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."