Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Strange Week to be a Stranger in a Strange Land

Yesterday, my nephew watched his daughter being born. I watched him being born some 26 years ago. I can still remember how purple-blue his face looked, and the time that has passed baffles. I don’t feel any different than that 13 year old kid waiting for his sister to go into labor at the hospital. And yet here I am, a generation later, approaching 40. My new niece's name is Savannah.

(Delal's dad wanted to know what 'Savannah' meant--he picked his kids' names with that in mind at a time when giving the names themselves was illegal--they're Kurdish words--but I told him I think they chose it for the sound and we took turns guessing, as we walked down the rainy Kadıköy street--I told him it was an old Southern city, he told me it was an African flatland) 

My mom says that when Jeremy held Savannah, he cried. ‘She’s so little! What if I break her?’ (Delal's dad smiled at this--me,too)  I couldn’t be there. We talked on the phone—I could hear the electricity in his voice.

Last week in Japan, of course, there was the earthquake and the tsunami. The footage was nauseating. On CNN and the BBC and Al Jazeera I watched videos of people running for the lives as a wave carrying houses races up the hill to swallow them—and they fall and disappear. Radiation is pouring over Tokyo. My friends are there, just waiting to see if it turns deadly or not--but keeping chipper as always.  'We are genki!' Megumi assured me.  Kuniko apologized for worrying us. Kuniko's husband already has cancer—for years now, and doesn't need the radiation's help.  He could die within six months according to the doctors. And I can’t be there.

And things are happening here.

The night that my grand-niece was born, I went with Delal to her uncle’s house for dinner. We talked about the wedding—our wedding. We found a hall nearby, and Delal is fishing around for family approval.

Her aunt made a dish that they called qatmer for ease of translation. (There’s a dish called katmer in Turkish cuisine, too, but it’s different). We gathered around a huge flat pan of bread that had been hollowed out and filled with lamb, onions, and currants. It was delicious. I told them about my grandniece, and they were pleased. ‘Gözün Aydın’—‘May your eyes be bright’ basically, a way of congratulating someone on good news. We watched a quiz show after dinner and her uncle kept switching to the news where more images of the tsunami and nuclear power plant played over and over again. I had been excited about Savannah and glowing as I talked and now I went on just as excitedly about what was happening in Japan. There’s something cold about the way they report it—the English websites seem pleased to cover such an excessive disaster. What a professional coup!  It’s not just about having a selling point—it’s a pride in being on the front line of something so horrific. It sells for more than money, it sells for fame, prestige, honor. With this you can buy silences at dinner tables for the rest of your life—you were there when the tsunami hit? Holy shit!

This week has been a flood of good and bad news—my friend’s cancer, the earthquake, Savannah. I can’t quite fit my head around it. I don’t like being so far away from everyone. I am a traveler in some sense, always looking over that next hill wondering what is there, but so many foreigners here seem to so easily cut off their pasts, not everyone of course, but many. I, on the other hand, feel like I am in several pieces distributed around the globe.

Welcome Savannah, you are much loved. And as for Japan, you are much loved too, and I pray for you.

Savannah by the way, was originally a name used for the river in Savannah Georgia and probably comes from a word for the Shawnee nation who lived there for a spell, OR as Delal's dad suggested, it may come from the Spanish word sabana (which gave us savanna) to refer to the African like plains of the deep South--if so, the Spanish took it from the word zabano in the language of the Taino Indians of the Caribbean. So by any accounts it is native.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Let's get thumping...

I generally don’t get religious or quote the Bible. But whatever.

I may now live in Turkey, after having lived for long years in Japan and studied both Buddhism and Sufism and become somewhat California New Agey on the outside, but as a kid I was full on Southern Baptist Evangelical—casting out demons in church, going to revivals, preparing for the Rapture—the whole shebang—and I don’t look down on it now, it’s a legitimate side of the religious impulse. And so I am kind of a religious oreo cookie—with one side Eastern religious, one side skeptical of everything but all with warm gooey Pentecostal center left over from earlier years that you’re going to hit if you bite into me too far. So when people use the name ‘Jesus’ to attack others and then respond to people who call them on it as simply atheist liberals who don’t understand, I’ve got to open up my cookie and smear the white stuff in their faces.

On the Daily Show last night, there was a bit about the new committee set up by New York Senator Peter King to investigate US Muslims in connection with their failure to fight terrorism in the United States and the suppsed ‘growing radicalism’ of Muslims back home. In the lead up to the skit, it shows footage of people throwing metal crosses at Muslims in the street, of an old man praying in New York and being shouted down by people with flags shrieking ‘JESUS! JESUS! JESUS!’ And finally, there is a scene of women going to a shelter for abused wives and girlfriends. They pass huddled together under an overpass filled with demonstrators all bearing American flags and shrieking ‘Go Home Now! Go Home Now!’

The first thing I felt was a decent human fear for their safety. The second, and much more powerful feeling was shame. I teach Muslims in Turkey. Many of my best friends are Muslims. My future wife and her whole family are Muslims. And this is the kind of nasty, violent, fanatical behavior that represents my country and my culture and my people and their attitude toward Islam. God I hope that they are in the minority, but they represent whether they should or not, because they bore flags. They threw crosses. They used the symbols. And they were filmed. And not enough public people seem to speaking out.

They used crosses.

So here goes.

‘Blessed are the meek,’ He said. ‘For they shall inherit the earth.’ That is the most obvious line that comes to mind (and since everyone knows this line in the States—Christian or not, it should be kind of a foundation idea for Christian belief). ‘Meek’ means ‘humbly patient, submissive, kind’ according to Websters. The people in these videos are attacking the meek. Attacking a group of battered women? An old man alone on the street? And in the name of Christ! Christ who said ‘You have heard it said by them of old time, Thou shalt not kill, and whoever shall kill shall be in danger of the judgement: But I say to you that whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgement.’ That means that anger and hatred are sins in the family of murder. And He also said, ‘Ye have heard it said, Thou shalt love thy neighbors and hate thine enemy. But I say to you, love you enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you and pray for them which spite you that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven, for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and the good.’

As for the so-called Christians bellowing ‘Jesus’ at the man trying to pray, the real Jesus said ‘If you salute your brothers only, what do ye more than others? Do not even sinners do so?’ The Jesus you say you worship spoke most about love, compassion, mercy, and tolerance. He railed against the hypocrites who claimed to be religious men but tortured and tormented in the name of their faith and law—‘Woe unto you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For ye devour widow’s houses and for a show make long prayers, therefore ye shall receive greater damnation.’ You don’t worship the man who said all these things. You worship his enemy. You worship demons and sin and Satan and you carry the cross to do the Devil’s work which, in my mind, makes you beyond all hope.


Tuesday, March 8, 2011

The Bread of Life--and why Turkish guys look pregnant

I remember having this discussion a million times in Japan. ‘We Japanese people must have rice at every meal just like you American people must have bread.’ (At the time, many sentences began ‘We Japanese people).

‘Well,’ I would say. ‘We have rice sometimes too, in the States.’

‘But you always have bread.’

‘ Actually, there really aren’t any rules. You can have  whatever you want.’

‘So,’ (clearly indifferent to anything I have just said) ‘Just like bread is essential to you, so rice is essential to us.

Well, I now live in the country that the Japanese fantasized about—a place where bread is worshipped and over consumed, the modern republic of Turkey. In America men may sport beer bellies that make them look pregnant. In Turkey, men have ‘bread bellies.’ They like to call them their ‘Türk kası’ which translates directly as ‘Turkish muscle’ but might more accurately be rendered as ‘Fat Ass’.

Two examples of the Turkish Muscle--though I think the first is a picture of an American beer belly (Turks also call a stomach a man's 'Balcony')

Although I am American and have no room to be talking about fatness, I have a very personal enmity with all this bread eating. It’s the Joker Batman kind of enmity.

At lunch, I have ‘duty’ in the cafeteria and I am to stop any child from smuggling food out into the main school building. Inevitably every single one of them goes to the bread tray and grabs fist fulls of white bread—ten or twelve slices each. When they try to cross my line I make them eat it slowly by the door or watch as they shove it all into their gobbing maws at one time—the gobs of dough succeeding in doing something no human being can do, that is, silencing their incessant prattling for a moment.

Also, in the morning, the school supplies breakfast—usually in the form of cheesy toast, or a cheese filled pastry called poğaca. The other teachers wait for the arrival of food like dogs looking to be fed, and they fall upon it with canine vigor. I watched a small framed music teacher this morning make off with 12 pieces. The P.E. teacher (as always) prepared a tray of 20 or more for himself. Of course, by the time I get to the breakfast cart, there’s nothing but grease smears and crumbs.

Like Japan, Turkey’s relationship to its staple crop is ancient and mixed with worship and myth. My Japanese friend told me never to leave even one rice grain in the bowl, because in each lived seven gods and to waste them was to show disrespect and cruelty to the divine. Similarly, bread in Turkey has a sacred quality. The Mevlevi Sufis use it in their metaphors for enlightenment. The unenlightened novice is raw dough. The dervish who has attained spiritual fulfillment is a cooked loaf. Upon entering the dervish lodge you would often be sent to the kitchen where real cooking served as a prelude or accompaniment to spiritual cooking

If bread consumption made you divine, everyone in Turkey would be gods. At Delal’s house she, her sister and I often put away two loaves at one meal, just the three of us. Delal even buys loaves of bread to accompany rice-based meals (which would horrify my old Japanese friends). Bread with a table full of mezes is a must (I can eat a whole loaf like this), and one of my favorite meals here is Kuru Fasulye—a steaming bowl of soft fava beans cooked a long time with chunks of meat and spicy oil until it makes a thick stew. There’s nothing better than dipping using gobs of hot fresh bread to scoop up the beans and hunks of lamb. With all this bread eating, I must already be sitting pretty in one of the higher heavens, myself. But then again, Mevlana himself supposedly said, in regards to the uselessness of accumulating knowledge to the spiritual path--‘A scholar is like a person carrying a big sack of bread on his shoulder. But what is the maximum number of loaves they can eat?’ I think the Turk or Kurd (at least my middle schoolers) would answer, ‘More than you can ever imagine, sir. More than you can ever imagine.’

Kuru Fasulye--the best place to get it is at the Suleymaniya Mosque