Tuesday, February 10, 2015

GACHO!!!! Kurdish Baseball/Kurdish Cricket

Gacho (Gaço)

It’s a cold February winter night. Outside is about an inch of slush and snow, with more falling. We have Dede (Delal’s grandfather) over a visit and he is explaining some of the summer games they used to play in the village—Conag, once connected to Kiğı (Keghi in Armenian). One game really grabs my attention—it’s called gacho (gaço) and bears a striking similarity to baseball, actually moreso to cricket.

There are two bases opposite one another, one for each team. You need a level and large enough field to play. Sometimes they would play in the meadow while tending the flocks, Dede says. Both men and women could play.

Four people stand at each base. This number on the team isn’t fixed, but depends on who all wants to play. One person on the batter's team throws the ball to the batter. The bat is specially made for the game. The hitter gets three chances to hit the ball (like three strikes). There is something called a nişantaşı (target stone) at an equal distance from both bases. If you hit the ball, you run to the target stone. You can be tagged out if someone hits you with the ball or catches your hit in the air. The fielding team's job is to retrieve the ball and hit you with it. If your ball is still in play when you get to the target stone, you run back to your base for a point. If the ball has been caught but you aren’t out, you stay at the target stone and let another player up to bat.

The "field" as drawn by Dede

You want to hit the ball far, Dede emphasizes. But the amateur show offs always make the mistake of hitting it far and up. If you hit it straight up in the air, the fielders on the other team can easily catch it and you're out (a pop fly from baseball). One out and you switch innings.

He isn’t that specific on the shape of the bat—it can be flat or round, he says. But it needs to be about arm length and thick, not just any old stick. The ball is generally made of wrapped twine—because “a rubber ball went too far.”

Everyone says the game resembles baseball—though in my opinion it sounds a lot more like cricket. In any case, there were lots of people from Kiğı working in America or elsewhere who might have brought the game back home or else, maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe it’s an older game with Mesopotamian roots (though I haven’t heard of it played anywhere else). Are there any Kurds or Armenians or Anatolians out there who have played gaço or something like it?

Addendum: I answer my own question with a little web search in Turkish--"Kürt beyzbolu"
Check out this video. In Van and Bitlis, apparently, a game like gaço is played. The Van people in this video call it topa garan with garan being a general word for group, often used for flocks and herds of animals. Herd ball? (And top is Turkishwhich is weird--ye olde assimilation). The word herd was used because it was played when people were tending flocks. One of your own team pitches the ball and it doesn't look like the batter runs, but another team member. One of the guys at the end explains that it is played with 15 players, 6 on each team and 3 others performing another job watching the animals. (Dede also mentioned the animals "leaving" when they played). He also says that the ball was made from goat hair stuffed tightly into a sock.

This article talks about how it is played in Bitlis. These guys say they mostly have tournaments in winter to reduce the chance of injury (less dangerous on snow?) One guy says "Most people say don't let the winter come, don't let it snow, but we can't wait for the snowy weather. It means Kurdish baseball!" They use an old axe handle for a bat.
A picture of the ball the  Bitlis players are using--the stitching is either just like a baseball (but white) or it is a baseball 

With all this talk of what they use for balls and bats, it makes me think how odd it is, the vagaries of politics and history. Delal and I went to a Birmingham Baron's game last summer and I had forgotten how much I really love the sport. "This is a whole culture," she said to me. "Look at all the rituals and shows between innings." If Kurdistan had been a stable country and wealthy enough, a la England, then perhaps this game would have developed into a ritualized national sport. There would be regulations on what the ball could be made of--tightly wrapped wool?--and on the nature of the bat and shape of the field. But it stays in the villages (or in Bingöl's case--in the memories of the old folk) and so always has the flavor of the more chaotic American baseball of the 19th century (check out Shelby Foote's documentary for just how ruleless things were) before it was taken up as a formal, national sport.

I wonder if the people of Bitlis, Van and Bingöl realize that they are all playing the same (or a similar) game, they might start organizing tournaments with each other--informal at first--and bring the game to wider attention. A Kurdish national sport?

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Kurd and the Cracker in Thailand--Part 1

Title makes it sound like breakfast somehow, curds and crackers.


To be honest, I find myself often questioning the worth of travel blogs these days. It’s eye catching, people might ping a picture or two, but it's somewhat boring and two-dimensional if you ask me—even when people do interesting things. Now I like to hear about a good adventure in another country as much as anyone, but the work of writing is such an intensive and special process to me, an aspiration to sublimity. That’s right. (And I mean it, too) If I write a travel blog, I'd like it to get at something I care about at least.

So here is my attempt.

During my fall break in November, Delal and I took a trip to Thailand. I’d had dreams for several nights about what our trip would be like—there was a kind of anthropological curiosity in the back of my mind about what a Kurdish woman from Istanbul, born and raised in the Kurdistani mountains, would make of tropical Bangkok. And a lover's curiosity about how Delal herself would react to something that had been, however much in the background now, an important part of my life--Asia, where I had lived and traveled for five years as a youth. I had heard the perspectives of my own countryfolk until I could recite them by heart, but what would she think? What would make an impression on her?

We were coming at a strange time, at least for people who’d lived through the last few years in Istanbul. Thailand is currently in the hands of a military coup, run by a man, who, like our own Dear Leader, controls the country with a fatherly iron fist. Like our own Dear Leader, he is taxing alcohol and other vices because he thinks it’s bad for you, and like our own Dear Leader, he is throwing protesters in jail willy nilly and making like it's for their own good. The day before our arrival five students had held up the three fingered salute from the Hunger Games to the reigning Prime Minister Prayuth Chan Ocha. They were promptly arrested and taken to a military camp for “attitude adjustment.”  Prayuth said something patronizing to explain their detainment--I'm glad their brave but they must learn to use their bravery properly--and military police were stationed outside some theaters in Bangkok to catch people doing the same thing.

Prayuth and Dear Leader have a lot in common on the whole, but these sorts are a tribe. They make up the secret cabal controlling the world that they're always ranting about. Power, I think, hones away certain parts of a human being until finally it cuts away enough flesh and blood that it reveals the same monster underneath—whether you’re in 21st century Thailand or Turkey, 20th century Russia or the Germany of China, 19th Century India or a 2014 Citibanker and his Congressional stooge in the United States—or anywhere and anywhen else for that matter. Anyway, PM Prayuth does not like the Hunger Games or booze or anything that harms the morality of the noble Thai people .

Of course, we saw none of this political topsy turviness. Nor would anyone touring Turkey ever really notice the creeping government authoritarianism. Even expats living here might never notice if they didn’t go looking. We did see one group of college students next to a Bangkok metro station in Makkason—they were in a weed-strewn vacant lot dressed in gas masks performing some sort of outdoor theater. Some did stunts on BMX bikes. The way they were dressed reminded me of the characters in the murals of PixelPancho in Kadıköy—faceless, highly symbolic, slightly menacing. There was also a strong police presence in the subway stations--cops rummaging through everyone’s bags, but that might not have been out of the ordinary. Who knew? We were new.

But Bangkok charmed. 

We stayed in Chinatown, Hua Lamphong. The walk from here to the old city was an adventure in itself—nearly a mile of sidewalk food stalls each seeming to serve a completely different dish. The variety was dazzling and was all Delal could talk about—how could there be so many different kinds of food???? And this was just the Chinese section of the city. Dozens of varieties of mushrooms, fresh and dried, baskets upon baskets of local herbs and greens--kaffir limes, lemon grass, Pandan leaves, Thai sweet basil--and many others I had no idea what was. It was like an exhibition of Asian cuisine—and all so cheap! We had a lunch of two bowls of duck noodles, a seafood salad, and two fresh coconuts macheted open for the juice inside all for about eight dollars, and this was one of our more expensive meals.

The beginning of our parade of food--lunch with coconut--YUM!

Delal noticed one major difference between Bangkok and Istanbul right way. In Istanbul all of these vendors would have been harassing us—buy this buy this buy this!! And they would also all have been men, men who would have been helloing us to death, trying to drag us into their shops or simply staring and staring. Women, Delal said, would be investigating through surreptitious glances, her clothes and hair and demeanour, giving knowing glances to their friends or tsking or maybe even approving—but no matter what, constantly judging. Here, no one seemed to notice us. And when we ordered, they spoke English if they could, didn’t fret if they couldn’t, and didn’t make a big deal out of our foreignness. They didn't even seem to notice.

We made our way through heat and choking air pollution to Wat Pho—one of the city’s oldest and grandest Buddhist temples and it was here that memory kind of flooded the world. As I stepped through the gate, there was this tingling in my gut and the past suddenly boiled up and superimposed itself on the present. It was such an odd sensation. I had been here alone fifteen years ago, first earning to practice meditation. I remembered the younger me—overwhelmed with the smells of the incense, the hot tropical air and the ornate walls covered in multi-colored mirrored tiles, the golden flame shapes on the sharp sloped roofs. I remember walking the quiet mazes filled with statues of the Buddha and the feeling of looking into a kind of wisdom for the first time, one that I had always speculated was there and had not yet dared to delve into due to childish fears from the Puritan Evangelism I had grown up with.

Architectural details from Wat Pho

How vivid this younger me becomes--it's like a take over from that moment in 1998.

I walk into the hall housing the main image of the Buddha and remembered vividly walking into the same hall fifteen years ago. I am barefoot and in shorts, drunk from the sensual warmth after having frozen in Tokyo’s winter. There is a light scent of incense, the sound of a bell that seems to clear the air of other sounds and thoughts and restless things. Under a towering ceiling is a gigantic golden statue of the Buddha meditating in the lotus position. He sits on a pedestal of gold, surrounded by other gold statues of Ananda and other disciples.  The walls are tesselated with murals of classic Thai scenes of temples and gardens in a labyrinth pattern. 

I feel then and felt now a sense of “This is it!” Not that I wanted to become a Buddhist but that I had found something, spiritually or intellectually, that I had been looking for all my life. My mind quieted a bit here, maybe for the first time ever.

We continued walking this temple, me in this disorienting confluence of then and now. I seemed to be seeing everything in double. It was deepened with every new thing we saw--I spent 6 months wandering Asia, doing a kind of unofficial impromptu spiritual quest that changed my life though not as much as it could have if I had really let go and given myself to the place. Every object here reminded me of that me, of life's potential as I was so vividly aware of it then. The monk in saffron robes, the hall of the reclining Buddha, the line of prayer bowls and the sound of chanting flowing over a quiet city dusk.

Afterwards, we repaired through a maze of deserted riverfront alleys (Why were they deserted, the Istanbullus ask!) to a high-priced café on Chao Phraya River and sipped fruit shakes—Delal’s pineapple and mine mangosteen. Party barges glided by. The lights of the city broke and reformed on the waves. Bouncy traditional Thai music swelled and receded. Across the water was the ancient Hindu-like towers of Wat Arun. Through a haze of jet lag, Delal told me she loved Thailand.

I had to agree.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Aegean Odyssey--part 3: Pergamon, the Greatest Ruins in Turkey

It’s been a while since I’ve written—I know. I would like to start up again by concluding the travel log I’d started about our October trip to the Aegean coast and the fabulous city of Pergamon.
The city walls on the Acropolis
The ruins of Pergamon are on a large hill north of the Turkish town of Bergama. It is easily the most stunning ancient site I have seen in a country inundated with them. The history here is dense. The church of Pergamon is mentioned in the Book of Revelation as one of the churches of Asia that crazy St. John was sending his letters to. It’s called “a dwelling place of Satan” who had his throne there. Well isn’t that special. It was also the place where parchment was invented and boasted the greatest library in the antique world, with over 200,000 volumes, second only to Alexandria. The Roman physician Galen was born there—the most famous doctor in the ancient world and one of the first practitioners of psychotherapy. To the north of the main town are the ruins of an enormous medical complex called the Asclepion where people from all over the Roman empire came for treatment. The city was also a center of the arts and boasted an enormous theater along a steep ridge that still stuns to this day.

In short, it has quite a pedigree.
From the Temple of Emperor Hadrian

We took the funicular one-way up the hill and walked down through the ruins, though the woman at the ticket booth tried to talk us into a more expensive round trip. Most people seem to fall for this as we encountered absolute no one on our stroll down through perhaps the main and most interesting part of the ruins.

The theater is a must-see—the steepest theater in the world with a seating capacity for over 10,000 people. You emerge from the colonnaded tunnels beneath the Imperial temple onto a steep stairwell with a dizzying, breathtaking view of all the mountains around. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could have concentrated on a play with that view in front of them.
From these tunnels you emerge into the theater

From the theater we walked down the ancient Roman road, still paved with brick, past the Altar of Zeus (the most interesting parts of which have been moved to the Berlin Museum), one of the seven wonders of the world and the thing John of Revelations meant when he said “throne of Satan.”

It was after this road that most of the tourists vanished and we were left alone in the vast lower levels of the city. We toured the sports stadium—all vine and columns and red dust. Everything was absolutely silent except for the wind on the brick and weeds. There was a feeling that everything was too old to even be haunted. Above the stadium was the house of one of the governor’s of Pergamon—the mosaic floor and decorations still intact. This was one of the most fascinating parts of the whole city—for here you could imagine what everything would have looked like two thousand years before, what it might have felt like to come home and sit down to relax after a day’s work for a Roman government official.
The remnants of the Altar of Zeus
We emerged from the city walls and crawled under a fence at the bottom of a hill, then walked to the Red Basilica in the middle of the town of Bergama. It looks like a crumbling cathedral of broken brick but is actually much older than Christianity. It used to be a temple to the Egyptian gods, apparently, a concession to Egyptian expats living in the city. And what a contingent their must have been for such a grandiose monument! You can still find pieces of Serapis and Isis and Set and Ra in the shambling red towers. There is one intact tower and when you first enter it from the sunlight, you are immersed in utter darkness. Around the walls are statues of Egyptian gods—half animal, half human--and in the center a podium with a secret entrance from which the priests used to speak to worshippers—a disembodied voice from the Egyptian underworld. The Lonely Planet claims this was the place John meant by “throne of Satan”, not the Zeus altar, and it certainly feels more demonic, more frightening.
Egyptian warrior goddess, Sekhmet at the Red Basilica

Delal and I visited the medical complex of the Asclepion last—and I think this was her favorite part of the whole trip. It’s such an extensive facility with mud baths and massage parlors and a building for the treatment of the insane and a hot springs and a sleeping center where doctors would listen to people’s dream rantings for an explanation of their illnesses. A long road from the main city of Pergamon—about a mile in length—was completely covered to prevent people from being affected by the weather.

I am always fascinated to walk these old roads, especially the ones that emerge out of the brush and vanish back into it. The greatest lengths of them lie under the ground—you can feel the presence of this buried network of phantom highways and sideroads, all connecting a vast array of cities and towns long dead and vanished, invisible under the modern map. I always think of the millions who walked and drove them, and now my own footfalls added to the history. The paving stones of the Asklepion road have been worn smooth by centuries of feet—no ruts because no wheeled vehicles ever traveled here.
The road to the Asklepion
Most of the hotels and pensions in Bergama were unnecessarily expensive—“boutique” if you will. The Hera told us over the phone that since we were Turks, she would give us a discount—which of course means she regularly overcharged tourists. Never mind that neither of us were Turks. We finally settled on the Odysseus Guest House, located in a historic Greek mansion being refurbished by group of grad students and run by an extremely nice guy who did not try to overcharge us in any way. Highly recommended—it boasts a nice view of the old city and the Acropolis from it’s terrace and a copy of the Odyssey—extremely relevant to the whole area, sits on the night stand in each room. I read all the chapters on the places we had spent the week traveling through.
Lake Manyas

On our drive back to Istanbul we stop by the Kuş Cenneti (Bird Paradise) wildlife sanctuary near Bursa—a rapidly shrinking and according to the covered lady who worked the information desk, dying refuge for migratory birds. Chemicals from the poultry plant on the shores of Lake Manyas are leaking into the birds’ habitat, and dams and agricultural run off are wreaking havoc on the environment. You cannot approach the lake too closely. There’s an observation tower and the park headquarters lends you a pair of binoculars. We looked out from the top deck at what looked like the white reflection of the sun all along the Southern shore. Then bits of the sunlight rose and began to fly and that’s when I realized that what we were seeing were hundreds upon hundreds of white pelicans. There were flamingos too, wading for fish and egrets, storks, cormorants, spoonbills, and herons.  Despite the ecological disaster we knew was waiting for these birds, despite our distance from them there in that tower, there was still something majestic about them, hundreds of them taking wing at once and crossing the sunset sky.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Ode to an Istanbul Autumn Night

The boza seller--whose somber night buskings herald the Istanbul autumn

In Istanbul’s deep November, the boza man wanders far and wee. He only appears after 9PM, like a chuck-wills-widow. And the autumn night is misty, but not rainy. Swirls of droplets gather on the car windshields like sugar. And the air is still just warm enough to jog in a T-shirt and just feel a pleasant little chill as the wind rushes through the trees and sluices between the rows of apartments. The streets are wind tunnels. The maples and the chestnuts have turned lemon-gold and their leaves scatter the pavement, but the other trees remain stubbornly green. Grapevines wither. The boza man calls boooooooooooooza, booooooooooza. A long cry into the sky. A streetlamp in a line of street lamps sits in the middle of a fig tree like a captured star. The leaves swirl with a gust of wind. I run from island of light to island of light. I want to catch the boza man. Booooooooza. He turns a street corner, from shadow to shadow. I jog past an alley way and see him walking past a dumpster. He’s a bow legged Gypsy and leans to the left where he carried his heavy samovar of boza. A bald spot shines in the middle of his scalp. He calls out that slender, mournful song, like a ghost or a banshee, boooooooooooza and disappears around a Mercedes parked half on the sidewalk. And the street still seems to call booooooooza but with no human throat to voice it. Just a melody in the emptiness. Istanbul’s working class ezan.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Epic Tour of the Aegean--Part 2 Ayvalık

We and the rental car leave Bozca Ada early in the morning. From the ferry port, we head South toward Assos, winding through more fields of giant. Assos is dramatic and beautiful—I’ve never seen anywhere like it--and as we approach a storm cloud is engulfing the ruins at the top as black thunderheads roll in from the Aegean. To the West is the sea and the island of Lesbos. We stop the car in front of an abandoned farmhouse and scramble out. Delal is taking pictures and I am just standing there at the edge of a cliff that plunges to the blue-black water below. A billowing sheet of bruise colored storm has rolled over the mountains of Lesbos except for one break in the clouds that sends down a bright white shard of light onto a lone ferry crossing the waves. The wind howls and shakes the olive trees. Goat bleats and bells. This place, this moment, somehow has become magical.
The storm over Lesbos

We drive down into Assos and stop at a cliff-side cafe for a glass of fresh black mulberry juice. The clouds moving over the islands creates this endless kaleidoscopic lightshow.

From Assos, we drive along the coast past all the beach camps and fish restaurants. We are heading toward Ayvalık which lies on the other side of the cape. The roadside is littered with bright yellow stands all selling the black mulberry juice we’ve just drunk along with syrups and pekmezes and jellies. At one point, off to the left is a spread of swampy flats filled with flamingos. Mt. Ida (Kaz Dağ) is visible always in the East, a grey shape in the white fuzz of humid air. This was the mountain where the Trojan war was set in motion, where Paris made his fated judgement. Everywhere else is endless olive grove.

Ayvalık lies in Edremit bay, a pretty blue swath filled with tiny mountainous islands. One of the islands, a long extinct volcano, is called Şeytan Sofrası, the supper table of Satan. The “table” is a dried pool of lava. According to the sign at the top, the Devil, during classical times, descended upon this mountain and left one footprint here before he skipped on over to Lesbos and left the other. Of course, Greek myth doesn’t have a devil so maybe they mean Apollo? The scenery from here is dramatic and people flock here from around Turkey to watch the sunset. People have tied wishes to all the bushes and trees and the white papers flutter in the fierce October wind that rushes in from the water.
The sunset over Şeytan Sofrası

What sets Ayvalık apart is the old Greek city—crumbling apart but still intact, a labyrinth of grand multicolored stone mansions, churches, stores and city halls, some still in use, some abandoned and closed in with barbed wire and some converted to beds and breakfasts. The city lost most of it’s Greek population during the Mübadele—the Exchange—in which the Greek families who had lived here for hundreds of years were moved to Greece while Turkish families in Greek territory, mostly Crete and Macedonia, were moved here. We spent half the day walking through the streets and taking pictures of the noble old houses. One woman popped out of her window as I snapped a photograph and sparked a conversation.

“Admiring our houses?” she asks.

“They are amazing,” I say.

“I wish people took care of them. But the Turks that came here were just handed them for free. If you don’t earn something how can you respect it? We came here seven years ago and restored this one.”

“It’s beautiful.”

“You have to be careful when buying property here,” she goes on. “People steal the historical markers over the doors and then put them on new houses and jack up the price, pretending the home is antique when it’s not.”
A former Greek Orthodox church now barbered up

Sidestreet of Ayvalık

Historical home in Ayvalık

One of the more startlingly coloured houses

Across the causeway is Cunda Island, which has the most amazing seafood mezes in the country. Inspired by Cretan and local recipes, there are dishes here you can find nowhere else in the world. We picked a restaurant a little off the water painted in Greek blue and white called Son Vapur. The service was impeccable. When we asked for a plate of local mezes the owner made no fuss like the restaurant of Bozca Ada (who almost bullied us into buying fish) but seemed to immediately understand both what we wanted and why. My favorite dish was called Balık Lokum—a rolled filet of fish wrapped around shrimp and broiled in a buttery-cream sauce flavored with herbs. I thought the fish was lobster until the chef explained it was sea bass. The ‘Island Greens’ (Ada otları) were also extremely flavorful. For desert we had something called “Lor Tatlısı” which was a light, sweetened local ricotta drizzled with mulberry preserves. The music in the background was a huge draw—when we first arrived the were playing Greek taverna music. At one point, there was a very melancholy song by Lean Chamamyan that went right to the gut. Delal recognized it as an Armenian piece. Given the rather extreme nationalism of this region of Turkey, it was a daring selection. We asked the owner about it and she said she tried to play music from all sections of Turkey--Kurdish, Turkish, Greek, Armenian, Zaza.

For four seafood mezes, a desert, and a beer we paid 60 TL.

It was a little dark so the pictures blurry, but these are the mezes

Son Vapur

For our hotel we stayed at Ayazma Hotel on the waterfront—a nice view from our balcony but we had a room facing the road and the noises of the cars woke me up from time to time. The building itself is a restored Ayvalık house and was well heated with wireless, but they had jacked up the price to 130TL for the Bayram holiday. Still, service was friendly and breakfast excellent.

Tomorrow—we head for the ruins of Pergamon!

Son Vapur
Belediye Cad.
Çarşı Sok. No 3
Cunda, Ayvalık 10140
0535 312 7260

Ayazma Oteli
Fevzipaşa-Vehbibey Mh., Talatpaşa Cd, 10400 Ayvalık/balıkesir