Saturday, January 29, 2011

Turkeys Twelve Step Program for Marriage 2

Step 2 Yield yourself to a higher power....

Today is the day of my Nişan—this means engagement, or rather, socially recognized engagement, since the ring was given and the marriage suggested some seven months ago. My friend Ekrem assures me that there could have easily been two other celebrations before this, one the isteme, or the official requesting of the daughter’s hand, and another that was so obscure and superflous to my mind that I can’t even remember what it is or what it’s called. After this are the Henna Night, the Düğün (translated as ‘wedding’, but I’m not sure it works since what we Americans do in one fell swoop, the Turks and Kurds do in several smaller steps) and the nikah which is the legally recognized signing of the documents at the Marriage Bureau which will be where the white dress has to be worn. There are not twelve steps to this ordeal, however there are enough that I think I can safely say I feel like I am going through a twelve step program.

This morning I bought the gifts for the inlaws. Earrings for mom—silver with red stones. ‘They should be gold,’ tsks Grandfather. ‘In my day, they were all gold.’ Political books for Dad—The Lemon Tree and the timeless engagement party classic, ‘The Banality of Evil’ by Hannah Arendt.

When you do a Google image search for ‘The Banality of Evil’ and ‘Wedding’ this was one of the first images to come up.

Both books have connections with Israel and after the purchase, I wondered if everyone would assume I am trying to push the agenda of the American Jewish Lobby, since, after working for the CIA, that’s the second most popular job that Americans have—according to a great many citizens of Turkey.

It’s cold today, and sleeting in big blobs of frozen rain. I decided to get a little gussied up and ducked into the barber shop for a shave and a haircut. In the course of conversation, my barber discovers that tonight is my engagement party, and as an added bonus, he gives me a mud mask. ‘It will take five years off your face,’ he assures. He is from Kars, a very cold city in the east on the border with Armenia. He looks like a man in a film about Kars, called ‘Kosmos’, who was a little off the wall and otherworldly.

Kosmos, my Barber (or his Kartian movie twin)

In one of his odder moments with my ex-housemante Işıl (or her Kartian lookalike)

The barber shaves my face, clips my nose hair and ear hair (since when do I have ear hair?) and in a surprise move, sets his lighter on high, lights it, and puts it in my ear. I have never had someone put fire in my ears before (Mom always said, don’t stick things in there) and I tried not to flinch, inwardly or outwardly, and made an effort to just roll with it, to look and feel like I did this every day. The scent of burning hair wafted through the frigid little shop (since when do I have ear hair?) and I desperateiy yearned to scratch at the drying mud which was itching like hell.

When he removed the mask, I did indeed, look a little bit younger, though that may be because my glasses were sitting on the counter. After a glass of tea, I hopped over to the grocers and picked up some eggs. My contribution to tonights dinner is the old standby, Deviled Eggs—my way of doing it kind of a combination of my sister’s and my friend Jessica’s—the only Southern contribution to the evening.

Delal and I are a bit of an odd pairing. Most of the mixed couples I know are rather well to do—either both man and woman, or one or the other. Both of us come from what the rest of our countries consider backwaters, and while not poor, I think we both are bit more earthy, say, than the Istanbul or Boston elite. Who would have thought the granddaughter of a Mesopotamia Kurdish villager and the grandson of a Georgian tobacco farmer and lay preacher would ever fall in love and get married?

Our preparations are less concerned with what is traditional or seemly and more with what works—but everyone around us is a little horrified. Apparently at her office, when the rest of the staff found out she wasn’t going to wear anything particular, they were aghast. ‘You HAVE to buy a new dress! You simply MUST!’ Okay, so we bought a new dress. We have also been planning on using my nieces wedding dress for the nikah—a used wedding dress, I am sure this will go over swimmingly with the Istanbullites—but then, why spend a thousand lira for half an hour on dress Delal will hate wearing anyway?

‘The more I think about it,’ Delal told me. ‘The more I DON’T want a wedding.’

Yesterday I was nervously talking to other married teachers at school. A British math teacher said, ‘Let me give you a piece of advice. Let go of the whole idea that this wedding is in any way for you or about you. It is about the bride’s mother. The best thing you can do is just smile and nod and go along with whatever stage directions you’re handed. The same is true for your wife. Most likely wedding plans will be in the hands of people you have never met and probably don’t even like.’ That sounds horrible, I thought. I turned to a Turkish female, figuring I would get a much different version of events than the one given by the crusty old British male.

‘You enjoyed your wedding, didn't you?’ I asked with a knowing smile.

‘Of course not,’ she said laughing. ‘No one enjoys weddings. My parents had to bribe us into doing it. They had to pay for our honeymoon before we ever agreed to set foot in a wedding hall.’

Another couple down the table shrugged and said 'we were high for ours.'

One must have a mind of (Istanbul) winter

There’s no snow, but it’s cold in Istanbul. And it’s 11:00 and though it is Friday, the streets are as quiet and deserted as 3 AM on a Tuesday. I love this about winter. The air is clear and crisp. All the stars are bristling above the buildings, the frosty air burns my lungs, but it also wakes me up. I feel very aware. There is the occasional lone figure wandering far ahead of me. Always a male, wrapped in heavy coats and sweaters and hats, bent against the wind, his hands shoved down in his pockets. But mostly I am alone. I walk the back streets of my neighborhood. There’s a green grocery sitting inside his shop. A string of naked lightbulbs hang over crates of radishes outside on the sidewalk...these are the only lights on the whole street and they glow like moons. The green grocer himself sits inside watching a small television. A space heater sits at his feet and the windows of his shop are completely fogged. Why is he even open at this hour?

Tonight Delal, her sister Zelal, her grandfather and I had shish kebab and went shopping. Tomorrow is the engagement ceremony and despite all the insistence that it’s all going to be very informal, we have spent a lot of time talking about exactly what we’re supposed to do. I have to buy gifts—earrings for her father and a book for her mother. I just typed that backward. The earrings are for her mother. Certain things must be said—my father should say them, but without a Ouija board, he can’t say a thing so a friend is going to say it in place of him. Someone must get chocolates (me). Her grandfather has suspicions that the wedding rings we have bought are actually silver and not white gold as we claim.

For weeks I have been tense about the looming wedding related shenanigans, but tonight, walking home, I just smiled and smiled. 
The streets are gorgeous when they are empty like this. Long swaths of quiet quiet shadow. A man sitting on his stoop in the dark—the orange light of his cigarette the only thing giving him away. A sudden lighted basement window in a tailor’s shop. The place is tiny—barely room for two men to stand inside. There is a Singer sewing machine on a table surrounded by scraps of cloth. A chair full of multi colored spools. It looks like someone has just left. Or like ghosts are still working here, or something else invisible.

The gypsy warren of houses are mostly empty—most of them will be down in the center of town this time of night. They’re houses are all pushed together around a central courtyard invisible from the road, all small, all leaning slightly, all patched with boards and pieces of scrap metal and painted a bright pink. There’s a bubble gum colored house at the front of the complex. All the windows are covered over in boards nailed haphazardly in overlapping X’s and crosses and then painted over in the cotton candy pink. The roof is make of a bushy vine pouring up and over the eaves. It looks like a hobbit house. A woman is hanging clothes in the courtyard. Most of the others are musicians. They will be in the restaurants drumming or singing or playing the zurna or tambur. Delal and I will have a band of them at our wedding. Gypsy music is the best. Drummer and fife.

There’s an alley way and a gigantic graffitti fork painted in luminous silver. Under it in yellow letters it says ‘Illegal Sanat’ (Illegal art). A cat jumps from the dumpster and pads away and then more silence and cold and shadow. I remember a Wallace Stephens poem I’s about snow, but it could be just as easliy about this silence here now.

It begins ‘One must have a mind of winter’ (Which tonight I do) and ends like this.

For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

A Simple Description Then (in light of my last post)

Last night, around midnight, I was walking home from the bus stop down by the sea. You have to go straight up a very steep hill through one of the oldest neighborhoods in Kadıköy, called Yeldeğermeni (The Windmills). The waning moon shone between the buildings, luminous white but blurry from the coal smoke that hung in the air.

The coal stank.

The whole hillside used to be a cemetery in Roman times and I guessed that several feet down the tombs most likely still lay rotting beneath the soil.

I had to pass through an alleyway next to Kadıköy’s only remaining synagogue (This whole neighborhood used to be Jewish according to Delal’s grandfather and the Jewish museum, but now it was mostly Kurdish). The security lights switched on illuminating the yellow walls and the graffitti written there--Say no to the AK Party! Berk hearts Dilara—and the lone tree growing out of the brick walkway made a pool of shadow right in the center. The doors to the court yard are made of steel and always bolted and locked. There’s razor wire around the perimeter and cameras in the alleyway that seem to follow you as you walk, the red light on the lenses like something out of a Terminator movie. There was an old man in a suit with briefcase in hand standing at the other end of the alley (where a cornice has an engraving in Hebrew) being held steady by a woman with long frizzy hair. The man was drunk and bleary eyed and kept shouting ‘I love you! Do you know that? I love you so much!’ as the woman tried to shush him looking anxiously up and down the quiet streets. She kept putting her hand over his mouth, but he’d dart away and shout again ‘I love you! I love you! I love you!’ until she laughed. (I thought of the Aziz Nesin story I translated a while back, the one where the old man goes around the world shouting ‘I love you, Tülsü’ to a woman he’s never met).

A little ways down I stopped and turned around to watch them, but pretended to be looking into a shop window. The window was dark of course, it was midnight, but I found myself staring at a picture of Mohammed Ali in a poster sized photograph shaking hands with a Turkish guy dressed in seventies style clothes. ‘Cassius Clay and Master Ertaş’ it said in sprawling penmanship. This was a martial arts studio—I discovered as I backed up and saw all the Chinese characters on the sign—where master Ertaş taught judo, karate,boxing and Tae Kwon Do. And this meeting with Mr. Ali was his claim to fame. I peered into the window—trophies, karate uniforms, a poster of Bruce Lee. And then my breath fogged the glass.

Monday, January 24, 2011

All of this could be wildly wrong

I have been dragging my feet on this blog thing—making heel marks in the sand really.

Much of my reluctance is from exhaustion—there is simply too much on my plate at the moment (and 42 of the items on my plate are insane, needy 12 year olds). Part of it, though, is the feeling that I am mostly talking out of my ass.

When a person goes to another country, they come back with expert explanations and reports of how things are ‘over there’, when most of the time, it takes years if not decades to really get to know a place.

The other day, I came across my new housemates (a couple) speculating about why Turks never wait in line. The male suggested that it’s because in poor places, you’re never sure if there’s going to be enough of whatever it is you’re lining up for and so you have to make sure you’re right out there in front, for if you’re not, you might come away emptry handed. He’d seen the same thing in India, he explained. (I get this image of a million starving Turks all charging the fish sandwich stands at the wharf, knocking the cart over, scraping the bits of onion off the pavement and shoveling it into their mouths before the other hungry savages can snatch it out of their hands.) The girl said it sounded reasonable and they went out for beers (this whole conversation took place while they were putting on shoes and coats) where no doubt they shared the theory at a bar with other young foreigners, some of whom agreed, some of whom didn’t, and some of whom didn’t listen. The hypothesis will make the rounds of the foreigner circles and either get picked up permanently as an answer whose origin is forgotten (‘I think I read somewhere that....) or else just dropped.

It’s not true, of course. Many Turks DO wait in line, for one thing. There was an enormous queue at the bus stop in Taksim last night with everyone politely asking if this was the right place for Bus 129 before taking their place in the back. Many DON’T of course—like the woman who jumped in front of me at the bank line because she had a short question, or the old woman who plopped her groceries down in front of mine at our local market last night. Line culture is just not as solid or sacred here—and while I cannot really answer as to why that is so, I expect it is probably along the same lines as the difference in climate control culture. In Turkey, it’s always hot. The temperature drops to sixty and the heaters are on full blast and everyone is wearing coats. We foreigners at school are ceaselessly gasping for air and opening windows much to the horror of our local colleagues. In America, it’s always cold. In summer, when it’s eighty five degrees outside the air conditioners are blasting icy air until its a comfy seventy two and everyone is wearing tank tops. My old students in Boston thought we were completely insane. Why does one people overuse heaters and the other overuse airconditioners? Ancient hunting rituals and the influence of historical poverty or just because?

Anyway, this tendency to speculate, to feel somehow assigned the job of finding pat explanations for things one witnesses while traveling is a little suspect. It often contains a grain of condescension and oversimplifies extremely complex matters and leads you to assume you understand something that you haven’t even begun to touch.

Of course, I’ve done it. I still do it perhaps. And of course it’s usually in response to something that causes me stress. (Much like the line conversation was sparked, no doubt, by someone butting yet again in front of one of my housemates). Car horns, for instance. Hell, I don’t even need a conversation partner. I mumble wild and very perjorative explanations to myself as I stomp angrily down the street as to why this or that moron is wildly blowing his or her stupid horn every five seconds—‘Turks!’ I grumble. ‘It’s always ME ME ME! I want to go. Get out of MY way! And no patience. They probably can’t even wait for the goddamn turds to drop out of their asses and sit digging them whenever they rush into the toilet.’

Yeah, okay, this is an extreme version of what I am talking about—a moment of complete rage in which I blame and demonise the whole country for these honking idiots that fill the days with their stupid, relentless noise. But I still think you have to be careful—blogs are blogs—but you are still sticking your opinions up on the internet for possibly a wide variety of people to read who, probably, since all things written are true, will take it for fact. When in fact, without lots of research, debate, consideration, empathy, and experience, you are probably just blowing things out of your ass.

And dude! They get published. There’s a wonderful travel book about the old Christian sites in the Middle East, but the segment on Istanbul (where the author spent a few days, a FEW DAYS!) was so wildly off that I didn’t recognize what city he was talking about until the end when he said ‘and then I departed Istanbul for the East.’ The chapter title was ‘Istanbul’ or something like that and I had assumed that I was reading about a different city he had visited on the way to Istanbul. And of course this put his whole book in doubt. The cafes and scenery were accurate enough—these were things he could directiy observe—but his interpretations of things was wildly off.

Which is what travels blogs try to do—interpret things. And I’m not sure that I am still not just learning to observe. So what business do I have interpreting Turkey on a blog? It freezes me up sometimes, so that even when I have time to write, I don’t.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

'You're Marrying a Kurd!'

Today, in my seventh grade class, the usual band of giggly girls peppered me with ‘relationship questions.’ The conversation went like this:

Girls: Mr. Gibbs! Do you have any kids?

Jeff: Not yet.

Girls: Do you want any?

Jeff: Well, I used to have a son actually. But I traded him for an iPod.

Girls: Mr. Gibbs!

Jeff: It was a brand new iPod.

Girls: Seriously! Are you even married?

Jeff: Not yet. But I will be after this summer.

Girls: Who are you marrying?

Jeff: A street cat.

Girls: Do you have a girlfriend?

Jeff: Of course I have a girlfriend. Who else would I marry?

Girls: What’s her name?

Jeff: Delal.

Girls: Dilal?

Jeff: No, Delal.

Girls: Is she Turkish?

Jeff: No, she’s Kurdish. It’s a Kurdish name.

Girls: EEEWWWWW! You are marrying a Kurd! What’s wrong with you?

And this is where I start to regret being such a smartass, because they think I’m kidding. They decide that me saying I am marrying a Kurdish girl is a lot like me saying that I traded my son for a nifty piece of electronics and was engaged to a hobo street animal. There are shouts of ‘stop joking!’ until finally, from my angry, nasty, cutting remarks, they realize I am not kidding. The funny thing is, we have just read The Diary of Anne Frank and studied the Holocaust and are chock full of useful and pertinent vocabulary. It becomes a bit like an oral exam.  And there were doubts among the teachers about whether these words would be useful among seventh graders!

‘So you guys are racist, basically. Hey, that will be on the test, by the way. Just like prejudiced. Are you guys both racists and prejudiced, or just one or the other?’


‘Maybe you support discrimation. Remember that word?’

And the odd thing is half of this class is a hodgepodge of Turkish minorities—Greeks, Armenians, and Jews. One of the girls grilling me is Jewish. I don’t bother to tell her that one of my ex-students thought they she and her entire race should be wiped out of existence. He said this in class, ‘Hitler is my hero and it’s too bad he didn’t finish job he start. (sic)’ But then, unexpectedly, things take a bit of a different turn.

‘So can she even speak Turkish?’ one girl asked.

‘Better than most Turks,’ I answer. ‘Her father was a Turkish teacher.’

‘Can she speak Kurdish?’

‘Not as well as Turkish. Kurdish was forbidden. People were arrested for speaking it or having books in Kurdish or listening to music in Kurdish. So really, no, she never had a chance to learn her own language as well as Turkish.’

‘But that’s not fair.’

And then one of my boys pipes up, ‘It’s just like it was under the Nazis.’

‘And on that note,' I say after I let the remark sink in.  'Let’s get back to the past perfect tense.’

I was pissed off all day, preparing lectures I would harangue them with the next day, but then I thought about it—they are all thirteen. Maybe this past six weeks has been a sort of sowing period. I have planted the seeds. We’ve watched a film and read a book about a girl their age get hauled off to a death camp by her own people. We have talked about prejudice and racism and discrimination and segregation. Now that they have the language to discuss them, they can start to recognize when it happens around them. The concepts are starting to sprout--and they can apply what they’ve learned. My boy's comment came out of his own brain, I didn't tell him--Inception!  And after all, these kids for the past 7 years have stood up every morning and recited their own version of the Pledge of Allegiance. Some of the choicer lines include ‘I am a Turk! I am right! Let my Turkishness be a gift! Happy is he who calls himself a Turk!’ And on and on, which of course, is odd when you consider that thousands of the kids reciting this poppycock aren’t Turks (the Armenians, Greeks, and Kurds) So what do they think about themselves?  I am not a Turk!  I am not right!  My Non-Turkishness is not a gift to anyone!  Sad is he who can't call himself a Turk!'  So after all these years, someone is kind of introducing a new idea to them and how the hell can I expect them to just suddently become just and fair?

Min fam kir?

The language did indeed used to be forbidden. No books, no records, no cds, no magazines or TV shows. Things have been opening up recently--just in the past year. There is a Kurdish channel. A second Kurdish channel coming from outside the country is no longer blocked. There are Kurdish books coming out, music is thriving, and out East where most Kurds live, people are putting up signs in Kurdish—using the forbidden letters X, Q, an W, which don’t exist in Turkish. It is kind of funny, but as a kid these were my favorite letters, and in the case of X and Q at least, I became so obsessed with them that I memorized every word that began with them, spending hours at night pouring over my grandmother’s dictionary. I was a dork. To think, in Turkey, those letters and my dorkish obsession could have gotten me arrested!  Of course, as Delal points out, all of this is well and good but unprotected by any constitutional law.  The next government could undo it all in a day with no legal repercussions.  Still, I insist, it's progress.