Saturday, February 27, 2010

Ahşap evler

Threatened and neglected they may be, but Istanbul's old wooden houses are hardly the city's "least appreciated architectural forms" -- at least not by me.

According to a recent article by Reuters, there are perhaps just 250 timber houses left in the whole city. Most of the ones you see are on the verge of collapse; as far as I understand it, historic-protection laws don't allow them to be torn down, so owners who'd rather build a big concrete apartment block on the property have to wait for the elements to do their work.

"The decline of the timber houses began early in the 20th century," Simon Akam wrote for Reuters. "After devastating fires during World War I, the authorities banned construction in wood. In the 1920s foreign minorities -- who dominated the ranks of the skilled craftsman needed to build and maintain the structures -- began to leave. Then, following World War II, the Turkish middle classes started to desert old wooden neighborhoods like Zeyrek and Suleymaniye for more modern accommodation. In their place came poor rural migrants who had neither the means nor the experience to maintain the houses."

Training courses in traditional building construction and repair now being given by the Istanbul Municipality seem to offer some hope, however, that a few of these beauties might be restored to their former glory.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Şimdi asker

The first time I walked into a provincial bus station and was greeted by the chaotic mingling of drumming, chanting, and singing echoing off the building's concrete walls, I had no idea what was going on. Now I readily recognize the caravan of cars clogging the road, horns honking, with Turkish flags draped off the back of vehicles, flying out the windows, and wrapped around young men's shoulders. It's a sure sign that families are sending their boys off to the military.

Absolutely the largest and most raucous crowd I have yet seen doing so gathered at the main İzmir otogar (bus station) last night, their chants of "Bizim asker, şimdi asker" (Our soldier, now he's a soldier) reverberating throughout the building. Young men were hoisted onto shoulders and thrown in the air as their headscarfed mothers wailed and even collapsed to the ground. One had to be pulled off the bus as she clung to her son. Even when it's not so dramatic, the scene never fails to choke me up. The boys are so young and the emotions so unfamiliar to me.

In the U.S., at least where I come from, it's easy to be insulated from the realities of military service. Though I know a handful of people who have served or are still serving in the armed forces, most had already returned to civilian life by the time I met them. And though I worry about friends working as journalists or for NGOs in Afghanistan and Iraq, I have yet to have to watch news reports fearing for a loved one on the front lines.

In addition, despite the friends I have with military backgrounds, it's all too easy to retreat into stereotypes about the kind of people who enlist. In Turkey, you can't do that. In the same way as you can't judge a woman's politics in Iran or Saudi Arabia by whether or not she covers herself, military service says little about a Turkish man -- everyone, whether anarchist, Islamist, or nationalist, has to do it. Of course, the wealthy and well-connected can generally draw easier assignments, but knowing that your soft-spoken friend, your hipster coworker, your pal's little brother, or that nice guy at the cafe down the street could each be plucked from their lives and sent to some remote military post makes strangers' goodbyes all the more poignant.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Küçük müzeler

Far be it from me to suggest a kinship with a Nobel Prize-winning author, but Orhan Pamuk and I do have something in common: a love for small museums.

While big institutions such as the Louvre or the Uffizi can sometimes leave me cold, I rarely miss the chance to check out a small town's dustiest collection of ephemera. On a trip last fall to the Western U.S., I even entertained idle fantasies of apprenticing myself to whoever ran the historical society in Silverton, a miniscule old mining town that I adored, and then taking over the museum once she (for it surely is an elderly she) retired.

The Türk-İslam Eserleri Müzesi (Turkish and Islamic Arts Museum) in Edirne will always have a special place in my heart for its utterly random assortment of Ottoman pistols, photos of famous oil wrestlers, illustrated Korans, and a local professor's collection of handwoven socks. Yes, seriously: socks. As will the Malatya Museum, where the guards said "Maşallah!" upon encountering a Turkish-speaking yabancı, as if they hadn't had a visitor all week and a foreign one maybe ever. They fell all over themselves to tell me what the "must-see" exhibits were. To be honest (sorry, guys), I found them mostly forgettable, but I'll always remember one of the guards bringing me a Turkish coffee to sip as I looked at the old coins and earthenware pottery.

The phenomenon seems to work in big cities too, as long as you get off the beaten track a bit. At the Ethnography Museum in İzmir, I got a personal tour of the collection of traditional, heavily embroidered bridal wear; delicately latticed metal coffee cups; rusty firearms; and Koran-carrying satchels. I suppose the guard may have wanted a tip, but I like to think he was just happy to have someone to whom he could show off their costumed dolls from many different countries. "Do we have one from America...? Ah, yes - cowboy!"

Monday, February 22, 2010

Off-season on the Aegean

Come summer, or so I'm told, the Aegean towns of Çesme (right) and, especially, nearby Alaçatı (below) will be mobbed with rich İstanbul'lus as some of the city's poshest and most popular restaurants and nightclubs open up their fair-weather outposts in these seaside villages.

Empty of the hordes to come, Alaçatı in late February looks like a stage set, with its charming cobbled streets lined by shuttered buildings promising boutique-hotel accommodations, wine tasting, tapas, sushi, and French bistro food -- just as soon as the weather warms up.

Seeing the locals leisurely carrying home their groceries and chatting amiably in the quiet streets, it's hard not to feel a sense of impending loss, whether residents in fact welcome or disdain their annual visitors. (Not to mention a twinge of shame about my small contribution to the tourist-ification of this and other places.)

But more than that, I wonder if the people who come to enjoy fine dining and private beaches ever peek behind the stage that has been set for them. Do they see the people living in crumbling houses or tending hidden gardens? What about the sheep and goats grazing in empty lots just a couple of blocks off of the main road? Somehow I doubt it. Though imagining a late-night encounter between a well-heeled couple who took the wrong route back to their hotel and a small herd of goats is somewhat amusing.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Deve güreşi

First, let me clear up a couple of misconceptions: Turkish oil wrestling has nothing to do with girls in bikinis and camel wrestling does not involve men tussling with dromedaries. Having now witnessed both sports, I can say that there are some surprising similarities between the two. In both cases, the contenders often do not possess what most of us would think of as, shall we say, athletic physiques. The "action" consists of a lot of slow, lumbering pushing and grappling before the decisive move, and what exactly one party has done to ensure victory can be a bit mysterious to the uneducated spectator. Maybe that's true of all wrestling.

But when it comes to sheer entertainment value, the camels win hands (hooves?) down. First, the outfits. While the human wrestlers don a minimalist garb of tight leather pants and a healthy coating of olive oil, their animal counterparts are bedecked in every kind of colorful carpet, banner, headband, scarf, and other ornament you could possibly think of.

Second, the spectacle. The stadium full of men watching the Kırkpınar Oil Wrestling Festival in Edirne seemed to take their sport of choice very seriously. There was no apparent beer drinking, no raucous applause, no bare chests painted with the names of their favorite wrestlers. Women and children were entertained outside the arena with shopping stalls and carnival rides, but inside it was just intent attention being paid to the two men in the ring trying to put their hands down each others' pants.

Camel wrestling, in contrast, is an all-day fun fair, with the sidelines often more entertaining to watch then the field itself. Children and stray dogs run everywhere, men knock back plastic cups of rakı and get up to dance, sucuk sellers grill up greasy camel-sausage sandwiches on tiny grills, and children and adults alike don festive orange scarves that actually (and awesomely) are embroidered with the words "camel wrestling souvenir." Plus, the oil wrestlers never make a mad dash for the stands, causing spectators to scatter. They don't spray thick, frothy spit everywhere either. (OK, that one's a point for the oily dudes.)

Next up, Turkish bullfighting and men on horseback trying to hit each other with javelins! Who's with me?

UPDATE: An article I wrote about camel wrestling, "Close Encounters with the Wrestling-Camel Kind," was published in the March 2011 edition of Time Out Istanbul magazine. Check it out!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

On the road again

Strange as it may seem -- and I know it does seem very strange to some -- there's something I really, really love about sitting at a makeshift roadside bus stop, eating crackers and watching the traffic go by. About showing up at some dusty otogar and having to figure out how to get where I want to go next. About bumping down tiny rural roads in a dolmuş, gazing out the window at everything and nothing. About waking up on an all-night bus ride to the blazing lights of a rest stop, surreally bustling with people eating, smoking, and shopping at 3 a.m.

I love it so much that where I end up almost doesn't matter. If it's a tucked-away backstreet where I can sit on a little rattan stool and eat cheesy pastries and drink tea, or a rural village strewn with 2,000-year-old ruins*, all the better.

* Like the lovely remains shown here of the Temple of Artemis in Sardis, capital of the ancient kingdom of the Lydians, the first people to mint coins.

Monday, February 8, 2010

36 hours... in the same old places in Istanbul

Even as I would contentedly curl up with the Sunday New York Times back home, I always knew I wasn't part of that paper's target audience. I didn't live in New York, for one thing, and didn't even really aspire to the kind of wealth required to take part in the types of nightlife, travel, real estate, and weddings it breathlessly touted. I did think, in all my gentle naivete, however, that to write for this fine publication one might have to come up with a better lede than

From a skyline featuring both minarets and church spires to the call to prayer competing with lounge music in a hip cafe, Istanbul is the only major city to span two continents.
When I worked at a magazine, editors would be quick to scribble "BTDT" (been there, done that) on a pitch that bore even a passing connection to something we had covered before. But when it comes to Istanbul -- and I'll bet other expats living in different places feel the same way about their foreign homes -- publications don't seem to like to stray far from the beaten path.

I remember speaking to a fellow freelancer about an article she was writing for a major U.S. magazine on Sultanahmet, Istanbul's historic "old city." A long-time expat, she was brimming with ideas about lesser-known sites worth seeing. But the magazine just wanted Aya Sofya and the Blue Mosque all over again.

Sure, New York Times readers probably don't want to jostle elbow-to-elbow for a sidewalk seat to drink Efes at Badehane or get up from their seats to point at stews and mezes behind glass at Çiya. They might not even want to eat an extremely tasty meter-long kebab at Akdeniz Hatay Sofrası if it means hanging out in Aksaray.

But might they not want to be served traditional Mardin cuisine from silver platters by dapper and attentive waiters at Cercis Murat Konağı? Or sip cocktails at one of the actually trendy bars in Tünel or Şishane? Or, heaven forbid, follow their jaunt to SantralIstanbul (admittedly, a good pick) with a trip to Eyüp to watch families take pictures of their little boys dressed in kingly white robes in honor of their forthcoming sünnet (circumcision) ceremonies -- if only to give themselves a good story to tell when they go home?

On the other hand, more tourists at 360 means fewer at the places where anyone else might actually want to go.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Türkleşiyorum ya...

We yabancılar get plenty of comedic mileage about what we see as the superstitiousness of Turks, especially when it comes to weather, health, and children -- from the waiter who solemnly warned my friend that she shouldn't let anyone other than herself or her husband kiss their baby on his face lest he develop allergies to the otherwise intelligent-seeming woman who was convinced that walking around barefoot while pregnant will result in a gassy child. And of course there are the old favorites about air conditioners giving you colds and sitting on bare ground freezing your ovaries.

But when I recently rearranged my furniture and then woke up the next morning with a stuffy nose and a scratchy throat, what did I blame it on? Having moved my bed so it was under one of my leaky windows. Now that's assimilation in action.

A discussion a few months ago about these types of beliefs led, as so many discussions often do, to some Googling, which revealed that there is indeed a scientific link, if not a full underpinning, to such ideas. While exposure to cold cannot technically give you a cold, British researchers showed that it can cause someone with a latent infection to develop symptoms:

When colds are circulating in the community many people are mildly infected but show no symptoms. If they become chilled this causes a pronounced constriction of the blood vessels in the nose and shuts off the warm blood that supplies the white cells that fight infection. The reduced defences in the nose allow the virus to get stronger and common cold symptoms develop. Although the chilled subject believes they have 'caught a cold' what has in fact happened is that the dormant infection has taken hold.
Now perhaps I am indeed becoming too Turkish, but this distinction pretty much seems like a semantic one to me. If I "have" a cold, but am not sniffling, sneezing, coughing, or any of the rest, well, for all intents and purposes, I don't actually have a cold, now do I? And if avoiding catching a chill keeps from developing those symptoms, well, that seems like a pretty reasonable thing to do. I'm not moving my bed back, though. One has to draw the line somewhere.