Living Big City Life And Longing For The Island

in Istanbul, Turkey

Sıla Uluçay, a young woman from Cyprus, has chosen the big cities of this world for education and studying: Hongkong, London, Istanbul. When she‘s in need for peace of mind though, she resorts to her home, the island of Cyprus in the Mediterranean. In September, she will continue her studies at Oxford University, but until then, she‘s fully involved in teaching Syrian refugees in Istanbul.

«♫ البنت الشلبية» - with these lines, sung by Libanese artist Fairuz, Sıla begins her day. This song (El bint el shalabiya) was the first thing that sprung to her mind when she woke up this morning. «Arabs say that they listen to Fairuz in the mornings. I know why, now. Listening to her songs in the morning makes you feel at home, whereas in the evening, they make you sad,» she explains her music choice. She has started to study Arabic since recently, following a course at a language school in Istanbul and slowly feeling her way towards the language: «I aspire to be an academic some day, specialising in the Middle East. It‘s crucial to know Arabic in order to achieve my goal.»

She finds the similarities and connections between the Middle East and her home region, the eastern Mediterranean, fascinating and is mesmerised by the process of discovering and understanding them. Watching out of her window, she says: «A grey day today in Istanbul, makes you want to stay in bed all day long.» But that‘s not an option, so she packs her bag and leaves the house. Sıla is a beautiful young woman, you get caught up by her charisma and the friendliness she radiates. Her smile and her temperament give away Mediterranean roots. Her dark eyes, dense brows and black hair further enhance that impression and emphasize the symmetry of her face.

The sky is covering up, the clouds turn greyer and heavier and not before long, a downpour hits the alleyways and streets of Istanbul. Drops of rain burst on the cobble stones and soon the buzz of city life is muted by the constant rushing of the rain. Even Sıla couldn‘t have foreseen such a deluge, luckily umbrella sellers are never far on Istiklal Avenue just off Taksim Square. Five Turkish Liras are handed over and Sıla is equipped with an umbrella that saves her from getting soaked. Her favourite way to start a day is with a delicious breakfast, so she heads for Güney Restaurant near Galata Tower. Glad to be dry and warm again, she sits down at a table and orders several plates with tasty treats. Within minutes, olives, cheese, kaymak (a kind of cream cheese) with honey, tomatoes, cucumbers, menemen (turkish-style eggs), chai (turkish tea) and bread are piled in front of her. Isn‘t she going to have coffee for breakfast? Sıla smiles and explains: «Coffee comes last with this sort of breakfast, to close the meal, so to speak.» It goes without saying that only Turkish coffee will do. While relishing her breakfast, she starts to talk about her home in Cyprus.

Cyprus - sunny and shady sides of an island

Kıbrıs, the Turkish name for Cyprus, is the third largest island in the Mediterranean, after Sicily and Sardinia. Sıla‘s eyes lighten up when she speaks about «her» Kıbrıs and nothing can stop the words flowing from her mouth. She raves about Cyprus, her voice clear and loud. Thanks to her studies in Hong Kong and London, her English is fluent and she has no trouble finding the adequate words to describe what she loves about Cyprus: «Have you ever tasted Ceviz Macunu? It‘s a Cypriot speciality.» Green walnuts, pickled in sugared water, turned black by the time they are ready to eat – and they don‘t look very tempting when they‘re served, but you are well advised trying this treat. Prepared only on special occasions, Ceviz Manucu, drenched in sugared water and skewered onto a fork, are served in a tall glass. It may sound unlikely, but due to the long time they are marinated in sugared water, they become more tender than a Truffe.

After dwelling some more about Cypriot cuisine, she lowers her voice and starts talking about more delicate subjects. «Cyprus has a problem and we are far from solving it,» she sets off. «A great deal of the trouble people have to go through in Northern Cyprus are structural, such as nepotism and patronage.» Many attempts have been made to change this precarious situation, but until now without measurable success. «The Turkish Cypriot community is isolated from the rest of the world, economically, socially and politically.» Sıla states that Northern Cyprus depends to a large extent from another country: Turkey. This dependency has its roots in the frozen conflict in Cyprus: «There is no way to address the structural problems, as long as the reunification of the island can‘t be achieved.» De facto, the island has been divided since 1974. If you google «Cyprus», most of the hits you will get are ads for holidays and pictures of smiling people on sandy beaches. The Swiss media don‘t pay a lot of attention to the conflict. Articles dealing with the political situation in Cyprus? - Nope. Nobody seems to be interested. The southern part of the Island (the Republic of Cyprus) has covered its coast in big hotel complexes, advertises for all-inclusive holidays and has turned the once lovely village of Agia Napa into a huge party location, trying to lure young people from England, Scandinavia and Central Europa on the search for a cheap clubbing holiday to the island. Besides, there are still British military bases on Cyprus, originating from the period of British rule over the island. Nikosia, the capital, is divided to this day. The so-called «Green Line» (the border between Northern and Southern Cyprus) is controlled by UN peacekeeping forces. Officially, the Republic of Cyprus consists of the whole island, but the North is under control of the «Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus» and is only recognized by the Turkish government. People like Sıla, who live in Northern Cyprus, are thus citizens of a globally unacknowledged country: «Every time I have to utter the word «Cyprus conflict» I nearly choke. And I am not the only one. We are many and we are desperate, because so far all attempts for a reunification have failed.»

Her phone rings, her father is on the other end of the line. After a short conversation, Sıla hangs up and says: «I miss my parents. Well, to be honest, I think I miss Cyprus and the sun just as much.» She truly loves Cyprus, the different colours and shades of the island, the almost eternal sunshine and the feeling of home the island evokes in her. She shows us a picture of her father and tells us about his characteristic Ottoman nose. «My little sister used to tease me and say, my nose would turn just as big, once I grow up», she says smilingly.

Among minorities

Sıla moved to Istanbul in autumn 2014, after finishing her masters – a step she had always dreamt of. Unfortunately, reality didn‘t quite look as bright as she had imagined. She couldn‘t find a suitable job and decided to work as a volunteer for the Armenian weekly Agos, a renowned newspaper in Istanbul whose editor-in-chief, Hrant Dink, got shot in 2007, right in front of the publishing house. Sıla worked for Agos from November 2014 until February 2015, contributing to the arts section: «I wrote my articles in Turkish, but the newspaper comes in Turkish and Armenian.» It was an interesting time to work for Agos, especially during that period. In 2015, the Armenian Genocide dates back exactly 100 years.«I attended the editorial meeting where we discussed which subjects will be covered for the anniversary edition. That was an interesting one,» she narrates. Sıla also liked the cooperation with Armenians, who form a minority in Istanbul, just like she does as a Turkish Cypriot. «I experienced many of the Armenians in Istanbul to be quite self-mocking, I like that,» she says and tells us a little anecdote from her days at the newspaper. November 2014, the UNESCO declared the traditional Armenian Lavash (a sort of flatbread) to be an immaterial World Cultural Heritage. The editor wanted to include the story but stated that it was ridiculous, that a bread couldn‘t possibly be in the possession of a nation. He didn‘t feel well presenting Lavash – which by the way is used a lot in Turkish cuisine as well – as belonging only to Armenians and regarded it as being far too nationalist. The consequence being that the editor asked a co-worker to write the story of Lavash as a cultural asset of the region.

Endless and eternal Istanbul

The clock is ticking on, Sıla is supposed to be in Zeytinburnu by midday, literally on the other end, albeit still the European one, of the city. She hurries out of the restaurant towards the metro station. The rain has ceased, but a fairly strong wind has started to blow along the Bosporus and breaks the umbrella she only just bought. At a smart pace she disappears into the depths of the underground. «That‘s just like London. No more litter bins at the tube stations since the terror attacks in 2005,» she says, annoyed that she can‘t dispose of the broken umbrella and is forced to carry around the deformed wire-structure with her. Sıla teaches at the «Turkey Syrian Association», seemingly halfway around the world, so the journey takes quite a while. Istanbul is seven times the size of London and has 14 million inhabitants. Even Sıla is regularly overwhelmed by the sheer size of it. «There is a proverb in Turkish, saying that wherever you are in Istanbul, you won‘t ever be able to see the end of the city.» We get off the tube and take a metrobüs (a bus having its own lane and thus able to advance faster than the rest of the traffic). After a long drive with the metrobüs, Sıla changes yet to another vehicle, this time a normal urban bus, that will drop her off at the «Turkey Syrian Association».

«There is a proverb in Turkish, saying that wherever you are in Istanbul, you won‘t ever be able to see the end of the city.»

While riding the bus, Sıla sees two of her students and comments: «They‘re very smart ones.» On her lap sits a big and heavy Turkish grammar book: «Today we‘ll do repetitions, tomorrow my students are in for a short test and I want them to be perfectly prepared.» It‘s not an official test but if they do well, they are allowed to follow the continuation course. A little late she finally arrives at the school and hurries up to the classroom on the third floor. Blue painted walls, pink doors, children‘s drawings hung up on the walls – many hints give away the fact that we‘re at a primary school. So does the size of the desks and chairs, they‘re not meant for adults and it does look quite funny how Sıla‘s pupils fold themselves into a sitting position behind the desks. When the lesson starts, there are three men and five women in the classroom. All of the women wear headscarves.

Language – a path to integration

Sıla spent some of her high school years in Hong Kong. When she was only twenty years old, life lead her to London where she studied law at the UCL. She then proceeded to get her master‘s degree at the SOAS in London, focusing on «Near and Middle Eastern Studies». She benefited from an excellent education and she is clearly aware of the fact. A fraction of that knowledge she now shares with her students. Turkish Grammar is no walk in the park. Right now, she explains how to link nouns and what appendixes have to be used to do so correctly. Some of the students record everything she says, whereas others seem to be more of the auditory learning types. However, reagardless of their learning type, all her students participate lively when it comes to talking exercises. Many questions are asked and Sıla skilfully addresses them one by one. Very few times she has to consult her big grammar book – it‘s covered in post-it note‘s – in order to come up with a good example to explain a certain grammatical problem.

It‘s cold, almost chilly in the classroom. There‘s not much of an insulation and the students have kept their winter jackets on. It‘s imaginable that this house dates back to times where Istanbul was still called Constantinople. Sıla is the only one without a coat on – a sign of her relentless dedication and commitment. She‘s not just sitting at her desk, but paces around the classroom, writes frenziedly on the whiteboard and goes out of her way to make her students understand the complicated grammar structures.

Her voice resounds loudly and clearly. Her students listen, spellbound, and show great interest in whatever subject she brings up. On the agenda now: diminutives. Turkish language operates a lot with suffixes, so to say something like «little Sıla» you‘d take the suffix -cik and add it to the noun or name you want to belittle. Sıla becomes Sılacik, little Sıla . As the class carries on, more and more students drop by, two women and three men join the class and engage in learning. The more people are in it, the smaller the classroom seems to get. Next task for her students is to write a small essay about themselves, a mock test for tomorrow, when they will have to complete the same task. Silent falls over the class room, only interrupted by the constant scratching of pens on paper.

After a while it becomes apparent that most of the students have finished their texts and the classroom livens up again. Sıla announces a short break. She spends her breaks with four women, two pairs of sisters: «I told them that during class I‘m their teacher but outside the classroom, we‘re friends.» She invites the four students to a small patisserie just around the corner. Sipping tea and nibbling on pastries, the students tell us their stories. They have been in Istanbul for one respectively two years. Istanbul is close enough to Syria, that‘s one of the reasons they chose this city above others – to be able to go back, as soon as war in Syria is over. One of the girls tells us about her brothers working in Istanbul in order to be able to one day pay for the university fee of their sisters – if they will go to university one day. All four of them have already studied in Damascus, pharmaceutics, commercial studies, business management, nursing and french literature. This vast array of subjects shows the breadth of dreams and aspirations these four women had – and still have. War has changed their lives and now, in Turkey, they have to start all over again. Language is the first obstacle they have to overcome and the free language courses they enjoy at the «Turkey Syrian Association» is an important step towards continuing their studies at an university – be it here or back in Damascus. «They are all very optimistic about their future and put a lot of effort in their studies. I‘m impressed over and over again by the resilience they show when it comes to pursuing their dreams,» says Sıla. When she points out the fact that they should take their time and don‘t feel pressured so much to go back to university as soon as possible, she takes on a motherly intonation. Looking at her dealing with this situation, she seems much older and mature than she actually is. She has the gift of explaining things to people in a way that she is hardly ever contradicted.

Back in the classroom, the students start reading their texts in class and then turn back to grammar. The lesson is shortly interrupted by the principal of the school who has come to conduct the attendance check. He is Syrian as well and heads the school together with two other dedicated Syrians. Having met Sıla at SOAS in London, he was the one bringing Sıla to teach in Istanbul.

The lesson is drawing to a close and Sıla takes advantage of the last minutes to write down the lyrics of a famous Turkish song on the whiteboard - Bu Sabah Yağmur Var İstanbul‘da. They discuss the lyrics line by line and one of the students looks for the song on youtube, so the whole class can listen to it. The students are attentive listeners and for a moment, nothing but the voice of the Turkish singer, rattling out of the speakers of a smartphone, can be heard.

Today is the last day of teaching for Sıla. Before taking continuing her studies in Oxford, she will take a little time off and visit her parents. So she won‘t be able to teach on Saturdays, as she has done for the past few months. The principal has informed her students about the fact that she was leaving, while he was conducting the attendance control. Although her Arabic is not quite as sound as it could be, she could sense the topic of the conversation he was having with her class. They are visibly sad that she will be living and no doubt they‘re going to miss her a great deal. She‘s made a big impression on them. As if to prove this fact everyone wants their picture taken with Sıla, so they can remember her. Posing in front of the whiteboard, smartphones are whipped out and everyone gets their turn. Most of the students thank Sıla in person for everything she‘s done for them and has taught them, shake her hand and wish her well. Sıla‘s face, too, shows traces of sadness – saying goodbye is never easy. «Teaching these people was a meaningful task and I really felt I was helping them, that I was needed,» she explains. After the last pupil has left the classroom, Sıla has a quick check and makes sure she has not left anything behind – besides memories and a durable impression. She stops by at the teachers‘ lounge to sort out admin stuff. Then the door shuts behind her and yet another chapter of her life comes to a close.

Back on the streets of Istanbul, the sun has prevailed over the clouds and beams on Sıla‘s face. The journey back home takes just as long as the way to the school, only that public transport is much more crowded at this time of the day, it‘s rush hour on Saturday afternoon. Tired but happy she sets on the journey back. She lives in Besiktas, a small district just off Taksim Square. While riding the bus, she talks in length on the phone to her little sister and by her relaxed face, you can tell she is not in a crowded bus somewhere in the suburbs of Istanbul, but back home, on her island in the Mediterranean.

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