Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Alligator Wrestling and the Turkish Parliament

Jasmine Wrestling Alligators

One day I want to write a tell-all memoir about the marriage of an American southerner to a Turkish Kurd. If I follow the advice of the many agents I have been rejected by, the story will be flashy, eye catching, hooky—and that doesn’t mean filled with hookers though that would be hooky. It means, it will read like a book made entirely of back covers. (I just read the back cover of a book about Turkey at a friend’s house-‘and he ends up swimming to Armenia in his underwear!’ it says. Who cares if the writing is good—that sentence is a best seller!)

How’s this?

‘Thrill as Jeff and Delal (name change—something people can relate to--Bubba and Jasmine!) flee Turkish secret agents and then have sex in a cave guarded by PKK militia men who shoot at them as they come out for a stretch. Bubba loses a testicle and struggles heroically against mono-testicular prejudice.’

Of course it will need humor too—that absurd smirky kind of situational humor on par with the cross border underwear swim.

‘While visiting the US South, Bubba and Jasemine learn to wrestle alligators and work for a while at Gator Jungle to raise money for the guerilla movement back in Kurdistan. At the famous Florida gator park, Jasmine drop kicks a Brazilian tourist while passing out brochures dressed as the lovable Cindy Crocodile.’

The reality is, we spent our first night living in the same house—I am officially out of my old apartment of three years—doing not much of anything attention grabbing. And though we are not yet in OUR house (Last night I slept at her grandfather’s place where we’re staying until we can get our apartment unpacked and set up), it was kind of significant for me. Like I said, not much thrilling or funny happened—no sex in caves or alligator attacks. We were both too exhausted from moving, from arguing with my sneaky landlord who is trying to cheat me out of my deposit, and from weeks and weeks of work and buying furniture and playing monitor at elections. Our main thrill was that our couches arrived.

(A brief word about the move—neighbors I had never seen before opened their doors as we dragged furniture down the stairs. ‘Are you moving out?’ they asked grinning. When I answered in the affirmative, they said how unfortunate it was, how much they would miss us. The only person I knew of the whole bunch was the woman below me whose house I frequented only because I often dropped the most embarrassing bits of my laundry onto her balcony when trying to hang it up on my own. We hired porters to do the moving. These men are heroic! One of them, a fifty-five year old bag of bones put our washing machine on his back and lugged it down the stairs. ‘I lost feeling in my thighs years ago,’ he bragged. ‘I stuck a needle in it the other day and didn’t feel a thing!’ His partner, a chubbier and slightly younger guy piled a tower of my crap on his own back—a bean bag, a box of books, and a chair—before traipsing down to the moving truck, trash bags of clothes in each hand. My mother used to say ‘Carry one thing at time!’.)

Delal’s attention was occupied by the news (Mine by the bowl of watermelon). Big things are happening in Turkey. Tomorrow (Or today, as I am writing the next day) the swearing in ceremony for parliament will take place. Several of the new parliemantarians are in jail—arrested on a medley of charges. The Republican People’s Party and the fascist MHP have candidates behind bars for being involved in the Ergenekon conspiracy. Ergenekon is supposedly a deep state organization named for a sort of ancient Turkish Shangri La. They plan coups against the government, incite chaos to justify military takeovers, and fake assassinations--James Bond Villain sort of stuff. It all sounds very silly from the outside, but such things have happened in the past, the 2000s being the only decade that Turkey has not had a military coup.

The Independent candidates—for whom Delal, I, and her sisters were playing election monitor--have several candidates in jail for ‘ties to a terrorist organization’. This usually means they said something not condemning the PKK or spoke Kurdish somewhere official. The most famous of the detainees is Hatip Dicle who was condemned for saying that the armed attacks of the PKK were ‘legitimate self-defense’. In his absence the AKP—the ruling party—has installed one of their own people. Which of course is going over well with the Kurds.

So with so many of their representatives in jail, the opposition parties are boycotting parliament. And if Parliament convenes without the opposition—well, people are predicting all hell will break loose. There are sit-ins, protests, rock-throwers, angrily worded letters to editors. The police are responding with their usual finesse—tear gas bombs fall like rain drops in the Flood. In fact, yesterday, marchers protesting in support of the Independent Block fled from police gas bombs and ran right into the middle of Istanbul’s Gay Pride Parade where they merged into a line of dancing transsexuals. The news papers call this müdahale--'intervention', but they use the same word for when Syrian police shoot down protesters, raze villagers to the ground, and torture people.  Hmmm.  Being in this parliament is important because they are going to rewrite the Constitution, ostensibly, to end the systematic suppression of Kurdish culture that has been in place since the founding of the Republic.

So a big day.

Our night ended quietly. We complained about being sleepy. Jasmine put on her sheep pajamas and stuffed some wedding invitations into some envelopes. Bubba read and put his aching feet on ice. I wondered if I were doing this whole living together thing right. In every respect, I am that dorky elementary school student who needs to see a confirming grade on everything he does. I want a teacher to come in, observe me, and say ‘You receive a 98 for your first night with living with your future wife! Good job, Jeffy.’ Anyway, it was a good night for me.  As a teacher, I give it an A.

And then we wrestled alligators and fought some soldiers—dressed as hookers.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Robot Gulls Steal Turkish Election

I have mentioned this before, but Turkey, like many of its Middle Eastern neighbors, is a country that has turned conspiracy theories into a work of art. After a while you start to suspect even the seagulls of plotting against you. (I don’t know what the gulls are planning, but whatever it is, its big. The swarm my rooftop by the hundreds and squawk in that foul (!) sneaky language of theirs, all the while staring and staring and staring. I’ve seen The Birds. I know the score. Perhaps they work for the Israelis? Or Al Qaeda? Robot gulls? Has Osama Bin Laden’s reanimated corpse sent an army of robot gulls purchased from the CIA to kill me?)

Robot Gulls in training

It’s not all crazy though. An old special ops man, Ayhan Çarkın, confessed to the Radikal newspaper to executing several Kurds on behalf of the government back in the 90’s. This had only been unsubstantiated rumor before. Mainstreamers called the people asking for investigations crazy, paranoid, and provocateurs. Yet, unsubstatiated rumor is realer than one might like to believe in Turkey. The trouble is, anyone can start gossip, so you have to be really sharp to know which gossip is true and which is made up to hide the true ones. It’s like being friends with the popular girls in junior high, only this gang of Heathers kills.

The people behind the Turkish political system--'OMG he is such a skank!'


In any case, I saw with my own eyes today what should have been a story told by a conspiracy obsessed paranoiac, but was, in fact, reality.

Today is June 12th, the Sunday of Turkey’s fateful election. The results will determine who gets to write the next constitution—the one that will replace the dinosaur imposed by the military junta some thirty years ago. If the majority AK party can win two thirds of parliament they will be able to push through any changes they wish without asking anyone else—a grim prospect given the scope of human rights abuses in the last few years. Over sixty journalists are behind bars for criticizing Prime Minister Tayyıp Erdoğan, which means that thanks to the AK folks, Turkey ranks near China for press freedom (that’s like saying you rank with Stalin for religious tolerance) with new arrests every day on some trumped up terror charge or another. They have sued thousands of writers for ‘slandering’ the government, are instituting a far reaching government monitoring of the Internet, have bugged phones, and started using the police in heavy handed ways against protesters—a man died recently out East after being tear gassed, for example. And now with the new constitution, they aim to change Turkey into a presidential democracy which would leave Tayyıp Erdoğan in power for the next ten years.

Not that they don’t have a good side. At least you can say you are Armenian or Kurdish these days without too much backlash.

Whenever I hear 'AK party, I always think of Bill the Cat's Ack


Delal supports a party called the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP). It is mainly made up of Kurds, but also leftists like film director, writer, and talk show host Sırra Sürreya Önder—a Türkmen from Adıyaman. The candidate for Kadıköy, Sebahat Tüncel—a woman who has already served a term or two, owes us 5 lira for the börek we brought to her office one day last week. Delal says let it go, we were trying to be supportive, but I’m counting kuruş. Cough it up Sebahat!

Sırrı Süreyya representing his super cool movie Beynel Minel

Today we went to Üsküdar, the AKP nest on the Asian side, and served as election monitors at the precinct where Delal and her sister vote. Now the BDP could not directly take part in the election (you have to command ten percent of the election to do that—the military junta’s idea). Instead they joined as independent candidates—a coalition of individuals who planned, once in office, to form a coalition block. So we call them the block.

This all gets very complicated so let me leave the politics aside.

I was pretty excited to be a monitor (müşahit). I had my own badge from the coalition block and stationed myself like a Secret Service agent on the second floor of the school where the elections were held. I kept an eye out for any kind of hijinx and hooliganism—in the weeks before the election there were riots in the streets, Molotov cocktails, tear gas attacks. It seemed anything was possible. I did not have to wait long for action.

A small band of covered women from the AK Party (ACK!) had staked out each floor of the school—about five per flight of stairs. One of the them, an old shrew in a lead-colored headscarf with similarly colored eyes sat beside me and scanned the hallway like one of the robot gulls I mentioned earlier. She had a sour expression and an enormous honker (indicating, a friend in Boston once told me, that she has a big penis). As soon as a new voter appeared on the stairs, she turned on the smile, flew to her feet and asked, ‘Oh, do you need help finding your voting booth?’ She’d put an arm around their shoulders and start to lead them away, talking the whole time. ‘Do you understand how to vote? Would you like me to help you?’

This sort of thing is completely illegal in Turkey. As monitors, I and Robot Gull Woman can only watch and report anything we think is strange. We are not allowed to guide or direct anyone. I didn’t understand what the big deal was at first until Delal pointed out that in the past people have used this same approach to threaten, bribe, or intimidate voters. If you happen to be illiterate, they may even try to cast your vote for you.

There were about twenty five of these women at our school—wandering the halls in their covered lady trench coats and cornering people before they went into the room with the ballot boxes. We called the police on them, and they went away for a few minutes only to pop up later and do the exact same thing. This went on for hours. They were very aggressive with people, and hysterical when confronted, but they clearly knew they were doing something wrong because they would vanish until the coast was clear and cops had gone.

For the first time since coming to Turkey I began to understand the suspicion that people felt toward the covered women. At least the ones who came today were abusing their power as monitors and pressuring people with sheer numbers--during the vote counting process too. They finally left when Delal threatened to call one of the election lawyers on them (another shouting match ensued) and they regrouped in the parking lot outside. (Another gull-like behavior—you shoo them off but they just trot down the beach and bide their time).

We called the lawyer anyway. She said that there were so many incidents in our precinct that she was handling them in order of importance. She never did make it to us. If it was like this in our small little section of the city, God knows how it was in the rest of the country. (Next day flash forward—the newspaper mentioned today how bad it was in the rest of the country. In Ankara a fight broke out because opposition party members said they saw AKP people planting false ballots. In Adana, block supporters stormed a school they said was trying to steal votes. In other parts of the country, there were missing ballots, false signatures, and lots and lots of women doing what our covered gals were doing. A couple of these chicks in Denizli were caught trying to pay people to vote for the AKP. Imagine, that many irregularities! Other scandals made the news last night before polls had even closed. There were ballots found Saturday, a full day before the election, signed and sealed—more votes for the AKP. Someone was caught burning ballots with votes for Sırrı Süreyya over on the European side. In our own school, several of the election workers refused to give us official copies of the election results (something they are required to do by law so that we can corroborate vote counts and challenge discrepancies). One woman even tried to shut the door on us while they counted votes unmonitored. (You’re disturbing my concentration! she screeched.)

In Fikirtepe, another part of Kadıköy where our candidate and lendee Sebahat Tüncel cast her vote, the election officers refused to let the coalition’s monitors into the room. When they gathered outside (following the strategy of the Robot Gull Women but with different results) the police tried to disperse them by force (again illegally) and only them--there were several other people from the AKP outside with them who were not dispersed. After several meetings and threats by the election lawyer, and probably after it was way too late, the let the monitors in.

And just to add my own little 2 kuruş worth to the conspiracy pot. From the ballot box I was monitoring, there were 81 votes for the CHP and 120 for the AK guys—and this in a neighborhood known for its almost unquestioning support of the AK party. One wonders how the AK people were able to sweep into power (25% CHP, 50 % AKP) if the ratios even in their fortress of fortresses were not that high.

And my favorite--caught and documented by a reporter no less.  A young man walks into the offices of Mr. Sureyya and after some complimentary tea and chatting, bids them adieu but forgets to take his bag.  Inside are several Molotov cocktails.  Ten minutes later, the police arrive saying someone had tipped them off that a riot was being planned. 

Ugh.  Christ, okay.  I’ll never dismiss a conspiracy theory out of hand again.

All very dramatic. But I had the sense that I was actually doing an important job. International observer. Me! The vote counting itself was the most exciting part for me. One by one the ballot chief opened the envelopes, showed it to the room, and ticked off the votes. I sat in my chair with a very serious look on my face, but was grinning like a fiend on the inside. I had my piece of paper with me and ticked off the results. Whenever one for our candidate came up, Delal and I looked at each other and did a mental high five. There were about six of the covered ladies crowding in front of me, and just as many sitting next to Delal. They crowded the front and pushed others away which made it a little difficult to do proper monitoring. Even the election officials asked them to back off.

Despite all the hullabaloo, in the end, our party did rather well. According to the latest reports, we took 35 seats in Parliament, about ten more than we had before. We. Yeah, I said we. Now that I am getting married to someone local, local politics matter, and the independent candidates support of equality for women, equality for all minorities, and a responsible environmental policy resonates with my own position on such things.

We ended the night with fireworks on Kadıköy wharf. The supporters of the block were there in mass, waving flags and dancing the halay. Some AKP supporter smirked and said, if they get this worked up over 36 reps we could just give it to them—we’ve got plenty. But 36 is nearly double what it was before and it’s enough to play a role in shaping the new constitution. So stick it, dude.

Celebrations in Kadıköy

Thursday, June 2, 2011

My teacher, my enemy--Miss Peacock of Istanbul

The Gürsel companyt that ferries Ms. Peacock to her roost.  No, as one friend asked, they are not like the pick up trucks that take migrant workers to the fields.

Let me be brutally honest. There is a side of me--rearing its ugly head more and more these days as the end of school draws tantalizingly near--that absolutely despises Istanbul—the traffic, the trash, the horns. Call it ‘culture shock’, call it humbuggery or sourpussery, call it sociopathic tendencies—whatever the explanation is, venom has been circulating in my brain fairly frequently lately, and it really gets going whenever, at 6:30AM, after insufficient rest and coffee gulped down as I run out the door (forgetting either keys, my computer, or once, even a shoe) I climb on the service bus to school—the trusty number 46 which brakes and charges and brakes again the entire forty-five minutes to work. (Woe is he who has a hangover). It is kept hermetically sealed in all types of weather—people here have a bizarre terror of air.

Number 46 is driven by the intrepid Mehmet, who is infallibly red and bleary eyed every morning and can barely sputter out a ‘Gunaydın’ when I board. He makes me sit in the front seat next to him for some reason—the foreigners cat-bird seat, I reckon, as a couple of my other foreign colleagues are similarly situated by their drivers.

I spend my entire ride in the front seat scowing and mocking everyone in the back—cussing as we crest Çamlıca Hill and the breathtaking view of the Asian side of the city emerges from the sunrise fog, the Marmara Sea glittering like shredded silver. And rolling my eyes in fury as we reach the Bosphorous Bridge, where the number of cars surpasses the legions of damned that will be dumped duly into hell once Armageddon finally arrives (the date pushed back to October 21st, or, if your posse is the Mayans, December 2012).


Well, the main source of my ire is a woman I call Miss Peacock—mainly in tribute to the way her hair fans out around her head, but also for the mother birdy way in which she treats her eight year old daughter (who also rides with us) which is, namely, as if she were managing a very fragile but talkative egg—the last of its kind, delicate, on the verge of extinction, which must be guarded against disturbances and disasters of all degree and manner—and the usual tool of Satan is moving air. Yesterday, the red level threat was a deadly draft from an open window on the driver’s side—Mehmet had uncharacteristically cracked it. But Snookums was a little ill and the wind might give her le grippe and could Mehmet please turn on the heater even though it was approaching 78 degrees outside? It was for Snookums. (Snookums herself gives a feeble little cough and says ‘Mommy, I’m so cold.’

Snookums. Why the silly nickname? It’s hard to translate the barrage of pet names Ms. Peacock fires at her offspring. It runs like this ‘Canım benim, kızım, ne oldu aşkım?’ Which translates literally as ‘My soul, my daughter, what’s wrong, my love?’ It makes the Anglo Saxon blood in me curdle.

Today Snookums’ destroyer was the dust. ‘Mehmet,’ Miss Peacock says in that breathy, consumptive-aristocrat tone she likes to use. ‘You must really have a professional clean the inside of this van. My little Snookums can’t tolerate all this dust. It gives her allergies.’ As Miss Peacock says this, she pats Snookums cheeks and makes a kissy face and Snookums herself responds in an appropriately tubercular dying-any-day-now breathiness. ‘Mommy, my eyes are getting itchy!’

‘That would be too expensive!’ Mehmet protests.

This is how I imagine Miss Peacock, only with the skin color of a Saltine
And Snookums adds, ‘My eyes are burning Mommy!’

My theory is that Miss Peacock frets over Snookums to have something to talk about. On the whole, if the woman is remotely concious, her mouth is moving—which is why the mornings can be relatively peaceful, for she often sleeps, especially in the depth of winter when the darkness of our 6:30 journey keeps Miss Peacock, as it does with most birds, soundly and dormantly asleep. I have proposed that Mehmet, on these brighter almost-summer mornings, drape a cloth over her head as one might a parrot’s cage, to trick her into sleeping longer, for alas, with the light comes wakefulness, and with wakefulness comes the never ending chatter. She doesn’t even stop to breathe—and that’s no exaggerating. Rather like a trained musician, she has worked out a method of wheezing at the end of her sentences which enables here to take in breaths without actually having to stop talking. Whenever she laughs, she uses the opportunity to suck in particulary deep draughts of air, just as my ney teacher taught me, a kind of Tuvan throat singer circular breathing, right through the nose so that mouth movement need not cease.

Sometimes to keep the empty conversation flowing, she asks Mehmet questions, peppering her sentences with his name, even using it as bookends. ‘Mehmet, why is that car stopped in the median. Huh, Mehmet?’ Or ‘Mehmet, where is that truck going in such a hurry. Mehmet?’ To these he usually replies, ‘How should I know?’ But then, she’s not really interested in the answer. It’s just a launching point for more talk and more questions. I think she might use the driver’s name so much because the airy H sound in the middle enables her to take extra breaths when she talks. For example, yesterdays 6:30 am conversation went like this.

‘Mehmet, are you taking a different way today? Mehmet? Oh no, this is the same road. I didn’t recognize the McDonald’s. Is that new, Mehmet? Where are those men walking, too, Mehmet? Did his car break down, Mehmet? Or maybe he is walking to the bus, Mehmet, but it’s not legal to cross the road like that, is it Mehmet?’ The use of his name is rather like a musical rest.

I am scribbling this furiously into my notebook on the service bus at 6:47. For some horrible reason, Miss Peacock is not asleep today either but perkily chattering to whoever has bumbled into her line of vision. Her egg snores soundly beside her covered with a variety of jackets because, despite the 79 degree weather, she must be incubated properly.

The Dalai Lama says our enemies are our greatest teachers. From them we learn patience. Well, Miss Peacock, I may be your greatest student, or just a cranky old man, but I have yet to learn my lesson.