Culture in Turkey: Eight Moments
Moment One - The Bunny Tells It Like It Is
This is a moment that I like to complain about, but it was actually really sweet. Megan and I were walking along a street after leaving the Istanbul Modern Art Museum. It was late in the day and we had decided to head down to the Galata Bridge, where we would cross over and have a fish sandwich, or maybe go to one of the restaurants underneath the bridge and have a fish dinner. As we walked along a little park not far from the museum, we passed an older man behind a sort of podium-like thing. I immediately noticed that two tiny bunnies were perched on top. The man saw me looking, and motioned for me to come pet them. By now Megan had noticed, and so we went over to see. He picked up the bunnies, plopped them into our hands (they were small enough to fit in one palm) and then asked me if I spoke English, French or German. I said English, and he grabbed the bunny back and set it on the podium. The top of the podium had a slit where there were little strips of paper sticking out. He tapped the podium and the bunny took a slip of paper from its mouth and put it in his hand. He gave the paper to me. I read it - it was my fortune! In the meantime, he was doing the same for Megan. She also got her fortune.
He charged us 5 lira (about $3.50) for the fortunes, but as Megan said, it was really worth it. Unfortunately, the bunnies were nicer to her than me. My fortune said I was "quarrelsome," while hers said very nice things about her. It's true, I was being quarrelsome that day, but I'm not going to take that from a bunny without defending myself!
Moment 2 - Manhandled
There was a brief moment, when I was in the Cağaloğlu Hamami (a Turkish bath house), that I thought that my attendant was going to pull my face right off my skull. His name was Chan, or perhaps Çan in Turkish, and he had been working there for 30 years as a bath attendant. I wasn't sure that I would have wanted to make soaping up and rubbing men my life's work, but he obviously was good at it. He weighed somewhere well north of 250 pounds, and he manhandled me around on the wet marble as if I was a rubber ball and he was an elephant idly playing with it.
I have no pictures of me getting the treatment because it's hard to take a photo when you're getting lathered up and rinsed off, but here's a video of Michael Palin getting a Turkish bath. If I'm not mistaken, his attendant is a younger Çan.
In another moment, when Çan washed my hair, he was so extremely gentle that I temporarily forgot that the lather was being worked into my scalp by a man who could have easily broken me like a twig. With my eyes closed, I enjoyed the feeling of someone else's fingers roaming over my head. I've had members of the opposite gender stroke my hair and massage my scalp - and occasionally a male masseuse - but when you looked at the girth of Çan and heard every so often the gruff voice bark "Is no good?" you really had to suspend your disbelief that such a person could at one moment roughly pull your arms to the point that you were afraid they might come out of the sockets, and at the next lightly massage your temples.
Would I go back? Of course I would, in a minute.
Moment 3 - Living History
Actually, this is a collection of small moments. Most of the time, we were running from historic site to historic site because we were on a schedule. It was those times, however, when I got to stay in a place for a moment and try to take into my mind the vast enormity of history and place that I truly experienced Turkey. I felt shivers in my spine as I looked down the main avenue of Ephesus to the remnants of the facade of the Library of Celsus and thought about how many people had trod these steps when the city was, 2000 years ago, the second city of the Roman Empire. I got the same shivers as I imagined the painters of the frescoes on the 12th century churches carved into the stone at Goreme. I thought of the novels I had read (the Dorothy Dunnett novels and Eco's Baudolino) in which Constantinople plays a key role as I wandered through the historic sites of the city, especially Hagia Sophia and the underground Cistern. Having read books about the long history of this place, I felt a strange kinship to it. Even though I was physically seeing Turkey and its sites for the first time, it felt like I knew them and so it was like greeting an old friend.
Moment 4 - Keeping it Local
I was full of amazement, constantly, at the level of entrepreneurism in Turkey. I did not see many chains of American and European variety there, but a LOT of home grown industries. I know from reading that the current ruling party really focused on building entrepreneurism in Turkey. As a result, Turkey has eight - that's right eight!!!! - domestic airlines. I'm sure that's more than the United States has at the moment. I don't know much about Turkey's domestic economy, but it seems to be free of the rampant monopolism and oligopolism that has become the American economy. The upshot was that we ate local food, drank local alcohol, and shopped at local stores. Certainly, one could find European and American products, but they were often right next to Turkish competitors. Perhaps this is a product of protectionism, and the Turkish economy will, now that it's more open than ever, become more crowded by Western companies. I hope not. I hope that Turkish companies will continue to engage in the kind of competition you rarely see in capitalist countries nowadays.
Moment 5 - Who was Apeth Keasoy?
As I looked at the statue in the nook in the facade of the Library of Celsus in Ephesus, I wondered: who was Apeth Keasoy? She was part of a group of four women, most of whom had what appeared to be the same last name, Keasoy. The most undamaged statue of one woman had the name Apeth Keasoy inscribed in Greek at the base. The another statue, more damaged, was titled Sophia Keasoy. I don't remember what the two others were.
The library is one of the finest examples of Roman architecture still standing. Ephesus itself was a Greek city in Turkey that for a while was the second most important city in the Roman Empire. The library was built to house up to 12,000 scrolls, and was laid out very carefully so as to take advantage of the morning light for early risers.
She appeared to have her right hip cocked upward. Her hands were missing, but one would probably rest upon her breast, while the other might hold a fold of her dress. Her hair appeared to be curled, and covered with a type of hood. Her gaze was directed outward, and little to the right and upward.
She fascinated me. Here was a woman whose image, captured in stone, conveys a thinking person. I thought that she must have had some kind of interest in arts and letters to be immortalized so at a library. I assumed that she also must have been wealthy. Perhaps she and Sophia were sisters who provided some needed funding to the construction of the library. Perhaps she was a regular patron, reading scrolls from authors from Ephesus and beyond and learning what scholars of her time knew about the wider world.
I could imagine her, clutching her the fold of her dress to keep it out of the way while she climbed the stairs to the library in the early summer sun, hurrying to read some newly acquired works in the cool interior of the library. Off across the plaza, her sister, not clearly visible in the dawn, calls to her and she turns on the steps, her hood falling back and revealing her long, dark, curly hair. She waves and then turns again, pulling her hood back over her hair and vanishes into the main entrance of the library for another day of learning, imagining, and dreaming.
Digging for information, of course, totally shattered my image. The statues are merely representations. The other three represent Sophia (wisdom), Episteme (knowledge), Ennoia (intelligence). What I interpreted as Apeth is actually Areti, representing virtue. No matter. I still prefer to place her in the little story I concocted. She seems more real to me that way.
Moment 6 - Buying a Rug
My friend Laura Bruzzese writes about this experience more eloquently than I can, (see her posts on her Turkish rug buying experience here and here) but buying a rug is a singular experience in Turkey. Ostensibly, our group was going to see a demonstration on rug making at a rug shop. Okay, I thought. I can deal with that. Maybe I can look at rugs in the bazaar or something later.
What I learned is that the explanation of rug-making is only the beginning of the hard sell. A loom is dragged out, usually with an unfinished rug being woven. Explanations are given about the weave and the materials. The worth of the rug is measured by the type and blend of materials (wool, silk, or cotton), the intricacy of the design (the number of knots is a clue), and the age of the rug (these rugs can last 300 years or more). Stories are told about the meaning of the rugs and the motivations of the young women who weave them. They are often marriage rugs, but they also serve a purpose of keeping the room warmer.
However, this part of the sell doesn't last as long as the next part. Tea is served, and examples of various rugs are brought out. Suddenly, the realization hits that you've moved beyond the educational component to the sell. Perhaps you notice it because suddenly you have a person, a salesman (and they are ALL men), standing next to you, asking you what you are looking for in terms of size, texture and the like and then snapping orders to an assistant to bring out this and that rug. As the assistant throws the rug at your feet, you realize at that moment that you have a quick choice, either extricate yourself or go for it. You go for it because you have secretly known to yourself that you want to buy a rug. To use an analogy, it is like the choice you have with a beautiful woman who is trying to seduce you. Either you make the choice to walk away, or you plunge in knowing that's what you wanted all along.
In the end, if you continue walking down the path, after an hour or so of looking at carpets of different weaves, materials, sizes and colors, you have been skillfully maneuvered by your salesperson to the rug you wish to settle on. Now comes the negotiation. A price is thrown out that makes you blanch. You counter offer, and the salesperson looks pained. He can't go that low...he has a boss to please, a family to support. But, since you are an honored guest, he could probably let it go for this amount, though it pains him. At this point, you have a choice. You can still walk away before consummating your relationship. But then, you know you might feel empty having come that far only to leave the object of your desire behind. You MUST, at this point, be willing to do just that, or you will have no chance of a great deal. So you look pained in turn, say it is all very tempting, and offer another price. The salesman tells you he can't go any lower, but that he needs to talk to his boss and maybe, just maybe, there is a chance. You wait for a few minutes, the rug lying on the floor tantalizingly before you, and finally the salesman comes back. Yes, the boss has allowed it just this one time for you, such an honored guest. The deal is made, money is exchanged, shipping is arranged, and you have your rug.
In our case, it was a $1400 price for a rug that is probably worth $5,000 - $6,000 on the American market. That's more than I've ever spent at one time except for trips and cars. It is a mercerized cotton carpet that feels like silk, and a design that represents the seven hills of Istanbul. It will last 300 years, easily, and since I have no children we will have to decide who we will leave it to after I'm gone. And I must say, the negotiation was easy because our tour already set up deep discounts. The shop was so open about this that they told Laura that if she decided that she no longer wanted her rug, they would buy it back from her for %25 more than she paid for it because they knew they would sell it again. So what I describe is a mixture of what I think might happen in a really hard sell, based on my experience. It certainly wasn't to be missed.
Moment 7 - Soccer
We were in Istanbul for the final games of the Turkish League. The hometown team, Fenerbaçe, was in close race for the title with the team from Trabzon. Unlike in the U.S., there are no playoffs. The winner of the league is determined by record and, if there is a tie, goals scored throughout the season. Fenerbaçe needed to win to take the title. When the team won, it was as if Istanbul came to life in spontaneous joy. Car horns blared, cheers erupted from almost every building, and impromptu street demonstrations and parades broke out all over the city.
I have never lived in a European soccer mad city. This was my momentary experience of it.
Moment 8 - Hookah
Getting my wife to slow down is sometimes very difficult. She is a driven person and wants to see everything she can in this lifetime because she doesn't want to miss a minute of it. I am less ambitious. I was surprised when, after visiting the Istanbul Modern Art Museum, we stopped at a row of lounges nearby. There we ordered a hookah with some berry flavored sweet tobacco. I am not a smoker, but I partook of the hookah. The tobacco was nice and smooth. Life passed by for an hour and a half. A cat climbed on our laps and lay there, content, just as we were content to let it. A couple of guys sat at a neighboring table with a hookah playing dominoes. A couple sat over in a corner talking in low whispers.
It was a great afternoon.