Facebook's Looted Artifact Problem
The Islamic State turned the social platform into a global marketplace for stolen relics—until a group of vigilante archeologists took matters into their own hands.
One afternoon last winter, Adnan Al Mohamad sat across from me at an Istanbul cafe, wearing a tweed blazer and an oxford shirt embroidered with olive branches. He sipped tea from a tulip-shaped glass and recounted the years he’d spent risking his life trying to stop Syria’s artifact-trafficking networks.
In 2012, he was living with his wife and children in Manbij, an agrarian region outside Aleppo. It was a beautiful place to raise a family: Ancient Roman roads laced through the farmland, a reminder of its legacy as a global trade route, and the hills surrounding Al Mohamad’s home grew barley, olives, and figs, some of Syria’s main exports at the time. Beneath the fertile topsoil lay a trove of ancient artifacts of the region’s long history: Byzantine mosaics, statues of Hittite goddesses, funerary busts, Roman tombs filled with gold coins.
One day, Al Mohamad noticed that the hills were honeycombed with holes. At the time, he was working as an archaeologist at Aleppo’s Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums in the Department of Excavation, and he immediately recognized the holes as a sign: looters. He reassured himself that although the artifacts had immense cultural value, they weren’t worth much on the market: A mosaic could maybe go for $15, if anyone even wanted to buy it. Extracting, transporting, and selling it for that price hardly seemed worth the risk for looters.
Yet when he investigated the ditches, he found that the artifacts were indeed disappearing. So, using his background as an archaeologist, he posed in person and online as an artifact appraiser. Soon enough, people started asking him for advice on pricing and connections outside Syria. He invited them to send him photos on WhatsApp of artifacts they planned to sell, and cataloged them as evidence.
As the civil war escalated in Syria, the Islamic State moved in and claimed Manbij as part of its caliphate; eventually, in 2014, Al Mohamad’s family fled to Turkey, while he stayed. Over months, he established a network of about 100 informants throughout the region who tipped him off to who was digging for the artifacts and where. Through these networks, he started to hear what was going on: The looters were finding buyers abroad who were willing to pay exorbitant prices for looted artifacts. They were using a website called Facebook.
Before the war, almost no one Al Mohamad knew used Facebook. But as conflicts displaced communities, people across the Middle East turned to the social network to stay in touch with family and friends: From 2011 to 2017, users in Syria increased 1,900 percent.
During this time, ISIS was searching for more ways to finance its self-proclaimed government. Aleppo doesn’t have much oil, and operating a militant caliphate is expensive. So it expanded its revenue streams to include the extraction of Syria’s cultural-artifact reserves, eventually establishing a Department of Antiquity that managed the process and taxed looters 20 percent on all sales. On Facebook, it found a perfect place to sell its spoils. Online, looters now had access to a wide network of deep-pocketed dealers and collectors in America, France, Dubai, and elsewhere, and they could connect with many of them at once, Al Mohamad learned, simply by posting a photo of a looted artifact in a group. A mosaic that would sell for only $15 in Syria could fetch more than $35,000 from a buyer on Facebook; other artifacts could sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. And because Facebook did not prohibit selling historical artifacts on its site, almost nothing was stopping ISIS from destroying UNESCO World Heritage sites and ransacking museums.
By 2014, the group had turned Facebook into a vertically integrated one-stop shop for looted items: It was not only the best place to sell them, but the best place to research and verify an artifact’s authenticity, assess its monetary value, and recruit and train new looters and smugglers inside and outside Syria. Looting soon became one of ISIS’s main income sources in regions such as Aleppo, and one of the only job options for residents trapped in these ISIS-controlled territories. This January, the UN Security Council released a report on terrorism financing, citing Facebook as “a tool for the illicit trafficking of cultural property” that benefits ISIS. It adds that authorities “report difficulties combating online radicalization, recruitment and fundraising via social media platforms, in particular Facebook.” (Representatives from Facebook declined to comment on the report, or this characterization.)
A decade and a half into its existence, Facebook has clearly succeeded in its mission to bring the world closer together: It has connected friends and families across the globe, and it has also united and empowered criminal networks. And in the years after ISIS’s antiquities trade took off, it allowed Al Mohamad and a small group of vigilantes to track those criminals, using the same online tools the networks were using. Facebook reflects and occasionally amplifies the biggest issues in the world—white supremacy, disinformation, harassment, political polarization, illicit trade—but it has long taken a hands-off approach to regulation on its platform. As a result, people such as Al Mohamad have found themselves forced into the role of amateur detective, lobbyist, police officer, taking it upon themselves to fight not only with the bad actors themselves, but with the social network that gives them space.
Al Mohamad has black hair and gentle, lunar eyes, and he takes his work seriously. “I became an archaeologist because I love my heritage,” he told me in Istanbul. He hated what he was seeing in Facebook groups and in the pockmarked hills outside Aleppo: Centuries of history—his family’s heritage—sold to the highest bidder, via a platform that had made it unprecedentedly lucrative and scalable, but appeared to him to be indifferent to the consequences. “Facebook is how our community has stayed connected during the war, but at the same time, it’s also helped destroy it,” he said. “For Syrians, this is real life, not an online life. Smuggling and trafficking these artifacts is a war crime, so why isn’t Facebook held to the standard of international law?”
Al Mohamad spent eight years documenting the looting, in hopes of ultimately persuading Facebook to change its policy and ban the sale of historical artifacts on its platform. It was risky; ISIS regularly posted bounties on Facebook for people it suspected of similar acts. When the organization discovered that Palmyra’s antiquities chief, Khaled al-Assad, had spirited away museum artifacts for their protection, it beheaded him.
But Al Mohamad was worried Syria would lose its artifacts forever. So he collected data and evidence, and stored it on a memory card he kept hidden in his home. Every few months for more than three years, he would tuck it into his jacket’s inner pocket, rev up his motorcycle, and smuggle it through five ISIS checkpoints to Jarablus, a Syrian village on the bank of the Euphrates less than one kilometer from Turkey—so close he could see the Turkish military officers stalking the border. Through friends, Al Mohamad had gotten a Turkish cellphone, and in Jarablus, he was close enough that he could catch a signal from a Turkish cell tower—out of reach of ISIS, which controlled the internet in its Syrian territories. Al Mohamad would insert the memory card into the phone and wait for the signal to catch. When it did, he’d send all the files to his wife, who was living just over the border. Then he’d wipe the memory card clean, and drive back to Manbij. His wife would then transfer the files across the globe to Portsmouth, Ohio, to a man named Amr Al-Azm.
I met Al-Azm last november over a Turkish breakfast of diced tomatoes and feta at his hotel in Istanbul's Beyoğlu district, a quarter studded with neoclassical consulates. He had a cumulus of white hair and a baritone voice made to carry through lecture halls, and he picked at his plate as we carped about jet lag. Syrian by heritage, he’s now in exile, shuttling between Ohio, Istanbul, and Gaziantep, a Turkish city near the Syrian border, where he leads an unprecedented effort to track artifact trafficking. Al-Azm’s ancestors ruled Damascus for a period in the Ottoman era, building princely limestone palaces and hammams that remain historic landmarks. He was drawn to archaeology and eventually earned a doctorate in the field from the University of London, before becoming a professor at the University of Damascus, and the director of conservation at the Syrian government’s Department of Antiquities and Museums from the late ’90s to the mid-aughts. But, sensing rising political tensions, he left Syria in 2006 with his family for a teaching position at Brigham Young University in Utah.
Six years later, the civil war ripped Syria apart, and when it did, a group of Al-Azm’s former colleagues and students, including Al Mohamad, called in an SOS. They told him that while a humanitarian crisis unfolded, Syria’s cultural heritage was also falling casualty to the war. “I knew it would all be gone if we didn’t act,” Al-Azm said. He was animated by the same desire to protect his culture as Al Mohamad, but he also saw a practical upside to protecting these artifacts: “Safeguarding cultural heritage plays an important role in post-conflict stabilization,” he told me.
He began assembling a grassroots team of Syrian activists, and trained them to conduct a range of interventions for “emergency” artifact preservation through the Day After Heritage Protection Initiative, which he co-founded in 2012. Since then, the group has worked to inventory and protect antiquities, and gone undercover at antique markets abroad looking for looted artifacts. It has partnered with similar-minded organizations, such as the Los Angeles–based Arc/k Project, to document Palmyra Castle using photogrammetry, and the British crime-prevention firm SmartWater, to develop a new technology that covertly marks artifacts with a traceable code. And it has undertaken countless intelligence-gathering missions, like the ones Al Mohamad embarked on.
In his home office, in a small city near the Ohio-Kentucky border where he now teaches at Shawnee University, Al-Azm pieced together the information he received from Al Mohamad and other sources, sifting through violent extremist content, scanning satellite images of looted terrain and crumbled buildings, and monitoring the internet. “By 2014, social media was being rapidly flooded with looted antiquities. The more we looked, the more we found. It was spreading like a virus,” he said. “That’s when it hit me: Facebook is advertising the very same artifacts we’ve dedicated our lives trying to save.”
That same year, Al-Azm met Katie A. Paul, a D.C.-based anthropologist and research analyst, at a roundtable on trafficking networks. Inspired by her family’s Greek heritage, Paul has wanted to be an archaeologist since she was 7 years old; she had been on her way to earning her doctorate when the Arab Spring happened. “I saw people risking their lives to protect their heritage,” she recalled to me over the phone. “I joined what I thought were these Facebook heritage-monitoring groups, but they ended up being trafficking groups. I couldn’t believe what was happening in front of me: There seemed to be thousands more traffickers than activists.”
Paul abandoned her doctorate in order to monitor these trafficking networks. “The research has taken over all of my nights and weekends,” she said. “Every data point I can find, I record; every post, every single comment, recordings, time stamps, I screenshot—yes, it’s data, but it’s also criminal evidence.”
In 2018, Al-Azm and Paul co-founded the Alliance to Counter Crime Online with a team of online-trafficking and policy experts, as well as the ATHAR Project. Over two years, Al-Azm and Paul monitored a sample of 95 Facebook looting groups across the Middle East and North Africa, which included 488 administrators and nearly 2 million members. For every group or page they discovered, Facebook’s “recommended pages” directed them to three more, uncovering a circuit that looks less like an unconnected set of lone amateurs than an organized criminal network governed by the same rules, and using a common code to signal to buyers that they are selling historical artifacts. Their Facebook pseudonyms reference artifacts, and many of them list their profession as “archaeologist.” Every time a sale is made, these admins earn a 20 percent commission—just as ISIS had through its Department of Antiquities. Paul and Al-Azm used their on-the-ground intel to verify and cross-reference what they were tracking online, including the names of looters and their affiliations with ISIS and other Islamist militant groups such as Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra.
“This isn’t like the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Al-Azm said, referencing the account of a shepherd boy who unwittingly stumbled upon one of history’s most valuable archaeological discoveries. “They do internet market research and check Sotheby’s to see what similar things are selling for—it’s a sophisticated network.”
Facebook groups, Al-Azm and Paul found, aren’t just being used to facilitate sales, but to help train a generation of looters, providing a place where members can share techniques, excavation tutorials, and pricing guidelines. One Facebook user in Tunis annotated a satellite-image screenshot with instructions for how to use Google Earth to identify promising archaeological sites for looting; another in Egypt offers a tutorial on building a pump to remove groundwater from looting pits. “It’s almost like an accelerator program for looters,” Paul said. (A Facebook spokesperson declined to comment about this assertion.)
The sales are held as online auctions, in which looters post photos and videos of artifacts, or hold Facebook Live sessions, and members bid on them in the comments. Group members also submit requests for specific items, which looters then go out and hunt for. “An admin will put out an open call to the group for in-demand items, like manuscripts or mosaics, then members will post photos of what they find, along with their WhatsApp numbers,” Paul said. Some looters offer their services for hire; ATHAR found one enterprising scuba diver in Egypt offering to break into underwater tombs for the right price.
Ancient mosaics—of peacocks, of Hercules, of erotic mermaids—are particularly popular; looters roll them up like carpets and smuggle them out of Syria through Turkey and Lebanon. Paul and Al-Azm also documented Pharaonic tombs plundered in Egypt, church bells pilfered from Libyan basilicas, Tunisian cemeteries raided for tombstones, and a human-skull cup stolen from Tibet. One man attempted to smuggle mummy remains in a speaker system from Egypt to a Facebook buyer in Belgium. According to the UN, artifacts have been hidden in consignments of vegetables and sewn into the lining of smugglers’ garments, then dispersed to buyers via yachts and trucks.
ATHAR found that more than one-third of all artifacts advertised in Facebook groups came from conflict zones. Yet foreign governments lack the authority to moderate content on Facebook’s platform, and nations in conflict have even fewer resources to fight these networks on the ground. So some countries hard hit by looting have resorted to petitioning the U.S. State Department to impose stricter import restrictions on historical artifacts, through a memorandum of understanding. Syria, in particular, has been so affected by looting that in 2016 the U.S. passed a law banning the import of all ancient Syrian art and artifacts, in order to discourage looting and curb ISIS’s cash flow. But smugglers found a loophole: Now, they traffic them into Turkey to disguise their origin, and art dealers advertise them to Western buyers as Mesopotamian or Byzantine. The FBI warned art collectors and dealers that illicit artifacts were flooding the U.S. market, circulating through e-commerce sites, to private collectors, at antique stores and loosely regulated art trade shows where they become impossible to trace. The final owner may never know that what they bought was trafficked and possibly used to finance terrorism. “People assume if they find an artifact for sale inside the U.S., it must be legit, when that’s not, in fact, the reality,” Paul said.
In June 2019, ATHAR released a 90-page report titled “Facebook's Black Market in Antiquities: Trafficking, Terrorism, and War Crimes.” In it, Al-Azm and Paul propose that Facebook prohibit the promotion of illicit cultural property in its community standards, and, rather than delete content that violates those terms, share it with experts and law-enforcement officials, who can use it as criminal evidence as they prosecute the actors involved and return confiscated artifacts to their origins.
Facebook’s data-use policy already allows it to submit to law enforcement content that may serve as evidence, and the company regularly turns over such information as it relates to other crimes on the platform. Facebook posts are becoming more commonly used in trials; in 2017, the International Criminal Court brought a warrant for war crimes against a Libyan general based solely on videos uploaded directly to Facebook. But in the summer of 2019, instead of documenting evidence of looting, Facebook began deleting groups. Al-Azm was dismayed: “Facebook is a record keeper whether they like it or not,” he told me. “They have a moral obligation, if not a legal obligation, to preserve this data for proper use.”
In October, Paul and Al-Azm received a phone call from Facebook’s public-policy team, including Vittoria Federici, who has a background in Middle East conflict and policy. According to Paul, Federici explained that Facebook had been removing historical artifacts for sale when it was “absolutely clear that such items have been looted,” in accordance with the company’s community standards on “coordinating harm and publicizing crime.” But Federici said she recognized the need for a policy specific to illicit cultural property and told them that Facebook was ready to create a plan.“The people we spoke with showed a deep understanding of these challenges, thinking about the right issues and asking all of the right questions,” Paul recalled of that conversation. (Federici could not be reached for comment.)
Paul and Al-Azm didn’t hear from Facebook again until this spring, when the social network told them it had consulted with a handful of other experts such as heritage lawyers, museum curators, and auction houses, and were in the final stages of drafting a policy.
Before the company could finish, the COVID-19 crisis hit. With the world sheltering in place, looters struck vacant archaeological sites and unguarded artifacts. According to ATHAR, at least five new trafficking groups launched in the Middle East in the early days of the pandemic; one group gained 120,000 new members in a single month, from mid-April to mid-May—exactly when lockdowns were initiated in the region. With heritage sites around the world suddenly unprotected, establishing a policy became more urgent than ever.
Finally, in June—nearly a decade after the looting had first been documented, and a year after ATHAR’s report—Facebook released a policy on historical artifacts. “We now prohibit the exchange, sale or purchase of all historical artifacts on Facebook and Instagram,” Greg Mandel, a public-policy manager at Facebook, wrote to me in an email. This includes archaeological discoveries and ancient manuscripts, tombstones, coins, funerary items, and mummified body parts.
Paul and Al-Azm had gotten what they wanted—kind of. While Facebook now bans the sale of historical artifacts in its written policy, it does not proactively enforce it—instead, it acts only if a user reports the content, which Paul argues is unlikely to happen, because most trafficking occurs in private groups. “This is why we see everything from wildlife to drugs to conflict antiquities continue to flourish on the platform,” she said in a call to me the day the policy was released. “Whether there is a policy against it or not.”
In the weeks after Facebook updated its policy, Paul reported 11 posts as “unauthorized sales,” including an antique sword, historic religious artifacts of human remains, and an Egyptian coffin that had been advertised in a group called “Pharaonic Antiquities for Sale” in Arabic. Seven of those reports were met with a response stating that the post had been reviewed by Facebook and was not determined to violate its Community Standards, and three with a message that Facebook “couldn’t prioritize” the report, because of a shortage of moderators due to COVID-19. Only one post, featuring Benghazi coins, was removed. “We’re committed to enforcing the policy; because the policy is relatively new, we are compiling training data to inform our systems so we can better enforce. It’s an area where we are going to improve with time,” a Facebook spokesperson commented.
“Facebook is the largest social-media company in the world, and it needs to invest in teams of experts to identify and remove networks rather than playing whack-a-mole with individual posts and accounts,” Al-Azm told me. “Otherwise, nothing will change.”
Facebook’s business model is dependent on maximizing engagement, which means cultivating as many groups, connections, and users as possible. But its content moderation systems tend to place the onus on individual users to monitor a diffuse and ever-growing body of rule-violating posts, while the systems that create those posts hide in plain sight. “The effort to police antiquities, hate speech, or harassment rests heavily on reporters and users to expose problems,” says Siva Vaidhyanathan, the author of Antisocial Media: How Facebook Disconnects Us and Undermines Democracy and director of the Center for Media and Citizenship at the University of Virginia. “It has 2.7 billion users uploading ads and content in more than 100 languages every second of every day. Facebook could not possibly hire enough people who speak all those languages to keep the service crime-free. So policing Facebook will always be a frustrating, cosmetic, and unsuccessful endeavor.”
Al-Azm and Paul plan to continue monitoring the looting networks and present their findings to the UN, UNESCO, and other authorities, with the goal of pressuring Facebook to adopt and enforce an effective policy. And Al Mohamad stopped doing his reconnaissance work when he reunited with his family in Istanbul, where they now live in a district nicknamed “Little Syria.” When we met, we talked about all that’s been lost during the nine-year civil war, and what will likely never be returned, and at some point in the conversation, he lost his appetite. He told me about how, in Syria, when he couldn’t sleep, he would sneak out in the middle of the night to shovel dirt over mosaics to conceal them from looters, like an on-the-ground content moderator. Sometimes, he considered scraping together money to buy some of the artifacts being advertised on Facebook himself. He said he would have, if the proceeds wouldn’t have gone to ISIS. If his work saved even one, he told me, it was worth it to him. “Many people think that artifacts are for the past, but they’re also for the future,” he said. “The work that I did, and the risks I have taken, was all to save our heritage. In the end, I did it for my children.”
What It's Like When You Can't Go Home
The travel ban has created a homesickness we've never felt before.
Conde Nast Traveler
One year ago I divided my life between San Francisco and Istanbul; one was my home, the other my base. As a travel writer, Istanbul is both a captivating and geographically strategic city: Its airport flies to more countries than any other in the world. That sentence was true until last week, when my mother forwarded me the U.S. State Department's global Level 4 travel advisory announcement with a note that read, “Last chance to come home?”
The unprecedented announcement said Americans abroad must choose to return to the U.S. immediately or risk being stuck abroad indefinitely without government support. But the reality of that decision is so much more complicated. Home is California, a state that's on lockdown with 25.5 million people projected to contract the virus. It's also a place where I have a limited number of days with valid health insurance and no stable living arrangement to return to. Yet my family is there, my aging parents who I want to be near, but can't without putting them at risk. If I stay in Istanbul, I'll likely have to be here until this is over.
Istanbul's coronavirus cases are also rising quickly. All but essential stores closed last week. The city's decibel dropped from cacophonous to quiet. The sidewalks are empty and ghost ferries drift across the Bosphorus. Street vendors sell latex gloves and masks instead of sunglasses and knock-off purses. Almost overnight, Istanbul has been drained of all tourists. What will it mean to be a foreigner here soon?
Quarantined in my apartment, I season my meals with ingredients I brought from California. I scroll through photos of friends in San Francisco on languorous social-distancing walks through the Marin Headlands and Ocean Beach, but the feeling that arises isn't the usual FOMO. It's closer to the sensation of loss, or maybe grief, followed by the angst of so many unknowns. I call mom, who lives alone in Sonoma, and then my dad, in San Diego. Their voices are a balm as our conversations float between normal and surreal.
In Turkey, the travel ban means flights have been canceled to and from more than 71 countries. Soon, we expect home will be completely unreachable. A few American friends left, but most stayed. For now we sit alone with our uncertainty and brace for the door to shut.
It's hard to believe that only 10 days ago I was in New York, at JFK, halfway between home and here. Watching flights to Italy get canceled, it faintly occurred to me that perhaps I should change my ticket to San Francisco instead of Istanbul. But that seemed dramatic. Now I'm resigned to Istanbul—the responsibility right now is to be still and this is simply where I was when this unfolded.
So I sit on my balcony and watch while the sun travels west. I listen to the offbeat ballad of a wind chime my mother gave me the last time I was home. I gaze at buildings the same quirky multicolored shades as San Francisco's iconic Painted Ladies. I look at the Bosphorus and see the San Francisco Bay. Something about this city has always reminded me of home, and now these glimpses will guide me through this uncertain time.
Turkey's Unique Hand-Sanitising Method
For hundreds of years, this Ottoman-era cologne has been synonymous with Turkish hospitality. Now, it’s being used to fight coronavirus.
As commercial hand sanitisers run dry in the US and Europe, people in Turkey are turning to a traditional, aromatic fragrance that has taken on a whole new relevance amid the coronavirus pandemic: kolonya. Meaning “cologne”, kolonya has been a treasured symbol of Turkish hospitality and health since the Ottoman Empire, and it’s often described as Turkey’s national scent. Traditionally, this sweet-scented aroma made with fig blossoms, jasmine, rose or citrus ingredients is sprinkled on guests’ hands as they enter homes, hotels and hospitals; when they finish meals at restaurants; or as they gather for religious services. But unlike other natural scents, this ethanol-based concoction’s high alcohol content can kill more than 80% of germs and act as an effective hand disinfectant.
So, when Turkey’s Minister of Health championed kolonya’s capacity to fight the coronavirus on 11 March, it not only inspired a wave of national media attention touting the cologne’s anti-Covid-19 powers, but also caused queues stretching nearly 100m to quickly form at chemists and stores across Turkey. In fact, since Turkey’s first confirmed coronavirus case in mid-March, some of the nation’s main kolonya producers have said that their sales have increased by at least fivefold.
“Kolonya is effective at protecting against coronavirus because when it contains at least 60% alcohol, it breaks down the virus’ hard shell,” said Dr Hatira Topaklı, a family physician in Istanbul who explained that most kolonya products contain 80% alcohol. Topaklı also notes that commercial disinfectants aren’t as common in Turkey as they are in other countries. “[Kolonya is] additionally effective because it’s something that many people already have and is a part of their daily routines. They don’t need to learn a new way to protect themselves against this virus.”
To meet the fragrance’s surging demand, on 13 March the Turkish government stopped requiring ethanol in petrol in order to boost the production of kolonya and other household disinfectants, specifically to fight coronavirus. According to Kerim Müderrisoğlu, CEO of Rebul Holding, which owns Atelier Rebul – one of the oldest and most famous commercial kolonya brands in Turkey – the production of kolonya is rather simple. First, pure ethanol is made from fermented barley, grapes, molasses or potatoes and is mixed with distilled water. Then, a natural fragrance such as magnolia, lemon or rosemary is added, and it’s left to sit for a three-week maturation period before being bottled.
As a deep-rooted custom of hospitality and symbol of good health, kolonya provides more than a practical disinfectant – it’s a source of comfort for many of my Turkish friends here at a time of uncertainty. In the year and a half I’ve lived in Istanbul, I’ve had my palms doused with it at countless restaurants, shops and homes. And now, even as many of us apply kolonya alone while self-quarantining, it evokes a nostalgic sense of closeness and taking care of one another.
Long before kolonya, there was rose water. Beginning in the 9th Century, cultures across the Arabian Peninsula used this rose petal-seeped fragrance for aromatic, culinary, beauty, religious and medicinal purposes, with the Persians, Egyptians and Ottomans also using it to cleanse themselves and welcome guests. By the 19th Century, eau de cologne (a naturally scented fragrance better known today as “cologne”) made its way along trade routes from Cologne, Germany, to the Ottoman Empire. When Ottoman Sultan Abdülhamit II first encountered it, he adapted it by blending the tradition of rose water with the novelty of foreign alcohol-based fragrances to create kolonya.
Ingredient-wise, there’s not much difference between eau de cologne and Turkish kolonya. Both use roughly the same ethanol-to-essential-oil ratio and often incorporate citrus oils like orange and lemon. But what makes kolonya so unique is how it’s used, both culturally and practically.
By the early 20th Century, kolonya’s popularity was surging, thanks to pioneering chemists. In Istanbul, a young French chemist named Jean Cesar Reboul opened one of Turkey’s first pharmacies in 1895, and with his apprentice, Kemal Müderrisoğlu (Kerim’s grandfather), they created what remains one of Turkey’s most iconic kolonya distillers at Atelier Rebul. Today, Atelier Rebul still sells their signature Rebul Lavanda, which was originally made using lavender grown in Reboul’s garden, and Kerim estimates that their kolonya sales have increased eightfold since the pandemic began. “It’s an antiseptic with the added benefit of a beauty fragrance,” Kerim explained.
Meanwhile on the Aegean coast in the city of Izmir, the Ottoman Empire’s youngest chemist, Süleyman Ferit Bey, journeyed to Grasse, France, in the 1920s to learn French perfume-making techniques, and returned to create another famed kolonya called the Golden Drop, which has become a symbol of Izmir. Around the same time, in Ankara, a businessman named Eyüp Sabri Tuncer concocted a kolonya using lemons from the coastal town of Çeşme, which has become one of the most recognisable kolonyas across Turkey today. His namesake brand is still one of the country’s leading producers.
According to Elizabet Kurumlu, an Istanbul-based tour guide, smaller cities began adopting kolonya and altering it with their own unique ingredients and terroir: Isparta produced sweet rose-scented kolonya; communities near the Black Sea produced tobacco kolonya; and elsewhere kolonya was made with fig blossom, pistachio, jasmine and magnolia.
Similar to how many wineries are named after the owner’s family name, kolonya also took on an air of familial prestige, with the most high-end brands named after the founders. According to Kurumlu, a family’s kolonya brand became a source of pride and a status symbol. To reflect this, kolonya bottles were often custom designed in ornate shapes at a glass factory in Istanbul. Today, some decorative bottles have become collectables, with rare Ottoman-era bottles selling for as much as 5,000 Turkish lira (about £600) at auction. In Istanbul, a coveted collection of these bottles is on display through the Orlando Carlo Calumeno Collection and Archive at Galeri Birzamanlar. By the mid-20th Century, kolonya was being produced on an industrial scale to make it accessible and affordable for the masses. Today it’s found in almost every Turkish home.
“Having kolonya in your home became as common as having food in the fridge. Usually people keep a bottle in the bedroom, bathroom and living room, so it’s never out of reach,” said Kurumlu. “It also became an essential tool to teach hospitality at an early age. When I was a child, it was my duty to greet the guest and make sure they had their three customary Turkish things: kolonya, candy and cigarettes.”
Kolonya has always been a staple of large gatherings, and it’s customary at religious holidays like Ramadan. “Typically [when] many people are coming together from all over the place, people use kolonya as a welcoming gift, but also as a way to keep everyone healthy,” said Dr Topaklı. “Tending to your guests’ health is a form of hospitality.” Tourists in Turkey have likely encountered a bottle of kolonya at their hotel, in upscale restaurant bathrooms, or had it offered to them at the end of a long bus ride.
In addition to its hygienic qualities, kolonya is also believed to have other health benefits. Sprinkling a few drops of it onto a sugar cube is said to aid digestion, and rubbing it onto your temples can relieve a headache. “Whenever we visit patients in the hospital, we would take them kolonya or a bag of oranges,” Kurumlu said.
The Age of Conquest
A travel writer dreams of a future where travel is shaped by connections, not checklists.
Muscat, Oman, 4.a.m. Minarets twinkled in the sable sky as I set out from the airport in a rental car, headed for the pink beaches and golden cliffs of Al Wusta. I could have been driving into the pages of Arabian Sands, for all I knew about the place. No internet listicle nor Instagram influencer had lured me here. I had come, in part, for just that reason: because viral content about this place didn’t exist. At least not yet.
Driven by a sense of exploration, I immersed myself in this place where everything was the color of dust and the air smelled of frankincense and myrrh. Among its vast deserts, barren land, and little infrastructure, Oman invited me in to take a seat. Strangers in dishdashas welcomed me into their homes for karak chai — black, milky tea flavored with cardamom, saffron, and sugar. From the courtyard of one of these homes, I watched the sun set and the sky glow a fierce orange I had never seen. “In Oman, travelers are guests,” my host told me.
The year was 2015 — halfway through a decade that transformed me both as a traveler and as a writer.
As a wide-eyed Californian with a vocalized case of wanderlust, I used to believe that traveling was itself a noble action. I’m a woman who often travels alone; my presence in a place — and my writing about those experiences — makes a statement about every person’s right to movement. I sought opportunities to provide a counterpoint to Western prejudices about “exotic” or “dangerous” places. I took pride thinking that my work broke down barriers and dispelled myths. Taking a cue from writer Paul Bowles in The Sheltering Sky, I belonged “no more to one place than to the next.”
These ideals are what led me to journalism. Tucked in my backpack, weathered tomes by Bowles as well as Joan Didion, Paul Theroux, and others served as my first travel guides. A well-told narrative could take me along with these writers — the great observers of the world — and inspire my actions as well as my approach. Like Didion, I believed “that something extraordinary would happen any minute, any day, any month,” if only I went out into the world and found it.
But over the last decade of my career — in the pre-pandemic times — a new article format became insanely popular: the listicle, a digital list-article hybrid that is almost always topped with such FOMO-inducing headlines as “10 Best Places to Travel This Year” or “The World’s 5 Most Exciting Destinations.” These types of articles began crowding out assignments for the narratives that had moved me. But I adapted. Soon, the listicle was sending me around the world — and propelling my career.
Reporting these lists afforded me the ability to see the world, so I accepted each project with a mix of resentment and excitement. Celebrating the “best” a city had to offer, I reasoned, would inspire people to follow the gospel of travel.
Moving through the world at a whiplash pace, I spent a year residing in Airbnb rentals in 14 countries, living momentary lives in residential neighborhoods, feeling halfway between traveler and trespasser. On assignment in Barcelona, I raced through tabernas and gin bars until my palate was numb. In Venice, I had four days to hit 13 gelaterias, 16 bars, 10 museums, and five hotels. I was to choose the best spots and write them up in a series of listicles. The listicle reduced once complex experiences to bulleted guideposts: what, where, why. Within this context, deviation isn’t an option. Narrative gets lost in the margins.
By now I was well-versed in the formula: a mix of classics, hidden gems, and trendy spots that cleaned up nice in photos, categorized by verbiage that made scrollers want to click: 7 Must-Try Gelaterias, 10 Don’t-Miss Venetian Bars. During the editing process, keywords would be added to optimize search engine results. The worth of the writing was defined by its click-ability: Every article’s aim was, above all else, to go viral.
In his 2007 manifesto about “contagious media,” Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti glorified content boiled down to “the simplest form of an idea.” As this new standard spread through the travel media landscape, the listicle reduced once complex experiences to bulleted guideposts: what, where, why. Within this context, deviation isn’t an option. Narrative gets lost in the margins.
Yet the farther I ventured — and the deeper into the listicle trenches I got — the more I understood that traveling requires more than a suitcase and a checklist. I wasn’t just falling into the trappings of tourism; I was helping to set the trap.
In 2014, I found wonder around every corner of Lisbon as I ambled its quiet calçada streets. At that time, encountering another American traveler there was rare. “Why not go to Spain?” perplexed locals asked me. I didn’t say it was because Portugal had the makings of clickbait gold: Old World charm, photogenic vistas, and a quiet but promising restaurant scene. I fell for the country’s melancholic spirit, over-salted seafood and buttery pastéis de nata, and the feeling of being stuck in an era that predated social media. Back home, I wrote several stories saying just that, including one that appeared on the cover of a national travel magazine.
In the years to come, out of what seemed like nowhere, Portugal emerged as one of Europe’s trendiest destinations, appearing on many where-to-go-now lists. Tourists increased from 6.8 million in 2010 to 18.2 in 2016. I returned in 2018 to find the walls of Lisbon’s stone parishes and fado bars tattooed with bitter sentiments such as “Tourists, go home.”
My wanderlust was eclipsed by guilt. To accommodate the hordes of visitors, apartments were converted into Airbnbs by the thousands, causing tourists who wanted to “travel like a local” to displace actual locals. Selfie sticks crowded every scenic viewpoint in Lisbon.
Standing on the shore of the Tagus River, I gazed up at the Padrão dos Descobrimentos, a hulking limestone monument that marks the spot where, six centuries earlier, fleets of ships crept off toward Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Looking at the figures leaning toward the bow of a masted ship — led by Prince Henry the Navigator, whose dispatches launched the Atlantic slave trade — I recognized their romanticized ideal of travel and the impact often left in its wake.
In a way, Portugal’s history was boomeranging back to itself. In his 1978 book, Orientalism, Palestinian American writer Edward Said critiqued early exploration by the West. He wrote, “For even as Europe moved itself outwards, its sense of cultural strength was fortified. From travelers’ tales … colonies were created and ethnocentric perspectives secured.”
With international travel more accessible than ever before, more and more people were jetting off to places championed in listicles. But how many travelers acted like guests, rather than occupiers? How many judged their experiences by their hashtags? And what responsibility falls on the travel writer whose stories get the most clicks?
After Lisbon, a batch of assignments sent me in search of The Best Hotels in Belize, The Best Canal Tours in Copenhagen, The Best Food Trucks in Austin. So when I landed in Siem Reap, I did what came naturally: I turned to the internet for a listicle that could summarize the city’s highlights and help me make the most of my limited time in Cambodia.
The three days that followed unfolded like a sad scavenger hunt. A sunrise tuk-tuk tour shuttled me through the temples of Angkor Wat. By nightfall, I drank cheap beer at stale pubs where black lights cast shadows on patrons showing off photos of elephant rides and trips to the killing fields. At a loungey art cafe, I found myself surrounded by other travelers with the same furrowed brow, fervently scrolling their smartphones — no doubt looking for a clue to uncover the real Siem Reap.
Desperate for connection, I signed up for a Khmer village visit billed by my hostel as “A Day in the Life of a Cambodian.” A guide picked us up in an air-conditioned van and drove us into the Siem Reap paddies, reciting a script about village life and the rice harvest. My fellow tour goers and I took turns snapping photos with a sickle, climbed into an oxcart for a bumpy ride, then got shepherded awkwardly through a local home by a family who showed us their bedroom and laundry drying on the patio as if on exhibit.
These real people were staging their lives for a small payoff, and foreigners looking to shore up cultural cred were buying the charade. Without a meaningful exchange, the experience was purely transactional. In Cambodia I wasn’t a traveler or tourist. I was a consumer with a passport.
Oman was different. Without a list of “musts” to dictate my trip, my days flowed naturally, like the shape-shifting sands of the Arabian Desert. Arriving without expectations, it turned out, freed me from the tyranny of an itinerary. I camped on random beaches, where dolphins arced out of the emerald Arabian Sea, and awoke to the muezzin’s call to prayer. I followed a dirt road to a village of jewel-box homes and pomegranate plantations high atop Jebel Shams. I found myself at a goat auction and got lost in a centuries-old souk filled with silver khanjars — traditional Omani daggers. I ate pit-barbecued goat with my hands at a roadside restaurant.
Opening myself up to Oman and its people encapsulated what travel can be: pure magic. After my trip, I wrote several narratives about where Oman’s roads took me. Most importantly, they led me to discover just how little I understood about this place and the people in it, the way the world works, and even about being a respectful guest.
I reached a critical juncture in my journey two years ago, upon landing in Kathmandu. Three years after a devastating 7.8-magnitude earthquake, the city was still reeling. Broken statues of Hindu deities splayed out like a sacred jigsaw puzzle, surrounded by teams of people piecing the gods back together. In the streets, residents hauled sacks of cement mix over their shoulders and carried bricks wrapped in scarves. Artisans in their workshops hammered out bronze Buddhas to fill nearby temples.
As I walked through Kathmandu’s Thamel district, a dichotomy emerged in stark relief: Foreign backpackers stocked up on pricey climbing equipment at flashy gear stores, while locals scavenged through rubble for scraps with which to rebuild their homes. For decades, foreigners have exoticized Nepal as an “ultimate” destination, with Mount Everest as the peak must-do. In 2019 Nepal issued a record 381 climbing permits to foreigners set on claiming the world’s tallest mountain — adding up to 891 total climbers that year. Not everyone makes it: More than 300 climbers have died on the slopes since 1921, according to the Himalayan Database of expedition records. About a third of those fatalities have been Sherpas.
Ecuadorian travel writer Bani Amor points to colonialist attitudes as a driving factor of the bucket-list climbing of Everest, writing, “Over-tourism on this sacred mountain can’t be addressed in a vacuum: It is inextricable from Nepal’s current climate crisis, from the exploitation of the Indigenous Sherpas of Himalayan mountain communities, and from the man-vs.-nature complex that has long captivated white adventurers.”
Foreign backpackers stocked up on pricey climbing equipment at flashy gear stores, while locals scavenged through rubble for scraps with which to rebuild their homes. The dissonance of Nepal exposed for me the danger of the listicle. Embedded in the structure of the list is a desire to conquer. Travel is presented as something to be achieved, or dominated. When this conquest mentality meets the reality of over-tourism, the world’s most vulnerable populations often pay the consequence.
When borders snapped shut in March 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, I found myself in perhaps my most foreign experience yet: standing still. From the balcony of my apartment in Istanbul, where I’ve lived for two years, I watched the usually busy sky suddenly go quiet.
With the world sheltering in place and anxieties swirling, I saw one bright spot on the horizon: The listicle went on lockdown, too. Just as all those years ago in Oman, I find myself hoping the darkness of this night will foretell of a bright dawn ahead — one that illuminates the many paths that await us. But that will only happen if, when it’s time once again to move, we make the choice to click into our intuition and choose storylines vast enough to reflect the complexities of the world.
Only then will I deserve the hospitality of people who patiently tolerated my missteps, and still welcomed me as a guest and invited me into their homes for tea.
Where Landscape Defines the Journey
A road trip through Oman reveals a culture shaped by geography.
San Francisco Chronicle
The Oman desert does not look like sand. The dune I’m sitting on is the color and consistency of sifted wheat flour. Durum with a dusting of cayenne. In its grooves are impressions from everyone around me: the long bare feet of my bedouin guide; the deep crescent hoofs of his camels; tick marks from small desert birds, beetles and iridescent scorpions. “Nothing comes through this desert without leaving its mark,” my guide says, refilling my cup with saffron tea, “Not even something as weightless as the wind.”
He’s right. The cratered landscape of Oman’s Sharqiya Sands is shaped by conflicting winds that howl through the Arabian Peninsula. I watch gusts wipe this sandy slate clean, turning our tracks back to ghostly ripples. It seems that after only a few minutes, the desert’s history is rewritten. The powdery sand rests in 300-foot-tall mounds, dunes so high they lend a new perspective of the Middle East, and as the orange sun that’s been dominating the sky all day drops behind the farthest drift on the horizon, I reconsider what I know — or thought I knew — about this part of the world.
“This dune we sit on now will shift to a different position by sunrise tomorrow,” he explains, and I slug back the last sip of saffron tea, now bitter and cold from the wind. Back at the Nomadic Desert Camp, a bedouin camp travelers can stay at, carpets are rolled across the sand outside of my palm frond hut for a makeshift terrace under a star-studded sky. As I tear away at a piece of charred “fire bread,” flatbread baked on embers and ash, I’m reminded why it was Oman’s geology that drew me here: to discover a country with little else to tell its story other than what’s recorded in its ever-changing landscape.
From the Sharqiya Sands to Nizwa, the band of freshly paved highway is lined with rock quarries, “For Sale” signs to empty desert lots, dust devils and billboards of popular leader Sultan Qaboos bin Said. Because the country’s tourism industry is young and small — the doors only opened to outside tourists in the early 1990s — Oman is still a country primarily designed for locals, not foreigners. The map on my iPhone only displays a large swath of beige as we weave our rental car around Kias and pickup trucks full of camels. We pass gas stations where robed men linger over plastic tables, and sand-colored hamlets hallmarked by mosque domes that resemble imperial Faberge eggs.
Soon we pull in to Nizwa, an ancient city wedged at the foot of the Al Hajar Mountains, a sawtooth range that separates the country’s northern coast from its desert interior. To the southeast is the lonely edge of the Ar Rub al Khali, or the Empty Quarter, the largest uninterrupted expanse of sand on the planet. Nizwa was Oman’s ancient capital dating back to the sixth century, and it has been a religious center and a vital stop on trade routes for more than a thousand years. As such, it’s the best place in the country to experience Oman’s timeless traditions and craftsmanship, and to understand how they relate to the land.
It’s Friday, Islam’s holy day, and the town square is swirling with men in colorful turbans, with jezail muskets over their shoulders and curved khanjar daggers strapped to their waists — the national insignia. I make my way through a parade of goats readying to go up for auction, then veer through the souq, a maze of stalls hawking crafts and goods. It is a showcase of the mountains’ many resources — silver, copper and marble — for which the ancient trade routes were created. Tables are splayed with hammered silver jewelry, marble decorative objects and rose-hued clay water jugs. Farmers sell pyramids of sticky dates and amber cubes of locally harvested frankincense.
The desert I first saw as simply barren continues to show me all the ways it’s not. As one of the craftsmen hands me a copper necklace, I realize this souk is just one example of all that the land actually has to give, and how the Omani people have cultivated it in ways I wouldn’t have expected.
Other than some modern trinkets and conveniences, the scene probably is not much changed in 150 years, back to when the Omani empire included portions of Abu Dhabi, Iran, Zanzibar and the East African coastline down to Mozambique. Nizwa has its share of historical sites — the imposing Nizwa Fort is among the country’s most popular monuments — but portions of the town itself are a living museum of a culture shaped by trade, by the desert and by the people who came through one to do the other.
Just outside of Nizwa, I’m standing on fossilized coral and fish skeletons stamped into a limestone rock. Long ago, this mountain was wedged at the bottom of the Arabian Sea. Today it crests at one of the highest points in Arabia, 93 miles from the coast and nearly 10,000 feet into the sky. Jebel Akhdar is a far cry from both Oman’s sea and deserts in many ways, and its stony mountainsides, wide plateaus and vertiginous valleys are oases of Eden-esque farms I was not expecting in Oman.
“These are the best pomegranates in the Middle East,” my guide says, gazing down the valley. “People drive pickup trucks all the way from Dubai to fill them up.” We stumble down the hill to an opulent village he says was built from pomegranate money. Its homes — a cluster of apricot-, lavender- and pistachio-colored compounds — parody a still life. Behind iron gates front doors are dizzy with Islamic geometric patterns, and reflective gold windows allow residents to see out and prevent outsiders from seeing in.
For a moment, a music box melody drifts through the stagnant afternoon air, followed by the call to prayer. Old, weathered men in light white dishdashas assemble in the street and slowly walk past us, aided by whittled olive branch canes, then slip into a violet mosque. Rose farms cascade down rocky terraces beneath us, where rosewater is harvested for medical, culinary and cultural uses. Farther down are hardy date palm orchards and olive groves fenced in by dusty rosemary shrubs. Beyond, walnut and peach trees as well as apiaries line the horizon. Connecting it all is a web of Omani aflaj irrigation systems, tranquil narrow channels engineered to water crops that can be traced back 5,000 years. All of this amasses to a profound feeling of peace and serenity I had not anticipated on a trip to the Middle East.
“We always come to the table if peace is on it,” my guide says. “And these days, it’s increasingly up to us to provide the table as well.” After overcoming a violent history of tribal warfare, Oman has quietly been a rising force for peace in the region, promoting religious tolerance and serving as neutral ground for diplomatic talks. The term “Switzerland of the Middle East” has floated past me a few times.
In the evening back at Alila Jabal Akhdar, one of the newest hotels in an area quickly amassing more, my deck opens to the so-called Grand Canyon of Arabia. As the sun angles toward the horizon, massive shadows play like puppets across the yawning canyon. Shaggy free-range goats bleat as they clomp over piles of rocks to tear small thick leaves from the branches of an acacia tree.
The architecture is made in the image of traditional Omani villages, lined with stone walls and thatched fences. In the rooms are handwoven curtains, Omani wedding chests and what’s become the comforting scent of frankincense. It all reflects the mantra three people I’ve met in Oman have already told me, “Travelers are not tourists; they are guests.” There are scenes along certain sections of Oman’s coastline reminiscent of California’s Highway 1. An hour south of Muscat, swallows swoop over placid estuaries, cliffs plummet into a swirling ocean, old shipwrecks crest the shallow waters, and a man sells dates and watermelon slices from the back of a Westfalia alongside the serpentine road.
But other parts remind me that this is the Arabian Sea, not the Pacific. Sand-castle-like fortresses freckle the bluffs, and parts of the drive are queued with evidence of Oman’s changing landscape: lines of construction workers in baby-blue jumpsuits picking away at the mountains, and a gridlock of tankers, loaders and excavators clearing the way for more transportation infrastructure, part of an ambitious plan the government is striving to roll out over the next few years.
It’s hard to imagine that less than a century ago, this peaceful country was the Arabian Peninsula’s capital for arms and ammunition trading, and entrenched in a bloody war. It’s almost equally difficult to imagine that if all goes according to ruler Said’s plan, in a few years their economy will be oil independent and a fleet of shiny new trains will be hauling a new generation of tourists along this beautifully desolate coastline.
When we reach Al Sifah beach, we are greeted by the resident goats and donkeys but no one else. We haul our rented camping equipment to the farthest dune and pitch our tent in a soft bed of pink sand a few yards from the water — in Oman, you don’t need a camping permit, or even a designated campground, for an overnight. The beach is empty except for a few fishing boats with peeling paint, and the silhouettes of a group of women strolling the shoreline. We hadn’t set out to camp at this specific beach, we merely followed the wind down the coastline and slept where we were at the moment the sun begins to set.
A Midnight Train to a Tokyo Tradition
The end of the world's most famous fish market
It was 3:30 am when I finally worked up the courage to leave Jonathan’s, a 24-hour diner in Tokyo’s Chuo ward. I walked out into the frigid winter air with four cups of coffee simmering in my belly and at least half a dozen disposable heating pads strapped to my extremities. I could have been tucked between the warm covers of my AirBnB bed, but instead I’d decided to brave the cold and pay my final respects to the world’s most famous fish market: Tsukiji.
Since its opening in 1935, visiting Tsukiji has become a pilgrimage for many visitors to the Japanese capital. Word of its gritty allure has spread, and its intrepid fan base of sightseers – who would rather watch the gutting of a 200lb fish than admire the city’s beloved cherry blossoms – has grown. Many people head to the famous live tuna auction as early as 3 am to watch the intense bidding over some of the world’s most expensive fish – so there’s a long and lively tradition of taking the last train at midnight to the Chou, heading to a scrappy karaoke bar, then killing time at Jonathan's with other fish-market goers, making friends and ordering Sapporos or bottomless cups of coffee until the market opens.
But all of that will change in November, when Tsukiji relocates from its current shabby wooden warehouses to a new location in Toyosu, 2.5km away. Tsukiji Uogashi, the new, more-polished iteration of the market, will be geared to tourists, with a glimmering multi-storied glass structure, set daylight business hours and a designated observation area from where visitors can watch the action. The impending closure – including the strong possibility that the infamous tuna auction will not be open to the public – has evoked cases of premature nostalgia to many Tsukiji market lovers.
From Jonathan’s, I followed my friend Takao, a Tokyo native, into the outer market, Jogai Shijo: a tight labyrinth of alleys filled with small restaurants and produce, pantry, and knife shops. When the inner market closes in November, this outer market will stay – though with much of its clientele leaving for Toyosu, many businesses are uncertain about their future.
Shopkeepers were already rolling up their stall doors to serve the day’s first customers, and a few pepper-haired men in rubber boots and overalls were slurping steaming strands of ramen from porcelain bowls in the golden glow of an all-night sushi bar. Wholesale middlemen and local chefs were stocking up on the day’s ingredients – diaphanous bonito flakes, buckets of glossy shredded seaweed, fresh wasabi stems and piles of niboshi (dried sardines). My stomach rumbled at the sight of fresh uni strips resting in their lavender shells. I zoomed my camera lens toward a stack of freshly fried crabs; one waved its claw at me from beneath a crusting of Panko crumbs.
We continued onto the inner market, Jonai Shijo, where shopkeepers were passing out fresh samples of tuna like saltwater alms to the pilgrims that journeyed here through the night. I didn’t think I could hold out for the traditional breakfast – kaisendon, a bowl of rice and sashimi – so we tided our hunger over with a couple of onigiris on-the-go, rice balls filled with warm, oozing orange roe. At the market entrance, two elderly men lingered over a makeshift table of stacked styrofoam, splitting a pot of tea and picking away at a pile of scarlet tuna scraps.
Inside, beneath the hall’s decrepit rafters, were fish stalls run by roughly 14,000 people, many of whom have worked here for decades or even generations. It’s estimated that 50,000 people can be in the market on any given morning. Amid the chaos, the chatter between purveyors sounded like the staccato of a knife on a cutting board. Men in industrial smocks cut frozen fish with a jigsaw, and the glint of steel knives and tuna scales were everywhere.
Each stall was packed with stacks of styrofoam coolers filled with ice water and fish – mackerel, eel, prawn, salmon trout, abalone, herring roe, ark shell, sea urchin – illuminated by bare incandescent bulbs. Just as I paused to gawk at a man severing a tuna head, a forklift truck came barreling toward me. The teenage driver, a cigarette pinched between his cold blue lips, madly waved at me to get out of the way. I leapt into a stall where the floor was a mess of melted ice and flounder blood, staining the white soles of my tennis shoes an intestinal pink.
Tsukiji was never intended to be a tourist attraction – indeed, many of the market workers greet the scores of outsiders with outspoken frustration and dismissal. But in an odd way, that’s actually become the allure. While the rest of Tokyo is governed by extreme order and politeness, Tsukiji offers a catharsis to those buttoned-up mores, creating a safe zone where people can yell and toss around bloody fish guts without being considered rude.
Despite all the tourists, stallholders have mixed feelings about the relocation. Some turned away from my questions and refused to discuss it. For others, the words momentarily melted their stoic expressions into looks of longing. One man told me that he’s worked at the market for 57 years. “I will miss this place. It’s been my second home since I was a young boy. But there’s no point in being sad. The deal is done and so it is what it is now.”
Another man, who has worked at Tsukiji since 1960, was slightly more transparent about his emotions. “I will miss the little things here that makes Tsukiji what it is. Like being allowed to sell even the smallest scraps of fish. At the new market, I hear we won’t be able to do that. Only the bigger, more profitable selections will be allowed to be sold.”
Over our breakfast bowl of fresh tuna, salmon and amberjack sashimi at a freestanding counter in the outer market, I asked Takao what he will miss the most about Tsukiji. He lifted his eyes to the old television just beyond the counter, which was airing a Japanese game show, then said, “I will miss the chaos, the grit.”
I understood what he meant. It’s not about the fish. The fish, if anything– thanks to the new refrigeration system – will be better, and the market safer and more Instagram-friendly. What can’t be moved to Toyosu is the character.