The 637th annual Kirkpinar

We just returned from Edirne, a town bordering both Greece and Bulgaria, where we attended the 637th-annual Kirkpinar – the olive-oil-wrestling competition.  People aged 5 to 50 had oil poured all over themselves in the 95-degree heat and wrestled with each other in a small stadium, two at a time, single-elimination, until one was left standing.  (If nobody’s pinned to the grass after 40 minutes, they declare a victor on points).  There are weight-divisions.  It’s really fun when somebody sticks their hand down another guy’s pants (no grabbing by the balls) and picks him up and flips him.  Lots of people being carried out on stretchers.  People writhing around not because of broken bones but because having olive oil drip into your eyes burns so damn much.  There were maybe ten thousand people inside the stadium; at least a dozen of them were women (that dozen included Elif).  The mountainous gentleman occupying the seat next to me was a former wrestler. He demonstrated some holds on me. I can still feel them in my shoulders as I type this.

By far, the greatest attraction of Kirkpinar is the festivities outside of the stadium. Thousands of Gypsies were camping and dancing to the Zurna – which sounds like an oboe on steroids run though a megaphone and plugged into a Marshall amp. Drums beat constantly in the camp outside, which even could be heard inside of the stadium, providing a fearsome noise-backdrop to the whole event.

The ghosts call you back

Cover of "The Changing Light at Sandover&...
Cover of The Changing Light at Sandover

Elif and I went to visit her father Kadri, her stepmother Isik (who is twenty years younger than Kadri and looks startlingly like Elif), and her 6-year-old half-sister Eylul.  They’re in the last few weeks of staying at their summer house in Tuzla.  It’s one of a few small houses congregated around a common pool, neither well-made nor particularly luxurious, and they go to escape the heat and to gather with their summer friends.  They rely on well-water, and Tuzla seems more hard-hit than any other area in Istanbul with water shortages.  It seems silly that you’d spend a good part of your summer swimming at a second home when you often can’t use the toilet there.

We arrived in the late afternoon and were immediately greeted with a power outage.  While Turkey’s infrastructure is faulty and aging, I’ve never been able to figure out what triggers outages in Istanbul at any given time; they happen on mild days as often as they do on days with extreme temperatures.  You’ll be downloading a video email attachment of a guy hitting another guy over the head with a computer keyboard, or clearing pornography files off your father-in-law’s computer, and click! – the power’s out.  Most Turkish homes are equipped with fluorescent lamps with rechargeable batteries that plug into the wall and automatically turn on when the power goes out (a couple of times a week).

We went swimming, towelled off, and began our dinner.  Kadri loves to grill fish whenever we come, delighting in “forgetting” that we’re vegetarians.  Elif’s stepmother Isik cuts the onions, which are served on the side and are crucial to the meal, so much so that once Isik walked out on a restaurant with us because they didn’t serve lemon and onion on the side of her grilled fish.  We had arugula salad, and raki of course, and night rolled in.  I was getting worried that we might be staying too late there, as Elif’s mother, who’s been divorced from him for a decade, still becomes quite jealous when we do.

The power still hadn’t resumed, so we lit candles and talked and drank.  And the evening’s libations came to engender a certain sharpness in Kadri’s tongue, which proved an ill combination with Isik’s sensitivity to perceived slights.  While her faculties and demeanor generally make Isik, to Kadri, a welcome relief from the whip-like firestorm of will that is Elif’s mother, tonight he was mocking Isik while looking at Elif and I in a conspiratorial way, which led to Isik crying and exiting the room.  Kadri’s response: “Women, they come, they go; I’ve had two wives and I’ll have a third if necessary.”

When Isik returned, there was still no electricity, but hurt feelings were in abundance, so Kadri’s sister Nebahat decided to call the ghosts.  Nebahat had polio as a youth, so one of her legs is shorter than the other, and she serves as the family’s conduit to the spirit world.  She communicates with the beyond and will tell you all about death, ghosts, reincarnation, and telepathy if given the slightest provocation.  (She levitates, too.)

Ghost-calling is the perfect activity for an evening with a Turkish family without electricity.  Creating the Ouija board is a low-tech endeavor – tearing pieces of paper – but a very serious one.  Isik is most serious of all.  She believes, as do all except Elif, Kadri, and I.  Nebahat will actually push the cup, Elif explains; although everyone present including Nebahat knows that she will actually push the cup, they remain firmly convinced not that she’s a prophet, but that the ghost indeed is guiding her hand.  While I may be a poor medium, I’m a game audience, and I can take minutes.  I find the idea of meaning appearing letter by letter and changing midstream lovely.  And I love to watch the women’s efforts at solidifying the family bond while the men couldn’t care less.  Kadri is “rahat” (comfortable) but useless in this interaction, as no money is involved.

The ghost is giving information about Isik’s mother’s husband, who just separated from her.  Nebahat takes dictation from the ghost; Isik’s mother mother weeps at the information.  The ghost addresses others and can slap and then forgive and be forgiven.

THE GHOST (to Isik): “You are meaning well, but it’s not showing…”

At this point, it’s hard to tell the believers from the nonbelievers; simple people are receiving koans and hard truths alike.  Isik is angry at the ghost, who has now likened her to a machine.  Nebahat, the medium, is untouchable.  They’re casual but not skeptical, easily slipping into the beneficent fiction.  Elif’s half-sister Eylul, who’s 7 years old, is bored; the ghost had better say something to her quick – but placation is not the ghost’s purpose; maybe the girl is better off asleep, and Nebahat and Eylul don’t seem to like each other much.

THE GHOST: “…But don’t worry about that, because your future is completely clean.”

THE GHOST then addresses me.  He does not know me but says I am happy.  I am grateful that he will speak to us at all, however briefly, many years from now, one thousand and ten years ago.  The ghost now spells I-B-S-E-N.  He spells it repeatedly, and then says, “Don’t start your job without reading Ibsen.”  And then: “Have hope.”  And then: “You have to check [not read] the newspapers with a big hope.  CHECK the newspapers all the time, without sleep, without getting tired.  You’re very smart; the job will find you.”  (Oh shit, is this a money thing again?)  And finally: “But run after it so much and take it seriously.”

THE GHOST, to Elif: “If you know the technique, you will be successful.  Your spirit is clean, but you can’t forget the technique.”

Nebahat: “I want a 5-minute break for a cigarette.”

Ertugrul, Nebahat’s asinine brother-in-law: “How can you take a break without consulting the ghost?  You’re not taking it seriously.”

Nebahat then consults with THE GHOST, who then proceeds to spell out: “Don’t listen to your brother-in-law who doesn’t take it seriously himself.”

THE GHOST was right: I am happy.

The power comes on.

Isik says, maybe the ghost is tired.  Kadri laughs at her that the ghost doesn’t have a body and can never be tired.  This makes Isik nervous, and she tells him to be serious.  Ertugrul The Redneck sits on the couch away from us and says ssh.  Kadri now makes fun of him, saying he’s the ghost’s lawyer.  Elif translates this for me, and I laugh with Elif and try to share the laugh with Kadri, but the way knowledge traded is crucial: Kadri looks at me with a half-smile and quickly glances away, not knowing if I know the story of how Ertugrul had screwed him really maliciously in a business deal fifteen years ago.

Nebahat said to THE GHOST, “We will pray for your soul.  We are going to sleep.  Please go,” and she turned the cup over.


I woke up the next morning at Elif’s mother’s house, brushed my teeth, and had a vague feeling that the voice of Nebahat was inside my toothbrush, talking to me.  I thought I had gone crazy from last night’s proceedings, as well as from reading James Merrill’s The Changing Light at Sandover, a 500-page Ouija poem.  She asked me through my toothbrush, “Can I talk to you?”  I said, “Well, what’s up?”  And she answered: “Can you understand my Turkish?  Elif doesn’t believe in this stuff, she’s very strong, she doesn’t believe in anything.”  I told her spirit that I wasn’t sure that her atheism in and of itself meant strength, but that in any case, I was due back on planet Earth, and that the next time we’d talk to each other would be in person.  She thanked me and I rinsed out my mouth.

An hour later, Elif’s mother’s sisters came over for breakfast, and I made the mistake of casually mentioning in conversation that Nebahat had just that morning spoken to me telepathically as I brushed my teeth.  Boy, were they pissed!

“Of course she spoke to you – it’s just like her to do a thing like that,” said one aunt.  Her husband: “Psychic powers exist, and if she has them, which I’m not sure she does, she should use them properly.”  The aunt: “She hypnotizes you, puts you in a trance with her slow, steady, sweet voice, and sucks you into the whole thing, whether you like it or not.”  Another aunt: “She only uses these powers to feel special.”

Getting engaged

Satellite image of the Bosphorus, taken from t...
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In the morning of our second-to-last day in Istanbul, we take the boat in the morning and walk to the Egyptian Spice Bazaar. An 8-year-old is marching in a white hat and white cape and white shoes, surrounded by his adoring family. I discover that he is going to get circumcised. Men and boys are fishing in the Bosphorus by dropping string off the bridge. People surround us, trying to sell us things. One guy asks: “Where a you from?” Elif cooly answers, “Konya,” the name of one of Turkey’s more conservative towns. She is positively enchanting; I eye her posterior as she is dancing around in her skirt, carrying her pocketbook.

Inside the Grand Bazaar, sellers stand at the edge of their stalls among walls of ceramics saying “Yes, please,” or “Speak English? Speak German? Speak Swahili?” One sign read: “Let me help you spend your money.” In the old section, we find a store with a lovely late-Ottoman ring of pink gold and a rather scuffed diamond. It’s about $150, which is more than my frugal girlfriend likes to spend. I think that it’s lovely and buy it with the last of my money.

We head home, and on the boat, on the Bosphorus dividing two continents, with an antique ring and an ideal setting, without knee-bending or prepared speeches, without my having planned any of it, it just seems the perfect moment to affirm what the fortune-teller Firdevs and the spent coffee grounds revealed would be the case. We are engaged to be married.

When we arrived at Dilek’s apartment, we told her the news, showing her the ring as she was washing dishes. It took her a few minutes for her to understand what we were saying. I then called my parents on the phone, who responded by promptly accusing me of lying to them: for no particular reason, they had it in their mind that we’d eloped and were already married. Firdevs must have been right about their worrying. I assured my mother that the wedding would be held near our home in New York, that we were coming home soon, and that I still loved them even though they were completely insane.

We went out that night with Elif’s whole family, to a restaurant owned by Dursun, a friend of Dilek’s who had a career singing Turkish classical music in the 1970’s but whose star had long since faded. Now he was singing in his own restaurant, with rotted teeth and the worst toupee to ever sit on a human head. He started with a song whose lyrics were apropos to him – “Strangers took her away, my life’s spring turned into winter and ended.” He then went into a typically cheerful little Turkish number called “What a Love This Is, What a Pain.” Another song had lyrics like “Open your arms, hug me, I am cold, I am cold, I can’t cover myself,” which everyone sang and my new fiancé enacted with body movements, hugging herself, rubbing her arms as if cold.

Whenever a song got over forty beats per minute, I was forced to “shikidi shikidi,” or bellydance – or at least, at the table, to snap my fingers with my arms out, shaking my chest, wiggling, and grinning like an idiot for hours on end, while her aunts clapped rhythmically, perfectly vacant. My role is to entertain and to show that I am entertained, or at least to prove that I’m willing to show that I am entertained when I am not entertained, that I am the American grooving on their vibe, that I’m not an uptight American, but I want it to be over. All night I keep hearing people say that I’m so relaxed for an American, how they expected me to be much taller and blonder, how they expected me to be condescending to them and, above all, how happy they were that I wasn’t Christian, because while I, as a Jew, hadn’t yet accepted the idea of Mohammed as a prophet, at least I didn’t have these weird ideas of God as a trinity.

I know by now that the dessert, the cheese-filled “shredded wheat” of Kadayif, is not the end of the meal. I want Dursun to die. We’re practically the only people at his restaurant, he has a whole band behind him, waiters walk around nervously trying to serve us and the two other tables of people there, but this guy in the 70’s jacket with bad teeth and a worse rug is performing as if onstage at Madison Square Garden, and he will not stop. And until he does, I will be forced to snap my fingers and wiggle my arms, knowing I look spastic, as if I had epilepsy, wiggling there in my green Philadelphia Orchestra T-shirt. As he goes into Arabesque, I am reflected in the windows outside, thinking, you look like an idiot, Brian.

But then I catch a glimpse of Elif next to me, and turn and see that she too is forced to endure this ordeal, and she translates the new song’s lyrics as “May a drop of wine be in my future that I will drink from my lover’s hand,” and I know that we will have a great and long life together, away from bad music, away from the convergence of the centuries and the cacophonous noise and the chaos, and hopefully, in Firdevs’ land, in a wooded place where birds would be dropping money on our heads.

Asia minor

The Blue Lagoon at Oludeniz, Turkey
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Although I’d driven a manual transmission across America, Elif’s family was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to handle the stress of operating a stick shift in Turkey.  Our plan was to drive south with Elif’s mother in Elif’s uncle’s car, a very old model which always stalled going into first gear.  They decided to test my skill at driving by starting me along the minibus route in Istanbul.  During rush hour.  With all of Elif’s family in the back seat.  While stalling a dozen times, I found myself narrowly skirting minibuses changing lanes, and taxis, dolmuses, buses, and pushcarts, and UFO’s coming down from the sky and landing in the middle of the road.

I abandoned the car and was curled up in a fetal position, sucking my thumb and crying, and they called a cab driver to take us all home.  It took the cab driver twenty minutes to get our car into gear without stalling.  I was mortified, upset, and obsessively thinking about all of the places we’d be missing out on seeing – as when would I ever return to Turkey?  We called several car rental companies, but none had automatics.  Back at the apartment, Dilek cooked for me to comfort me like a mother.  She broke out a Ouija board to call the ghosts to cheer me up, but she was a hapless medium.

So we took the bus south the next day, seeing the usual things on the Aegean and western Mediterranean coasts that a tourist would see.  The view from Tilos, where we bought oregano from an old beggar woman.  Walking on a suspension bridge at Saklikent, and then crossing between the gorges in the water by holding onto a rope; the air is hot but the water so cold it hurts.  The underwater ruins at Letoon, with Elif picking olives and eating them raw to show off, even though they’re disgusting unless you prepare them.  Ancient cities on the Turquoise coast in which visitors had mistaken the world’s largest open-air archeological museum for the world’s largest open-air public toilet: every cave stank, and people were literally peeing on the country’s amazing historic legacy.  Swimming in the lake at Oludeniz while our camera’s on the beach, constantly checking it to see if anyone would steal it, although Elif said that it was an impossibility there, for some reason.

I got food poisoning and threw up all night in Bodrum, while Dilek fed me chicken soup and had me drink sahlep, an orchid root powder drink that tastes like hot white chocolate.  The next afternoon, we paid a man a few thousand lira so he could put food in Dilek’s hair while birds landed all over her body.  We saw the dungeon at the castle, “Where God does not exist.”  We took a boat to Kekova, with old tombs in the water surrounding the islands, the only thing louder than the jackhammer sound of the motor was the boat’s radio blasting Tarkan’s “Hepsi Senin Mi.”  Elif bellydanced to that song wearing a semitransparent one-piece green bathing suit, which caused me to delay for a few minutes my standing up in front of everyone to dive into the water.  And finally, I dived and dived, and Dilek shouting out, Brian, say “Guzel yuzuyorum,” which means “I am swimming well,” and Elif tells her that I’ll choke on it if I yell that out while swimming.  And, of course, we saw Efes, the great ancient lost city of Disneyland.  We tried to make a call back to Istanbul in a public Turk Telekom phone which of course ate our money without making a connection.  And at Pergamom, I ran up and down the aisles at the amphitheater yelling, “Peanuts, get your peanuts here!” – while Elif, il miglior fabbro, pretended she was Athena.

What the Coffee Grounds Said

A cup of Turkish coffee served on a terrace in...
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Outside of Elif’s grandmother’s apartment, we run into a woman named Firdevs, who looks like she is 140 years old but is really only about 95. She wants to make us Turkish coffee, and to read our coffee grounds and tell our futures. Elif’s grandmother makes fun of her, calling her “Falci Firdevs” (“Fortuneteller Firdevs”), but soon we’re up in the apartment drinking coffee.



A man, a woman and a sister are thinking about you. After doing business, you and Elif will move away to another house. You will put both of your belongings together. You’re going to make lots of money. Your two fortunes are intertwined. Money is on the way. You’re going to do some business, and there is some money waiting for you. It’s like a good-luck bird, getting higher and higher. There’s a bird on the high place with money. There’s also a horse. That means that you’re going to get money from two places.



That’s a very financially-minded spirit!



In your home you are dominant. Your in-laws will put you on their head like a crown. You’re going to a crowded place and will carry Elif on your shoulders. You love her so much. The future is saying it, I’m not saying it. If God has written it, nobody can stick their noses into it. It’s in the coffee grounds. There’s news from a man on the phone. Someone is curious. You’re going to very crowded places. Your father said some things to you, to go to the crowded place. You’re going to get some money from your family – no, maybe not, but from a man. You’re receiving three pieces of money, big money, not small money.






I’m not saying it. It’s right here. You have enemies as crowded as dogs. If they could, they would eat you. A man would help you. Your biggest enemy is a big man with a big head. There are two different houses, but your enemy is right in your own house. Somebody cried when you were coming to Turkey. Your mother is very worried about you. She’s trying to help you. You’re thinking of your mother and family, what should I do, and your work. Do you know how to burn a candle? You are going to burn a candle for a wish in a church.



Check his plate too!


They love each other so much. Whatever you’re wishing for will come true. You two are getting married. Is your house crowded? Your family loves you so much. Your mother and father are talking to each other. Their insides are churning with nervousness. Did you call them and tell them that you are fine? There’s a bird, good luck. There is a very big building with lots of people in it. You are starting a new business again. You are a very smart boy. You’re not stupid. But there is a big bright thing waiting for you. There is a moon on your head. There is money money on top of your head. You’ll be very very wealthy. Money money. You are going to get very happy news from somebody. You are very lucky because whatever you wish for will happen. If you put it into your mind you do it. You’re going to get three pieces of good news. Happy happy money money. You’re worried about something, your heart is full. Very rich, very rich. Boats, or factory – you have something happening. You’ll have four big businesses. That’s it.



Health to your mouth!


FIRDEVS (reading Elif’s future)

You are worried about something. Don’t worry. You’re going to get some happy news. This all sounds like a lie to you, but if God wrote it there, it’s going to happen. Whatever you have a wish for in your stomach will come true. You two are going to get married, and you’ll be very happy. One place is very wooded. You’re going and coming back and forth. Your heart is clean. There is a bird. You are going to sit on big richness. Your business will go well. Maybe you’ll bring stuff back to America from here, but you are sitting on many belongings. There’s a bird, it’s very clear. You have enemies giving you filthy looks but they are powerless. You’re going to learn things from four places. You’re getting money. It’s a house like a kiosk, having a roof. You’re going to live in a gorgeous place. You’re living there together, though you’re not together now – it’s in the cup, I’m not going to lie! Are you sometimes a little worried or upset? Do you ever cry? You’ll get rid of that hard upsetness. You were very, very upset. Sometimes you say I’ll pack and go back home. But then you got used to it. Your future is bright and beautiful and clean. You’re going to laugh at me, you won’t believe me, but you’re getting married by a man with a hat. Have you been in his church? You two are going to crowded places. Beautiful places. You’re going to have money. He will have money and you will live in beautiful wooded places. You have a car. Your future is beautiful. You’ll be so happy. There’s a big door opening. You’ll go somewhere, but not immediately, later. Your fortune is beautiful. I don’t know how but your lap will be full of money.


Enough already! Saying the same things over and over again!


You’re going to receive money.



Let her take that money!



That’s it.



Health to your mouth!


Breakfast is cheese and jams and fresh bread and eggs and pastirma – pepperoni so spicy, its stink comes out in your sweat. We board a government boat to take the half-hour trip to the European side of the city. I am among cleanshaven men, unshaven men with sunglasses, ponytailed women, women in headscarves, villagers shaped like fireplugs. A mustachioed man looks at me over his multicolored newspaper. Another man opens his bag and gives a presentation about the knives he is selling. We pass under the third bridge,

A panoramic view from the Golden Horn
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ducking as the boat goes under it, and disembark in front of the “New Mosque,” which is called “new” because it’s merely 400 years old.

Elif shows me around Istanbul with unbridled pride. This is my conservatory. Don’t take a picture of that, you’re going to see far more interesting things there. That’s Aya Sofia in the background. There’s Uskudar, where I was born. We were in Asia. Now we’re in Europe. Soon we’ll be in Asia. And again, Europe. This is Topkapi palace, my palace. This is the Golden Horn, once home to Venetians and pirates, this is the Galata Tower, from I think the 14th century. Here’s a cistern from Byzantium times, then Ottoman, then forgotten for a hundred years.

Everything is exotic, and everything is vertigo – it feels as if we are constantly darting and weaving. The city is dusty and cacophonous; people scurry about carrying tea trays and refrigerators, selling things; cars and bikes and pedestrians and buildings are from every century, in every architectural style. The geography of the place makes no sense. The streets are a maze. I don’t know how anyone crosses them, or knows where to cross them, or how to stay alive doing so. It feels as if you’re in a mosh pit, defending yourself from the pigeons, from the glare of the sun, from the blaring speakers of the minarets, from the postcard-sellers.

We enter the Blue Mosque. I am carrying my shoes, and I’ve been given baggy pants to wear over my shorts. I feel silly wearing a purple shirt and my gym socks and sneakers under the baggy pants. The mosque is gold beyond gold: mosaic in red, blue, gold, calligraphy on top of windows, arches and domes. The narrow focus of my perception and memory can’t absorb it, can’t hold it, as my eyes saccade from one marvel to the other. Aya Sophia, more somber and mysterious, a church from Justinian times until the Moslems took it over and yanked the crosses right off. Great halls of arches; Islamic calligraphy in domes’ mosaics everywhere; birds flying inside. Topkapi Palace, with Chinese gifts brought to the Sultan; a letter from Mohammed; a hair from the prophet’s beard; the English-language tour of the harem given in some unknown dialect I couldn’t understand. Suleymaniye. The Archeological Museum, with the Hitite laws, the sculptures, the walls of Babylon, the remnants of every world civilization under one roof. Kariye Kilisesi, from the 11th-13th centuries, with unbelievable mosaics showing Christ doing unbelievable things. We pass the Last Train Station in Europe. At Dolmabahce Palace, I admire the building across the street, and start to take a picture of it. Elif warns me, Don’t film the building on the right because you’ll be arrested. No, really don’t take it. I turn back to Dolmabahce and the guards there still haven’t moved. Elif tells me that I can film those ones.

From the courtyard of the Green Kiosk, we hear another call-to-prayer going off, with the loudspeakers on the minarets blaring the news that Allah is God, and that Mohammed is his prophet. While this is happening, a child is sitting eating and drinking tea under the canopy, playing with a noisemaker toy gun that lights up making electronic noises. I have my first Ayran, a salty yogurt drink which is shocking the first time you drink it (especially if you’re used to fruit-at-the-bottom yoghurt), but it has incredible powers to bring you back to life after a day under the sun’s wilting heat.

We enter an old Chrysler – or is it a Packard? – and I’m munching of kokorec, a spicy fried intestine sandwich, waiting for more people to enter so the driver can take off. It turns out it’s a dolmus – which sits there until full, and you pay the driver based on how far you’re going (unless you’re crossing from Asia to Europe, in which case it’s a fixed rate). There are two rows of seats: four sit in the back, three in the middle (it’s supposed to be two by law, but the driver always tries to squeeze in a third, though if he’s caught he’ll get a ticket), and one sits in the passenger’s seat next to the driver. How it works is, if you’re in the back row, you say, how much is Bostanci, the driver says it’s 35 (thousand lira). You tap the shoulder of someone in the front seat, handing him, say, a million-lira bill. The driver, while operating the sick shift in frenetic Istanbul traffic, tosses the money on the dashboard as it comes forward from all of the passengers.

Although the driver seems like some redneck from the east of the country, smoking, weaving in and out of lanes, and cursing out anyone else on the road in his way, he’s a brilliant mathematician and phenomenal multitasker. He begins passing back all eight people’s money, one at a time, saying, here’s change for the 5 million; here’s change for the 1 million to Suadiye for the two people. No one stiffs the driver or pockets anyone else’s money. And as soon as someone gets off, he begins trawling for more passengers, honking at pedestrians and flashing his lights. I ask Elif to ask someone to open the window, and she informs me that it will not be possible; Turks are afraid of the wind, which is blamed for making you sick. It is 95 degrees outside and possibly double that inside; the driver is smoking, and I suspect that no one else has showered in weeks. The window stays closed.

We arrive at the boats at Kadikoy, where we encounter an open-air pet store; you can buy squirrels in cages, or Indian nightingales, fed with food coloring to make their feathers every color of the rainbow. This time, instead of the government boats, we take a Norwegian “sea bus” to Bakirkoy. An ice-cream seller sees me coming and puts on a fez and uses his stick to make balls of ice cream do acrobatics. It’s far too early in the morning to be eating ice cream, but Elif asks for a cone. He holds it out to me with his long stick, but every time I reach for it, he makes it fly away, or spin around, and he finally lets me have some. It is sticky and tastes like cotton candy.

We end up at Elif’s mother Dilek’s law office and enter a sketchy-looking elevator. Elif reassures me: it’s only plunged three stories to the ground once with her mother in it. No, really. Inside the office, Dilek tells me that she is the queen here, and the chair is her throne. The decorations provide me with much amusement: it’s another Elif museum! There are also pictures everywhere of Ataturk, founder of the Turkish republic and apparently the “Where’s Waldo” of her office – here’s another Ataturk, and there he is again, whoo! I go to the bathroom, and it’s a hole, next to which is a red bucket with a cup in it.

I had thought that the purpose of our office visit was to meet her mother Dilek for lunch, but I come to realize that the real purpose is for Dilek to show me off to her friends in the court. I’m whisked from one office to another. Merhaba! How are you? Heh heh heh. Everyone giggles and grins. Many are in need of serious dental work. Everyone smokes. Everyone offers me tea. Not Turkish coffee or touristy apple tea, but the dark, musky red Turkish tea. If you ever refuse a beverage, it will only confuse or upset them, and they’ll start to look desperate, running around, begging you to take their water, anything. After the fourth office visit of the day, I come to realize that the best strategy is to accept the tea but only drink a sip, and hope to be able to leave without anyone noticing.

First arrival

Sigara börek is generally prepared with differ...
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July 16, 1995

It seems like an entire village has come out to greet us.  I assume these people are relatives of my girlfriend, but as they’re hugging me before even acknowledging her, I figure I must have won a contest or something.  After a couple of words in English – hello, welcome – everything now sounds like gibberish.  The airport is so smoky that I just want to go out and breathe Turkey‘s fresh air.

Five of us pile into a 1960 Volkswagen Beetle.  The driver is Tartar, looking like one of those dioramas at the Museum of Natural History, with a Droopy McDawg mustache.  He looks nothing like her aunts, who look Bulgarian.  They look nothing like my girlfriend Elif, who looks Israeli.  And none of them look like the people in the airport, who looked swarthy.  I am confused as to what Turks look like.

I notice that I can see through the rusty floorboards to the road below.  We’re following a sign saying “Ankara,” which is strange because I’m sure my girlfriend’s family live in Istanbul.  The ride is interminable and disorienting.  The air is full of soot.  Historic buildings are sandwiched between modern sprawl on top of sprawl.  One minute we’re in Europe, and the next, we’re in Asia.

We take the tiny elevator up to Elif’s mother Dilek’s apartment two people at a time.  I’m instructed to remove my shoes before going in.  More people are inside, scurrying about, attempting to get food on the table as soon as possible.  Elif is showing me the feast, and her mother Dilek is showing me a closet which she’d stuffed with American junk food, in case I’m not able to eat anything.  Then she takes me to the master bedroom, which she’d vacated for us to stay in.  Inside, I find a pile of brand-new underwear and T-shirts which she had bought for me, in case I had arrived naked.

Elif talks with her family in the living room while I shower.  I lay down and immediately fall asleep and am immediately awoken for dinner.  My charge is to eat and stay awake for hours in a living room full of people I can’t understand.  I’m ushered in, and her large extended family is sitting around the table, laughing, gesticulating wildly.  Elif signals me, say hi, hi!  This is Sumru my younger aunt.  Sumru says bye.  Another woman asks if I have any siblings.  Elif tells her that I have a sister, and the woman says that my sister should be very happy to have such a brother.  Dilek is bopping around everywhere, trying to serve.  She is blinking uncomfortably, clearly wearing contacts to look prettier.  Dilek’s boyfriend Cos goes over to the stereo and puts in a Beatles tape.  I tell Elif that they should play music that they like, and not what they think I would like.

Her aunt lights up another pack of cigarettes and tells Dilek not to serve every person, but to leave the food in the middle of the table “American style.”  There is so much food that it seems like they made every possible item they could think of and laid it out, as if either to make sure there’d be something I’d like, or to overwhelm me with familial fecundity.  There are about seventeen types of mezes (appetizers) to complement the meat dishes.  Most of it Elif had cooked for me in America, such as the cacik (grated cucumber and garlic in yoghurt) and eggplant and beans in olive oil and salads, but I am immediately taken with sigara boregi, cheese-filled pastry “cigarettes” which she couldn’t make in America because the thin yufka dough is so hard to find.

Elif is translating everything.  Her mother’s boyfriend Cos says to me the following sentence in English: “I hope Istanbul, your family.”  Elif’s aunt Sumru is suddenly overcome with emotion, standing up and getting between Elif and I, hugging us, saying, Canim, canim, canim (“My soul”).  Elif looks at her mock-quizzically, and her aunt says, “I can’t handle it, my heart is throbbing, I love you two so much.”  I have never seen this woman before in my life.  “Let’s toast!”

Everyone runs back into position.  They pour me some more raki, a clear anise liquor which turns white when you pour water into it, and we toast: “Serefe,” “To honor.”  In America, the toast would have been for health, happiness, or success instead.  Everyone sips their drinks, except Cos, who gulps the whole glass.  His throat must be made of steel.  Elif is drinking a foul-tasting wine instead.  Everyone’s done with their meal, but no one clears the table.  Everybody still eats pieces of bread with their raki.  I stand up to help clear something, anything, and knock over Elif’s wine.  At least two people say this is good luck.

Her mother returns with baklava – Turkish baklava, she stresses.  She has changed into an undershirt, suddenly relaxed.  An aunt says that they should send me home with baklava.  Elif says that my parents want helva.  The aunt says they’ll send me home with baklava and helva.  I eat about ten varieties of baklava.  I have never eaten baklava this airy, this buttery, this heavenly.  I dream of living in a baklava land and having hazelnut concubines.  Cos says, I’m going to need a bypass from all these women.

Elif’s aunt Sumru asks me what I think of Turkey.  The only thing I know about it is the airport and this room, and I’m thinking that the air composition has considerably more nicotine than on my home planet.  Through the smoke, I come to realize that her mother’s apartment could double as an Elif museum: pictures of my girlfriend at every age, in every place.  I point to the pictures and giggle, and Elif is now getting between me and her mother, pushing our cheeks together, and says, Ooh, ooh, ooh, canim, canim.  Then she breaks us apart and squeezes herself between her two aunts, lest they get jealous, and makes the same pose, freezing as if life were a still camera.  Ilknur says I love you in English.

They turn on the television as loud as it will go, and a variety show is playing pop music.  An aunt automatically gets up and bellydances.  Her other aunt dances at the table, and her uncle claps along like an old man in a nursing home.  Elif joins the aunt dancing in front of the TV, cheerleading, shouting a gypsy chant whose translation supposedly has sexual overtones, but to me sounds simply surreal: “Allah!  60, 70, 80, 90, 100!  Swim on the air, swim on the land, swim in the sea, if you can’t find it, swim in the pool!”  The song ends, and they applaud each other.  The elders are all smoking, with bad teeth and garish makeup, and I am shocked at how village her extended family is.  Her mother Dilek is still bopping around nervously, cleaning, presenting, helping, serving.  I can’t believe there is more food.  Fruit is being brought out, although we’d already eaten dessert an hour ago.  Elif is translating more sporadically.  I’m drunk and jet-lagged, and every phrase sounds like it ends in “Michael Jackson” or “mush.” Elif shows mercy and excuses me to go to bed.