In the terrorists’ footsteps

Sivas - Çifte Minareli medrese
Image by ? alemdag ? via Flickr

It was late in the day by the time we got to Erzurum, and it felt as if we had left Kurdistan and entered Saudi Arabia. (Erzurum’s mayor is from the fascist party.) Every woman was covered, some wearing çar?afs – a huge cloth that looks like a gunny sack – and many women wearing the entirely-black çador which only shows their eyes. Elif has no problem with traditional headscarves but really, really does not want to see her country go this route and calls women in burkas cockroaches (or, when she’s feeling kind, black bugs). As we checked in our hotel, we once again had Co? drive around the block so Elif and I could go to the registration desk. This time, our prudence was a good thing; the guy asked if we wanted one room, only one room and not two, and he stared at us forever, and Elif said, yes, me and my husband want one room, and my parents will have another. And she showed him our ID’s with identical last names and the guy was much relieved.

We went to the car to find out that Co? had driven onto the sidewalk by accident. Driving off of it, he said they scraped the bottom because Dilek was too fat and weighing the car down. When we left the car, Elif yelled at her mom for taking that abuse, especially since Co? is fatter than she is, if you could call Elif’s mom fat at all. Elif and I went to a bakkal by ourselves to get some water, and on the way, we passed a 14-year-old boy who looked at Elif, looked back at her twice more, and finally threw his hands in the air as if to silently say, “Allah, can you believe such a woman exists?” Every night as I lie in bed with my wife, I ask myself the same question. The bakkal owner, though, was about 60, and surprisingly much more liberal – friendly, loquacious, loves America, a Korean war vet. That night again, the hotel shut their water at night to save money, but at least they were up-front about it – it would only be off from 12 AM – 7:30 AM. They also saved money on electricity by using something like 10-watt bulbs in the halls and rooms – I couldn’t even read in bed – they were more like night-lights than light bulbs, really.

The next morning (Wednesday the 26th), we saw Erzurum, which included a wonderful museum of Islamic and Turkish art which was right inside the Yakutiye Medresesi – the 14th-century school of Islam – with exhibits right inside the student’s cells. We also saw the double-minareted Çifte Minareli Medrese mosque from the 1200’s and the Üç Kümbetler mausoleums. After I had proved myself capable at the stick shift and able to drive on the correct side of the road, they had me drive the rest of the way. When we pulled out of our parking spot on the sidewalk, Co? again told Dilek to get out because she was “too fat.” Dilek, only capable of showing her anger at Co? to us but not to him, could only joke with him like a child, saying, “You’re fatter than I am.” He then said, “C’mon, let’s not even start, we know who’s the fat one of the couple.” Amazing.

Driving from Erzurum, we still passed two more Jandarmerie checkpoints, which wasn’t too unusual, since nearby Erzincan is a known harbor for the PKK. We stopped at Erzincan for lunch, and I wasn’t a fan of the place – fewer people were “covered” than there were at Erzurum, but the ones in Erzincan who weren’t seemed like rednecks: skinny prayer-bead-twirling macho men wearing tight jeans with their T-shirts tucked in and walking around as if they had lats like Arnold.

So we head off after lunch, and I’m only a few kilometers west of Erzincan when suddenly a group of farmers are running across the road in front of our car, and I slam on the brakes. I curse them out – what’s wrong with these people? – because when driving in Turkey, you frequently encounter the stress of kamikaze sheep, cows, cars, villagers, or UFO’s trying to kill themselves in front of your car and take you with them. But I then noticed something quite unusual that they were running towards: on the right side of the road, by a farmhouse, were four haystacks on fire, and farmers were frantically throwing buckets of water on them, beating them, trying to put them out. And I’m thinking, what the fuck? Was it the PKK punishing local villagers for collaborating with the Jandarmerie, or was it some petty act of vandalism?

Four kilometers down, I had my answer. Because once again, farmers were running across the road, forcing me again to slam my brakes, but this time they were running from the right side of the road to the left. And this time I didn’t curse them out, for on the left side of the road was disgusting sight: about a dozen mutilated cattle, lying all over in pieces by the road, with bullet holes in their heads, their necks hanging off, and their stomachs slit open and their innards hanging out, killed in a messy and violent way, and lots of villagers sitting there, stunned.

When we reached our hotel in Amasya, we saw the television news headlines blaring: “Wild shoot-out in Erzincan this afternoon leaves eight PKK members dead.” I wonder if it was one group of terrorists traveling on the same road in the opposite direction as us, or if they were separate incidents. Amasya was safely outside of PKK territory, and the hotel was adorable: it was an Ottoman house that had been owned by an Armenian family, restored to its original state. Staying in the huge, ornate rooms was like being a sultan for only $20 a night – Ottoman furniture, wall-couches, beds, and a bathroom in the closet just like in the old days. They had an outdoor patio with the typically fine Turkish selection of beverages: Efes beer, and water. The owner was sad that the two girls sitting at the table couldn’t understand him when they asked him the price, and when he wanted to show them the inside of the house, they refused. Elif went over to them to help translate, and there the girls were, smoking and drinking. Elif told them, what he was trying to answer when you asked the price is that the rooms were 4-8 million lira each and that it’s a restored Ottoman house. They looked at her and snottily said, yeah, we knew that, and then they went back to their drinks and left Elif and the owner there, flabbergasted, the poor owner still consulting his English phrasebook. From their accent, I it was impossible for me to tell exactly tell which town in France the two girls came from.

Checkpoints in Kurdistan

Kurdish Music
Image by Kurdistan Photo ???????? via Flickr

After staying up with our new Israeli friends, we discovered back in the hotel at 12:30AM that there was no water at all; when we called down, they wouldn’t turn it on, saying the city was without water. The next morning (Tuesday the 25th), Elif and Dilek had a little conversation with the owners about the problem, during which they realized the owners were lying: they had turned it off just to save money. First, the owners claimed the water was always there; then, they said it was off citywide; then, they said the hotel’s water was broken but they were fixing it; then, they said they had to shut it off because of a problem but they turned it on when we called for it; and finally, they said if we didn’t like it, why did we stay in the hotel for two nights? The last comment was the final straw for Elif and Dilek, because we were only there one night and at 12:30 AM they knew we couldn’t well go elsewhere. So they started yelling once again. The guy had to close the curtain on us so we wouldn’t be heard in the main lobby, and he said the main owner was a Hajj (one who had made a pilgrimage to Mecca) and was absent – but we spotted him, with the skullcap, hiding from us on the other side of the curtain. Dilek yelled that the Hajj’s were even more disgusting than other people, and that she was embarrassed to be Muslim, embarrassed to be Turkish. Elif added that they were so twisted in their own lies that they couldn’t even keep their stories straight. Dilek screamed that the hotel was even making their bellboys, children, lie for them. Finally, we gave them 8 million instead of 10 million and refused to pay the rest. They asked if we wanted trouble. We said that we’d love trouble and left. I was glad for the experience, not for the fireworks, but because it was like taking a pill for the day – it meant that us four would not fight today over the itinerary, and that we could project our aggressions onto an external enemy and then happily go about our business.

And it was in that relaxed state of mind that we entered Kurdistan. I knew that we had arrived because a few kilometers before Digor, we were stopped by the Jandarmerie who not only checked our passports but wrote down all of our personal information in a log. Then, 20 km later, another one, this time without taking our names. And then another: we were stopped at nine checkpoints in all. Minibuses were being pulled over and inspected thoroughly – it was a real border crossing within the same country. After the second checkpoint, we didn’t get talked to, just waved by after we parked at each one, and each one saw that we didn’t have mustaches and that we had the “34” Istanbul license plate number – but I really felt sorry for these Jandarmes. They looked like nervous kids. They were in pairs, one standing in the road stopping cars, and one in a ditch behind barbed wire, at first crouching and looking through binoculars at the cars, and then letting go of the binoculars and emerging with his gun out. As we passed each one, the second guy always went back down into the ditch, like when your boat on a Disney ride had just passed a mechanical figurine and it had finished going through its cycle. Elif says that the PKK simply blast their way through those checkpoints, and if you get selected in the army to serve in the east, and you get selected to be a Jandarme, you should just write out your will and say your last good-byes.

All of which was very moving, but, traveling in the east, all I could think of was: when can I shit? Where is it safe – to stop so I can shit? Because rather than being killed, my diarrhea was first and foremost on my mind, and if we encountered any PKK, I would have just asked them, please, do you have any Limodin? The road was constantly being patched up, because, Dilek said, of mines. But we saw nothing of interest except for Jandarmes, Jandarmes, Jandarmes. On the mountains was written in huge rocks, “Önce Vatan” (“Country first”) and “Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene” (“How happy it is to say one is Turkish!”) I wondered if these signs were not only wishful thinking, but also a bit confrontational in an area where people speak Kurdish and look entirely different from Turks.

We stopped in ??d?r, a fabulously dusty town that looked positively South American and not at all Turkish. Then we went to the incredible Ishak Pa?a Saray?, in Do?ubeyazit near the Iranian border. It was the palace of a Kurdish chieftain built around 1700, and it was created to rival Topkap? in Istanbul. Apparently, this angered the sultan, who then made the chieftain disappear, but the palace remains. It reminds me of the kind of insane fancy that one experiences in deserts – fantastic works, delusions of grandeur and folly – even a little like the Watts towers in Los Angeles (but of course much, much larger). The place was so ludicrously over the top, so opulent – completely ruined but all the stonework was intact – adopting all grandiose Selçuk, Muslim, Christian, Armenian, and Kurdish styles. Again, we were the only tourists there except for another couple, which is just how I like it, and I was thankful for its remoteness and the modicum of danger which was keeping people away. We would have had the place to ourselves except for two 9-year-old children inside, who insisted on being our “guides.” Normally, we wave this off, but there was nowhere to hide and there was no saying no. The kids would completely make stuff up in a childlike way – “these are the prisons, these are the holes where they were fed” – they had an impressive imagination – but they were climbing all over some delicate-looking fountains and pulling at us and giggling and they were behaving like K’s assistants in Kafka’s The Castle, and we finally asked them, how would they like 50 cents each to please just go the hell away? They looked at each other and saw that we were serious, and said they’d like that very much.

In the town of Do?ubeyazit, we went to a covered market. Co? parked the car and yelled at a young soldier who was blocking the road, simply because he felt that he could yell at him. Way to go, Co?. Inside, the shopkeepers were glad to see us, since we were the only tourists there, and they were telling us that the hotels were all completely empty. The Kurds were incredibly nice (like the Turks), but not at all pushy (unlike the Turks). The prices were no better than in Istanbul, which surprised Co?, who had heard stories of loads of hot, cheap goods. We asked why and one of them told us in confidence, “Too many askerler (soldiers) – we can’t go across the border and move goods like we used to.” I went to a tea seller in the market and ordered a tea to calm my stomach down, and the seller refused to let me pay for it. Then I saw he was making a Ku?burnu drink and got one of those, a hot sugary cranberry-juice-like drink, and he wouldn’t let me pay for that either. Then I ordered another tea and insisted on leaving 25,000 lira, about 8 cents (the tea cost 20,000 each and it was all the small change I had), and after some effort, I managed to hide the money on his tray.

The tea seller was playing a tape of some of the most unusual Kurdish music I’d ever heard, nothing at all like what I got from Smithsonian Institution when they had sponsored my conference and nothing like what I’d ever heard in Istanbul, so I asked where I could get a copy. He pointed me toward a record store in town. We went there and we forgot the name of the artist, so the store owner sent a boy over to the covered market to find the artist’s name for us. When he came back, he said the tea seller had no tape and no tape recorder. Apparently, either the tea seller’s tape was a bootleg and he didn’t want to piss off the store owner, or it was a compilation taped off TV or elsewhere of some Kurdish music that may have had some objectionable lyrics. No one would ever find out which.

What struck me most about Do?ubeyazit is how occupied the place feels. The military presence there was no stronger than at Kars or Hopa or Ardahan in the northeast, but here, the local population was obviously ethnically different than the army, and it really felt like those films you see of American soldiers in South Vietnam in the late 60’s and early 70’s – Turkish soldiers bopping in and out of Kurdish-owned shops, buying things.

Alas, my expectations turned out to be wrong about us not fighting that day. Co? started driving on the left again, and Dilek said he was driving too fast with all of the holes in the road, which resulted in Co? slowing down to 40 km/hour, acting like a child, and finally he just pulled over and told me to drive. So I drove his stick-shift fine, much easier than I thought it would be, a lot of fun, really. Given the fact that I was now driving and given the petulant way Co? had been behaving, it was the very first time on the trip when I wished our Fiat had driver’s side air bags.

Ancient Armenia under military escort

Kars Citadel
Image via Wikipedia

Four hours later, at 5AM (on Monday the 24th), Dilek is so hot, sleepless, and livid that Co? would treat us this way that she wakes us up. We enter the stinky bathroom and use their shower, which has no showerhead, so we hose ourselves off like mental institution inmates. Co? arrives at 7, telling us how palatial and comfortable Hasan Bey’s accommodations were for him, and Dilek starts really letting him have it by some fairly timid whining. And just like after he abandoned us in Samsun when he told Dilek that she wasn’t from a village and knew what petrol smelled like, Co? claimed that his drive last night was heroic and that the Teacher’s house wasn’t really so bad.

Now pride may cometh before a fall, but if it doesn’t, you can always count on my wife to help push. Whereas before Elif had been nice-but-cold to Co?, as she always is when she doesn’t care for someone, I now find her screaming at him in the middle of the street that there was no earthly reason for us to be in this town, and that we could have stayed in a hotel in Artvin. I hang back and watch the delightful fireworks display, and, like a roulette ball finally coming to rest on its number, Elif settles on the theme that we’ve come over 200km out of our way for nothing and finally yells,“I’m not going to waste another day of my vacation for you to jerk off on having your ass kissed by a NOBODY.” Co? turned beet red and said Elif was embarrassing him in front of the people in the street, and Elif yelled, “The only people here are rednecks who want to FUCK us.”

This made Co? suddenly stop suggesting that we wait the three hours for Hasan Bey’s man to arrive so he could show us around, and instead he finds a random policeman and tells the cop that he’s a guest of the great Hasan Bey, and that could the cop please tell us where Hell’s River Gorge is? The cop, upon hearing the magic words “Hasan Bey,” insisted on showing us around personally on the city’s dime, and he hopped in the car. He stank so badly that when he started smoking I was actually thankful that there was another smell to distract me from his body odor. We got out at a gorge, less nice than the one at Sakklikent, and he helped us (literally held our hands as we climbed – his hands were huge) up the gorge, where we got to see the naturally-growing Fanta cans and Dorito bags. Co? kept up his pacifying avuncular routine and offered up the scop of taking us to see a church 40 km away on a road covered in boulders. Elif said in no uncertain terms that we had no interest in it, and that we wanted to leave.

Elif demanded that we head straight for Kars, and upon arrival, Co? bought a decade’s worth of honey, which of course took a while. The first shop we went to didn’t have Kars honey but another kind, and the fat boy behind the counter eating ice cream refused to bargain with Co?, saying that only his father had authority to do so. The boy then stepped right outside the door and dropped his ice cream wrapper on the street. He then went back into his store. Elif picked it up and followed him inside, smiled at him, and said softly, “Don’t you know what to do with the wrapper? This is what you’re supposed to do with a wrapper!” and threw it on the floor inside his store.

We went to the Kars tourist office to get the necessary permits for seeing Ani, which is 40 km southeast of Kars and literally on the Armenian border. It’s inside a restricted military zone, so there’s a bit of bureaucracy to go see it. First, we had to stop at the tourist information office to get the forms. The workers, upon seeing my passport of origin, flashed coprophagic smiles – they were giggling like children, literally reading “California” and “Marvin” out loud to each other.

I now realized that a window had just opened for me, a sudden opportunity for me to actually get to see Do?ubeyazit on the Iranian border, which Dilek and Co? had been too scared to go to. I knew from Co?’s behavior at Ardanuç that he was impressed by authority, and also that it was the job of these tourist officials to convince us that everything was quite safe and wonderful in Turkey, one great, happy Turkey uber alles. So I asked them if Do?ubeyazit was safe to go to, and they said, “Safe? No problem! It’s so beautiful – you’ve got to go! You can’t miss it!” And just like they were reciting lines in a play, our two travel companions were impressed, and the thing was settled: of course we were going. I left there floating on air, like I had achieved a major victory in being able to influence others, lead people, and shape my environment. And thus we were off, to the police station to get our forms endorsed, then to the museum to buy tickets, and, finally, to Ani.

When we entered the restricted zone, we had our passports and permits examined, and the sergeant at the entrance to Ani read us the riot act: stay by the monuments where we can see you, don’t go too far off the path, and if you even so much as point your camera in the direction of Armenia we’ll have to shoot you (and, after that, we may even confiscate your camera). None of this impressed me as much as his incredible blue eyes, unlike any I had ever seen before, especially on a dark-complexioned man, and I said to Elif in English, “What amazing eyes! He’s so beautiful!” He then went on, something about how you can’t go to the Covenant of the Virgins, and you can’t take pictures of the river, and blah blah blah, and I ask Elif, “I wonder why we can’t go there! Is it because of the archeological preservation, or is it for military purposes?” and finally the guy straightened up, stared directly at me, and said, in slow and perfect English, “Because we’re using it.” That shut me up. So off we went, and except for our friendly armed escort and two other tourists, we had the place completely to ourselves.

Ani became the capital of Armenia in the late 10th century, and for about five minutes, it was one of the world’s major cities. Byzantium annexed it 80 years later, and then the Selçuks took it, and then the Georgians, and then the Mongols, and finally the earthquakes came and roll the credits. But what a site! It was like seeing Efes without the tourists. Churches with wild frescos, crosses with snakes in them that looked like images from civilizations predates it by three millennium, cathedrals, a citadel – a real ghost town. We were there for hours. After the first five or so sites, the guards pretty much left us alone, except at the Menüçehir Camii, which was right on the river itself that was the border. We asked if we could climb up the minaret, and they said yes, which surprised me, but they made me leave their cameras with them. The climb up was, in large part, on broken stairs in pitch-dark, and in the parts where there was light, we saw some rats that made us wish for the dark again. On top, the view was phenomenal. The Rough Guide says that the minaret was closed because some tourist committed suicide by jumping off the top a few years ago, but once you’re up there, you realize that it’s more likely he just plain fell. While we were up there, Dilek, who stayed at the bottom, asked the guards what the huge military presence at Ani was for, because relations with Armenians are much improved since they got their own country from the former Soviet Union rather than from Turkish soil. The guards told her that a week and a half ago, they caught a few PKK members a little south of there, and after a brief friendly interview with them over some tea, the guerrillas had volunteered the information that they entered the country through the Armenian border.

Nearby the mosque, we saw some scorpions, and two archaeologists were working to uncover a graveyard. And there they were, sweeping dirt off bones, when suddenly, a baby’s skull popped out right in front of me, with its jaw hanging happily in the sun! What surprised me is how white the bones were after all these years, compared to the brownish mummies you see in museums. We asked them if we could take a picture of the graveyard. They said no and gave us a look that they wished we were some of the bones they were uncovering.

Back at Kars, we went again to buy even more honey from a bakkal. This took an hour not so much because of Co? but because the guy insisted on giving us all free juice and sugars and telling us his story. It turns out that he went to three (!) of the same schools as Elif in Istanbul, and this was his uncle’s store in which he helps out for the summer – for the rest of the year, he’s a ballet in the government folkloric dance troupe. How wonderful! He gets to jump around to cool steps, perhaps, I imagine, even juggling knives, and traveling all over the world to countries I will likely never go to – Azerbaijan, Iran, Romania. But who knows. He was complaining that he never gets to go to the exciting places like the U.S. or Japan, because Turkey’s President only wants to improve cultural relations with local countries.

That night, we met an Israeli couple and two Slovenian women tourists on the street, and we went to dinner with them. It turns out that the Israeli guy (Amir) had served and then worked in the army there for eight years, but he was more anti-Jewish-race-based state than I, and he was cocky about Israel’s permanent military superiority in the region. I found him to be a hoot – a big cuddly bear of a 30-year-old who fell madly in love with a different tourist every week. He liked to travel the world just to meet people (he would never go to Venezuela, Alaska, or New Zealand, because he’d rather go somewhere where there’s more people, less nature.) He went to Turkey by himself and met the Israeli woman he was with, in Cappadoccia! He just goes up to anyone who looks like a tourist, or who looks nice, and starts talking, male or female. He told me he thinks that people are inherently nice, and there’s a few bad people – which is just about the opposite of what Elif and I find to be true (that people are instinctual and that if they don’t eat you alive, it’s a testament to how successful they were socialized). And Amir holds this belief even after what happened to him on his second day in Turkey: he was standing on the Galata bridge in Istanbul, and two Egyptians walked up and started talking to him. They hung out together for three hours, talked to each other in English and Arabic, and entertained him with hilarious stories about their world travels. Then, the Egyptians suggested that they go out to dinner together at 9:30, so he went back to his hotel, shaved and showered, and met them for dinner. On the way, they went to a park and told him that it was an Egyptian custom for them to play the hosts and to offer yogurt-water and figs, but since there were no figs around, they knew of an Ayran-seller nearby. So one of them went to buy him Ayran and came back with the yogurt-drink, and they all drank, and the next thing he knew, it was a day later and he was waking up in his hotel bed from the best sleep he’d ever had in his life. Turns out they drugged his drink and stole his $600 Nikon camera and put him in a taxi, telling the driver to take him to his hotel because he was drunk, and the hotel paid the cab fare and carried him up the stairs, during which time the two Egyptians racked up $4000 on his Visa buying electronics. Amir’s card was insured, but his Israeli parents were freaked out, demanding he come home immediately. He says that the trip after that was the best he’d ever had, and the Turks were the nicest people he’d ever seen, and he didn’t mind the experience at all. All I could think of is how polite the Egyptians were – they didn’t take his passport, and they put him in a taxi and sent him back to his hotel – in America it wouldn’t quite turn out that way.

We all went out for tea later that evening and we couldn’t get a table outside in Kars – they were all full – and when one opened up, Elif and I ran to grab the seats, which made the Slovenians and Israelis laugh very much: “You really wear your country’s flag,” they said. The Israeli guy said he left the army after eight years because they would have promoted him from field work to administrative work, which he hated. I asked him what was field work, work in the field with maps, or what, and he answered “Intelligence.” It turns out that – and this is all he would tell me – his fluency in Arabic is due to his tenure in the Israeli army, and he is not allowed to travel to any of Israel’s Arabic neighbors until he is 55 as a security measure. Which is a real drag, because we really like him, and we’ll definitely visit him in Tel Aviv (perhaps soon, because Elif doesn’t need a visa to go there) – but since I’ve been to Israel twice, I was far more interested in schlepping him to Egypt with us, because he’s a lot of fun and fluent in Arabic. But he can’t go there anymore. Elif jokes that due to his naïveté and his experience with the two Egyptians in Istanbul, we may be even safer in Egypt if we go without him.

The best little whorehouse in Savsat

On Sunday the 23rd, Co? decided he wanted to go to Ardanuç, a small town of five thousand people where a friend of his once knew the mayor. Elif refused to have any of it, and when we passed by the turnoff, Co? kept looking back like a petulant child.

We drove down into the Tortum Valley and saw the massive, domeless Georgian church of Dörtkilise near the village of Tekkale. It had delightful frescos, but the road there was basically made out of boulders, which was ruining Co?’s car. We went to Ösk Vank – a more-intact Georgian church in the village center. It was pinkish, with great carvings on portals and on the columns. There, we picked up a 50-ish man with a skullcap and a thick eastern accent (more guttural sounds in his speech) and gave him a ride down toward Tortum. We found a delightful shortcut highway before Tortum running east to north of Narman, the part of which running from Narman to Oltu being the most beautiful road I’ve been on, although I ran out of film in my camera to take pictures of it. The rocks and mountains were rainbow-colored, with lots of red, even in parts like the American southwest.

At Oltu, we went to the 7th-century Georgian castle. Since it was a Sunday, we had to beg for a key from the local Zab?ta (the health/safety inspector). A boy in his late teens showed us around the castle; the sign there said it was 8th century BC Genoese; the boy said it was Armenian; the Rough Guide says 8th Century AD Georgian. The boy told a story of a Selçuk Turk who fought there with his head cut off, and that he’s the one buried in the castle graveyard; two women reportedly turned to stone when they laughed at the man being headless. The boy said that we should cover ourselves and even wash before visiting the graveyard, so we didn’t bother going in to it – he said that the dead guy wouldn’t like it otherwise. Dilek answered that the dead guy would like it better if we didn’t wash first. The boy asked if I had converted to Islam yet (the thought of Elif converting from Islam wasn’t even considered as an option).

From there we went to Bana to try to see a Georgian church there, but we missed the unmarked dirt-road turnoff. We asked directions from an old man with one eye wearing a woman’s sweatshirt. The old guy was selling cucumbers by the side of the road, and he insisted that we take him too, and he’d show us. Instead, though, he took us up a treacherous boulder road to see a pile of rubble that was not Bana. He said that villagers stole the church pieces to make houses hundreds of years ago and then abandoned it after an earthquake, and that the church graveyard’s skulls came up having bigger jawbones than we now have today. Although the trip was annoying and destructive to Co?’s car, we returned the one-eyed Turkish cross-dresser to his roadside cucumber supermarket and bought a few cucumbers off him for his troubles.

Then Co? decided that he really had to go to Ardanuç after all, which was now 210 km out of the way. Dilek was coddling him, after he had the grave misfortune of being forced to spend the day with us seeing Turkey’s best landscape and monuments in the world’s largest open-air archeological museum. So back to Ardanuç we went, just so Co? could be well-treated by a mayor of a village of five thousand. (Being impressed by authority seems to be a Turkish trait; there’s an Aziz Nesin short story about townspeople going all-out to impress a minor authority who’s coming to visit, training each other to stand up straight and walk in line and even erecting a statue for him – and then the guy never shows up.)

On the way back to Aradnuç, we passed through Ardadhan, which was fascinating – a military and industrial town with Russian architecture, but completely random: instead of a village growing into a city, the once-Russian city was now amusingly overrun by shepherds herding sheep right down the main street, with geese following in tow! (I have to mention this: right now on TRT – Turkish Radio Television – as I’m writing this – there’s a TV program as part of the GAP project [southeast development] educating villagers not to fuck their siblings or marry your cousins. The show is talking about genetics and showing retarded children and such. Very exciting stuff. The program ended just now with a boy and his girlfriend/cousin standing at a crossroads; the boy looks in his hand to see a pair of dice there; the dice then turn into the face of a retarded child; then the boy throws the dice away onto the ground (thus littering, which is something that Turks excel at), and the couple finally walk away from each other going in opposite directions from the crossroads as the music swells.)

It was getting late, and our Rough Guide said that the hotels at Ardahan were overrun by natashas, so we decided to push on to ?av?at, where the book said you could spend the night in the Sahara hotel. But the Sahara looked really seedy, as did every other hotel in town, and now it was 10PM. We inquired at the gas station, and we were informed that the Sahara was too dangerous for us to stay at, and that the Iviera hotel would be a far better bet.

We drove to the Iviera, and its lobby was straight out of a Hollywood movie. The guy behind the front desk played the pimp, who was wearing a satin black shirt with the top two buttons undone and a very loose tie; the actor was complete with greasy black hair and smoking a cigarette. Splayed across the torn-up couch was the fat madam with a mustache. Downstairs strutted a rather large whore in a white dress, appearing as if she had just finished doing something important and looking around to see if there was anything new. The reservations clerk asked us for our ID’s, and Elif said we were married. He smiled a little and said that of course we were, but wouldn’t it be much nicer if we just filled out the reservations book with me staying with Co? and Elif with Dilek, and then later we could do what we wanted.

I said, Elif, let’s leave, now. Elif turned to me and said, “Stop being such a problem, I hate you when you get like this” and added that we’d get killed if Co? drove any further this tired, this late, on mountain roads. I said that the odds of us getting killed if we drove on were only about 30 percent, whereas if we stayed here they were closer to 90, so she began to ignore me. I asked her, loudly and slowly so her mother would understand, how much the hotel’s hourly rate per room was, but Dilek and Co? had no idea that we were in a whorehouse – they just thought it was a regular disgusting hotel. Now, it’s delightful to be able to walk around a low-rent Turkish bordello, it looked too disgusting and dangerous for me to want to spend the night.

So now I’m practically yelling let’s go go go go go go go, and finally Elif said, let’s look at the room. We went upstairs, and it was an adorable little operation they had up there. Everyone was working, and the whores were waiting in the green room with couches and floor mattresses and phones. Finally, the owner, upstairs running the whole show, saw that we really were a family and said “You really shouldn’t stay here, the Johns (Mehmet’s?) would certainly take a liking to you, and the doors don’t lock, and they may not take no for an answer…” (I tried to imagine our story in the country’s newspapers’ typically lurid headlines had we run into a problem there: “Married judge in tryst with attorney ‘friend’ found in whorehouse with her daughter and son-in-law.”) One prostitute felt as if she had to apologize to Dilek, saying, “We’re just trying to make a living,” and Dilek hugged her and said that she firmly supports them.

So we drove off into the night. In the car, Dilek and Co? insisted that the women were yabanç?s – “foreigners,” (Georgians), but Elif said that they know better Turkish than Dilek does, and I pointed out that they were quite Turkish in appearance, not Russian. (If they had looked like the natasha I saw at the Besst hotel near Trabzon, who knows, I might have stayed.) I tried to keep Co? awake by teaching him the game “Ghost”, but it doesn’t really work in Turkish – they just kept adding suffixes to get huge one-word constructions which translate into something like “Wouldn’t you really not be the one who would call himself an American worker.”

Again we arrived back at the turnoff to Ardanuç and Artvin, and instead of going to Artvin where there are hotels, Co? takes the road to Ardanuç, where there are more whorehouses. He decides that now, with his impeccable wisdom, that Sunday night at 11 is the perfect time to pay his mayor friend-of-a-friend an unannounced visit so that he could really show off to us three what his influence as a judge can bring. We arrived, and he left the car in the middle of the street in front of the Forest Works building – and, just like he did in Samsun, he doesn’t come out for over an hour. We have no idea what’s happening, and we shout out, “Where are you?” and a man comes out to say Co? is drinking tea inside while they’re still looking for the mayor. He also suggests that we move the car. So I get behind the wheel and park it, and Dilek asked me why I didn’t drive if I could operate a stick-shift, since he had been driving on the left side of the road the whole time. I said I didn’t know I could and I didn’t want to strip the gears or kill the clutch on a new car.

So Dilek, Elif and I move to a schoolyard and sit in a playground for another half hour. It’s well after midnight, I haven’t eaten all day except a candy bar, and I’m pissed off. I gave Co? the latitude that although he has no intellectual interest in archeology or anything else other than football, we were driving his car, he was paying for well more than half of everything, and there were cultural differences I needed to take into account in his wanting to impress the mayor of a tiny whorehouse town (the main cultural difference being that he is a schmuck and I’m not). But at least I wanted not to be randomly abandoned in various places I suddenly found myself in merely because he was behind the wheel (and not doing a very good job of driving at that). Elif is using every trick she knows to make her mother hate her boyfriend; I start saying that at least Co? can provide for her and he doesn’t beat her – in my exhaustion, I’m really thinking that I want anyone, anything, to provide for her so I don’t have to be around any other person than my wife – and I offer the opinion that Co?, like any man, both will do whatever he can get away with and will treat her how she teaches him to treat her.

Finally, Co? comes out. The mayor, of course named Hasan Bey, has been located but can’t be told by his handlers that Co? is here illegally with a woman who’s not his wife. Hasan Bey offers him a room in his house, and to us three he offers two rooms in the Teacher’s House – a ubiquitous boarding home in Turkey for traveling teachers. All he has to do now at 12:30 in the morning is to kick a man out of his room, which he’s actually anxious to do in order to display to us his extreme hospitality.

Elif refuses and says she’ll sleep in the car if he tries to kick anyone out, so Elif, Dilek and I will cram into the one vacant room at the Teachers’ House. We all get into the car, and Co? is following Hasan Bey’s deputy’s car down the road, and we pass a bakkal (grocery store) that has a light on. I yell, “Stop the car, NOW!” and Co? doesn’t, saying we shouldn’t disturb the mayor’s deputy by making him wait. I am furious and open the door while the car is moving, which forces him to stop, and I hop out leaving the door open. I buy a can of tuna fish and crackers, which I devour. Co? dumps us at the Teacher’s House and leaves for the comfort of Hasan Bey’s house. Our room is hot as hell and stinks of the public toilet that’s right outside our door. The sheets and pillowcases haven’t been changed, merely hastily turned inside out, and are filthy. I now wish the mayor had kicked out the other guy, who turns out to be a drunk who keeps leering at my wife. I put a T-shirt around the pillow and sleep.

The Laz, and stuck up in a tree

Glass mug of fresh ayran as found in Maltepe, ...
Image via Wikipedia

On Saturday the 22nd, we decided to forego breakfast at the good old Turist Hotel, which would have been included had the cook shown up; instead, we were offered a plate of cockroaches, but we politely declined. We went to the Rize Tea Institute, which it was closed, but we viewed the gardens and tea-fields. Turkey’s crop was condemned because of Chernobyl fallout in 1986, and since then, Turks have been drinking it by the gallon but have been somewhat less successful at selling the stuff overseas, further adding to its economic woes.

We then drove east through Laz country towards Arde?en and then south to Çamlihem?in through Hem?in country. The Laz are a Caucasian people who speak a Georgian language, and 200,000 of them live in Northeast Turkey. Many of them have reddish hair and are less religious Moslems, and they’re supposed to be great businessmen. The Hem?inlis in Northeast Turkey are also Caucasian and of Armenian descent, but there are only 15,000 of them. Their women wear brightly-colored imported scarves, called pu?i.

We ate breakfast on a patio in front of a Laz-owned market called the H?z?r, 2 km south of Arde?en. Our breakfast consisted of homemade butter and cheese, along with store-bought bitter chestnut honey (spectacular) along with olives and a surprisingly fancy round bread rather than the usual baguette. We also drank Ayran (salty yogurt-water) that they were making as we spoke – their son, about 10, was shaking it up in a wooden vat dangled by chains from the ceiling. The Laz proved their famed business acumen by charging us 3.5 million (about $13) for the meal, very high by Turkish standards.

We had arrived for breakfast just after they had slaughtered one of their cows right in front of the patio, and it was hanging in front of our table as the Laz man was carving it up. He was wearing rubber pants, but not a rubber shirt, and he and the ground were very bloody. They were extremely friendly, and they talked with us for a long time as we ate; the man was gesticulating wildly with his knife as he spoke. While we dined, we watched his wife and children tie a cow to a tree so that it could mate with a bull. The bull screwed the cow for a number of brief seconds over the course of about 15 minutes. When the bull walked away, he was quite lethargic. The Laz explained that they bought the bull to eat but liked it so much they decided to keep it for a while and breed it. Come Ramadan, however, it’s meat.

We drove to Çamlihem?in to see the Hem?inlis and also the yaylas on the way. Yaylas are unpainted summer homes made by villagers high up in the mountains, away from the main roads, where they go to escape the unbearable heat below and to give their cattle some more green to graze. When we came back up the road, we stopped again at the H?z?r market, where Co? bought some honey and they gave us free Ayran. The man continued to cut up his cow and we talked with the women, who were surprised at our age – they thought we were all much younger, as they look far older than their age – and were surprised that Elif spoke English (as well as the fact that Dilek only had one child and that Elif and I haven’t procreated yet – in fact, “Why haven’t you had children yet?” was the most common question people have asked Elif and I on this trip).

We then went further east to Arhavi, where Co? stopped to see if he could buy tea from the Çaykur tea factory. Becacuse Çaykur is a government-owned monopoly, this would be the same stuff you could get anywhere in Istanbul, which irritated me a little, but it turned out very well: the factory head came to the gate to see who we were, and being a Laz, invited us in and gave us a thorough tour of the factory. We got to see all of the machinery and even to stick our hands in the dried tea leaves, the same tea that Turks would later drink. Turns out that the “tiny little tea leaves” in Tetley Tea are tiny because they suck – you want bigger leaves after processing. In any case, uncooked tea leaves look like regular deciduous tree leaves, and that tea that you get in tea bags – Lipton, for instance – is basically ground tea and dirt – which helps give your tea a nice dark red color!

We passed through Hopa, a depressing Georgian border town which mines copper. It has a large Turkish military presence and features old Russian architecture which is both gorgeous and dilapidated. We then went through Artvin, a town which stretches forever on a steep mountain hill along a single windy street which completely lacks a town centrum. I thought that we were going to head south to the Tortum valley to see some Georgian churches, but at 2PM, we suddenly stopped at a hotel, because Co? thought it would be better to stop at a Yuppie camping resort in the forest village of Kafkasör (nifty name!). We ate fish at their restaurant, and we managed to get the one terrifying table situated in treehouse dozens of meters off the ground. The waiters passed us our food in a basket that was on a pulley connecting the treehouse with the restaurant, and we had to pull our food in.

As we drank rak?, we argued with each other, although we tried not to move too much as we fought, lest the shaky treehouse break and plunge us to our deaths. Elif and I were incensed not only that we were spending the rest of our day basically sitting in a tree, but that changes in itinerary were being pulled on us at the last minute. We discussed our future itinerary, and Dilek and Co? were so scared about going further southeast from there, and they lied that we had never even discussed it, even though we had all decided to go at least as far as Do?ubeyazit. Dilek took the position that it’s unfair for us to only see what Elif and I wanted to, but I pointed out that the only alternative they put forth was for us to sit in a tree. Elif then said that this whole trip was basically Dilek and Co? joining us, which led to more family fireworks. We went to bed early, our trip’s future still unresolved, and I stayed up all night fending off an oddly-severe allergy attack.

An army sendoff in Rize

Ne Mutlu Türküm Diyene
Image by K?vanç Ni? via Flickr

We drove to Rize to stay the night, and Rize is very religious, with covered women and men with skullcaps. Since the Rough Guide said that unmarried couples would have problems booking a room in anywhere but the Turist Hotel, we went there. We left Co? in the car when we checked in – Elif and Dilek and I showed our ID’s and said Co? was parking. The hotel was animal-friendly, meaning that roaches wandering the halls far outnumbered the guests. Our room had trash all over the torn-up carpet and a toilet which was literally shattered. We found out from a worker there that the owner died and his son is cashing out as much as possible while entrusting the administrative and caretaking duties to the vermin.

Luckily, that night at 11:45, we got to see the town sending its boys off to the army. The send-off was spectacular: vans and cars carrying the 18-year-olds and their friends, decked out in ribbons, flags and banners, honking their horns and driving by as if they had won the World’s Cup. The boys’ families were on the streets, waving them on as the boys were being driven to the army bus or base. The boys were certainly going to fight the Kurds, and the families looked strangely happy, although I couldn’t read emotion off the mothers. It’s considered a great dishonor there if you don’t serve in the army, and if you die, you’re going straight to Muslim heaven – but the mothers must privately grieve. From what I can gather about serving in the army, it’s mandatory for boys but not girls; it’s an 18-month service, but the army’s so desperate for money that you can pay to get out in nine months rather than 18, which is a dishonor for villagers but not for city folk. Where you end up serving is by lottery system, but it’s weighted so that if you’re from the west you’re more likely to end up in the east (so they don’t have eastern locals fighting eastern locals in the Kurdish war). Elif’s cousin Özgür is from Istanbul but claimed residency on the Black Sea (his father kept his ID in Samsun), so he ended up serving his nine months in central Anatolia rather than spending them, say, dead.

The civil war’s been going on for over two decades, and the country walks a tightrope to survive. Turkey need its Kurdish east for its oil reserves, and its potential pipeline for protection from its hostile neighbors, as they fear that a Kurdish state would be rife with internal disputes (four primary mutually-unintelligible dialects and mutual animosity) and unable to protect its borders (a similar argument to Israel not giving up territory to a Palestinian state). Because of ethnic and economic-level differences, the Kurds in the East see their land as occupied and form the PKK, the Kurdish Worker’s Party which also supports a guerrilla organization. Civil war ensues, and Turkey needs money to buy guns to fight the war, as well as money to irrigate the East to economically improve it, which would put an end to both the strife as well as to the Islamic stopgap (which it meanwhile encourages to give Allah to the Kurdish males to distract them from the war). Inflation skyrockets, and the PKK sells drugs to fund the war. The Turkish government does likewise, encouraging the Mafia to import drugs from Iran and sell them to western countries for much-needed funds, and they also use the Mafia to kill off the PKK dealers. But the Mafia, alas, becomes too powerful, and now the MIT (Turkish Secret Service) is fighting the Mafia. To irrigate the east and finally improve its economic level, Turkey also funds the massive GAP (Güneydo?u Anadolu Projesi – Southeast Anatolian development Project) to dam water from the Tigris and Euphrates. This incenses the Syrians, which is downstream and which desperately needs the water, so Syria responds by arming and training the PKK. Thus, the war remains in happy, bloody equilibrium and will likely be that way for many years to come.

Hidden ruins by Trabzon

Frescoes on the inner wall of the Rock Church ...
Image via Wikipedia

On Friday the 21st, we reached Trabzon and saw the mid 13th-century Byzantine church of Aya Sofya, whose frescos are shockingly lurid for the period – its Ascension has abstract geometrical patterns that look more out of the mid 20th century than the 13th. We went to the Atatürk Kö?kü, a Disney fairytale mansion in a perfectly-kept garden – Atatürk stayed there on three occasions, so it’s like a George Washington house. I paid admission and gave the guard a million ($4) and waited for change, which was not forthcoming, because, as the guard explained, this was the higher admission rate for foreigners. Even after Elif told him that we’re Turks, he insisted that although I had an extended stay visa that I, at least, should pay foreign rates. Dilek screamed at him, calling him all sorts of names. The guard finally capitulated, but this triggered a nasty fight between Co? and Dilek; Co? was embarrassed that Dilek would fight with a government official, and he pouted and refused to go to the upper floor of the mansion, sulking in the garden.

In the Rough Guide a site off the beaten path – the 15th-century former Armenian monastery of Kaymakl?, reachable only by a rough dirt road and a bit of hiking. I couldn’t believe how abandoned it was – it was in a tiny village of a few families and was actually being used by one of them as a hay-barn. As we walked up, a group of children let us inside, and we crawled on the bales to see the top frescoes inside – Jonah and the whale, Christ coming into Jerusalem, and several images of hell. I wonder: how does paint survive this long? It does seem interesting to me that the Armenian and Georgian churches (non-Muslim sites that are not obvious tourist attractions) have been left to be tended to by the locals. Perhaps the Turks don’t want to call attention to Armenian settlements lest Armenians claim land rights, but they’re too embarrassed to destroy the monuments, leaving it up to the local elders to be the ones to lose face if the monument goes to ruin. Elif says that the government even pays a small sum to some local to take care of it, and if that guy chooses to turn it into a hay-barn, so be it – but maybe the hay and its inaccessibility may preserve it even better than if it were a tourist attraction.

We then visited the famous (and thus preserved) 13th-century Greek Orthodox monastery of Sumela, clinging to the rock cliffs. We ate nearby some local food – a melted cheese and corn meal dish which tasted Mexican, as well as a crepe which would have had anchovies had they been in season. The drive up to the monastery was terrifying due to the steep, narrow road and to Co?’s driving. We walked back down the hill rather than to ride with him. The frescoes of the church were much-vandalized but still beautiful. The sign by the monks’ original toilets said “Original Bathrooms (Do Not Use).” Rule of thumb: if you see an enclosed area on a popular archeological site in Turkey, you can bank on there being a piss smell inside. Driving back from Sumela was like something out of an Indiana Jones film – we passed a rock quarry and then just as we turned the corner, we saw out the rear window huge boulders from it crashing onto the road right behind us.

Co? then had the bright idea of searching for local rice pudding for which the Laz are famous, except that we weren’t far enough east for there to be any Laz around, so we ended up driving two hours up mountain roads until we found a place that advertised “Famous Rice Pudding.” It was watery. Finally, we decided to go back to Trabzon to see the Russian Market. Unfortunately, Russian tourists have stopped coming to Turkey for many reasons (including the Russian economy crashing even faster than Turkey’s; the closing of the Turkish casinos by the Refah party; and the fact that Turkish men’s reputation for treating every Russian woman as if she were a natasha) – Elif says they’re now going to China instead. So, after eating at a Laz restaruant without Laz, we now were at a Russian Market without Russians. Co? bought binoculars, which took an hour until I told him how incredible the ones he was considering were, and I told the seller we’d buy them if he’d throw in a pair of AAA batteries for Elif’s mom.

A criminal adulterer on the Black Sea coast

Traditional houses of Safranbolu, Karabük, Turkey
Image via Wikipedia

We set out heading east from Istanbul along the Black Sea coast with Elif’s mom Dilek and her judge boyfriend Co?. Co? is married, but his wife is refusing the divorce out of spite, since Co? has been dating Dilek for two years. In Turkey, if the woman refuses the divorce, it won’t be granted until three years of separation – during which time adultery is an imprisonable offense. So the first few days, near Istanbul, we’re hiding from places where Co? might be recognized. After we get further east, we should be fine; our plan after that will be to head South along the Georgian, Armenian, and Iranian borders before heading back west.

After Lake Abant at Bolu, we reached the town of Old Safranbolu, a town whose houses date from Ottoman times and where it’s illegal to build new ones; some are wonderfully dilapidated, some such as the Kaymakamlar Evi (Governor’s house) have been restored. I loved the beautiful marble 17th century Cinci Hamam Ottoman baths and walked through all of its chambers on clogs as men were taking their baths, although it was too scalding for us to stay. We bought a tub of blackberries from some kids on the side of the road, and I ate the whole thing – spectacular, Edenic fruit. We stayed in Amasra, a town on two bays with a Byzantine-Genoese castle which had a huge neon Ataturk head that lit up at night.

The next day was a hard slog of driving, averaging about 40km/hour until Ayanc?k. We stayed at the Black Sea harbor town of Sinop, which had the typical scene of Turkish families with their kids walking on the strip, eating sticky gummy Mara? ice cream, with music blasting from the gazinos straight into our hotel rooms until midnight. On Thursday the 20th, we saw Sinop’s Alaeddin Camii, a mid-13th century Selçuk mosque that has a Spanish-Moorish-looking courtyard, as well as the Alaiye Medressi religious school. Heading east, the whole way we drove past hazelnuts which villagers were drying by the side of the road.

We then reached Samsun, a nightmarish, disgusting Black Sea city. Suddenly, Co?kun dumped us on a street corner and announced that he was going to stop by the army base there to visit his son who was serving his mandatory 18 months. Co?’s son hates him because he’s divorcing his mother, and Co? hoped he could affect a reconciliation. This proved to be a failure, for Co? reappeared at the corner and hour and a half later with the news that his son had refused to see him. The entire time Co? was gone, Dilek complained mightily about having been dumped at a street corner rather than at a museum or something, and we were sure that when Co? returned he’d get what he deserved, but Dilek proved to be a paper tiger. She told him that that the corner where we were dumped stank of petrol, and Co? merely replied, “You didn’t come from a village, you know what cities smell like.” But then Dilek felt sorry for him because his son wouldn’t see him, and she fed him cookies which were in the car.

Later that day at the town of Ünye, Elif announced she wanted to see her father’s uncle’s widow. The last time Dilek saw the woman, Dilek was pregnant carrying Elif. She was delighted by the surprise visit and was super-nice, stuffing us with food. That evening, we ate in an amazing lokanta in Vakf?kebir.

We stayed at the “Besst Hotel” in Be?ikdüzü outside of Trabzon. There we saw our first natasha – Russian whore. She was stunning – tall, thin, skimpily dressed with high heels and bright red makeup. I totally would’ve gone for her.

Heybeliada – life on an island without cars

Typical view from Heybeliada
Image via Wikipedia

Apartment-hunting in Turkey remains a slow process, as is just about everything else – not because of bureaucracy or shortages, but because of their way of doing business. No matter what you do, it necessarily involves drinking tea and tons of chitchat. No matter how hot it is outside or how many appointments you have, it’s impossible to see an apartment which doesn’t include a tea tray. Yesterday I went into a store and asked the shopkeeper if he had 200-speed film. His answer: “Bir cay almaz miydiniz?” (“Wouldn’t you like a cup of tea?”) The question was rhetorical – I found myself holding a glass of tea before I could even ask if it the tea was 200-speed.

We took a day off from the hunt and visited Istanbul’s “Prince’s Islands,” a small island chain in the Marmara Sea, southeast of the Bosphorus, a 20 minute boat ride to Istanbul’s Asian side. It was love at first sight, and we decided immediately to rent an apartment on Heybeliada, a small island which is a mere seven miles in circumference. It’s away from the smog and noise of the mainland, but close enough to it to go there should we want to attend any cultural events (next month they’re having a Georgian dance festival which should be fun). Some of the other islands have fallen prey to Turkey’s relentless modernism and development; Kinali’s television transmitters jut out from its hills like porcupine needles; Buyukada threatens to become Istanbul’s Key West, an overgrown souvenir stand which screams avowal of, and thereby disproves, its own authenticity as an idyll. But Heybeliada remains rooted in the past. It still functions as a naval base, just as it did when it was an Ottoman outpost. On it are several beaches (with lovely sunsets that are never quite the same from day to day), forests, graveyards (with a Moslem one right next to a Greek one), a small naval base, a few playgrounds, a mosque, a Greek Orthodox monestary and Jewish synagogue. Many historic buildings have been preserved and restored, and the most of the beaches and forests remain untouched. The only evidence of modern development are the few beach clubs and high-rises which are the summer playgrounds for Istanbul’s nouveaux riches.

Automobiles are forbidden on the island, and until you find yourself living without cars, it’s hard to realize how environmentally-intrusive they are. About two or three times a day, a police car or military truck will pass, and the effect is similar to being in a large room and suddenly realizing that someone, somewhere, has lit up a cigarette. Traveling by fayton (horse-and-carriage) is a great way to get around when it’s raining or if you’re feeling too lazy to hike up Refah Sehitleri, the island’s main drag. You can sit back in the carriage and smell the evergreens, occasionally punctuated with a whiff of the driver’s cigarette smoke, or of manure when the horse relieves itself into the basket behind its rear. You can rent a bicycle by the hour, but the small size of the island, as well as the terrain of the forests and beaches, make foot travel preferable. We walk every day at sunset through the forests, on the beaches, or down to the water to check out the fishermen’s catch and watch them feed the cats. At dusk, the waves splash against the shore as we watch the changing atmospherics over the Marmara.

The house we’re renting reminds us of a charming bed-and-breakfast, complete with antique furniture. It’s across the street from President Inonu’s mansion (the first President after Ataturk, in the 1930’s). We have two balconies, both shaded. It’s always cool no matter what the weather outside, because of the breeze and because of the shade of the garden trees (olive, cherry, and walnut). The cherries from the trees are delicious, the walnuts interesting (never had non-dried walnuts before) and the olives inedible (they need to be treated). The tangerines haven’t come out yet. There are also grapes, rose bushes, and lion’s head flowers.

The sounds of the island are much the same as they have been for hundreds of years. In the heat of the summer, street-sellers ply their wares, hiking up the island’s hills in the unforgiving sun, barking their services in Turkish shorthand. It would take years of training to decipher their cries, sometimes the last syllable of what they’re selling, sometimes a mere loud vowel, sometimes a guttural bleat. Islanders can distinguish them by tonal color and come to the window to buy what they’re carrying from sticks draped over their shoulders – buckets, sesame pretzels, fresh unpasteurized milk, bottled water, gas, broomheads, rags, cloths, bottles, even watermelons. One man walks around with a device that he uses to fluff your pillows for a few lira.

Even the sounds of the mosque are the same as they have been for centuries, except for an unwelcome “improvement”: they’ve installed wired, amplified loudspeakers on the minarets, one of which is opposite our house. Five times a day (or six times on Friday or if somebody dropped dead), the Ezan (call-to-prayer) is preceded by the sound of feedback, followed by throat-clearing, at which point our dishes begin to rattle like it’s another earthquake. The island’s three Imams are some of the worst singers of the call-to-prayer in all of Turkey. They take turns: one sounds quite inebriated, another has no conception of scale or pitch, and the third sounds like late-period Bob Dylan choking on a pear. The music is different than in Saudia Arabia (and changes throughout the day), but the message is the same: God is great, Mohammed is his only prophet, come to pray. The only call to prayer that really takes some getting used to is the first one of the morning, which during the summer months can happen at 4:30 AM. If there are street dogs around, they will all howl along with the Imam, and the faraway howls sound like weird wailing ghosts. At such times (especially if I’ve had too much raki the night before), the call to prayer becomes, for me, a call to peeing.

On Sundays, around the time of the the day’s second call-to-prayer, people from all over Istanbul begin pouring onto the island. The shopkeepers welcome the weekly invasion, but the rest have nowhere to hide, as the island transforms itself into a local tourist-attraction-on-the-cheap. Our balcony is nicely situated about 40 feet back from the street, and we love to spend the day watching people make the pilgrimage up the main drag in the late-morning and then parade back down Refah ?ehitleri at dusk to catch the boat back to the city. This parade provides us much merriment. The women wear Moslem head-covering, but their faces have bright lipstick and heavy makeup – and they’re heading straight for the beach! The men walk down the street holding hands, or interlocking arms, or with their arms around each other’s backs. Perhaps it is of some significance that the Turkish word for friend is arkada?, which means “sharing the same back” – standing back-against-back, or guarding each other’s blind side. When they pass at 11AM and at 6PM, they carry boomboxes playing either the wimpiest Eurotrash dance music or lovelorn Turkish arabesque music. It makes for an awesome sight – these rugged-looking men, bragging about their girlfriends, holding hands and blasting love songs – as if they are but an instant either from starting a gang fight, or from doing the bump to the Village People’s song “YMCA.”

On Wednesdays, the island hosts a Çar?amba Pazari (Wednesday Bazaar), a large, bustling Farmer’s Market. Villagers, Easterners, and Kurds at tables hawk produce, addressing people by their estimation of your age (they call me “brother-in-law” or “older brother”; I’m supposed to worry when they address me as “uncle.”) Gypsies selling garlic or lemons weave through the crowd. The produce is as comes straight from Eden – each fruit is usually half the size of its American equivalent but about ten times as tasty. They sell by the kilogram and always try to sell you more. Greens are sold by the bunch, or even by the shopping bag; some of it requires careful handling, such as stinging nettles and poison ivy, both of which make delicious soups. Everything is labeled “Amazing Taste!” or “Super Fresh!” or “Shocking Price!” Yoghurt is sold with kaymak on the top, a delicious, hard, golden layer of cream. There is no fat phobia here, and the packages proudly announce the yoghurt as “Tam Ya?l?! Kaymakl?!” (“Full fat! With Kaymak!”) or even “Cift Kaymakli!” (“Double Kaymak!”)

I have to remember to be careful with green peppers, from which so many Turkish appetizers are made. When you buy them from the bazaar, you ask, are they hot?, and the guy always tells you the same thing: who knows? They all come mixed together in the same batch; some taste like American green peppers (better, of course: less watery, more taste), and some taste like jalapenos. For some strange reason I forgot all of this in Dilek’s house, and ate a whole pepper, which caused it to project like a missile out of my mouth, my eyes to rain tears, and for me to go into hiccupping spasms. I went to the bathroom and drooled snot for awhile and returned to my dinner, much to the family’s amusement.

If you miss the Wednesday Bazaar, you can buy produce in the little markets of Heybeliada, although it’s slightly more expensive. Bread is sold at the bakery by the docks for about 15 cents for a large baguette. I often splurge: an extra dime for a baguette covered with sesame seeds. The government fixes the price so everyone can afford it, but we got a real taste of enflasyon last week when bread prices skyrocketed overnight from 40,000 lira to 70,000 lira. Because it’s too expensive (and discouraging) to raise prices every day to keep pace with Turkey’s inflation, they just wait awhile and make a big jump. So right now the baguette costs a quarter, which is quite a bit of money for many of the locals. But in a few months, if the price holds, it’ll be back down to 15 cents again.

At the checkout counter of the Gul Market, they sell flavorless Turkish gum that has a faint rosewater odor.  Its pieces are individually-wrapped, and the wrappers have sayings on them, which sometimes are terrible jokes, sometimes “words to live by,” and sometimes completely mysterious.  Here’s what my wrapper says now; you decide which category it fits into:

The other people may come and go
But life is a pasta strainer
And you will settle down
With a Capricorn (a crab).

Too late. Elif’s a Sagittarius.

If you send a letter, be sure to put her name on the envelope as well, as my name seriously confuses the mailman. Our address:

Refah ?ehitleri Cad. No.:64 Kat 2
(?smet ?nönü Müzesi kar??s?)
Heybeliada ?stanbul Turkey

The 637th annual Kirkpinar

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

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