Friday, July 24, 2009

It's all relative

This week, feeling my out-of-shapedness (because really, sometimes only a made-up word will do) especially acutely due to the pending departure of my pilates teacher, I finally got off my butt and went to check out a couple of Istanbul's overpriced gyms, including a hotel spor salonu that promised a fitness center, outdoor pool, sauna, Turkish bath, and jacuzzi. What I didn't expect it to provide was a culture shock.

But there it was, staring me in the face when the blasé young fellow showing my friend and I around opened the door to the sauna area: A man and a woman, lounging in white robes. Together. In the same room. With almost their entire legs and arms showing.

Every door our guide opened seemed a window onto an almost Caligula-esque scene. A man in shorts pouring water over a swimsuit-clad woman inside the hamam. Men and women mingling freely inside a shared sauna. I couldn't help feeling I was violating their privacy, and my own.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not a prude. In general, I'm pretty much a live-and-let-live type, donning long sleeves and a headscarf when entering a mosque and doffing, well, pretty much everything at a hippie California hot springs. And I know that Turkey -- especially in Istanbul -- is hardly the world's most restrictive society.

What amazes me is the rapid adaptability of the mind, how bare shoulders and knees and mixed-gender bathing can come to seem, momentarily at least, shocking. And when the norm you've become used to is even more modest, it takes even less to scandalize.

In the book I'm currently reading, Shadow of the Silk Road, author Colin Thubron describes an overland trip from western China to eastern Turkey. After spending a few weeks in Afghanistan, where the women pass by anonymously, fully shrouded under burkas, he crosses the border by bus into Iran and steps out into the northern city of Meshed, where he writes:

"As for the women, framed in chadors leaving the face bare, they seemed scandalously exposed. I stared at them rudely as they passed. They had feathery brows and dark, swimming eyes and lashes. Many were softly beautiful. Some wore a brazen hint of lipstick or eye-shadow. They might have been naked."

* Photo from the awesomely I-can't-believe-this-is-really-necessary-well-actually-yes-I-can "Put Your Brits Away" responsible-dress campaign by the UK travel magazine Wanderlust.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

What didn't stay in Mardin

After pointing out the wall crypts, the sun-worshipers' chamber, and the "angel" carvings, the two boys who had appointed themselves our tour guides to the necropolis complex in the ancient Roman city of Dara wrapped up their patter: "Bitti. Başka kalmadı." That's it. The rest didn't stay. Now how about some lira?

Kids seemed to be on the hustle everywhere we went in the Southeast, whether waiting outside each of Dara's sites to follow us through the ruins or tailing us down Diyarbakır's back streets calling out, "Hello, hello, money, money!" It seemed especially pronounced due to the notable lack of adult "buyuruncus," the where-are-you-from-would-you-like-buy-a-carpet-I-have-very-nice-terrace bane of my every trip to Sultanahmet. Perhaps the most persistent was the boy who cornered us outside the Kırklar Kilisesi in Mardin, insisting that we come try some "very nice" wine. ("How would you know?" we asked, seeing as he was all of about 8 years old. He didn't seem to get the joke.) Having been warned about the unfortunately poor quality of this ev şarapı, we still decided -- correctly -- that a family of Christians who make wine in their house were worth meeting.

After begging off buying a bottle with many gracious teşekkür ederiz and empty promises to return after we finished our walking around for the day, we dined at possibly the only real restaurant in town, the much-recommended Cercis Murat Konağı, where the waiters only sniffed slightly at a pair of grubby backpackers settling into a table in an old Mardin mansion with a spectacular view across the desert toward Syria. The house wine there was amazingly good (keep in mind, our standards are low after so much time in Turkey) and the food tasty and different as promised -- what we could get of it, that is. For whatever reason, a good two-thirds of the items on the long, mouth-watering menu were "yok." (Unavailable.) We joked that at least they weren't "kalmadı," to our (North) American ears a strangely passive way of saying "we ran out of that." And then, yep, one of the main dishes we ordered... kalmadı.

We lingered as long as we could at dinner, trying to avoid going back to our ghetto hotel, with its windowless room and dirty squat toilet. Fortunately, a diversion presented itself on the walk back, a musical performance in the town's central çay bahçesi (tea garden). The over-sexualized 8-year-old belly dancer was of course a highlight, but most memorable was the guy who walked up to the stage at (presumably) key moments in the music and threw stacks of napkins into the air above the band members' heads, letting the paper pile up like snowdrifts.

I suspect if anyone tried to buy napkins the next morning at any of the neighborhood stores, they would find that they had... kalmadı.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Taking tea in Urfa

Up until now, probably the strangest place I have ever found myself sipping a cup of tea was a dingy Uzbek roadside chaihana in almost literally the middle of nowhere, a place that looked like it hadn't seen any other customers for a couple of decades but had not one, but three Britney Spears posters hanging on the wall. Well, the pigeon coop in Urfa completely blew that one out of the water.

(Come to think of, the local tire yard wasn't bad either. We had a few nice glasses of çay there while waiting for a fan to be installed in a car.)

Urfa, in southeastern Turkey, is, perhaps uniquely in the country, a city of equal-opportunity head covering, where men and women alike don silk lavender scarves called Yamşah; a city where people adorn themselves with facial tattoos, where a motorcycle is not road-ready without a carpet covering its seat, and where pigeons wear bracelets and earrings. Oh, yes, and it's also the reputed birthplace of the prophet Abraham. But we were mostly there to see the pigeons.

Inside Urfa's old bazaar, where men and boys pound designs into sheets of copper, making gorgeous platters and kitschy souvenirs alike, the courtyard of the Gümrük Han is an airy oasis. Built in 1562, this old Ottoman caravanasari (a place where travelers -- and their camels -- could stop and rest) is shaded by sand-colored tenting wafting in the light breeze and full of men sitting on low kürsü stools drinking tea and playing tavla, or backgammon.

Some, though, choose to spend their leisure time in a slightly less atmospheric location -- a dark, tucked-away room filled with the sound of flapping wings and tiny clinking jewelry and the blended perfume of dust, smoke, and pigeon shit.

Occasionally a man would pick up a bird and examine it, but if anyone was actually buying or selling the pigeons, they were sure taking their time doing so, puffing on cigarettes, sipping their tea, and watching the room's feathered occupants (likewise all male -- spare the strange blond foreigner) skitter and strut about, just as naturally as Americans -- and, OK, practically everyone in the world now -- hang out at Starbucks.