Jessica L. Gagne's Blog

My travels through Jordan and Turkey

Third Story Posted – Video on tomorrow’s Parliament Elections in Turkey

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This time, Rob Tokanel and I teamed up to do a video news package on the elections being held here in Turkey on June 12 (tomorrow!) I think it came out really well considering the equipment we were using, and some of the locations we shot at. One location was a political rally with hundreds of thousands of people at it, and Rob had to climb up on a crane truck to get a good shot. Rob has a great eye, and is a quick and talented editor, so doing this piece was more like fun than work (well at least in retrospect, right Rob : ) ?) Hope you enjoy!


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June 11, 2011 at 12:18 PM

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It’s like a global treasure hunt. When Kimber Russell asked if I wanted to go look for a geocache with her, I thought we would be going on some sort of shopping trip, but I was pretty far off. Geocaching is when you look for an item that some other geocacher has hid somewhere in the world. You are provided with GPS coordinates to where the item lies, but if you are sans GPS, which we are in Turkey, then you can use picture clues to get you close. There is no “X marks the spot.” You set out, you look, you dig, and hopefully, you discover some treasure.

A note about non-geohunters. They are referred to as “Muggles” (yes, like in Harry Potter), and you are not supposed to make it obvious to them that you are looking for a cache. Some of the caches are hidden right out in the open too, so it is an added challenge to try and search for a treasure without tipping off those around you.

Our search began with a picture of the entrance way to the Grand Bazaar. Kimber, Rob Tokanel and I set out looking for a tiny green well that was somewhere around Bazaar’s exterior. Our hotel is close by, and we had been to the Bazaar a few times since we arrived in Istanbul, so we had an idea of where the well might be. After about ten minutes, we found it, and moved onto the next clue: something along the lines of “if it weren’t for this cache, you would be in the dark.” Aha, a light post was right next to the well. Kimber and I moseyed up to it and sat down, pretending to be chit-chatting with each other while our hands furiously searched around for anything that might be treasure-like. Then, I hit something. A piece of black electrical tape was dangling from below the lamp post’s base. When I tugged on it, a little box fell into my hand. THE CACHE! The genuine excitement that I felt was written all over my face. Inside, we found a note that said “Greetings from Belgium!”, then a list of all the others who had searched for and discovered the cache. Normally, there is a little gift inside for whoever finds the cache, and you are supposed to take the gift and replace it with a new gift. This cache didn’t have a gift, but we left a Jordanian Dinar coin inside for the next person who finds the cache. After we all signed the piece of paper, we taped the cache back up and left. I was beaming.


It’s pretty cool to feel like a part of something global. People from all over the world can hide caches, and when you find one, its like being a part of a bigger human journey. Maybe some day I will plant my own cache. For now, my hunt for more world treasures and stories continues.

DCN: In Turkey, “closet” means bathroom — a closet is called a waredrobe.

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June 11, 2011 at 5:14 AM

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Reporting in Turkey

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It’s hard. And with no car and no cell phone, it’s even harder. And as if the language barrier wasn’t enough, I have been approaching people with a video camera and tri-pod in hand, which in any language translates to “I want to put you on camera.” But despite all the issues, when a story starts to come together, and all the hard work begins to fall into place, I remember why I am across the world reporting, and why it is all worth it. I get to tell stories that may not have otherwise been heard in the US. I get to interact with people and learn about a foreign culture. And most of all, I am proving to myself that I can do this, I am doing this, and that being a foreign reporter is a not just a dream goal, it’s a reality. Not to mention, I am constantly inspired by the other reporters I am traveling with. They are facing the same obstacles that I am facing here, and I have already seen some amazing work come from them (check it out here!). I never really considered myself shy until I witnessed the initiative and fearless approach that some of these reporters possess. I feel like just being around them is making my backbone stronger every day.

Time to get out there again, and hopefully you will see another story from me soon!

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June 9, 2011 at 6:33 AM

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A word about some Amazing people…

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So much of this blog has been dedicated to the sites and countries I am experiencing, but one of the most rewarding things about this trip has been bonding with the other students that I am travelling with. Living, working, eating, working more and having fun with these people has been quite an experience, and the friendships I have made with them I hope to keep with me forever. So here is a toast to all you crazy dialoguers that I love; you have been a joy to travel and share this experience with, and I wouldn’t change a-one of ya!

A few gems of a few great people:

DCN: A boy’s ninth birthday here is his circumcision day! He gets to dress up as a king all day before hand and have a big party… I wonder if that is to throw him off from what is about to happen?

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June 7, 2011 at 1:17 PM

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Tour of Istanbul with Gokhan

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Gokhan, Ally and I during a walk in the park

When I was living in Jordan, much of my time was spent with a home stay family. This was great because I got to learn about Jordanian culture first hand every day. In Istanbul, we have been in hotels for the whole trip, and I admit I have been feeling a bit disconnected for Turkish culture. It was obvious to me that I was a tourist, and I wanted to feel more involved in what was going on around me.

Then, out of the blue, my good friend Ryan for home messaged me and said that his roommate at Florida Southern University is from Istanbul, and is currently in the country visiting his family. His name is Gokhan, and he generously offered to give my roommate and me a tour of “his” Istanbul.

Driving around Istanbul

We spent about 12 hours touring around the city with Gokhan, and it was nothing short of fantastic. We went to parks, saw small neighbors, and interacted with the locals. Gokhan’s english is great, so he was able to translate everything for Ally and me. He patiently answered every stupid question I had, read every sign I was curious about and facilitated conversation between me and the people we met. We went to his favorite restaurants, ate traditional food and shopped. I couldn’t have asked for a better person to show me around. His sense of humor and open nature made getting to know Turkey better a breeze. I feel so much more connected to this city now thanks to his willingness to take me under his wing. And man, is this city fun.

DCN: I asked Gokhan and his friends what they think Americans should know about Turkish culture. Here are a few of their answers:

  1. They eat just as much fast food as we do.
  2. Turkey is sec-u-lar. They are not religious fanatics. The relationship between religion and government is separate, just like in the United States. Also, the religion of the people that I met is much more internalized. Many people I talked to were raised Muslim, but believe that the relationship between God and you is personal, not something that dictates daily life.
  3. Woman who wear a little strip of red on their white wedding gowns are announcing that they are virgins.
  4. Nike is not pronounced “Ni-key”, it rhymes with Bike.
  5. Just because Turkey is in the Middle East, it is not “the desert.” The layout resembles that of a lush waterfront city.

It was a great day, and I feel like I learned a lot from Gohkan and his friends. A special thanks to them for taking me in and showing me their culture. And Ryan, if you are reading this, I owe you one for connecting me with such great people.

Sipping Turkish Coffee in an Ottoman coffee shop that overlooks the Asian side of Istanbul!

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June 6, 2011 at 6:33 AM

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Second Story Posted!

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My second story as a foreign correspondent in Jordan has been posted! This time it is a written piece I co-wrote with Ally Siegel on women in Jordan who try to escape being victims of honor crimes by hiding out in prison. Here is the link to where my story is posted along with all the other great stories written by the talented Northeastern University Dialogue group I am travelling with! I have also posted the story below!

In Jordan, women who fear death because of dishonoring the family are starting to seek help

Posted on June 1, 2011 by carlenehempel

Story by Jessica Gagne and Ally Legend Siegel // Photo by Val Sarnataro

AMMAN, Jordan – There are at least a dozen women in Jordan who are currently taking shelter in the country’s prisons for fear of being murdered at the hands of their fathers or brothers.

Their so-called crime: For some, it might be adultery. For others, it might be something as simple as falling in love with the wrong man. For still others, their “crime” is being the victim of rape.

This is what women’s rights activists in the Middle East call honor crimes, or acts of violence perpetrated against women in the name of preserving a family’s good name. Contributing to the brutality of the issue is that women in Jordan who face the practice have nowhere to hide, because no one will shelter them if they try to escape. As a result, some commit themselves to prison in an effort to save their own lives.

“This is a problem because the abuser remains free while the abused ends up in prison,” said Deena Dajani, co-creator of the “No Honor in Crime” movement of women speaking out against honor crimes. “They commit no crimes to begin with but spend the rest of their lives among real criminals.”

Dajani, who lives in Amman and created the movement as a Web campaign, explains that even if a woman voluntarily checks in to prison for protection, she cannot check herself out. Since no official crime was committed, the legal system has no bearing on her release; only her family can set the process in motion.

“You are not able to leave prison unless your family promises not to kill you and pays a hefty guarantee, or someone shows up willing to marry you,” she said. “Most of the women end up in prison for the rest of their lives after signing in at the age of 18 or so.”

There is no way to quantify how many women are currently sitting in prison in exile from their murderous families. One figure counted among activists of known prisoners puts the number at 13, but experts say it’s likely many more.

In the 2009 book, “Murder in the Name of Honor,” author and awarding-winning woman’s rights activist Rana Husseini wrote about honor crimes she encountered working as a journalist for The Jordan Times. She noted that many women face problems even while in prison, such as families plotting ruses to get a woman released, only to kill her once she’s brought home. Husseini also noted that running away is just as helpless an option as hiding out.

“[Women can’t run away] because if anybody sees her, they will immediately call her family and they will come and kill her,” said Husseini in a recent interview. “It’s not like in the United States where you can relocate to another state and work as a waitress or something.”

Husseini says that honor crimes happen in many different religions and all over the world, even in the United States, where they might instead be referred to as crimes of passion. The ancient practice was actually brought to the Middle East from medieval Europe. What distinguishes the crimes in this region, however, is that perpetrators are generally celebrated for their willingness to protect the family’s name. And while King Abdullah II in 2009 created a judiciary tribunal to hear only honor crime cases, the government has yet to make any significant official moves to end the practice and protect the women who suffer these crimes.

“There are a lot of things we still need to work on in terms of women’s rights,” Husseini said. “It’s hard for the government to give you anything on a gold plate, or silver platter. You have to fight for it.”

Some of the recent highly publicized honor crime deaths in Jordan include an uncle who threw his niece in a well because she was rumored to have had sexual relations; a man who stabbed his pregnant sister and mutilated her body because he thought she cheated on her husband, and; two sisters killed by their three brothers with an ax when one sister ran away with the man she loved.

One organization in Amman working aggressively for political change is the Sisterhood Is Global Institute, an international woman’s rights movement with branches in more than 80 countries. Amman’s SIGI chapter provides free legal assistance and counseling services for women who are suffering with domestic violence. The group – comprised of lawyers, therapists and counselors – brings more than 30 cases a year to court in Jordan, and gives about 1,000 consultations annually.

Asma Khadar, a lawyer and administrative head of SIGI, said in a recent interview that conditions are slowly improving on a judicial level. In the recent past, for example, men convicted of honor crimes would receive sentences of only three to six months in prison. But since working with SIGI, Khader has seen an increase in the length of sentences. She also said judges treat these cases more seriously.

“There are 12 to16 honor crime cases a year, and now only two to three of these cases get low sentences,” said Khader, who is also a former minister of culture in Jordan.

Also, there are now two shelters in Amman for victims of domestic violence, including one – Dar el Wifaq al-Sary – that’s run by the government. While experts say that doesn’t even begin to address the need in a city of 2.8 million people, it’s at least a start.

Khader attributes the continuing perpetuation of honor crimes to Jordan’s historical conventions that prove very difficult to change. “We face challenges of tradition,” she said. “If left up to the people, change would come a lot slower.”

Khader is confident, however, that with increased knowledge about women’s rights issues, the strength of Jordanian women will carry them closer to justice. She is already seeing a significant shift in the women in question, she said. They are starting to stand up for themselves.

“Some women are saying ‘I am not afraid anymore,’” Khadar said. “They are saying, ‘I want a place where I can go and complain.’”

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June 2, 2011 at 1:02 PM

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The Weast

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View of Istanbul from the roof deck of my hotel – Ooh la la!

Before we left for our dialogue, I believed that Jordan and Turkey were going to be much more similar than they actually are. I guess this misconception was guided merely by the fact that they are geographically close, and both are nations with Islam as the most prominent religion. Now that we have landed and spent a few days in Istanbul, I am finding out more and more that Turkey may be considered a part of the Middle East, but it is very different from the rest of the region’s countries.

Like I said before, Istanbul seems like a mix between Europe and the Middle East. From anywhere in the city, you can see the minarets of a giant medieval mosques piercing the sky and hear the call to prayer ring out five times a day. But the landscape of the city is that of a Mediterranean beach town, you can wear whatever you want on the streets and you can party like its 1999 in one of the hundreds of clubs around town. The mixture of culture is intoxicating – it’s like Istanbul took the West and the Middle East and folded them together beautifully. We should just rename Turkey the Western East, or the Middle West… or the Weast. Yeah, maybe that one will stick.

Another cool thing about Turkey is that it is a great example of how culture and religion can work together, but still be separate in the Middle East. Turkey’s population is 98% Muslim, yet they still have a secular government in place that has been functioning for over 80 years. As many other Middle Eastern countries face revamping governments and re-writing constitutions, I think that Turkey has a unique opportunity to show countries with similar heritages and religious beliefs how they can adopt democracy without sacrificing religion. Also, their influence in this region would most likely be viewed as much less invasive than the influence of a Western country. I think Turkey is in a position where they could have a major role in helping to shape the new face of Middle East politics if they so choose, and in turn we could see a more democratic, and potentially more secular, Middle East in the near future.

DCN: Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque, is one of the only mosques in Turkey with six minarets surrounding its outside. Our tour guide told us today that when the mosque was commissioned, the sultan wanted it to have four minarts made completely out of gold. When the architect of the mosque went to the treasury, he found that the empire didn’t have enough gold at the time to build all four of the minarets. Instead of going to the sultan and telling him that his empire didn’t have enough gold, the architect built six regular minarets instead. In Turkish, the word altın means gold, and the word altı means six, so when the sultan asked why there were six regular minarets instead of four gold ones, the architect said he must have just misheard him. The story ended with the beheading of the architect, but his beautiful work still stands in Istanbul today!

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June 1, 2011 at 3:46 PM

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