Basmane Fashion Star

I met “Laila” when I was an English teacher volunteering with ReVi (Refugee Volunteers of Izmir.) As usual, I came into the classroom a few minutes early. But this time, instead of finding the usual Arabic teacher commanding the class, I found a striking young woman with black eyes dancing wildly in front of captivated children.

As she danced, the children danced. She danced to the left, then all the children followed her to the left. She danced right, and they followed her to the right. She gestured wildly and the sea of children before her, followed her movements with their arms. Then, when the song was over, she looked at me and said “Hello!” and bolted out of the room.

I soon found out that this dance instructor was also a journalist. Since then, Laila’s interviews with the Syrians of Izmir have been the main source for the articles I write. I hope that they will continue to be a source for my articles long after I leave.

Along with being a dance instructor and a journalist, Laila is also a fashion diva. Every time I see her, she is wearing something completely insane and pulling it off like a boss. Like an ember that never goes out, dancing high into the night sky, she is a bright light in Basmane; the large Syrian neighborhood here in Izmir, Turkey.

I had wanted to interview Laila about her fashion for months, but the language barrier had always been a problem. Now, with her English improved, we were able to talk vogue.

Before the interview, I met her and her mother after dance class, and the three of us walked up to her flat in the heart of Basmane. While she changed in and out various outfits, I talked with her mother in a mix of French, English, and Arabic. Laila periodically popped out of her room and re-translated and elaborated on our conversation for us. After capturing her three favourite outfits on film, we sat together and she explained the fashion to me.

“This is a good summer outfit. It’s a ‘blouza’ (blouse) and ‘tanoura’ (long skirt.) The pattern of the skirt is ‘zakhrafa’ which means something like, “old art.” When I wear this I feel happy and energized, and also relaxed because the shirt is light. It’s something I wear with friends. For example, last weekend I went shopping with my girlfriends and this was the outfit I wore.

Now about the shoes. They are white, which is my favourite colour for shoes. I only wear these shoes with this skirt. I got these shoes, like most of my clothes, in Kameralti [the gigantic bazaar close by.]”

“Yellow is my favourite colour. When I wear yellow, I feel energetic. It is the colour of the sun – of light. I usually like things simple and plain, which is what I like about the shirt. It’s feels light and free. I love jeans like this; bedazzled, and ripped a little. I have many pairs of pants that are ripped like this. The shoes are not exclusive to this outfit. They’re great for any of my other yellow clothes. This is an outfit for everyday.”

 

“I wear this outfit in winter because it keeps me warm when it’s cold out. I’m happy in this outfit because it makes me feel like a princess. It could also use a necklace, but the necklace would need to be a dark colour, unlike the light necklaces I have. I like these shoes because they’re simple and the black matches well. This is a great outfit for parties and special occasions. This is what I wore on my birthday.”

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“I got this earring in Syria a long time ago- four years ago. I was 15 years old. I like the feeling of the feather, and the beads add to the old-style vintage look. It’s part of a pair, although the other earring of the pair is different.”

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“Since I was a little girl I’ve always loved owls. I don’t have any brothers or sisters, so every time I was alone, like in the evenings, I felt alone like an owl. Also, she has black eyes, and I have black eyes. I got these earrings recently from a Syrian friend who lives in Istanbul.”

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“I got this necklace from another Syrian friend who was here in Izmir. Now she lives in Sweden. I wear it all the time.”

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“I like music so much. In my dance school in Syria, my teacher played a little guitar, and it reminds me of my teacher.”

 

There was one piece of jewelry I wanted to ask Liala about, but I couldn’t take a photo of. She had a small black jewel on her nose.

FIwith<3: I have to ask about the nose piercing. Is this a common thing in Syria?

Laila: No. But it is in Istanbul, where I used to live.

FIwith<3: And what do your parents think of it?

Laila: My dad – NO. He didn’t like it, but now he’s OK with it. My mother’s fine with it.

FIwith<3: Why did you get it?

Laila: I don’t know, I was in the mall with my girlfriend, who also had a nose piercing, and I saw a place where I could get it done. So, I got a small and simple nose piercing. I don’t like them big, just small and simple and black like the owl eyes.

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[Glasses with fake plastic lenses] “I had real glasses in Syria but my prescription has changed. Now I wear contacts with the correct prescription. But I like glasses with big frames, so I have these fake ones that I wear with my contacts.”

These three outfits only scratch the surface of Laila’s style. After the interview, she sent me a digital mountain’s worth of photographs of gear and garments from her wardrobe.

“I care about the clothes I chose,” she said while contemplating about her style, “I feel confident and I also sometimes like to be different and distinct …but in a good way.”

Basmane Fashion Star

The Grey, Part II of THE BLACK, THE GREY, AND THE WHITE; A BRIEF EXPLORATION OF THE THREE CITIES OF IRAQI KURDISTAN.

I am flying over the Iraqi desert in a half empty medium sized aircraft. The closest passenger is three rows behind me and snoring loudly. My GPS freezes after leaving Turkish airspace, so I play a game of looking out the window to guess where I am. While I am probably somewhere between Dohuk and Erbil, the surface below reminds more of Mars than anything else. An endless series of cracked canyons is embedded between thin mountain chains in the otherwise flat desert. These thin scars stretch between both horizons.

As we begin our descent, I start to notice long white columns of smoke rising from the mountains below. The smoke is organic, the product of burning farmland. It is a refreshingly natural sight. Burning crop waste has been practiced by farmers since prehistoric times in order to fertilize the next crop.

In the distance I see more smoke. This time in the form of a black mushroom could, an indication of a bomb or air strike hitting somewhere in the direction of Mosul.

As we get closer to Erbil, haze from the dozens of oil refineries below trickles into the air, forming an opaque grey ocean between the plane and the airport. “Welcome to Erbil,” says the pilot over the loudspeaker, “the current temperature is 50 degrees (122 Fahrenheit). We hope you’ve enjoyed your flight.” The plane drops into the grey ocean like a star falling into a camp fire. In the muddy air I make out the skyline of this once booming oil city.

Although I bought the plane ticket to Iraq on a whim a couple weeks before, I was always drawn this country. I had been interested in Iraq since I was a child. When I was four years old, Bush launched the US into the first Gulf War. While my playmates were intrigued by plastic superheroes like Superman and the Turtles, I was obsessed with Saddam Hussein. The idea that absolute evil could have absolute power was fascinating because I felt that absolute good is by its nature, was unable to have absolute power.

The week the US began its invasion of annexed Kuwait, I bought a miniature army set and constantly re-enacted Saddam Hussein’s world, obsessing over the details of military purges and the placement of troops during his invasion and inevitable retreat.

Now I was here in Iraq: a land which has not only been miniaturized through my toys, but also miniaturized through the lens of newspapers, and through distance, politics, language and cultural barriers. Finally, this land was beginning to expand from outside my airplane window.

The Black, the Grey, and the White; A brief exploration of the three cities of Iraqi Kurdistan.

This is going to be a different kind of travel essay. First of all, it will be written in three parts, out of order. For example, I visited Erbil first, but I will speak about it now, in this second part.

Second, I will only write about what I saw and heard. If I were to begin writing about the history of these cities, I might as well begin writing an encyclopedia. Erbil alone, is considered by some archaeologists to be the first city in the history of the world. It’s hard to fathom how much culture and yore these cities have accumulated.

Third, again, unlike good journalism, I am not going to write the truth. I’m only going to write what I was told, read, and saw. Perhaps I’m spending too much time in the Middle East, or perhaps it’s my upbringing in a cult, but I believe in order to understand people and cultures, I have to understand their truths separately from the facts. If everyone acts on a truth that diverges from reality, how valuable is that truth compared to reality? When studying history, the facts mean everything. When observing culture, facts are things that usually get in the way.

 

Part Two

The Grey: Erbil

 

There is a grey chemical haze that envelops Erbil like a fog cap on a mountain. The haze comes from three main sources; oil refineries, car exhaust, and generators. The oil refineries around Erbil have transformed the parched land into a sunny Mordor. It is hard to imagine so much smoke being pumped into the air by anything other than a chain of active volcanoes. Yet, as disturbing as these refineries are, they are the lifeblood of this nation.

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Erbil is one of the oldest, if not the oldest city, in the world. Although in its current incarnation, the city has become a tiny Los Angeles. Its streets are as wide as freeways. Its layout requires cars, yet there is no public transportation. The seemingly unregulated exhaust from the endless stream of traffic puts a layer of dusty particles on everything, including my skin, which made me feel like I was living in a drizzle of soot.

While the refineries and cars do some unfortunate things to Erbil’s atmosphere, I believe it’s the generators that do the real damage. The power goes out in Erbil once or twice an hour which prompts thousands of diesel generators to simultaneously turn on, making the inside of houses and hotel rooms smell like the inside of train engine, and the outside a train yard. This said, I suppose one gets used to the air, and it’s the worst in the Summer.

Although most Iraqi-Kurdistan was astonishingly in tune with its surroundings, Erbil had an unnatural “green-zone” feel to it. Still, it was not set up for travelers. For example, there were streets lined with dozens of hotels but only one ATM in the city. And it was broken. There were rumours of a second ATM, but it was not found. There were places with names, “Italian village” , “English village” , and “Dream City,” but these were all just heavily guarded gated communities, as out of place with the rest of the city as colonies on the Moon. On top of that, much of Erbil consisted of half built cement mega structures, destined to become mountains of crumbling cement. The global oil crash has not been kind to this city.

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This mall went on forever but only had a few businesses inside.

The center of the city was an exception to the ugliness. As it was the original city, it retained beauty and soul. The elaborately ornate bizarre was massive, loud, and vibrant. The citadel, raised above the rest of the city on a masa, looked too ancient to be real. The plaza below was an aesthetic refuge for the city’s population.

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Erbil’s citizens were also an exception to its ugliness. Everyone I met was kind and thoughtful. The biggest shock came when I had to cross the giant streets. These Niles of asphalt were daunting at first. There were no crosswalks in Erbil, and if there was something that resembled a crosswalk, it was not working because of the chronic lack of electricity. Instead, pedestrians crossed the street by walking from spaces between the lanes.

In my home city of Izmir this would truly be a death sentence. However in Erbil, drivers would press the brake pedal just enough for me to run in front of their car onto the next space between lanes, until I made it all the way across the street. It was a great system. By the end of my trip I was addicted to crossing the street, thrilled at the recognition of my humanity.

Another example of Kurdish thoughtfulness came when I would attempt to buy something. I knew about five words in Kurdish. The Arabic I could speak was a different dialect, and while some people understood a little English, the typical shop owner did not.

In some cultures, not knowing the language and wanting to buy something as simple as a bottle of water, results in a clusterfuck involving a congregation of multiple shop owners, customers, and cellphone calls to the cousin that took an English class in 1982. But in Erbil, I was able to calmly explain things through hand gestures and broken Arabic, until the shop owner understood.

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Taken in a strange neighborhood of broken buildings which had people still living inside.

Even though Erbil did not seem like a functional or even livable city, I look back on it with affection because of the simple appreciations of my humanity – something that is rare for any city. I left Erbil after spending a little over 24 hours there. Perhaps more time would have reveled a better side, but I doubt it.

The Grey, Part II of THE BLACK, THE GREY, AND THE WHITE; A BRIEF EXPLORATION OF THE THREE CITIES OF IRAQI KURDISTAN.