Monthly Archives: November 2014

What to say about a harem

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The harem is easily the highlight of Istanbul’s Topkapi palace. That’s partly because of the beautiful mosaics and stonework, but partly because the stories it houses are full of intrigue. It was essentially the Sultan’s private quarters (harem literally means ‘private’). Inside the Queen Mother ruled over up to 200 concubines, attended by a small army of black African eunuchs, and Crown Princes spent their first sixteen years, without a peak into the outside world. When the Sultan visited he wore shoes that made a distinctive clacking on the cobbled floors so everyone knew to get out of his way.

The harem reached its prime around the same time the Ottoman empire did. At the peak of their strength, the Sultans decided it was no longer tolerable for them to marry princesses from the lesser states to produce heirs. Instead they took to bedding various slave girls who were captured from enemies or brought in from far away lands. They didn’t have primogeniture (first heir, next monarch). The prince that gained the most favour from the Sultan ended up succeeding him, providing he could fight off challenges from his brothers. Or, more likely, half brothers.

If you’re thinking this sounds like the setting for a phenomenal period drama, you’re on the same wave length as the Turkish TV industry. They’ve pumped out many a programme about the Sultan’s harem and the court that surrounded it, contributing to Turkey’s astonishing position as the second largest producer of television in the world. The Magnificent Century is a recent example, and it’s available with English subtitles here.

There’s some consternation in Turkey about the romanticisation of harems in popular media. I guess they’re claiming shows Magnificent Century do for harems what Big Love did for fundamentalist Mormon polygamy: make it modern and sexy, when the reality was more complex. The Sultan might have had two hundred concubines, for example, but it seems like he was only sleeping with four of them at once. Others were more conventional entertainers, playing music, dancing and such.

One academic, Alsi Sancar, in particular criticises the sexualisation of the harem portrayal, and the objectification of the women in it, as a propagation of a kind of western fantasy. Instead, she describes a meritocracy among the women, who gained favour by mastering etiquette. If they were musical, she says, they were taught instruments. If they had a shot at getting close to the Sultan, they were taught to read and write. “For Ottoman women it was a distinction to be in the royal harem,” she says.

Sancar trotts out a whole new kind of harem romanticisation. Never before have I read something that uses the phrase “slave girl” frequently but still comes to positive conclusions. Okay, maybe it wasn’t a mass orgy, but the ‘meritocracy’ involved striving to get closer to the Sultan’s bed, ideally to producing a male heir, and then enjoying the status and protection of being a sort of queen. Not, like, smashing glass ceilings and ending up a neurosurgeon.

I think the best that can be said is that the harem contained the sorts of gender structures that were common throughout Europe at the peak of the peak of Ottoman power. They remained in place for longer than in the West however, the Ottoman harem was still going in some form in 1923.

Man attracted to other men? Iran says you need gender reassignment

In our week relaxing in Izmir we binged out on international media, and one thing we found was this: an in depth report from the BBC about an apparently common practice in Iran where young people who indicate they are attracted to others of the same gender are encouraged and/or forced into gender reassignment surgery.

Homosexuality is illegal, and punishable by death. In contrast the Supreme Leader was once so moved by the plea of a woman who said she was living in a man’s body, that he issued a fatwa – a non-binding religious ruling – that said gender reassignment surgery was okay. This has resulted in:

The individual stories in the reporting are instructive, and moving. There’s:

  • the young man whose family said he could either become a woman, or they would kill him
  • many who flee across the border to Turkey as refugees including
  • one who has setup a Queer Railroad to get those facing persecution our of Iran
  • the woman who called him for help, and didn’t know how to answer his question as to whether she was transgender or lesbian: she didn’t know that the latter existed

This practice is another example of the stunning contradictions in modern Iran. It’s like a drastically souped up version of  women with hair covered with veils and noses touched up by surgeons. Before we visited we might have expected that both homosexuality and transgender identity would be frowned on in a conservative Islamic society like Iran. Now, the practice of encouraging homosexuals to change gender makes an odd kind of sense: it represents the kind of clash of religious conservatism and modernity that we appreciate as part of Iran’s complexity. Doesn’t mean we’re any less appalled, though.

Mince the cat. That’s a name, not an instruction.


His grubby paws said “stray” but his full belly said “pet”. We met him on the street. He followed us up the three flights of stairs to our apartment, using our legs as a kind of snugly slalom course. We fed him leftover mince and named him for it. He purred appreciably as he wolfed it down. Now he’s cuddled into Fiona for the second night in a row.

Mince is the most gregarious street cat we’ve met in Istanbul, but there are plenty more. By and large they appear, healthy, well fed and active. Previously, local governments had rounded them up to be put down, but when locals felt the population wasn’t suitably controlled (and feared they carried diseases) they sometimes took matters into their own, violent hands. Then, in 2004, the government passed an animal protection law and changes its approach. Stray cats are now caught, neutered or spaid, micro-chipped and then put back on the street where they were found. There are probably a dozen who call our suburban lane home.

They’re mostly well cared for. Certainly they look well fed. We’ve seen them congregating around piles of luncheon sausage left on the sidewalk, and we’ve heard tales of neighbours feeding them as a kind of community service. True to their culinary traditions, some of the food looks pretty good.

One especially famous street cat is Gli. He lives in the Hagia Sophia, the astoundingly large and beautiful church turned Mosque in Istanbul’s tourist heavy centre. When we met him today he was effortless posing for a never ending stream of photos. I didn’t know he was famous until I googled up stray Istanbul cats and found he’d been visited by President Obama.

We like cats. Watching them skulk around at night, or dash across a palace courtyard in pursuit of a pigeon is definitely adding to our Istanbul experience. The policy approach that sees so many on the streets seems pretty nice. But it does also have its problems. Without regular veterinary care there are still serious risks of the cats carrying disease. And while a community that cares for them gives them a better chance than strays in poorer countries, their life still isn’t super. Mince, for example, loves a good scratch and a stroke, except on the right side of his neck. Touch there and he’ll lash out with all the speed of a very streetwise puss. We assume he’s nursing an injury. We’ll keep doting on him until we leave.

Air New Zealand has done regional New Zealand a favour

My congratulations to Air New Zealand. They’ve bitten the political bullet and opted to cancel of routes that are operated exclusively by their smallest aircraft. That means the end of any services to Kaitaia, Whakatane and Westport. These routes, and the others served by the Beechcract 1900D, were loosing money hand over fist. Air New Zealand says about $1 million/month.

I have no doubt that the cities losing service will be upset, and there’ll probably be media rage in spades. But here’s what they should remember:

Flights still aren’t far away

  • For every cancelled airport, there’s another airport within an two hours drive. For Whakatane there are two within an hour’s drive.
  • For all nonstop routes cancelled (like Whangarei or Taupo to Wellington) there are options to fly through a hub (Auckland) or take a two hour drive to get a nonstop flight.

Regional New Zealand has been historically over served: we need to recalibrate our expectations

  • Most places in the world two hours drive to an airport with commercial service is nothing. Look at the US, the world’s biggest domestic market. Regional passengers routinely drive 5+ hours to get a flight.
  • Indeed, people in many big cities need to travel a good distance to an airport too. It took us two and a bit hours to get into central Istanbul yesterday.
  • And many others in big cities choose to go further to access more distant airports with low cost carriers and lower fares. That’s not dissimilar to a Wakatano driving to Rotorua to grabaseat which I am confident happens all the time.

These changes will ultimately make flying to the regions more accessible

  • The Beechcraft were tiny. Considerable fixed costs were split across just 19 passengers leading to inevitably high fares. There wasn’t much Air NZ could do to offer genuinely accessible fares to ordinary regional dwellers.
  • As it retires the ‘lil ones, Air New Zealand is adding more capacity to other regional airports with flights on fifty seat aircraft. Larger aircraft will bring lower fares, accessible to more regional New Zealanders.
  • The new low cost, last minute regional fares, are also a reasonable nod to the folk who need to travel to a funeral, or similar, and are buying fares at what would normally be the most expensive time. That’s the kind of thing you can do when you’re operating at scale.
  • Nowhere else in the world is there a single airline operating 19 seat and 350+ seat like Air New Zealand. Sustaining comparable fleet wide service levels for these different birds leads to a high costs base for the smallest ones.
  • It is possible that the likes of Soundsair (sponsor of the World Famous Kahurangi Marlborough Schools’ Debating Team) will step up to fill some regional gaps, as they’ve done for the former Air NZ Wellington-Wanganui route. Soundsair has a different cost structure and that allows them to offer fares that are genuinely competitive. I’d look out for them on Nelson-Palmerston North, in particular.

So good job, Air New Zealand. Do your best to weather the negative publicity storm. This is better for regional New Zealand, long term.

Gobbling Turkey

Don't mess with mezes.
Don’t mess with mezes. Plates include – raw lamb, yoghurt and aubergine, tabbouleh, marinated pepper etc.

Ever since Fiona visited here a decade ago her answer to the very important “if you could only eat one cuisine…” question was: Turkish. I’m as partial to the occasional Donner kebab as the next person at 3am in the morning (or from Daniel’s fine foods with hummus, garlic yoghurt and three lines of hot chilli, at any other time) but I struggled to see what she was on about until we got here. Now, I understand.

The Turkish food that’s available at home is just the tip of the Turkish culinary iceberg. Like Mexican, the foods we associate as the whole of the cuisine at home are really on snack foods here. Kebabs are on every street corner, sure, but they’re not what’s on offer in nicer restaurants. And they’re never offered with the sauces that define their flavour at home. They’re typically only meat, onion, tomato and maybe a pickle or two. Not hummus in sight. Pide, a sort of cheeseless pizza, all lamb, tomato and egg, rounds out the snack offering with aplomb. In a mostly porkless land, it reminded me of bacon and egg pie. In a good way.

So what else is there beyond snacks in the Turkish food universe? A wide range of other approaches to grilled meats (and meatballs), an abundance of complimentary salads, and a delightful array of artfully spied stews and casseroles. Seafood is also a feature for those that are so inclined. The good people of Izmir have even managed to create a thoroughly agreeable way to eat mussels for those who are not: cooked in their shell and stuffed with a lightly spiced rice dish.

Then there are mezes. Like anti-pasti, these are small bites to be eaten with bread before lunch or dinner. Highlights so far include ezme, a mushed tomato and pepper thing that is delicious, an implausibly delicious dip constructed from broad beans and dill peppers, and sun-dried tomatoes are either more tomato, or more sun-dried, because they are the best I have sampled. There’s also a delicious option which is based on raw minced lamb. We tried it on our first night in Turkey and had no inkling of its butchered content.

Maybe best of all, Turkey is a country where people care about food and therefor eat out. A lot. So as opposed to, say, Iran, or most of South America, where you need to wrangle your way into a home to get a decent meal, there’s good fare to be had everywhere you look in Turkey. And if you happen to want a home-style meal, there are lunchtime places that offer that very experience in their bain-maries (bains-marie?), and the piles of crusty breads besides.

The richness of Turkey

Nothing says rich like a marina and a castle.
Nothing says rich like a marina and a castle.

Turkey feels rich. It feels more developed than most places we’ve been this year. We say that because:

  • the roads we drive on are good, and the hotels they lead us to are good quality (if expensive).
  • there are fewer small children, and they’re more likely to have their dads looking after them.
  • when our mini-van to Sumela monastery was pulled over by cops the driver couldn’t bribe his way out of having the wrong license.
  • there are lots of cats and dogs on the streets, but they look healthy and cared for.
  • people seem well dressed, like they’ve put time and effort into what they’re wearing.
  • the informal economy feels small: the taxis we take are marked; the stuff we buy is from shops, not the street (although apparently the number of people who dodge income tax is egregious).

We’ve often found these kinds of social markers the clearest indicators of development like when we we arrived in Argentina, got up into Colombia’s highlands or to Shanghai and Beijing. But they’re anecdotal, so I’ve gone searching to see how Turkey’s riches really compare to the other places we’ve been.

Riches in context

Our intuitions are about right. Turkey’s PPP per capita  (~$18k) slots it in between Iran (~$16k) and Argentina (~$20k). Venezuela is actually closest, just a couple of hundred dollars per person off Turkey. But I’m going to discount that as some kind of communist voodo. When we visited, Venezuela’s economy was going completely to pieces.

The problem with these kinds of per capita numbers, though, is they gloss over disparities within countries, and in Turkey these are big. In fact regional inequality in Turkey is amongst the highest in the OECD. This actually matches our observations too. It wasn’t until we got to some of the richer cities (Trabzon for starters) that we started seeing signs of richness. Since we’ve been through Ankara, Izmir and Istanbul and experienced the same thing.

All this has come as a bit of a surprise. We hadn’t conceived of Turkey as especially rich. Probably our expectations were just out of date. Turkey’s economy, especially the ‘Anatolian tigers‘, have been smashing it. Turkey just about went point for point in GDP growth with China around 2009-11, although it has dropped off the pace a little since.

More on student loans

Yesterday we said we were going to pay back our student loans because we thought that was the rational thing to do. A couple of commenters helpfully pointed out that student loan repayment policies have changed recently. The 10% lump sum repayment bonus we’d relied on when assessing our choices, has been removed. Boo.

Where does that leave us? Needing to think in a bit more depth, but still ending up at the same conclusion. It still makes sense to pay back your loan if the interest you’ll incur while overseas is greater than the value inflation will erode when you’re paying back the minimum at home. Interest is 5.5%, and you might assume inflation is 2%. On that basis, here’s a half decent rule of thumb:

  • if you think you will be away for less than half the amount of time it would take you to pay off your loan at home, you should wait to make your minimum repayments when you get home
  • if you think you will be away for more than half the amount of time it would take you to pay off your loan at home, you should repay it in full as soon as you can.

In our case, assuming constant income (which is depressingly conservative) we would expect to bash through the rest of our loans in about three years. But, assuming we get the chance, we expect to be working overseas for more than half that period so, again, we’ll be paying off our loans.

The closer you estimate you will be to being away for half the time to pay back at home, the more skeptical you should be about our rule of thumb, and the more it would make sense for you to delve into detail, using more nuance, and some more specific assumptions.

Fifty thousand views

We’ve hit a big blog views milestone. There have been 50,000 hits since we set things up in the departure lounge of Auckland airport ten and a bit months ago. When we did, we thought our readership might mainly be our mums. The interest fro far and wide has really exceeded our expectations.

Thank you to all the loyal readers out there. Your interest, comments and compliments have spurred me to write, and keep writing, far more consistently than in any travel diary. It will be a great record for us when our journey eventually ends. And hopefully it has given you some insight into what what we’re doing, and why, along the way.

To celebrate, I though I’d share some of the more unusual ways that visitors have arrived at our blog, courtesy of some unexpected search terms:

  • ‘Iranian porn’ has been popular recently, after I wrote of our wrangling on Western morality with a Yazdi hotel owner. I dare say whomever searched for ‘iranian lamb porn’ would have been very disappointed with what they found. More on the porn there… searches for ‘fagrant adulter porn’ get you here.
  • ‘Devil worshipers who are dangereous but undergroud (sic)’ is another favourite of mine. It’s this piece on the lot of Bolivian silver miners, and occasional devil worshipers that bring them here. Sadly it is the mining, rather than the devil worshiping, that we thought was dangerous.
  • Evidently there is little evidence of ‘hong kong women cardboard eating’. That search gets you to our post about the ‘cardboard city’ that Filipino and Indonesian domestic workers build in Hong Kong each Sunday, to more comfortably enjoy their day of rest.
  • I am glad to have contributed to the global literature on sloth devotion. Search for ‘do sloths kill people’ or ‘sloth bandwagon’ and you might end up here.
  • Personally I feel there should have been more than one searcher for ‘south American plumbing’ given how enlightening my treatise on why you can’t flush toilet paper in Latin America. But whatever.
  • And then, surprisingly, the most common search term, is for what I consider to be a vastly under searched for fruit: the humble lulo, king of Colombia’s tasty tropical offerings.

Rational actions: we’re going to pay off our student loans

Our quest for work outside New Zealand is looking promising enough for us to start thinking about some of the implications of earning our keep abroad. One of them is this: we need to choose whether or not to pay off our student loans.

New Zealand’s support for tertiary students is generous (though chronically underestimated by students). Beyond significant subsidies on tertiary fees, and a means tested student allowance, all tertiary students are able to access student loans to cover fees and living costs.

We both maxed out our student loans. We did this partly because we needed the money, partly to smooth our quality of life between study and work, and partly because it makes economic sense: the loans are interest free so long as you stay in New Zealand. If you invest your loan balance, you’re effectively earning free money!

Over the years we worked in New Zealand, our loan repayments came out of our salaries without us really noticing. We paid back only the minimum and made modest dents. The loans aren’t inflation adjusted, so the longer we take to pay back the less we really pay back. Since we’ve been traveling our loans have incurred interest, but we’ve exercised the year long repayment holiday we’re entitled to.

Now we have a choice to make: we have the means to pay off our loans outright, but is that in our best interests? If we were headed back to New Zealand the answer is no. We’d make minimum repayments again and let inflation erode the real value of our balance. If we never intend to work in New Zealand again, the answer is yes. We avoid interest and get a 10% bonus for lump sum repayments.

For us the situation is slightly more complex. We don’t expect to be away from New Zealand forever. So I was all ready to develop a complex model to establish the tipping point: how many years away before it makes sense for us to pay things off now. This was going to require some pretty gnarly assumptions (future earnings, inflation rates, how we’d earn interest…). Then I did some back of the envelope calculations and discovered the answer is clear enough to not get bogged down in detail.

Even with minimum repayments in New Zealand we’d chew through the rest of our loans pretty fast. Inflation wouldn’t have much time to gobble things up. The 10% repayment bonus for paying now would more than account for any time-value-of-money gains. We’ll be paying things back in full, and soon.

I have to say that this decision making process has challenged a couple of assumptions I had about the student loan policy. First, the loan repayments always felt to me like an extra tax, so automatic that I never really imagined them coming to an end. Second, I’ve generally been a big critic of the interest free loan policy. It skews incentives. Young professionals like us take advantage of the system leaving less tertiary education dollars to go round to folks more deserving than we. I stand by those concerns. But they are slightly blunted by my better understanding of how quickly loans are paid off.

I still argue, incidentally, that there should be progressive repayment thresholds, analogous to our tax system like no repayments up to $20,000 income, 10% up to $40,000, 20% up to $80,000 and 30% beyond. I’m especially keen on this idea because classic criticisms of progressive thresholds (as in tax) don’t easily apply. I doubt progressive repayment thresholds would significantly blunt graduates’ incentive to work hard for more pay. They’re building a career that will outlast the period in which they have to make loan repayments. Think progressive thresholds would encourage grads overseas? Not when they’ll incur interest if they do.

With a policy like that, this whole blog post would have been moot: we’d have paid off our loans before we ever left New Zealand.

Tamam hamam: adventures at Turkish communal baths


My first experience of communal bathing, other than as a toddler with my siblings, was on a high school trip to Japan. As a self conscious fifteen year old I found myself showering beside my Japanese teacher. We weren’t just in adjoining cubicles. We were sitting on stools, naked, side by side, in front of a wall length mirror, and using hand held shower heads. She may even have borrowed my shampoo. That was a formative experience.

Since then, with a good deal more body confidence, I have made several visits to a hamam on my travels. The hamam is the Turkish variant of the ancient Roman bath. It consists of several interconnected rooms made of stone or marble, with the final room being the source of heat. Hamams are widespread in the Islamic world: every historic house or palace we visited in Iran sported an old hamam complex, beautifully tiled and with doomed roofs. They were used as a venue not only for bathing but for (sex segregated) social interaction and entertainment. Indoor plumbing has reduced the need to visit a hamam but public ones still operate, especially in Turkey. I suspect that today, rather than a necessity, visiting a hamam is more of a luxurious pleasure, like getting a massage in the West.

The hamam I visited in Trabzon was just off the main square, though the women’s entrance was tucked discreetly around the corner. The receptionist indicated the price for entrance, a scrub and a massage. So far so good. An attendant dressed in red hot pants and a boob tube led me to my locker and indicated a small curtained-off area in the corner where I could change. Unsure of the level of nakedness expected I put on my bikini. As I emerged from the curtain I was handed a piece of cloth – like a large tea towel – which I gratefully wrapped around my waist.

Inside the bath the dress code was clear: bottoms but no tops. Several obese women were being soaped on a hexagonal marble platform in the centre of the room. My attendant took me to a basin by the wall where she encouraged me to douse myself with numerous buckets of water. Across from me a mother and her two young daughters were doing the same. Thoroughly doused I was led into the sauna where I lazed on a wooden bench until summoned.

I lay down on my towel on one side of the central platform, my head a few inches from another woman’s feet. The attendant scrubbed me, hard, with a rough mitt and millions of skin cells and months of travel grime collected in ridges over my body. Pulled to sitting and with my head tilted back my neck and face were given the same treatment. Back at the basin I was splashed with alternate buckets of cold and hot water. I was now ready for soaping. Lying on the towel again my attendant liberally soaped my entire body, lightly massaging as she went. Every few minutes she indicated for me to roll over – onto my side, then my back, then the other side. My bikini bottoms were pulled down to enable soaping. She even washed my hair – soap suds cascading down my face left my spluttering. A final dousing at the basin and I was ready to go. I was given two fresh towels to wrap myself in and sent back to the changing area to a waiting cup of tea.

Leaving the steamy hamam atmosphere into the cool evening air I felt renewed – bodily cleansed and psychologically refreshed – ready to face another job application.