A Travellerspoint blog

Liberation in a Burqa

You heard me.

overcast 3 °C

Misconceptions about Islam are rampant in this post-9/11 world. Many people subscribe to clichés without knowing the basic tenets of the world's newest major religion, or its origins. For example, did you know that the word Islam means 'peace through submission to God?' Didn't think so. Allow me to tell you more.

Islam began in 622 AD when the archangel Gabriel revealed God's message to the prophet Muhammad. His message was for Arabic Bedouin tribes to abandon tribal deities and worship one God. Muhammad used his charisma to gain the good favour of tribal leaders and eventually went to the Kaaba in Mecca and destroyed the tribes' idols, demanding that they be united in a monotheistic society. The story continues on from there and Islam gains in popularity until it reaches 1.5 billion people as it stands today, but at the root of it all is the Prophet and his simple message.

Up until his death Muhammad readily reminded his followers not to worship him. He did this for the same reason he destroyed the idols and did away with the Christian notion of a clergy: his message was that God alone is worthy of worship. Furthermore, in the Qar'an Allah is given 99 names to avoid followers worshiping the name of God itself. They really drive this point home.

Respecting this, Muslim artists who depict Muhammad never draw his face because doing so is dangerously close to idol worship. Thus, Muhammad can be identified in Muslim art as the man with either no face at all, or a white veil covering his features. This is why the Danish Muhammad cartoon was so particularly offensive to Muslims: it assumed the features of the Prophet. According to the Qar'an, this is one of Islam's biggest no-no's. I know what you are thinking and I completely agree. It is fascinating.

One thing not mentioned in the Qur'an, however, is the burqa. A symbol of oppression to some, a right of expression and freedom of religion to others, the burqa has become a contemporary issue in Islam despite its omission in the Holy book. According to my top secret informant, Wikipedia, the origins of the burqa predate Islam. Back in the day they were used by both sexes on the Arabic peninsula as a way to shield ones face in the desert. Women of child-bearing age found another important use: to blend in with older women and lessen their chances of being kidnapped during tribal battles. In a Bedouin context a burqa is genius and makes perfect sense, but in today's world women of child-bearing age hanging out in the desert can rely on other ways to stay safe, such as the rule of law or bear spray. So why does modern Islam require modest women to play peek-a-boo out of what is essentially a big black tent whenever they leave the house?

I think I know the answer. Baklava.

Have you BEEN to Turkey? The food is ridiculous. How many of these delights were around when Islamic leaders were deciding on social norms remains unknown, but today there is a very strong case to be made for wearing loose clothing in countries with food as rich as it is here.

Women in burqas can eat whatever they want! What greater freedom is there in this world? They need not know the pains of jean shopping or the horrors of browsing for bikinis after months of hibernation in the Canadian winter. Unknown are the mathematics of calorie counting or the notion of 'ambition pants.' What peace may be found found when carbs are not the enemy, one can only imagine.

Some women's rights groups and the French government in particular have condemned the burqa as a form of oppression. While outlawing it is fraught with problems one can definitely see their point. I wonder, however, if forcing conservative Muslim women to fit into western society's conception of 'free,' might in fact make them slaves to the ideals, and ideal waistlines, of the west. This is not to say that all Muslim women who don a burqa are overweight or have poor eating habits- but they could!

How ironic that Sarkozy and others cry oppression when these women may be the most free (in a strictly culinary sense) out of any of us. Certainly if I could rewrite the social code for Canadian society I would deem love handles the new D-cup and baggy lululemons the new skinny jean. There may be something to this whole burqa thing after all. Indeed, one of Islam's most hotly contested symbols which began in the desert may be maintained a millennium and a half later by dessert.

Posted by LeiCran 05:46 Archived in Turkey Tagged educational Comments (2)

The Worst Traveler Ever

with the best friends in the world.

sunny 2 °C

I am the worst traveler ever.

I do not give a hoot about important traveling things like schedules, and care a lot about unimportant fun things like watching hockey games and eating. Let me give you an example of typical Leilla logic that creeps out when I am left to my own devices. Today as I was on the bus heading toward the airport in London I realized I had not eaten a real British meal in my four days there, so opted for a massive British breakfast instead of the massive check-in line. The scrambled eggs were delicious and I had a real cappuccino (which is rare in Turkey, where I was headed), so I took my time, wrote some emails, people watched, etc, and when I finally meandered to the ticket desk they advised me to RUN because I was late and had only made check in by two minutes.

At this point you are probably feeling some sympathy stress, aren't you reader? Certainly a normal person would feel a little adrenaline and run as instructed, but this young writer thought, "well that worked out perfectly" and kept on meandering. What is wrong with me? I was sitting just around the corner eating eggs and almost missed my flight - and I was not even hung over! Somewhere between buying a magazine and checking out Duty Free (read, not rushing at all) I had a major realization: when it comes to traveling, I suck. I get so excited to get there, where ever there may be, that I do not think about much else. Forgetting my laptop in Canada is a painful case in point. Thankfully, though, I usually travel with friends who are exceptionally good at remembering those important things, leaving me free to entertain whims and spend a lot of time eating. That would explain why I always have so much fun but often have no idea where I am.


So you see, being a bad traveler is one of those traits that sounds negative but is actually a really good thing, like someone who does not know how to diet because they can eat whatever they want. The silver lining on this cloud is so thick that it is essentially a silver cloud. I have loved life all over this wonderful world of ours with great travelers so I have never had to develop traveling skills of my own.

Take my latest adventure in Southeastern Turkey. My dear friend Emilie was SO excited to see Diyarbakir, Mardin, Harran, Urfa, Nemrut Dagi and Malatya that she had been organizing the trip in her sleep for the weeks leading up to it. She created a watertight time line that saw us visit biblical ruins from 9000 BC, explore the Kurdish capital of Turkey, climb a mountain to visit a UNESCO site in the snow - a site that is normally swarming with tourists but we had all to ourselves - and see a part of the country that many people do not know or understand, all in six days. Every morning she was literally bursting with excitement to get out and explore.

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It was a great pleasure to float on her coattails through such an interesting area, having loads of fun the entire way. It was the same as I toured South East Asia in 2005 and again this January in New Zealand. My friends tend to be amazingly organized yet somehow extremely fun people, it is the strangest thing.


That is not to say, however, that I had no input in that Turkey trip. I organized the worst accommodation of the week in a damp, freezing cold, overpriced hostel on top of a mountain, one with shitty internet and a shitty laptop that we used to watch the men's gold medal game. Em and Paul, you are welcome.


Not only did I suck at organizing logistics, I sucked at organizing myself. As mentioned, we climbed a mountain. It was a 24-km hike in blistering wind and snow, without a visible trail or any other tourists.


For the hike my well-prepared traveling companions brought waterproof hiking shoes; I brought fake Nike sneakers with the warmth and waterproofing of slippers.


They brought warm winter jackets; I brought a felt peacoat that weighed close to 20 pounds.


While wandering through towns they practiced their Turkish; I practiced my broken English a la mime.


They stuck to a responsible budget; I over-ate and over-tipped at every meal.

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They brought umbrellas; I trusted it would not rain.


They were interested in the ruins; I wanted to goof off with locals.

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They could remember the names of the towns we were in - you get the point.


The crux of the issue is this: having fun is the only thing I regard with seriousness, and while I recognize I should care a little more about what other people consider important, I just don't. To be perfectly honest, the ruins bored me - there I said it! - and I was happy hiking with cold, wet feet in my city coat. It makes for a better story anyway.


Perhaps you are being gracious and blaming a lingering cultural fatigue for my lack of initiative. Unfortunately, dear optimistic reader, this is not the case because the trend continued this weekend in London. I was there for a job interview which quickly became an excuse to go to the Big Smoke and catch up with some of my favorite people. It is perhaps no surprise that I showed up inadequately prepared, requiring a quick game of dress-up the night before my interview so I did not go in bare legs and my going-out boots. I took zero scenic pictures aside from what ended up in the background by accident and did none of the errands I had planned.


Instead, I went eating and drinking, led all over the town once again by hilarious and well-organized friends. It was the best weekend I can remember. Being a bad traveler has its merits.

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So you see, the very fact of my sucky traveling existence is tribute to how wonderful my friends are. As such I would like to take this opportunity to thank some of the best travelers out there: Boulles, Hoof, Ponch, Germ, and Shinderellie. Thank you so much for making me the terrible traveler I am today.

Posted by LeiCran 15:28 Archived in England Tagged preparation Comments (2)

My First Groping

overcast 13 °C

I always pictured my first time being fondled in Turkey as a dramatic scene of injustice followed by an uprising of support for gender equality, perhaps with an Islamic movement for social change taking shape in its wake - a 'tear down the Berlin Wall' moment, if you will. In actuality the event was completely nondescript and much more of a 'Canada signed a free-trade agreement with Iceland' moment. Yawwn.

He was a tissue-seller, I was a naïve student more interested in my iPod and getting a seat on the bus than guarding my Sedin twins. He opened with the standard move of a street vendor: shaking a box of tissues at me, perhaps to demonstrate their durability. I followed with the standard move of an uninterested foreigner: repetition of the word for NO, hayır, countless times and in every language I could think of. It turns out using variations of no in English is not helpful with people who only speak Turkish. Fat chance, Def not, Scram or I only use 3-ply will get you no where. He indicated that buying just one pack was what the doctor ordered by holding up one finger and shaking it. Bir. Bir. (One. One.) Apparently he wanted me to know that his finger was also quite durable. Being clever, I made a circle with my fingers and thumb, looked at him through it, and said sıfır - zero. It seemed like we were having a real conversation, going back and forth politely: Bir, bir. Hayır, sıfır. Bir. Hayır. Bir, bir, bir. haiiiii-urrrr. I was getting bored and the cute old man waiting for the bus beside me looked oblivious (and therefore non-English speaking) so I told Shakey McTurk an opportune joke to amuse myself: How do you make a tissue dance? Put a little boogie in it! Surely my charm and wit would make this annoying man respect me and leave. He laughed and patted my arm but alas stayed put.

In fact, Captain Persistent had misinterpreted my get lost-joke as an invitation for friendship and reached out to shake my hand. Can you get hepatitis from a handshake? I hope not. I uncomfortably obliged, and all the creepiness he had been suppressing came oozing out. He tried to hold onto my hand and his laugh turned into an evil chuckle. The machinery of his brain visibly changed gears from Lira to leering. He offered me a cigarette but of course I declined, this time trying very hard not to be charming.

The cute old man beside me seemed sympathetic to my plight. Since he (thankfully) did not understand English I pleaded with my eyes for him to use some colourful Turkish to tell CreepyPants to hit the road. Before he could say or do anything, however, Chuckles casually reached out to pat my arm again - so I thought! - but instead gave Henrick a solid bounce and meandered away to shake his tissues at other people, as if it were a normal parting gesture. Gobsmacked, it took a second for the wave of revulsion to pass and the familiar tendency toward comedy to take it's place. This was expedited by the cute old man beside me who leaned over with a twinkle in his eye and said, in unfaltering English, 'I think he wanted to do business with you.'

Posted by LeiCran 11:55 Archived in Turkey Tagged women Comments (6)

A Wild Goose Chase where the Goose is actually a Duck

Culture Shock

storm 10 °C

Upon sitting down in my first class in Istanbul I was overcome with a strong desire to shout obscenities at my professor. Of course I would never do such a thing, but the thought was extremely satisfying. How odd; I am not at all an aggressive person. Nevertheless there I was laughing on the inside as I pictured myself pushing her off her chair and throwing her pencil across the room. You are probably wondering what on earth brought a classy and sophisticated person like myself to the verge of humiliating immaturity. The reasons for my mental temper-tantrum are threefold:

First, it was my birthday, and it sucked. I woke up to a noticeable absence of celebration of any sort. Then the Turkish lesson was hard (it made me feel like I was back in my first days of NPSIA confidently preparing to debate my soon-to-be dear friend Paul who is a freaking genius and made me look like the Sarah Palin of politics). The birthday blues were fast descending and it was not even noon so I decided to take off my Princess Pants and forget that it was my special day. Clearly Turkey had missed the memo and I would not be receiving the royal treatment this year. (On the bright side, if you subscribe to the idea that you are only as old as you feel then I am still at the ripe old age of 4!)

Also, after having spent a blissful 3 weeks in the honeymoon phase with Istanbul I was moving into the second stage of culture shock: the rejection phase. Travel and Health websites warn that the newcomer may begin to feel aggressive and start to complain about the host culture/country. . . . It is important to recognize that these feelings are real and can become serious. This phase is a kind of crisis in the 'disease' of culture shock. It is called the "rejection" phase because it is at this point that the newcomer starts to reject the host country, complaining about and noticing only the bad things that bother them. At this stage the newcomer may either move on to the third stage, seek comfort with a colony of countrymen “Colony Syndrome” or simply go home. I had recently noticed myself more than a little irked by gender differences and crowding in Istanbul. Good thing the Olympics are on in my hometown, otherwise known as The Best Place on Earth. As if I need any more enticement.

Lastly, my sudden urge to bully may also be explained by a frustration-induced delirium. Emilie and I had spent about 4 hours on buses trying to get our student bus pass, but the office was not making the 2010 passes until the following week and had closed 30 minutes prior to our arrival. Perfect. Glad we came. We spent another hour looking for a bus back to campus, wandering along the highway like lost, blond sheep (read lots of honking and slow, gawking drive-by's). When loud trucks rumbled past we would take the opportunity to get our frustration out and yell as loud as we could into the roar of the engine. That game lifted our spirits until I got an email from a school administrator that our evening class was an hour earlier than we had thought. We skipped dinner to make it on time. (Yeah, I missed a meal for school. That is love.) Finally we got to the professor's office and were greeted by the typical Turkish response to someone in a hurry: Where are you from? As if I have time for this right now! It is time to learn! Well no, it was not. No one else had shown up early so we had to wait until more students arrived.

We were tired, hungry, soiled by exhaust and public transit, suffering from cultural fatigue, and extremely frustrated with constant misinformation. With perma-scowls we stormed the cafeteria in a silent fury. The big basket of free bread that normally causes us to break out into song was violently pillaged and thrown aside. Not even our favorite treat, sutlaç (rice pudding) could cheer us up. The little dark rainclouds over our heads were not going anywhere.

As we dragged our broken spirits back to class we tried to make sense of our day. It was not so much a conversation as the two of us spitting out bitter comments about our hardships and praising Canada's beautifully organized society (if I had a penny). We were absolute epitomes of the rejection phase. Still reeling from the dreadful saga of the laptop (http://leillac.travellerspoint.com/1/), I started to generalize about Turkish bureaucracy with a comment about how it is like a wild goose chase where you never actually catch the goose, but Em finished my thought perfectly: Turkey is a wild goose chase where the goose is actually a duck.

Finally the spell was broken and we laughed for the first time in hours. All the silliness that had been building up with no release came tumbling out in a jubilant waterfall of immaturity. We were literally drunk with laughter so that now I cannot remember the strange things we found funny. Suffice to say that is the state of mind I was in as I sat down in my first ever graduate class in Turkey and felt delighted at the thought of dumping my entire water bottle on my professor's head. It was a good birthday after all.

Posted by LeiCran 09:28 Archived in Turkey Tagged disabilities Comments (1)

Eating Brain

overcast 10 °C

"Eating Brain" means different things to different people. For me, it is a literal interpretation. I ate a sheep's brain. At first it was like fois gras with an earthy essence. With lemon juice and paprika and spread on bread it became even more pate-like. But when you get right down to it, it was a brain. 'Nuff said.

Posted by LeiCran 09:33 Archived in Turkey Tagged food Comments (0)

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