17 April, 2010


Bilkent had its first-ever Turkish Festival, and on the last evening, Oğuzhan and I stop to hear some music. The musicians are hidden, actually, sitting beside the stage: there is an accordion player and two drummers. On stage, a young man reads officially, proclaiming the next dance as if it were a decree. And then the dancers file on stage, garbed in elaborate traditional Çerkez costumes, with sleeves that (like Ottoman sleeves and dervish sleeves) are far too long for their arms, and flap elegantly beside them.

The Çerkez ethnic group is Caucasian in origin; like my friend their roots are in the mountains of modern-day Georgia. Oğuzhan has been telling me for a while about the traditional Caucasian wedding-party dances, and after the performance has ended, the dancers gather on the grass in front of the stage. I'm not sure whether it's planned or spontaneous, but one accordionist begins playing, and the crowd circles tight around a small patch of grass, clapping a breakneck beat. One man and one woman move out onto the grass, their bodies seeming to float in an arc while their feet kick and step intricately. The dance is improvised and ritualized at the same time; dancers and the crowd together choose who will enter the circle next, and a given pair has only a minute or two. Like some courtship display you'd see in an Attenborough film, the male circles out around the female trying to cut her off, and she tries coquettishly to avoid him, the whole while the two are strutting their stuff and making a rather big deal of this fox-and-goose thing. But it's just a small circle of grass with a crowd close around. The clapping goes on for twenty minutes or so, and a second accordionist steps in as the first one tires. Çerkez  music is not particularly melodic, but full of subtle rhythmic variation, and gosh it's fast. Many thanks to Bilkent ** Culture Club and **NAME** for the photographs (coming soon).

Until i can find the videos the Bilkent folks took, here is an example of the dance form.

11 April, 2010

kup şeker

Sugar cubes. They fill a third of an aisle in the grocery store. Nearly every delicate glass of bardak çay is served with two, sometimes wrapped, sometimes not, on the saucer beside it. Over breakfast in Yolağzi, Oğuzhan told me that eastern Turks have a habit of taking large küp şeker, biting the blocks in half with their teeth, and holding the cube in their mouth as the drink tea, for a measure of economy. In my dormitory a friend does just that, and for once i try. Though they never take tea with milk, Turks don't seem to understand tea without şeker. I've left a trail of unwanted küp şeker everywhere i go.

İstanbul, day 3: Tophane to Galata Bridge

I already mentioned that pricey burger. Dusk fell as i walked back through Bebek, and a headache grew worse. But before we hop on the bus, i pause to remark that if you are ever in İstanbul, please visit Bebek. It's hip, and crisp, and as dusk falls the wealthy homes light up and moored sailboats bob on the Bosphorus, and you just have to soak it in.

So now we're on the bus, which carried me back to bustling Beşiktaş - and on which i met Adem, who is studying to be an Imam. Intuition tells me i'll be writing more about him in the future, since this friendly fellow was as eager to use his rudimentary English as i was to practice my Türkçe - and we exchanged names and cell numbers. Beşiktaş was crowded, and when i disbarked at Kabataş pier i headed wearily south on foot. Çay, if i could just have çay. And a bathroom.

Latter (or should i say bladder?) problem solved, i noticed the lights of a small cafe. I should explain that between Kabataş and the southern edge of Tophane there is precious little life. Along the Bosphorus this is a commercial district, and even in some parts of Istanbul the sidewalks roll up early. Everyone had gone to the game, i guess. But there was this cafe - one of the many nargile (hookah) cafes Tophane is famous for - and, oddly enough "smoke nargile in Tophane" was also on the List. Feeling a bit under the weather, i drank çay instead. The cafe was sparsely populated - perhaps eight guys beside myself and the proprietor, half-watching an Atletico Madrid match. Four friends were playing OK, which next to backgammon is the most popular game in Türkiye. I haltingly asked if i could watch - and they drew me up a chair, offered me a drag on their pipe, and proceeded to half-explain the game. Two glasses of çay later, i left with a business card: one of these fellows has a friend at the American embassy. Let us know when you're in town again, they said. How's that for Turkish warmth?

Long day almost at a close, i searched for an internet cafe. Tired of crowded Istiklal Caddesi, i wandered through Karaköy to the Galata bridge, with a new goal: Fatih. It would be a legendary walk - when i calculated later, i covered at least 33 kilometers, 21 of which were on foot. Fatih proved disappointing, save friendly conversation with a Kurdish shop owner when i stopped to buy a candy bar. Near Topkapı, all the web cafes close by midnight. So i wandered back across the bridge. Along the way i met many fishermen. On a Saturday, even at midnight the bridge is crowded with them, dangling lines where the river meets the sea and warming their hands over portable campfires. This, i thought, is another of those things i'd never had met if i used a guidebook. Except for fishermen and the passing tram, the bridge was empty.

More than twice as i stopped to steal a photograph, the fishermen saw me, invited me to join their circle, warm my hands, and on one occasion, share their Jim Beam. I left with MSN addresses and the promise to send along pictures. And then it was back to bustling Istiklal, as street musicians tuned up, and a thoroughly unplanned, unexpected nightclub adventure. No rest for the weary!

Last shot, perhaps my favorite photograph out of over a hundred for the day: smoke wafts from the cart a balik-ekmek seller in Eminönü, as behind him an array of headscarves for sale flutter in the night breeze.

İstanbul, day 3: Emirgan - laleler hacısı

Day 3: Emirgan - laleler hacisi

Why do i keep heading north so single-mindedly, you might ask? Well, Istanbul in April is home to the International Tulip Festival (Türkçede: Uluslararası Lale Zamanı), a spectacular display of blooms throughout the city - Topkapı, Eyüp, and Çamlıca already proved that. According to the festival website, the biggest mass plantings lay at Emirgan Park. So without knowing quite what i'd find, i knew i had to snag some photographs for the generous Garden Club Federation of Maine members whose scholarship in part made this journey possible. Gosh, suddenly i feel like PBS ("and by members like you.")

At any rate, i had no idea from the map just how far from Taksim Emirgan was. I tread further and further north, the second bridge well behind. I met a Turk slowly ambling along, and found he spoke fluent Ingilizce, so we walked and talked together about his work in the shipping industry, about my impressions and reactions to Türkiye, and our common love of photography, until he stopped at a mescid for prayer.

Finally i arrived at Emirgan - and the journey, my tulip pilgrimage - was worth it. The photographs speak for themselves; underneath newly-leafed shade trees thousands of tulips in every imaginable shade grew. The park was filled with people. A common Saturday-afternoon destination, i guess, intensified by interest in the festival. Every where i looked people were snapping photographs - of themselves, their friends, and tulips. Tulips. Tulips. Near the White Kiosk a band was playing a wide range of tunes, from Mustafa Ceceli's popular ballad Dön to quick instrumental dance music, while children danced kolbastı on the cobble stones. Nearby, men prayed in a small outdoor mescid, while festivalgoers bought tulıps and other bulbs from a small, again municipally owned, shop. Of the surprisingly few images i took away from Emirgan, this one is my favorite, summing up the energy of the park in one intimate scene.

İstanbul, day 3: Bebek - context

This image struck me the moment i saw the bride and groom walk from their limousine towards the water - and spotted the punk sitting a few benches away. It's all about context. Looking at the wedding pictures, you will see only the smiling couple, and all the vital details of the place, to borrow a phrase from Wendell Berry, will be reduced to scenery. But the place (as you, and the punk in the foreground, can see) is rich with details, including the Rumeli Hisari, Ottoman fortifications built in 1451.

Bebek hosts the second Bosphorus bridge, and offers trendy cafes and restaurants. (Pricey, i might add. When i stopped on the return trip for dinner, an admittedly good hamburger and fries cost eighteen lira.) Young people fill a waffle-shop and spill out onto the sidewalk. Here there is a promenade along the strait. Sellers offer medye - stuffed mssels - and others offer chances to pop a bobbing row of balloons with a BB gun. Fishermen are common along the shore, and here and there one of the moored boats has been transformed into a floating restaurant.

İstanbul, day 3: Ortaköy - anatomy of a kumpir

I hadn't researched all the destinations on Ege's list - for example, “eat kümpir in Ortaköy” (what? where?). Thus it was a pleasant surprise as i approached the first Bosphorus bridge, getting rather hungry, to find myself in Ortaköy (literally, "middle village") surrounded by kümpir joints. The idea is simple: take a baked potato, cut in butter and cheese, and then stuff it with any and every thing you can imagine. Corn. Olives. Cabbage. Russian Salad. Couscous. Pickles. Anything. Stalls fill an awning-covered row, side by side, no elbow room. The local cafes serve it too. One massive kümpir costs between eight and ten lira, and will more than fill you up. I couldn't finish mine.

Kümpir crossed off the list, i wandered towards the bridge hoping for a better view, but none was to be found. At least the Golden Gate, and even the Penobscot Narrows, have an observatory. Footsore, i caught a bus north, but along the Bosphorus, traffic is a single lane crawl each way. On a Saturday afternoon, the bus was standing room only, and with a headache i disbarked to resume my journey on foot.

İstanbul, day 3: Taksim to Beşiktaş - beautiful day

Down the four flights from Sebastian's flat, U2's 'Beautiful Day' filled my ears. And a beautiful day it was. I wandered the back streets until i found Tophane, a district famous for Nargile (aka hookah) cafes. Hanging a left at Istanbul Modern, i began walking north along the Bosphorus. In Beşiktas, the shore view is obscured by Dolmabahçe Palace, late home of the Ottoman sultans, a landmark which reflects growing European influence in the 19th century. Across the street, Beşiktas İnönü Stadyumu stands - there's a game tonight, and when i return after dark the sidewalk will be thronged with fans in black and white.