Six months with the Istanbul Opera


The Turkish Opera had its auditions on the 11th for new people to become a sozmesleli, or independent contractor. You toil away for the opera at low pay for a few years doing that, waiting for an opening as a lead singer, or cadreau – at which point, you’re on the gravy train, salaried, tenured, with bennies, set for life. Lately, though, because of the influx of new students from the schools and the economic crisis, there’s a bottleneck of sozmesleliler, with no new cadreau openings. They just have to wait for a lead singer to retire or die, at which point, the sozmesleliler enter a competition for that new cadreau opening.

Elif auditioned for sozmesleli, and it turned out that the real purpose of the audition was actually to fire people rather than to hire new people; they made many sozmesleliler re-audition. They asked Elif to sing the bitchy Pamina aria, and then Mimi (instead of Micaela), which meant she had to sing long slow lyrical lines that need lots of breath, when she could barely speak – because she was so spent staying up with me during my recovery from my tonsillectomy. And still, with all of that, she made it in, number one on the list. We talked with the director, Mesut, and they put her down for lead roles as a lyric soprano, no coloratura anymore, thank goodness, go to the head of the class. But when it will all start is anyone’s guess; this season ends in May, so we’re figuring next season.

Elif immediately went down to the famous opera cafeteria, where the singers hang out and drink tea all day, to shmooze and rekindle her old ties with singers from like almost a decade ago. The prodigal daughter returns. To celebrate, we went to Changa, a New York-type bar owned by a famous chef whose name I forget. We had some nouveau trans-continental cuisine (eggplants with a sauce that was a combination of miso and tahini – yum!) and two drinks: mine was called an Asian Fusion (which included vodka and cucumber and ginger and some other stuff) and Elif’s was something of a pomegranate vodka snow-cone – it had all the sweetness, tartness, and bitterness of eating a pomegranate.



One of the top people at the opera has taken Elif on as a vocal coach for free, so certain she is of her stardom. Mesut, the opera director who loves Elif, is under the cloud of a scandal for fondling his students, and there is talk that he may be on his way out. Although he’d promised Elif the role of Musetta in La Boheme, it ended up going to one of the cadreaus. Mesut, who likes to please everyone, swears that he’ll violate the pecking order and give Elif the lead (the only) role in Menotti’s “The Telephone” (a 1-hour modern opera where the audience gets to hear Elif’s side of a telephone conversation).

Despite the crunch in funds, there’s a drive to open new opera companies in remote outposts. Elif is told that her biggest hope by far to become a cadreau in the near future is to sing in Samsun for a couple of years, and she’ll get fast-tracked so that by, say, 2004 or 2005 she’ll be tenured. Elif is not going to go to Samsun or any other Turkish city; her plan is to stay in Istanbul and get onstage here in whatever roles she can, and then, when a cadreau opens up here, audition for it.



Elif got a huge writeup in the large Turkish newspaper Radikal, a delightful piece about her singing career, her CD, and our film COUP. The article had the unexpected result of getting her strongly reprimanded by the opera company. Combining the best of Ottoman and Soviet organizational thinking, the opera heads told her that it was wrong for an individual player to grant an interview to the press, because opera is a team effort. Although they talk about Elif internally with such terms as “the future of the Turkish opera” &c., they don’t want to read about her in the papers – after all, people don’t go to see Placido Domingo, they go to see Tchaikovsky. Their biggest problem with the article, though, was Elif’s comment: “People unfamiliar with opera shouldn’t be scared of it. It’s not all big people screaming poetry for five hours – the melodies were once pop songs of their eras, and the librettos are often as light and silly as a soap opera or romance novel.” They informed her in no uncertain terms that opera is a serious, serious art, and people are all working very hard (and getting government salaries) to work on its serious, serious production. (I guess F.T. Marinetti wasn’t able to save art from the Solemn, the Sacred, and the Serious after all.) Elif came home irate, mostly at herself for swallowing her tongue for the first time I can think of.

Each time she goes for lessons with her free and enthusiastic vocal coach, she has to stop by the cafeteria to shmooze, and it’s really getting her down. She says that the singers are morally low and spend all their time gossiping, bad-mouthing, and philosophizing on the Ottoman intricacies of working your way up the opera hierarchy. One of the opera directors came into one of her vocal sessions and then gossiped about her to another student.

The good news is that she is down on the board to be a lead in next season’s Mozart aria festival, “Do You Like Mozart?” The bad news is that we saw one of the productions of that this year, filled with sozmesleliler, as it gave the company an opportunity to give its people stage time, and it was so bad that we thought it should be named “Did You Like Mozart?” Nothing’s posted on the board about them even mounting “The Telephone,” let alone with Elif starring in it.



The scandal over them having granted a sozmesleli to a Minister’s mistress has gotten out of control, so all current opera members, including Elif, have to reaudition. Elif is disgusted by the whole situation and says she has no intention of doing so. I know Elif, and when a situation doesn’t feel right for her, she’s completely done, and nothing will change her mind. Her vocal coach will be heartbroken, but I suppose we’re heading back to the U.S. soon.

We’d done a series of concerts, I’d written a screenplay and a stage play, Elif got into the Turkish opera, I taught English, and we were down our cat. Elif thinks it’s time to leave. She’s had it with the Turkish opera and will not reaudition for sozmesleli just because the opera admitted a Minister’s mistress. She says that she achieved her goal of getting into the opera, and that she only wanted a career here if she could get leading roles immediately and become a cadreau next year at the latest. I asked her about taking them up on their offer to fast-track her if she went to Samsun, but she says that she can’t spend a part of her life in such a place if she’s not doing a great public service like being a doctor. She’s also concerned that I’m finishing up a lot of my writing here and now need a real community to work in as an artist, and I’m barely able to do that in Istanbul, let alone in a small industrial city on the Black Sea coast. She says it would be fun to live in New York and make more recordings and do avant concerts. She seems at peace with this, as if getting into the opera again has cleared up a lot of “what-if” questions in her mind, ever since she divorced Mehmet in 1993 and came to America and met me.

I’m not thrilled to be going back to New York. I think that NYC works a little too well; that it constantly reminds one of opportunity and sunk cost (rent); that its finger points at your indolence and others for comparison; that it’s difficult to have or hear of or express a meaningful political opinion there; that living there will force me into its mechanized systems of transaction and utterly predictable rhythms of transportation and movement; that I’ll be captive audience to the John Cage symphony of car alarms, at which I am trained to understand that they in fact signify nothing other than the start of a time block which will hopefully pass. I love the chaos and wonder of Istanbul, the city that prays to the twin goddesses of atrophy and Brownian motion. I love being in an Islamic country whose national celebrities are transvestites, even Tansu Ciller.

But it’s settled, and I know better than to try to change Elif’s mind once I’ve seen that itch in her. It will be fun to take classes with David Rosenthal, to hook up more often with my friends and family, to think about my future in grad school for philosophy, or not, to make some strange short films about consciousness, and perhaps to mount a nifty new play I wrote based on Dennett’s Multiple Drafts Model.

A perfect day

Looking into the Golden Horn from the Bosphoru...
Image via Wikipedia

Elif’s stepfather Cos won’t be able to get any vacation at all this summer, which means he’s going to try to call in sick occasionally. Two days ago he did just that, and we were summoned to go out and play with him and Dilek. I really wanted to stay home and write, but I wasn’t left with much choice…Cos’s idea of a good time is to drive like 3 hours to a sleepy village and sit and drink raki, but last time we did that, we came home and our cat’s tail was mysteriously broken, and all hell broke loose. So I took out my 1997 Rough Guide,mapped out a bunch of areas of Istanbul which Eli’s family had never been to, and proceeded to have a perfect day.

We walked around and saw Greek Orthodox churches, of which there are 89 (!) in Istanbul alone – and that’s just Greek Orthodox. Some had been converted to mosques and then back, some stayed the way they were. They were all locked, and we begged to have them opened. One completely insane lady showed us around one, asking for money for herself and some more for the church. The church has seven parishioners, and she speaks broken Turkish, just like me – she gets to live there with her son (an 8-year-old, to whom at one point she said Fuck OFF! and whacked him upside the head) – all she has to do is clean up. The frescos were still intact, as well as the bodies of three saints, one of which she claims comes from 400 BC – I couldn’t figure that out.

We also saw the Patrikane, the whole administrative center of the city, like the Greek Vatican. Around Easter, the head bigwig makes his rounds – they actually call the top religious dude the Despot – is that great or what? We went to plenty of mosques, too, many of which were once churches from Justinian times – you can even make out the occasional fresco in the corner (they were all whitewashed, after the saints’ eyes poked out), or espy a mosaic under the obligatory carpet. We arrived at one during prayer time, and a guy looking like Francis Ford Coppola told us to wait, but why wait? – Cos went in and prayed, while Dilek and us stood outside giggling about Cos’s sins that will keep him out of Paradise with the 70 virgins.

We tried to go to see synagogues, but they were all (very) closed – hidden and shuttered – if you want to see them, you have to get a letter of permission from the local mayorship, although it’s been 17 years since the Palastinians last bombed Istanbul’s largest temple. We asked directions to the synagogue, and the market owners asked, is that where the Jews go? We asked directions to the church, and a 15-year-old girl had no idea what the word meant, had never heard of a church before; I said the Turkish word for Christian and she never heard of that either.

The areas we walked through were amazing. One was full of Kurdish-speaking Syrian Christians – wow! Much of it looked really decrepit, but in a welcoming way, like Napoli – old women talking to each other from adjacent 4th-floor open windows. We saw an 18-year-old boy riding an invisible horse, lots of children driving invisible cars, people playing soccer with flat balls, and people on the street selling everything – rags, old tape recorders from 20-30 years ago, stuff like that. My favorite sight of the day was a gypsy beggar who was nursing her baby – except that her baby was at least 6 years old, sucking her tit while she held her hands out – that kid’s got a good agent. Cops hid behind the old Byzantium walls – but they weren’t shaking down drug dealers; they were playing backgammon on the job.

We wanted to go to the Koc Museum – we’d been to the Sabanci museum, and Koc is the 2nd-richest family in Turkey, so we knew they’d have great stuff. Sabanci had antiquities, the best of which was an incredible collection of calligraphy from the early Ottoman period, but the Koc museum was more fun, a hands-on please-touch museum of industry. It was great to see the Turkish Anadolu car (discontinued 1984; made out of, among other things, cardboard – cows eat them as they rust by the side of the road, in a scene straight out of Black Cat White Cat) sitting next to a 1956 Chevy – it was like Bambi meets Godzilla – the he American car was three times the height of the Turkish one! Oh – I forgot to mention how we got to the museum. We were on the wrong side of the Golden Horn, so we had our usual choice (it’s rush hour – should we take I-5 or Sepulveda Boulevard?) of combinations of options – boats, taxis, dolmuses, minibuses, buses, walking – but this one was new: a gypsy at the water showed us his kiddie foot-paddleboat and said he’d take us across for 2 million – bubkas – so we hopped in. I helped him paddle, which turned out to be a fair amount of work due to the wind – better than the Thighmaster – but I actually paddled across the Golden Horn!

The next place we went to reminds me of Elif’s aunt Ilknur’s friend, who, when asked where she lives, has a standard response: “You take the Taksim bus.” She says that because Taksim is a rich area – but the bus line travels through some very, very poor ones. In an area best described as “You take the Taksim bus to get there,” we went into a store selling Turkish instruments. I’ve been enthralled with Turkish music for some time now – from the subtle, quiet Ney (a bamboo instrument that looks like a flute but is played and held at a diagonal, halfway between a flute and a clarinet – and I can’t get a sound out of the thing, not even a squeak) and a Zurna (which looks like an oboe, sounds like a bagpipe, and I can get very loud sounds out of it). I wanted to see if there were any scores or methods on my instruments. The store turned out to be straight out of the 1970’s – no air conditioning, of course, which brought the temperature inside to a little over 200 – people with polyester shirts and thick sideburns and combover haircuts. They sell instruments and even give lessons, acting as a talent-scout agency for the TV stations and Gazino nightclubs: hey, kid, we can make you a star. The guy was thrilled to death that I was an American who had interest; they gave us all tea, of course, and he played us song after song on all kinds of instruments made out of cherrywood, apricot wood, any kind of wood. He really wanted to teach me, and offered me lessons for $6 an hour. Then he said he’d teach me for free if I’d just come down – he didn’t want money. He was really great, and so enthusiastic – reminded me of the scene from Elia Kazan’s “America America” where the rich guy living the good life on Buyukada was admonishing his kids, what do you want to go west to become a waiter for? He was telling me how I would impress my countrymen and play the Ney as the sun went down on the beach with raki and wine and women – and I was really, really tempted, but taking the Taksim bus to anywhere is just too far from my apartment, and I think I’ll have to learn from tapes. I’ll bring a couple of instruments to Kadri and see if he can dig up some villagers to show me some stuff.

After that, we went to dinner at Kumkapi, which is a totally Cos area – fish restaurants (E and I ate mezes instead) on the water, lots of wine and music. On arrival I realized just how obnoxious an eastern country can seem to the casual western traveler: “Buyrun, yes please, welcome” – one guy even tried German on us without even realizing he was saying “Thank you very much”! I love to answer them in Turkish and watch them do a double-take. In the winter, I actually pass for Turkish, but in the summer I don’t, because I simply refuse to wear pants and a long-sleeve shirt when it’s 90 degrees outside. One restaurant barker kept following us down the road, so Cos let him have it: “You take the pleasure out of coming!” The guy answered, “We’re inviting you to dinner as our guests.” Dilek countered, “Oh, you mean dinner’s free then?” And the guy, rattled, stammered, “We’re not doing this for the money…”, at which point Elif laughed out loud in his face and the poor guy slunk away.

Dinner was a typical 4-star Turkish affair – amazing food, and waiters the opposite of what you’re used to. Instead of French waiters standing somberly like funeral parlor directors, they buzz all around you, trying to give you the best service, which means that they’ll take your plate 6 times during a meal. If you put your fork down for one second, they take your silverware and plate and give you fresh ones – and they’re constantly filling up your glass and inevitably sticking their armpits in your face. Turkey has only had good wine for about three years, ever since the government gave up its monopoly – and they serve the white practically crystalline, and the red room temperature, which in the summer is 90. Our table got one of each, and I ordered ice for the bottle of red and let the white sit at room temperature. The gypsy band was what you’d expect, but their kanun player was tremendous, a virtuoso really, and I went up to examine his hands furiously arpeggiating and frantically flicking the key switches, and I even went behind the ud player, as I know what it’s like to play the harmony instrument and feel left out of the audience’s attention (having played trombone in a high-school band and keyboards in a rock band). Smelling money, they came over to our table and played for us, and Elif got up and bellydanced, which led them to dance along while playing, all of which attracted a lot of attention – a great evening. I’m still not used to the dinner meal being the focal point of the evening’s entertainment rather than its prelude, and I got up to take a walk at one point, passing by a gorgeous nargile Kahvehane – never smoked a tobacco bong in an all-male coffeehouse, but it was fun to peer inside.

The cab driver who took us home was a Galatasary fan. I made fun of Fehnerbace and Besiktas, and then, once I gained his confidence, asked him, how does that song go?: “Galata, Galata, Kopeklere Salata; Kopek salata yemez – Aslan Fehner gol yemez!” (“Galata, Galata, Salad for the dogs; Dogs don’t eat salad; you won’t score any goals against Fener!”) He cracked up, and he asked me who was my team, really, and I said “Galatasaray…” but as I stepped out of the cab, I added, “but if a cab driver says Fenerbahce, I tell him Fener!” He answered, “Those cab drivers must have psychological problems to root for Fener!”

Very rarely in life have I been granted something close to a perfect day. This fit the bill nicely.

Cinema and theater


Istanbul theaters are showing films from all over the world. Of course our Hollywood action exports do the biggest business, but they also have a larger tolerance for the offbeat. The Coen Brothers are big here – and a couple of years ago, the poster for The Big Lebowski just showed a foot with the missing toe! This year, there are two major festivals here , one in the winter and one in the summer. In January, at the Istanbul Independent Film Fest, we saw the new Todd Solonz flick “Storytelling”; it was too brief, its framing device seemed artificial, and the penultimate scene was an abomination, but it had a couple of moments (one involving the maid and another involving a gay friend) that I will never forget. We also saw a BBC “Sound on Film” series, which was a collection of avant-garde films set to modern classical music. Most of them were terrible, even those directed by famous names (Werner Herzog! Nicholas Roeg!) but there was a gothic short by the Quay Brothers to the soundtrack of Stockhausen’s “In Absentia” – it scared the hell out of me and sent many of the people running for the exits – brilliant. I’m a hard man to please, but really, all I need are five great minutes out of 90, and I’m satisfied.

We just went to the movies the other day ago to see “Spider-Man.” It’s been 95-100 degrees here all week, which is bad enough (an air conditioner’s a luxury item which can be had starting at $500), but when there’s a power outage, there are no fans, and it’s miserable. So another outage forced us to run to the sanctuary of the next village’s theater with its splendid air conditioning. (Many theaters, including the one closer to our apartment, won’t run the a/c because they can’t afford it.) The film, despite having a couple of stupid gay slurs in it, was thankfully overlong – by the time it was done, it was the next day and power had been restored. Films here include an “Ara” – intermission – which involves, mid-sentence, them stopping the film an hour in and selling food and beverage right in the theater. They also have assigned seats, which they load up from the back row forward. I once saw a film here with six people in the theater, and we were all in the back row, right next to each other. After the lights went down, Elif and I went to the middle – the others thought we were weird. It harkens back to the 80’s, when Hollywood destroyed the local Turkish cinema, so that the bulk of films showing for that decade were porno films, and they’d seat people together in all movies to make you feel secure that the guy all alone in the corner wasn’t leaving a sticky souvenir on the seats that wasn’t chewing gum.

The current state of Turkish cinema is mixed: budgets are bigger, but the aesthetic is the same: crude slapstick comedies, and earnest, romantic, glossy epics. 70’s Turkish films are far more interesting, and endlessly fascinating. Their budgets were so small they’d make an Ed Wood film look like a Hollywood summer blockbuster, and they compensated by making about a film a week. The melodramas are most enjoyable – a girl becomes blind and then can see her true love, or a village girl gets raped and kicked around only to get saved, or a village singer becomes a national star but loses his soul in the process. The sound recording is also a delight: incongruent lip-synching (for the music) and outrageous sound effects (for the fight scenes); maybe five people handle all of the the voiceovers, and a stable of about fifty actors handle all the parts (you’ll see the same faces in every film).

We live among Turkish movie stars. Many of the former stars had lives worthy of their own Turkish film. The 80’s flooded the market with American imports, temporarily wiping out the Turkish film industry and forcing many of them into softcore porn; the 90’s saw their careers rehabilitated, and many got rich by attaching their names to businesses (mostly restaurants). One interesting is the death of Kemal Sunal, who died two years ago in a very interesting way – on an airplane, but not in a plane crash. He was a major star, playing a character “Saban” in dozens of comedies, as well as dumb characters who’d just come to the city from the village. He was always afraid of flying, but he was to shoot his new film in Trabzon and decided to fly to the shoot. He died of a heart attack in his seat before the plane left the runway. The stars who are still alive can be found walking, like us, on the streets of Suadiye. Elif (of course) is a bit of an expert in pointing them out to me (she spots them, and only then can I place their faces as they were 30 years younger. It’s sobering to see what time will do to a leading man.

I don’t go to the theater much because I’ve no need to barely understand Turkish productions of Shakespeare, or political allegories, or slapstick comedies. But we’ve seen some amazing international productions here, and they all played to packed houses, including a French ballet in March; an Italian branch of Grotowski doing “One Final Breath” (“One Breath Left”) in April; and the loopily whimsical Hashirigaki in May. Hashirigaki involved huge Robert Wilson-style sets, light displays, theramin gimmicks, Eastern instruments, and variety review – all set to the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album. Three women from the Netherlands, as giddy as The Singing Nun doing “Dominique” – writ very, very large. Tis rare to discover some happy avant for a change – even if they were bullshitting their way through the whole thing – to hear the koto blending into the opening rhythm of Caroline No!

The World Cup

Hakan Sukur image
Image via Wikipedia


Turkey advanced to the second round of the World Cup for the first time in its history, and I found it out from the streets. Our gypsies – peddling flowers, oregano, carrying babies, dumpster-diving – were stoping cars and screaming their heads off. We walked down the block from our apartment to Baghdat Caddesi, and the place was a spontaneous parade. The avenue is always a delightful mix of gypsies; “tourists” from the Anatolian side of the Bosphorus wearing headcoverings and looking confused, envious, and apalled; and the natives, the rich-bitch teenage girls shopping at the Marks and Spencer, eating at TGIFridays, and speaking Turkish in an ungodly Valley Girl accent, all body parts (some real, some bought) on display, along with Tammy Faye makeup, perfume on top of body odor, and hair dyed onion-skin red (I should be thankful – two years ago it was blonde, which does not suit Turks at all). Cars were draped in Turkish flags, people hanging out of the windows, faces painted red and white, beating on drums, playing Zurnas (which sounds like a bagpipe but looks like an oboe), and screaming and honking. One guy holding a flare-gun in the air. Crowds of young men, arms around each other in lines or circles, hopping up and down in that wonderful combination of homoeroticism, nationalism, and violence that is soccer. Department store owners coming out of their stores, trying to clear a path for customers. Gypsy boys’ shoeshine equipment piled in corners, unattended so the gypsies could join and hop up and down in the moshpit, side-by-side with Turks who regard them on any other day as damn gypsies. Turkish marches that no one quite new the words to, so their words all became “Li li li” after awhile (the beat, one-two-three-four on the drum, would certainly have been more interesting had we lived in Ghana and if Ghana made the second round).

A huge crowd gathers, whooping it up and dancing, blocking the entrance to everything, even the mosque. The storm troopers arrive, along with what looks like a local chief of police, to clear a path to the mosque and break up the crowd. The cops advance, the crowd continues celebrating and won’t budge, and Elisha and the worshippers of Baal are waiting to see whose sacrifice would burst into flames. The crowd plays a brilliant move: they break into the Turkish national anthem, of all things, causing the cops to stop on a dime, drop their hands to their sides, and sing along. The cops move them across the street without incident.



I monitored this World Cup game by keeping an ear to the window. Early in the morning, a huge cheer, gypsies yelling, then dead silence for a good long while. I was sure that meant the score was 18-1 against. But then it came in a big roar: 1-0, Turkey defeats Japan. Elif’s 16-year-old cousin comes over, I check my cell phone to check the time; the satellite, instead of displaying “Suadiye” as where I am, registers “TURKLER GELIYOR” – The Turks are Coming! – as my location.

This time on our street, the Turks were more raucous. It was still a red-white face-painted Zurna-playing drumbeating multigenerational impromptu parade, but much more so. Businessmen in ties wearing socks sat on the roofs of their cars, waving flags, as the cars crawled past the musicians and the flag-waving fans. One side of the street screams “Kirmizi” (red), the other “Beyaz” (white). Nobody knows any songs, which all degenerate into something like Turkiye, Turkiye, Lo Lo Lo Li Li Li Lum. They even sung some of Carmen at the top of their lungs. On the sidewalks, groups of 100 or so would coagulate around a barechested uber-fan banging on a drum leading the songs and handwaving. One of the group leaders was not happy that another person was lighting three flares at once and holding them in the air, over my head. Peering at him through the smoke and spitting red flame, I could make out that it wasn’t that my flare-bearer was using too many up at once – it was that it would attract too much police attention to our merry band. Our barechested leader decided that the best way to explain his position was through the universal Mediterranean language of fisticuffs. I was having so much fun, pogo-dancing with sweaty Turks screaming “Turks, shoulder-to-shoulder, Li Li Li Li Lum,” that another fisticuff-or-almost-fisticuff street scene wouldn’t really add much to the proceedings – it’s usually fun to watch Turkish men have a nice harmless little row in the streets, but this was so “family.” After the requisite in-your-face and shoving and shouting and people saying come, brother (and after I snapped off three great photographs that I think got the drummer and the almost-fighters, with fire raining down from the flare gun), another drummer started singing a football or march song (who can tell the difference?) and everybody joined in and it was all over.

Next up is Senegal in the Quarter-finals on Saturday. They’re supposed to be great. CNN website, rating the strengths and weaknesses of each squad, lists the Turks’ weakness as their temper.



Tremendous game – first organized sport event I’ve seen since the 92 super bowl. Turks had ball 98 percent of the time; took 500 shots on goal; “star” Hakan Sukur missed every one. Was pulled for a Tartar (that’s why the fancy hairstyle) who did the nifty extra-time golden goal. Reaction on the street: E’s stepfather and aunts cried; many people fired gunshots; most hit the streets and were babbling in tongues, ecstatically. We went to Baghdat St. again, but it was impossible to move there – it was Sat. afternoon at 5PM, you can imagine! People were still partying same time the next day… Of course it would be neat if Turkey won; I’m no cabbie but expect Turkey to beat South Korea in the consolation for 3rd – but you never know…



People still showed up on Bagdat St., banged on drums, waved flags, sung patriotic songs, honked horns, belly-danced, and shouted Turkey is the greatest, after its heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Brazil today. They looked happy and sad and proud; they were still even buying red and white shirts and flags, even after the game.



Turkey beat South Korea in the consolation soccer playoff game, which put Turkey at #3 in the world, which meant more joy all around. Game ends, we gather in the center of the room, the gunshots again, then we can safely look out the windows. The coach is being blamed for losing to Brazil by sticking with Hakan Sukur. The latter is Turkey’s biggest soccer star like, ever – his wedding was broadcast live on TV – but he’s 30 and has been riding the bench for 2 years in Parma and was very rusty – he scored zero goals the entire tournament and his last goal was in April in a friendly match against Chile. But the coach stuck with him; every game they’d remove him with 10 minutes left in the game, after he’d scored zero goals and missed great opportunities, and replaced him with a young Ilhan Mansiz, who would play amazing and score late goals. Both players started yesterday; Ilhan Mansiz scored two. Hakan Sukur scored his only goal of the tournament in unusual fashion – 11 seconds into the game, breaking a World Cup record for fastest first goal ever scored – I’m sure South Korea wanted to start the game over after that! The team arrives home today – we’re not leaving the house.

In times of economic hardship, there’s always football, and this has been an amazing ride. Although it was only Turkey’s second time in the final 16 in 50 years, they outplayed everyone and only lost to Brazil, twice, and both times by one point. But they won in garnering the most red and yellow flags of any team in the tournament.


Postscript (from, “World Cup 2002: Recap, Results and Statistics by Sean Wilsey”

Despite a third-place finish Turkey was the second best team in the 2002 World Cup. (In consolation they got stadiums, bridges and streets named after them back home: a boulevard in Adana for left winger Hasan Sas, a park in Istanbul for coach Senol Günes and a stadium in the seaside town of Zonguldak for midfielder Ergün Penbe.)

Elif’s concerts with the Adana Opera

Adana City and Seyhan Lake
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When we were living in New York, we recorded a CD of Elif singing opera songs by gay composers of the 19th-20th centuries. Somehow the CD made its way to some opera directors in Turkey, and a few weeks after September 11, 2001, we received a fax from one Tugrul Gogus asking Elif to sing in a series of concerts in Adana with the orchestra. The fax also, oddly, mentioned September 11th and said that the US “had it coming.” We were already thinking of moving back to Turkey, and her giving some concerts would be an ideal excuse for another extended stay, despite the strange political aside in the middle of the fax. Also, we’ve never been to Adana, Turkey‘s fourth-largest city (after Istanbul, Ankara, and Izmir.) They said they’d pay Elif “250” – though we didn’t know if that was $250 or 250 million Turkish Lira – and airfare for a flight from Istanbul to Adana, and accommodations.

Elif accepted the gig and was asked to pick out some scores for them to perform. She suggested, among other pieces, Montsalvatge’s Canciones Negras. Tugrul asked if we could help him find it. Elif emailed Presser explaining the situation and said that the orchestra had little funds, and they said they’d rent it to us for a month for $270. Tugrul couldn’t pay it. So Elif suggested other scores which would be much easier to find.

In December, we moved to Istanbul, and we spent New Year’s with Elif’s father in Antalya. While we were there, they took us to the Antalya Opera, where we saw an Azeri (!) operetta called Arsin Mal Alan. Once the novelty of seeing an opera from Azerbaijan wore off, the thing was pretty much unwatchable, and we left after the first act. The first act was 90 minutes, mostly broad comedy, recitative, and organ-grinder music; the music was simpler than most nursery rhymes or rock songs. It was the opposite what I expected – I was hoping for some folkloric Bartok-like music play – and the singing was surprisingly excellent! – but it was a rare form of torture to sit there for that act. Still, it’s impressive that Antalya even has opera at all.

When we got back to Istanbul, we got a call from Tugrul, the head of the Adana Symphony, saying that they were having trouble finding the score to an aria from “La Boheme” – not an exotic piece of music, by any reckoning.  It turns out that Tugrul got into a fight with the head of the Mersin Opera over stealing each others’ scores, and Mersin had the parts but refused to give them to him. Elif, exasperated, used her connections to get into the library of the State Opera in Istanbul to Xerox the part-scores for it, but the parts were unavailable, as they’re rehearsing the same piece. So she called Tugrul and told him to get the parts from some other company or to resolve his issues with Mersin. It was going to be fine.


W 1/16/2002

On the morning of the 16th, two hours before we were to leave for the airport, we get a call from Tugrul saying that he actually did need us to find the La Boheme scores, because he got the wrong ones. Elif started talking to him in a manner that I thought would damage her vocal cords. He hung up and called back just as we were leaving to tell us that he was able to get the parts from Ankara. We arrived at the Adana airport; Tugrul and the driver came; they let me load the car myself, and the driver smoked in the car. Tugrul constantly corrected my Turkish grammar and tense and told me that I would be bored at the talk tonight. We checked into the 5-star hotel, and then went out to eat with Elif’s family (who had come down separately by bus, which took over 12 hours) and had mezes in a restaurant where the cockroaches outmassed the appetizers.

That night, the opera had a function at the Hilton Hotel. A woman gave a flowery Ottoman talk. They showed an interminable video – inexplicably in Russian, without translation – to demonstrate to “cukurova” music lovers that there should be classical western culture in southern Turkey. The video was about Pavarotti and the importance of village choruses. Elif pointed out that it’s about a different culture’s folk music anyway. Three speakers then spoke, all talking about Ataturk. Then a children’s choir gave a performance, with wavering sopranos, and basses pulling everyone flat. Elif picked out some kid out of the mass, fourth child from the right, second-to-back row, and said that she liked his voice and that he would be a good tenor someday.

I at least looked forward to the buffet and schmoozing afterward, but after a couple of minutes, Tugrul wanted to leave because he “hated crowds.” I found that odd, because the entire time, all he did was gossip – about the politics of classical music administration, about the different opera companies, about how he used to play great violin but stopped because of his hand (Elif thought he was lying). Elif whispered to me that instead of all this gossip, he should be thinking about how he can’t keep his own children’s choir from dragging – and why he didn’t didn’t know that his own conductor was a leftie. We pulled out of the Hilton parking lot and Tugrul reached in his wallet and tried to pay with a credit card the 1 million TL parking fee, or about 75 cents. The guy refused to take cards, and Tugrul had no cash whatsoever, so I had to kick in for parking. We went out to a real kahvehane and had corba (soup) with Elif’s family. The fumes from the pollution were incredible, burning my eyes and throat. We went back to the hotel and laughed hysterically at the film “The Green Mile.”


Th 1/17/02

At 10AM they had their first rehearsal. The conductor, Burak Tuzun, was a guest conductor, a 31-year-old novice who wanted to conduct Puccini like Brahms. He took the tempo of “Elle a Fui” so slowly that Elif was gasping for air. Burak looked at Elif and told her, right on stage in front of everyone, that she should feel free to suggest the rhythms and tempos if it would make her more comfortable. Elif told him that it’s not her place to do so, and then whispered in his ear that at we’d get together in private at 1PM to explain the pieces to him. I sat in the balcony with his beautiful 25-year-old wife, the pianist Lillian Tonella. She filmed the rehearsal and would roll her eyes and grin to me about the incompetence of some of the performers – but I didn’t grin back. I was too worried about how the concert would go and how it would reflect on Elif – and I was also cringing at her husband’s unique interpretation of the pieces.

At 1PM we met Burak backstage first to talk about the pieces, and then finally to explain them. (Elif: “The girl is supposed to be praying in church, not dancing an Irish jig.”) Burak said that he had never conducted opera before, and that Elif should explain the characters to the orchestra. Elif said that was his role. Lilian sat studying English and I sat studying Turkish.

We went to the dinky Adana museum; on our way there, we passed several posters around town advertising the Elif Savas FELSEN in concert – how exciting! Then it was back to the hotel, where I wrote her a new cadenza, and we saw “The Story of Us,” which was almost as funny as “The Green Mile.” We reconnected at 7PM with Elif’s family and a couple of members of the orchestra for dinner in Ocakbasi. They ordered us vegetables, since we’re vegetarian. I wolfed down the mezes, which were especially good – bread and cheese and turnips and hot peppers and patlican. The violist got drunk, and it turned out that she didn’t know many classical pieces that I did. Tugrul tried to gossip about Elif’s parents and whether they would need a ride from him to the hotel, and Elif put him in his place saying that they could get around just fine, since her mom’s an attorney and her stepfather is a judge from Istanbul. Back at the hotel, we rode up in the elevator with the conductor Burak and his wife; Burak told us that in the two days he’d been here hanging out with the orchestra, they never once talked about music after the rehearsal ended.


F 1/18/2002

We had our second and final rehearsal in the morning. The conductor had listened to tempos but was not in control of the show. The orchestra would dance in their seats when playing “Una Voce Poco Fa” as if they were so masterful, and the piece so easy, that it was somehow beneath them. The bassists would grin like monkeys when plucking. When some strings didn’t play the phrasing right, the violinists didn’t want to play a staccato to demonstrate. I felt like an English colonist with the lazy natives. Burak kept telling Elif to tell the orchestra what she told him about the meaning of the pieces. Elif refused and told him to be a man and stand up for himself like a real conductor. I asked for the score and showed the conductor where a coronet was playing an entire passage in the wrong key so it sounded like Stravinsky; the conductor said he was helpless to do anything about it. Several people asked Elif if she were single.

We went to the opera house, and Elif dressed up backstage. Cos sent flowers, and the deliverer smoked. Elif and Tugrul made a No Smoking sign. The mayor came by so Elif could kiss his ass, and Elif blew him off. The concert was delightful, and Elif was divine. The conductor remembered everything we told him, and the orchestra sounded competent. Everyone piled into the dressing room trying to get near Elif after the show. The mayor did get to see her, telling her with tears in his eyes, “I’m so happy you didn’t die in 9/11.” Tugrul was cool, riding the gravy train, telling Elif, “Everyone loved it.”

After the show, we went to dinner with almost the entire orchestra. The musicians asked Elif questions during the dinner. Are American players more talented? No, they’re less lazy. Didn’t America know about 9/11? Depends on who you mean by “America.” Burak and his wife sat near me. Lilian studied piano in Moscow but hated the city and the Russians. She learned philosophy in school, but only Karl Marx. She was excited that he got a gig conducting in Eskesehir and that it would be a great city culturally to live in. I felt sorry for her, but I’d once taken my Turkish princess to Fishtown. Our conversation got interrupted when the violist who’s been flirting with me for the last two days showed up. Elif joked that I would enjoy a lovely 3-month relationship with Lilian and a one-night relationship with the violist. The orchestra began getting more drunk and giving Burak advice on how to conduct. Lilian became frustrated, but it’s up to her to tell her husband that not everybody has to like him all the time.


Sa 1/19/2002

Breakfast was a buffet in our hotel. Burak hovered over it, scooping food onto his plate as if it were the first days after food rationing. Elif fought with the waiters, who had cleverly designated every other table as a smoking section.

The second concert, at 11AM, was packed, which we didn’t expect it to be. A group of American servicemen and local high school children were in attendance. Nobody was quite as good as they were last night, perhaps because many were hung over. Elif’s family thought it was better, simply because they had better seats. The audience went nuts, giving Elif bravo after bravo. Backstage after the show, kids mobbed Elif for autographs and many just wanted to touch her. Elif gave a 13-year-old advice on having a singing career. We checked out of the hotel and left Tugrul stuck with a bill for 3 million lira for bottled water.

Went to lunch at our cockroach restaurant again with Elif’s family, got screwed by a cab driver who said his meter was broken, and gave our flowers away to the cops at the Adana airport, who distributed them according to a hierarchy of rank. And on the airplane back to Istanbul, Elif decided that she would try out for the National Opera; auditions were to be held on February 11.

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La Dolce Suadiye

Ba?dat Avenue
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The apartment-hunting went more quickly than I expected, with the calm voice of reason tempering my desire to cash in on Turkey’s economic crisis. $1200 a month gets you a penthouse view of the Bosphorus, and by “view” I mean an unobstructed view of the water through a full-length window the width of the room. Last year, the realtors say, the same places were more than double that. But we decided to be frugal and focus on the cheaper houses on the Anatolian (Asian) side rather than Europe. Places have been ranging from $95 a month to around $500. (Two realtors asked us, “You’re a young couple, would you be able to afford $250 a month, do you want to call your parents now and ask them?”)

We took a lovely apartment called Friends’ Apartment, on Pink Rose Street in Suadiye (right across from Writer’s Place). Suadiye is on the Anatolian side, one block both from the Marmara Sea and Bagdat Street (Istanbul’s Via Del Corsa, and the 34th-richest street in terms of rental per square meter in the world. Last year it was number 22, but the economic crisis in February took care of that.) It’s 140 square meters including the balconies, and has 3 rooms and a living room, 1 ½ baths. Adorable place and area, though we’re overpaying (rent is $600). We have everything from Chinese takeout to Marks and Spencer within two blocks of our house. It’s delightful to walk the streets and see the teenage boys with more pomade in their hair than George Clooney had in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – they strut their stuff, arms locked, pacing like tigers in cages, looking like cats in heat. Fewer girls walk at night – their fathers have them home for dinner. Lots of adorable “Old Istanbul” couples going in and out of cafes after a concert, made up so elegant, shaking their heads at these nouveau-riche carpetbaggers. I like it so much more than the Italian passagiatta. Because you have to pass through poor areas any time you travel anywhere, I don’t feel trapped by all the chic. I even spot Christmas trees spotted in places (I mean New Year’s trees), although there are also a few more McDonald’s here as well (sigh). We’re seeing more retarded children on the streets than last time we lived in Turkey (but fewer lepers).

We have an electrician-plumber whom we want to move in with us. He lives down the street, and we call him to install light fixtures, toilet seats, door handles, change wiring, install telephones, and even hang pictures. Last time we called him during dinner because our oven wouldn’t turn on. The oven is an Arcelik – an Ankara state-issued beast with tons of dials and settings but no explanation for what they do. There are letters from A to G, each of which adjusts fans and heaters, so you can cook many things in the oven at once in different places and the odors won’t mix, or something. But we couldn’t get it to turn on. When he showed up 10 minutes later, he said we were turning the dial in the wrong direction. He also fixed our pilot light, while he was at it, and advised us on how to manage our settings for our hot water heater. The guy’s an oracle, and at a dollar or two per house-call, he’s a frequent guest.

Our doorman’s also helpful.  In Turkish apartments, no matter how bad the area, you have a doorman, a live-in villager who resides for free in the basement, whose job it is to ring your doorbell three times a day, morning to bring you fresh bread and newspapers, noon to ask if you want them to go shopping for you, and in the evening to take your trash.  They also sweep and mop the building and maintain the heating system, elevators, etc.  They also collect and pay the utility bills – much more than a superintendent.  It’s all pretty much free (they collect barely anything above what the utility bills would be); we hired our doorman’s wife to be our maid to clean the place when we moved in.

We had to borrow money from Dilek to pay the deposit until our money comes next week. (When we moved here last month, we had Ziraat Bankasi in New York send our money to Turkey, giving interest and doing the transaction commission-free, as long as we don’t touch it until 1/14.) We stopped by the bank to get our passbooks and see that the money actually arrived, but there was a line going outside of the bank and then around 3 of its 4 walls – yipes! It turns out that Ziraat is the state Agricultural bank, where all government workers get paid, and there’s rarely a line smaller than two blocks to get in. The inside looks like something out of “El Mariachi.” Elif pushed her way past the line to the manager’s office (tackling two stocky villager women in the process) and said, “We’re American, do you have our money?” After smoking a cigarette, the manager himself presented us with our passbook. Now that’s service! Next week, we’re getting a new bank.



There’s a hit single from a few years ago, a Turkish rap song called Param Olacak:

PARAM OLACAK (Olacak, olacak)
ARABAM OLACAK (Olacak, olacak)
Kizlar da var mi? (VAR! VAR!)
Beni kim tutar? (Seni kim tutar?).

All of which (roughly) translates to:

I’LL HAVE MONEY (I will, I will!)
I’LL HAVE A CAR! (I will, I will!)
Are there women too? (There are! There are!)
Who can hold me back? (Who can hold you back?)

We arrived here after the country’s worst economic crisis in 50 years, and we are rich. Elif’s been insisting we shop for clothes for me due to the economic crisis – many stores on Bagdat Caddesi are going under, they all have signs like “SHOCKING PRICES” or “EARTHQUAKE-LIKE FALLING PRICES” or “We’re lowering prices for the good of the country” or “Buy for the good of the country”; now we can afford some new duds to put my Mr. Bubble shirt out to pasture. It’s easier to find clothes to fit us here, as people here are much thinner than in the states – all they have are S,M, and L – no XXL or 4XL. After our morning breakfast on Bagdat (Elif gets tea and salty pastries, I get coffee and sweet pastries), we stop in a store to get a T-shirt. They’re blasting techno music. As far as I can tell, the only difference between a US rave party and a Turkish clothing store is the time of day and the absence of Ecstasy. We go to the men’s section, and have to run out of the store, not because of the noise, but because, even in the a/c, the people stink far worse than any herd of cattle. So we go to the department store next door, where I notice they have their own movie theater inside. I look to see what’s playing – it’s “Romance X,” a film so controversial it will never be given a real showing in the US, no way, no how, and here it is, playing in a department store cinema. Maybe I’ll see it here, or maybe I’ll buy it on the streets on VCD for a buck.

I haven’t gotten used to the feeling like you sometimes get in a foreign country: “Gee the local currency is worthless!” We can afford to eat out in a cafe – fresh pastries, cappuccino, anything we want, whenever we want, for practically nothing. We can see the doormen and part-time electricians congregate among us, coming back from the markets where they did shopping for the tenants, carrying dozens of bags of food. In the US, there aren’t enough cafes, and there, a cup of coffee costs more than the shoes I’m now wearing. If we ever move back, I’ll miss being able to freely participate in the sidewalk cafes and the people watching.

Last week, when Elif was at her aunts’, I went to the Cafe Marmara, the restaurant of the 5-star hotel where once a year Chechen rebels come in and take everybody hostage. (I like it because it’s central to everything, the food is amazing, and it sells Godiva chocolate for under $10 a pound.) I’m having a decaf cappuccino freeze and a roka salad, and I’m writing. It’s very chic – waiters dressed in black, etc. Mine looks over my shoulder and asks me what I’m working on. I tell him, he discovers I’m American, says, we’re brothers! I tell him I’m looking to buy a Zurna and for a guy to give me lessons. He gives me his phone number.

I look over to another table, where four middle-aged well-dressed businessmen are ordering drinks. Their waiter brings them their drinks, and one of them asks for ice. The waiter walks over to the bar, leans over it instead of walking around it, and hoists the ice bucket onto the bar. In full view of the restaurant, he removes the tongs, sticks his hand in the ice bucket, and fills a smaller bucket with the ice, cube by cube. Then he bends his whole body over the bar and comes up with a smaller set of ice tongs to put on the small bucket. This he brings to the businessman at the table. The businessman thanks him, removes the tongs and sets them onto the table, reaches into the bucket, and with his hand drops the ice cubes, one by one, into his glass.

While we’re living large, people here are really hurting, but despite an increase in street crime, honor still prevails. We just saw on TV that a family that committed suicide over the dishonor of having a $3,000 debt they couldn’t repay. Elif also had a strange experience on a dolmus last week. They were going over the Bosphorus, and a passenger realizes, once he’s on the bridge, that he left his wallet at home. This totally screws over the driver (who barely makes enough to cover the toll and the $4/gallon gas). He gets into a fight with the driver, but not about the money – they fight because the man is embarrassed and wants to be let off to walk. The driver apologizes for the situation and says he’ll take the guy home anyway for free. The passenger insists that he should get off after the bridge and be forced to walk, but the driver refuses and says, I’ll just take you all the way, don’t worry about it. This could not happen in America.

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New Years with The Anatolian Predator

Emir Kusturica
Emir Kusturica (Image via

We went to Antalya (on the southern Mediterranean coast) to spend New Year’s with Elif’s father Kadri, whom my friend calls The Anatolian Predator. We took the Varan bus, which is more expensive than many other companies, but there’s a direct correlation in Turkey between being rich and staying alive. (Only Varan and Ulusoy guarantee that the trip from Antalya to Istanbul will take “at least 9 hours” – they have a governor so the bus can’t go over a certain speed, and they take breaks often, changing drivers. We like to watch all the other companies’ buses recklessly plow past us on the roads and hope they all make it to their destinations alive.) The bus makes two stops on the way down to Antalya, each for over 30 minutes; the most painful is at Afyon, which we always reach at 3AM. The bus stops and you wake up, cold and with a stiff neck, and your choices are either to stay on the bus, or to go inside with the rest and enjoy the Four Elemental Smells of Turkey (cigarettes, lemon cologne, benzene, and body odor).

New years with the bunch, including Elif’s father, sister Eylul, stepmother Isik, and 20 guests, was great fun but exhausting. It was in their house in the cool Duacam forest outside of Antalya (which we nicknamed Kadriville). Lots of food, ping pong, more smoke than oxygen, and games such as pass-the-orange and telephone (where you whisper a word in the next person at the table’s ear – they say the word at the end of the line, then the beginning of the line, and laugh at how the word mutated. Then they go down the line and find out who first screwed up the word. Then that person would have to belly-dance for everyone while the others clapped. I did a lot of bellydancing that night…) By far my favorite game was Musical Chairs. I’m no great fan of the game, but I got to choose the music and put on the soundtrack from Emir Kusturica’s “Underground” – I just hit play for track one, cranked up the volume, and let that Balkan gypsy tuba band work its magic – people jumping and kangarooing around the chairs – it looked like a Violent Femmes concert.

Midnight came, TV played lots of folkloric dances, another station showed a Tarkan concert (Tarkan’s a Turkish pop star who has a couple of amazing singles and reminds me of Jim Morrison and Elvis Presley), and then Kadri broke out the Ud. I knew he had one and had dabbled with it, but I didn’t know he was so damn good. He played song after song of Turkish art music, everyone knew the lyrics, they turned down the lights, lit up the cigarettes, hit the raki bottles hard, and it went on for hours. The songs went in 3 different cycles. First were the love songs. Then came the songs about love so gone wrong that the singer’s left a drunken wreck. I swear Turks are psychotic, only happy when they’re so melancholic their eyes tear up. Songs about love and mortality, but most especially the amount and quality of pain you feel in love. Then came the heroic songs. The heroic songs were mostly from the late Ottoman and early Republic period. (He also tried to play some older songs, but the older Turkish art songs are less secular, less famous, and more complicated.) The heroic songs included war songs, mostly about the sadness and glory of sacrificing yourself for war and country and never coming home to see your parents and land again. At that time, I turned in, because it was already 3AM and there was no oxygen left in the room past the nicotine. I tried to find a bed, but every bed in the house was taken by somebody’s sleeping children or babies, so I crashed on a floor in front of a radiator, until Isik found me at 4AM – the guests were still there and awake – and cleared a bed for me.

I spent the rest of the week there and played with Kadri’s Astra 3000 Spanish gun (I’d never held a handgun before and felt nervous), old gramophone records from the late Ottoman period, and many rounds of Ping Pong with Elif’s sister. The biggest challenge of the week was in getting Kadri to sterilize his 2 cats. He’s great with toys but not much on responsibility; it’s also not “macho” to deprive your pets of their virility – but Elif was relentless and persuasive, and we dragged him and the cats to the shelter. T.A.P. also took us to the new Antalya mall, where he bought us more gifts, including a Braun food processor. He got me a Nokia cell phone, my first ever, thus making me a real Turk. I love the thing – it’s small, the sound quality is fine, it has video games, you can chat and surf the web and leave text messages and call-forward with it. I programmed its ring to play “Istanbul Not Constantinople,” to my own amusement. It works with a Hazir Kart, a small chip that you buy for $5 that gives you a phone number and 10 minutes of calling time, and you can bring in the phone anywhere to buy more minutes as you need them.

We got to meet the Ozdil sisters – one, a woman composer and the other, the first woman conductor in Turkey’s history. Elif talked with the conductor, and me with the composer – Elif will do a concert with the conductor. The composer studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London and also under Messaien and Henze! We even got to meet with Nursen Mazici, the first speaker to appear in COUP; she was unrecognizable, as she apparently hadn’t cut her hair since we made the film.

A couple of nights ago, a vanful of five Jandarmes showed up at Kadriville looking for Isik at 10:30 PM. This freaked out the Savas clan a little; when they came, we weren’t home (we were in their winter apartment on the Mediterranean at the time), but the Duacam guards called us to let us know what was up. After an hour and a half of calling the mayor and all of Kadri’s contacts, it turned out that it was a traffic ticket that the mail had returned to sender, and the Jandarmes were coming to deliver it in person.

It was snowing in Antalya in Duacam as we were boarding the bus to go back to Istanbul, a very, very bad sign. Before we left the apartment, the BBC news anchor said, in a nice British accent, that an “unusual unremitting air pattern” was coming down from Siberia and that if you’re in Turkey, “good luck.” The day before, Istanbul was shut down completely, cars were not allowed on the road, schools were closed, and thousands of villages were stranded. Our bus journey back took 16 hours. The roads were completely unplowed, and the mountainous regions over which we traveled were both beautiful and terrifying. Every few miles, we were pulled over by police to make us (literally us – the passengers got out and helped, as all Turks have to pitch in) put on chains or take them off. Once we had to push the bus out of the snow. Cars were piled up like Calder mobiles; the news reveals that 50 were killed and 45 more were injured in traffic accidents in the storm.

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Bribing our way to our belongings

We spent days at the docks trying to claim our belongings that we shipped from America. Our first step was to go to the Mega Shipping office to get our Ordinals and pay them for forms. The office looked exactly like its counterpart in Secaucus, NJ – same Ataturk pictures, same cubicles, same women with great bodies and fish faces. This time, Elif’s stepfather Cos finally hooked us up – his friend is the retired former-director of Istanbul’s whole import-export shipping operation! So we went from Mega Shipping to meet with him at the docks.

We stopped in the dock’s café for some tea and it was a genuine Turkish coffeehouse – Elif was the only woman in the place. I walked up to the kitchen to order, and the g

Bosphorus Bridge in Istanbul, Turkey, at night...
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uy told me to sit down; a Kurd caught my accent immediately and yelled at the waiter, “We have guests from Germany, what are you making them wait for?” Then I was beckoned to sit with the Kurd, and I ended up at a full table of characters who were too shy to talk with me but sat there grinning. So I talked with them. The Kurd was from Kars, which we visited 2 years ago, and they couldn’t believe that we went there. Then he said (after I told him we were American), “So, the bombs got you scared there?” And I said, well, yes, and he said something which roughly translates as “I fucking hate those stinking Arabs and I’d like to stick bombs up that faggot Bin Laden’s nose and blow up his asshole!” – which got the whole place laughing and shouting in agreement. They all paid for the tea and one of them gave me their card and said that if we ever got our stuff out of shipping (what did that mean?), they’d deliver it to our house for only 40 bucks.

We met Cos’ director friend, who whisked us inside the building by the docks, and I’d never seen anything like it in my life. He was regarded as I suppose Mickey Mantle would be if he were suddenly to come back to life and walk in front of Yankee Stadium. All sorts of boys sprang to his attention, following him everywhere, all at our service. Mehmet, get this xeroxed. You there, get this stamp. We followed him and his new entourage up the stairs, down the hall, down to the basement, then up, around the back, and past a starving attack dog.

The whole time we were at the docks getting our belongings, everyone got paid for the requisite signatures and stamps, while joking about how little has changed since Ottoman times.  The Ottoman empire was so far-flung that it required a huge bureaucracy to run it, which encouraged corruption. Until the 1980’s, bribery was an unspoken dirty fact of Turkish life, but during the happy times of Reagan and Thatcher, Prime Minister Ozal, privatizing everything and turning Turkey into a “Little America,” went on TV and issued an open welcome to bribery. Under the “greed is good” rubric, Ozal said, “My government worker knows how to take care of himself; the government is not rich enough to pay you guys, so you guys take care of yourselves.”

Dilek constantly has problems with bribery in the courts; Bakirkoy, where her office is located, is famous with its corruption. Everything needs stamps, or at least notification that something arrived in your dossier, and the clerks, the schedulers, the secretaries, and even the stenographers need to be greased. If you don’t tip people in the Bakirkoy courts, they won’t do anything for you and even will make it hard on you in the future. Dilek much prefers Sirkeci, where they accept tips but usually won’t punish you if they don’t get them. But even there, the judges think it’s harmless because the people earn so little, but it changes the whole psychology of the judicial system.

So as long as we kept the money flowing, the first 15 stamps our paperwork needed were acquired effortlessly – albeit with a lot of running around – but then things started to go wrong. One door containing an important stamp needed a passcode, which was only known by one woman, who was “yok” – not there, not existent. So the director said to us, let’s do lunch. Turns out the director now has his own shipping business on the side which makes great use of his government connections – which is why everyone was snapping to his attention. His office for the new business looked nothing like the grimy Russian-esque offices at the docks – it was a real Turkish old-boys’ club. The office had a sauna, a barbecue on a balcony overlooking the Bosphorus, and an old villagewoman slave who created some magical eastern witchcraft in the kitchen, preparing some of the most amazing beans for lunch I’d ever had. We and ate and joked, then we sat on their leather couches as and they smoked, and smoked, and drank coffee. It was like Turkey in Elia Kazan’s “America, America.”

We got back to the docks and the passcode woman showed up, but then another problem came up – our inventory stated that we had CD’s, which could be seen as carrying propaganda (pro-Kurdish; pro-Islamic), which might mean that our belongings would get sent to Ankara for inspection, which might uncover our COUP films, which would be a mess. So we had to rewrite the inventory from scratch, which wasn’t a big deal, but then another disaster struck – Elif’s identification shows nothing saying that she ever entered this country. It turns out that when Passport Control let us in at the airport, they looked at our cats and said “Cute kittens!” and didn’t check the paperwork; they said “Eniste! Eniste!” to me (meaning I was now welcome into Turkey as their “Brother-in-law!”) – but they forgot, in all their excitement, to stamp Elif’s passport. So now we couldn’t get critical Stamp Number Nineteen to get our stuff at the docks.

We called the airport, and her mother Dilek has to go to the airport to get a paper saying Elif entered the country. Normally Elif would have to do it, but Elif’s stepfather Cos is a judge, so they waived that, but there was no way we were going to get our stuff by the end of the day. So our Former-Director-of the-Whole-Shebang guide took us to the final gate of this castle, the boat itself. It wasn’t unloaded yet, and there was a huge crowd. He gladhanded his way to the current big cheese, backslapping one guy (“Hey, you walk gracefully for a Kurd!”) and shouting at another old chum (“You animal you, what’s a monkey like you gonna do with that fancy computer!”). I really believe that someday we will be able to get our worldly possessions off the boat, but not until after the new year. It’s not for nothing that the Turkish word for “apply” (as in “fill out an application for something”) is “basvurmak,” which means “to hit your head” (“bas” – head; “vurmak” – to hit)! It’s said that most people who ship stuff to Turkey from Europe end up abandoning it after trying to claim it after a week.



I contracted a case of the dread Siberian Flu, which meant that Elif and her mom had to go down to the docks to get our stuff from shipping without me.  I felt terrible for them, as it sounds like it was much less fun than we had the first day we went down to the docks. They spent the whole day almost knee-deep in snow and slush, freezing, while they collected about 15 more signatures. It’s a fluke that this week Istanbul has colder weather than anywhere else in Turkey, including Samsun and all the places in the middle of the country that ought to be around zero degrees by now. Elif and Dilek also had the fun experience of not having a bathroom anywhere nearby – for men or for women. (When the workers there had requested one, a government official came and said, “Well, what have you been doing until now?”, and they said, “Walking outside and peeing against a wall,” and the guy said, “OK, you can continue doing that.”) This time, the main inspector decided that he indeed would open our stuff, which would mean they’d find the 200 copies of E’s CD and dozens of copies of our film COUP, all of which might be sent to Ankara for inspection, which would not be a good thing.  So Elif’s mother Dilek called Cos, who called his former-head-of-the-whole-operation friend, who called the current head-of-the-whole-operation, who called the head inspector and told him not to inspect our stuff.  But the current head inspector had to prove to all of his lackeys and syncophants and workers that he couldn’t be intimidated or circumvented, so he ordered a random opening of six of our boxes that weren’t marked “CD’s,” which was performed on the spot, although no one was to really look inside.  One of his “interns” was sucking up to him, imploring him to open them all and do a thorough inspection, to show off how diligent he was. Later, the same guy was sucking up to Elif and Dilek asking if he could help (for money, was the implication) them to load the belongings onto the truck.  Elif did let the guy help, but got herself lost when it came time to pay him. Finally, one of the labor-union (read: mafia) truck drivers (who muscle the action away from other hopeful workers) drove our stuff to our apartment. Elif and Dilek helped load the truck, and our belongings arrived at the very end of the day; I’d spent the whole day in a horizontal position, my head spinning from the dread Siberian Flu.

The next day, I tried to fix Dilek’s computer – the video card was turning the screen to black 5 minutes after starting it up – but it was dead. So Cos mentioned the problem to a “friend” on the sea bus (the fast Dutch boat which goes from Europe to Asia in 20 minutes) and lo and behold, the friend takes Dilek’s 486 to “repair” it, deems it totalled, and gives the judge a new P3-667 as a “gift.” Dilek is incredibly angry, because she knows it’s a bribe in the hopes of getting special service from Cos later, but it’s a fait accompli. Dilek then demanded her old computer back so she could at least try to get Elif’s emails from America off of it, which have sentimental value, but the old computer had been thrown away. Dilek cried all night, which made Cos wish he hadn’t been born – which placed Cos’ wishes, finally, in accord with those of Elif.

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Folkloric dancing (with knives)

Turkish Q Keyboard layout
Image via Wikipedia

When we were making COUP last year, everyone was typing on typewriters with carbon paper – and now, I’m seeing computers everywhere. Elif’s mom acquired this computer through a trade with a client.  It has no CD-ROM and no modem.  I rearranged the keyboard for her by popping out the keys with a screwdriver to match the Turkish keyboard layout that she’s used to (instead of QWERTY it’s FGGIO.  The “I” sounds like the the “OO” in “good,” as opposed to the I, which sounds like “EE”; the G is silent and lengthens the vowel that comes before it).  (I also installed the US-Dvorak setting on her Microsoft Word program for myself to type on.)

Elif’s 10-year-old cousin Tunc now has a cell phone when his father is continually having to call Elif’s mother to borrow money to cover the rent. (On the bright side, Tunc has instant pocket access to all his friends and sports scores via satellite.) Dilek tried to talk him into getting rid of it, but it’s more than a means of communication; it’s a status-symbol: Tunc doesn’t want to be the only boy in his school unable to pick up the phone when it rings to rebalance his stock portfolio or to report to the hospital to perform surgery on a patient. Actually, it seems that the whole town has a cell phone habit. Istanbullians carry them at their belts and whip them out like scimitars, ready to dial at an instant’s provocation. People too illiterate to read the better newspapers are happily punching in keys to play the latest videogames on their phones. They don’t have displays this fancy in the U.S. Dilek’s friend Senay, an attorney who is constantly sued for mishandling clients’ funds to pay her rent, has two cell phones. When they haven’t rung in awhile, I see her calling herself, from one to the other, to check that they’re working.

As Turkey makes the leap into modernity, it doesn’t always have the infrastructure to support it. The Internet is a prime example – many Turkish sites are overloaded with people trying to access limited bandwidth; many government sites have beautiful Flash movies on their homepages although most people’s old computers on dial-up connections can’t play them at all. Turk Telekom‘s Internet has one phone support person – the same guy who handles the billing; and signing up for access requires going to their offices, waiting on a line, and filling out forms in triplicate. But that hasn’t stopped everyone from signing up who can afford to do so. This morning, on Dilek’s slow dial-up (she changed Internet companies – she’s now on; “kolay” means “easy” in Turkish but pronounced almost like “E. coli!”), we waited a half hour for her computer to download an email attachment. The file turned out to be a video of a guy in an office beating another guy over the head with his computer keyboard, which is what I wanted to do to the guy who sent the email (Elif’s mother’s friend’s daughter’s husband).

In truth, Elif’s mom probably doesn’t have much use for a computer, but we’re teaching her how to use it anyway. Elif’s father, on the other hand, has compelling needs for real processing power. We just received a call to help him through a technical crisis: somehow “certain” shortcuts and links had “taken over” Elif’s half-sister Eylul’s computer, and the girl was due home from school in an hour. I asked him, laughing, what kind of site was it, and he hemmed and hawed, and I asked, “Was it something like” and he said yes. I then talked him through clearing his cache, purging his history folder, deleting the cookies and offline and temporary files and desktop and start-menu shortcuts. Then I softly suggested that he might do better with pay-per-view on Satellite TV, if his tastes ran more toward the mainstream. It sounded like he was taking notes while we talked.

Despite the joys found on a computer monitor, the main show is still in the living room: once Dilek and Elif’s aunts turn on the television, I’m hooked. The news is always fun. When they can’t get journalists to cover an event or if they can’t secure footage, they’ll just sit at their desk and read newspapers aloud into the camera. If they can get the footage, though, it can be pretty hardcore – last week they showed a stoning in Iran; tonight, it’s bloody bodies coming out of a traffic accident in Konya. Other top stories on the news of late include:

– Locals here celebrating the Galatasaray soccer team’s victory abroad against a Spanish team – a mob of people was carrying an 8-foot giant down the street on their shoulders.
– A Fenerbahce football fan who, after watching his team lose an easy regular-season game, drank a liter of chlorine and died.
– A parliamentarian’s nephew’s wife, who, fed up with being sold by her husband into prostitution, stood on the street outside the presidential hall wearing only her underwear. They covered her up and dragged her away, but the reporters followed her car like Princess Diana’s paparazzi to the police station, then to the psychiatrist’s. All the while the news station kept intercutting closeups in slo-mo of her half-naked body on the street. They showed a video of hers (she once had been an arabesque singer) in its four-minute entirety, superimposed over which was the clip of her in her underwear being taken in by the cops.

The news ended and the aunts allowed me to channel-surf. Unlike in America, most people on television here (if it’s not a religious program or the news) are laughing and dancing. Most of the sets look like a parody of public access television. Right now, they’re showing the flatulent hero Gas-Man; a variety show featuring the pop sensation Tarkan, a belly dancer, and a transvestite; a political satire film from the 1960’s; a religious program; a show featuring a talking head expounding on Socialist philosophy; and a music video program hosted by a woman wearing less clothing than the women in the videos. There’s actually a nice amount of nudity on TV, which is surprising given the religious bent of the country. Tonight one channel would even have shown the 80’s American sex-tease film Private School. I say “would have,” because the channel today is only broadcasting the following message: “Because on February 2-5 on our news program we said a man was guilty when he was only allegedly guilty, the government has forced us to close down programming for the day.” Another channel is off the air because they couldn’t pay their Satellite bills, and it says so right there.

Elif came in and switched the channel to one showing a group of five male dancers from Erzurum. They performed two dances: the first was a line dance with their arms around each other; the second involved hopping up and down and thrusting knives in each others’ faces. Absolutely beautiful. According to Elif: “The people of Erzurum are not merely macho, but they’re famed for being clear-hearted, the first to fight for their country in a revolt.” She continued: “Last year in an international folkloric dance competition in Stockholm, the group from Erzurum made a mistake and slashed up the face of one of its members during the dance. They continued on as if nothing happened, and then they took their bows. The crowd was horrified and screaming. Finally, the injured man, bleeding profusely, announced that he doesn’t mind bleeding because he is proud of his blood, and that red is the color of his country’s flag. The group won the gold.”

Uh oh, right now they’re showing a cock fight from the Antilles and I think I’m going to be sick. Quick, someone change the channel so I can see some more transsexuals dancing.

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The overzealous gynecologist

Artistic depiction of belly dancing
Image via Wikipedia

Last night, we went to a lawyer’s/judges banquet at an all-night Greek drinking pub. I worried about corruption issues, but again, Elif says it’s the clerks and not the judges who get free meals from the lawyers. The evening featured much celebration and belly-dancing. A top criminal judge was seven sails to the wind and incoherent, but extremely foul-mouthed. A Greek singer so inspired the attorneys that several ordered empty plates for the occasion from the waiter, which they stacked 10-high in their hands and then used another plate to smash them down the stack (like a fork would cut into a pancake platter), leading to several bloody hands. Some people, not able to afford plates or not wanting bloody hands, popped balloons in celebration instead. The husband of one of Dilek’s friends Muazzez was also there; he’s a gynecologist. He found out that Muazzez, his second wife, was pregnant; not wanting the cost or hassle of having children with her, he told her that the fetus was dead inside her, and he purposely miscarried her. During the operation, he discovered a lump and did the surgery; she suffered much pain, went to another hospital and they gave her the right post-op medication; she then discovered that the fetus was indeed healthy when her husband aborted it. Oh, and it turns out he hits Muazzez too. Dilek finally tells them that maybe it’s a good idea that they separate.