Live from Istanbul

Four years ago, as a budding senior in high school, I went to Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism. It was a 6-day program for over-achiever high school students, like myself, who were pumping up their resumes for college application season.

Privileged, entitled kids from all over the world poured into Columbia’s freshman dorms, lugging laptops and sets of extra-long twin sheets. Our parents were terrified to leave us alone in New York City for the first time, fearing excessive partying and bad decision making. But really, we were high school students who had essentially volunteered to spend a week in a form of summer school.

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We were nerds. No one really had to worry about us partying too hard.

Anyway! I went to Columbia to learn about journalism. College applications loomed large in my immediate future, and with them, a big question: “What do I want to DO with my life?” My answer, as it turned out, was that I wanted to write. I wanted to be a novelist, and a poet, and an essayist, and a bestselling nonfiction writer. I wanted to write everything, but really, that just means I had no idea what I wanted to say.

In any case, majoring in Journalism seemed like a good way to figure that out. So I signed up for Columbia’s J-School summer program, packed my bags, and moved to Morningside Heights for a week.

I was fucking terrified.

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Guys, I don’t know if you know this about me, but I can be painfully shy.

A stereotypical introvert, a room full of new people is totally overwhelming to me. The anxiety of introducing myself to a gaggle of strangers is virtually paralyzing. So instead of making friends and flitting about like a social butterfly, I spent my first night at Columbia eating a sandwich alone in my room with Philippa Gregory’s latest novel. I was pretty sure this week would be super awkward, and I had just committed myself to 6 days of pure torture.

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But it would look good on my resume, right?

Anyway, one flat-bread panini and 2 chapters later, it was time for orientation. All of the students participating in the program had to meet in an auditorium-like room and get briefed on what to expect for the next few days. Incidentally, we also had to be informed not to jump out of our windows or go sledding down the stairs atop our mattresses. Because, obviously, vital information.

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So I got to orientation five minutes early, sat down near the back, and watched as the rows around me filled with chattering students. “How can they all have friends already?” I wondered anxiously, suddenly feeling less like an introvert and more like a social failure. We had all moved into our dorm rooms only a few hours earlier, and somehow, most of the students had already formed giggling, inseparable cliques. As the seats around me remained empty, I started to freak out a little bit.

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Shit. Eating dinner alone on the first night was totally fine, but was I going to be that weird girl with no friends all week?

Orientation started. I was still an island among empty seats.

Fuck. I was totally on track to be that girl.

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Awkward penguin girl.

And then, ten minutes into the no-sledding-on-your-mattresses portion of the program, a whirlwind of color and energy flew into the seat next to me. I looked over, and there she was, all long, flowing black hair and big earrings and colorful scarves swirling about. “Can I sit here?” she asked with a smile.

“Of course,” I replied, relieved as all hell that I was no longer an island in a sea of empty seats.

Her name was Nimet, but she told me to call her Nemo (like my favorite, animated clownfish), and as it turned out, we would be in the same journalism class together for the whole week. We became instant friends.

When orientation ended, we walked out together, talking easily as we flowed out onto the quad. She pulled out a cigarette and started smoking nonchalantly–these were the days before New York became a virtual non-smoking police state. We hung out on the steps in front of the library and talked about life until it got too late to talk anymore. For that week, we were inseparable–we even made plans to be roommates together the following year, when we both hoped to be freshman journalism students at NYU. She wound up going to school in Washington, D.C., so that never panned out. But we’ve kept in touch, and she’ll always have a special place in my heart. She was just one of those people that you feel like your soul recognizes immediately, like you were friends in a past life or something.

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For real guys, hippy-dippy shit aside.

Anyway! My dear Nemo is Turkish. She grew up in Adana, a beach town on Turkey’s Mediterranean coast, and then moved to Istanbul to be a super impressive student at a super elite school. College has brought her to the U.S. for a few years, but her family and her heart will always be in Turkey.

So on May 31st, when Turkish police attacked peaceful protestors with teargas and fire hoses in Istanbul’s Gezi Park, Nemo took it personally. She left D.C. to join the fight back home, occupying Gezi not only to save the park from destruction, but also to resist the violence and totalitarianism exhibited by the Turkish government.

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She’s back in D.C. now, but since the initial clash, Nemo’s been live reporting the developments in Turkey on Facebook and Twitter. In her, the Occupy Gezi movement has a fierce feminist voice that can reach across cultures and hemispheres, connecting Istanbul’s streets to American college campuses and beyond. Her updates haven’t gone viral, and to those outside of her personal network, she’s just another protestor, another face in the crowd.

But maybe that’s what makes her powerful. So often, it’s the women on the ground that make history without garnering fame, who anonymously break all the rules to clear pathways for others. It’s women like Nemo who will lead Turkey–and hopefully, the rest of the world–out of Orwellian violence and surveillance, and towards something better. It’s women like Nemo who won’t be anonymous for much longer.

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Here she is, literally anonymous.

Nemo isn’t the only person who takes Occupy Gezi personally. I do too. In 2011, I visited Istanbul, and I absolutely fell in love with it. My trip was, of course, shaped by Nemo and her endless stream of advice about what to do and what to see. But it was also shaped by another Turkish friend who I connected with instantly. An older gentleman who used to do business with my father got in contact with me when he heard I’d be visiting his hometown, and quickly appointed himself my personal tour guide. With his wife on vacation and his home lonely and quiet, he happily retrieved me and my travel buddy from the airport, took us site seeing, and brought us to places we would have never gone on our own. This man was more sweet and generous than any other I’ve ever met, and he made Istanbul sparkle a little brighter.

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Me, travel buddy, and our favorite Turkish man atop the Galata Tower in Istanbul.

So for me, Istanbul’s not just another place on the map where there’s political turmoil stewing. It’s an adventure, a dear memory, a home for people I love. And it’s bleeding.

So let’s rally behind Nemo, Femmoliticas. Follow her on Twitter, @nimetkirac, and learn about what you can do to support the Occupy Gezi movement.

Because she’s the future. And so are we. Live from Istanbul.

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