Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Budapest, Hungary: at the Crossroads of History

Budapest's unofficial mascot seems to be the greatest cat of all--the lion. 

Its major indoor market is called the Great Market, though some call it the Central Market. Everywhere you look, it seems as if Budapest was the center of great things--a long time ago.

And indeed it was. Europe's largest and most vibrant Jewish community--
450,000 Jews--lived in Hungary. 

Europe's largest synagogue is in Budapest and nearby is perhaps its most beautiful one. 

The most colorful synagogue I've ever seen.
Not Dohany St. but an Orthodox one on Kazinczy St.

Then came Austrian-born Hitler and the rest, as they say, is history. 

From the Museum of Terror--a must-see.

Few people know the Soviet Union liberated the Jews in Budapest or that Hungary was allied with defeated Nazi Germany. 

From Dohany St Synagogue, Jewish Museum

The consequences of post-WWII agreements continue today across Eastern Europe. Everywhere the Americans and Brits had jurisdiction is more open, and everywhere the Soviets controlled has been more sedate. Two factors are responsible for such cultural demarcation: the Soviet's economic system, which provided stable jobs and pay but no incentives for entrepreneurship--creating total dependency on the state--and the Soviet Union's habit of brutally suppressing dissent.  

From Hungarian National Museum

I've been struggling to understand why so many liberators and victors become exactly like their enemies, such as America's NSA mirroring East Germany's Stasi, and I think I have a partial reason. After WWII, the Soviet Union lost 26 to 27 million citizens. It liberated millions of people previously under the yoke of Nazism. It was in no mood to entertain anything superfluous or anything but total acceptance of its principles. It genuinely believed it was bringing the "right" economic system to Eastern Europe and dissent was dangerous to its vision of peace. In short, having defeated the Nazis, it would not allow similar visions to flourish under its watch. The risks were too high, the loss of life already too much.

Have you ever been on a bus with a group of teenagers and young adults? They are almost always the ones least willing to be courteous, the ones too young to understand or care about history. To the Soviet Union, whose sacrifices and discipline won the most vicious war in modern history, this youthful carelessness wasn't a product of hormones but of idleness. The cure would be physical work and hard labor to build up the wayward youths' character and deliver an appreciation of the Soviet way. As anyone who has worked with older children and teenagers understands, iron-fisted methods never work; indeed, they always backfire. 

Thus, the Soviet Union's response--allowing a system of anonymous informants, creating labor camps, allowing the Hungarian secret police to arrest some of Hungary's best and brightest
, and rewarding entities that sought to mimic the Soviet Union's methods exactly--led much, if not most, of its avant-garde talent to leave--many of them to America. 
From the House of Terror. Is Charles Schwab in America because of the Soviets?

The Soviets' economic system didn't need entrepreneurs or artists anyway. Its block-like buildings and morose subways are designed to be utilitarian and long-lasting, not beautiful. Engineers and scientists were prioritized, not art or music or other silly notions of youth. Before you unfurl your American flag, note that the United States wasn't exactly enamored with its own youth around the same time period. Even today, the U.S. incarcerates the most children in the developed world: the "United States leads the industrialized world in the number and percentage of children it locks up in juvenile detention facilities, with over 60,000 children in such facilities in 2011... The US also sends an extraordinary number of children to adult jails and prisons—more than 95,000 in 2011." Adults everywhere dislike forces of change, which usually come from younger generations--at least when they're not saddled with student loans and debt. 

In any case, the Soviet Union's efforts to enforce ideological conformity eventually backfired, leading to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956. 

As in
Panama against the United States' occupation of its land, the students led the charge--but were crushed. 

Anti-American mural seen in popular Panama City street (2017)
At Panama City's largest university cafeteria (2017) 

Whereas President Carter chose the moral path of non-occupation and immediately began negotiating a fair treaty with the Panamanian government after the deaths of Panamanian student protestors, the Soviets doubled down. They sent more troops into Budapest and surrounded the capital. The liberator had become the oppressor. 

I don't claim to know much about European history, but I've visited a museum or two, and here's the best map I've seen that explains Europe. 

Hungarian National Museum

Basically, it's everyone against their neighbors to the left, right, north, and south. Until WWII, political mobs across Europe competed for power, usually with disastrous consequences, until the biggest mob of all, the Soviet Union, came to power and finally brought peace. Unfortunately, such peace came at a cost: total obedience to the Soviet way of life, especially its economic system. (Being in Eastern Europe makes one appreciate inequality as a necessary ingredient of difference, but of course not so much as to create a similar concentration of power as the Soviet system.) 

What about Budapest now? The capital city is the combination of three different areas: Buda, Obuda, and Pest (pronounced "pesh"). If you visit, you will choose between staying on the Buda or Pest sides, separated by bridges over the long Danube River. I prefer the Pest side, which has the energy, the synagogues, and the older buildings. The Buda side is more developed and resembles any other semi-modern European city outside of Buda Castle and Fisherman's Bastion. See the Andrassy and Ullio streets. Visit Cafe Frei on Vaci street. See a movie at Toldi Cinema--I recommend Nimrod Antal's The Whiskey Robber (with English subtitles). Definitely visit the Museum of Terror, similar to one of my favorite museums, Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie Museum

Hungary's history cannot be forgotten, but Budapest seems to be trying to turn a new leaf very, very cautiously. For now, it is unclear which direction Hungarians will take. I do not sense the weirdness of the Czechs, the banality of the Austrians, or the energy of the Germans. I only sense a preference for being left alone, as if the Hungarian secret police is still listening somewhere. It wouldn't surprise me if, like their great cat statues, Hungarians remain inscrutable. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017)

Bonus: I saw this passage in one of Hungarian Maria Schmidt's books and don't know what to make of it. 
Hungary as "court jester"?

Rakosi--born Mátyás Rosenfeld--was a Jewish Stalinist and a Soviet puppet leader who later repudiated organized religion. He was the Communist Party's leader in Hungary from 1945 to 1956 and features prominently in Soviet propaganda. When younger or more idealist Hungarian Communists became more popular--like Laszlo Rajk or Imre Nagy--they were set up and/or executed. In Rajk's case, he was unjustly framed for collaborating with capitalists and foreign powers. Rakosi died of natural causes. 

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Vienna, Austria: Nazis and Cowards, but Not All of Them

You don't need to read a Philip K. Dick novel to see what would have happened if the Nazis had won--just come to Vienna, Austria. I've never seen so much informal racial segregation in my life. Go on the subway--not a single group of people, whether two or five, has diversity. People of Turkish descent, whether citizens or not, are with other Turks. Blacks are usually alone. Chinese are with other Chinese. And so on.

"But wait," you say, "Austrians can't be influenced by the Nazis--the Nazis wouldn't have given equal citizenship to non-whites!" At first, perhaps, but after war comes peace, and peace involves daily drudgery. Victors need people to do work they don't want to do, preferably for free or low wages. In this regard, the Austrians have mastered the race to the future. Almost every single person in the city center working with his hands or in lower wage professions is not a white Austrian. 

Go to Naschmarkt, an ordinary and forgettable outdoor market--observe the people actually lifting the crates. None of them are blond or white. Go to a fast-food restaurant in the city centre--none of the workers are white Austrians, though you'll see the occasional white manager. I've been to this McDonald's--where they serve beer--three different days, at different times. All the customers have sat with the same race, regardless of the group's size. I've just now seen my first mixed couple, a single Austrian and his British-accented African-Austrian girlfriend, in the entire city in the past three days. 

Trying to discover the cause of so much informal segregation, I've chatted up Persians, Turks, Serbs, and Chinese residents, and none of them could give me a definitive answer. One white Austrian told me I was in the city centre, where it was expensive, and I needed to go to districts 10, 11, 12, etc. to see mixed couples. He, a real estate developer, was the only Austrian I met who had invited non-whites into his home. I'll tell you more about my experience in the "lower" districts later. For now, let me summarize a few conversations I had with non-white residents. 

Persian female newspaper/magazine shopkeeper (Conversation in Farsi.)

Me: "I don't like it here. Why do you think there are so few mixed friendships here?"

Her: "I don't know. They [the Austrians] are [says Persian word I don't know]." 

Me: "What's that word mean?"

Her: "It means they keep to themselves, they're not open like us. We are talking now, and we just met. There's no spontaneous conversation like this with Austrians."

Me: "Are you a citizen?"

Her: "No. I've been here over a decade, but I work part-time here. To get citizenship, you have to work full time for seven or eight years." 

Me: "Have you had any problems here because you're Iranian?"

Her: "No. The newspapers publish lots of stories of crimes by refugees, usually Afghans, Gypsies, and Syrians--they haven't made their way to Iranians... at least not yet. If you tell Austrians you are Iranian, they will like you."

Me: "Are you the owner of this shop?"

Her: "No--the owner is Iranian. In fact, this entire street is majority-owned by Middle Easterners. Are you thinking of moving here?"

Me: "God no!"

Her: "Oh, good! Don't do it!"

Me: "You cannot run away from history. It is in the ground and the soil does not forget." 

Her: [Nods her head.]

Me: "Are you married to an Austrian?"

Her: "No. An Iranian."

African museum employee, Austrian citizen

Me: "Do you like it here?"

Her: "Yes."

Me: "Do you notice all the lower level workers in Vienna are non-white?"

Her: "The people who work in museums are usually university students. I have a Master's degree."

Me: "Well, how many of your professors in university are non-Austrian?"

Her: "One."

Me: "Really? Where's she from?"

Her: "France."

Me: "Oh, a black professor from France?"

Her: "No, she's French. She's white."

Me: "There are lots of black French citizens, but ok. So zero non-white professors at your university."

Her: "Yes."

Chinese restaurant waiter, in English 

Me: "Why do you think it's so difficult to mix here?"

Him: "The Austrians aren't used to our food. We eat chicken feet and other things they find strange."

Me: "Are you a citizen?"

Him: "Yes. I've been here many years." 

Turkish Uber driver, in English

Me: "I can't believe almost everything closes at 10pm in the capital city." 

Him: "Yes, it's a quiet city. Everyone goes home and relaxes at home after 10pm." 

Me: "Do you like it here?"

Him: "It is ok."

Me: "Are you married?"

Him: "Yes." [Proudly displays his phone's background photo, which has a photo of an adorable baby girl.] 

Me: "Is your wife Austrian?"

Him: "No. Turkish." 

I could go on, but you get the point. Not a single non-white with whom I spoke was married to anyone except his or her own ethnicity. Worst of all, when I would have these conversations--in which I got progressively louder with each passing day, unable to believe that it was possible for a capital city with so much diversity to have so much social segregation--the Austrians around me looked surprised. To them, there were no issues, it seems. I'm not surprised far-right candidates are winning in Austria, and I think it will get worse. In Prague, which successfully integrated 60,000 to 80,000 Vietnamese immigrants, when I mentioned their most famous far-right politicians, the younger generation openly voiced opposition. In Vienna, the younger generation shrugged their shoulders when I asked similar questions. After I explained this difference to one of the younger women, she said, "We are not so much into politics." 

That's when I realized these people are like Germans, but without the guilt. They think their situation is perfectly fine, even as far right candidates rise up. They don't care. To them, Nazis are something that happened next door in Germany, "not here." But of course it happened right here, which is why the buildings are so pristine, and the museums so wonderful. 
From the military history museum, which includes the car in which Archduke Ferdinand was shot & a Howitzer.

When I remarked the gold in the Imperial Treasury of Vienna must have been stolen, the real estate developer I mentioned earlier argued most of the gold "wasn't stolen," "maybe only 2 to 3%," and the artifacts were collected under the Habsburgs. He didn't respond when I said that doesn't account for what Nazi officers brought into Austrian territory after it became clear Germany would lose WWII. (I did not add that if it talks German, acts German, looks German, eats German food, and drinks German beer, it's an Austrian Nazi.) 

When Hitler--an Austrian, not a German--invaded Austria, his birthplace was first on his list of country collectibles. I don't know much about European history, but I suspected Austria--one of the few countries in Europe that still speaks German as its primary official language--didn't put up much of a fight. Sadly, my suspicion was confirmed. From Wikipedia: 

On the morning of 12 March [1938], the 8th Army of the German Wehrmacht crossed the border into Austria. The troops were greeted by cheering Austrians with Nazi salutes, Nazi flags, and flowers. For the Wehrmacht, the invasion was the first big test of its machinery. Although the invading forces were badly organized and coordination among the units was poor, it mattered little because the Austrian government had ordered the Austrian Bundesheer not to resist. [Source: Albert Speer recalled the Austrians cheering approval as cars of Germans entered what had once been an independent Austria. Speer (1997). Inside the Third Reich, p. 109] 

Even Austrians themselves don't seem to deny they are cold people. Actual conversation with an Austrian woman:

Me: "You like it here?

Her: "Yes."

Me: "But the Austrians are such cold people."

Her: "Not all of them."

Me: "Well, not all Germans were Nazis either." 

Perhaps the far right voters are the ones who know exactly what the ethnic minorities, including the citizens, think of them and are uninterested in collaboration or progress. And yet, the far right, under current circumstances, has absolutely valid points. Why allow a permanent underclass to exist in your society? Why shouldn't you deport people who don't appreciate your culture, regardless of disagreements about its warmth? How is it good for a country to have a growing segment of society only there for money? 

Remember the blond, blue-eyed real estate developer who told me to visit the lower districts, where I'd find mixed couples? I asked him to input the name of a place in Google Maps, and I got an Uber and went straight to the spot. Here's what I found: 
Basketball hoops in poorer neighborhoods look similar.
Note the inscription under the sign.

I had entered a place indistinguishable from a Turkish neighborhood. (I should know, having recently spent a month in Turkey.) Sure, there were a few non-Turks, but they could have been mistaken for tourists.

When I walked into a German, er, Austrian restaurant, every single person sitting down was white. They stared at me as soon as I walked in, and I slowly backed out like a cowboy who'd entered the wrong saloon. When I chose a Turkish restaurant, there were non-Turks inside, but no one was white. I ordered a large tea in Turkish. (Say "finchan chai" to blend in if you're a brunette like me.) The food was fantastic. 

At this point, I thought the Austrian real estate developer was messing with me, but then I realized he probably doesn't come to this neighborhood. He's heard of it, but as an affluent person, he has no need to come here unless he really likes Turkish food. (We met in an upscale coffeeshop in the city centre.) 

When the far-right talks about "refugees" creating dangerous neighborhoods, they mean the lower districts in Vienna, about 20 minutes by car from the city center. The problem is, these people aren't refugees. They're just racial minorities. Instead of Chinatown, they've created Turktown. The Lebanese, Chinese, and Indians have established homogenous neighborhoods all over the world, but if the newspapers are consistently highlighting crimes by x minority group, I can see why the far right is gaining ground--again--in Europe. 

I can blend into Turktown at least a little, and I love good, reasonably-priced food, but I did not like the neighborhood I saw. I'd go back to the restaurant, because the börek was too damn good--better than Turkish food in Istanbul--but the vibe is strange, just like the vibe in the city centre. People aren't as comfortable speaking English in the lower districts--they prefer German--and like most Austrians, the Turks don't smile unless you make the initial effort to socialize. It's as if both racial groups have taken on each other's worst traits and added a "hesitancy" clause to tolerate each other without any actual integration. Imagine the Tower of Babel, but in reverse--everyone speaks the same language, but no one talks to each other. 

How does all this help you, an aspiring tourist? It doesn't, so let's change that. The Museum of Natural History (Naturhisorisches Museum) is incredible. It covers geology, anthropology, astronomy, and everything else in between. Its exhibit on the creation of the universe is one of the best highlights of any museum. 

You've got to see Schönbrunn, the old palace grounds. It was there, surrounded by art from all over the world, imported by the Dutch East India Company, I realized governments used to derive their legitimacy through artists and trade. Trade (aka business) would generate taxes to pay for the military, but also access to knowledge of other cultures and art. Since only royalty could afford expensive goods--often with debt that sometimes had to be paid off by melting down gold--they had access to knowledge unavailable to the general public. Historically, successful governments used their power to promote knowledge, but today, anyone with a laptop can gain equivalent knowledge and goods. In such an era, especially when private charitable foundations can promote sports, arts, and theater even better than politicians, how do governments stay relevant besides through the military? How should governments adapt to gain voter support but without promoting an increasingly contentious and costly arms race aka the protection and surveillance technology racket? (By the way, I skipped Belvedere, but if you have time, I hear it's nice.) 

The military history museum (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum) is also worth a look. Lots of Nazi memorabilia, if you're into that kind of thing. To save money and get convenient access to the major sites, you can buy a multi-day pass from Vienna Sightseeing or Big Bus. I used Vienna Sightseeing and appreciated the convenience. 

When arriving at Vienna's airport, you will see a few kiosks with CAT (City Airport Train) tickets sold. These kiosks also allow you to buy a 72 hour pass to buses, trams, and trains throughout Vienna. Get the combo pass--it's a great deal and applies to everything except horse-drawn carriages. When you use the 72 hour pass for the first time, you will push the ticket into one of of the boxes prior to entering a subway, which will provide a timestamp. You may take the CAT from the airport to a subway station in the city centre, where you can find your favorite dessert, whether sachertorte, Kaiserschmarrn, apfelstrudel, or topfenstrudel. (By the way, I should have mentioned this earlier--the word "Vienna" is uncommon in Vienna. The proper word for the city is "Wien.")

My last evening in Vienna/Wien, I took the subway again and saw a group of police officers converging on a group of Turkish teenagers. I can't be sure what happened, but the Austrian-Turkish teenagers didn't resist or look concerned--in fact, they looked used to this kind of treatment. I took a photo far away from the "action," but it confirmed my suspicion about countries that pass miscegenation and segregation laws, whether Nuremberg or Jim Crow: oppression always backfires on the oppressor. 

When you attack or seek to isolate or humiliate your neighbors, history does not forget. Either your neighbors' hopes and dreams take root, or their blood seeps into the ground, through the cement, and stays there. You feel it, too, and you spend your gold not on art or trade, but combating your own fears. A circle of suspicion generates, then a self-defeating cycle. Yet, the fear isn't coming from the people you are policing, but the ghosts of your own history, your own failure to resist, and your own inability to realize you have created a country that isn't normal. 
November 22, 2017. Note the teenager surrounded by all-white police personnel.

I don't think Austria's tourism board would be very happy with my suggested slogans, but I'll give it a shot anyway:

1.  Come for the Museums, Avoid the Nazis.
2.  Vienna: Where to Feel Proud to be American.
3.  Hitler's Birthplace: How the Germans Got a Bad Rap. 

4.  Yes, the Trains Run on Time. 

And so it goes. 

© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017) 

Bonus: I just saw a white-skinned and dark-skinned teenager together. The dark-skinned teenager didn't look like he knew the process for returning a McDonald's tray (it's different from America--Vienna has table service and/or a specific cart for the tray instead of a garbage can), so maybe he's not Austrian, but it's a good sign. At least some people from different backgrounds are talking to each other. 

Double Bonus: it's now 12:05AM, and a group of four young adults, three whites including an Asian, just sat down next to me. Maybe there's hope after all for Austria. 

Triple Bonus: even the Hungarians despised the Austrians. Check out what I found at the Hungarian National Museum. 

P.S. Believe it or not, Austria is essentially a petrostate, though nowhere near the same scale as Norway. Its largest company is the OMV Group, followed in size by several banks. OPEC's HQ is not in the Middle East, but in Vienna. 

Seen in Budapest, Hungary.

Sunday, November 12, 2017


As an owner of an American passport in 2017, whenever I read anything from President Eisenhower, I weep inside. 

"A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both."

Bonus: "Some politician some years ago said that bad officials are elected by good voters who do not vote."

61.4% of eligible Americans voted in the 2016 election. Sound high? 
Only 28.5% of eligible Americans voted in the primaries, which led to the nominations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Meanwhile, America's current mood seems stuck between Clockwork Orange's mindless violence and Nurse Rached's ordering of a lobotomy. 

Friday, November 10, 2017

Georgia: Desperately Seeking the EU but Enjoying its Independence

When I landed in Tbilisi, Georgia, I expected cows, green pastures, and funny-looking hats. 
*Not* what Georgians actually wear.

Instead, I saw a modern airport with far too many Mercedes-Benzes in the parking lot and widespread use of RFID-enabled payment systems. Interestingly, Tbilisi is closer to a cashless society than America, and one reason PayPal is valued more than AMEX is because the future doesn't involve credit cards per se, but the technology that allows payments to occur. 

In any case, in Tbilisi, many people speak three languages (Russian, Georgian, and English); are wary of Russia; can't say no to Russian money; and desperate to join the EU. Such conflicting characteristics create unique experiences. The most interesting Georgian citizen I met was an ethnic German raised by a Jewish grandmother in Russia who speaks better Russian than Georgian. The day before, I had met a Muslim Georgian-Ukrainian software tester working for a Danish company who attended Turkish primary school. She speaks four languages fluently. 

After a tour of the local Supreme Court, which includes a museum housing a Soviet-era courtroom, I told my translator the United States had surrounded Russia with military bases, implying America was becoming the new and overextended Soviet Union. Her response? "You [America] should conquer them!" 
FYI Joseph Stalin was Georgian, born Ioseb Besarionis dze Jughashvili. 
Despite its history of conflict with the Soviet Union, or perhaps because of it, Tbilisi has become a hybrid of Russian and American influences. Freedom Square is next to Pushkin Square, named after a Russian poet. The beautiful parks I saw were designed by Russians, not Europeans or Americans. The long, foreboding escalators to underground metro stations were also made by the Soviet Union and still in use. 
Afraid of heights? Too bad.

Unfortunately, not all of Georgia's Soviet influence can be praised. Witness the utilitarian block-shaped housing structures and, believe it or not, coin-operated elevators. 
The one Georgian lari is inserted in the contraption on the right.

If I have unduly focused on Russia in a piece about Georgia, it's because the country was under Soviet occupation from 1921 to 1991, with the Soviet army entering as recently as 1989 to quell inter-ethnic conflict in the bloody Sukhumi riots between Abkhazians and Georgians

History does not forget, and in 1992-1993, similar tensions flared up, leading to war in the Abkhazia region. The failure of diplomats to create an effective post-war framework presumably led to the 2008 Russo-Georgian crisis, which, depending on whom you ask, centered on Russia's desire to expand its territory, Georgia's failure to abide by the terms of its Gazprom contract, and/or the Abkhazians' desire for independence and their alleged claims of mistreatment by Georgians. 

Not until 2012, when billionaire philanthropist Bidzina Ivanishvili's "Georgian Dream" team swept elections, did Georgia finally look to be on its way to prosperity. (Note: many billionaires have Russian ties--Ivanishvili went to Moscow to pursue a Ph.D. in economics and made his fateful business connections there.) 

Before we discuss the fun stuff, let us have a quick Georgian history lesson. Around 1800, having been invaded by the Persians, Arabs, Turks, and Mongols, Georgia asked the Russian Empire to enter and protect it from outsiders: "At the end of the 18th century, Georgia... united herself to Russia of her own accord, on condition that Russia should defend her against her external foes." (Act of Independence of Georgia in Georgian National Museum, Soviet Occupation exhibit.) (I just realized I should have titled this article, "Let the Right One In.") 

The post-WWI climate, especially from 1918 to 1920, must have created issues because in May 1920, the Soviet Union's Red Army invaded Georgia and took Tbilisi by force. 
Lenin approved the invasion on the condition that it be a guaranteed victory, and the Red Army delivered. The results of the ensuing occupation were disastrous, with the Bolsheviks purging elites, church leaders, and intellectuals. 
The Bolsheviks didn't stop at murder--they also violated the cardinal rules of peaceful governance: 1) leave religion alone; and 2) don't raise taxes excessively. 
Consequently, as far back as 1936(!), Georgians were asking Americans to assist them. Had Germany not presented more problems than the Soviet Union in 1938, Georgian history might have been different. In 1941, however, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, and though the Soviets defeated the Nazis, they lost 26 to 27 million Soviet lives in the process. Considering the Soviet Union's sacrifices, as well as its status as WWII victor alongside the United States, it must have been difficult for any country to openly interfere with the Soviet Union post-1945. 

Why does Georgia in particular have such a turbulent history? Although it lacks substantial natural resources outside the disputed area inhabited by Abkhazians, it's an important trade route and now delivers substantial natural gas to the EU. (The contract establishing Georgian payment and obligations for transit of Russian natural gas to the EU is fascinating, even if you're not a lawyer.) Aside from Georgia's competitive "New Silk Road" location, it has excellent wine, beer, and tea, none of which are exported widely for some strange reason.

How does all this affect you, an aspiring world traveler looking for interesting destinations? For its level of infrastructure, Georgia is inexpensive. Hipsters have taken over, gentrification is on its way, and soon Georgia may get its wish and become just like any other boring Western European city. As of today, however, I was stunned by how much beautiful artwork is displayed everywhere and casually so. Take a look at a few pieces I saw while strolling around Tbilisi. 

Mziuri Park
Hey, if a Dunkin' Donuts sign in magical-looking Georgian script isn't art, what is?
Tbilisi's most attractive feature isn't its low prices but its understated cosmopolitanism. While the current American president talks about building walls, Georgians probably love Americans because they told the Soviet Union to tear one down

My favorite bookstore, Prospero's Books and Caliban's Coffeehouse--English majors, commence mental orgasms--is owned by a Russian woman who sells pocket booklets of the U.S. Constitution. I am sitting there now, next to two attractive brunettes who have glossy Russian language magazines on their table. (Do I dare disturb them in a minute?) 

I would tell you much more about Tbilisi, but I can't add anything you can't easily discover yourself once you arrive. An airport ride to the city center should cost no more than 35 lari. There's no Uber, but there is Maxim. Stay near Rustaveli Avenue or Freedom Square--every major museum and tourist attraction is nearby, including the very touristy Meidan Bazaar. Don't miss the G. Leonidze Museum of Georgian Literature, which doesn't have books but does have interesting exhibitions (after seeing one about snipers on the Armenian-Azeri border, I've decided I'll never live near a border) and a cool cafe outside. The Museum's staff-only viewable artwork on the walls are more beautiful than ones in the MOMA. 
Incredible painting. "Pushkin in Tbilisi" by  Lado Gudiashvili.

If you are rich, stay at the Biltmore Hotel (there are two locations--the MoMa design is the new building, but I like the old one on Rustaveli Ave.); otherwise, check out Airbnb or Radisson Blu (also near Rustaveli Avenue) or perhaps the trendy Fabrika Hostel.

See the churches--the most beautiful ones are the Holy Trinity Church (aka Sameba) and Sioni Cathedral. 

Georgian wedding--a common occurrence on weekends.
Find a priest who chants Biblical verses in the ceremony for the full experience.
Mkskheta is a small city close to Tbilisi and easy to visit. Signagi and Svaneti (don't miss tasting/smelling Svanuri marili aka Svan salt!) are popular destinations as well. Batumi is a beach town apparently fun to visit in the summer. 10% of Georgians are Muslims and many reside in Akhaltsikhe (New Castle). If you go to New Castle, Vardzia is nearby. 

When in Tbilisi, walk into the "basement bakeries." Occasionally, you'll see steps leading underground to brick-walled restaurants or stores. I've never been disappointed by any of the commercial basement dwellings I've found. 
Eat khinkhali, khachapuri, and churchkhela with flavored soda (most popular flavor is cream, and it's usually only one lari). At times, it seems Georgian cuisine requires at least two sticks of butter in each dish--I couldn't finish my portions--but at least you won't go hungry. 
Adjarian khachapuri
So what is Georgia, other than eager to forge its place in the world? Imagine a place built by the Soviet Union, infused with hipsterism, yearning to be free like Americans, having a language derived from the Greeks, and being flooded by foreign capital. In short, Georgia's future is not set in stone, and its magical realism won't last much longer. If you want to visit, do it soon so you can see Tbilisi as what Europe ought to be--young, naive enough to believe in America's stated ideals, and doing its best to combine the old with the new.
© Matthew Mehdi Rafat (2017)

Update: I just got a sulfur bath, and I feel great. I've had the Turkish hammam experience, but it didn't do much for me. The Georgian sulfur bath is different--your body absorbs some of the sulfur, which, depending on your skin type, will generate some noticeable effect. (My skin felt nice in a way I can't exactly describe.) 

You pay between 35 to 100 lari for a private room, depending on the number of people and the size of the room and bath. If it's just you and a friend, you may pay 35 lari. You can check out the bath before you decide which room you want. Towels and soap costs extra, about 2 lari each. If the water in the bath is too hot, try to adjust it by turning on the cold water tap that goes into the small pool. 
100 lari, high-end sulfur bath. Room next to it had several comfy chairs.
Not the one I used.

You will get your towel, enter the room, lock the door, strip, put on the slippers provided for you, and submerge yourself into the small sulfur pool. You have up to one hour, but half an hour was enough for me. A massage costs extra. (The Georgians claim to have their own massage technique, but they've just tried to copy the Thais.) After you finish sitting and relaxing in the small pool, you will take a shower (if you want soap, remember to buy it beforehand), dress, and leave. You'll probably be quite thirsty. I liked the experience, and I felt more relaxed afterwards.

What should you not do in Tbilisi? Strip clubs. There are two nearby the Rustaveli metro stop, one called Venus and another called Matine(?). I paid 30 lari to enter, and only four women were inside. One of the women sat next to me, and after I confirmed the drink she wanted was only 30 lari, she ordered. I received a bill for 1200 lari, and I had to waste 20 minutes of my time playing dumb until they let me go. (They only let me go when I texted my location to a local Georgian friend. Thank you, WhatsApp.) My Turkish-Arab friend living in Georgia told me some of these places even scam visiting Georgians, and he'd heard of one club threatening a tourist until he paid 400 USD.


Thursday, November 2, 2017

Konya, Turkey: A Large but Modest City

My first three nights, I wasn't entirely sure how I felt about Konya, Turkey. It's a large city of two million people that feels much smaller, as if it's unsure of its own place in its own country. Harun Turkmenoglu echoes similar sentiments about Konya, writing, "Imagine why this metropolitan city, in the very middle of the country, which is close to almost everywhere, is not well known... I think it has something to do with the fact that the people who live in this city do not live the city." 

Some of Konya's relative anonymity is due to its divergent geography: many residents live in the highly developed (and easily walkable) city center, including numerous university students, but much of its population lives on rural land with no urban connection. 
As a result, it's possible to see the city but miss half its landscape. While Konya has a rich history of carpet-weaving, it has decided instead to emphasize its crown jewel, the tomb of famous Sufi mystic and poet Jalaluddin Rumi: "Either exist as you seem, or seem as you are." 
Bardakci Mosque's carpet
Selimiye Mosque's carpet

Mevlana (aka Mawlana) Muhammad J. Rumi is buried at the Mevlana Museum, and his name is typically prefaced with Mevlana--meaning, "our master"--as a sign of respect. Rumi is famous for creating not Sufism--which has multiple sects--but its mesmerizing whirling dervish ceremony. 
Getting jiggy with it.

Author Martin Gray summarizes it expertly here, and I will quote a short passage from his Konya page: 

"The Sema ceremony, in seven parts, represents the mystical journey of an individual on their ascent through mind and love to union with the divine. Mirroring the revolving nature of existence and all living things, the Sufi dervish turns toward the truth, grows through love, abandons ego, and embraces perfection. Then he returns from this spiritual journey as one who has reached perfection in order to be of love and service to the entire creation. Dressed in long white gowns (the ego's burial shroud) and wearing high, cone-shaped hats (the ego's tombstone), the dervish dances for hours at a time. With arms held high, the right hand lifted upward to receive blessings and energy from heaven, the left hand turned downward to bestow these blessing on the earth, and the body spinning from right to left, the dervish revolves around the heart and embraces all of creation with love. The dervishes form a circle, each turning in harmony with the rhythm of the accompanying music as the circle itself moves around, slowly picking up speed and intensity until all collapse in a sort of spiritual exaltation." [Link to Martin Gray's webpage, SacredSites.com, is HERE.] 

According to legend, Rumi passed a jewelry market and upon hearing workers hammering gold, began turning in harmony with the rhythm. Henceforth Sema was born. If you visit Konya, the city provides a complimentary Sema show most Saturday nights at 7pm at the Mevlana Kultur Merkezi (Mevlana Cultural Center). It's the highlight of any Konya trip. If you're looking for convenience, the Hilton Garden Inn is right next to the Mevlana Cultural Center.  

About half a mile away from the Mevlana Cultural Center is Rumi's tomb at Mevlana Museum. 
Most colorful tomb I've ever seen.

The museum, located right outside the tomb, is also interesting. I didn't know Sufis refer not only to the Koran and the Hadiths, but to something called Masnavi, a series of six books of poems. 

To do a lengthy walking tour encompassing most of the city's sites, you can start at the Mevlana Museum, then visit Selimiye Mosque; Aziziye Mosque; Karatay Medresesi/Madrassa (beautiful turquoise tiles); 
Does anyone else see Chinese influence?

Ince Minare Muzesi or Inceminare Medrese (Stone and Wooden Works Museum), which has the Wrestler's Stone; 
Observe the handle. With one hand, a wrestler would lift the stone to train and build arm strength. 
Konya's small Archaeology Museum (10 minutes is all you need); 
Is this the origin of the "evil eye"?
and finally Sahip Ata Vakif Muzesi (not to be confused with the mosque next to it named Sahib i-Ata Camii). 
In the olden days, if you established and funded a school/madrassa, you commanded enough clout to be buried in a special place. In other words, the rich have always been involved in education.

Rumi's teacher, Shams Al-Tabriz (aka Sems-i Tebrizi), is also buried in Konya in a much more traditional setting. (Shams was pressured to leave Konya because after he met Rumi, Rumi stopped giving sermons to his disciples. Shams reportedly once said, "In order to live happily among people, you have to be a hypocrite but if you always want to tell the truth, you have to live in a desert or on a mountain.") 
Because the city center is close to hundreds of miles of farmland, everything I had tasted wonderful. My highlight was the fresh breakfast honey in Sumac Grill (inside Hilton Garden Inn). 
Tourist guides will tell you to visit Sille, a small town nearby, and Aksehir, another town about one and a half hours away. I skipped them both. (By the way, Cappadocia is 3 hours by car, but I have no interest in hot air balloon rides, so I didn't visit. Cappadocia actually has beautiful mountains that don't get as much publicity as its balloons, which is a shame.) 

Regarding tour guides, my hotel gave me this card, but I didn't meet him, and I don't know his prices, so I can't make any recommendations. 
I've now spent about a month in Turkey, and my favorite cities are still Istanbul and Malatya. If you want a beach town, Kusadasi wins the crown

Konya's problem is its lack of a unique identity. I asked several Konya-born hotel employees to summarize their city in two sentences, and none of them had a good answer. A young chef was finally recruited to assist and typed "heart of hearts" into my Google Translate app, but scurried away after I asked follow-up questions. (Turks do not generally speak English, which adds a linguistic struggle to the cultural barrier--and I say this as someone born in a Middle Eastern Muslim country.) [Update: a hotel employee born near Konya wrote, "Although Konya is a big city, it is a modest city.") 

Other than Rumi's iridescent tomb, it's hard to see Konya's unique pull. Note that Rumi is Persian and wrote in Farsi, not Turkish. He may have lived much of his life in modern-day Turkey to avoid a Mongol invasion, but he was Persian, and so was Shams, his teacher. I didn't feel Rumi in my bones when I wandered here because the Turks have appropriated an Iranian icon without importing Iranian culture. 

Moreover, Turks seem rougher around the edges than Persians, including the women, and the ones who reminded me of more graceful Persian women looked more Persian than Turk. Perhaps the hardness I felt comes from having one of the largest and most powerful militaries in the world while being involved in active or recent conflicts with Greece, Syria, and Iraq, but other than Malatya, a small city known for its apricots, I didn't get the sense that I was living in a place Rumi would appreciate today. 
Turkish flags are everywhere in the city. In my experience, the more flags, the less openness. The more a country needs to *regularly* display its patriotism through public symbols & overt ceremonies rather than everyday actions, the more problems it usually has.
A beautiful woman doesn't need too much makeup.

After three nights of feeling as if my Turkish trip would end with a whimper, not a bang, I happened to see a photo of Salt Lake aka Tuz Golu. The lake is nearby Cihanbeyli, which feels like a traditional Turkish town. When I paid for the lunch of two elderly ladies, they thanked me, and I asked to take their photos. Two of them initially sat for me, but one moved away when her husband beckoned her from a car outside. I still managed to get a photo of one of the older ladies, who graciously posed for me. 

You'll find Tuz Golu 120 kms from Cihanbeyli. My travel woes evaporated instantly when I saw it. I've been to Chile's San Pedro de Atacama, which looks similar, but it was freezing. Tuz Golu reminded me of San Pedro de Atacama, but with a warmer climate. As you may have guessed from the name, workers mine salt from the lake. 
Salt, salt, baby.

The salt "mountains" are unique, but the view... well, see for yourself. 
I was so happy, I pranced around like a kid in Disneyland. Running to and fro, I tasted the salt on the ground, admired the mountains, and cupped the water in my hands (it left a salty residue!). 

The view back was almost as wonderful. Take a look. 
Remember I said Konya, a city of 2 million people, was half farmland? Riding back to the city center, I observed the trees, the open land, the mountains, the herders, and it was then I realized why Rumi lived here: nature. Rumi found God in nature's vastness. It's a wide open landscape, filled with possibilities in every direction. A man could wander for years and not feel lost. Far from the city center, the locals don't need flags to know their identity or to feel proud of their country. 

When returning, I saw a curious sight. The sky had opened up, and the sun was shining light from the heavens to the ground. I stared at it for a few minutes, not believing my eyes, and I finally took a photo. Due to zooming in, it doesn't truly capture what I saw. If you were there, however, you'd see a singular beam from the sky, as if to signal a holy presence.  

I don't know if Rumi believed in the Resurrection or the Reckoning, but seeing the sky that evening, I knew why Rumi was so happy he had to dance away his spiritual energy. God may be everywhere, but more in some places than others. You just have to know where to look. 

"We are neither Pharaoh nor Nimrod. What do we have to do with this terrestrial world? Can there be peace of mind, a permanent home for us in this world? I have lived in the dark prison of this world only to be of benefit to the people; otherwise, why should I have spent my lifetime in prison? Whose property have I stolen? I pray that I will soon return to [the Prophet] Muhammad, the beloved friend of God." -- Rumi