A Big Lonely City, Families And The Politics Of The Veil

Blossoms, SultanhametYesterday began with the promise of being a truly awful day. After breakfast I stopped by my favorite free wireless cafe, ordered some Turkish Tea and proceeded to check my email. A guilt inducing letter from home arrived, like an unwanted party guest. At first I was angry–a luxury I can scarcely afford–but then that sinking feeling set in. I chewed over the letter for a while, asked myself what it was that made me angry and if the sender might perhaps be right? Of course before the calm of understanding settled upon me I had already composed several angry, accusatory replies, only to delete them all. In the end I settled on simplicity itself: honesty, honesty about myself and others. I was kind, but blunt, blunt without a hint of reciprocating guilt. I stated my case and ended the letter with words of hope, that the tone of the correspondence might resume in a spirit of understanding and love.

I pushed thoughts of home, false obligations, old guilts and habits away and walked out. A dull graying followed me all day. The Bosporus shone but I did not see. The Uskumru sandwich was tasteless. The mosaic museum held no joy–although it was a sight to see. The streets were crowded, the crowds brushing and bumping past in pressing anonymity raised the loneliness in me like yeast. Even the cat outside the museum seemed uninterested. Eating my midday meal Vedat, Fuat and Isak all tried to get me out of my shell. But the Turkish jokes fell short of their mark and they soon stopped. Besides, men instinctively know when to leave another man to stew.

I ate my meal in silence, the Safronlu Tavuk dull but filling, uploaded the museum photos, put the laptop away, paid the bill and left. It was 6:00 in the evening. On my way up the old hill of Sultanhamet I noticed for the first time that day just how wild the light was, settling on people and buildings like an blanket of amber honey, pulling the color from houses, faces and even the gray minarets high above the Blue Mosque. The acute pink blossoms fronting the Hagia Sophia sung out in the early evening.

A small park sits between the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. In it are a dozen rows of wooden benches, populated with Turkish men sipping tea, young lovers exchanging kisses, old couples holding hands and an endless streaming of tourists moving back and forth between the two glaring sovereigns on the hill. I picked a bench and sat down and forced myself to see the beauty thrown out before me. I must have stared at the Blue Mosque for fifteen minutes, then turned around to stare at the Hagia Sophia.

Three young Turkish women approached me, all three veiled. “Hello,” the tall brown-eyed one said. “We’re students working on a project, can we ask you a few questions?” Sometime between Fuat’s and sitting down in the park my mood had lifted and I said, “sure.”

Hatice was tall, big brown eyes full of life and questions, wearing a long manteau draped over her frame and tight floral print silk scarf covering her head. Fatma was slight with elegant fingers and a hint of the steppes galloping about her eyes. Mervé had Galatian dancing across her pale blue eyes, pale skin and wide round face. They spoke in fluent, if tentative English. Hatice, an economics major, did most of the talking while Fatima (engineering) and Marvé (architecture) spoke in staccato bursts of Turkish to each other to better understand the nuances of what I was saying.

They were boilerplate questions, but I was happy to answer them all, hungry now for human contact. I do so love Istanbul, and they were surprised to hear me say so. Some how the conversation, like all conversations, turned to politics and religion. We cut straight to the heart of things. I believe it was Hatice who asked me what I thought of the ‘veil.’

“It’s your choice,” I replied. “If you want to wear it, no problem. If you do not, no problem,” I said, repeating a line I’ve used from India to Oman.

“But sometimes I have trouble,” she said. Mervé agreed. “Sometimes, at university, I don’t wear it,” implying that people made fun of her, or troubled her in some unspoken, or untranslatable way. This aroused in me a strange strong anger. “But it is your choice, no?” I asked, a touch of vehemence in my voice.

“Yes, it is but . . . ” she said. And the ‘but’ lingered in the air like a foul, human smell.

I realized sitting there that it’s not the veil which arouses such strong feelings in me, it’s the compulsion behind it. I told all three of them, “you know, my mother was a feminist.” All six eyebrows arched upwards in unison at this modern heresy but I continued. “She taught me that men and women are equal. Different in some ways but equal. This is why I do not like governments like Iran and many people from Arabia. They force women into slavery,” I said. I wasn’t in the mood to mince words and continued. “Women in Saudi Arabia cannot work, they cannot drive a car, they cannot vote and they cannot leave the home without a husband or a brother. This is wrong,” I said.

They all nodded their heads in unison and I plowed on, warming to the subject, but trying not to hector them.

“But here, in Turkey you are free. If you want to wear the hejab you can. If you do not then you don’t. But it is your choice. A woman’s choice. If a woman doesn’t want a career that is fine with me. There is no more difficult job in the whole entire world,” I formed a globe by waving my arms in the air, “than being a housewife.”

They all nodded in agreement.

“A mother is the first to wake up in the morning, get children up for school, wakes up lazy husband,” I added for humor. They smiled. “Then she cooks breakfast and lunch for husband and children, sends the children out and the husband to work. Then she cleans all day, buys food, arranges the home and then cooks for the children and waits for the husband. Sometimes she must heal her children–so she’s a doctor to–and she has to watch over their emotions, guarding them from the dangers of the world, helping them through their troubles–so now she is psychologist too–and only then is she the last to sleep,” I said, exhausted at the thought of all that endurance and work. “But this life should not be forced on any person. If you want a career,” I looked at Fatma who was smiling at Hatice, “then you should make one. And if you choose to wear the veil, why, who am I to tell you how you should honor Allah?”

“I wish the other girls and boys at the university thought as you do,” said Fatma. I sighed in understanding. Life is not easy for late teenagers anywhere (two were 19 and the other was just 20), the late spring of youth when a young woman is only beginning to understand what she can do, who she can be and what worlds she can create.

“So, what will you do with your architecture degree,” I asked Mervé? “When I complete my diploma I will work for big company of course, but I would like to return to Afyon and own my own business.”

“And you Hatice,” I asked?

“I think I would like to work for a bank. And visit America, of course,” she said with a wide grin, her almond eyes shining in the early evening sunset.

And you, Fatma, daughter of the Prophet,” I asked.

“I’ll be an engineer, but I don’t yet know what I will do. I am still young,” blushing at the compliment. For a moment a I sensed a wildness in her, a contained energy willing itself out. This one, I thought, will be someone, someday.

I smiled a contented smile. Not because I changed their minds. Or that they might or might not agree with me. Only that I was alive in the moment, hopefully being as good as an ambassador for my people as I could possibly be. These are the moments I cherish most, I thought, especially when the problems of home flee my head like bats tearing out of a cave at dusk.

Modernity is here in Turkey but it’s a decidedly Turkish one. That is as it should be. I should hope Turkey remains a secular state. And I do think it will. And yet, I am aware that Turkey arises from a Muslim tradition. And that, too, is as it should be. Europe and America both aspire to the morality of their Christian roots, although both fall far short. So what is wrong with Turkey aspiring to the morality of Islam? The very foundations of the religion are outward manifestations of social justice, as even the most cursory glances at the life of the Prophet will reveal. The zakat is a tithe, for those who are less fortunate than you. Ramadan is a reminder, at its heart, that there are hungry and needy people in the world and it is good to be reminded of their pangs. And the Haj? What could be more right for any man or woman than to be a pilgrim in the physical, mobile sense, or an inward, spiritual one?

I certainly don’t have any illusions that life is easy for Turkish women. And I don’t have any illusions that there hasn’t been over-religious regression in the last few years amidst an astonishing amount of material progress. When I first visited Turkey a dollar bought about 5,000,000 lira and you could be sure to add a new zero every few months. The cars were old and beat up. The buildings charming in their dilapidated condition but there was nary a skyscraper reaching towards the heavens. And now? All that has changed. It’s cleaner, better organized and the outward signs of wealth are everywhere. If you think about it it’s not terribly different from the over-religious regression but (phantom) improvement in material wealth in America over the last two decades?

Besides, I was lonely yesterday. A powerful, heavy loneliness. And the hopeful smiles and warm conversation I had in the dueling shadows of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia renewed and reinvigorated me.

It may not be perfect. But it’s real.

Mosaic Museum – Büyük Saray Mozaikleri Müzesi

Roman Mosaic, IstanbulI finally made it to the Great Palace Mosaic Museum (Büyük Saray Mozaikleri Müzesi in Turkish.)

As with all photos of mosaics, the light is variable and some of the photos aren’t top quality. But the mosaics are splendid, if grim and bloody. Most depict scenes of gore, lions attacking elephants, snakes wrapped around stags, a griffon attacking a lamb, hounds ripping a hare to shreds, and a bear devouring some animal.

A few are pastoral, like this one of a man leading a camel. The mosaics are fragmented, however, so it’s hard to get an idea of the full scenes they depict.

They were commissioned to be the original floors and walls of the Imperial Palace here in Constantinople, not the Blachernae, which the Venetian’s sacked in the 13th century, the remains of which site on the shore of the Golden Horn at the start of the Great Theodosian Walls.

The original palace sat in roughly the place that the Blue Mosque overshadows, the Arasta Bazaar, on the side of a hill overlooking the Sea of Marmara.

There are about 40 photos. Enjoy.

Friday Cat Blogging

Magic Carpet Ride?
Caption courtesy Amanda Swaty Myers.

I got nothing today. So, how about we make this post a Flame Fest. We haven’t had one of those in a long time.

Eating In Silence

Last night was cold and damp. Late in the day rain returned on the coattails of cold Ukrainian wind. Blossoms, cigarette butts and the assorted flotsam of the city washed down the streets. My socks were soaked and my feet were wet (today I will get new shoes). I raced home in the darkness, my newly cropped hair draped over the globular dome of my fat head like a mop, rivulets of rain raced down my poncho.

I sat a sesame loaf on the kitchen table, said ‘hi’ to one of the Mongol’s chopping carrots and celery on the kitchen counter and hung my fresh pressed shirts in my closet. (Note to self: linen shirts are no good for an Istanbul spring.) I grabbed ‘East of Eden,’ a pack of smokes and walked into the common room, sat down at the kitchen table and started reading.

From the corner of my eye I observed the young Mongolian woman cooking here meal. She was a stout young woman, well built for the cold extremes of the Mongolian Steppes, but lacked a wildness in the eyes her husband/boyfriend has. I wondered where he was (they share the room next to mine) but soon ‘East of Eden’ sucked me back into its big story. Cathy’s twins had been delivered without incident. Now she was leaving, as she told Adam she would, but Adam wouldn’t let her go so she shot him in the shoulder with his own .44. The sheriff’s deputy couldn’t make sense of Adam’s lies and secret shame.

More after the jump.

I set the tome down on the table with a satisfied thud and dug a smoke out of its packaging. Before I could light it up the Mongolian woman set a plate of food in front of me. “Ah,” I thought to myself, “here is one of those pan-East Asian traditions both unavoidable and uncomfortable.”

I was hungry and smiled like the starving, coyote-like single man that I am, more forager than hunter, and did my best to convey my thanks in sign language. The two of us probably share six words in common. She has no English except for ‘hello and bye.’ I don’t know a lick of Mongol and couldn’t spit out a word if I tried. Our common Turkish is as small, ‘thank you and you’re welcome’ being the grand extent of it.

Here was one of those amazing situations that defy description. I was hungry, but I ate in a slow, deliberate fashion. Mostly we stared at our food as we ate in a pervasive silence. A thousand questions swan around in my gray matter.

“What’s her name? What’s she doing here? Can women really sense hunger in a man?” No, not that hunger. I’m talking about food here. “How old is she? Is she married to the guy she’s with? What is Mongolia like? Why Turkey?” But my mind kept circling back to why she felt compelled to feed me? Is this impulse nature of nurture? It’s always surprised me, even when I was married. I prefer to feed myself. But then again, I am a man, quite uncivilized and uncouth as these things go.

I also wondered what she thought. What was she thinking about me? Did she want to ask the same kind of questions? Was she as frustrated as I was with our inability to communicate? Or was she happy, or at the very least not bothered by the void that separated us?

The food was good. Odd, but good. I got up, washed as many dishes as I could to show my gratitude for the meal and stepped outside into a light drizzle.

It was an odd situation, but I was grateful for it no less.

Crippled By Laziness (And Proud Of It)

When I walked outside my flat this morning, backpack hanging from my shoulders, ready for Konya and saw nothing but blue skies there was no doubt in my mind that I would waste another day. I walked back inside the flat, set down the pack, stuffed “East of Eden,” my laptop and my travel journal in my day-pack and took the tram to Vedat’s, over in Sultanhamet.

I’d like to tell you that the early vigor of the morning produced results. I want to tell you that I snapped tons of new exposures (I only managed four measly photos with my iPhone) or visited the mosaic museum or took the ferry down the Bosporus to the Black Sea and back. Or even that I visited the Maritime Museum down in Kabataş to see the last few links of the Byzantine harbor chain. But I’d be lying. All I did was eat, drink tea, check my email, read, read some more, talked with Vedat about his Kurdish wife (he’s a Turk), read some more, wrote some and did a lot of walking. The new shoes I bought in India in February are devastated. The right sole has a crack in it the size of Bryce Canyon. The insteps cratered right into the pavements. I’ll buy a new pair as soon as the rains (maybe) arrive. There really are no guarantees right now about anything. My sandals, however, are still alive and well. The Malaysian cobbler did yeoman’s work. Leather endures the punishment I mete out on shoes much better than plastic and nylon. There’s an irony: I’m a foot-dragger in more ways than one! My ex-wife always said I was ‘astonishingly lazy’ in that alarming, mirthless Russian accent of hers. I couldn’t agree more.

When I arrived in Istanbul a few weeks ago (has it been that long already?) I noted to myself that the trees were still bare and with barely a blossom. No more. It isn’t like late Spring or early Summer yet, but it’s a time of year I know little about.

I’ve never really experienced a full blown Spring in my life. In Texas Spring happens too fast, plants wither and dry under a weakening sun. I did live through a spring in South Korea back in 1995 but all I recall of it was the pinkish-white blanket of cherry blossoms in the park at Pul Guk-sa in Kyong-ju.

That was another wasted day too. Why is it that the wasted days (like that nap in Dublin back in 1998, or the whole month at Lake Toba) resonate so long in our memories and the productive days fade?

I think I’ll stay right here and do as little as possible, except conjuring massive amounts of bullshit from thin air. I seem to do that well.

Steinbeck and Effective Writing

I’ve begun re-reading Steinbeck’s “East Of Eden.” I’d hoped to find a copy of “Grapes of Wrath” as it mines the Great Depression in a way few great American books do. I also believe that the “Grapes of Wrath” is essential reading these days and very appropriate for the times in which we live.

But I was unable to find a copy and settled upon “East Of Eden,” a big, almost biblical, epic of a book. It’s the story of the Hamilton and the Trask families, the cycle of life and death, living on and from the land and the main character of the book itself, the Salinas Valley in California. I believe it was Pearl Buck who wrote, “write what you know.” And that is what Steinbeck does. If you’ve not read this book, do.

What makes Steinbeck’s writing so agreeable is the action in his writing. Something is always happening, even when he’s describing something as simple as flowers growing on a hillside. Four pages into the book he writes of California poppies:

These too are a burning color–not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies.”

Now, I’ve never seen a California poppy, but I damn sure know what one is like now. If you read the sentence closely you’ll note that there are no adverbs and few adjectives. There isn’t a single word in the sentence, or in the first several pages, anyone with a reading level above the Eight Grade would need a dictionary for, either. Besides, when you get into the nuts and bolts of the sentence it’s really rather boring, no?

And yet the description lives. Why? Well, as any Freshman Comp textbook will tell you, the sentence lives in the verbs. A “burning” color? A liquid metal that “raises” a cream? And the extended metaphor of milk and cream, solid gold and that which is liquid? Give me spartan prose that lives any day over a bunch of words I barely know.

I know Steinbeck is out of fashion in the salons and uber-literate magazines of the East Coast, that Hemingway still rules the roost and Delillo, Roth and Updike are probably the most widely read in high-brow circles. But there is a reason Steinbeck won a Nobel Prize and a reason he’s still read in Middle and High Schools across the country. One could do worse.

What are you reading these days?

Forward Momentum

Roasted ChestnutsI swear I am not going to be lazy anymore–or at least not in the near future. Enjoying myself too much here in Istanbul, would be putting it mildly. It’s time for some forward movement. I don’t care if it’s 5* centigrade in Sivas early this week, I am going. I came to Turkey for two reasons: one, Istanbul and two, Seljuk architecture. It’s time I visit some of the latter. I have been luxuriating in Istanbul’s mesmeric light, eating way too much good food and enjoying far too many great conversations over way too much tea for too long. (Side note: I posted some iPhone photos of a protest in Beyoglu and the very heavy handed Turkish police presence today. My plans for the Prince’s Islands succumbing to a bout of laziness of which I am proud to admit.)

I’m not going to visit Konya just yet. A friend might join me before I leave Turkey in early May, so I’m going to put Konya off for a week or two. Besides, Sivas has lots to offer. Sure, it’s not the former capital of the Seljuk Sultanate of Iconium, or Rum, if you prefer. But it has half a dozen stellar 12th and 13th century mosques and madari (the plural of medresseh) that I’m determined to see. It’s rumored that one of the buildings is emblazoned with a similar “Lion and Sun” motif as that found in Samarkand. (And yes, I fully realize that the ‘lion’ in that photo resembles a Tiger, which only adds to the mystery, which is far beyond the scope of this feeble post.) I can’t begin to tell you how much that heraldry has fascinated me like a sick, perverted intellectual bad joke. Why there? Who designed it? Who commissioned it? So many questions, all of which have never been satisfactorily answered.

I also hope to visit Bodrum–formerly Halicarnassus, the home of Herodotus, as close to any historical figure can come to being my spiritual mentor and also Marmaris, where a friend-of-a-friend is wintering on his sailboat. (I’m pondering crossing the Black Sea with them later in the summer.)

There is an off chance that I may return to Georgia late next week, but only if the protests and the Russians get really prickly. After Turkey? Well, I’ve an important date to keep in Denmark on June 14. Until then, I’m determined to visit the Crimea and fortunately it’ll be easy: the Ukraine doesn’t require a visa for Americans any longer. This is no mean feat, as the Crimea represents a big hole I’ve not yet seen in the old Inner Asian trade routes. (The only other hole there is left is Turkmenistan. But that doesn’t look good right now for monetary reasons.)

So, all this laziness must come to an end in a few days. And yet, I could dilly-dally around Istanbul for a long, long time if given half the chance.

Turkish Delights

Grilling The Uskumru, EminonuI’m not a food writer, but I do enjoy food. I’m not the most adventurous types when it comes to food, but I usually have a solid eye (and nose) for what I like and don’t, although there have been a few notable–and very disgusting–food disasters in my life, both of which occurred in China. My friend Stuart once told me, “man, you know how to eat!”

Today as I left the flat I was trying to think of something to do. The Prince’s Islands were out, as I’m going tomorrow with a friend. I’d been to Hagia Sophia the day before, have seen the Blue Mosque almost every day since I’ve arrived. I’ve walked the Old Theodosian Walls, been to the Chora Church, Sulimaniye, Istiklal Caddesi and smelled the roasted chestnuts, Taksim and I wasn’t in the mood, what with such a beautiful spring day, to spend it in a museum. That can wait until it rains again! “Aha! I thought to myself, go to Eminonu and have an Uskumru Sandwich, walk along the Bosporus, take some people photos and then head over to Vedat’s restaurant, underneath the Arasta Bazaar and write for the rest of the afternoon!”

Uskumru is one of my favorite things about Istanbul. A grilled fish sandwich, the first time I’d heard about it, was not, to be honest, on the top of my list. But I remember in 2007 when I walked to the ferry port at Eminonu and smelled it for the first time. My stomach growled in response and I duly obeyed. I’m glad I did. It’s one of the tastiest bits of street-food the city has to offer.

Light and Location

Lovely Turkish GirlsI was in a general, all around bad mood–full of foul, angry bile just waiting for the right moment to be a bitch (and yes, men can be bitches too)–only momentarily broken by the spell the interior of the Hagia Sophia cast upon me, as I took the metro back to Taksim this afternoon. But the moment I crossed the Golden Horn I’d have possessed a heart of ice to not smile. And it was a big, shit-eating grin of pure joy that I smiled. My fellow passengers must have thought I was nuts. This looney foreigner smiling like an inmate from a lunatic asylum?

But it was impossible not to, for three hundred and sixty degrees of eye candy lay before me! The late afternoon light, just beginning its long slant towards sunset stretched out like luminescent fingers reaching for the pink and green hills of Asia.

Damn, sometimes I just can’t help myself. Sadly, this is one view that must be seen in person. The photos I’ve posted over three trips here so far just don’t do it justice. Not even remotely.

I sat back, sighed a deep, heavy sigh and thought of what I’ve seen in the last several months, lost in a moment of poignant reverie.

“Has anything been as beautiful as this?” I asked.

I ticked off the list: Singapore? Nope. The Cameron Highlands? Nope. Laos? Nope. Angkor? Nope. Vietnam? Nope. Lake Toba? Close, but not quite–and a very different aesthetic and cultural experience in the bargain.

There is something about the natural setting of Istanbul with Asia to the south, the deep, almost estuary-like Golden Horn cutting through the heart of the European city like a dagger and the old Acropolis where the Topkapi and Hagia Sophia still stand that is quite literally majestic. Oh, there are places of supreme natural beauty that get me twirling around in fits of ecstasy like one of the local Mevlana Dervishes. But I know of no place on earth where nature–here the sea and the hills–and city come together with such force and impact.

I mined deeper into my past and a thought danced around in my head, something I’d been toying with but hadn’t quite idealized.

“Light,” I thought, snapping my fingers loudly, scaring the lady sitting next to me.

That’s the ingredient that makes Istanbul so special to me. Rome’s got it too. Actually, almost every place in the world has its own special light. Some, like Muscat, are sharp, hard edged. Singapore’s is wet and heavy. The Western Deserts of China dazzle in dry brilliance and Central Mexico has a serenity that belies the chaos happening at all points along the compass. Sadly, too many are now too occluded by pollution to be appreciated any longer. I mean, really, how many of us sit around and ponder the color of the local light?

Now, Rome’s light, actually much of Italy south of the Arno, shares a similar feel to that of Istanbul, but not quite the same. I’m writing this off the cuff so I’ll spare you any elaborate or purple metaphors and similes, suffice it to say the light of Rome is warm, like a luscious white wine. And the way the rays fall through the Parasol pines on the Aventine or Quirinal makes one want to be holy. But this light in Istanbul? It’s like a cross between the ancient light of Athens in all its quasi-oriental hues and Rome’ stunning grandeur, except one never knows when some sultry houri or odalisque is going to jump out and lead me down temptation avenue. Or a Janissary captain is going to press me into the Sultan’s service. Or a half-mad, drunken Armenian is going to tell me judgment day is coming. I just never know!

It’s also that same light that finds its way down from the dome of the Hagia Sophia, a place that never fails to inspire.

Fuck it, man. I’d wade through a river of shit ten times to see this place.