Sunday, August 28, 2011

İftara davet

Amid the general hustle and bustle of a 550-plus-person-capacity ferry traveling to Istanbul on a Saturday night, a few people quietly unwrap take-out packages of food, arranging each item carefully on the plastic table in front of them and then turning their focus intently to the flat-screen TVs hanging above the boat's lounge. Onscreen, a flashing countdown clock ticks off the minute iftar, the breaking of the Ramadan fast, begins in each of Turkey's provinces, moving from east to west with the setting sun.

While cars speed down Sıraselviler Caddesi in central Istanbul, two men open up a Tupperware container on the back hood of a taxi parked at the curb, ready to share a simple meal when the evening ezan rings through the air.

On a back street in Nişantaşi, a pair of security guards scurry outside with a small table on which to lay their iftar meal in the dimly lit courtyard in front of their workplace.

Unlike in countries where dawn-to-dusk fasting is nearly mandatory, and people adjust their schedules to a more nocturnal rhythm, these small scenes in Turkey are carried out following a normal workday, next to people eating, drinking, and smoking as usual. This year, they also occurred amid increased concern about an "iftar divide" between rich and poor in the evening Ramadan meal. Though the debate could perhaps be compared to the annual appearance of pundits in the United States saying the "real meaning" of Christmas is being lost under a pile of wrapping paper and empty eggnog cups, the wrestling over whether lavish meals defeat the spiritual purpose of Ramadan also has a strong thread of social justice running through it.

Image from the program "İftara davet" on 24 Haber.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The tale of the disappearing tables

Tucked as it is down a sparsely populated, dimly lit alley on the second floor of a unremarkable-looking building, it's often hard to tell if there's anyone home at Mohti. Pushing open the door tonight and peeking my head inside, I saw only the usually gregarious owner of the cozy Black Sea meyhane, hunched over a laptop in the far corner of the room.

"Are you open?" I asked.

"We're open, but we don't have any customers," he said, rising to shake our hands. "It's because of Asmalımescit... I'm sure you know about it."

We did. For the past month, tables and chairs have been forcibly removed from sidewalks and patio areas at bars, cafes, restaurants -- even closet-sized kitchens serving up scrambled eggs for breakfast -- throughout what had been central Istanbul's liveliest district. Rumors still swirl about what sparked the "masa operasyonu" (table operation), as the Turkish press breathlessly dubbed the ongoing events in Beyoğlu. Had the business owners failed to pay the required bribes? Had the country's teetotaling prime minister, enraged at the sight of people drinking on the street, himself ordered the crackdown? Would it all blow over after Ramadan?

Whatever the impetus, streets that used to be pulsing with people into the wee hours of the night are now empty of everything but stray cats and some old plastic bags blowing through like synthetic tumbleweeds.

"It's very bad, all black and white. No middle way," I said, shaking my head sympathetically. Yesterday, the progressive news site Bianet reported that 2,000 people have lost their jobs due to the sweep, which hit businesses during the busy summer months, when Istanbullus live as much of their life as they can out of doors. Mohti never had any outdoor tables, but has been abandoned along with the rest of the area.

"We don't really have a menu right now. I'll just bring some things and if you don't want them, I'll take them back," the owner said, even more solicitously than usual.

Out came a small plate of tangy cheeses. A large bowl of salad tossed with mint and hot peppers. Fresh-baked Georgian börek with potatoes. A savory pancake made from brined hamsi and shredded vegetables. Baked palamut, de-boned at the table. And, finally, a plate of watermelon slices.

We didn't send anything back. After politely declining a cup of Turkish coffee to top the evening off, we left the restaurant, as empty as it was when we came in.

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Better things to do with a can (or bottle) of Efes than drinking it

Make a row of clanking "wind chimes" for your garden:

Gülpinar, Turkey

Cut it into strips and turn it into a model airplane, as in this Efes-sponsored art exhibition:

Via: My Modern Metropolis

Stack up cases containing 72,000 bottles in a pyramid shape inside an art museum, then invite visitors to climb the sculpture and consume its contents:

Photos: KW Institute for Contemporary Art

The artist, Cyprien Gaillard, described the work as a commentary on the destruction and displacement of the Pergamon Altar at the original "Efes" (Ephesus, to most tourists). I call it a clever way to get other people to drink your Efes beer for you.

Monday, August 8, 2011

The original Twitter*

A dear friend back home recently ran across a postcard I had sent from a long-ago work trip to mining-blighted rural West Virginia and wanted to read the message I had penned back to me over the phone. The trip had made a strong emotional impression on me and I cringed inwardly at the thought of hearing what banalities my eight-years-earlier self had seen fit to pen. Surprisingly, the few sentences I had jotted down really seemed to capture the feelings that my time in and around Whitesville, WV, had evoked.

I know I've written my share of trite "XXX is beautiful, wish you were here" notes on the back of postcards, but the chance to pair a few pithy -- but funny, heartfelt, informative, or otherwise meaningful -- words with an appropriate keepsake picture keeps me firmly in the camp of those practicing the lost art of postcard writing, as a recent New York Review of Books essay described it.

Travel blogger Doug Mack complained, and rightfully so, about essayist Charles Simic's seeming contention that the doddering elderly are the last keepers of the postcard-writing flame, but the piece is otherwise a loving tribute and the flurry of comments it inspired show that postcard fandom is alive and plenty creative.

On my first trip abroad, writing postcards gave me a reason to linger in dauntingly sophisticated-seeming cafes or bars without feeling so horribly lonely and out of place. It's sent me poking through dusty shops in small Turkish towns for something to remember an obscure destination by. Perhaps best of all, it's led me to some very memorable places: An imposing concrete monument to Soviet bureaucracy in Tashkent, Uzbekistan (top); a battered and weathered trailer in Dead Horse, Alaska (above); a grandly renovated 17th-century caravansaray in Mardin, Turkey (left). All post offices.

* Props for the post title idea to "james," a commenter on the NYRB article.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Opportunism amid tragedy

While everyone else* has been praising Norway's compassionate, measured response to the horrific massacre it recently endured, some Turkish officials have been appallingly quick to try and use the deadly attacks for their own political gain.

EU Minister Egemen Bağış -- a man a Turkish colleague joked is considered "the village idiot" amongst his European peers -- was first out of the gate, essentially arguing less than a week after the bloody deaths of 76 people that the tragedy could have been prevented if only stubborn old Europe had seen the error of its ways sooner and let Turkey join its club.

"The seeds of hatred and racism that have triggered these attacks can be destroyed by Turkey’s EU membership," Bağış told the semi-official Anatolia news agency. "[The] EU cannot ignore its responsibility by solely condemning the attacks or releasing messages of sorrow."

Even while purportedly expressing his condolences to Norway, the minister apparently couldn't help but get in another dig -- this one at Norway itself for allegedly not taking seriously enough demonstrations led by supporters of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers' Party, or PKK, during a visit by the Turkish prime minister. "We have seen the point this tolerance has reached today," Bağış said.

Deputy Prime Minister Bülent Arınç jumped on the bandwagon Thursday, raising the specter of confessed killer Anders Behring Breivik's Internet-acquired bomb-making skills to defend an online filtering plan that has been roundly criticized as an infringement on free expression.

Opposition parties, usually quick to denounce any perceived slight by government officials, thus far seem to be letting these blatant bits of political opportunism slide.

* Admittedly, I'm really only following the Turkish news these days. Any bad behavior been spotted among politicians from other countries in response to the Norway attacks? Or have any Turkish news outlets called Bağış and Arınç out on their comments?