Bazaar in Urfa

The next morning we saw Urfa, and it was like having left the country – very middle-east; little Turkish spoken; Kurdish and Arabic; covered women; men wearing baggy pan

Traditional mud brick houses shaped like beehi...
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ts. First impression is how beautiful it all is. There’s a wonderful section of narrow streets with medieval houses with lattice-windowed overhangs; over the doors were pictures signifying which houses had members who went on Hajj (to Mecca). But the surprise was how welcoming the place was, rare for such a religious area. An elementary school principal spotted us on the street and insisted we come in and drink smuggled Syrian tea with him. When we finally escaped from his school, we went to Abraham’s Cave (Hz. Ibrahim Magalar), where Abraham supposedly was born and spent his first ten years hiding from the local Assyrian tyrant Nemrut. Both Jewish and Muslim texts have Abraham living here and being told by God to take his family to Canaan. Since he’s also considered a Muslim prophet, the entrances to the cave were separated, Elif had to cover her head, people were bowing down in there quite vigorously, and it stank.

From there we crossed to Golbasi, a park with two mosques and three pools loaded with carp (Balikligol). The story is this: Abraham came out of his cave and then defied King Nemrut, trying to smash the idols in the local temple. This irked Nemrut to no small degree, and he slingshotted (or threw) Abe from the columns of the castle (Mancinik) into a fire below. But God wasn’t going to sit by and let all this go unnoticed, so He turned the flames into water and the firewood into carp. By the water, a girl wearing a Mickey Mouse shirt asked us if we would convert to Islam. Elif had a nice talk with her, telling her that if the were super-nice to foreigners they’d appreciate how great Muslims were.

From there we went to Urfa’s Kapalipazari/Bitpazari, the bazaars, where I snapped roll after roll of pictures of people. Isik (E’s stepmother) and Elif bought traditional eastern headcoverings from a very old man, who was very nice and showed them how to wrap them on, but asked Isik, “Do they all dress as open as you in Istanbul?” Isik: “Even more so.” Old guy: “But aren’t you all afraid of the other world?” Elif: “No, because our hearts are pure.” Everyone was very, very nice to me. A bunch of kids selling tobacco made me sit down and smoke it with them. Two men playing Turkish dominoes made me come over and play a game with them. (Pieces move like a chess rook rather than a chess bishop, which confused the hell out of me, along with other rules.) Everyone loves Ibrahim Tatlises, a Turkish superstar from Urfa who is the godfather of arabesque but now sings folk songs; he’s so tied in with the mafia that he’s basically the Turkish Frank Sinatra. One of the domino players confessed to me that he plays tapes of Tatlises every night and cries to them. I’ve seen Tatlises concerts on TV, where you can spot audience members cutting their arms with razor blades. Anyway, I was having lots of fun. I tried on baggy pants, which didn’t look good on me at all, but E looked great in them and bought a pair. We bought a rug made out of sweat – you lay the wool in a hamam and lots of Mustafas dive on top of them, flattening them out to their current design – which will hang on our wall. I went into the cave where the wool was spun, but only for a second to snap off some photos, as any longer would have given me black lung disease. And we all drank meyan koku from a guy walking around selling it from a bagpipe-like bladder strapped on his back, with holders for glasses, which he cleaned by dipping them in water; meyan koku is made out of some root and tastes like bitter earth, horrible really, but has an aftertaste sweeter than sasparilla. We bought some root; the recipe: 250 grams koku, 2 liters water, 1 tsp. baking soda, dash bit cinnamon; wait; strain. We also drank mirra, a local espresso that tasted like strong and burnt coffee gone sour. To make it, use ½-ground coffee, boil for ½ hour, let cool for ½ hour, and skim the top.

We drove 45km southeast to Harran, where they have these amazing wood-less gumdrop beehive-style houses. Abraham (unlike George Washington and Edgar Allen Poe) slept there on the way from Urfa to Canaan. It’s one of the oldest settlements on earth and looks like it must have looked 6000 years ago; Arabs and Kurds smuggling sheep from the Syrian border 10km to the south. When we arrived, children came from everywhere to be our guides. There was no getting rid of them. They had a minaret of Ulu Cami, built in the 700’s; a Crusader fortress from the 11th century; an astronomy kulesi tower; and a Harran Universitesi arch. It was all gone and abandoned, like a lot of the stuff near Armenia. One of the girls begging and following and being our “guide” was so strikingly beautiful, it was like that National Geographic girl from Afghanistan years ago. I wasted a half roll trying to get her picture; she was very shy. One beehive house had an Arab with 14 children, and the Arab had lots of Arabic costumes, which we put on in the amazing heat and played dress-up and took pictures of each other. Here’s Kadri and me, looking like stern semitics: bonding.

(People I played dominoes with in Urfa: Mahmut C*akalli* and Yusuf Usul,

East to the Syrian border

After three days at Elif’s father’s house in Antalya, swimming and eating as if on a beached cruise ship, Kadri announced that we’d be going east to Nemrut Dag, as if it were a surprise: what the hell else were we going to do there for 15 days? He’d already taught me some pantomime, took us to a village without running water so they could show Elif how to make Gozleme (kindof like a pizza), brought us to the mall, and ran out of ideas. He made up a list of rules for the car: it’s a democracy, and everyone gets one vote on what to see, and no whining (aimed at Eylul, who’s at the age – 12 – where everything seems funny and nothing seems interesting). I added one rule: that everybody should talk ten percent nicer to their spouses than they feel like doing, which was aimed at Kadri, who, in our presence, likes to point out to his wife that she’s basically a simpleton. Sitting threesome in the back of the car made me feel like we were all brothers and sisters, not a romantic holiday but a necessity when you’ve got such a practical SUV that seats and holds about as much as a small sedan.

We got to Alanya and arrived at the red castle; I asked to go up and was immediately outvoted, which was a fine thing, as I didn’t really want to go up it at all; I used the trick that every child eventually learns when manipulating their parents: ask for a red herring, let them deny it, and then get the thing you really want later. (Take me to the Syrian border, mommy!) So we headed inland from Silifke through the tombed runs of Demirci, where we bought fresh pistachios. While Turks love their fresh nuts, I find that fresh almonds, walnuts, etc. are more tasteless than dried – but what have we here? Pistachios turn out to be a happy, happy exception: they taste like full-out pistachios, mixed with a taste of fresh coconut – yum!

We stopped off at the ruins of Olba (now called Ura), where villagers were milking goats and let us milk them – at the foot of the acropolis, whose stones were being taken and used for their abodes. Uzuncaburc had a small Roman theatre off the side of the road, as well as a monumental gateway, going through which leads you into a surprisingly-intact colonnaded street with a few small ruined temples and a high tower. We drank kenger kahvesi (diken azmani), coffee made from acanthus, some roasted grain; it tasted like Nescafe and had a nutty aftertaste.

From there we headed to Narlikuyu to see the Caves of Heaven and Hell (Cennet ve Cehennem). Cennet Deresi, Heaven, is a 70m deep gorge that you enter, paradoxically, by descending 452 steps cut into the rock. At the entrance is the Chapel of the Virgin Mary, a very cute Byzantine church bui

The man-made peak of Mount Nemrut with statues...
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lt over the former Temple of Zeus. The “steps” down were slippery muddy things, and everyone was falling on their asses; I only fell on my hands. We were well-dressed, having no idea what we were in for. At the bottom was the Cave of Typhon, with a running stream. We arrived back up and a few happy rednecks told everyone who would listen that they never would have fallen going down or up. Then we went to Hell, Cehennem Deresi, which, paradoxically, you have to walk uphill to get to, but once you get there, there’s a platform, and you step out onto it and look into a deep, scary hole. Last thing we saw there was Asthma Cave, which had 200 meters of subterranean halls with stalactites and stalagmites that rivaled Howe Caverns but barely rates a mention in Turkish guidebooks – this country never ceases to fascinate me. No guided tours, but it did have a spiral staircase down that smelled like sweat and a guy at the bottom hawking photos.

Heading east, we went to Antakya, which is the site of ancient Antioch. By the 2nd century BC it had a half-million, but like so much else in the region, it was sacked, suffered earthquakes, was abandoned, and passed into the French after WWI, who only had it for a few years but that’s a good thing, because they built some fine-looking buildings (the prettiest of which is now a porno theater). They had a spectacular archeological museum with a huge collection of Roman mosaics, many were from Greek mythology; our guide Elif explained them to us. Antakya also had Sen Piyer Kilisesi, the cave church of St. Peter, a small little nothing; Peter was in Antioch between AD 47 and 54 and set up one of the world’s first Christian communities, and may have even preached from this hole. We ate at the Sultan Sofrasi, a wonderful place where we had Tantuni (dried meat and salad in pita) and Bumbar (intestines filled with rice). They had a book with the region’s recipes, poems, folklore, and songs; a guy autographed his picture in it for me.

Kadri wanted to go to Gaziantep, which was ugly as hell, but I did get to eat Sobiyet and Bulbul, both (especially the former) the best baklava dishes I’d ever had. From there we drove to Urfa, my favorite of all. Urfa’s now called Sanliurfa, “Glorious Urfa,” for its resistance to the French invasion and occupation of 1918-20. We took a public bus to a hotel Kadri found. On the bus, a local was having far too much fun ogling our women; Kadri, first off the bus, made a nice point of bashing into his shoulder; Eylul kneed his leg; and I, not having seen any of this, was last off; the guy yelled at me as I passed, “You bunch of bears!” and I had not a clue why. The hotel was the Gulizar Konukevi, a real palace, and Kadri and I signed in and walked around, bonding, taking pictures of the glorious courtyard, of the hamam, standing on the beautifully-restored roof, marveling at our perfectly-decorated Ottoman rooms with the beds on the floor and rugs all over the walls. You can imagine how surprised I was to hear Elif emerge from the room and proclaim, “It’s a shithole.” “Why is it a shithole, Elif?” “Where’s the bathroom?” Let’s see…no, that’s a closet…no, another mini closet…oops, it’s a shared Turkish squat-toilet downstairs across the courtyard. “Where’s the shower?” Let’s see…inside the hamam… Sometimes guys forget that having a private bath is a make-or-break for people who cannot do their ablutions in a shared space. What it all meant was that Elif, Eylul, and Isik would not be able to poop that night.

We were to have no such problems later in the trip, however.

A perfect day

Looking into the Golden Horn from the Bosphoru...
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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.

A unique brand of Islam

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.)

Slaughtering my cat

View on the Anatolian side of ?stanbul from He...
Image via Wikipedia

We went away with Dilek and Cos for two days to a Greek island near Gallipoli. The last thing you want to do is go in a car with a Turk when you’re not setting the itinerary, as you’d better be prepared for an interminable drive to some nothing place with the promise there of the “good life” and relaxation, and that’s exactly the situation I found myself in. We got back on March 2nd and came home to our apartment to find our 4-year-old cat Sara’s tail was broken – it was just dragging from the 4th joint below her butt.

The next morning, we took her to the Saskinbakkal Clinic nearby, next door to an amazing pet store where you can buy exotic animals from all over the world. Great place to go if you want to buy a pet toucan for around $3,000 (they had about a dozen), or just to hang out at a mini-zoo. Anyway, the vet x-rayed it and said it was dislocated, possibly from a strange fall from somewhere in our apartment (she loved to jump on and off of high places, get stuck behind hampers or TV sets, etc). He anesthetized her, giving her Rompin/Zilozine, pushed her tail back into place, and said we could take her home an hour later. She looked really out of it, but the doctor said she’d be drowsy for awhile. Well, a few hours later, she was completely nonresponsive on our floor. We called the doctor, who told us sometimes it takes longer and not to worry. An hour later we called our old vet in America who said this was very bad and to bring her somewhere else. The vet also said that Rompin is more often given to cows.

We brought her to the Anatolia Hayvan Hastanesi, who also said not to worry. We had to literally force them to take her temperature, which was 34.5C. Then they were worried. They put her on serums, cortizone, and antibiotics and I was hearing phrases like “if she makes it through the night.” Apparently she wasn’t metabolizing the downers as fast as she should (perhaps from somehow having small organs from being malnourished as a kitten on Heybeliada four years ago?); in addition, they said she’s anemic, which they only blood-test for when giving full anaesthesia. We stayed with her till midnight and left her there; at 2AM we called, and her temperature was up and she was more alert. The vet asked if we wanted to leave her at the hospital last night or take her home, and I said, sounding much like my father and without any particular charm, “I don’t care if she stays at former Prime Minister Bulent Ecevit’s place as long as the end result is that I wake up in the morning with a live cat.” At 8AM we picked her up and she looked like herself (but very groggy).

And then my cat returned to her normal self, jumping around, eating tuna, the usual. Except for one thing: by March 9, her tail was still crooked and swollen at the dislocation, and she cried when I touched it. So we took her into a different vet that was recommended, the Center Veterinary Clinic. They X-rayed her and shaved her tail at the dislocated area, gave us a cream to put on the tail, and then wrapped a gauze around it. The doctor told us to put a drop of cream on the tail at the spot once a day and to reapply the same gauze. We did what he said; the cat always ripped the gauze off with her teeth and groomed herself including the site, and seemed to suffer no ill effects; she was playful all week.

On the 13th at night was she not playful, and she laid down on the floor tile instead of the bed. We woke up on the 14th to find white vomit all over the house. We took her to the vet, and bloodwork showed that she had extremely high uric acid in the blood, no urine in the bladder, lots of feces in the large intestine: renal failure. (I do not like the word renal, as it always precedes failure.) I asked if it could have been caused by the cream, and the doctor said that it shouldn’t be a problem at that small dose; that the cat had been licking it and playing for a week with no evidence of problems during the week; and that it was probably organ damage from two weeks before when she was so cold for so many hours (at 34.5C) with low oxygenation of her organs from the anaesthetic. I called the vet who did the original anasthetic, who said it couldn’t be that, because she was fine for 10 days afterward, and said that the cat may have had internal problems anyway which made her overreact to the Rompin and that’s why she reacted so bad to the Naproxen, and that it was “just her time.” I paid $106 for the bloodwork, left my cat there, and went home to research what could have caused this.

At home, I looked up the cream on the web and found out that it’s Naproxen, a NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammitory drug) that is safe for humans (sold as Aleve in the US) but is highly toxic for cats; it causes gastric ulceration and hemorrhages, and kidney failure in cats. When I rushed back to the clinic with a printout of the information I had found on the Internet, he read it, said “Oh my God,” and then attempted the exact course of action recommended by the Naproxen Poisoning page in an attempt to save my cat. She died at 5PM. Elif buried her in her aunt Ilknur’s backyard.

We called the vet licensing board, who told us that there was nothing they could do. It turns out that a second veterinary opinion is illegal in Turkey as per Federal Law 6343 of 3/9/54 establishing the Licensing Board of the Turkish Veterinary Doctors Association. According to Section 29 (amended 3/4/84), “Any veterinarian who gives an opinion against another veterinarian, or participates in such an action as such, is eligible to be charged at the Association’s Disciplinary Committee.” So we called Sabah, a very large Turkish newspaper, who ran an article on the story. Then the veterinary review board, who blew us off before, now started calling the vets involved. One vet threatened to sue Elif, who told him she would be thrilled for him to speak with her mother the attorney and stepfather the judge, which made him scream and curse a lot on the phone before hanging up. Another doctor pretty much apologized. Elif’s mom is scared we might get hurt somehow by angry retaliatory vets, but after making Coup, I’m not afraid of the cat doctor mafia.

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Teaching Mesut Pektas

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

– Fenerbahce?

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

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Overcrowded courts

Bat Phone
Image by Thomas Hawk via Flickr

The economic crisis is really affecting the courts, and there’s a great shortage of judges, lawyers, even courtrooms. Elif’s stepfather Cos is working longer hours than an investment banker, because his caseload is so thick. I see him still working at 1AM, poring over cases with the television on in the background – he does around 80 a day. He enjoys it, but a lot of it is new to him; he’s always done labor law and now he’s doing a little of everything. Elif’s mother (an attorney) helps him when she finishes her own cases. Although they’re wired up with new technology – including a new computer, scanner, laser printer, and a cell phone whose ringer plays the Fenerbahce football team song – when they work on their cases, they still use manual typewriters and carbon paper.

We were visiting relatives yesterday when Cos’s Bat-phone went off, which means he has to go into work RIGHT NOW. So we all go in the car and go a great distance to the area near his court, which is in a terrible district of Istanbul, Avcilar, still not much repaired since the 1999 earthquake, apartment house after apartment house abandoned and bombed out.

We went up the stairs in the dark and got a cop to turn the lights on for us, and we waited for the prosecutor to arrive. The office has a leather backdrop behind the desk, with an Ataturk picture above it, everyone commenting on how nice this particular pose of Ataturk was. Cos turns on the boombox marked “INCREDIBLE SOUND” and drops in what appears to be his favorite tape – he has it memorized and sings along – “Hooked on Classics.” The prosecutor arrives, smoking a cigar, laughing about the cases to come. Cos tries on his black and green robe that looks masonic, and then we go downstairs. I go with Cos and turn on my microcassette recorder in case something interesting happens. Down a corridor past criminals and suspects awaiting their fate. I peeked in Cos’s courtroom, which looked like something out of the film “Brazil” – file cabinets piled seven rows high full of pink dossiers containing the details of every conceivable crime, lining 3 walls. In front of the judge’s desk, a manual typewriter and sheets of carbon paper. But Cos was to hear cases in a different office, not his courtroom, for his emergency duty calls for him to do the weekend pretrial cases – to decide whether there’s enough evidence to arrest the suspect, and to see whether the confessions made and signed were coerced. He dons a red robe for this task.

The first case was a group of gypsies who stole a wallet out of a woman’s backpack at a grocery store – he arrests one and frees the others.

Then came a group of car thieves, whom Cos had to question one at a time, and bring them in and out for each separate charge. Again, one got arrested, the others freed.

The first case we saw from the beginning was of a guy caught stealing a car, a TV, a computer, and cigarettes. The defendant is charged with more crimes; Cos reads from the police report. The defendant is asked if he agrees, to make sure his statement to the police wasn’t coerced. The defendant says that he was beaten. Each time the defendant says a word, Cos rephrases it as a long sentence, and a female stenographer types it as if it comes from the defendant. Apparently this is normal. Cos let him go; they don’t have enough evidence that he knew what was stolen. Cos calls in the next defendant for the same case, asking him about the charges one by one.

Defendant 2: “Three people went, Sinan broke the door of the house, I waited in the car, Serhan was on the driving seat. We were drunk. It was 3 AM. Sinan left the items in front of the door, and I carried them to the car. It was a stolen car, and once we lost the tire, and we abandoned it. Serhan and Sinan stole it. I quit stealing. I was drunk. I’ve got psychological problems. Serhan said, “Let’s go stealing, and I’ll give you money to pay to lessen your army service requirements.” They found another car. I saw them steal the car. I was scared. We also stole stuff from the second car. We left the stuff in Hasan’s house. They didn’t give me any money. I only helped, I didn’t physically do it. Ferit wasn’t there, like I said to the police. I’ve been clean for a year. The police coerced me into signing the confession. I didn’t do anything. They gave 80 million for me to sell it. I didn’t know it was stolen. Yes, the signature on the statement is mine, but I was coerced into signing.”

Cos: How could you open the locked car?

The defendant describes how to bend a car door. They took a joy ride and stole clothing, toys, and shoes from the car.

Defendant 2: I was waiting for them in a taxi while they stole the fourth car. When they told me they were going to snatch purses, I said I won’t come. (A couple of people have gotten killed in Turkey when their purses were snatched by people driving by them slowly in a car, and they were dragged to death.) But we together, went to steal the car. Let me go, I am going to the army. I beg you. I don’t know where the place is. I didn’t steal anything.

Cos has him arrested, as it turns out he’s also a fugitive; the defendant says it’s a case of mistaken identity.


Whatever Cos’s personal shortcomings, he’s a good judge on women’s issues. The next case is over child custody; a woman appears, along with a tall, thin man with a thin mustache, giving her filthy looks.

Cos: How old is the child?
Man: Four.
Cos: I don’t give custody to the man unless there’s a moral issue – if she’s doing something immoral. Now be careful what you say about moral things, because it’s your child’s mother and whatever you say here will be written forever, and the child may grow up and kill the mother – your words cause terrible things to happen and ruin lives, because it’s an honor society. You really want to give her money, enough to take care of herself and child, because she’s the mother of your child and you don’t want her to go to bad ways because she doesn’t have money, because her reputation, the mother of your child, is in your hands.
Man: She doesn’t have money or a job to take care of the child.
Cos: You can’t take the child because of that.

Cos gave them a time for the custody hearing, to which they would need to bring witnesses. When they both were leaving, the woman secretly passed Cos a note, without speaking. It read (with tons of spelling mistakes):

“Mr. Judge, I would love to say this to you face-to-face. But I can’t, or he will beat me to death. He is threatening me. In Bostanci I have a sister. I will stay with her, but he told me never to come to the European side. After getting a divorce, he won’t be able to tell me what to do. He told me last night that if I get a job in Istanbul, he will make great trouble for me. ‘I will kill you,’ he says. And he will give 50 million as a monthly alimony. Let him not give it, it’s better. If something happens to me, know that it’s from him. He has been using me (sexually) for a month and a half, saying we’ll get separated. From my home, he is not giving me anything (furniture/belongings). I am coming to your grand court for safety – I have nobody in the world. Sir Judge, my mother died, and my father got remarried. They don’t want me. My sister is a nurse. My father is telling my sister, don’t take her in because she’s going to destroy your comfort. What should I do?”


The next case is a couple around 50-60 years old getting divorced. Unlike America, judges and witnesses are expected to stick their noses into the case.

Cos: What’s wrong with you guys, you’ve been married for 30 years.
Man: Well, she’s causing me “pesevenk” (pimp). I’m a retired teacher. No one can call me that.
Cos: Don’t use language like that in my court – what kind of teacher are you?

A witness is called, who says that the couple never get along.

Cos, to witness: Have you ever tried to talk them out of a divorce and make the peace?

Cos has been seeing a lot of “fake divorce” cases lately. In Turkey, the marital unit is based more on economic practicalities; people get together because they’re of age, to have a legal child, and it’s often a bit of a business understanding: how can I find a parent for my child who won’t embarrass my family? The primary unit is vertical, and honor holds the greatest currency. Elif feels that feelings of love or of being “soulmates” aren’t necessary in Turkish society, and consequently, there’s less divorce because they’re more realistic about what to expect. Lately, however, in this economic crisis, there are more “fake” marriages (of an Anna Nicole Smith variety) and more “fake” divorces – people (Dilek has close friends who did this) who get divorced but stay together, to protect themselves from debtors.

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A tonsillectomy

I’ve been getting sick a lot lately, and every time, it seems to turn into a nasty throat infection where my tonsils swell up. I’ve had mono and strep and have been taking antibiotics every 2-3 months for my entire adult life, and enough already. I saw a doctor about it while I was living in upstate NY, but they were reticent to do anything about it, because of the cost and because adults recover slowly and painfully from tonsillectomies. But after getting sick in Antalya last month, I got a full exam, including having my sinuses inspected with a camera (which involved first having them anesthetized with a medicated foot-long Q-tip being jammed up them till I cried). The doctor was wonderful, explaining how my slightly-deviated septum on the left led to leakage causing innumerable ear infections on the right, and all the calcium there, and how the sinuses were OK to live with but my golf-ball sized trashcan tonsils really should come out as soon as I’m healthy.

Two weeks ago I went back to Elif’s mother’s best friend Mebruke, who owns a hospital, and her specialist held much admiration for my gargantuan puss-ridden tonsils, but he said they were now dangerously big, and he noticed that all the antibiotics I’d been on still had not eradicated the infection there. He put me on a regimen of more antibiotics and decongestants and antihistamines for a week and I was so knocked out from all these downers that I was looking forward to the operation, no matter how painful it would be. I decided to have it done at Mebruke’s hospital, which had modern equipment; Mebruke would even supervise the operation and people the night staff with doctors, not nurses, and would make the whole thing for next to nothing.

Last Monday was the tomography appointment next door to the hospital, which I was then to bring to my specialist (named Kemal) to see what else needed to be done with my face. Unfortunately, the tomography place had that Turkish relaxed way of doing business, meaning that they don’t take appointments and if something goes wrong, well, Maalesef (“it’s a shame; sorry.). That day their machines broke, and since we had an appointment with Kemal an hour later, we were out of luck; Elif gave them quite an earful (“How hard would it be to take down phone numbers in case something happens, you lazy…”), which embarrassed the people behind the counter in the waiting room and pleased me greatly.

We found another tomography place a couple of kilometers further into Europe, somewhere near Tehran. Burkas aren’t legal in Turkey but no one prosecutes them, especially in religious areas. While I have respect for the traditions of head-covering, I had no love for the women at the medical office, covered head to toe in black sheets, who would like nothing better than to have their children’s brains scanned with precious technology developed by the Great Satanic West which they wanted to send down into the fires of hell. I got my tomography done, chin-down on a pad, not moving for about 3 minutes while my nose dripped all over their pad, making a quick prayer to Allah that the next patient to lie on my boogers would be wearing a burka.

We brought the film to Kemal, who found the same deviated septum the Antalya specialist found last month, and showed me all details of what needed to be cut and why I’d gotten ear infections and had to use nasal sprays and had sinus problems and allergies and headaches, and that I had cysts and had to have my sinuses and nostrils scraped out, and he said he’d cut my Johnny Wadd-sized small tongue down to size so I could actually swallow food instead of quietly coughing for a half hour after every meal, and how it would all be done while I was under the same anesthesia as for the tonsillectomy, which he scheduled for Wednesday. I told my mother Tuesday night, not wanting to have to tell her after the fact (like I did after I was stabbed in Philadelphia); the conversation was strained (“I wished you’d waited till you were back in the States, but it looks like you’ve made up your mind…but I understand it needed to be done and hope it will go without a hitch…but I wish you’d waited…”)

On Wednesday, I got to the hospital at 8AM; Mebruke personally came and ordered lots of extra bloodwork to test clotting and all sorts of other special precautions for the American “eniste” (“brother-in-law”). Dilek canceled her court appearance to come. I came in I signed a waiver, with the person filling out the form, as always, writing Sila for Sheila and giggling at Marvin. I got back another form saying, “You will be in pain after the operation, and what’s more, you will swallow blood, and since your stomach cannot digest blood, you will vomit the blood, and that’s perfectly normal; sincerely yours, M. Kemal Ataturk.” Elif said that when I come out, the first thing I should think about is to breathe through my mouth as there’d be tampons in my nostrils, and that she loved me, and at 10 AM, I was wheeled into the elevator, just like ten years ago but in very different circumstances, and it all felt like a Disney ride, really. I cracked jokes as I always do in hospitals and found the operating room suitably-equipped although annoyingly bright. They gave me the shot and the anesthesiologist asked me some questions in English, to test my consciousness; I answered in Turkish; he asked again in English to show off his knowledge of English to the other doctors; I asked in Turkish about how long would it take till I was out cold; and he said, anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes; and I said, oh; and the next thing I know I’m lying in my private hospital room, in a whole lot of pain. I mean, in the country of Pain. Not in the capital city of Cancer, but probably somewhere near the suburbs of Kidney Stones, and fully subject to the region’s laws, schedules, and customs.

I missed some good stuff while I was out cold. The operation lasted 2 full hours; there were lots of problems that weren’t on the tomography, and they sewed up my uvula in a nice fancy ribbon with cow intestine which my body would absorb. Everyone was quite happy, and they revived me to tell me how happy they were and how well it went. I responded by punching and kicking everyone in sight, just to show them how grateful I was. They had to give me a tranquillizer to keep their own faces from having to be operated on. I’m told that I gave an extensive declamation which resulted in Mebruke, who’s very religious, asking, does “fuck” mean “kahretsin”? (“damn”) and Elif said no it means “sikter.” Mebruke said she’s glad she doesn’t speak English. Even with the tranquillizer, I just wanted to be in a fetal position, but that wasn’t about to happen, and when I wasn’t saying fuck, I apparently moaned it hurts over and over. I remember nothing from the first hour, not even the cartilage pieces they brought to show me per my request.

I had to stay the night; despite Ataturk’s message, I was barfing more than anyone wanted (especially me). I’d lay in agony, and then get a cold sweat, and sit up suddenly, which would make my blood pressure drop more than anyone felt happy about, and barf repeatedly and only a small hunk of throat and blood would come up, and then I’d sleep for another hour and repeat. I panicked during my third barfing, saying it was enough barfing already and that despite what Ataturk said I was not all right, but all the doctors-not-nurses checked my pulse and the machines and said it was all right, and they gave me some nice oxygen to make me believe the same, and Elif talked me through it and it was indeed all right, but Mebruke, who was supposed to then have her one day off in like a year, decided at 3AM to drive back to the hospital and supervise, and she analyzed the blood work and gave me a little blood thickener and I stopped barfing, and now that’s service you don’t see every day!

So Dilek and Mebruke and Elif sat up all night and Dilek worked on her court cases (she brought her typewriter and used the hospital as an office on Thursday) and they talked philosophy while I slept and moaned and barfed, and Mebruke talked about seeing people die and souls leaving their bodies, and Elif, my lovely hardline verificationist, would have none of it, and Mebruke’s husband showed up in the middle of the night to bring flowers for me and to fight with Mebruke about the state of their marriage and how fat Mebruke is and how they haven’t slept together in 15 years.

Friends and family and clients called all night – that is, friends and family and clients of Dilek. Cos cried because my parents hadn’t called, and most of all the doctors were looking very sad about my annemler, which means parents but translates as mothers (as if the Turks had acquired a strange understanding of the Jewish-family marital relation). Everybody asked Elif if my family was aware of the operation or if they were angry at me, and she couldn’t explain that one could never know, that it could be because I downplayed the operation to them to allay their worries. My parents were champs this time in the weeks up to us moving, and dealt with my accountant and bills – even though they’ve made it plain that they’re not thrilled with me being here or approve of my having surgery here. And everyone who’d been to America agreed how wonderful the Marvins are (they didn’t say annemler because Marvins sounded a whole lot cooler). But however much I downplay it, but there are irreconcilable cultural differences, from a country like Turkey where the hosts iron your underwear and let you sleep in the master bedroom, to America, where suffering and death are sometimes viewed as annoyances and you put your elders in old age homes (if they don’t put themselves there first) and you send Russell Stovers candies to their nurses so they won’t let your loved ones get bedsores. And even if Elif could say any of this, they would never understand it, because the doctors thought that just maybe the Land of the Marvins might have let 9/11 happen to their own people if it could give them cause to take even more charge of world affairs, and what a strange place their patient was from, the hospital owner’s friend’s daughter’s husband for whom they were staying up all night.

But Elif and I were more concerned with the pieces of throat that were coming up every hour, and what I really wanted was morphine which is the best thing of all. And Mehmet came to my room when I wanted to pee and brought the pee jug and I am never good at peeing in bed and I insisted on standing, so Mehmet held my right side and Elif held my left and Fatma held my wrist to check my blood pressure. And no, I did not need Mehmet hold my dick, no, I’m not forcing the pee out, just give me a minute, could you please look that way, I won’t fall, only one other person gets to hold my dick and that person is not named Mehmet.

And sometime on Thursday they let me out after walking me around and giving me an intermuscular injection in my right buttcheek, and I went home in a taxicab, and Sumru stayed with us for two more days mostly to get away from Bilgin, which meant I got to hear the dulcet hyenic tones of Sumru’s vocal cords for two more days, but she was so helpful. And I called my dad when I got home, and when Dilek and Cos came the next day, he called, and Cos was the happiest of all because his children didn’t call him on the religious festival and didn’t come to his wedding and it is wonderful to have a family as great as mine.

Just like the barfing, which came as advertised, so came the post-op pain, 2 weeks of the worst sore throat you’ve ever had in your life, and I’m only into my fifth day of it. I can’t eat a damned thing without having to lie down for 10 minutes and count backwards from 100 again and again to take my mind off the pain, and I can eat baby food and milk and pureed vegetables and that’s about all. Every two hours I swallow one of four different baby syrups, an antibiotic and three types of painkillers, and that’s 24 hours a day, because after two hours of sleeping I’m sitting awake catching the next pain-train from hurtsburgh painsyllvania, swallowing two teaspoonfuls of some drinkme and wanting to drive the Turkish manufacturers of baby Ibuprofen syrup to Painville’s capital city myself, because what kind of sick bastard would flavor a painkiller Tangy Orange?

Friday I went back in to have the tampons taken out of my nose, which they would only do after another buttcheek muscular injection and then waiting an hour, which should have told me something. It felt as if they were pulling a cottonball, followed by a gauze pad, the New York Times, the shredded Enron documents, and finally my eyeballs, out from one nostril at a time.

I spent the weekend was spent reading and not eating because as Buddah said under the lotus tree, eating is suffering. Today Bilgin, who’s had two strokes but it only seems like four, drove me to Europe, which was like being driven by the dying old grandfather in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. This time the doctor examined my ears and liked what he saw; he stuck a Hoover vacuum all the way down each of my nostrils to suck up dried blood and meat, and then he gently shoved a coathanger covered with cortisone and medicine up each one, knowing he hit paydirt when the tears involuntarily started streaming. He seemed happy with my nose’s progress, and then he looked at my throat and was happy at his work but not at my body’s, so he put me on more medication so I’d be able to eat and get well, including twice-daily buttcheek intermuscular injections to be had before bed at any pharmacist nearby my house, and that I should come back on Thursday for more vacuuming and coathangering, selam, selam. Back in Asia I talked to Sumru and Bilgin, who drove me back and stayed for tea, and we talked forever, until I had to go out for the injection, which I didn’t mind at all, and I arrived at the pharmacist and it turned out they had to get a licensed nurse to do it, and they called up a Mehmet who shows up a couple of minutes later and he says he’d come to our house and do it for the next 3 days, which the doctor recommended, for only 75 cents a visit, which sounded fine with me until I found that his injection was s-l-o-w and deep, unlike than the sadfaced Fatma who assists Kemal back in Europe, and now my throat feels great and I had a big soft babyfood dinner but I can’t move my leg and my ass is killing me, so maybe I’ll go an additional block to a different pharmacy tomorrow and waive the housecalls.

Despite my gory descriptions, I see people in the hospital when I go there who are coming in on ambulances from car accidents, and the old woman on the first floor in my apartment who moans that she can’t even die, and I realize that even this is not bad, that I am very lucky with my body and to have all these very different people none of whom I can relate to, speaking a different language and believing weird nonsensical creationist myths, but all of whom are in some way watching out for me – Kemal and Mebruke and Elif’s family and my family and religious people people who eat Wonder Bread and people who eat pide – all making it so I will not to have to go to the hospital anymore.

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