Facing an Ottoman heritage


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Elif’s concerts with the Adana Opera

Adana City and Seyhan Lake
Image via Wikipedia


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
Image via Wikipedia


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 RottenTomatoes.com)

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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Eid ul-Adha

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

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

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

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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...
Image via Wikipedia

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 e-kolay.com; “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 turkerotica.com?” 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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Editing and releasing COUP in America

I figured that if we were going to spend months in front of computers editing the film, we didn’t need an expensive apartment in New York City to do so. We drove up Interstate 87 until we found something we loved, and we ended up in the small village of Athens, NY, north of Woodstock, in a house on 7 acres. Editing took nine months, far longer than we expected. The biggest obstacle was our equipment. We had to edit over 120 hours of footage (on dozens of DVCAM tapes) using Adobe Premiere and a RAID of hard drives totalling 80 Gigabytes. Our powerhouse Mac G-3 running at 350MHz arrived DOA, unable to power up. It was maddening. Despite the claims of Promax, the turnkey reseller, neither Adobe Premiere nor our system were able to handle what we were trying to do. We’d import footage at high compression, catalogue them, create edit decision lists, reimport them at higher quality, output those to DVCAM, and so on. At one point the hard drive failed, wiping out a week of work plus the week it took the computer to go back and forth across the country. Our files were too large to fit onto ZIP disk. We had to work on the film in pieces, since the footage would start stuttering if we did more than 15 minutes at a time. Every time we would build a small section, we would have to render it, which would take a half-hour.

In addition to the technical challenge, we also had to present a complex history of four different military coups in a way that would be neither overly reductive nor as long as “Berlin Alexanderplatz.” After our speaker Kislali got murdered, we wanted to capture what the speakers were saying and form a coherent story without imposing voice-over narration or simulated footage onto their thoughts.

We ended up with a 158-minute cut in four parts, a beautiful work. Because its length and style made it the anti-Ken Burns film, it was difficult to program. We’ve turned down requests for distribution because of the sensitive nature of the work. We did accept a $500 payment from Boyut, who signed a contract to produce a VCD/book package and then literally chickened out. We met with Aydan Zenturk, a former TV news producer, but he wanted to “cheese it up,” saying Turkish people were like children – that their tastes and Iq’s were lower than their American counterparts. In the end, COUP played at some festivals to strong reviews and continues to sell well on the Internet. It’s a film true to our intention, true to our speakers, true to the story, and I’m proud to have created it with Elif, who did an incredible job filming and assembling it.

Besides the reviews of the film, a couple of interesting items of note:

1. Google’s cache of http://www.kurdishmedia.com/news/news11_07.htm.

AKIN Office Ransacked: The Police Does Not Rule Out Hate Crime
AKIN – July 11, 2000
For Immediate Release (# 48)

The American Kurdish Information Network (AKIN), an advocacy office for Kurdish political rights in Washington, DC, was found ransacked this morning. Kani Xulam, the director of AKIN, who arrived at the scene of crime at 8:52 a.m., reported the break-in immediately. The Washington police who showed up at about 9:12 a.m. undertook a through investigation. After about an hour, the police officers questioned Kani Xulam about the possibility of a hate crime and wanted to know if he had ever been threatened…The police officers noted that the burglars usually go for the valuables, but here, there seems to be open hatred directed towards the property. He went on to say, “The broken door and destroyed book shelves certainly give one this impression. In addition, thrashing the place in this manner is not the way intruders who seek valuables operate.”…One of the missing items was a VCR with a copy of videotape called COUP. “Last night, I had watched it, a documentary about the Turkish military’s perennial take-over in Turkey by the Turkish filmmaker, Elif Savas. The film felt like a horror story. In the morning, to my utter dismay, I discovered that its horror had hit AKIN as well. It felt surreal.”

2. From the KOREA TIMES:
Sample TOEFIL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) question:

You can ((a) imply) from the biography of Elif Savas, the ((b) Turkish) soprano opera singer, that she ((c) is) a multi-talented person.

Brave leaders of the coup that failed

Seal of the Central Intelligence Agency of the...
Image via Wikipedia

Just before we left, we did a shoot with the people who participated in the 1962 failed coup attempt. We had already interviewed the head of TRT Radio, which had been taken over by the military that evening in 1962, and we wanted to talk with the junior officers who tried to overthrow the government. They have a society and meet every month for dinner and drinks, to wax nostalgic about the days gone by and their “forgotten coup.” We talked to the head of the group, and he told us to come down to film them at the next meeting, which would take place in a couple of days.

We showed up, and their leader wasn’t there. It was a bunch of sad-sacks hanging around, talking about the good old days and how terrible it was, as if they were Vietnam vets. Nobody knew about the filming or who we were. We had them sit in a semicircle and Elif interviewed them while I filmed. While I was filming, I noticed that people one at a time were getting up and leaving. Finally, I took my eye off the eyepiece and saw a man behind me, putting his finger to his lips, signalling some to shut up and motioning to others to get up and walk away. Elif finished interviewing the few people remaining. Finally, a man claiming to be a government consultant came up to her and asked, “Why are you doing this, who’s behind this?” and Elif told him, “I’m from the CIA.”

The shoot was fruitless. It was pathetic; major political and military figures had spoken with us on camera, risking their lives and telling their stories – yet, when these little people with their little Masonic club finally have their chance at their moment of glory, at being remembered and recorded for posterity, they clam up. The few that spoke offered little insight other than “We like Ataturk.” When we got home, Elif called the head of the organization and let him have it: “Why were you not there? You embarrassed me in front of my family who came to the shoot to help me. I did 45 interviews with famous people and have never been so insulted by a bunch of losers.” He said, “Talk like a lady; you don’t know what you are saying.” Elif answered with the most insulting thing you could say to a Turkish male: “Shame on you, being scared of a young woman with a camera. You are not a man.”

Within a week, we were off to America. It was time to edit the film.

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A military funeral

When we got back to Istanbul, Elif’s grandfather died. He was 86 and could remember in his youth, bowing to the Ottoman Pa?a. He fell down the spiral staircase leading to his apartment, not because he was old, but because that staircase is a deathtrap. He was taken to the military hospital, where he caught pneumonia, and two weeks later he was dead. Elif’s grandfather was a lifelong military man. He was a levazim, the “necessary guy.” When there’s a war, he’s the Hollywood producer: he brings food to the land, builds bridges, makes roads, organizes the event. He lived long enough to have lower soldiers as servants, a practice now made illegal. Like most other senior officers, he paid money into a funeral club to ensure a proper military burial.

We went to the mosque, where Dilek washed the body; there was a crowd of thousands in attendance. I knew that military men were revered, but I didn’t know he was so popular…until I found out that Turkish pop star Baris Manco was also being buried at the same mosque that morning. A woman I’d never met threw herself on the ground, crying in front of Elif’s grandfather’s coffin. His body was loaded onto a catafalque. A band marched behind it and played military music. He was taken to one of Istanbul’s oldest and most historic cemeteries. It was the greatest funeral I’d ever been to in my life. I loved it. When we arrived at the cemetery, the hole was already ready. They opened the coffin, and his body was wrapped in a sheet; they took the body out of the coffin and placed it into the hole. We all started to fill the hole back up with our shovels. After awhile I realized what hard work ditch-digging is. Every part of my body began to hurt. I was standing there on greasy, gooshy ground. I saw parts of skeletons become unearthed around me and fragments of bone pop up by my feet. I realized that space was at a premium in Istanbul and that Elif’s grandfather was literally being buried with his ancestors. As time went on, most members of Elif’s family began to drop out, exhausted, and eventually only two people remained: me, and this old guy wearing a vest, who I assumed was a great-uncle. I kept plugging away, determined not to be shown up by a 70-year-old man. Only after I finally had to quit from exhaustion did they inform me that he was the gravedigger.