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» RUINOUS SEX CULT(URE) IN APHRODISIAS

Ruins of Aphrodisias, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Photo EssayIf you visit Turkey–and hey, who doesn’t love visiting increasingly intolerant authoritarian dictatorships?–it’s definitely worth strolling the nicely overgrowing ruins of Aphrodisias, a place originally erected in honor of a local cult’s goddess of fertility who has come to be known most widely as Aphrodite, goddess of love.

Ruins of Aphrodisias, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Lots of different areas had their own interpretations and names for her: Cytherea, Cypris, Acidalia, Cerigo, Ourania, Artemis and Ashtart among them. “Aphrodite” is Greek, “Lady of Ephesus” Anatolian, and “Venus” is Roman, but they’re all basically the same cult image, reinterpreted and adapted for local and/or religious purposes usually involving fertility. Continue reading

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» SO LONG LOU REED, YOU GOT ME

by Brian Awehali

LouReedLou Reed came to my dreams last night, looking ashen and skeletal, propped up in bed like it was his last interview, only it was a monologue, and he had dark and glorious things to share. The air around him was grainy, like old newsprint, and it was getting darker fast. He was an asshole, but I loved him in dream-time with as much tenderness and ferocity as I loved him with in my waking hours.

Lou’s eyes were always exquisite: deep, dark and sad, with the intelligence, humor, love and yes, malicious intent, that he poured into decades of work, always visible around the edges. Lou often looked more bemused than amused in photos.

I never met him in the flesh. The closest I ever came to Lou was through my old friend Loretta Kazanecki, a one-time assistant at a Manhattan opthalmology office, who told me about the time Lou viciously berated her and her boss for not writing him a new contact lens prescription. Loretta said Lou was really bad about taking out his contacts at night, and that he’d leave them in for days on end, to the point where opthalmologist’s were afraid to sign off on any more of them. Nobody wanted to be the eye doctor that blinded Lou Reed. And I don’t think Loretta, scarred by the experience, could ever separate the man from his art.

That was never a problem for me. I don’t think one of the main purposes in life is to be nice, and I think Lou saved my life several times. He’s definitely the one who most convinced me to move to New York in my early 20s. As a misfit teenager stuck in Oklahoma in the late ’80s, it was Lou’s voice, his artful lyrics, and the motley universe of people he depicted in them that, more than any other, were the soundtrack to my excavation. I might have known, back then, what I didn’t want to be part of, but the universe of people and emotions Lou brought to life in my mind guided me towards what I did want to be part of. And it was a better way of being alive. It wasn’t nicer, but it was undeniably more valuable and more worthwhile.

Continue reading

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» ENGINEERING WONDERS OF DUJIANGYAN: Irrigation & Secret Detention

Photo Essayby Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park shishi, or Imperial Guardian Lion (石獅), photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park shishi, or Imperial Guardian Lion (石獅), photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan is a system of irrigation channels largely responsible for the renowned fertility of the Chengdu basin, in southwestern China. This elaborate engineering wonder, built about 2300 years ago, and still in use today, is what makes Sichuan province the most productive agricultural area in China. Most contemporary dams use a big wall to block water, adversely impacting the natural flow of fish and other marine life, but the ancient Dujiangyan irrigation works lets water and fish continue to flow.

I have no idea how old the statue above is (2300 years?), but the colossal millipede nestled in this gargoyle’s ear looks old and big enough to be from an entirely different geologic era.

Dujiangyan is also home to another old and elaborate example of Chinese engineering: the Dujiangyan Detention Facility, one of many outposts in the sprawling Chinese police state. Literally countless dissidents, political activists and otherwise problematically outspoken people have been detained, tortured and interrogated at these facilities.

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park signage, photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

Dujiangyan Irrigation Park signage, photo (c) 2013 Brian Awehali

A lot of even modestly well-informed Westerners don’t know about the full scope of China’s police state, it’s laogai prisons or its contemporary forced labor practices. One reason for this ignorance is simply that the Chinese government works very hard to control news and information about its internal security apparatus, but another reason surely has to do with just the sheer size of the apparatus.

Continue reading

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» THE WINGED SIN-EATERS: Vultures & the Vital Importance of Scavengers

by Brian Awehali

Tlazolteotl, the Aztec goddess of earth, motherhood and fertility, played a redemptive role in the religious practices of Meso-American civilization: At the end of life, an individual was allowed to confess hir misdeeds to this deity, and according to legend she would cleanse the supplicant’s soul by “eating the filth”…

As they ride the wind, vultures seek dead things, not dying things, using a sense of smell far more highly developed than any other bird’s. They can detect a dead mouse under leaves from 200 feet up. They are discriminating, preferring corpses between two and four days dead….Vultures, whose name comes from vellere, Latin for to tear, begin their eating at vulnerable spots on the carcass—the anus and eyes. All that being said, you really wouldn’t want to live in a world without them.

A truly fascinating article in the Virginia Quarterly Review, by Meera Subramian, and with gorgeous photos like the one below, by Ami Vitale, goes into a lot of detail about the vital role of vultures and scavengers, and the alarming decline of their species on the Indian subcontinent.

As the article explains,

Continue reading

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» GOLDEN HOUR THOUGHTS IN LHAGONG, KHAM, TIBET

by Brian Awehali

Golden Hour Thoughts in Lhagong, TibetTraveling through Kham, in what’s called the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR), I had the considerable pleasure of staying in Lhagong. Chinese people will tell you it’s named Tagong, but re-naming is just one strategy of the Chinese occupation of Tibet. Approaching this “stupa” on the edge of town during a clear moment in an otherwise rainy day, I couldn’t decide which idea held more magic for me: that this was a giant fortification full of monks and nuns who, not fearing death, were more than a match for any earthly army or floodtide of settlers, or an immense palace full of exquisitely beautiful people of belief, happily lashing their souls to some great transcendent hum.

GO >>

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» BIRDS ATTACK!: Navigation, Personality & Aggression in the Aviary Kingdom

by Brian Awehali

Dog and Crow Battle, Ocean Beach, San Francisco (c) Brian Awehali

Who’s attacking whom on Ocean Beach, SF? – photo (c) Brian Awehali

Birds, who once were dinosaurs, could take over the world (again) if they wanted to. And not just in the movies, a la Hitchcock’s 1963 terror, The Birds. (If you haven’t seen the movie, check out this well-edited one-and-a-half-minute version of it.) Not long ago, in Kagoshima, a city on the southern island of Kyushu, in Japan, a booming crow population went on the offensive: destroying power lines and fiber optic cable, being markedly more aggressive with people, and outwitting human “crow patrols” by building decoy nests. In recent years, crows have been filmed using tools in sequence and exhibiting complex reasoning as well.

Continue reading

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» HUMANS ARE A VIRUS WITH SHOES

by Brian Awehali

People suck, and that’s my contention.
We’re a virus with shoes.

Bill Hicks

I quite like a lot of people, but there’s much to recommend Hicks’ notion that we are viruses with shoes. It’s a fact that well over 40% of the human DNA chain is viral in origin, as Michael Specter writes in a fascinating New Yorker article, “Darwin’s Surprise”:

Nothing—not even the Plague—has posed a more persistent threat to humanity than viral diseases: yellow fever, measles, and smallpox have been causing epidemics for thousands of years. At the end of the First World War, fifty million people died of the Spanish flu; smallpox may have killed half a billion during the twentieth century alone…

Scientists have long suspected that if a retrovirus happens to infect a human sperm cell or egg, which is rare, and if that embryo survives—which is rarer still—the retrovirus could take its place in the blueprint of our species, passed from mother to child, and from one generation to the next, much like a gene for eye color or asthma.

One scientist interviewed for the New Yorker article, Thierry Hiedmann, contends that the mapping of the human genome project and recent findings about “endogenous retroviruses” show that genes and viruses are not, in fact, distinct entities, and that the concept of virus and humanity as enemies or combatants, rather than as co-evolutionary forces, is in error. Heidmann and others have even suggested that without viral influence, mammals might never have developed a placenta, which protects the fetus and gives it time to mature and led to live birth. “These viruses made those changes possible, [and] It is quite possible that, without them, human beings would still be laying eggs.”

So the stuff of us, the meat of our matter, is partially viral in origin. What of our language, and our culture?

Continue reading

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» LISTEN TO THE BIRDS: In Praise of Captain Beefheart & His Magics

by Brian Awehali


“Listen to the birds. That’s where all the music comes from. Birds know everything about how it should sound and where that sound should come from. And watch hummingbirds. They fly really fast, but a lot of times they aren’t going anywhere.”
– Captain Beefheart, “10 Commandments of Guitar Playing

Music can do a lot of different things. There’s music to comfort you, music to make you dance, music to make the time pass easier.

And then there’s music that whacks you upside the head, assaults you, is radically unconcerned with your comfort, and comes to get inside and change you, forever. Continue reading

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» DANGEROUS WORDS: A Profile of Chinese Poet and People’s Historian Liao Yiwu (廖亦武)

Three months after this was written Liao Yiwu was compelled to flee China and sought asylum in Germany. He has also since released a vivid memoir of his years in detention, For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison.

interview and photos by Brian Awehali,
(translation by David Cowhig)

“Why should the government fear me?” says Liao smiling, the first day we meet, along with an interpreter and several friends at a riverside teahouse outside of Chengdu, in Sichuan province. “I’m just a guy who tells stories.”

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

Liao Yiwu ( 廖亦武 ) in Wenjiang, Chengdu, July 2010, released under CC-by-2.0 with permission of the photographer Brian Awehali

When I was in China last year, I heard and read many colorful stories. Here’s a strictly true one: a PRC official, speaking to a visiting US official sometime in 2010, says, in somewhat condescending fashion, “We are very impressed with the gains your country has made in its short 200-year history,” to which the US official replies,  “Yes, we are very impressed with the gains of your 60-year-old country as well.”

There are, after all, people, and then there are states. There’s the massive 5,000-year-old “culture” of China, made up of many different peoples, incorporated and renegade, spread over every conceivable terrain and holding as many or more distinct and idiosyncratic beliefs and practices as they hold in common, and then there’s the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and its fractious apparatus.

Beginning around 1958, under the leadership of Mao Zedong and the PRC, a roughly thirty year war was declared on the culture, traditions, infrastructure and very memory of China: temples, libraries, museums and universities were razed; millions of intellectuals, professors, specialized workers, landowners, landlords and other “liberal bourgeois elements” were imprisoned or murdered. Thirty million people—the number almost defies comprehension—starved to death after the government outlawed private farms and forced farmers in the country to send unreasonable quotas of their harvest to the cities to feed urban workers during the Great Leap Forward, an attempt to rapidly transform China into an industrial power. Compounding the stark material realities of life under Mao, during the Cultural Revolution, family members and neighbors were turned murderously against each other in series of state-directed ideological campaigns and “purges,” and official records and memories not echoing the government’s line were destroyed.

Liao Yiwu (廖亦武) was born in 1958, almost ten years after the founding of the PRC, and his often principally embattled life and many volumes of work both cast extraordinary light on the traumatic and complex collision between the Chinese people and their modern state. He’s been imprisoned and tortured for writing and distributing his poetry, and though his work has received significant international attention and acclaim, it’s also completely banned in China.

Continue reading

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» MADNESS & MASS SOCIETY: Pharmaceuticals, Psychiatry & the Rebellion of True Community

Hieronymus Bosch, "The Garden of Earthly Delights" detail, raven vs. mob

Brian Awehali interviews Dr. Bruce Levine

Author and clinical psychologist Bruce E. Levine wants to tell you that many forms of depression, discontent, and a whole raft of diagnosed mental illness are nothing more than natural responses to the oppression of institutional society. In his book, Commonsense Rebellion, Levine contends that the vast majority of mental disorders are, to put it simply, profit-driven fabrications with no established biochemical or genetic causes. This interview with Dr. Levine was conducted several years ago for publication in LiP: Informed Revolt, but the growth of corporate pharmaceutical “solutions” to deviant behaviors has only grown since then. Dr. Levine’s newest book, Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite, (Chelsea Green, 2011) is an exploration of the political psychology of demoralization and the strategies and tactics used by oppressed peoples to gain power in the United States.

Awehali: Bruce, you’re a critic of both psychiatry—the medical science of identifying and treating mental illness with drugs—and psychology—the study of human behavior, thought, and development. Are there substantial differences between the two?

Bruce Levine: When I first started out as a psychologist in the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was fairly commonplace to dissent from psychiatry—that’s why people became psychologists. They saw the pseudo-science of not only the treatments but of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) itself. Unfortunately, over the years, psychology itself has slowly aped psychiatry, and there isn’t that sharp a distinction between the two anymore. The American Psychological Association (APA)—the professional group for psychologists—now fights for prescription rights for psychologists. So I guess any psychologist who maintains a position that depression isn’t primarily an innate biochemical disease, and that the DSM is a nonscientific instrument of diagnosis, is a dissident!

I should say that back in the 1970s and 1980s, before psychiatrists had the backing of the drug companies, they had very little power. In fact, they were falling apart, as evidenced by so many movies that were making fun of them, like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest—which could never come out today. But back in those days, when [psychiatrists] weren’t in bed with the drug companies and didn’t have much political power, you saw movies like that come out. Now, psychiatrists have the media power; they’re able to describe the playing field of the controversy.

Let me ask you a blunt question, first: Do you think there’s ever any basis for diagnosing someone as mentally ill?

Continue reading

» UNDER THE ETERNAL SKY: Mining Boom Gains Momentum in Mongolia

Khan Kentee Protected Area, Gorkhi-Terelj, Mongolia, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

by Brian Awehali

Nomadic herder in Gorkhi-Terelj, Mongolia, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

After spending several months in the epic clamor of industrializing China, I went to Mongolia looking for open spaces and unspoiled nature, for clean air, for hiking and horseback riding, and for nights still dark enough to terrify. In the countryside (and most of it remains countryside) the Eternal Sky held sacred by Mongolians since well before the time of Genghis Khan levitates with majesty over wide-open grassland prairie, steppe, subarctic evergreen forest, wetland, alpine tundra, mountain, and desert. It stretches above yak, goat, reindeer, camel, wolf, bear, marmot, squirrel, hawk, falcon, eagle and crane, and above some of the last traditional nomadic peoples and wild horses on Earth.

The seemingly infinite Mongolian sky also hangs over the largest mining boom on the planet.

Candlelit Ger/Yurt in Gorkhi-Terelj, Mongolia, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

On my flight from Beijing to Ulaanbaatar, I sat next to a miner named Tim. Tim had a wife and two children back in Nova Scotia, with another on the way. He was trying to convince his wife to relocate to Mongolia, but she wasn’t going for it yet. So his mining career kept him away from his family as he traveled to Colorado, Nevada, Australia, and now Mongolia. Tim kept his taupe outdoorsman’s hat on for the entire flight, but I forgave him for that because he shared his Lonely Planet Mongolia and enthusiastically told me about his work at a new copper mine in the Gobi Desert.

“It’s just a camp now, but we’re investing $40 million this year alone, and when it really gets up and running, it’ll probably become the second largest city in Mongolia,” Tim told me. “It’s going to be huge.

Continue reading

» CORRUPTION & SNOW IN ISTANBUL

Corruption is like a ball of snow, once it’s set a rolling it must increase.”
— Charles Caleb Colton

Photo EssayUnlike corruption or coup attempts, snow is growing rarer in Istanbul, but one day in early 2015, it didn’t seem to interrupt the usual activities of the city’s birds, fish or fishermen. A few dogs seemed on edge, and cat sightings were rarer, but otherwise it was business as usual.

Galata Bridge fishermen on a snowy day in Istanbul. - (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

I spent several months in Turkey last year, mostly because I wanted to visit while it was still somewhat hospitable for an American. Numerous people I spoke with in Istanbul mentioned exiled Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen and the “parallel state” he was suspected of operating within the country. In fact, the eerily unvarying invocation of this exact phrase had me wondering how manufactured or propagandistic a concept it is.

And now, a failed coup attempt Erdogan is blaming on Fethullah Gulen has apparently gone very badly and prompted a power grab by Erdogan, who has arrested thousands of coup collaborators as well as countless teachers and professors suspected of supporting Gulen. I have no idea how involved the U.S. has actually been in recent Turkish affairs–Erdogan most likely orchestrated parts of it for his own political advantage — but it certainly wouldn’t be the first time a U.S. attempt to manipulate a foreign government has created instability, set off an adverse chain of events, and/or hardened the people of other countries against the U.S.

Of course, Turks don’t need much help when it comes to hardening themselves against other people and countries. Consider the findings of a poll conducted by the Pew Research Center (Hurriyet Daily News, Nov. 8, 2014), showing that 73% of Turks dislike both the U.S. and Russia, though Israel is the country Turks hate most, at 86%. 75% dislike Iran; 70% dislike NATO; 66% dislike the EU, though the report also notes that 53% of Turks want Turkey to join it. The country Turks like most, at just 26%, according to the Pew poll, is Saudi Arabia, though over half of those polled also expressed dislike for it. Turkish dislike of others is broadly distributed: 85% of those polled held a negative opinion of al-Qaeda and Hezbollah; 80% disliked Hamas. 53% of Muslims polled (Turkey is 98% Muslim) said “suicide bombing and other forms of violence against civilian targets are never justified.”

The Pew report included a humorous side note about how their polling confirmed the motto, “the Turk has no friend but the Turk.”

“It is hard to find any country or organization the Turkish people really like, except, of course, Turkey itself,” the report noted. “According to our spring 2012 poll, 78% of Turks said they had a favorable view of their country.”

I spent a lot of my childhood in and around Tulsa, Oklahoma, the conservative Evangelical “buckle of the Bible Belt,” and I suspect you could poll a representative sample of the state’s monotheistic residents and discover similar broadly held negative beliefs about outsiders.

Galata Bridge fisherman on a snowy day in Istanbul. - (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Outside it was snowing, but under the Galata Bridge? Bağlama and simit! (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Outside it was snowing, but under the Galata Bridge? Bağlama and simit! (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Fishing the Bosphorus, on the Galata side of the Galata bridge. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali
* * *

Back to the snow day: Men working as shoeshiners on the Galata Bridge in Istanbul will try to hustle foreigners by acting like they dropped their polishing brush. When you bring their attention to it, they act overwhelmingly grateful and vigorously insist on shining your shoes. They’ll even say it’s free, no charge. But it’s not.

Two things: I like how the guy smiles when he realizes he’s been made. Also, and more significantly, notice the other guy who’s in on it, who looks like he isn’t. He’s in the right of the frame, watching intently, then makes a hasty exit when he realizes I’m filming.

» FIKRET MUALLâ: “COLORS THAT EVOKE DREAMS”

Fikret Muallâ’s statue in Moda, Kadikoy, in Istanbul. (c) Brian Awehali

Fikret Muallâ’s statue in Moda, Kadikoy, in Istanbul. (c) Brian Awehali

Photo EssayAvant-garde painter Fikret Muallâ (1904-1967) was born in Istanbul, but lived most of his life in France. Muallâ was a soul tortured by circumstance and self-abuse, but he understood his pain as a crucible for the perfection of his art, which he testified to in one of the last letters he was to write:

“In my opinion every artist should suffer hardship, anguish and hunger. Only after that should they enjoy life. After the age of fifty, people start to seek comfort and health, and to think. That is my fate. My life has passed in a struggle against poverty. Now in this quiet village I submit to living peacefully by myself waiting for the final period of my life as ordained by God. Apart from this I have no problems! No pretensions. We have seen every kind of circumstance the world has to offer, we have tasted very few of the pleasures of life. Today what is left but for my tongue to recall the past and my brush to paint?”

Fikret Muallâ’s statue in Moda, Kadikoy, in Istanbul. (c) Brian Awehali

» ACTUALLY AFFORDABLE CALIFORNIA COASTAL LIVING

Long-term encampment at the Albany Bulb in the California Bay Area in 2014. - (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Photo EssayThe Albany Bulb, just north of Berkeley, California, is a peninsula-shaped landfill created by rubble from an earthquake in San Francisco (background of the photo above) that’s existed for a long time as a kind of park, outsider art gallery and, until recently, semi-continuous community of squatters.

Three-eyed lavender Medusa painting-on-rubble at the Albany Bulb, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Three-eyed lavender Medusa painting-on-rubble at the Albany Bulb – (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Now that the landfill’s grown less toxic and the terrain’s become nicely overgrown, the city of Albany would very much like to evict the squatters and figure out ways to beautify and monetize the area for its more upstanding, legible subjects.

The Birdman of Albany Bulb, feeding gulls in the parking lot of the adjacent horse-racing track. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

The Birdman of Albany Bulb, feeding gulls in the parking lot of the adjacent horse-racing track. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Like most bureaucratic functionaries in the U.S., Albany’s would like to eliminate the presence of people who aren’t legible to the modern U.S. surveillance state.

Side view of improv housing at the Albany Bulb, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Side view of improv housing at the Albany Bulb, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

But for now at least, a very small bit of actually affordable, still somewhat off-grid California coastal living still exists.

Land’s end! Just south of the Albany Bulb, at the Berkeley Marina. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Land’s end! Just south of the Albany Bulb, at the Berkeley Marina. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

» SCENES FROM ALICATI, TURKEY

Photo EssayAlicati is a town on the “Turkish Riviera,” and it’s a favored getaway for wealthy Europeans, especially Greeks. It’s almost certainly lovelier to me during the quiet off-season.

Shoe polisher and scooter in the off-season, Alicati, Turkey, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Shoe polisher and scooter in the off-season, Alicati, Turkey, (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Alicati, Turkey street pottery. Note the lovely quiet emptiness of the streets. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Alicati, Turkey street pottery. Note the lovely quiet emptiness of the streets. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Kebelek storefront, Alicati, Turkey. The flowers aren’t real, but the flag is. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Kebelek storefront, Alicati, Turkey. The flowers aren’t real, but the flag is. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

“Stay calm and drink (buy) more wine,” in Alicati, Turkey. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

“Stay calm and drink (buy) more wine,” in Alicati, Turkey. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Alicati cats stake out A.M. rendering lessons at the fish market. It’s very important that not one, but two flags hang over your fish cleaning operation. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Alicati cats stake out A.M. rendering lessons at the fish market. It’s very important that not one, but two flags hang over your fish cleaning operation. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Visionally impressive but nutritionally disastrous Turkish breakfast. 80% of what you see here is a kind of “preserve” suspended in simple syrup. In the U.S., this would qualify as “part” of a nutritious breakfast. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali

Visionally impressive but nutritionally disastrous Turkish breakfast. 80% of what you see here is a kind of “preserve” suspended in simple syrup. In the U.S., this would qualify as “part” of a nutritious breakfast. (c) 2016 Brian Awehali