Monday, February 22, 2010

Food---1, Kurdish

Yeldegermeni (the Windmills) is the name of the neighborhood in Kadikoy where I live. Back in the day, that is, in Greek and Roman times, it was a gigantic cemetery that stretched all the way down the hill to the sea (when construction crews go to work building one of the ready-in-a-day instant apartment complexes, they always end up digging into Roman bones). But now its crowded with apartment buildings, shops, men's clubs, restaurants, and crumbling Ottoman mansions inhabited now not by Greek aristocrats but one-eyed cats and wild dogs. A whole section of the neighborhood has been taken over by people from my girlfriend's village, Conag (see It's a case of one family moving and establishing a sort of starter agent for the others. Growth ensues. Delal's uncle lives there as well, and Friday night, I went over to have a traditional Kurdish meal--zirvet.

(Now Turks and even moreso, Kurds, have a million different words for family relationships where one will do. Everyone claims its because ‘we value family so much more than you’, but it’s more likely because family hierarchy plays such a role in controlling people’s lives--an uncle on your father’s side is called an amja, one on your mother’s a dayi, and if your aunt has a husband he is an enishte. Delal says Kurdish adds a few more to the mix.)

Zirvet is a very naughty dish. You bake a very wide, round piece of bread in the oven--it’s something like a huge pizza crust, but fluffy in the middle like a proper loaf of white bread. Then you cut off the top crust, and tear the warm middle into pieces leaving the bottom crust as a kind of bowl. (If your Delal’s grandfather, you take a spoon and scrape every last bit of white from the crust to do it properly) Next, you pile the torn pieces of bread into the middle until it forms a mountain of starch, and then poor a mixture of garlic, butter, and salted yogurt (ayran) over the top. It makes a sort of fettuccini sauce--rich, buttery, creamy, and yummy. Everyone sits around the zirvet and eviscerates the mountain with their spoons, eating until their stomachs refuse to take any more in. Usually, you serve it with a side of salad to make yourself feel less wrecklessly hurtling headlong toward a heart attack.

Yeldegermeni is on a hill, and when you walk from the top down one of the cobble stone roads you have a magnificent view of the blue Marmara, filled with sailboats, ferries, and freighters. On some days, a gypsy man and his wife wander the streets with an accordion and a bowl for donations. (For some reason, I find this sound romantic--the man has the proverbial barrel chest and plays with wide exaggerated tugs on the accordion, but his wife kind of just hangs back with the begging bowl in her hand, once picking her nose). There is a Christian evangelical church on Sundays filled with bad white-people music (heads-up crackers, just steal from the black folk like we always have and quit fooling yourselves), a synagogue surrounded in razor wire (Welcome!), and an old mosque that looks like its made out of adobe (whose call to prayer in the morning is louder than the alarm that screams in my ear). There’s a hunter’s club just a few doors down from my apartment; the walls are hung with stuffed deer heads, pheasants, fish, and ducks.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010


So one of the most popular people to hate and wish ill on in Turkey is the Jews. I have heard some statements come out of ordinary people's mouths that might make the most rabid bigot in the States blush (okay, just a little). At English Time--my previous school--a young man in his early twenties referred to Hitler as a "the most important leader in history" whose only failure was that "he didn't finish the job". Another student said he had a funny story to tell, and when I asked him to share it with the class, described through helpless laughter how a mob had nearly beaten to death a rabbi in Turkey after the attacks on Gaza by Israel. And at my new school, the illustrious zoo of spoiled animals called Fenerbahce, I walked into the teacher's room to this conversation between one of the foreign teachers--a New Jerseyite--and a Turk.

New Jersey Nancy: me, okay. And she just had to have that last four cents, you know? Those four pennies were suddenly the most important things in the world. Of course, she's a Jew. Now the other one, you know, she was Italian, so what's four cents to her right?

Turkish Tugba: Thank God they weren't both Jews!

So the other night in Taksim, some human rights organization was hosting a rather odd exhibition called "Yasayan Kutuphane" or Living Library. In this library, the books were people. And when you "checked them out", you went into the backroom and asked them whatever you wanted. There was a card catalogue at the front desk and you could choose from among a wide variety of reading material including Jews, Transexuals, Armenians, Greeks, Schizophrenics, the Blind, Kurds, Women in Head Scarves, Bankers (??), gays, lesbians, and bisexuals--a salad bar of Turkey's minorities. I asked for an Armenian first and was told he was "on loan" but the Jew was free.

The Jewish guy's name was Henri, pronounced in the French manner so that it sounds like "ornery". We repaired to a gathering of cushions in the corner where I and Delal peppered him with questions. He explained that life had been very comfortable for Jews in Turkey (he considers himself a Turk first) until the current government came into power. Their anti-Israel stance has led to a lot of anti-Semitism against Turkey's native Jewish population. People don't know the difference between Jew and Israel. His family have been in Istanbul for over five hundred years, since the first Jews came over in 1492 at the Sultan's invitation after Ferdinand and Isabella drove them out of Spain. He speaks Ladino--the Spanish the Jews brought with them at that time--but is one of the last to do so. I asked him if he was ever afraid in the current political client and he said, "Hell yeah!" There are another class of Jews in Turkey called "donme", the apostates, who don't know they're Jews.

The story goes like this. Back in 1666, a guy named Shabbetai Levi decided he was the Messiah and massed a huge crowd of followers who believed they were going to overthrow the world's governments and bring about God's Kingdom. The Sultan let him have his way for a long time, but eventually called him to the palace and said, "Okay, look. If you're the Messiah, great. I'll follow you. But you have to prove it first. I'm going to order my soldiers to fire arrows at you. If they don't hurt you, I'll admit you are who you say you are. Otherwise, you must convert to Islam." Levi deliberated for a second and then said, "Okay, then, I think I'll convert to Islam." Of course, his followers could not understand why their king shrieking about Revolution had caved so easily. So they decided it was all part of the plan and converted in mass, while still practicing secretly at home the old Jewish rites. There are apparently Muslims to this day who practice Judaism at home and don't even know it.

This library thing might seem a little strange, but remember, this is a country where most people do not admit the existence of minorities. (Turkey has no gays, I was told. They are imported from America). I have had over three hundred students here and only one open Armenian. So this was a unique opportunity to meet Turkey's "underground". Not just for me, but for Turks of course.

(One guy at Delal's work made this comment: Okay, they have all those minorities. They should have a Turk, though!--Hmmm.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Back in Istanbul and Back to Work

So life has returned to abnormal and I am back at the private highschool trying to keep the various circus animals (called students) in check. I honestly don't know when these people learn anything. They're generally too busy kicking over desks, hooting, and throwing their feces to listen to anything anyone says. I want some of them tested for rabies. I was glad to see them fleeing school when the last bell rang at 4:30. I think they will be back tomorrow, though. Of course, on the first day, we had to have a meeting. All the teachers were herded into the school kutuphane (my dictionary says kutuphane means "library" but judging from the room itself I think it means something more along the lines of "magazine rack") Our principal, staunch patriot that she is, demands that the national flag be dragged in and saluted. She wants to sing the national anthem of course. "Have you brought the music?" she bellows at the youngest P.E. teacher Kemal, the guy usually in charge of this sort of thing. "Uhhh....nope," he says. Everyone snickers a little. The principal grinds her teeth, silences everyone with her eyes, and says "Then we will sing it a cappella after a moment of silence. Bow your heads." People bow. People look at each other and shrug. People roll their eyes. I check my watch. Then, in her still small voice, the principal begins to sing, "Korkma sokmez bu safak!" Do not fear! The light of this dawn will never go out!" Then suddenly everyone is blushing and singing in these timid little girl voices. The English and P.E. teachers in the back of the room are being terribly naughty. One of the older P.E. teachers is making faces where the principal can't see him. This has set the English teachers on the other side of the room giggling as they sing, which has made the P.E. teachers next to the prankster (who can't see him directly) start giggling as well. By the end, little fart noises are escaping everyone's lips as they try to restrain their laughter. Patriotism satisfied, we sit down and commence to talk about nothing for the next two hours. Ah, the vapors of education smell sweet.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010


If you come to Locust Fork, Alabama, the main form of entertainment may very well be the window of my nephew's bathroom. He owns a ranch house at the top of the hill on Ray Road, and, as I discovered this morning when I went to the john for a morning constitutional, has not yet hung drapes in the bay window of the downstairs bathroom. The body length window faces the drive, and as you perch upon the porcelain throne, anybody and everybody pulling up in their pickup or hummer or four wheeler, or whatever else they might pull up in, will have a full view of you and your business. The same when you are coming out of the shower. It's a live porn site, free except for the cost of binoculars.

Jeremy has bought his young wife a new horse (Trixie), who, as we arrived yesterday, untied the latch on the gate and freed herself. We spent the better part of an hour running around the yard, trying to herd her back in the fence. The neighbor, who is a full-blooded Native American, came over with his lasso to try and help. He stood in the drive as she trotted toward him, squared his stance and said, "There's no way this horse is getting past me!" Even as the last words left his mouth, the horse trotted a little to the left and darted right past him and up the road. So much for the old ways.

We breakfasted this morning on the other end of Southern cuisine--at the Alabama burger chain called Jack's. No, not Jack in the Box, just Jack's. My mother had biscuits and gravy and I had a simple bacon biscuit. Jack's is the only place to eat in the whole town, and everybody turns up there for a pre-church meal on Sundays, and probably a post-church lunch as well. Jack's owns two stray dogs that sleep outside on the edge of the ditch. My mom says they're there everyday.

My nephew owns a rather large piece of property. In the backwoods and down a hill is a small creek that winds its way through the brush down to the Warrior River. This whole area is on the border of the old Creek territory and was the site of several battles between Red Sticks Creeks (Creeks who wanted to fight the whites) and the more conciliatory clans, with the American army popping in ever so often. I spent the day combing the creek for arrowheads, and through I found a lot of flint shards and things that looked like they might be part of something bigger, I had no luck. Still, it was a pretty day. A woodpecker followed me for a while, and somewhere down the hill, some frogs were singing (in the middle of winter?). I saw a bright blue bird once and heard a hawk cry out, and then the howling of a bunch of hunting hounds. This is the last day of hunting season (Jeremy went off this morning to try and bag a buck) so I was wary of being shot, but came home in one piece. Here is something about the South that I both loathe and love. All this open land and wood, and yet, its so hard to take care of any of it because it's either filled with hunters, on someone's property (who will run you off if they see you) or is in some other way inaccessible.

Two food tips for Birmingham. The first is Nikki's down on Finley Rd, off Interstate 65. It's classic Southern food, with everything supposedly coming from the Farmer's Market next door. I had baked chicken and tons of sides, okra and tomatoes, creamed corn, broccoli rice, lima beans, navy beans, collards, and peach cobbler. Another recommendation is Milo's, a burger joint that serves burgers that have a special sauce a lot like the sauce you find on "Islak Hamburgers" in Istanbul. But for biscuits, the best place is the gas station just south of Locust Fork. They opened up today and are warm and fluffy and buttery. Mmmm.