The elections are coming in two months. The leftists include two Jews whose-families converted to Islam in the 1920’s, Al Gore types, western-oriented and American-bred. They’ve split off from Prime Minister Ecevit, and then from each other, and there are now something like 27 secular parties (at last count) who will all be running against pretty much one religious party. I’ve seen this movie before. I can see why people would vote for the religious party – the secular politicians are factionalized, corrupt, and anti-charismatic; the general economic condition sucks; and the European Union wants nothing to do with Turkey. Elif and Dilek are optimistic. I think it’s not unlikely that the religious party will win again with 25% of the vote, just like in 1995, and that we may some day have to add another chapter to our movie.



A cropped image of Foreign Minister Abdullah G...
Image via Wikipedia

On the way out of the country yesterday, at Ataturk International Airport, Elif voted in the elections by absentee ballot. She was one of the first in the country to vote, and as she put her ballot in the box, she was interviewed. They asked her who she voted for, and she answered, “Look at what I’m wearing, my physical appearance.” Dilek tells us that the interview made the TV news last night.


Postscript (from Wikipedia):

On November 18, 2002, Abdullah Gül, from the AKP (the IslamicJustice and Development Party“) was elected prime minister and formed “a government which was to serve as a transitional government. The goal was to make a constitutional amendment, in order to permit Recep Tayyip Erdo?an, the chairman of the AKP to become prime minister (as Erdo?an could not be elected to parliament because of his punishment), thanks to a by-election round in the south-eastern Anatolian province of Siirt. On March 14, 2003, Erdo?an took over the post of prime minister from Abdullah Gül and appointed him as his deputy prime minister and foreign minister.”

Yom Kippur in Istanbul

neve shalom synagogue istanbul
Image via Wikipedia

Last night, we went to temple Neve Shalom on the European side of Istanbul so our Israeli friends could check out the Yom Kippur evening services. As much as I hate being among a group of people who believe in the absurd, it’s a historic and hidden building, Istanbul’s oldest and supposedly nicest synagogue. We get there, and the whole street was lined with nightclub-bouncers, burly young men, some with their heads shaven, obviously spent time at the gym, well-dressed with earpieces connected to walkie talkies, and Jewish! I didn’t know they came in that size.

We’re all dressed up, we get out of the cab, walk up to the metal detector, show our American and Israeli passports, and one of the guards, not liking the name “Elif” on my wife’s passport, looks at her and grills her on Yom Kippur. She says she’s married with an American Jew and points to me.

He gives us a Sophie’s Choice: I can go in, with the Israelis, but Elif has to wait outside. And, by the way, she shouldn’t stand by the front doors but down the street, and the rest of us have to stay inside for over an hour until services end.

We’re incensed; the Israelis complain mightily; the nightclub bouncer says (while waving a few shlomos to go inside) we were bombed once 20 years ago; and the Israelis say, so what, our temple in Israel gets bombed every month or two. I think of some line my dad once told me about a Jew being welcome in a temple anywhere in the world, and I remember it again a couple hours later at the Tapas bar down the street, as we happily play backgammon and toast Dionysus over pitchers of homemade sangria.


Postscript (from Wikipedia):

On November 15, 2003, two truck bombs slammed into the Beth Israel and Neve Shalom synagogues in Istanbul, Turkey and exploded. The explosions devastated the synagogues and killed twenty seven people, most of them Turkish Muslims, and injured more than 300 others. The two suicide bombers also died. A Turkish militant group (IBDA-C) claimed responsibility for the blasts, but Turkish Government Officials dismissed the validity of this claim by pointing out that the minor group did not have enough resources to carry out such an intricately planned and expensive attack

Fighting at the Sultan’s grave

Elif met me one day near Mesut’s bread factory in Fatih, and we went to the Sultan’s grave at the Suleymanie Mosquegot, where we got into a lovely fight with the ticket-taker. He told her to wear head-covering, which not only against the law for the municipality to demand (ominously, the heads of the government Islamic tourist center, and even the ticket-takers on Istanbul’s boats and buses, are looking more and more religious in appearance), but it’s actually contrary to Islam: you’re not supposed to pray over a person’s grave.

On our way out, he nagged us repeatedly to make a donation, to which Elif said, “Just do your job and sit in your chair; there’s already a ‘donations please’ sign.” He made the grave mistake of talking back to her; Elif asked him, “Did you say something?” (That’s Elif’s pet “Are you talking to me?” expression.) He told Elif to “calm down, sister”; she said she wasn’t his sister and that she had every right as a Turkish citizen to be there as she pleased; and he came outside his booth and said a phrase he immediately regretted: “You’re just saying that because you’re in charge of the country now…”, implying, “You just wait till we religious people take over in a couple of months.” A nice crowd of Turkish women not only in headscarves, but in burkas, had gathered to see him visibly shake when Elif demanded his name for making that comment. He refused to give it, so I got in his face and made him. It was really great in nice, safe, broad daylight to back up Elif and watch him quiver with fear, with him thinking we were important and wishing he could eat his words. It’s even better that Elif’s mother will call the municipality today and give his name. Most likely, it won’t help a damn, but as I told Elif, men here have to do military service, so this is your duty for your country.

More Turkish extremists are being arrested in Germany every day, which is where they’re fleeing from the Turkish government in order to plot the revolution. One couple was arrested simply for trying to name their kid “Osama bin Laden.” Another was arrested for plotting to blow up US stuff there. We stopped by the American Consulate, and they’ve instituted a phone chain warden system. “If you are registered at the Consulate you become part of our emergency notification system, called the ‘warden system.’ In the event of a natural disaster or other emergency affecting American citizens, the Consulate will phone a number of volunteer ‘wardens’ who are American citizens resident in Istanbul. They will in turn call 20-25 other Americans residing in their area to pass along information from the Consulate. If you are interested in volunteering to serve as a warden, please call the Consulate’s American citizens services unit.” I was born in Los Angeles and live in Istanbul, so natural disasters are a way of life. It’s the threat of “other emergency affecting American citizens” that begins to worry me, which is the whole point.

Enhanced by Zemanta

A unique brand of Islam

Today, Elif cut tinsel for our friend Jeff at Telli Baba’s grave. The “Telli Baba” tomb is set on the very edge of the water, and the shrine is very popular: visiting it is thought to be especially helpful to women who wish for a husband. The supplicant leaves a strand of tinsel on the holy man’s tomb (the entire place is covered), taking a second strand away with her. When her wish is granted, she uses that second strand to wrap the flower on her wedding dress (she also wears a red belt around her gown because she’s losing her virginity, but that’s another matter). After the wedding, she gives away tinsels, or money to buy tinsel, and returns to the shrine to give thanks, pray for Telli Baba, and to leave her strand of tinsel on his tomb. On regular wedding days, there are lines of cars waiting to get a turn to visit the shrine. We went today for Jeff, because he had introduced the two of us seven years ago, when he was perhaps interested in dating Elif, and we felt we were indebted to him to the tune of Turkish wife. Elif cut the tinsel at a medium length, meaning that we wished for Jeff to be married soon, but not too soon for his own good.

This strange tradition is an odd offshoot of Turkey’s unique brand of Islam. In fact, Turkey regulates its national religion heavily, with a branch of government set up to monitor the Imams’ sermons and forbidding profiteering off of people’s superstions (such as Imams who charge people to work magic by blowing on their stomachs). The government also manages Aya Sophia and the Dervishes and make it difficult for some Christian missionaries. But they allow some weird traditions to continue, and they constantly struggle to keep Islam out of government. The problem is that what’s OK and what’s not OK is a gray area. One guy got a year in jail for selling underwear with a picture of Jesus Christ on it with the caption V.I.P. (Very Important Prophet) – you can’t make fun of a prophet it Turkey. But it was permitted for the Turkish Wheel of Fortune TV game show to feature a group circumcision of some of the poor members of the studio audience – including two of the contestants, who resumed playing the game after getting circumcised!

Most Turks are religious but still want to preserve a separation of “church” and state. When Erbakan’s Islamic government came to power in 1995, it had less than 1/4 of the vote (it was a multiparty election), and it was more of a protest vote against the corrupt Ciller and Yilmaz administrations. The debate over allowing headscarves in the schools shows a wariness about Islam encroaching too much into Turkish public life. (Not all headscarves are alike; some are a village custom; some are worn by the religious; and some are worn by wealthy urbanites who wear them as a form of protest and as a show of support for Islamic fundamentalism. When you’ve lived there a few months, you start to be able to discriminate what kind of headscarf you’re dealing with.)

Of course, the most important direct consequence of instituting Sharia law is not the headscarves, it’s not whether women can drive etc., it’s not even the radical structuring of the judicial and legislative systems, but it’s the abolition of alcohol, a substance much prized here, and the display of the flesh, which thrills and horrifies Turks as much as it does Americans. Turkey enjoys a healthier attitude toward sex than other Islamic countries. Its newspapers have more nudity than the British tabloids. Attitudes toward homosexuality are also surprising. While you wouldn’t want to be overtly gay on the streets of this macho country, on TV, two of the biggest Turkish pop stars are transvestites; many, many celebrities are what unenlightened Americans would call “flaming homos,” and videos of male pop stars, even heterosexual ones, have closeups on their abs and crotch like it’s a Britney Spears video. That said, Turks seem rather sexually confused. Men visit transvestite prostitutes in inordinate numbers; average women get fondled on public transportation all the time; women walk down the streets of Suadiye showing more cleavage than on Venice Beach and wearing see-through pants and thong (or no!) underwear – while others wear burkas in Fatih; we get an alarming amount of spam from, but much of it is of the “barely legal” variety; family members commit “honor killings” of rape victims as much as rapists. Mebruke, the gynecologist hospital owner who oversaw my tonsillectomy, has to sew up women’s hymens all the time to establish their virginity come wedding night – she once had to repair damage to a woman and counsel a couple, who were repeatedly attempting intercourse through the urethra and not the vagina.

However strong Islam becomes in Turkey at any given time, one thing the large majority of Turks agree on is that they want their Islam to be their own. Unlike those who feel that Islamics are Arabs, whether they’re from Kenya or Turkey, Turks feel more of a kinship with other Turkic nations and generally do not feel at all Arabic. The calls-to-prayer are sung in Turkish, not Arabic. In addition, most mainstream Turks have no particular fondness for Saudi Arabia. Last week it was announced that the Saudis are destroying the last Turkish castle remaining there (they’ve already destroyed every other Turkish archeological ruin) to make way for a hotel. The castle is gorgeous and today it’s scheduled to be gone. Turkish TV stations are comparing the Saudis to the Taliban and the ruins to the Buddhist statues the Taliban destroyed.

Two months ago, Chechen terrorists took over the Marmara Cafe (my favorite dolce-vita place to have cappuccino and fabulous desserts and chocolate truffles and watch the theater actors and opera and movie stars do the same). They took hostages in the upstairs ballroom, and once they reached the entrance of hotel, they shot holes in the ceiling. The newspapers reported that the policemen who arrested them said, “Brother, don’t do that, that’s not a right thing to do in a country that helps your people so much.” The general take is extreme wariness of violence in the name of Islam.

Teaching Mesut Pektas

I am teaching English to the esteemed Mesut Pektas, the head of the Istanbul People’s Bread Factory. He’s also under indictment for taking bribes and awarding contracts to his friends and religious compatriots. (I found this out from Google last night.) I started teaching on a whim – when I moved here, I stopped by Kent English to see how much money I’d make, just for fun. They were so desperate to have a native American on their rolls that they offered me, on the spot, their top salary, more than anyone else there was earning, of $5 an hour. I turned it down, much to their surprise (not because it’s so little money, but because it’s not near my house) but there are lycees closer to where I live; if I decide to teach the next school year (September), I can do so for far more money.

(As an aside, Elif’s cousin Tunc stopped by for help. He’s 15 and a sophomore in high school – he was having problems with math, and since I was on the math team in high school, I thought I’d help. You would not believe what they’re studying in Turkish high schools. He’s doing Analytic Geometry that’s way more advanced than anything an American student would ever encounter in their worst nightmares. He has two math classes – 14 classes total – and is doing complex work with set theory, derivations, algebra, manipulation of objects in 3-D space – stuff that we never, ever had to do – it’s like a mid-level college course. No AP course would even come close. Then I looked at his other books and it was the same…the only thing missing is a command of English. The worst thing is that he actually uses all the math in his other classes – physics for example – so if he doesn’t understand a concept, he’s screwed – unlike in the US, where if I didn’t get something, I could just get it wrong on the final and have a point taken off.)

Anyway, I got a call from Kent English last week asking me if I’d teach a top official in the Istanbul government for 2 weeks, a few hours a night of conversation, at $13 an hour, and I said that was more my style. Then Elif pointed out that Istanbul’s mayorship is the religious party right now (though the country’s isn’t). I was picked up by Pektas’ chauffeur and driven over the bridge to Asia, and then up the Bosphorus, and then straight into Fatih, a place that has some amazing Moslem historical sites but is unquestionably the most religious area in the city. At 5PM you will not find a woman on the street – and during the day, it’s burka-central.

We hadn’t even driven a block from our apartment when the chauffeur turns to me and asks, “Are you Moslem?” He was wearing a plaid jacket, a little paunchy, enough facial hair growth to indicate a love for all that is Taliban but not enough to be pulled over by the cops for having a Taliban beard. I held my book and answered, “No…I’m reading,” which also means “studying” in Turkish. That made him very happy. Then he asked if my wife was Moslem. I said yes and her name was Elif, and he was thrilled that her name was a historical Moslem name and the first letter of the Arabic alphabet (he didn’t mention also of Greek, Hebrew, etc). He then proceeded to recite the entire Arabic alphabet. Then he asked me my name, and he didn’t like it nearly as much. So he gave me a new one. I told him that it would surprise my wife very much if I were to have a new name, but he insisted, so I told him that it had to begin with a B, because in middle-school French class, the teacher gave me the name Jean-Pierre and I didn’t like that one bit. I came up with Baris, and he said Burak would be much better, and he called me Burak the rest of the way, when he wasn’t pointing out every single mosque we passed the way down. He (Hasan) told me he’d been to Mecca, and would go back soon, and how great Arabic and Saudi Arabia was, how really, really great, he liked it as much as my mom likes Disneyland. His cell phone rang and it played a religious Arabic melody as his ringtone. I thought this was one big Candid Camera episode.

When we got to the office, in the bread factory, he walked me to the Boss, or that is to say, I walked him. He kept telling me how great his boss was and how the boss’s English was better than mine, and he kept getting behind me, which is a very Turkish thing to do, out of respect, but it is very hard to walk in front of someone (such as a real estate agent to an apartment he’s showing you) when you don’t know where the heck you’re going!

Mesut saw me and my first impression was that he must be some kind of stealth theocrat. He looks like any Turkish businessman; 49 years old, white hair, professional, no facial hair, suit; you’d never know what religion he was, even. The reason I took him for some kind of spy is that everyone around him, at night in the bread factory, was in full baggy-pants regalia, and he seemed right at home, and I was certainly not in Kansas anymore, even though he looked just like my Auntie Em.

My job is to talk with him for 2-3 hours a night and correct his English, give him confidence, teach him a little about American business (the stock market, macroeconomics, world affairs, law), and to use idiomatic expressions and compound phrasal verbs. I Googled him, as if it would somehow help me bravely prevent another 9/11 attack, but what he tells me checks out – he was in Boston 1988-1989 getting his masters at Northeastern in Finance, he worked for the government in Ankara, and he rode the wave of religious fervor in the mid-90’s to get his job in Istanbul. He works as the Director of Disaster Coordination Center (AKOM) to help Istanbullians survive future earthquakes. He works with the IMM and its annexed agencies like ISKI (which handles water and sewage) and the IETT (which runs the buses). A real mover and shaker. He left out the parts about working for the Saudi bank then and his corruption charges now, of course. He tells me that he’s interviewing for an American firm in Washington DC and wants to impress the interviewer with his English so he can get the job and move there with his wife, and I see nothing to indicate otherwise. And he’s a really, really, really likeable guy. I want to help him. I want to help his daughters write their college essays so they can say all the right things to get into a good American university.

I feel ridiculous for ever suspecting that he’d go through Kent English to overthrow the US. When we talk about politics and law, he doesn’t hold back or keep his guard up by listening only; he makes jokes and disagrees with me, not just mirroring me. We talk about tax law, corporate bailouts and welfare, etc., and we haven’t talked about 9/11 yet except when we talk about the markets or about the airline industry bailout vs. Chrysler’s 20 years ago. We focus on the English-language aspect of it; if he has any motive other than to escape corruption charges here and cash in there, he’s doing a great job of keeping it from me. Despite his dress, he’s not pretending to me to be more secular than he is – he interrupts the lesson to grab a rug and go in another room to pray for 5 minutes at 7PM, something he knows that I know he’s not supposed to do as a public official – very odd.

He’s a busy guy, with his hands in a lot of pies. He’s often late. Sometimes I’m taken there and never get to teach him, as he’s in meetings. I bill him for the full time I’m away from home, and he pays Kent, who pays me. When he shows up, he’s a curious and attentive learner. I test him on all kinds of words and phrases, and most of what he doesn’t know are in fact idioms, phrasal verbs, or just plain cynical things to say: “beat around the bush,” “cut to the chase,” “pie in the sky,” “fake it,” “blunt term,” “brick-and-mortar,” “buying frenzy,” “get big fast,” “irrational exuberance,” “tax hassle,” “liable,” “belly-up,” “ghost,” “plaintiff,” “defendant,” “bailiff,” “voir-dire,” “indictment,” “acquitted,” “cynical take,” “sarcastic,” “lewd,” “brash,” “blunt,” “forward,” “cocky,” “arrogant,” “conceited,” “nasty,” “cruel,” “unkind,” “mean-spirited,” “rude,” “bragging,” “boasting,” “to blow off,” “throw up,” “pig out,” “on drugs,” “SAT’s,” “TOEFL.”

The chauffeur who drives me home is a 26-year-old maniac who screams at me as fast as he drives. He has a 17-month old kid and loves Arabic and thinks that 9/11 is a good thing not just because the West is the infidels, but because it brings the war home to the US, and he really resents the US having been in a tug-of-war with the USSR using Turkey as the rope and really resents having to serve in the military even after the PKK war died down and he really wants to go to the US but only has 15 days, and what should he see? Is it expensive? Which country is my favorite, America or Turkey? Most importantly, which soccer team do you support?

– I don’t watch soccer.
– OK, but if you did, who would you support?
– I don’t have a TV.
– OK, but if you did?
– I don’t like to watch sports at all.
– OK, but if you did?
– I don’t know. My wife’s family likes Besiktas, you like Besiktas, I’ll say Besiktas then. I support Besiktas.

…at which point he honks his horn, spins his wheel, almost killing us, and speeds up the car. He wants to go to games with me. I think it might be fun to go to a soccer game but tell him I’m afraid of hooligans. Hooligans, he says. We didn’t even have them till the British came 2 years ago. Then they burned our flag in the streets and two Galatasaray fans stabbed a Brit to death. Now it’s everywhere. I’m not saying that stabbing people is good, but they burned our flag in the streets, can you understand that? Now the violence happens here. It happened at the Fenerbahce-Malatya game. It happened at the Fenerbahce-Trabzonspor game. It happened at the Fenerbahce-Galata game. What’s the common denominator here?

– Fenerbahce?

I have a feeling that if Allah were playing Besiktas this guy would have a real hard time rooting for Allah. Better to be focused on the soccer. Maybe I’ll go to a game with him one day.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Facing an Ottoman heritage


I cannot get over how kind the Turkish people are. At first, when they encounter an American in their presence, they’re surprised I’m not Christian, Aryan-looking, cold and condescending; when I try and talk in Turkish, no matter how badly it comes out, they’re thrilled I’m making the effort. Actually, sometimes it’s the surprising fidelity of my accent, along with the extreme kindness of Turks, which gets me into the most trouble. People think my Turkish is far better than it actually is, and they often happily launch into a rapid-fire conversation with me about anything and everything. Yesterday I asked one loquacious shopkeeper why the Ezan had sung six times instead of five; usually it only happens six times on a Friday – did someone on the island die? But I had committed an error: the ?mam is the singer, and the Ezan the song. So the shopkeeper thought I said Eczane, which means pharma

Map depicting the Ottoman Empire at its greate...
Image via Wikipedia

cy, and he also thought that because I talked about someone dying that there was something terribly urgent, and he frantically began to draw me a map to the pharmacy.

Having to constantly parse the arabesque for parts of grammar, as well as deriving context from hordes of Arabic and Farsi-derived words, is a tiring day’s work. And translation is always a challenge, as its suffix-additive grammar and arabesque sentence-structure are quite different that English. When Elif and I talk in English, I often hear people around us saying to each other in Turkish, “You talk to them in English.” “No, I’m too shy.” “No, come on, you talk to them.” “Some student you are!” And then I put them out of their misery with a “Merhaba,” and we talk a little in both languages. Last week I talked with a man on a boat who was pining about the glory days of the Ottoman empire. Here was a Turkish Minniver Cheevy, a history buff craving national glory of a misty poetic nature, rather than of a contemporary fascist state. As I got off the boat, he gave us the address of his workplace and told us if we ever wanted anything, anything at all, to stop by.

When we went East last month, I was again impressed by how Turks all over had no problem of my blatant American-ness (even finding a Korean War vet in Erzurum) – but also with how occupied the east seemed – such as Igdir, a town of Kurds patrolled by Turkish soldiers. What I didn’t realize is just how much Turkish ports are occupied by my own country. After we came back, we went to visit Elif’s dad in Antalya. We took a small boat (about 12 people) out on a cruise on the Mediterranean to some waterfalls and swimming holes. On the way, we passed by the American battleship Dwight D. Eisenhower. They’ve got 90 planes on it – it’s huge! It was the one where two weeks before, right there in Antalya, two of the American planes flying off it for practice collided mid-air, killing both pilots. Our captain, seeing that we were American, asked us if we wanted him to steer nearby, and we said yes. We didn’t know how nearby he’d go – we went right up to it and got to look inside – it was amazing – and we completed a half-circle around the thing, until a loudspeaker boomed, in English: “All non-authorized personnel please clear the vicinity.” That meant us, though our captain didn’t understand it. The loudspeaker boomed the same message, again, the voice sounding more urgent, and I was positive that we were going to be fired upon. We explained the message to our captain, and our boat sped off in haste.



Yesterday we went to the Military Museum for a Janissary music concert. (The Janissaries were the Ottoman’s most elite troops, until they got so powerful they were violently abolished in the 1800’s). They entered the stage, in full colorful costume, and kept on coming, banging the heck out of their drums and wailing away on their Zurnas – such a deafening noise (and the stench of their bodies!) – you could see why a host country’s army would want to surrender right then and there. The handlebar-moustached man pounding on the lowest bass drum had a droopy-dog expression, like he was sorry that he was going to have to decapitate you, but it was only his job.

I don’t know how authentic the music was, but it sure was convincing – unlike the cheesy “Sultans of the Dance,” the Turkish take on the abominable “Lord of the Dance” which Cos took us all to see last month for Elif’s birthday. It was a real extravaganza, with about 140 dancers, with lots of lights and blaring music, authentic Turkish dances mixed in with modern bastardizations of the same. The production even provided buses to pick us up from the Asian side (where Dilek lives) to take us the 3 hours (10 kilometers) to the European side where the show was. We waited for the bus in a car-impoundment lot, and the traffic cops were very nice to us, smiling and offering us tea. What was nice is that they had some ringers mixed in there – real folkloric dancers as soloists, members of the ballet, etc. The star of the show, who plays the “Spirit of Turkey,” is the lead dancer of the Istanbul Government Opera and Ballet. He’s about 40.

From these two shows, it seems like Turkey hasn’t really digested the implications of their Ottoman heritage. In fact, I’ve heard “Ottomanism” used here in so many different ways that I guess it just means something different to different people. For the more cosmopolitan Istanbullians, Ottoman times were a halcyon era where the art was more elaborate, the manner of speech and behavior more kind and gentle, and the cuisine more rich and not just influenced by the southeast. For religious people, Ottoman times are the high-water days of power, with a big Moslem empire spreading religion, where they captured Istanbul and were fair to foreigners under their own rule. For secular Turks, it’s a symbol of how many different races can be integrated under the protection of a powerful state. For fascists, “Ottomanism” is a clarion call to the return to the “glory days” of strong gonvernment. For people who have to navigate a bureaucratic structure (or ship their belongings!), it’s a symbol of a culture of bribery and corruption.

All of which cheerfully accepts or ignores the extreme violence of the Ottoman empire. Taking the view of Ottomanism as a beautiful melting pot ignores the extreme brutality of the forced assimilation. This happened throughout Turkish history, from when they took Rumeli and occupied the Balkans (which is why there are so many Muslims in Balkanian lands); to when 500 families were forced to move to Romania, and 500 Romanian families were sent to Edirne. The Ottomans found that moving around people controls them – and “Turkishizes” them. Elif’s father’s mother’s family were moved to Bulgaria when the Ottomans took over Bulgaria, and came back during the war when they lost Bulgaria. Elif’s mother’s father’s people were Turks who were forcibly moved to Crete, and they moved back when the Ottomans lost Greece. In recent years, Istanbul is becoming somehow less cosmopolitan, as Jews have left for Israel, and Greeks have left for Greece. Even today, this ideal of the benefits of forced assimilation is reflected in the national psyche. When we were filming “Coup,” one of our speakers told us that guards used to torture extreme leftists and rightists and then make them cellmates to break them down and get them to see that they all, in their twisted way, want what they think is best for the country – the policy was called “Mix it, fix it.” When you travel to the east, you’ll be in an entirely Kurdish area occupied by Turkish soldiers, and the mountains will have painted on them in huge letters, “Ne mutlu Turkum diyene.” (“How happy it is to say I’m a Turk.”)

In addition, the assimilation is hardly complete. While Turkey claims kinship with the Selcuks and with the other Turkic people of the eastern Asian plateau, there are Armenian and Kurdish minorities in the country who have to be explained for. Heavy-handed politicians have, in the past, put forth the claim that those minorities are actually Turkic peoples denying their heritage, a claim to which Elif’s dullard uncle Erturul subscribes. However, one glance into the eastern half of the country will reveal people and monuments unlike anything from the Greeks, Selcuks, Byzantiums, or Ottomans, and Turkey chooses to benignly ignore some, destroy others in the name of modernism, forbid naming children with ethnic names, etc. There are of course reasons for this repression – ignorance being one (many Istanbullians will have traveled all over the world but not to the eastern part of their own country), and the genuine threat of secession (such as Armenian land claims) or terrorism (the PKK) being another.

Turks are proud of being tolerant of ethnic differences (to the extent that they admit that they exist), even while beset by terrorism or threats of separatism. When the governments of Greece and Turkey get into a snit with each other, or when expatriate Armenians say they hate Turks, Greeks and Turkish families in Istanbul seem to get along just fine. This is probably because many citizens know that today’s fascist hawkish ultra-right-wing administration may be replaced by a neo-socialist one tomorrow.

In any event, the real differences that you find among Turks are not necessarily of ethnicity, but of class, and that’s a much more subtle thing to spot. Istanbullians pride themselves as not being Anatolians (from central Turkey), and among themselves, they discriminate between how long their families have been there, and in which “simt” (district) they reside. The classes serve each other and are together walking the same streets, but they don’t really intermingle as friends. Our landlord refused to rent another apartment to a woman wearing a headscarf because she was too “villager.” And when we were at a Turkish whorehouse in Savsat, Elif’s family called the whores “poor ‘yabancis’” – foreigners – even though they were plainly, indisputably Turkish.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Eid ul-Adha

It’s the end of Ramazan. Cos didn’t fast this year because his kidney was removed, and since fasting wouldn’t be good for him, he gets a pass. Now it’s the holiday of Eid-al-Fitr, here called Seker Bayrami, meaning “sugar holiday” – a sweet excuse to eat baklava while visitng family. And by visiting family, I mean we’ve been visiting Elif’s family, and their in-laws, and their in-laws’ in-laws, and fourteenth cousins of dead inlaws whose spouses were lost in the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Each visit is pretty much the same – take your shoes off, look at pictures of grandchildren, accept chocolate candies and hide them in your pockets when the host isn’t looking, accept candied chestnut pieces and passing them to Cos who vacuums it down, and drink tea followed by coffee followed by more tea, followed by the candy that you had to bring them which they then had to serve back to you on a nice plate which was the same plate as the one at the last place, then 40 minutes later (Dilek had promised it would only take 10) you’re swept away into another traffic jam and off to the other continent to see another relative whose connection everyone forgets, but you remember from the year before.

We went to Cos’ aunts and going home was amazing. We left at 9:45 and arrived home at 2 AM – it was 20 kilometers total. It started to snow and never stopped, three inches total, but it was icy, and all these Turks were literally pushing their cars. The cars are tiny, not like American SUV’s, and none of them could move, all the wheels were spinning, so lots of boys were pushing the cars and walking them from Europe to Asia, like a kid carrying his bike up a hill that’s too steep. Cos was panicking and Elif talked him through it, telling him how to steer out of a skid, how to pump the brakes, soothing his ego by saying she’s had experience driving in lots of wintery conditions in America. Things got fun when our “out of gas” light came on halfway across the bridge. But we made it home OK.

In two months will come the delightful festivities of Eid ul-Adha, “animal slaughtering day,” which commemorates Abraham’s hearing voices and trying to cut his kid’s throat. Hooray! I first learned of the holiday a couple of years ago, when I looked down from Elif’s mother’s balcony to see a bunch of men spilling a lot of blood slaughtering a cow, right in the middle of the street below the apartment. (Good thing I didn’t look up; one of Elif’s mom’s friends had upstairs neighbors who were sacrificing a sheep on the balcony, where it dripped onto her own…) At Elif’s dad’s apartment, they pool their money and purchase and slaughter a sheep right in their indoor garage, where they park their cars. Anyway, the purchaser of the sheep keeps something like 10% of the animal and then distributes the rest of it to the poor, which is good for everyone except for the sheep.

Enhanced by Zemanta