Monday, July 22, 2013

Happy Ramadan

As I’m writing this (because who knows when it will actually post), Sunday night Ramadan festivities are going on.  I have the huge window to my room open, and moonlight from the almost-full moon is streaming in.  I can hear the sounds of the nightly concert in the nearby park.  It’s amazing.

Growing up in Central Mississippi, I never really knew much about Ramadan.  Even as an adult, my only real experience with it was when I taught in IU’s Intensive English Program, and our guys from Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, and so on would be slumped over the desk at the end of the day.  We’d end classes for them a little early so they could get to the mosque for iftar.  I knew it was a big celebration for them, but I never really appreciated the magnitude of it.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, pick your favorite family holiday.  Now mix that with a rock concert.  Now add the Fourth of July.  Now do for 28 solid days.

That’s Ramadan.

At night when we go out, we see the crowd like a tide.  If it’s before the big cannon that sounds iftar goes off, we see them standing outside restaurants, seated at tables upon which is no food, sitting on blankets under the trees in the park with containers of food nearby, waiting.  When iftar begins, everybody is suddenly in motion.  There are sellers of all kinds of street foods.  Restaurant servers seem like they’re being run off their feet.  Every place has an “iftar menu,” a multi-course meal for a set price, even Burger King.

I have to say that I love it.  I love the vitality of the streets at night.  It is lovely to see families with children, to see the vendors selling their glow-in-the-dark helicopter toys or their bubble horns.  The joy of the different styles of music I hear each night is contagious.

It’s not just the activity, though.  I don’t know what it’s like when Ramadan isn’t going on, but people seem to find it a reason to be more kind, sort of the way Christmas is perceived in the West.  In stores, when I’m haggling over the price and I know I’ve sort of low-balled it, I’ve seen several vendors hesitate and then say, “You know what?  It’s Ramadan.  Okay.  Happy Ramadan.”  While I know they’re still getting a generous profit, I find it lovely that they will say that, especially to someone like me who so clearly is from elsewhere and other.

I am going to be a bit sad, it must be admitted, when I can no longer look out my window and see the families passing by, heading to the festivities or away, when I am no longer walking through mosques and seeing men sleeping in the heat and hunger of the day, when Sultanahmet no longer holds aloft its beautiful lights welcoming and blessing all who pass below.

I wish we had something more of this in our culture, some more defined sense of community and, quite frankly, of joyous interaction.  We could learn a lot from Ramadan.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Cats of Istanbul

Oh, to be a cat in Istanbul….

I’ve never been anywhere where the street animals were so healthy-looking and tolerated.  Once you get to the main square here in Sultanahmet, you will see one of three dogs who seem to have claimed the space for their own.  They are a bit skinny, but they doze on the sidewalks and stairs in cool shadows while people automatically adjust their courses so as not to disturb them.

It’s the cats, however, that have their bluff in.  I can look out my hotel window at any given moment and see at least one cat.  There are brown tabbys and orange ones.  There are mostly white cats and calicos.  I even saw a big black fluffy one trailing a majestic plume of a tail the other day.

It is an act of Muslim charity to take care of these homeless animals.  I have often seen people putting cat food out for them.  Yesterday, a guy from a restaurant stepped out and fed a whole pan of sausage to a large group of cats.  They pawed at and fought over the largesse.

In addition to the food, cats also get to go pretty much wherever they want.  I just passed one on my way into the hotel who had curled up in a soft sunny chair in the outside dining area.  A young orange tabby that reminded me a tremendous amount of my Mom and Dad’s cat Cheeze was roaming around the tombstones in the Suliyemanye area this morning.  They are ubiquitous.

The best example of the affection for cats here in Istanbul can be seen in the Obama cat.  When the President visited here, a cat somehow came in with him as he visited the Ayasofya.  Since he is so high profile and since he won his re-election not long after that, the idea arose that this was a lucky cat.  He now has a home and food and all the petting and paparazzi he can take.

Of course, these sleek kittehs only increase my longing to my own babies back home.  I’m glad to give these street cats the love I cannot give to my own pets at the present.  I think everybody wins.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Divine Wisdom


This trip has been filled with beauty.  My eager little soul has soaked up every curve, every arch, every fluted pillar of it.  I knew, though, that I was really waiting for one thing, the ancient jewel every emperor wanted for his imperial crown, the ancient, the enduring.

Everyone has heard of Hagia Sofia.  It is one of those rare places that has managed to endure no matter what has come against it, be it earthquake or regime change.  For Mehmet II, the one who became known as the Conqueror in 1453, this massive house of worship with its golden mosaics and soaring dome symbolized empire, centralized authority, glory and grandness that could be passed down.

To be in Ayasofya is another experience altogether.  There are no pictures that do it justice.  If one comes to it as I did, after a long journey through the mosques of Sinan and the ornate splendor of Topkapi Palace, I suppose that some might find it a let down.  To be sure, she (because great buildings have a sense of gender to them, and Ayasofya can be nothing but a queen) isn't as ornate as her near neighbors.  A quick trip across the fountain-filled courtyard can take you to the Sultanahmet mosque if your taste runs to knock-you-down glory in decoration.

The Ayasofya has been around long enough to understand that there is an art and a beauty in something a bit more understated.  The long logia have colors, it's true, but they are muted by time.  Even the restored sections are soft, part of a building made to glow by the light of candles instead of compete with the sun.

We toured it from the top down, so the mosaics were some of the first things I saw.  For years, I have seen pictures of the mosaic of Christ the Pantocreator in textbooks, online, and everywhere the Byzatine empire or Constantinope was mentioned.  It is almost a go-to image for those topics.  Today, I saw the real thing, and I realized just how feeble all our efforts at capturing some things on film really are.  (This, of course, did NOT stop me from taking photo after photo.)

Barb, one of the leaders of the trip, grabbed my hand and pulled me over to an unassuming arch overlooking the apse and told me to look up.  When I did, it literally made me catch my breath.  Hanging there like some sort of mystical vision was the massive mosaic of Mary and baby Jesus that once served as a focal point over the now-vanished altar.  I twisted and turned, working to catch the golden glow that seemed to radiate from inside the image.

As we paused to consider some of the archetectural details around us, Dana, one of the professors on the trip, began to talk about the importance of Ayasofya for the various people who possessed it and what their purposes might have been in the changes they made.  As a part of that, she read "Sailing to Byzantium" by Yeats.  I had completely forgotten that poem in relationship to this trip even though it is a part of my curriculum almost every year in the form of a line taken from it that we analyze for practice.  Since we were wearing the "whisper" headsets that are so deservedly popular on group tours now, I had the freedom to wander while she talked.  When she named the poem she was going to read, I found a quiet corner, stared up into the gloaming gold above me, and let literature and history and art collide.

The poem is as follows:

That is no country for old men. The young
In one another's arms, birds in the trees
---Those dying generations---at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unaging intellect.

An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.

O sages standing in God's holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me 
Into the artifice of eternity.

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come. 

Finally, we picked our way through the tides of tourists to the main floor.  I stopped to stick my thumb in the famous wishing hole, and I had that strange juxtaposition that sometimes happens between my Japanese past and my present elsewhere when two young women stood in line behind me and we had one of those quick tourist conversations about what they were supposed to do.  When it was my turn, I managed to twist my arm so that my hand made a complete revolution without my thumb leaving the indention.  This means, according to legend, that I get a wish.  We shall see if it comes true...

I hurried to catch up with my group, and as I did, the high-ceilinged heart of Ayasofya enfolded me.  I came to a sudden stop, unable to do more than stare upward in that open-mouthed way of tourists everywhere in the world.  Even with one side covered in restoration scaffolding, it was a powerful sight.  I wondered around with my camera raised seeking the perfect angle, the perfect setting to try to hold the gentle majesty around me, but I was constantly dissatisfied feeling that I was failing in my efforts, feeling that once again my skill with the Nikon was insufficient to capture what my eye was seeing.  Above me, the placid eyes of the newly-restored angel with six wings were largely unconcerned by such trivialities.

When it came time for us to go, I did so with great reluctance.  Part of me wanted only to sit at the base of one of the columns and let the hushed tide of the past wash over me.  As I stood in the obligatory cafe outside waiting for the last members of the group to appear, I took out one of the little notebooks I keep with me at all times and started scribbling a few thoughts about the experience while they were fresh in my mind.  I think I'll close with one of them.

"And now when I dream, I will always dream of Hagia Sophia....All the rest of the world dims beside it."

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Knives, Scarves, and Gelato

As a part of the Ramadan festivities here in Istanbul, a market of traditional crafts has been erected in the Hippodrome.  It's like a little village of wonderful handmade things.

Of course this drew me like a big old magnet.

I have found myself enjoying wandering there in the evenings, moving from stall to stall and looking at the beautiful things there.  I love handmade things, especially when they can be bought from the people who crafted them.  I think (perhaps foolishly) that things bought from the hand that made them somehow have more meaning.  There is something wonderful about seeing the faces that created an object that you use and love.

Inevitably, I bought things as I walked and looked.  One of them was a pocket knife.  That sounds strange, I'm sure, but I did have reasons.  They were three.  (Ha.)  First, I wanted something practical I could use immediately to slice the fruit, bread, and cheese we've got stashed in our room.  Second, I can think of a million times lately a knife would have been useful to open something, to remove tags, etc.  Finally, the handle was made of curling ram's horn.  The light gleamed on the shades of bronze and gold inside the horn.  How could that be resisted?

Part of the market is traditional foods.  There was a pickle maker and a booth selling the heavy eggnog-like alcoholic beverage boza.  There were booths of special herbs used for medicine as well.  As any person ever having been to a fair of this type will know, there were also places to buy traditional sweets and gelato.  Maybe it's some kind of rule that a fair has to have ice cream.

The first night I went, I decided to get some of the gelato.  I stepped up to the booth and was looking at the flavors when another couple pushed in front of me.  I'm getting better about being able to deal with that.  I've noticed a difference in crowd dynamic here.  What would be powerfully rude in American culture is just a normal part of the way people move.  It seems like if you don't get in and get busy transacting commerce, you forfeit your space.  They might have been rude people in general, though, and I'm not quite sure they were from here at all.  They spoke in somewhat broken English to the man behind the counter, and they were fussy and angry when they paid, something I haven't seen in the commerce here.  They fussed about how he prepared their cones.  They fussed about the cost.  They fussed about whether or not he knew what the flavors of his own product were.  They were frighteningly unpleasant.  The teacher in me wanted to take over and end it, but I know that I can't be that person outside my classroom.

When the Nasty Couple was gone, I was finally able to ask for my choice.  I got pistachio, which seems to be ubiquitous here in everything.  I walked around savoring it.  It was sweet and creamy and cool and in every way good.  It more than made up for Mr. and Mrs. Hateful.

I have an admitted weakness for scarves.  It borders on addiction, but I'm not quite ready for the 12 steps on it.  As far as addictions go, I think it's not too bad even if it is running me out of house and home.... Turkey is not a good place to try to control this issue since culturally scarves are important for going into mosques and maintaining proper modesty for devout Muslim women.  I have seen the most gorgeous scarves on women around me as they ride the bus, walk with their children, meet their girlfriends for a night out breaking the iftar fast at a fancy restaurant, attend the mosques, buy groceries.

The quality is very high here and always has been since Bursa, one of the great silk centers of the world, is located here.  We visited Bursa and made a trip to its khan or market, the place where the silkworm growers would bring their cocoons for sale and processing.  Today, that space is still full of silk merchants keeping the public covered in comfort.  Color and luxurious texture spills out of the doors of their tiny closet-like shops and invites you to lift a corner, feel the seductive smoothness or heavy weave.  Turkey is scarf paradise, and I've been going a bit crazy with it.  The 12 step might be right around the corner.

Of course, then, this little Ramadan market is full of beautiful scarves.  There is hand-marbled silk, block printed cotton, loom-woven mixtures of linen and silk that shimmer in the evening light.  There are brights and darks; loose, open, airy weaves you can see through and heavy solids to keep you warm in the winter; there are modern patterns, traditional weaves, and Ottoman iconography.  The variety is mindboggling.

I am trying not to buy excessively.  I got a cheery, cherry-red, loose-weave scarf the first day because I could not walk away from it.  For everything else, I've tried to wait.  Last night, though, I went back to get one that had been sort of haunting me.  I'd walked past it three times, and I still wanted it.  Surely I managed to satisfy something mythic and symbolic by saying no three times, right?

It was not long after iftar.  Our group had just returned from dinner, and I'd walked around the area in front of the Blue Mosque to take a few pictures of the festivities there and of the incredibly lovely mosque with its evening glory about it.  The booth I was interested in was located in the middle of the space.  It had three men working; one of them was waiting on the customers, unfolding fabric and displaying it across the countertop.  The other two were busily breaking their fast with meals from styrofoam trays.  As I browsed, one of them saw me and nodded.  I smiled and nodded back, but I didn't want to disturb him; if I'd been fasting all day, I would probably be ready to cut somebody who showed up fifteen minutes after I was able to eat again.  I looked at different things, and when he saw I was serious about buying, he closed the lid on his tray and stood up to help me.  His companion continued to wolf down his dinner.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that the young man spoke English.  In many places here, I have found English speakers, but I think it would be rude to expect it.  It hasn't really slowed down my commerce, to be honest, as I long ago learned that hand gestures, a smile, and a calculator can help you buy anything anywhere no matter what language you speak.  This guy was quite fluent, and he began to show me different samples of their wares. He explained that they were from another part of the country and only come to Istanbul for Ramadan to sell their wares at this fair. Their fabrics were heavy, woven on a loom like the one they had somehow managed to maneuver into the cramped confines of their booth.  Their patterns were traditional, and the pieces themselves were huge.  To be honest, I would have liked to have raked everything I saw into my arms and run away.

I settled on two, a red and white striped light cotton and a heavier one with a tiny blue and white geometric pattern that was so large I actually used it as a blanket last night.  We gently negotiated on the price, I paid, and he deftly packaged them for me.  As we were finishing up, he said, "I'll see you again soon" with laughter in his voice.  I had to smile in return at that last bit of salesmanship, and I replied with a little wave, "Oh, almost certainly" as I headed out into the night with my purchases tucked to my side.  With this combination of personality and quality of goods, I have very little doubt my scarf habit will drive me back there again.

Musical Healing

After a late breakfast, we packed up our bags one last time and headed out for our last day "on the road."  We started out at the Sultan II. Beyazid Kulliyesi ve Saglik Muzesi.  This complex, built by the Sultan Beyazid II, was designed to be a teaching hospital.  I didn't know quite what to expect out of a hospital museum.  It turned out to be fascinating for a number of reasons.

The first thing I noticed was the beauty of the surroundings.  All the buildings were of a pale cream stone that glowed in the morning light.  Gardens of roses and lavender scented the cool air.  The only sounds were birdsong, falling water from two fountains, and soft simple music.

The former hospital now has lifesize dummies posed in diorama that depict what day-to-day life was like there during the Ottoman Empire.  I am usually not a fan of mannequins, but these were well-done.  They detailed the types of treatments one could receive at the complex as well as what the various people - patients, physicians, student doctors - had and did.

So many of the things they were doing then are things we've only just now started to experiment with in the West.  Cataract surgery was already being performed in the Middle Ages as were C-section births and other things we didn't adopt until much later.  In a time when most of the people with mental health issues were being locked away and treated like wayward animals, the Ottomans sought a cure and dignity for each.  Why did it take the West so long to catch up to these ideas?

The thing I found most interesting was the concept of musical healing. One of their major forms of treatment for physical and psychological disorders both was exposure to different kinds of music.  At all times, the fountain kept beautiful sound echoing off the in-patient housing wing.  Patients would attend performances of all the different types of music depending on what they needed to help with their specific issues.  See the picture below for a description of what each type did and for whom.

There is a logic to this.  Think about how many times we use music casually to lift ourselves out of a bad mood.  Think about the research done on the possibility for damage or even death caused by excessive exposure to loud, low bass.  We even had the cliche about music soothing the savage soul.  Everything around us seems to be telling us that this is a good idea.  It's just taken us about 400 years to get back to it in our part of the world.

I bought two CDs, one of Rast and one of Rehavi.  The Rast, supposedly good for scholars, is something to try in my classroom.  I personally am going to try the Rehavi next time I get a migraine.  Who knows whether it will work or not?  I have tried everything else under the sun, including some medicines that have made me very, very ill in their own right.  Maybe it's time I took a leaf from the Ottoman Physician Desk Reference and let something I already enjoy become something that can heal me.

Monday, July 15, 2013

Where We Are, Where We've Been, Where We'll Be Tomorrow

Following this blog but have no idea where all this stuff is?  Here's a helpful map.  I should have done this a long time ago.  Sorry.

Sunday, July 14, 2013


Today was the kind of sunny day you always see in films.  The sky was bright blue and utterly cloudless.  Our trusty white bus slid with surprising and almost naval grace along curving roads.  Along the way, fields of golden sunflowers stretched into the distance.

We were headed for the battlefields of Gallipoli, site of the attempted invasion by England and France, site of Ataturk’s great battle success.  We’d been on the bus for hours getting here, and to be honest, I didn’t know what to expect.  I’ve been to battlefields before, Vicksburg and whathaveyou, but I had no idea of what was awaiting us.

Gallipoli is not just a battlefield.  It is also a graveyard to the thousands upon thousands of young men who never left there.

We saw the pillbox machine gun nests first.  These smallish grey concrete boxes clinging to the hillside and the beach seemed terribly incongruous with the deep aquamarine of the ocean below.  Several of them had tumbled from their supports and were slowly being eroded by the waves.

Next came the first cemetery at Anzac Cove.  Just before we entered the graveyard, we stopped to read Ataturk’s words on a huge sculpture nearby.  Of Gallipoli, he said:

"Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives…
You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country. Therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…
You, the mothers, who sent their sons from faraway countries wipe away your tears; your sons are now lying in our bosom and are in peace, after having lost their lives on this land they have become our sons as well."

By the time I got through reading it, I had tears in my eyes.  How many world leaders have had the grace and the basic humanity to say something like this about an enemy that had tried to kill them personally?  The magnitude of understanding and compassion in this inscription is something we could use today, the ability to recognize that the things that divide us don’t have to demonize the other side.

Our bus continued on its winding path to the Lone Pine cemetery, mostly made up of Australia’s dead.  An entire hillside is covered with small neat stones. On each is a name, a date, and an age.  When you walk through the rows of markers, I think it is the ages that rise up and demand acknowledgment.  Here is one who was only 22.  Another was 18.  Beside him lies a soldier who was only 15.  They were children.  Just children.

In addition to the absolute heart-break of the ages is the fact that almost every one has an additional
inscription.  Many are the repetitive stock phrases we employ as epitaph.  Some are wrenchingly personal – a message telling the departed that his sisters will miss him, a phrase somehow managing to express pride and endless grief at the same time.  Some people have traveled great distances to lay crudely fashioned crosses against the base of the markers.  Others have stuck silk “buddy poppies” in the crevasses of the massive stone walls of names beside the one their family lost in the battle.

I could feel the weight of the place like a physical hand on my back.  We stopped once more to see the trenches in which this bloody bit of history had happened.  Now, they look so innocuous.  It’s hard to imagine anything more complex than a child’s game of hide and seek happening in the shallow timber-reinforced structures.  The moment that it sinks in that this is the ground that ran red and that this is the place where Ataturk told his men, “I’m not commanding you to fight.  I am commanding you to die,” it can never be seen as a playful place again.

Surreally, as we wound our way down the recently repaved roads, we began to pass picnicking families, men who had strung up hammocks between the trees near the beach.  Little children were splashing and dunking one another within sight of one of the crumbling pillboxes.  A brightly-colored kiosk selling cotton candy and ice cream beckoned.  I could not resolve these things in my mind, the stark rows of stones marching across the hill and the red and white flowered beach umbrella.

Perhaps, in the end, the children and the ice cream were actually always a part of it.  Both sides surely thought they were doing what was necessary, right, and good to allow safety for all things, even children at play.  History tells us that without the Turkish victory at Gallipoli, the modern nation I am in right now would not exist in this form.  Maybe after all, all of those who laid down their lives on those shores, so many of them really just kids themselves, would be proud to see that the grim grey pillboxes are not all of the story.