Irresistible Istanbul: Turkey’s cultural capital

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Sultanahmet is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to both the Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque, above. (Shutterstock)
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Istanbul. (Shutterstock)
Updated 22 April 2019
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Irresistible Istanbul: Turkey’s cultural capital

  • The historic city — part European, part Asian — still has the power to capture hearts

DUBAI: Although the bulk of Istanbul’s historic sites lie across the Golden Horn in Sultanahmet, there’s something magnetic about Beyoğlu. It personifies Istanbul’s confidence and economic energy, is at the heart of the city’s most exciting nightlife, and has acted as a battleground for Istanbul’s modern cultural identity.

It is also home to the city’s main commercial artery — Istiklal Avenue, a wide pedestrianized thoroughfare that stretches from the steep cobbled gradients of Galata to the vast open space of Taksim Square. For most of the year it is populated by an endless sea of people either wrapped up against the onset of winter or basking in the glory of spring and summer.

Beyoğlu is where you’ll find much that relates to the world of art and culture. Orhan Pamuk, the Turkish Nobel laureate and author of novels including “My Name Is Red” and “Snow,” lives and breathes the district’s neighborhoods. You can follow in his footsteps if you like, tracing your way from Sahaflar Carsisi, the used-book bazaar that he used to frequent as a child, to the The Museum of Innocence and its quirky minutiae of 20th-century Istanbul life. The latter was created by the author as a companion to his novel of the same name and is located in a 19th-century timber house in Cukurcuma.

Then there’s the food. Take Ficcin as an example. Spread across a number of venues on either side of Kallavi Street, this wonderful restaurant serves both classic Turkish cuisine and Circassian specialties. That means kofta, artichokes, grilled chicken and an aubergine salad with yoghurt and garlic, and specials such as manti (Turkish dumplings) and the dish that the restaurant is named after — a meat-filled savory pastry baked like a pizza.

If you’re looking to stay in the Beyoğlu area, not far from Ficcin is the Pera Palace Hotel, a late 19th-century masterpiece designed by the French-Ottoman architect Alexandre Vallaury. Renovated and refurbished just under a decade ago, its grand, high-ceilinged interiors are awash with dark reds, velvet and gold, while the colors of the lobby, tea lounge and library are deeper and richer than when Agatha Christie and a cavalcade of early 20th-century celebrities made it their hotel of choice.

A short stroll from the Pera Palace is the former medieval Genoese citadel of Galata, now known as Karaköy and lying at the southern end of Istiklal. Its central, striking feature is the Galata Tower, built by the Genoese in 1348 and a reminder of the wonder of Istanbul’s pre-Ottoman past. Karaköy’s steep cobblestone streets are sprinkled generously with cafés and boutiques selling everything from Orientalist soap tins to Turkish towels and there’s a relaxed, laid-back kind of vibe.

From Galata you can walk down to the shores of the Golden Horn, crossing the Galata Bridge towards Sultanahmet and the district of Fatih (once the Byzantine city of Constantinople). It is here that you’ll realize the full impact of Istanbul’s allure. In peak holiday seasons it will be almost impossible to move within the maze of alleys that make up the Grand Bazaar, a colossal covered market that covers 64 streets and has 22 separate entrances. It’s easy to get lost, which is part of the appeal, but with up to half a million people visiting every day it can get extremely claustrophobic.

For a more sedate experience (although expect queues), Sultanahmet is a UNESCO world heritage site and home to both the Hagia Sophia and The Blue Mosque. At the latter you can sit beneath the continuous vaulted arcade that surrounds the mosque’s great courtyard, or marvel at the grandeur of its interiors, while the former’s magnificent giant dome and stunning mosaics remind you of Istanbul’s Byzantine past.

All of Sultanahmet’s main historic attractions are within easy walking distance of each other, including the Topkapi Palace, with its lavish courts and holy relics, and the underground delights of the Basilica Cistern. The sites are also within 10 minutes’ walk or so of the Ajwa Hotel Sultanahmet, a fully halal luxury boutique hotel that first opened just under two years ago.

If you find the time, head to Pandeli. First opened in 1901, the restaurant is reached via a steep set of stairs near the entrance to the Spice Bazaar and is defined as much by its shimmering blue iznik tiles as it is by its traditional Turkish food. Expect views of Eminonu Square and delights such as lamb stew served on a bed of mashed roasted aubergine.

One thing’s for sure, visitors to Istanbul will not be bored. The many delights of this city straddling two continents could keep anyone busy for months. As the French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine wrote in the 19th Century, “If one had but a single glance to give the world, one should gaze on Istanbul.”


Saudi ‘smart glove’ inventor thrives in the age of innovation

Updated 21 July 2019
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Saudi ‘smart glove’ inventor thrives in the age of innovation

  • Hadeel Ayoub is the founder of BrightSign, a London-based company specializing in assistive technology
  • BrightSign's signature product is a smart glove that can facilitate communication by individuals with speech disability

LONDON: Saudi inventor and tech innovator Hadeel Ayoub is giving people who can’t speak new hope — and a new voice.

The founder of London-based tech company BrightSign is the driving force behind a smart glove that allows individuals who are unable to speak to communicate by translating sign language into text and speech.

After more than four years’ work, Ayoub, a designer, programmer and researcher in human computer interaction, plans to launch the device later this year.

Some of the biggest beneficiaries will be families with children who have speech disabilities and want to be better connected through technology. The BrightSign glove will enable these children to become better signers and communicators, but can also be hooked up with a web app to provide instant translation in most languages.

The architecture of a BrightSign glove is relatively straightforward: Multiple sensors, embedded under an outer glove, track finger positions, hand orientation and dynamic movements. The hardware is contained inside a slender wristband.

Hand gestures are translated into text that appears on a screen embedded in the glove, and speech is made audible via a mini-speaker. The user can select the voice and speech language.


BIO

• Founder and chieftechnology officer, BrightSign

• Experienced lecturer, researcher and entrepreneur with experience in the higher education industry

• Skilled in innovation, creative coding, programming and design research

• Ph.D. in human-computer interaction and gesture recognition from Goldsmiths, University of London


Ayoub has been featured in Forbes magazine, tech programs on the BBC and Discovery channels, and has spoken at discussions organized by Britain’s Financial Times and Guardian newspapers. She has also taken part in a number of exhibitions with innovation and assistive technology as their themes.

Recalling the inspiration for the smart glove, the Saudi inventor said she was originally designing a device for an air-draw program — the air was the canvas, and the hands and fingers were the drawing tools. Her aim was to replace the mouse and keyboard with trackable wearable technology.

On the basis of her design, Ayoub was selected to represent her university at an IBM global hackathon in artificial intelligence for social care. She reprogrammed the glove to translate sign language and won the competition.

When news of the smart glove was circulated in the media, Ayoub’s inbox was flooded with inquiriesttt from parents wanting the glove for their children, from speech therapists for their patients, and from teachers for their students.

The tech innovator quickly realized there was a need for this kind of technology and decided to make it the focus of her Ph.D. research.

Hadeel Ayoub’s BrightSign smart glove allows people with speech disabilities to translate sign language into text and voice. (Reuters)

“I want to break the current barriers facing those who wish to broaden their experience with sign language beyond the current traditional method,” Ayoub said.

She believes that at least three improvements are urgently needed: Integrating children with disabilities into mainstream classrooms; equipping adults who have disabilities with technologies that will help them perform tasks as well as their peers manage; and making smart-glove devices available in public locations such as airports, shopping malls, government offices and hospitals to offer a smoother service to visitors with disabilities.

A global award winner for her technological innovation, Ayoub regularly tests and improves the BrightSign glove, which she describes as a work in progress.

“The glove has gone through multiple rounds of prototyping and testing. I have implanted the users’ feedback to develop hardware, software and design,” she said.

“It is now being used in six schools to help non-verbal children overcome their communication challenges in the classroom.”

Ayoub said that further studies would help her develop the final product. “I am now taking glove pre-orders on the BrightSign website,” she said.

The Saudi inventor said that she has always been “a progressive thinker and a dreamer of possibilities,” and described a childhood spent immersed in books rather than playing with dolls.

She remembers her family library with fondness and reminisces on quiet evenings spend reading.

As well as being an innovator, Ayoub is a mother who talks lovingly about her children.

“They are very much involved in the development phases of BrightSign,” she said. “I consider their opinions on the products designed for children. I always encourage them to do what they love since that would mean that they will excel in it.

“They get excited every time they see someone using BrightSign and they can see how it helps people live better.

“They also understand the concept of tech for good and aspire to work one day on technologies with a social impact.”

Ayoub sees herself as problem solver with an eye for technical detail, a kind of instinctive trouble-shooter. “When I attempt to solve a problem, I go through cycles of trial and error until I achieve a breakthrough,” she said.

“I encountered a number of problems that were unprecedented, so I wasn’t able to turn to a source or a reference. I guess this is what prompted me to get creative and think outside the box, which eventually put me on the innovation route.

“I find dead ends challenging. When someone tells me that something has never been done, it does not mean that it is not doable. On the contrary, it motivates me to keep going until I find a solution.”

As for the current model of innovation, Ayoub admires the global interconnectedness.

“The mindset now is collaborative rather than competitive,” Ayoub said.

“I am part of inventors’ groups in Saudi Arabia, the Gulf region and the Middle East. Most of us got business training at some point in order to secure investment and go into production.”

I find dead ends challenging. It motivates me to keep going to find a solution.

Hadeel Ayoub

Being a innovator has been far from a walk in the park for Ayoub. She believes what really pushed her in her chosen field was her desire to learn something new in every degree she pursued, starting with design, then programming and, finally, technology.

“More often than not I find myself the only woman speaking at a tech conference or giving a tech talk at an event,” she said. “I am proud to represent my country in global exhibitions and am even prouder when I walk away with awards at competitions.

“I hope that I can inspire young girls to experiment with technology and use it to enhance their respective practices.

“I have created a ‘women in tech’ group where we have regular meetings to share our challenges and extend our support each other.”

Based on her experiences, Ayoub has a message for young Saudis: “This is the age of innovation and entrepreneurship. If what you are passionate about doesn’t exist as a field of knowledge, create it.

“Learn how to code. It will be useful in any career you pursue and will enable you to integrate technology into your practice.”