Sunday, October 17, 2010

Sunday Morning

I've been doing these Sunday vignettes occasionally, so here goes.

Delal and I crossed the water to Europe.  We had brunch in the fish market--a very fresh plate of fried hamsi--and then took a tour of the Jewish museum near Tunel.  It was a pretty interesting display of stuff--I saw the Torah for the first time, and the Holy of Holies where the Ark resides.  It also had a display on the Jews of Istanbul--apparently, my neighborhood used to be a Jewish one.  There's an old synagogue I jog by sometimes circled by walls and razor wire.


Anyway, after all this was done we went to the seaside where a red faced old man had set up a tea stall.  We sat down at a plastic table and relaxed in the first sun we've seen in about two weeks.  The Golden Horn was blue.  The sky was blue.  Something Delal pointed out:  The scene before us was built on layers of stillness and movement.  The ferries were darting frantically past each other, rolling in the waves.  The Sultan's palace stuck out over the tree tops behind on the other side, looking the way it has looked for centuries.  A line of fisherman sat rigidly still along the water.  Between us and them, hundreds of pedestrians passed almost as quickly as the ferries.  A group of old men sat around a table, barely moving.  Occasionally raising a hand and circling it in the air to illustrate a point.  A fight broke out between some other men on the corner--one had apparently ran off with the other's shoes during prayers at a nearby mosque.  We sat and sipped tea and talked until it was time to cross the water back home.

Here is a tree at the Sultan's Palace....

Saturday, October 16, 2010

School Daze

I claim to be a writer and don’t write, not even for a simple blogsite. (The job is currently sucking all the time from my day and soul from my heart). Well, I’m sticking something up here just to be sticking it. I don’t claim it’s Tolstoy.

So I figure there are a few people out there who picture my situation here in Turkey—teaching Middle School teens in Istanbul—along these lines. There’s a dusty rundown building in the midst of some sad looking houses. All the students from 5th to 9th are huddled over their slate boards in the same room, meticulously copying down whatever scrawl I scratch on the chalkboard. The girls are meek and sit with shy smiles, their hair covered in scarves. The boys will have to leave early for some apprentice work—perhaps at their father’s carpentry shop. In the distance, the melancholy sound of the call to prayer echoes and the students rise and drag out their rugs.

Ahem. Let’s just talk about yesterday.

When I walked into my sixth grade class, three boys were lined up at the windows throwing paper planes to the playground below. I reminded them that I had threatened just the day before to toss each one of their heads out the window if I ever caught them at it again, and they all three swore they hadn’t thrown a thing.

‘You have an airplane in your hand right now, Canberk,’ I say.

‘See!’ he says. ‘That proves I didn’t throw it.’

Our basketball star Alp walks in. He says he forgot his notebook at home, despite the fact that I saw him with it in the hall. He starts to cry, huge glistening tears flowing down his cheeks. ‘Oh, oh, I need my notebook’ He’s a professional. I’ve watched him make himself cry for a variety of fake reasons—his school book was marked up, I didn’t give them enough homework, he wasn’t getting enough grammar. He won’t tell me how he produces the tears, but I think it has something to do with his own personal biology and how hard he rubs his eyes. The other day his eyes were burning and red pretty badly—for real—and he had to go to the school nurse for it. Perhaps he’d overdone it.

Eyes. What is it with eyes? Why don’t I just pass out the pins I use to hang up bulletin boards and let them all skewer their eyeballs and yank them out. It would be quicker. One boy had red eyes the other day, not Alp, but a kid named Berk who speaks in a high voice and reminds me an awful lot of Ralph Wiggum. ‘Why are your eyes red, Berk?’ I ask. ‘I sprayed Lale’s perfume in my eyes!’ he says. ‘Why would you do that?’ I ask. ‘I don’t know.’ Lale herself was once about to spray some kind of athletic cold spray into her friend’s eyes—the friend seemed a willing volunteer. She leaned her goony smiley face forward and said ‘Do it! Do it!’ before I snatched it away.

Lale is a tiny girl that sits in the front of the class. She wrote in her introductory letter to me the following, ‘I know I am supposed to write about my dislikes as well as likes, but I can’t because I don’t have any! I am perfect! PERFECT!’ The all-caps perfect was done in a red board marker she’d pinched from me.

Then there’s the girl that announced, at 11 years of age, that she was the sexiest girl in the whole school when I asked them to tell me their names and a talent. I saw her out in the hall the other day drawing pictures with two of her friends. When I asked what she was doing out of class, she said ‘Jewish homework’. I laughed. ‘No, really!’ she said. ‘I’m not lying this time! Religion class is now and we get to sit outside.’

‘And the Jews have to draw big balloon versions of boys’ names?’


I took it away. I have a whole collection from this girl. She uses my class often to create her name art. I have a folder full of it and think maybe it’s time to open an exhibition. Confiscating from students is fun. Yesterday I had to confiscate no less than two laser pointers, an I Pod, ten rubber band animals, four pairs of rubber gloves, a ping pong racket, and a cell phone. The cell phone was absolutely necessary despite all the rules against them because the kid was going to call her mom after school to let her know when water polo practice was over.

I ride a service bus to school—all the teachers on my side of the Bosphorous ride the same one. There’s a guy on it I call Prell, because his hair is absolutely perfect. It shines, it glows. He should be standing outside and swishing it back and forth in the wind. Sun glistens on it. Even the dreary florescents in the break room glisten on it. It’s styled like something out of the seventies, feathered my sister called it, which is why I dubbed him Prell instead of something more modern like...what? Fructus? In front of him sits one of the primary teachers with her offspring, a girl of about 8 who seems to need the heater on full blast even when its 70 degrees outside. ‘My baby will catch cold’, the mother explains. She reminds me of a rather shabby looking peacock for some reason. It’s something about the way her hair fans out and pushes forward, and about the mother bird-like way she treats her kid. I just know she wants to sit on her and shield her from the rest of us with a big tail-fan of warm feathers. And of course from the debilitating ravages of fresh air, a thing all Turkish mothers fear. Yesterday, dripping with sweat, I cracked the window next to me and pressed my face into the tiny opening. For the first time in the past two weeks, I welcomed the rain (It’s been raining forever). It was cool, refreshing. The Peacock ‘pssst’s me and says, ‘Pardon, would you be so kind as to close the window? My daughter...’ She smiled wanly. I give her a very nasty look—it really is 70 degrees outside, and the heater really is full blast--then comply for whatever reason.

Everything is computerized in the class room. Attendance, the smart boards. I am struggling to turn my usual white board scrawl into snazzy power point presentations. We had a Jewish man from the local community come and speak to the 7th graders about Anne Frank, the Holocaust, and prejudice in our super high tech Nautilus Auditorium. Some of these minorities need to get it together a bit, is all I have to say. Here is how one conversation went:

Student: Why are black people and white people different?

The Speaker: Well they’re not, as we have discussed. If you cut a white man’s arm off what happens?

Student: He bleeds.

The Speaker: That’s right. And if you cut a black man’s arm off?

Student: He bleeds.

The Speaker: That’s right. You see, there are no real differences. We’re all humans. (HE SHOULD STOP HERE AND TAKE THE NEXT QUESTION, BUT DOES HE? NO! JOY OF JOY’S, OUR LECTURER ON TOLERANCE AND PREJUDICE CONTINUES) Actually, culture can be a big factor. The blacks (I am quoting,remember, I didn’t say it) grow up in a different environment, more physical, outdoorsy. So naturally they are better athletes than us. You grow up here, so naturally you are good at things like...I don’t know, science and art.’

I groan so loud that half the auditorium looks at me with a quick sideglance. What is it with people? Only your own minority can be stereotyped and mistreated? If you do it to others, it’s perfectly fine?  Here's a discussiong topic:

Now that I am a minority here in Turkey do I get to say all sorts of racist things, but have it all be okay?  Or does me being a non-minority back home make it off limits?  What do I need to do to get legit enough to be a bigot?  Is marrying Delal enough?  She's a minority.  Do I need to apply for Turkish citizenship and be an official minority?

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sunday morning

Fall cool. While eating brunch with Del, we hear a bagpipe coming up the road.  Delal runs upstairs to get some lira.  I go out on the balcony and peek down through the laundry to see two chubby people my age marching down the middle of the road--a couple.  The man wears a white shirt and a red sash.  The woman a colorful kerchief and gypsy skirt.  She plays a tambourine.  Del fills a plastic bag full of coins and shouts down to them.  They lift their instruments and laugh.  We toss the money down (It nearly hits a car) and the shout up "Tesekkurler!" in accented Turkish.  "Gyspies?" I ask.  "Balkans'" Del says.  "Probably Macedonian refugees."  They continue down the street turning slow circles as they go, looking up at all the buildings with their laundry lines billowing with sheets and T-shirts and skirts, hoping for another coin fall from a window.  A white cat looks disdainfully down at them from the building across from us  (her picture is down a few blogs).  They start to sing, the man the main melody, the woman the harmony.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

It has been a while...


by Nazım Hikmet

Nazım, tell me about the city where I was born.

I was still little when I left Sofia, but they say I knew Bulgarian...

What kind of city is it?

I heard from my mother Sofia is small, but it must have grown -

just think, it's been 41 years.

I remember the Boris Park. My nanny took me there mornings.

It must be the biggest park in Sofia.

I still have pictures of me taken in it... a park with lots of sunshade.

Do sit there. Maybe you'll run across the bench where I played.

But benches don't last 40 years; they'd have rotted and been replaced.

Trees are best - they outlive memories.

One day, go sit under the oldest chestnut.

Forget everything, even our separation - just think of me.

This is a poem written from Sofia, Bulgaria by one of my favorite Turkish poets (and one of my favorites, period, ever). Nazım-fans visit the old chestnut every year. It still sits in Borisova Gradina (Boris Park), shedding leaves over the same bench. Sofia was a particularly painful place of exile for Nazim. He’d been away from Istanbul for five years, and so many things in Sofia reminded him of home. (As they did me. Of my Turkish home—people eat köfte and işkembe soup. There’s a mosque in the middle of town built by the famous architect, Sınan. A sizeable Turkish minority still lives in Bulgaria. And of my American one—there are cheap Chinese take out joints everywhere, a surprising number of Irish pubs and even a restaurant called Happy’s that models itself on Hooters.) Other writers came here in there exile. Nazım’s good friend and prison mate, Orhan Kemal, died here. Sabahattin Ali was shot in route trying to cross the border. You’re not a writer in Turkey unless you have to flee for your life to Sofia, apparently.

When we went to Nazım’s wife’s Boris Park, there was an international photo exhibition going on. Giant bill boards displayed hundreds of pictures from around the world. Some skateboarders sat on benches and snickered at us as we browsed—they were decked out in tattoos and piercings and kept smirking into their fists in that smarmy teenage boy way, laughing with their whole body and staring to let you know they’re laughing while trying to pretend they’re trying to be discreet.)  Parks here are pretty active, sculpture gardens, rock concerts, cafes, beer gardens, and game upon game of chess and backgammon.  There were groups of smokıng men herded around chessboards all throughout one of the smaller parks.  They shouted advice, commented on poor moves, and puffed on their smokes.  There was one backgammon game, played very differently from the one in Turkey.  (Singlets weren't being captured for instance).  The chess tables were the most popular.  They had clocks on them and were full of tournament level seriousness.

Nazim’s answer to his wife?


by Nazım Hikmet

The trees are still standing, the old benches dead and gone.

Boris Park is now Freedom Park.

Under the chestnut I just thought of you.

And you alone - I mean Memet, Just you and Memet, I mean my country...

Last week was Şeker Bayram, the feasting period right at the end of Ramadan. We got the whole week off of school, and so a fellow teacher, Jonathan, and I took a trip to this city that had hosted so many exiled Turkish writers. We left Sirkeci Station in Istanbul at ten o’clock at night, bound for the border. The train was an old clunker from the communist days perhaps. It shook and jolted and rocked us nearly to death. At one point, after we passed through Edirne, I was bouncing up and down between my mattress and the roof. But it was romantic, in a shabby sort of way. Given its condition and age, it might have been the very train Nazım or Orhan rode out of the country.

After crossing into Bulgaria (this at around three in the morning) all lights and buildings suddenly vanished and there was just a field of black scattered here and there with spotches of light from small villages. The stars were radiant, and for the first time this season I saw the great figure of Orion arcing up from the Eastern horizon through the white spray of the Milky Way—the first sign of Fall for me.

I loved two things about Sofia—the food and the forests of Mt. Vitosha. Vitosha is the enormous, dome shaped mountain at the edge of the city, over 7500 feet high. We took a bus to a neighborhood on the foot hills and then walked the mile to the base of the mountain. Roads wound up through mountain villas and then disappeared into the trees. The green was hypnotic, that green-gold of early autumn when the leaves have not yet begun to turn, but you can see the yellow starting to come out, like a light shining from within. The forest smelled of damp soil and moss. We passed through a strand of birch--the silver white trunks glowing in the morning sunlight, and then hiked up a river past ancient gnarled pines. One looked like a bent gnome with an oversized head and dish-like ears. He was frowning down at the water, one gnarled hand at his chest. It could have been a Japanese kappa spirit, changed into wood by some furious sorceress or wizard.

Bulgaria is full of ghost and fairy stories. With forests like these, its not hard to understand why. Many of the stories begin, ‘Beyond nine green forests and over nine high mountains’ to indicate that all this takes place very very far away. One of these stories (which could very well explain our little tree man) is about Doichin, a young hero who managed to annoy the wood spirits by breaking an important taboo. As a punishment, the forest wove a spell. It entered his body, in an odd bit of spirit possession, and transformed him into wood. Moss grew over his ears and head, his hands hardened and froze into branches

The sounds of water trickling over rocks. Black squirrels chittering. Later down the trail was a sudden break in the trees where an avanlanche of gray stones had knocked some pines over the trail. We had to weave under them and crawl over the scree to get past. They fell so symmetrically that they formed a low tunnel of branch and needle. On the other side was a dense strand of tall, thin spruce. The trees swayed in the wind and as they did so, creaked and moaned so loudly that we were both spooked by the noise. At one point, we stood still on the trail and simply listened, watching each other’s faces. The trunks on either side grew so thickly that they blocked out all but narrow blades of light coming down through the canopy. Down on the hill below us, it sounded as if someone were snapping branches in two. Above us, was a sudden groan, like a woman crying. This was the loudest of all, and made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.

‘It’s just the trees,’ I said. But we were quiet until we emerged on the road, as if we might disturb something, or worse, be discovered wandering through some forbidden place.

One of Bulgaria’s forest spirits is called the vila. Vilas spring from the ghosts of dead children or virgins. On up the trail was a metal plaque bolted into a cliff wall. A young man’s picture stared out wide eyed from two dates, one marking his beginning, one his end. A cross floated next to his face—(from the papers hanging all around the city with the same pattern, I assume this is how obituaries are announced). Behind the plaque was the grassy peak, white mist slithering down.

A storm chased us down the mountain. I remember running hard down the road toward the bus stop, water gushing through the gutters. We sprinted over potholes, leapt through rivers of muddy runoff. We tried to hide from the cars to avoid being splashed, but to our utter amazement, they slowed enough to not overly disturb the water. This is a courtesy never seen in Istanbul. The mountain was completely swallowed in a black cloud when we finally reached the main highway. Lightning, thunder, but the city itself was still clear.

Later, we visited the National Art Museum in Central Sofia. I was very impressed by the paintings. Centuries of artistic struggle, of visionaries and rebels, of lives lived and vanquished, and I had not heard of one of these men or women. One of my favorites showed a girl sitting on a rock on the edge of a forest. A translucent monster was descending the mountain and wrapping itself around her—gigantic, godlight--as she stared off into the night, a crazed look in her eyes. The girl’s mother had collapsed at her feet, weeping. The title was ‘Mother, a Dragon has Fallen in Love With Me.’ It was painted during the surrealist period in Western Europe. Was it a metaphor for madness? For divine inspiration? The Bulgarian dragon is called the zmey. It’s an elemental. Each one watches over a village and fights with demons who try to bring down evil weather. Their battles create violent lightning storms. They are protectors, powerful, divine, and apparently sexy. They love music and often seduce girls with a kind of flute called the kaval (also a major instrument in Turkish folk music). The children of human-dragon love affairs rarely survive and must go into hiding, passing among us as people with spells to hide their wings—forever different and strange and alone.

Of course, we gavur (infidels) in Turkey go to Bulgaria for the pork. We ate the flesh of the swine every single meal. Our lunch in the mountains, for example, was a ham, Swiss cheese, village bread, and a jar of dark honey we bought from a guy parked outside the monastery. The supermarket where we got the rest, by the way, was a bit odd. Women were stationed all over the store—very young women—dressed in high heels, tight short skirts, and low cut blouses. They hawked everything from free pieces of sausage, to little pieces of bread with soft cheese, but looked like porn stars. The two in charge of the cheese table were ignoring the customers and sneering at some woman even more ridiculously dressed than they were. (Think Mrs. Wiggins from the Carol Burnett Show) She had piles of bleach blond hair ice-cream scooped on top of her head, a botoxed face, a fake tan, and heals that nearly doubled her height. Her plastic Barbi breasts balooned out from her blouse and her arm was hooked around her body builder boyfriend. The cheese girls really took umbrage at her boots, whose heels were twice as tall as theirs so that she teetered as she walked.

By the way' the aforementioned dark honey is some of the most amazing honey I've put in my mouth--nearly black, with a slight molasses flavor, it goes perfectly with warm bread and salty ham.  A guy in sunglasses was selling out of the back of his Toyota, along with lighter honeys and a wide assortment of bee related products, all marked in Cyrillic letters.  "Myed" is the Bulgarian word.

Another beautiful thing was the warm chocolate croissants sold at the vegetable bazaar.  The stalls were loaded down with a rainbow of peppers--pink, yellow, green, red, orange--as well as black and red currants,  Mersin cherries, and all the usual suspects.  The raspberries were also pretty scrumptious.  The bazaar was great for people watching, too.

My favorite meal, however, was a slow cooked pork roast seasoned with spices and pumpkin seeds, served with grilled potatoes with butter and dill. We washed it down with Bulgarian rakiya (essentially grappa) and Zagorka beer. The appetizers were equally amazing—wild mushrooms, walnuts and polenta with cheese sauce, red pepper salad, cheese and garlic breads.

The restaurant was recommended by the daughter of our landlady (the hostel owner). She greeted us with breakfast every morning—typically thick hunks of bread, German like wieners with cheese, a Turkish style salad, and coffee. Our last morning she surprised us with a ‘special Bulgarian yoghurt’ and black currant compote, then sat down to chat. She was a teacher of information technologies at a local high school. She was married, but didn’t seem all that happy. ‘In America everybody divorce,’ she explained. ‘You can marry five or six times. I’ve seen it on TV, but here, its too expensive. Maybe I want to divorce, but who gets the house? The other person must buy half to split it evenly and of course, can’t. So we stay married!’ Was this an example? Her own story?

Her daughter had spent a year in America. ‘But it was very terrible,’ she said. ‘She worked at the Busch Gardens and on her very first day, a black man handed her a mop and made her clean a toilet. She cried and cried. Here she was, a woman with a do you say?’ ‘IQ?’ I suggested. ‘Yes, yes,’ she said. ‘A high IQ and a master’s degree in business and she must mop for a black man. I am not a racist, but (CLASSIC!) this was a terrible thing to happen, I think.’ I told her that focusing on the color of the man’s skin might actually BE the definition of a racist. She smiled and shrugged. At first, her daughter seemed like a spoiled little snob, but our hostess went on to explain her initial distress. ‘In America, everyone can move up or down. You have promotions. You have summer work. But in Bulgaria, you stay where you are. The job you start is the job you end. You don’t get richer or poorer. You’re stuck.’ In Bulgarian terms, perhaps, the mop was a sign of her status for life, of hopes dashed and an education wasted.

The Nevsky Cathedral was one of my favorite tourist spots. It was enourmous. The only lights inside came from candles so the towering dome was lost in the darkness and the wall paintings and icons were half shadowed, half glittering in candle flame. You wandered from pool of light to pull of light, while all around you, you could sense this enormity of open, unseen space.

Another amazing building was a red brick church right in the middle of downtown, set among skyscrapers, the Sheraton hotels, and the Benatton.  It dated from before 400 AD, and was once a pagan temple that had been turned into a church when Constantine converted his empire.  Roman ruins among the glass and steel.  For a moment, the immensity of time and history passed like a shadow over the sun.  Then we took pictures.  Some teens were smoking under a walnut tree hiding some columns.  A pagan temple to which god?  Hard to tell, but Bulgaria is the home of Orpheus, yes, the guy who pursued his girlfriend to Hell and almost got her out.  Zeus, Poseidon, Hades and all that bunch were worshipped here by the Thracians in the BC years.  I keep being surprised by how much Greek mythology happened outside of Greece.  Orpheus in Bulgaria, Medea in Georgia, Midas in Turkey (Kutahya).

Our last few hours we spent in one of the Irish pubs--guzzing Guiness.  A group of Bulgarians (20 in all) were watching an English football game (a few Bulgarians play on English teams--Stiliyan Petrov plays for Aston Villa for example).  These men and women were the maddest fans I had ever seen.  At one point, I saw them all leap out of their seats in wild cheering--one guy knocking over a chair only to be caught by one of his mates, who then hugged him and laughed.  Jonathan and I looked at the screen--was it a goal?  But the only thing that had happened was that the other team LOOKED like it might get a yellow card.

We were sad to leave. We had a dinner of Bulgarian wine, ham, bread, and cheese set for the journey. A rainy twilight was falling. As we left Sofia, we raced past yards of rusting train cars and weeds, dilapidated buildings covered with graffitti, then hay-colored fields wet with a rainy haze. I saw a group of people bent over rows of onions. As we passed, one woman stood and waved frantically at the passing train. Then all of them followed suit, a group of onion pickers bidding us farewell.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


I've been in the US for a bit.  More blogs shortly.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

A Joke

Part of my purpose in writing this blog is to show the similarities and familiarities between our two supposedly different cultures (Whatever the lines you may draw are...The West and Islam, Imperialist America and Poor Controlled Turkey, The U.S. and the Middle East, Clash of Cultures, the New Crusades)  Anyway, this joke reminds of jokes West Virginians tell. Temel is the name of the Black Sea bumpkin people love to make fun of.  Think 'Bubba'.  The grammar mistakes are in the original

Temel's dad passed away.  One of his friends came to the funeral and asked Temel:
How did it happen?
Temel:  He fell from a thirty story building.
Man:  Oh dear God, what a tragic death!  To fall...
Temel:  Oh he didn't die.  He fell onto the awning in the store below and bounced right back up!
Man:  And then he fell even harder from an even higher place!  Dear God
Temel:  Naw. He landed on the awning of the store across the street and then went bouncing on over to a neighboring building.
Man:  And this time he slammed into the roof and died?
Temel:  No no, he rolled off the roof into an ol' electric wire!
Man:  No!  He was electrocuted?
Temel:  Oh no, them wires made like a bow and arrow and whipped him into the air.  600 feet up!
Adam: So he fell from 600 feet and died!  How terrible.
Temel:  No no he bounced off the same awning again.
Adam: And then he died?
Temel: Naw.  From there it was over to the awning on the butcher's...
Finally the man couldn't take it any more and shouted,
 'Damnit how in God's name did this man die??!!'

Temel: Well, we watched all this time and he wouldn't stop, so finally we done shot him and put an end to it!

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Sabahattin Story Translation and the Moda Hounds

I was running the other day along the Moda waterfront.  I passed a group of yuppyish looking people each with a pure bred dog frolicking about their feet--collies, poodles, the ever present pit bull, pugs, Boston terriers, and a little Pekingese.  Like dog lovers everywhere (at least in Tucson and Boston), no one felt the need to keep their little bundles of joy on a legally mandated leash (there are signs!) and expressed mild surprise when Feefee or Muffy gave chase to the hapless runner.  "Oh, she doesn't usually do that, do you, mama's sweet little baby?  Take your teeth out of the man's eyes darling."  A few yards away stood another group of dogs, masterless, but eyeing a homeless guy sleeping on a bench with a hangdog look that was mildly hopeful.  They were a gang of Istanbul's strays, ratty eared and mangy, bony and looking as drunk as the homeless guy they pinned their hopes to.  They glanced from him to the group of pure bred's down the way.  Forlorn eyes blinking slowly, sighing with resignation every few seconds.  I think, ahem, they were barking up the wrong tree with the homeless guy.

Dog class wars.

It reminds me of a story by Sabahattin Ali, which I've translated here.  Ali was a writer back in the early twentieth century, one of Turkey's first to break away from the old literature about royalty and nobles, and write about the poor.  A kind of Turkish Dos Passos.  He was definitely a leftist, and like any decent Turkish writer, was arrested a couple of times.  Getting a little weary with the arrests, he tried to flee Turkey in 1945 but was assassinated in the attempt at a town called Kirklareli.

I tell you, being assassinated tells you your culture views you as important.  How many writers has America assassinated?  Hmmm?  Here's the story....

The Lucky Dog,
by Sabahattin Ali
translated by Jeff Gibbs

Why must I always write such dark stuff?  My friends--the delicate ones--don't like it.  "Do you only see the bad and ugly things?"  They ask.  "Will you always talk about hunger, nakedness and pain?  About the street urchins who sell newspapers at night and gather cigarette butts, about the people who kill each other for one inch of land or one drink of water, about the people whose souls are slowly withering away in prison, about the people who can't find a doctor, or who are forever denied their rights?  Don't you have anything else to write about?  Is there no good, beautiful thing left?  Why do all the people in your stories have such wan faces and heavy hearts?  Isn't there at least one human being in this whole country who smiles?  Who is lucky?"
Is it possible?  One must be found!  But to do this, I don't want to go poking into dark corners and scrounging the edges of society.  Everything is right out in the open, right in front of our eyes.  There aren't just smiling, lucky people, no!  There are even smiling, lucky dogs.  I've decided.  This time, I'm not going to write about hunger and hatred and misery.  I'm going to talk about comfort and love and fullness.

In the neighborhood where I live, the streets are paved and wide.  They are lined with trees that give them a beautifully dappled shade, though each tree has been raised with enough money to pay for the education of one poor child all the way through high school.  In the mornings, young mothers in chic outfits walk their children in colorful baby carriages.  The babes wear faces that radiate a cowlike complacency born from being so well raised, so robust, so white cheeked and healthy.  Many different kinds of toys are scattered over their silk blankets.  As they ring a small bell in one hand, they blow a whistle with the other; meanwhile in front of them stroll their older siblings explaining something to their be-permed mothers who keep tossing their luxurious curls back over their shoulders.  From time to time, the young mothers gather together on the sidewalk and while talking sweetly of little nothings, leave the watching of the children to the clean servants who follow four or five steps behind.  In a sandbox in a small park just off the street, little ones with shovels and pales build castles and rivers, which they then destroy with the swipe of a fist.  To the side sits a white-scarfed governess reading a book in a foreign language.  One covered lady is trying to distract a crying child, while on the next bench over, four pretty mothers are knitting and gossiping about their friends.  Everywhere is brightness and comfort.  Except, on everyone's face there is a vague expression of unease.  This unease raps them in a light but sturdy net which they will never be able to rip themselves free of nor ever take in hand.  It shows itself in the way that their laughter has a hollow echo, in the way it seems not too touch in any way the coldness in their eyes.  It's as if both speaker and listener are, at that moment, thinking of something else entirely, although they are actually thinking of nothing at all.  But they would never complain about this, in fact, they don't even notice that there's anything amiss.  Even if they're not happy with their situations, even if their laughter is empty, they do not want one single change made in their lives.

Every day on this street, a man walks a little dog.  He ss a huge handsome man who, from his high collared tan wool uniform, is clearly someone's servant, or butler, or houseboy.  The little dog has light brown fur and long ears that hangs to the ground.  It couldn't be more than a few inches tall.  In its leather collar and leather harness, it trots behind the man.  The man adjusts his steps to the dog.  If the dog stops, he waits.  And when the dog's whim has been satisfied and he starts to walk again, the man follows suit.  When the weather is cool, the dog wears a tan wool sweater with navy blue ribbon on the edges.  It passes over all four legs and has buttons running down his belly.  Judging from the design knitted on the back. it's obvious that it was made by an expert tailor--it glitters in the sunlight just as the little dog's clean and coiffed fur glitters.

When the creature, to answer the call of nature, pops beside one of the trees lining the road, the servant (who seems strong enough to hoe ten acres of farmland in one day without getting tired) or butler, or houseboy, or whatever he is respectfully waits for the animal to finish his business.  Then he slowly hits the road again.  This sweatered little dog never answers the growls of other dogs they pass on the street.  Even if a huge beast somehow frees itself from it's master's leash and runs growling and howling to its side hungering for a fight, even if it leaps on top of him, the little dog pays no attention whatsoever and keeps trotting along.  The house boy takes care of it for him with a shout and a kick.  And if there are several attacking dogs, the house boy picks up his master's beloved, brushes the dust off his fur and sweater, and wipes away any dirt or stain.  And there is a fear in the man's eyes that he cannot hide.  The dog, certain that it is free from all danger, looks straight down, licks itself, and while wagging its long-haired tail watchs as the house boy frantically checks every spot on its body to make sure that nothing has happened to his charge.

I saw the man who walks the dog in the butcher shop one day.  He was looking at the packages of sheep organs that hung in a line.  At last, one package took his fancy.

"Weigh this!" he said.  While he was counting his money, he started making friendly small talk with the butcher.  "I simply cannot understand why you don't sell the liver separately.  Our dog will not eat the lung or hearts or anything of the sort.  We always place before him only the best cooked liver.  Even if there's one little piece of lung mixed into the meat, he will not touch it and leaves it just where it is.  It doesn't agree with his stomach, I'm told.  The other day our vet paid a house call and said so.  Animals know.  Even if you try to mix the smallest fraction of ox meat into a beef meat ball, he will know.   One cannot fathom the work of God, as they say."

He suddenly whirled on the assistant who was about to wrap the whole package of organs.

"Didn't you hear me?  What's wrong with you?  Don't wrap all of it.  Separate out the liver.  The rest you can just throw away for all I care!"

He took his purchase and left.

Another day, I saw him standing in front of the gate of a flower garden holding something in a warm soft blanket to his chest.  He was about to get into a huge car.  When I noticed the blanket twitch and heard a little whining noise, I couldn't resist and sidled up to him.

"What's that?" I asked.  "Has something happened to your dog?"

The houseboy gave me the once over, then answered.

"Certainly not, thank God.  He coughed a few times today, that's all.  It's always like this in the Spring, but Madam panicked.  She wants me to take him to the clinic and have him checked."

Then, taking care that the dog did not bump his head, he carefully slid into the huge car, which then sped away and disappeared.

The next day I saw the same house boy entering the same garden.  This time he held the leash for a long-nosed, white-haired dog.  Next to him was someone else who wore similar clothes.  I was curious again.

"What happened?  Have you changed dogs?" I asked.

He eyed me up and down, clearly not remembering me as the man who'd asked him about his dog the day before.  Still, he didn't leave me without an answer.

"Could I possibly do such a thing?" he said.  "Inside.  In the club.  Listen, you can hear his voice."

It was true.  Just on the other side of a large mansion, in the space of the gardener's house came the little dog's voice in sporadic outbursts from the chic, pale green clubhouse.

"What in the world?" I said.  "Your dog never barked."

"Ah, he's in heat," he answered.  "He's looking for a female."  He looked into the face of the man next to him and smiled.  "This one is exquisite.    When they're in the mood, even an animal cannot control themselves.
He'd been very cranky, you this.  The Madam immediately put him in the car and ran him to the vet's  But I said, you know, the problem is this.  I mean, it will be no easy matter to find one suitable for our baby.  The Madam did not want a dog with no pedigree.  It would put him in a bad mood, she said.  So I went from mansion to mansion, until I found one suitable for him, an animal with a proper bloodline.  A noble bearing.  Our master had a talk with the master of my friend here and deemed everything suitable.  I will take ours to them, and they will bring theirs to us."

He pushed the gate of the fenced garden with his elbow and turned to his friend.

"Come along," he said.  "Let's go see if they will take to each other."    Like a shy bride, he entered the gate with the fluffy white dog following coquettishly behind him.

Now, I love animals.  I love all living creatures, and life, and beauty, and bliss.  A lucky dog such as this fills me with joy.  I did not come into this world to talk only of morbid things.  I am burning with the desire to tell warm, joyful, sweet tales.  And look, if everyone in the world found the same comfort as this lucky little dog, could I ever speak another word again about suffering or hardship?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Last of the Alevi Stories.....

Here's three more...and the last unless people start writing and demanding in mass more and more and more AND MORE!
Foulmouthed Pirzo from the last batch I translated pops up again.  There are lots of stories about the same characters.  Also, in the second story there is a conflict between the enlightened ones (erenler) and the living beings (canli).  In the one Alevi ceremony I went to, the dede made a point to say there were no men or women here, no hierarchy of any kind, just "canli"--living things who were all equal in the eyes of God.  The erenler, or enlightened ones, would be the elite, the fancy pants, the better-than-thous.

The old style Turkish Aga

In Kangal, all the agas gathered and decided they needed some entertainment.  Again, Pirzo came to mind and they sent for him.  The news reached him that he was wanted, and since the orders came straight from the top, he had no choice but to set out on the cold, icy winter roads.  When he arrived at the place they had invited him to, his moustache had completely iced over and the top of his head was crowned with snow.  As soon as walked in the door, one of the agas started to harass him.
"Well, well, if it isn't the polar bear we've been waiting hours for!"
When he heard this, Pirzo turned to the aga and said,
"What are you afraid of boss?  I mean, what's one little bear to a bunch of vicious mad dogs like you?"  

Speedy Ali

Speedy Alishan was an Alevi from the province of Tunceli, but now he lived in Germany, in the town of Solingen.  He was known for playing jokes on people.  In fact, he loved pranks.  In Germany, any news about Alevis came out of his mouth first.  To people who reminded him of this peculiarity of his, he had this to say.
"I swear, just between us, I love to gossip.  I have a lot of free time, you see.  I've raised my girls.  They're running the travel agency now, so I have even more time for gossiping.  When I set to work in the morning, if there are no juicy little tidbits coming my way, I open up my little black book, and start calling everyone I know--in order.  Something always turns up.  Then I put whatever I find on this on-line system they've got nowadays and spread it to everyone I know."
Speedy Alishan really gets off on playing pranks.
Years ago, the United Alevi Federation wanted to establish a fund for Alevis living in Germany.  This fund would enable their bodies to be sent to Turkey for funerals which would be conducted according to Alevi beliefs.  But the president of the federation at that time was deadset against this and the fund was never set up.  On top of that, the Dede who had been so opposed to the establishment of a company for funerals, established a company on his own, together with his children, called "Funeral Homes of the Enlightened."  This enraged Speedy Alishan.  In order to make the Dede lose a few nights of sleep, he told everyone he was going to build a rival funeral company of his own and establish branches all throughout Germany.  He was going to name it "Funeral Homes for All God's Creatures," and create a slogan.
"All God's Creatures Will Meet Again in Heaven."
On top of this, he said he was going to start a promotion campaign.
Whenever he mentioned this promotion, we laughed.  "How in the world is going to have a promotion for a funeral!?" we thought.  "There's no way."
So we asked.
"Easy!" he said.  "Buy 10 funerals, and your own funeral is free!"



In order to hang out with Pirzo, the agas of Kangal agreed to invite him to dinner.
The agas, seeing how hungry Pirzo was, started to stuff chunks of Turkish delight into his mouth, one after the other.
"Here is one for the love of your dear Ali," they said.
"Take this one, it's the great Uthman."
"And here's one for the great Abu Bakr."
For a finale, they stuffed one more piece of Turkish delight into his mouth "for the love of Umar".
After swallowing the last piece, Pirzo let rip a fart that the whole room could hear.
The agas laughed and came up to him.
"Whoa, Pirzo.  What was that, for the love of God?  It sounded like a bomb."
Pirzo was quick to answer the laughing agas.
"That's what happens.  When those other bastards showed up, Ali was not about to hang around and got out as fast as he could."

Monday, June 14, 2010

More Funny Alevi Stories and a Prettty Picture


Some background for the rest of these stories.  Careful, its gets all historical, and it's much more complicated than this, but basically....
As far as organized religion is concerned, Alevis are most closely bound up in Islamic tradition, and Mohammed is, of course, the most respected and loved figure in Islam.  When Mohammed died, many people believed his son-in-law and cousin Ali should have replaced him.  Ali had been one of his first and most faithful disciples after all, and was family.  But due to some political maneuvering, the position went to a man named Abu Bakr.  He was the first "caliph", or replacement for Mohammed.
When he died, Umar became caliph, then the position fell to a guy called Uthman.  These three are considered thieves in a way (by the Alevis at least) as they stole the position from the rightful heir, Ali.  Alevis in Turkey will traditionally not name their children Omer (The Turkish version of Umar), Ebubekir (The Turkish version of Abu Bakr), or Osman (Uthman).
Ali eventually became the fourth caliph, but it was too little, too late.  A ruler of Syria refused to accept Ali's authority and openly rebelled against him.  This led to all sorts of civil war type ugliness.  Basically the Syrian guy was trying to get his son Yazid installed in Ali's place.  Yazid was power hungry, and wanted to establish a family dynasty, which most considered completely contrary to Islamic teachings.  To eliminate the competition, Yazid sent his army to massacre Husayn, one of Ali's sons and the only living blood relatives of the Prophet Mohammed.   They did this--killed some women and children too after making them suffer a while in the desert.  This whole thing happened at the Battle of Kerbala.  After Kerbala, Yazid then had Husayn's brother Hasan murdered for good measure.
Remembering the betrayal of Ali, and also remembering Kerbala, the suffering of Husayn, Hassan, and their families is an important part of Alevi tradition and ceremonies.  The pictures of all three men hang in most Cem houses (the place where Alevis conduct their ceremonies).  A guy on a baglama sings a song about the event and the whole congregation starts crying.
In the following story, the so-called "bigwigs" of Islam would be (according to the mainstream Sunni Islam which dominates Turkey) Mohammed, the first three caliphs, Abu Bakr, Umar and Uthman, and then of course Ali.
One last thing, an Aga was the all-powerful landowner in Turkey's old feudal system.  The title is probably equivalent to lord, or in the old Southern sharecropping system, "Massah".

So What's Left?

In the town of Kangal in the state of Sivas lived a man named Pirzo.  Pirzo was an Alevi, you might even call him a hardheaded fanatic.  Even so, he was also well known for his smart remarks and especially for his foul mouth.
He made his living as a sharecropper, working with the Aga.  The biggest amusement of the mayor and Aga of Kangal was to hang out with Pirzo.  One day, then the mayor came to visit the Aga, he said,
"Hey, let's find out where Pirzo is and bring him here.  We'll hang out a little and have some fun with him."
"Come on, Mayor," protested the Aga.  "What do you want with Pirzo?  You know what a dirty mouth he has.  He'll end up hurting your feelings and offending me, too."
But the mayor insisted and they had someone bring Pirzo.   Pirzo came to them and after making all the proper inquiries about his health, the mayor asked in a deeply serious voice.
"Pirzo, do you know why we had you come here?"
"No, sir.  How could I possibly know, Mr. Mayor, sir?  You summoned me, and I hurried as fast as I could.  Your word is law, sir."
"I want to divide up the bigwigs of Islam with you.  You take two and I'll take two.  Would that be okay?"
"Well, Mr. Mayor, sir, I don't know.  Who knows what might happen if you share such high faluting things with me."
"Oh please, Pirzo.  What could you possibly do?  Come on, let's share."
"Well, sir, you know best I guess."
"But first, I pick."
"Of course, Mr. Mayor.  You always take precedent, sir.  Please, go ahead, pick."
With a mischievious little smile, the mayor named his choices.
"I will take Mohammed and Ali.  There, now it's your turn."
It was clear that whatever Pirzo had been planning was ruined.  He started shrieking.
"Ah hell, you left me with all the fucking shitheads.  Take them, too, goddamnit.  They're yours!

They're looking for the killers!

Two Sunni Muslims wanted to become Alevis and so they went to an Alevi Dede and asked for his help.  The Dede told the two hopefuls that they'd have to pass a preliminary test and called them one by one into his presence.  To the first one he said,
"So you want to become an Alevi?  Well first, I need to see if you have the basic information necessary, so I'm going to give you a little quiz.  Now tell me, who killed our teachers Hasan and Husayn?"
"I swear on my mother's soul, sir, it wasn't me."
"Sorry, no go.  Get out of here and call your friend."
The one who failed his test ran out in an awful hurry.  Of course, his friend wanted to know what had happened inside and nervously asked him about it.
"What in the world went on in there.  Tell me!"
"Man!  They're looking for the guy who killed some dudes named Hasan and Husayn.  Let's beat it before they blame falls on us!"

He still hasn't vented all his rage!
(This story is a lesson against simplistic belief and superstition...I think)

An Alevi shepherd was tending his sheep on the mountain when a wolf attacked his herd.  Helpless to stop the wolf from tearing his flock to pieces, he called out to the Dede.
"Help me, O Wise One!"
Just at the moment when the shepherd had lost all hope, an enormous sheep dog appeared out of nowhere, tore out the wolf's throat, and saved the flock.  The wacky shepherd, believing the dog had been sent by the Dede, was overjoyed and ran quickly to town to thank him.  He was out of breath when he arrived, and taking both the Dede's wizened hands in his, began to explain.
"O Wise One!  A wolf was killing my sheep one after the other and I called out to you for help.  Just when I had lost all hope, you took the form of a giant sheep dog and ran to my aid.  You grabbed the wolf by the throat and ripped him to pieces, saving all my sheep!"
The Dede, miffed that this silly shepherd had thought he was some stupid dog, began to mutter and swear under his breath.
"Will wonders never cease!" said the shepherd.  "Just look at my Dede!  It's clear that he couldn't vent all his rage against that evil wolf.  He's still growling in anger on my behalf!"

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Alevi Mizah Translation 2

Five Cents for a Keg of Wine

Intro:  This one reads like a fable or a bad Irish joke.  As I mentioned in a previous post, people from Thrace (Trakya) are famous for the drinking.

An Alevi dede from Thrace and his friend hit the road to sell some wine they had made.  They put the keg on top of their donkey.  Before they set out, they made an agreement.  They would sell a cup of wine for five cents, and if even if one of them drank a cup, then he would pay the other five cents.  After they had traveled a ways, they decided to have a rest in the shade of a tree.  Feeling a little down, the dede took the keg off the donkey, pulled five cents from his pocket, and handed it to his friend.  "Here's my money, hit me up with a cup of that wine," he said.  His friend took the money and dropped it in his change purse.  As he watched the dede drink, smacking his lips with delight, he felt his own appetite grow.  Once the dede had finished, his friend returned his money to him, and filled a cup for himself.  Afterwards, the dede took the same five cents and paid his friend for a second cup.  The money passed back and forth between the dede and his friend until they had drunk the whole keg.  Both of them, smashed out of their minds, lay down in the shade of the tree.  The dede started to laugh and called out to his friend.
"You know what, man?  I've never drunk such cheap wine.  Five cents for a whole keg!  Take it with our blessing, even if I do say so myself."

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Someone Build Me an Ark

Last week, it was Israel's killing of the Turkish activists.  It set the city on fire--or at least at certain times of the day; protests erupted everywhere, especially in the Fatih district, a rather conservative, religious neighborhood where bellowing boys were unfurling Palestinian flags and shrieking for "vengeance."
This week, the disaster is the flood.  Four straight days of heavy rains and two more to come.  It rolls in down from the Black Sea in black clouded wave after wave after wave.  Streets turn into rivers, rivers into lakes, and schools are closed...well at least most schools.  Not Fenerbahce Sports Penitentiary and High School.
I took the bus this morning, as did every other human being in this city of 15 million.  The water was sluicing down in huge sheets when I got to school.  It was a half foot deep at the gate and racing down the hill like a muddy waterfall (We're on the city's highest 'mountain').  My shoes, socks, and pants legs all got soaked as I hopped toward the entrance.
As soon as I entered school, a gaggle of women closed on me demanding I take off my wet clothes.  "You'll catch your death of cold!"  I couldn't argue.  (Though on the whole, as I've mentioned before, Turks are paranoid about the elements--air and water are the enemies of every fragile man or woman child who walks the earth--contact with either means certain death).  Upstairs, a salesman had left samples for next year's school uniform in the school's library.  I went up and changed into a pair of blue and yellow sweats and a Fenerbahce T.  The students giggled when I emerged.
"Oh, Jeff," said Mete.  "You look like a student."
Mete, of the infamous class 9B, is one of the biggest pains in the ass at school.  I've perfected an imitation of him that other students ask me to do when he's not around.  It's not hard, you just have to glaze your eyes over, let your mouth hang slack, and talk like a movie zombie, kind of like a slightly undead version of Spicoli in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
"Why don't you just go home, Mete." I say.  "Lie.  Say you're sick.  Please."
"You are so funny, hoja," he says.  "You are looking so hot in those clothes."
"That's true.  Please.  Tell someone you're sick.  They'll believe it.  It's raining outside for God's sake.  Rain kills."
Behind him his friends are trying to get me to mimic him, mouthing "Do it! Do it! Do it! Pleeeeease!"
My clothes hang in every free window of the teacher's room, trying to dry.
Puddles and small lakes are everywhere.  The construction site for the gym that will never be built is a grey sludge of mud water.  The parking lot reflects back the sky, pecked with endless rings of water from the falling rain.  On the school's soccer field, there is what looked like an army of seagulls--about forty in all, big and bright white, milling casually through the puddles in the grass and turning their heads back and forth as if mingling over drinks while waiting for someone to call the meeting to order.  They lingered there till mid morning when the rain slacked off from a Biblical deluge to a steady drenching.  
And I had just swore to Ekrem's mother, Seyhan, last night that I would not go out without an umbrella again.  She, Ekrem, and Ekrem's Dad, Emin had invited me over for dinner, and though it hadn't rained all afternoon, as soon as I stepped off the Metro, the clouds opened up and the clouds emptied themselves out.  I quickly got lost and roamed the backstreets of Cerrahpasha for nearly twenty minutes until Ekrem's father found me looking like I had just crawled out of the sea to give this evolution a shot.
"Where's your rain slicker?  And your umbrella?"  He had both.
"Broken and lost," I explained.  "Then forgotten."
He gave the Turkish tsk tsk tsk of dismay and worry, and hurried me home.  When we got to the house, Seyhan met us at the door with a look of hysterical amusement.  Look what the foreigner's done now!
"What happened to you?!"
"If you're thirsty," I said.  "I could wring out my shirt."
They immediately made me change clothes and then spent about fifteen minutes taking turns working me over with a hair dryer to make sure I was warmed up.  I started giggling when the gravelly voiced, cigar smoking Emin made me lift up my arms so he could take the hair dryer to my armpits.
"Don't miss a spot!" Seyhan called.  She threw one of Ekrem's T-shirts at me and gave me a fierce look.  "Now you must promise me not ever, ever to go out like that again without at least a rain slicker."
Well, I broke that promise and paid the price.
This afternoon I was running down by the water when the rain finally let up for a bit.  Clouds of steam roiled on the sea.  The Princes islands were swallowed in white water vapor.  A fissure opened up in the clouds and the sun was out for the first time in days, then promptly went back in as the clouds rolled shut again.  Men were huddled in their boats playing poker and backgammon.  They made snide comments as I passed, as usual.  "Run, Forrest, Run!".   Then suddenly, as I rounded the cape, a gang of police and firemen were crowded about the bridge that separates the boat docks from Fenerbahce Stadium's parking lot.  They were fishing a corpse out of Frog Creek--(The quaintly named stream is a cesspool, filled with garbage and raw sewage that burst out into the sea when the water broke the little net that filters out the bigger shit and keeps it from pouring into the Marmara.  Turks may be psychotically clean in their own homes, but on the whole, people treat this city as if it were a garbage dump/human litter box).  A family of women stood around a wet fireman, who was desperately explaining something to a young teenage girl.  She was near tears, her eyes wide, nodding and nodding.  A man had fallen in when the water burst over the barriers--a city worker sent to survey the damage.
A group of rubberneckers had formed a swarm along the bridge over Frog Creek and along the newly paved footpath.  Everyone was craning their heads over everyone else, trying to see what was going on.  A news crew was setting up a camera and cat weaved in and out of their feet, soggy, its hair matted, a dead kitten in its teeth--it had drowned, as well.
Istanbul's strays are roaming the streets, sodden and sullen, having given up on places to hide.  As the bus sludged through puddle after puddle on the way home today, I even saw a black and white rabbit with a collar hopping through puddles in an outdoor cafe.

Alevi Mizah (Comic Fables)

click to zoom

The Alevis are a kind of religious group in Anatolia.  They are an odd combination of Islam (mostly Shii), old Shamanic ideas, odds and ends from the world's other major religions, and possibly even Zoroasterism.  No one seems to agree on who they are for sure.  For a long time, they have been persecuted in Turkey for not conforming to the mainstream.  I went to one of their meetings once, called a Jem House, with Delal.  It was during Ramadan, the fasting month.  The "pastor" if you will (In Turkish, they call him the Dede or Grandfather) made a point, first, to tell us that there were no women or men here, only living beings, all of whom where equal.  Then he went on to make fun of the Sunni Muslims fasting outside.  "The true fast," he said.  "Is inside you.  It's a spiritual thing, a state of the soul."  There was a lot of music and dancing--the baglama is almost a sacred instrument.
Anyway, I have a book of comic stories from Alevi tradition.  Some of them are pretty funny, and I want to translate one or two here.  They mostly show how humble the Dede is, how human and fallible--in fact humility, a flouting of authority, human fallibility, tolerance, and the ability to laugh at yourself seem to be the prominent themes.  They can also be quite crude.
Here's the first one.  Only one vocabulary word is important to know here.  Dede, as I've explained, means "Grandfather"--but for Alevis, the Dede is the leader of the people in his parish, an elder and teacher that has no equivalent in modern Christianity.  The closest thing I can think of is a pastor in the traditional, rural sense--someone who was both spiritual leader and an adviser in the every day world.


An Alevi Dede was making the rounds of his parish and visiting everyone in his congregation.  At the insistence of one of his parishioners, he stayed over, and woke up in the middle of the night to go to the bathroom.  And what should he see, but a huge, mean dog sprawled out in front of the bathroom door!  He wanted to jump over him, but he inevitably drew back when the animal started snarling at him.  He waited a bit and then made another move to get into the bathroom.  But the dog showed no mercy.  The Dede really needed to go, and while wondering what in the world he was going to do, his eye fell on the baby sleeping in its crib in the next room.  An idea hit him.  He snuck into the baby's room taking care that no one heard him.  He unfastened the diaper, did his business inside it, and then taped it back up like it had been before.

When the people of the house woke up the next morning, undid the baby's diaper and saw the huge pile of feces, they stood frozen in shock.  "How can a breastfed little baby make such a monstrous bowel movement!" they wondered.  They decided to ask the one man who was so much wiser and more experienced than they--the Dede.  He stroked his beard, deep in thought, and then answered briskly.

"By God, I'll tell you what--as long as that dog lies in front of the bathroom door, that baby will take shits far bigger than this one."

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Two Sketches


The lights.  There are no street lights in my neighborhood, and the dark is big.  Chunks of shadowed street between the black shapes of buildings, a black sky, black hulks of dilapidated houses crushed between apartment blocks.  There are figures, a group of kids on the corner eating sunflower seeds, but all featureless, shades in the summer night heat.  There is a man walking toward me.  I smell the cologne on him before I see him.  And me, lost in shadow.

The lights on the buildings seem to take on significance, they reflect back strange and alien and make me more isolated.  The strange blinking red light on the second floor of one building, the line of orange glowing door bells on the entrance to another, the flickering blue of televisions, the bare white light illuminating bedrooms with people hanging out the window.  It's eerie, these pools of illumination.


Chris is a young Englishman I occasionally hang out with here in Kadikoy.  Everyone says he looks like Harry Potter, but he's more the love child of Harry Potter and Peter Parker--Tobey McGuire's Peter Parker.  Beardless, whiskerless, round glasses, big innocent eyes.  He looks like a startled elf.  Chris has a reputation for being perpetually perky.  He is never unhappy, never grumpy, never complains.

We are having a beer and talking about odd jobs we'd had as students.  I exaggerate, of course, and turn my interview with the funeral parlor back in '99 into a full fledged summer job.  I describe body pick-ups in the middle of the night, cremations, embalmings.  Chris asks me, "Why would you take a job like that?"  "I'm afraid of death," I tell him.  "And I thought it would be a good way to face it."

This is true enough.  That is why I applied.  He crinkles up his Tobey McGuire face--something about his skin always looks a little too tightly fit over the bones, like it might tear if he strains it--"Why would anyone be afraid of death?"

"It's a pretty common fear, I think," I answer.

"You think so?" he asks.

"Yes!  It's been motivating people throughout history, or rather, terrifying the shit out of them throughout history.  I mean, it's been an issue for everybody, man.  The ancient Greek philosophers talked about it--the Stoics, the Epicureans.  From Heidegger to the Buddhists to my friend from high school, every philosopher in the world, real and armchair, addresses it.  Hell, it's not just people who fear it.  Try to crush a bug.  It runs!  It doesn't want to die.  Death fear is everywhere, man."

Cats are yowling around us.  It's fish street and the vendors are closing up shop.  Srays are prowling around for heads and entrails.

"Maybe," Chris says.  "I just take comfort in knowing that we all go to the same place in the end.  I think it's nice.  Think about it.  We are all traveling together toward the same end, no one is exempt.  It's rather elegant."

In addition to cat yowls, his words are punctuated by the Turkish pop song on the loudspeakers and the gypsy girl down the sidewalk, playing on her drums and singing folksongs.

"I'm sure it is," I say, "But you gotta understand that a lot of people don't feel that way, and they're in the majority."

"You really think so?"

"Okay, it's a part of life and all that crap, and we all are journeying to the same end, but there's a lot of suffering to get there, often, and I don't like seeing my loved ones go through that.  Or myself.  It's just scary.  Jesus!"

"Maybe it's the unknown," he concedes.  "People are afraid because they don't know what's coming after?"

"Yes," I say.  "The unknown.  Okay, let's say, you're completely wrong.  You're Catholic, but the Jews or the Muslims are right or whatever and so you're going to burn in hell because you cast your lot in with the wrong crowd.  Oops, right?  How were you to know?  But now you're forever in hell.  Just burning and screaming, your skin popping and melting and cracking in the heat forever and ever and ever and ever.  Eternal pain.  You hurt so much you think of nothing else but the pain.  Isn't that scary?"  Ahh, the Baptist in me comes out.  We know hell better than anybody, I think.

He pauses, shrugs, pushes up his glasses.  "If I go to hell, I'll just make the best of it, I guess."

I sit back, "Make the best of it?"

"Yeah," he says in his long, drawn-out British vowels.  He grins, shrugs, takes a swig of beer.  "You know, you're there.  You can't do anything about it.  You might as well look on the bright side.  You could be on a deeper level getting sodomized by a demon or something, someone with a burning sword.  So sit back and thank God you're only burning."

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Word Photographs of an Evening Walk in Kadikoy--my house to town

The sun has winked out of the sky, and all the bright light--it's all sunset pinks and cool blues now, and boys' voices shout up from the street--a pair moving down either side calling out to each other.  The sandy slide of a ball skiffed across the pavement.  They've all bought ice cream, lemon pops, and they make their way down the narrow sidewalk tossing rocks, kicking plastic bottles, and stopping to pick up bits of shiny metal which they investigate--all the while licking at their lemon pops, dark yellow tongues--before discarding with a backward toss.  At one point, they stop to watch a cat take a shit.  One of the them squats down to get a better look.  The cat turns its back to them, its ears flattening in annoyance.  A group of teenage boys pile into a car blasting bass from giant speakers in the back.  A girl in a black tank top walks fast toward the main road, ogled from the right by a kid smoking on his stoop and waved at from the left by the middle aged man who runs the convenience store on the corner.  Old men play backgammon on tables on the sidewalk--the stones click on the board.  The neighborhood twilight has life, movement, light, sound.  It's like my old Florida neighborhood--the heat in the day breaking, we kids playing kickball in the street, neighbors shouting to each other as they water their lawns.  I barely remember being a kid--the feeling of it--but I ghosts of feeling move through me sometime, seizures of sensation, like when I see the one boy's tank top, dusty and bright blue, the iron-on letter flaking off, and then look down at his bare black feet.  More than memory is triggered.  I blink and I am there, eight again, wearing the same thing.  He shouts, "Abi, bak!"  Look man.  And his friend laughs.  The whoosh of traffic on the main road.  The beep of horns.  The sudden burst of the ezan.  Allah Akbar!

Turn down the alleyway, cross the parking lot, the right lane.

A line of roses down the median makes a stripe of red all the way down toward the peach and wine fire sky, the colors framed by the bushy green of mulberry trees that line the road and the neon sign of the Nautilus center.  The hunch back Gypsy woman--no more than four feet tall--sits and waits for the light to change so she can sell packs of tissue to stopped cars. She wears a turquoise sweater and an orange checked skirt, and nibbles sunflower seeds with a bored scowl as cars whizz past her.  She's respected around here.  Shopkeepers call her hanim and teyze (madam and auntie) when she passes.  She stops to chat with them sometimes.  She walks with a cane  because her back is bent nearly 90 degrees.  Huge black eyes like pools of dark tea.  Above her, a moon the color of luminous vanilla ice cream has just cleared the tops of the middle school on the corner.  It's brightening with darkening sky, whiter and whiter and whiter.  A screech of brakes, a cat meowing from the fence on the edge of the graveyard shadows.  The crinkle of a plastic as a man loaded down with shopping bags hops across the median and makes a dash for the other side.  The ezan is reaching a crescendo.  Haya 'alas-salaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

Left lane.  Down the sidewalk and turn right, over the bridge.

There's a pretty Gypsy girl in green with a lithe body and dusty skin.  Her face is an all-business scowl--she's collecting cardboard boxes from piles of garbage in the street.  She has a three-wheeled cart that she pulls around with a huge white muslin sack tied to the back.  The handles of the cart are so tall that when she lets go of it, they snap up above her head and she has to jump up to pull them back down.  She wears a long flowered skirt and has long messy black hair, streaked here and there with red.  She has long, skinny pale arms that work like pistons as she rapid-fire folds the boxes into shapes that will fit into her bag.  She is collecting from a load of trash next to the parking lot where my favorite old dog lives.  Old yellow.  He sits on the pavement all day and ignoring everything around him with sleepy eyes.  Blinking and blinking, wearily.  Sometimes, I'll scratch his head and he'll close his eyes all the way until I'm finished and then walk me home.  The ezan has stopped, the last echo dying away.  There's a chorus of car engines now, the quiet chug of a cab, the high whine of a moving trunk speeding toward the light, the rattle clatter of a minibus, the muffler burps of an old Subaru.  A motorcycle bounces over a grate and honks his horn.

Down past my old school, past the bakery and minibus road onto the pedestrian walk where cars go anyway

An old tree, leafless and rough skinned, writhes from the pedestrian road next to the tea shop.  A pile of bikes tangle against a light pole.  Three teenage girls pass by with a basketball, the thick shouldered one in the lead dribbles and walks fast, making the other two have to trot to keep up.  Light radiates out in a circle of white from the cafe.  It doesn't quite reach the tree.  A woman sits at a table outside, her feet kicked up on the chair opposite her.  A little boy charges up to her, too much momentum to stop himself and so she catches him and whirls him into the chair next to her.  "Mommy!" he cries.  He's got a Sesame Street shirt on and oversized shorts.  A man in a football jersey lopes up behind him, hands digging in his shorts pocket, and says, "Ahh, so you'd rather sit with Mommy!"  The sound of spoons stirring sugar into tea glasses.  Shopping cart wheels rattling across bricks.  A man jingles keys in his pockets.  Techno music thump thump thumping from a clothes shop across the street.

A little down

A little girl in pink--shorts, T-shirt, sandals all a bright bubble gum--reads in front of a rack of purses hanging outside a women's wear shop.  A glass case filled with more purses stands behind her, illuminated in bright naked bulbs.  She brushes a swath of black hair behind her ear and kicks at the ground as she reads.  Her father--a pot bellied man in a tight white T--closes up shop behind her.  One by one the lights blink out and she bends closer and closer to the page.  She sniffs and drags a finger across her nose.  There's a chorus of footfalls, a legion of shoes.  The clunk clunk of heavy boots, the pad of a child's sneakers racing across the cement, the shuffle of sandals, the lazy snap of flip flops, the rapid click of heels.

To the end, where we empty into the main road

The Fountain of Lord Halid, 1794.  It's an old Ottoman fountain, cool white marble inscribed with flaking gold Arabic letters and floral flourishes.  The spigots have long run dry.  It has been graffitied all over.  Black letters right across its belly have all been scrawled out, save the words ederkken ("while doing") and lan (something like "hey, asshole").  There's a Wienerwald scooter parked in front--a plastic green box on the back with the white logo of a giant chicken.  To the side, the green ATM of Garanti Bank.  A girl stands on one leg in front of the screen, kind of pivoting left and right as she types a number into the console.  Beeps.  Her other leg lets her sandals almost fall, but she catches it with her toes.  Her purse hangs from her elbow.  The light from the screen illuminates her face and neck in a pale green.  A second Wienerwald cycle whizzes up and parks next to the first.  The driver wears a huge black helmet which he whisks off to replace immediately with a green cap.  He's tall and slumps as he walks, loping into the bright light of Wienerwald with his heat-sealed food bag swinging from his right hand.  He strides past a woman with dish-sponge blond hair, spooning pudding into her mouth.  Cell phone conversations.  Car horns.  The hum of the freezer of an ice cream vendor.  The electronic voice of radio news.

The sky is purple black now.  The moon a luminous ball of white over the stature of the bull.  (Everyone waits here, for lovers, for friends, for dates).  Venus hangs on the other side of the sky.   A cat stops to watch me write--a skinny black and white thing.  Its ears won't stop twitching.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Fasten Your Seatbelts--Wedding Time

See full size image
"Make Friends With Your Seatbelt"

We start climbing the hill and she jerks the car into the left lane.
"I'm going to pass him!" our hapless driver says.  By "him", she means the long semi truck in front of us climbing a steep incline.
"Don't pass on a hill," Delal cautions in a voice far calmer than mine would be.
"Why not?"
"Because you can't see what's coming."
"I can see fine!  The road is empty."
"No, I mean you can't see past the hilltop."
"But there's nothing there!"
"You don't know that."  She still sounds so calm.  "Just get back into the right lane please."
Our driver reluctantly jerks the car back into the right lane, just as a truck crests the hill.
"See?" Delal says as it passes us with a violent whoosh.
"See what?" our driver says  (she's looking at the satellite navigator screen).  "Uf!  Why is this guy going so slow!"
We're heading back from Eastern Thrace, known as Trakya in Turkish, with one of Delal's old college buddies, Edibe, who, though she's had a driver's license for a few years, has not driven all that much and learned little from what driving she has done.
Trakya is pretty, or would be if not for all the industrial buildings.  The green hills roll away on either side of the road, empty of trees but filled with yellow flowers, and also with factories of all kinds--sugar, chocolate, metal.  Poplar trees line little dikes that flow between the fields.  A welcome center for a flour factor flashes advertisements--come buy direct from our store!
We are coming back from a wedding in the town of Luleburgaz, which is right in the center of Thrace near the Black Sea.  The third member of their college group, Sinem, has just gotten hitched.
Luleburgaz is not famous for much.  Bulgarians seem to like to fight there.  There was a great battle between them and the Byzantines several milennia ago (which they lost), and more recently between them and the Ottomans back in 1905 (which they won).  The area is still full of Bulgarian refugees--mostly ethnic Turks who've come to Turkey to escape anti-Muslim prejudice, or who are just trying to find a better life.  Partly because of this, there are a lot of blond heads and blue eyes in this area of the country, and reportedly a fondness for alcohol as well.
"The bride's father started drinking early this morning," the bride's brother-in-law proudly explained.  "He took a seat at the head of his table early today and guest after guest has come in to congratulate him and, of course, have a drink.  He hasn't gotten up at all except to go to the bathroom maybe.  At this point, maybe he can't get up!"  This might explain why he was such an enthusiastic dancer later at the wedding.  The bride herself got ready for the stress of the wedding with a glass or two of raki.  Her mother even makes her own wine.
Sinem's childhood home is located in the village of Turgutkoy about a ten minute drive from town.  It sits in the middle of sugar beet fields.  When we arrive, some old men are sitting in the yard playing a drum and a shepherd's kaval as several young men dance in a circle.  Thracian folk dances with influence from the Balkans, no doubt.  The family are outside in lawn chairs chatting.  The bride is inside putting on the last touches to her make up and gown.  The groom is inside, too, helping out.  There is no taboo about him seeing the bride.  Though I'm about to explode from overeating, the bride's mother gives us each a bowl of helva--one must always offer something to guests even if it's your daughter's wedding day.
There are a few lingering traditions that families here observe.  The bride leaving the house is an extremely important event, for instance.  When the time comes, the family shuts her up in the living room and refuses to let her out.  (In the old days, this indicated her modesty)  The groom's parents have to lug themselves inside and lure the bride outside with promises of gifts or money.  These days, it's only a token offering.  A sheepish looking older couple totters into the living room and knocks quietly on the door where the bride is holed up--these are the groom's mom and dad.  After a moment, the in-laws answer and ask what they have to offer for their daughter.  The mother of the groom presses something into the hand of the bride's mother.  Everyone is grinning--this is all just for play and they feel kind of shy about it.
Outside it's so green.  Orange sunset sky.  Green sprouts pushing up out of the soil.  Apricot trees and mulberry trees and a soft, cool breeze.
On the whole, it's quite difficult for the groom to extract the bride from her house.  The dancing boys have moved into the driveway, and they will not move until the groom has paid them off.  They circle and circle to the crooning kaval as the groom climbs out of the car and offers them a fiver.  Not enough.  He pulls out a ten.  They keep dancing.  (In the end, this becomes a problem.  They demand a hundred lira, which the groom says is ridiculous and refuses to pay.  We scatter them with our cars, but then the follow us to the wedding, where they lure about the cars, making vague threats until someone threatens to call the police.  'Druggies' Sinem theorizes.)
The wedding itself is held in a "wedding salon" back in the town of Luleburgaz.  There's a table up front draped in gold and white cloth where the couple will sign the marriage certificate.  There are no best men or brides maids, no ring bearer or flower girl, not much pomp and circumstance at all--just two witness who watch the signing.  The couple emerge from a room simply marked "Bride's Room" to a blasting electronic song with a throbbing disco beat and disco lights.  Everyone cheers as they take their seats.  The court official, a woman in this case, presides.  She asks the bride if she accepts the groom.  When Sinem says "yes", the DJ plays a flourish on his electric organ that makes it sound as if she just won the showcase on the Price is Right.
After the signing, the picture taking begins.  Two white ribbons are draped over the bride and groom's shoulder's and then relatives and friends line up to pin money or gold to them.  While this is happening, the surly teenage waiters take time enough away from their cell phone chats and serve up the cake.
"Whatever you do, don't eat the cake!" Delal warns.  "It's almost always nasty."  She's right.  I've put erasers in my mouth with more flavor.
After cake, the dancing begins.  A Gypsy drummer parades around the room with a drum, rocking the room to Gypsy 9/8 rhythms and local songs.  (The 9/8 rhythm is popular with Greeks, Balkans, Turks, and their local Gypsy populations.  It's also called the karsilama--meaning "face to face" for the dance you do when you play the rhythm.  It's the beat belly dancers often use--and I find it very difficult to dance to, but Delal can really get down.  The bride's male relatives really go to town, raising their arms like birds' wings and kicking out the steps. The bride hates dancing.  You can see it on her face--the resigned desperation--but she is obligated to keep it up for the next two hours to entertain her guests.)
The dancing serves a double purpose.  No one throws a bouquet or garter here--here, the bride writes the names of her single friends on her shoe.  Whoever's name is rubbed out after hours of compulsory dancing will get married soon.  Delal's name is missing only one l at the end of the night, which I'm told, means she won't get married for another four years (four letters are left).  
After the party is over, we repair to the bride's house for Champaign.  The groom smokes cigarette after cigarette, explaining, "I was a nervous wreck."  The bride is busy pulling hair pins out of her carefully coiffed hair.  One after the other.  She emerges with 44 in all.  We count them.
I don't know how we end up riding back with Edibe.  There is a promise of breakfast by the sea near her house and perhaps a swim.  She lives in Silivri, on the Marmara Sea just west of Istanbul.  In the hills east of Silivri we see a real live Gypsy camp--they have spread their tents over the plane like in the old days and women in brightly colored clothes are cooking something that sends steam billowing into the air.  I stare out the window at them.  One of the Gypsy mothers stare back.
"Watch the road!" Delal shouts.
I look forward as the car jerks right.  Edibe has her face on the screen of her navigator which is telling her to "Veer Right Now!" as we whiz past the turn off at ninety miles per hour.  A billboard says "Remember, Seatbelts Are Your Best Friend."  What timing!  I fasten mine.