for the reconstruction of Beirut's city centre. A good book on Hariri is Killing Mr Lebanon, by Nicholas Blanford.

Ironically, the place where Hariri was assassinated in 2005 (by a road bomb near
the Hotel St. Georges) is now adorned by a huge poster attacking Solidere.
The company is criticized for paying no attention to Beirut's historical
heritage when restoring the city centre (chapter 7 of this excellent
book on the loss of cultural memory gives a detailed account).

After a week in Lebanon, I was deeply impressed by this vibrant, diverse and complex country.

When the plane took off back to Istanbul and the city disappeared below, somebody's cellphone rang. It was playing the famous song by Lebanese singer Fairouz, Li Beirut.