New Years with The Anatolian Predator

Emir Kusturica
Emir Kusturica (Image via

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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