Arabesque: Notes on a Journey
In May, Dr. Marty Stortz went on a pilgrimage to Turkey as a guest of the Pacifica Institute, a Turkish-American organization interested in “intercultural dialogue.” As she discovered on the way, the travel directly relates to her ATS research grant on pilgrimage. She wrote an extensive and informative travelogue of her trip, presented here in weekly installments. Read only the latest installment.
Every trip is both a window and a mirror. At once, it throws open a window into another culture, and Turkey’s is rich, complex, and multi-faceted. I was so busy looking, I couldn’t determine how large—or how small—the window through which I gazed was.
And simultaneously, the trip was a mirror reflecting back to me my own culture, its gifts and its limitations. Moments of surprise and delight, disgust and incomprehension taught me most. I watched eighteen-year-old boys clearing the table and serving dessert at one of our host family visits, and I wondered: would I see this happen in my own country? I marveled at the cascading domes of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, contrasting it with the vertical angularity of Suger’s St. Denis outside of Paris—and began to revise my suddenly provincial canons of sacred architecture. And dogs slunk around everywhere, afraid of their own shadows, while cats enjoyed privileged reverence. I listened to the language of “social responsibility,” wondering what it meant, what it said and did not say, and where I’d find a similar commitment in my own culture. Suddenly, I found myself examining, not Turkish culture, but the landscape of my own.
Shopping offers a rough analogy, and we did lots of it, mostly in open-air bazaars, but occasionally in cities. We’d look through scrubbed windows at all the pretty, glittery things offered for purchase, literally eating them with our eyes. Then suddenly, in the same window, we’d catch a glimpse of ourselves looking. What was the look on that face: longing? delight? yearning?
This trip to Turkey was both a window into Turkish culture, as well as a mirror of my own. I want to capture both, acknowledging at the outset a finite point-of-view. Again and again, I ran into the limitations of my own conceptual apparatus was to even begin to grasp what I was hearing and seeing, the people I was meeting. I kept trying to stuff the experience into categories I instantly discovered to be too narrow, too large, or wholly inadequate. Still, while I can’t pretend to know everything, it is also not the case that I know nothing. I recall anthropologist James Clifford’s account of a Cree Indian giving testimony at a trial. Asked to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, he paused, then said: “I can only tell you what I know.” (1) Simply put: I want to write down what I know—and, in writing, identify the lacunae. This, it seems to me, is the purpose of intercultural dialogue.
The account is necessarily fragmentary. I intend only to identify a few of the pieces I collected, without knowing which culture they belong to: my own or one of the many Turkish cultures we experienced. But hopefully I create the space of a “contact zone,” (2) a space “in which peoples geographically and historically separated come into contact with each other and establish ongoing relations.…” (3) This is what I try to do whenever I teach history, and this is the opportunity travel offers. The best way to clear a space for more authentic contact is to move through the days.
We were guests of the Pacifica Institute, a Turkish-American organization loosely organized around the teachings of Fetullah Gulen. Pacifica sponsors everything from cooking classes, to Friendship Dinners, to lectures and conferences. The trip we were on was one of a series of intercultural dialogues, offering American scholars, teachers, and businesspeople an introduction to Turkey, its rich cultural traditions, and the work of the Gulen Movement.
There is a lot of “we” in this chronicle, but the word usually refers to some collection of the following fellow-travelers:
Jim Anderson and Janet Leslie, a couple from Chico, where he teaches in religious studies at Chico State, and she has retired from nursing and thrown herself into Christian-Muslim-Jewish conversation, reading groups, courses—even Arabic!
Bill Loker is dean of the College of the Arts and Sciences at Chico, and universities offer a lot of raw field data for an anthropologist. Well-traveled in South America, he knew how to notice things. His wife, Sally, a professional cartographer, always instinctively knew our orientation in any new village or site. Invaluable traveling companions, they also loved to swim, and we swam out far and long in the Mediterranean on our sole morning at the beach.
Mahan and Stephanie Mirza, another couple from Chico, in transit to his new position at Notre Dame in Classics, where he’ll be teaching classical Arabic and Islam, while Stephanie continues working toward a credential in ESL. They have three kids, and the family is practicing Muslim, Stephanie having converted from Missouri-Synod Lutheranism. She and Mahan met at Valparaiso University, the independent Lutheran college in Indiana—and knew lots of my friends on the faculty there.
Michael Coyle and Anne Seiler, another couple from Chico, where Michael is assistant professor of social and criminal justice and Anne runs a museum. Though born in America, Michael grew up in Greece, adopting the country, the culture—and the humor, teasing the Turks, the Pakistani (Mahan), and the Persian (Farshad) at every opportunity and dissolving all of us into laughter.
Farshad Azad runs a martial arts studio in Chico, serves on any number of boards in the area, and functions as part of the Cal State Chico chancellor’s kitchen cabinet. Farshad also knew Arabic, and when they weren’t compiling candid photos for the infamous Napping Gallery, he and Mahan led the informal Islam seminars on the bus.
Donal Godfrey, SJ, an Irish Jesuit from the University of San Francisco, works in campus ministry among a student population from all corners of the world and most of its religious traditions. When he inadvertently purchased a “Hag” cap, a woven white hat usually only worn by people who’d completed the pilgrimage to Mecca, Donal became our resident “Haji,” evoking cries of greeting from strangers in every bazaar and street corner.
Chuck Cullman, CSP, priest of San Francisco’s Old St. Mary’s, works with interfaith organizations in San Francisco. Later in the trip, we’d walk to the ruins of St. Mary’s Basilica outside of Ephesus, where various ecumenical councils were held. We got some nice photos of Chuck in front of the “Even Older St. Mary’s Church.” Chuck was serving a parish in New York City on 9/11, and his stories about ministry in the aftermath both touched and challenged us.
Judith Berling, scholar of Chinese religions and interdisciplinarity from the Graduate Theological Union, serves on the United Board of Christian Seminaries in Asia and worked to understand how the United Board’s mission to be a “Christian presence” in Asia could be analogous to the Gulen Movement’s mission to be a “Muslim presence” in Turkey’s secular, democratic state.
Yavuz Bayam, our head guide, was finishing up his PhD in the sciences. Yavuz’s son Selim joined us for the last two days of the trip, and we saw immediately what a devoted father he was—and how much of a father he’d been to us throughout the trip. He’d already been hired to be the principal of a charter school in Sacramento dedicated to science and technology, but was defending his dissertation immediately after our tour.
Suat Mercan, affectionately known as “Caboose,” because he brought up the rear guard on our treks. He was also studying engineering in Reno, but had family near Nigde, and they came out to greet him!
Arzu Pala was finishing her master’s degree in Turkey, but living in Palo Alto where her husband worked on his PhD at Stanford. She was translating some of the travel diaries of Ahmet Mithat Efendi (1844–1912) from Ottoman Turkish into Modern Turkish. She was a gentle, watchful presence with our group, and Chuck, Judith, Donal and I claimed her as part of our Bay Area contingent.
And me, a professor of ethics teaching at the Lutheran seminary in the Graduate Theological Union, painfully aware of Luther’s vicious remarks about “the Turks,” and ready to do penance on behalf of my tradition. I didn’t take a camera on the trip, so I wasn’t taking pictures—except in words.
Maybe that’s what this chronicle is: a photo site in words.
Tuesday, May 26: Arrivals, explorations, and introductions
Ataturk Airport in Istanbul offered two clues for the rest of the trip: a deceptively familiar alphabet and the overwhelming presence of Ataturk, founder of the Turkish Republic.
A deceptively familiar alphabet…
Both a cue and a miscue, the alphabet signaled the dissonance in cultures. I recognized all the letters, because they were Roman—but that didn’t mean I could pronounce the words. Like most languages, modern Turkish is more logical and regular than English. Turkish is a member of the Ural-Altaic language family, which includes Kyrgyz, Kazakh, Uyghur, Azerbaijani, Manchu, Chuvash, and Mongolian. Interestingly, Korean and Japanese are part of this language tree. The ancestral language, Oguz Turkish, spoken by the nomads of Central Asia 500 years ago, was simple, logical, and expressive. When the Turks encountered Islam in 670 AD, they adopted the Arabic alphabet, and the language gradually began to borrow more and more heavily from Persian and Arabic. Ottoman Turkish boasted flowery phrases and ornate usage—and by the beginning of the 20th Century, only 10% of the people could read it.
Ataturk (1881–1938) wanted to “purify and simplify” the language in order to encourage literacy. He ordered the Arabic alphabet be dropped for a modified Latin one. Under his instruction, on November 1, 1928, Parliament decreed that after two months no materials could be published in the Arabic script. Ataturk himself took blackboard and chalk to village squares around the country and taught the new alphabet to people.
The shift happened in about sixty days. As its impact sank in, Michael remarked: “Suddenly, people could not understand the language of power.” While it’s true that not many actually read Ottoman Turkish, the transition to a Roman alphabet erased literary classics that had been written in the Arabic script. Arzu was translating one of the nineteenth century Ottoman classics into Modern Turkish. Even better, in an era when “The Orient” captivated the imagination of Western writers like Nerval, Keats, and Flaubert, this Turkish writer traveled West. Where they gazed longingly at “The East” through Western eyes, Efendi recorded his impressions of “The West.” We all need that gaze, certainly Turkish-speaking peoples, but also those of us in “The West,” who too quickly assume our view is the only one—or more dangerously, the “right” one.
An overwhelming presence…
The name of the airport, Ataturk International Airport, signaled the ongoing importance of this founder of the Turkish Republic in 1923. By law, Ataturk’s portrait is in every school. It also commands public squares, currency, and any available hillside too steep for housing. We saw at least two different Mt. Rushmore versions of Ataturk, one leaving Izmir and another in Antalya. He may have wanted to “westernize” Turkey, but he drew on an “Eastern” cult of personality to do it. As the trip progressed, I wondered about the contrast between the ubiquity of Ataturk’s portrait and the increasingly apparent absence of photos of the founder of the Gulen movement, Fetullah Gulen.
Our group of six, Janet and Jim from Chico, Chuck and Donal from San Francisco, and Judith and I from the East Bay, made it through customs by around 11am and waited for Yavuz to meet us. It was the only time we ever had to wait for him during the entire trip, but the delay gave us time to change money, feed and water ourselves, and get to know each other. Ataturk Airport is about 12 km from Istanbul, a city of 15 million people—and 24/7 traffic. We made it into the city in about 45 minutes, checking in at the Golden Hill Hotel in the Findikzade section of Istanbul. The area is outside the historic center, but more accessible to the bus that took us around during our time in Istanbul.
Yavuz gave us time to settle in our rooms, then took us to lunch in Fatih, a more conservative neighborhood on a busy boulevard, Fevzi Pasa Caddesi/Maclar Kardesler Caddesi. All streets radiate from the old city like spokes from the hub of a wheel, and this one was north-east of our hotel, closer to the Golden Horn.
Told we were heading to a more “observant” neighborhood, we expected the large number of women in head scarves we saw on the streets. What we didn’t expect was shop after shop of bridal gowns and party dresses in the shop windows, both ground floor and first story! Some of these were more traditional, complete with head-scarved mannequins. But most were simply garish, low-cut and loud-colored, like something from a prom dress catalogue. We watched as women with scarves on when into these shops—and wondered what they might be purchasing.
We settled into the first floor of a restaurant or lokantasi whose ceiling-to-floor windows gave us full view of the street. Food appeared immediately: wonderful appetizers or mezes with baskets-full of bread and water on the table. The waiters brought sample dishes, and we ordered by sight. It was a wonderful meal and a convivial group.
Returning to the hotel, we opted to tour rather than nap, and Yavuz loaded us onto the tram for the old city, the Sultanahmet area. We walked along the edge of the University of Istanbul, moving toward the Suleymaniye Mosque designed by the great architect Koca Mimar Sinan (1491–1588). Born a Christian, Sinan was brought to Istanbul from Anatolia in what was an annual roundup of talented Christian youths. Educated at one of the palace schools, he became a military engineer, and captured the attention of Suleyman I, who made him chief imperial architect. Before he died in 1588 at the age of 97, he built 131 mosques and 200 other buildings. Because Istanbul is listed as a “world destination city” in 2010, the main mosque was closed for renovation. After watching men outside performing their ablutions, we entered a wing on the side.
This was our first exposure to the fabled “Turkish Triangle,” the beautifully geometric, concave arch gracing so many of the mosques we would see; it was also our trial run at wearing head scarves! And we sat in awe looking at arches inside and the ornate geometric patterns on the wall. Outside we visited the tombs of Suleyman I, his lovely Russian/Polish wife Roxelana, and the tomb of Sinan himself. This was also our first instruction in all that a mosque “did:” it functioned simultaneously as a hospital, school, and soup kitchen for the city’s poor; it was a cemetery, both for dignitaries and local people, each grave marked with both larger headstones and smaller footstones, with all the dead buried on their sides to face Mecca; it had a caravanserai, which provided food and lodging for travelers and their animals. And of course, it was a place of worship and call to prayer. The four minarets of Sulemaniye Mosque would distinguish it from other structures on the city’s skyline. We skirted the Grand Bazaar, walking through some of the old streets in Sultanahmet, then went to have tea at a café between the Blue Mosque (six minarets), and Ayasofya (four minarets, with one of them brick). We needed a break from the aesthetic, the design, the smells, and the press of people. Had the mosque been open, had we been inside Sinan’s ornate and beautifully proportioned interior, we probably couldn’t have taken it all in.
The rest of the group took the tram back to the hotel, but Jim, Janet, and I wanted to walk back. Yavuz looked skeptical, not only because of the distance but also the difficulty of the walk. We assured him we’d simply follow the tram line, a feat which proved harder than we thought, both because of the increasing intensity of traffic, but also because we had to navigate the busy east-west corridor of Ataturk Boulevard. We made it through the maze of busy streets and traffic, arriving back at the hotel in time for dinner.
We loaded up on the bus to head to Pirpirim, a fabulous restaurant outside city walls still standing from the reign of Theodosius II (circa 413AD). Just before Atilla the Hun and his Golden Horde bore down on the city in 447, a large earthquake toppled 57 of the wall’s defensive towers. In sixty days the city’s inhabitants rebuilt the damaged ramparts to include a second outer wall and a 20 meter wide moat. The defenses repelled Attila—and everyone else—for the next 1000 years, falling only to the formidable forces of Mehmet II in 1453, when the city of Constantinople was conquered and given the name it bears today, Istanbul.
We ate heartily, finishing our first meal as we’d finish every meal thereafter: with tea. That night nothing could keep us awake.
Wednesday, May 27: Further Explorations in Istanbul
I woke early, leaned out the window as far as I could, and caught a glimpse of the turquoise waters of the Sea of Marmara in the distance. It beckoned. Traffic was lighter than it had been all night: time to walk the city. I wanted to get to the Galata Bridge, but any body of water would do. Situated on a peninsula bounded to the south by the Sea of Marmara, bisected by the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus, Istanbul is a floating metropolis. I pulled on some clothes and took off in search of the nearest body of water. I found my way back to the Street of the Gowns and head down to the Golden Horn through an aqueduct started by Constantine for the city that bore his name. The aqueduct, however, bears the name of the emperor who completed it, Valens (364–378). Justinian II ( 565–578) added a second tier; Mehmet II and Sinan contributed to its ongoing restoration in the 15th century. The aqueduct standing in front of me had delivered water to the city’s palaces and cisterns for almost 1500 years. Like Rome, Istanbul is built on a series of hills that tumble into its various seas. The aqueduct connected two of them—and commanded the skyline. Along with minarets of the city’s mosques, it proved a good navigational tool.
I passed through the aqueduct’s arches, then head straight down Ataturk Boulevard. The Golden Horn glistened in the early morning sun. With some careful jay-walking, I was soon on the Ataturk Bridge, looking eastward toward the Galata Tower and the Galata Bridge and northwest up into the Golden Horn. Men on the bridge reeled in small, shimmering fish. A vendor on a bicycle sold the fishermen simit, the Turkish version of a bagel, thinner and larger in circumference and covered with sesame seeds. Always at this time of morning, the intoxicating smell of fresh bread drifted out of the open doors of bakeries, or pasta. Another vendor walked the bridge with two large thermos bottles full of tea, and the fisherman would stop and proffer glass or plastic cups for him to fill. To the west in Bavaria, Germans were beginning their days were the “breakfast of champions”: a stein of beer and a Brötchen. In Turkey, it’s tea and simit.
In his evocative memoir of the city, Istanbul, Orhan Pamuk writes of a night-time crash in the Bosphorus between two oil tankers. The city’s inhabitants all came down to the waterfront to watch, as flaming debris drifted to shore, setting fire to the yali, the colorful vacation homes built out over the water. Pamuk writes that the simit vendors appeared almost instantly, Istanbullians unable to be awake for long without craving tea and simit.
A city wakes without apology, its face unadorned, its purposes set. You can fall in love with a city at night, darkness hiding everything it needs to mask. But you learn to love a city in its waking hours. On those early morning walks, Istanbul captivated me. From that first morning I knew this was a city I would love. I retraced my steps home, passing through the aqueduct and Arkeoloji Park. From the base of a fierce statue of Mehmet the Conqueror, I could the blue waters of the Sea of Marmara in one direction and the Golden Horn in the northeast. I could imagine the darker waters of the Bosphorus further east. When I realized I was looking at the Sea of Marmara through a roll of concertina wire, I broke out of my urban reverie—and made tracks for the hotel. I moved quickly through Fatih, jay-walked the busy intersection at Aksaray, and hiked up the tram-lined boulevard into Topkapi.
When the group gathered, we set out in the bus, passing outside the Theodosian Walls, across a bridge over the Golden Horn to our first stop of the day: Miniaturk. Miniaturk is a kind of Disneyland for school kids, an outdoor park full of replicas displaying the highlights of the region, buildings and mosques, ancient and modern, mostly but not exclusively in Turkey. By the time we got there at 10am, the place was crawling with school kids, whose delight at practicing their English on us was unbounded. We moved through Miniaturk to a chorus of “Hi!” “How are you?” Tickets were coded so that we could pass them in front of a speaker and hear in English simple explanations. We saw many of these sites later in the trip. It was a great introduction to Turkish history and architecture, as well as the set-up for a great joke. When we got to one of the sites we’d seen at Miniaturk—Ephesus or the Blue Mosque or Topkapi Palace—we’d scoff and say: “It looked better at Miniaturk.” I skipped everything built since the Republican period, along with the Dolmanbahce Palace, a structure that Pamuk had taught me to dislike, sticking to the ancient sites and the mosques. It was fascinating.
Steering our way through the crowds of kids, it occurred to me that we too were grade school kids in terms of our knowledge of Turkey and its history. Indeed, they probably far surpassed us. It was a terrific introduction to the country; it was a good, indirect way to interact with other members of the group; it was a fine example of the fabled Turkish love of children—up close.
We gathered in the gift shop, where I got a CD of Turkish music recommended by both Arzu and the woman running the store. This would be the first of many, including a very unusual jazz homage to the Mehter, the Ottoman marching band, made by the famous drummer, Okay Temiz. I couldn’t seem to get the language in my head, but I couldn’t shake the music. I loved it!
After Miniaturk, we piled into the bus, to move back along the Golden Horn back to the small Jewish Museum in Karakoy. After the Expulsion of the Jews and Muslims from Spain by Los Reyes Catolicos Ferdinand and Isabella, the reigning sultan invited Jews to come to Istanbul, and the museum showed how vibrant was the culture they brought with them. A video described how, much later, Ataturk invited Jewish scientists and academicians to come to Turkey in the 1930s as part of his “modernization/westernization” program. The largest faculty of German Jewish scholars was the University of Istanbul. Relations between the Turks and the Jews were often tense; the video didn’t mention what Pamuk had reported: periodic pillaging of the Jewish and Greek stores in Taksim over the course of Istanbul’s history.
We piled back into the bus and passed through Karakoy toward the Bosphorus and the Dolmanbahce Palace, where we ate a light lunch outside in a park along the river (Taslik Park).
Then we lined up for a tour of The Palace, a huge 285 room Baroque monstrosity, built by Sultan Abdul Mecit in 1856. Constructed when the Ottoman Empire was actually in decline, the Palace was financed largely through foreign banks. Pamuk speaks of the deep ambivalence in the Turkish soul between East and West. If he’s right, the Palace is Exhibit A: it’s a confusion of Eastern and Western styles, emphasis on extravagance, opulence, conspicuous consumption. My favorite room was the main bathroom, walled with Egyptian alabaster and featuring beautiful leaded glass windows that looked out over the Bosphorus. I could have spent a lifetime in that room, and it was the only room that seemed to have a soul—or a single soul. Maybe a Turkish soul. The rest of the decor was disharmonious and clashing in taste.
I was anxious to leave and went straight to the waterfront. I stood in the continent of Europe looking across the unquiet waters of the Bosphorus to the continent of Asia. The Palace embodied the proximity of the two continents—and their conflicting impulses in style and aesthetics, politics and culture. Pamuk was right: the Palace represented the dissonance in sensibilities. It was quite stunning to do the tour with Pamuk’s voice in my head.
Before we got in the bus again, Yavuz asked for about fifteen minutes for prayers, and a handful of us covered and entered the Dolmanbahce Mosque. The interior had more windows than any we would see, except our final visit to Sakirin Mosque — and those windows looked out over the Bosphorus. The structure was large and full of light, similar in feel to that last mosque.
From Dolmanbahce we were dropped off at Taksim Square in Beyoglu, where we strolled down Istiklal Caddesi, the Corso of Istanbul, a huge shopping street and pedestrian way. Near the bottom we passed through a brick gate into the courtyard of the Franciscan church of St. Anthony of Padua. The site looked like a piazza had been plucked out of Italy and transplanted into the middle of Istanbul. And, indeed, it had! The original church, built in 1725 to accommodate the city’s Roman Catholic population, had long been demolished, and the present structure dated back to the early 20th Century (1906–1912). Built in a kind of Venetian Neo-Gothic style, St. Anthony’s served the city’s Italian Catholic population, mostly of Venetian and Genoese descent. Our two priests, Donal and Chuck, checked in vain for daily Mass schedules. Nonetheless, the church seemed full of prayer—and full of milagros, visible, concrete petitions for healing whichever body part was ailing. It was quite stunning.
We turned up Istiklal to head back toward the bus. At Taksim Square, we encountered a sea of flowers, as gypsy-run shops spilled out onto the street. Michael bought roses to take to his host family that night for dinner—and wound up dancing with the Roma women. They were much less inhibited than the Muslim women we’d seen, and they were clearly wearing scarves simply to keep their hair back, not to cover it. Already we could discern the more subtle differences in headgear! It was all quite fun—and we went back to the hotel to get ready for dinner that night with host families.
To get to the families, we had to cross over to Asia. In deep traffic, we crawled over the second Bosphorus Bridge between the two continents. After asking directions several times, the bus passed through the gates of a very wealthy neighborhood, where we split into two groups for dinner with our host families. At the home of mine, we were warmly greeted and given “house shoes.” In addition to the couple and their children, there were about six businessmen and their teacher, an executive in the Gulen-run radio/TV/media center, whom we would meet up with later. Our visit coincided with the men’s weekly study of Koran, which explained the gender balance. Except for the wife and mother of the household and her daughters, the group was largely men.
It was a stunning home, very new and very spacious. We sat down in a living room that could easily accommodate twenty people, seven from our group and about ten from theirs. We made introductions, Yavuz translating when needed, and were served—chocolates!—as an appetizer.
Most of the men could speak English, and they were all professionals, mostly in media but some in other businesses: diapers, advertising, etc. Many of them had international experience; several had either studied in the States or made business contacts there. We repaired to a huge table piled with food on the indoor-outdoor porch. Mezes were already on the table, along with breads. We were served soup, then a meat dish with both rice and mashed potatoes.
Probably the most interesting conversation at dinner was with a younger businessman, one of the better English speakers. We were anxious to learn about the Gulen Movement, and Donal asked how he’d gotten involved. He’d had a lot of international experience, particularly in Barcelona. Even before he included “women” in his past experiences, I’d pegged him as a Turkish metrosexual. But he’d found his life without meaning. Several people he admired from his job in advertising were involved in the movement, and they invited him to join. That afforded him an invitation to these weekly Koran study groups. Still a little skeptical about it all, he identified himself as the one in the group who “asked all the questions,” but he found lots to admire in the movement. From him we heard the word we would hear over and over again when conversation turned to the Gulen Movement: “values.” And everywhere those values were the same: service, sacrifice, love, education, and tolerance. Everyone was “on message.” But we didn’t simply hear about these values; we saw them in action: in charitable organizations, at newspapers and broadcast studios, and especially in the schools.
After dinner we repaired to the living room again for dessert, tea, and fruit. In response to our questions and through Yavuz’s translation, their teacher spoke to us lots. Even in translation, his metaphors were vivid, and his gentleness impressed us all. Equally impressive: an eighteen-year-old son and his friend, a musician, did most of the serving both for dinner and dessert. I searched for an analogous situation in the States, where eighteen-year-old boys would be serving dessert—and came up blank. There was clearly a strong respect for family and discipline threading through the movement.
I also noticed the age difference: our group was in their late forties, fifties, sixties; their group was in their thirties and early forties. I’d marked these same demographics in the video Oytun had shown us in Berkeley as part of our introduction. It was more striking in this context. What if you could drop the median age of the “visitors” to match the median age of the hosts? What if you could pitch the conversation to the same cohort from different countries? Would you get the same group of visiting power brokers? Would you have significantly different impact? These are questions I still carry.
The trip home was shorter than the trip over, but we got a chance to see the city at night, mosques and minarets ablaze with light, bridges shimmering on the water. Now I’d seen the city at dawn and in darkness: I was smitten.
Thursday, May 29: Sultanahmet: Aya Sofya, the Blue Mosque, Topkapi Palace
I woke early and tried out my walk again. Because I now knew the way, I could pay better attention. On Ataturk Boulevard I passed three Muslim women, wearing scarves, chatting easily, and heading down to the river. Later from the Bridge I saw them walking along the river doing aerobics. Another woman was walking alone—something I already registered as unusual—and doing the same aerobics. I had discovered how and where Istanbullian women worked out.
I also noticed a busy bistro on a square in Fatih, crowded with men drinking tea, reading newspapers, and sitting at tables piled high with bread. The smell of fresh-baked bread filled the air. The square was packed with parked yellow cabs: could this be where the taxi drivers began their day? I had to begin mine, and I waded through neighborhood cats on the way to the hotel.
First stop of the day was Sultanahmet, where we met up with our guide, a tall handsome man in a red baseball cap with a cell phone that would not quit ringing. He did his best to field calls, finally admitting they were from his “exes!” He was a good guide with a great sense of humor, and he parted the already-gathering crowds in front of Aya Sofya. Even from the outside the edifice is staggering, its original shape barely distinguishable amidst flying buttresses added over the centuries to support the weight of the dome.
Studying Aya Sofya from the outside made me appreciate even more the great genius of Sinan (1491–1588), architect of the Suleymaniye Mosque, or Mehmet Aga, architect of the Blue Mosque (1609–1616). Where Aya Sofya resorted to clunky pillars and rudimentary flying buttresses, these men distributed the weight of the central dome among a series of half-domes. Yet Aya Sofya remains the landmark, commanding the city’s skyline like a sentry, powerful, impassive, not to be moved. In the fourth century, Constantine built the original basilica to commemorate the city that bore his name, new capital of his empire and outpost on its eastern frontier. Earthquakes destroyed that building, and the existing structure is largely the work of the emperor Justinian in 537. With the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the basilica became a mosque. The shift rearranged the interior space. Seven degrees to the right of where the high altar would have been is a mihrab, a structure marking the direction of Mecca. It’s strikingly off-center, a feature noted by our guide: “Christianity and Islam are like that: just seven degrees apart.” Around the dome are huge camel-skin covered discs, gold-lettered in Arabic. The dome itself is a profusion of more gilt Arabic words, the names of God crowded in dense supplication 184 meters above the floor. Earthbound as the exterior seems, the interior of Ayasofya affords a glimpse of heaven. Mid-morning sun illumined the profusion of gold. The light, the sheer immensity of space, the accumulation of prayers from pious Christians and Muslims over the centuries: this is a holy place.
And then there are the mosaics. The Deesis Mosaic in the south gallery showing Christ the Pantocrator, hand raised in blessing; the image of the Virgin Mary holding the infant Jesus on her lap, again with his hand raised in blessing; another image of Christ with the powerful Empress Zoe on one side—and whomever she happened to be married to on the other. It’s clear the emperor’s face has been altered, perhaps several times, to accommodate her latest husband. Christ turns distinctly toward the Empress, hand again raised in blessing—but this one solely for the Empress. These Christian images of the Holy Family, the imperial family, and the saints lasted because they were plastered over when the basilica became a mosque. When the mosque became a museum, the mosaics were uncovered, and now they coexist alongside the mihrab, the camel-skinned discs, and the prayer-filled dome.
Seeing all this Christian art in such an overwhelmingly Muslim space underscored the clash in religious iconography between the two faiths. Islam forbid making images of God, and I could only imagine how scandalous a crucified God would be. I’d read all of this, but Aya Sofya made the point visually.
Of course, when Aya Sofya became a museum in 1923, its use as a place of worship for either Christians or Muslims ended. I tried to imagine leaving my shoes outside, covering, and walking into a lushly carpeted space where people were praying; I tried to hear the space filled with a muezzin’s call to prayer. And I tried to smell the space filled with the incense of Orthodox prayer; I tried to listen to the call and response of Christian worship echoing across that vast and holy space. Maybe the two faiths were only seven degrees apart, but that was light years away from the museum we now walked through.
From Aya Sofya we walked over to Topkapi Palace, which commands the peninsula on which the old city sits. Built as the principal residence of Mehmet II after the conquest of Constantinople, the palace was more than a palace. It functioned as a school for civil servants, and their various classrooms lined the first courtyard. A vast harem located in a warren of tiny rooms beyond educated women in music, the arts, and the rudiments of politics, and these women were often married off to ambassadors or consuls to the sultan. Alongside the harem was a receiving room for heads of state. As we moved into a second courtyard, we saw ornately tiled rooms where the sultan received visitors. Beyond the reception rooms, we passed into a third courtyard, the sultan’s quarters. The rooms were smaller and ornately tiled from ceiling to floor, but the overall effect was not at all busy or claustrophobic, but calming, cool, and peaceful. The dominant color was that beautiful blue that came to symbolize Turkey for me.
Outside one of the residential wings was a huge slab of marble, and we sat down to wait for stragglers. The marble felt cool after the press of people inside the residence. Our guide told us it was used to display the body of the sultan for three days after his death—I jumped up in an involuntary gesture of respect. But apparently, after a sultan died, his body lay in state for a few days, both reminding everyone of the transience of power—and convincing them the sultan was really, really dead. Laughing, we returned to our perches on the sultan’s slab and waited.
From there we moved into a fourth and final courtyard, the sultan’s summer quarters. These rooms were small, intimate, and beautifully tiled, accessible by a series of walkways constructed over pools. Windows opened onto beautiful gardens, and beyond them, the waters that surround the city. The Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn all come together at Seraglio Point.
While the others trooped through the estimable collection of palace jewels, I parked myself on a balcony overlooking the seas. Across the Bosphorus I could see the busy port of Usukudar; along the Bosphorus I could watch the ships moving up and down between the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara. Out on the Sea of Marmara container ships anchored waiting to be unloaded. This was Istanbul, the port—and it was a busy one. I could have spent the day on that balcony in the Sultan’s palace watching ships ply the waters.
We had lunch in Sultanahmet, a nice café with marble floors, dark polished wooden booths, and mirrors all round. Then we went back to our usual café on the Hippodrome for tea. The Hippodrome is what is left of a gigantic stadium at the heart of Constantine’s city. Originally laid out by Septimus Severus in the 3rd century, the structure was enlarged by Constantine to hold 100,000 people. Now an elongated public garden, some of the original pillars and columns remain, and we could get a sense of the scale of the place. Constantine stole an obelisk from Egypt for the stadium, part of which is still standing. Further along is a serpentine column taken from Delphi. Every new city needs its sense of history, and “new” cities like Constantinople had to borrow it. It turns out the British Museum was not the first to steal historical artifacts from other countries. Bread and circuses!
After our tea, we went to the Blue Mosque, built by the imperial architect Mehmet Aga between 1609–1616. The mosque boasts of six minarets, originally an affront to the Muslim world as it rivaled the architecture of Mecca. Like Dolmanbahce, the mosque was built at a time when fortunes were declining. And like Dolmanbahce, no expense was spared. The dome is supported by four half-domes, which are themselves supported by a series of other domes. All of the domes have a clerestory rim of windows, flooding the mosque with light. And a huge chandelier hangs from the central dome to rest about twenty feet off the carpeted floor. The series of cascading domes brings heaven to earth, a striking contrast to Gothic architecture and a verticality that is all about ascent.
And the Blue Mosque is “blue,” because its tiles were all imported from Iznik, a ceramic center particularly distinguished for its brilliant blue and white designs. Both the Blue Mosque and Topkapi Palace featured tile work from Iznik, so we saw these beautiful tiles in both religious and palatial contexts. I liked the mosque better.
We headed out of the Blue Mosque along one of the old city streets to a park behind Topkapi Palace. Along the way Michael bought a Turkish flute, a ney, whose nine chambers represent the nine segments of the human esophagus and whose song represents the longing of the soul for God. Michael’s playing was more raucous than soulful. When we passed by a café feature live music, he began playing along with the musicians—or rather, they began playing along with him. The music got louder and louder, wilder and wilder. And then there was dancing, with everyone in the café and on the street laughing and clapping along. Spontaneous street theater! And after the intense awe we’d felt in the Blue Mosque, we probably needed to shift gears. Madcap was the right key—and we played it for all it was worth. Michael, Farshad, and Mahan: our Persian, Greek, and Pakstani colleagues leavened the trip at all the right moments.
We moved into a beautifully landscaped garden behind Topkapi Palace, where people were strolling in the shade. We had about a half hour to see the new Museum of Science and Technology, celebrating the accomplishments of Islamic sciences in cartography, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. Our unscheduled foray into street theater, however, left us only about thirty minutes to see it all. But this started a group tradition: whenever we had a spare half hour—and it wasn’t often!—we’d say in chorus to Yavuz: “Hey, we have thirty minutes: we can see three mosques and a museum! What are we waiting for?!”
The museum was not quite finished, but beautifully laid out and well worth even a brief stop. Everyone consulted her inner scientist—and quickly located that exhibit. At the end, Sally, Anne, and I headed for the ladies’ room: we’d learned never to pass up a toilet, particularly when it might be a Western toilet. The brand new bathroom was mysteriously out of order. The female guard didn’t quite speak enough English to make up for our non-existent Turkish, but we somehow made her understand we’d be happy to use the men’s room. It was like a light went on in her head, and I realized that segregation of the sexes is not just a religious imperative. There are clearly spaces where women don’t go—and a men’s room is one of them. Still, the guard seemed kind of delighted by the suggestion, and after consulting with her boss, she guarded the door while we used the men’s room. It was an adventure.
We moved from the museum to the bus, which took us to a series of ferry docks along the Golden Horn. Ferries move up and down the Bosphorus to cities on either side, allowing people an option to Istanbul’s chronically congested traffic. We were scheduled for a boat ride along the Bosphorus, but somehow the boat was not quite ready or not quite back. At first, we bugged Yavuz to keep on sightseeing: after all, in thirty minutes we could see a bazaar, a few mosques, and a museum!
Instead, Yavuz conjured up tea! Out of nowhere and in the midst of this rather sketchy harbor area between bus and train stations, someone appeared with tea glasses and saucers, sugar and tiny spoons, and we had tea. It was magical, and Michael and Farshad began another group ritual: tapping their forearms like heroin addicts to pop their veins so that they could mainline more tea. Farshad caught the eye of a Kurdish boy—I hate to think the vein-popping gesture was responsible for this!—and began speaking to him in Farsi. The kid was delighted, and they played in the background. Some of us napped, others wandered around. We were glad for some down time.
The boat came, and we were happily ushered aboard. Of course, everyone moved immediately to the upper level, despite the wind. Head scarves came in handy, and top-heavy and exuberant, we set off up the Bosphorus. We waved and shouted at everything, riverfront bars, even a Japanese wedding. And to fortify our merry-making, we were graciously offered Turkish delight, trail mix—and of course, more tea! We pass along the easternmost edge of the continent of Europe as we motored up the western bank of the Bosphorus. Then, we came back along the westernmost edge of the continent of Asia, as we crossed to the other side. Pamuk writes about this Asian shore: this is where wealthy Istanbullis had vacation homes, or yalis. Deep into Pamuk’s memoir of the city, Donal and I delighted in pointing them out, yelling Yali! Yali! Yali! every time we sighted one—no doubt to the intense irritation of the group. And yet, in the main the group seemed able to tolerate and perhaps even delight in individual eccentricities of its members. Maybe this Gulen stuff was wearing off on us!
As we departed the boat, the Kurdish boy was waiting, trying to sell us Kleenex and take us on a tour. Farshad declined on our behalf, and we went across the city to the Sea of Marmara and a restaurant across Kennedy Caddesi. It was too cold to eat outside—though I would have dearly liked to!—and we had a fine fish supper as we watched the light change colors on the Sea of Marmara.
Friday, May 29: A day of cities, ancient and modern: Smyrna/Izmir, Ephesus/Efes, Attaleia/Antalya
Today would be a day of travel, bookended by flights to Izmir and then Antalya. But we would see two seas: the Aegean and the Mediterranean. The prospect was enough to take the edge off a 4am wake–up call and groggy trip to the airport. Can you imagine what this would all be like if we had been drinking the night before? But every meal was accompanied with ayran, a yoghurt drink, or cherry (kiraz), pear (armut), or apricot (kayisi) juices. No alcohol!
We boarded a domestic airlines, Atlas Air, for a flight to Izmir at 7am. Interesting to see where else Atlas flies: Germany, Russia—and the ‘ Stans: Turkmenistan, Kyrgyzstan. But they served us food, welcome after such an early departure, and they had magazines with maps. We could identify the islands of the Aegean as we flew. Upon arriving, we boarded a bus and head into our first stop for the day: a Gulen-run school in Izmir, where we were a real breakfast awaited us.
The trip into the city was itself stunning. We were behind the Muslim version of a hearse, which quickly became the occasion of many snapshots. We passed a large Mt. Rushmore-like creation with Ataturk’s face hewn on the side. We moved through the busy streets of Izmir, a beautiful city on the Aegean. Here is where Gulen himself was imam for a time, and we saw the mosque where he preached. We climbed high into the cliffs overlooking the sea and made our way through the narrow streets of an outlying suburb to an elementary school.
Children greeted us at the gates, streaming out of games and classrooms. We were clearly expected. And they were eager to try out their English on us. As we moved around the school, we noticed that the stairs had English phrases written on them—with Turkish translations alongside—the same phrases we’d heard on the playground: “How are you?” “What is your name?” “Hello!” It worked. Even the lower grades could make themselves understood. If we’d stuck around, we would have picked up their Turkish equivalents.
Breakfast was quite wonderful: cheese, olives, tomatoes, honey, Nutella, cucumber—and the ever-present bread. There was also tea in abundance. We talked with the principal and some of the school’s English teachers. This would be what happened at every school: teachers would be sitting in along with the principals. In some cases, the teachers’ English was better! That meant teachers could always hear—and sometimes even correct!—what the principal said. And the principals were always men. And, with the exception of the woman at Kimse Yok Mu, the charitable organization connected with the movement, the heads of the organizations we visited were men.
We looked around the school some: Sally, our resident cartographer, and I had fun looking at the maps in the classrooms. Before leaving, we gathered in front of the school, where some of the teachers performed for us. One of the men played the ney, and his music sounded like the soul’s longing. We coaxed his colleague to sing a folk melody. It was all hauntingly beautiful.
We left for Efes, the ancient city of Ephesus. Originally a Greek city, Ephesus worshiped Cybele, the Anatolian mother goddess, depicted with a profusion of breasts. Under the Romans, it became one of the chief ports on the Aegean—now about 8 silty kilometers away, but still visible from the top of the theater. The city we toured was from this Roman period, and even from the ruins, it looked exquisite.
We started at the agora, where politics was conducted by free citizens, then walked down a colonnaded street that led to the library. We passed by homes of some of the wealthier residents, and mosaics on the floor were still visible, showing ducks, animals, and beautiful geometric patterns. We toured the baths and the public latrine—which was probably partially responsible for silting up the harbor! We explored the imposing Library of Celsus, built between 114 and 117AD. Statues of women representing Sophia (wisdom), Arete (virtue), Ennoia (intellect), and Episteme (knowledge) adorned the front steps, and scratched into the top step was a menorah. Outside the library was a commercial agora or marketplace with remnants of columns and statues displaying the merchants’ wares. Today’s merchant would use billboards or neon, but ancient merchants marketed in stone. Stone fishes marked the site of the fish market. The location of a shop was pretty permanent. Outside all of this was a magnificent theater, which must have looked out over the harbor. As we climbed to the top seats, we could see the Aegean shimmering in the afternoon sun. It was beautiful.
Donal, Chuck, and I wanted to see the ruins of the Basilica of Mary outside the city, site of two Councils of Ephesus in 431 and 449. As priest of Old St. Mary’s in San Francisco, Chuck wanted to see the Even Older St. Mary’s in Ephesus. I got a picture of the two of them in front of some overgrown ruins. Clearly we were off the beaten track!
Lunch was at a working farm. Freshly sheared sheep’s wool was out drying on the lawn, and after eating, we toured the hen yard and stables, looking at beautiful—and spirited!—Arabian horses. Clearly this place was set up for tour groups, but we were the only group there, and it was a good break on a hot day.
From our lunch place, we spiraled up one of the steep hills overlooking the Aegean to see the house of Mary. According to legend, the beloved disciple brought Mary with him to Ephesus in 37AD, and she spent the last years of her life in Meryemana, about five miles outside the ancient city of Ephesus. The shrine is holy to both Muslims and Christians, and there were busloads of tourists from all over the world there. Clearly this was on the beaten track, and the path to the stone house where Mary died was lined with cafes selling all manner of spirits and shops hawking all manner of souvenirs. After the quiet of our lunch and even the relatively light crowds at Efes, I was turned off. But I dutifully hiked up to the stone house, lined up to file through the tiny house—and found myself moved to tears. Whether Mary had lived here or not, something extraordinary was going on. The place had been hallowed by the prayers people offered here.
Mary was the woman who’d gotten us through Bill’s illness and death, the woman who’d gotten me up—and down!—Kilimanjaro, the woman who companions me still. Could her spirit be daunted or shouted down by a bunch of noisy tourists?! What was I thinking?! I had promised some prayer beads for Toby and Catherine—and I promised they’d be well worn. I picked up some Muslim prayer beads, along with a rosary at one of the shops. As the bus wound down the hill toward the airport, I began to use them.
As the group talked later about highlights of the trip, seeing Mary’s house was right up there. Everyone, practicing believers or not, had sensed the palpable holiness there.
We headed back to the airport in late afternoon, sun-spent and quiet. The plane to Antalya crossed from the Aegean to the Mediterranean. Upon landing, the plane swung way out over the Mediterranean to land into the north. I’m sure we saw Cyprus in the dusk. Antalya is a resort town, popular among the Turks and beyond. On a Friday night, the airport was crowded with weekend traffic, and Michael took to beeping operatically at the cars—with his voice. Initially, the drivers couldn’t quite figure out what was going on, but once they caught on, they burst into laughter.
We tumbled into the bus and fought traffic out of the airport. I thought we were going to be staying close to the beach, but plans had changed. We turned right at the sea and headed along a beachfront road into mountains, winding up a steep road and coming out through a small village. We stopped at a newly built hotel above the heat and noise of Antalya. The place was built by a couple of doctors for healthy older adults, Alzheimer’s patients, and victims of stroke and heart attack who needed some rehabilitation. We got there around 9pm, so there wasn’t much to do except eat, find our rooms, and go to bed.
Yavuz was apparently upset by our reception: he’d been expecting a hot meal, not the cold cuts and bread that awaited us. But we’d all been eating so much; a light meal was welcome. Besides the rooms were ample; the setting was quieter than the noisy streets of Istanbul—and there were two keys!!
I was able to check e-mail for the first time from the manager’s desk. He was very obliging. Maybe he’d picked up our guide’s irritation and wanted to make amends. Maybe he knew the odds of someone checking in at 10 pm in that remote location were slim. Whatever the reason, he was quite accommodating throughout our stay, even bringing me tea in the morning! The Turkish keyboard seemed a sea of g’s, u’s, i’s, and s’s, most of them adorned with diacritical marks. I wondered if I’d even be able to access my account. But persistence and sheer need overcame the language barrier. The messages I sent were almost impossible to read, but I was eventually able to pick up the latest on Toby and get some notes off to friends.
Saturday, May 30: The sea, the sea
We’d arrived in darkness at a resort on the Mediterranean: I woke to see mountains. The Taurus range drops into the sea west of Antalya, and trees accented the limestone rock. I went off for a run along the road we’d come in on, careful to cover everything between wrist and ankle. Happily the clothes I’d gotten for all the climates we’d encountered on Kili doubled as running gear in a Muslim country. An older couple already sitting out on their porches smiled and waved. I could feel the heat of the day rising.
We had the morning free—and a bunch of us begged for beach time. It took about 30 minutes to get to the beach, but it was worth it. We parked ourselves in the shade of a café about ten rows of umbrellas from the turquoise waters of the Mediterranean: I was ecstatic and head for the water with Sally and Bill Loker in tow. Sally turns out to love swimming as much as she loves maps, and she’s a strong swimmer. I sighted our café from the water—and head for the outermost buoys. After hours on cramped busses and planes, it felt good to stretch out. And it seemed like the limestone face of the mountains dropped right into the blue water: I swam toward them for a long time, circling back for Bill and Sally. The water was clear and surprisingly warm for the latitude and season; a light wind ruffled its surface. It was like swimming in diamonds. The mountains I was swimming towards block chilling north winds, making it possible to swim almost nine months of the year. Property in Antalya might be a great investment.
After a long swim, we settled on the pebbly shore and sifted stones. I found some good stones to take home. Michael found the “thumb” of Rumi, which had been listed as one of our sites in Konya on the schedule we’d gotten on our first day. We quickly established this really was the “tomb” of Rumi, but the error delighted us. And prepared us to find this rough white stone that looked exactly like—a thumb. When we presented this to the rest of the group, everyone burst out laughing. Back at the café Michael ordered food, which was generously shared and quickly eaten. We had to get back.
Yavuz promised that we’d have lunch in “paradise,” and we loaded ourselves onto the bus and drove back into the bustle of Antalya. We stopped outside of the town in a busy street, walked down a long path and descended some steep steps to the cement pools of a fish hatchery built at the bottom of a ravine. We walked the ravine, trout ponds on one side and the rushing water of a stream on the other. We turned a corner and came to a restaurant built out over the stream with a lovely waterfall in the background. Dragonflies abounded, birds warbled—and lunch was waiting. We ate the freshest trout we’d ever get. It did seem like a slice of paradise—and with great reluctance, we hiked out of the ravine and back into the sun and heat.
As we drove toward the old city of Antalya, we noticed water heaters perched on the tops of all the buildings: solar heated hot water! They made the buildings look a little odd, but it was a wonderful idea. Farshad identified them immediately: before he’d become a martial arts expert, he’d written a thesis on alternative energy, and he recognized the technology. Once familiar with what we were looking at, we began to see these structures everywhere, sometimes end to end, sometimes on their sides, sometimes decorated in bold pink and orange, but always delivering sun-heated hot water for Turkish baths and showers. The United States should be so “green!”
On the way into Antalya, we ran into a parade, complete with flower-decorated floats, The show had just started: we’d run into it again and again during our time in Antalya, as the parade wound around the town. Before we went to family homes for dinner, the bus driver had collected carnations for all of us.
We got out of the bus and walked around Old Antalya, seeing the Roman walls of the ancient city of Attaleia and looking out over both Seljuk and Ottoman architecture. An old clock tower was once part of the city walls, and a fluted minaret from the 13th century still bore some turquoise tiles in its bricks. We prayed in the old city mosque, as people were finishing prayer. Then some of the group split off to go see the ancient harbor and the Ottoman buildings alongside, while the rest of us went to a carpet and kilim shop in the old city.
The owner was waiting for us, and as we sipped tea, he narrated the stories of no less than thirty carpets. As he spoke, his assistants unrolled the carpets in front of us, snapping them out across the floor, spinning them in front of us to show difference in nap and weave and color. There was silk on cotton, wool on cotton, wool on wool—and, then—unbelievably light and dripping with color—silk on silk. The assistants threw the silk carpets around like a bullfighter waving his cape. There were kilims, embroidered and plain; there were prayer rugs, bridal rugs, bedspreads, pillow covers. It was like a firework display that you reach out and touch. The prices were terrific: depending on material and size, the prices were $500, $750, $1100, and $2500 for some of the larger, wool on wool—or the medium-sized silk on silk. Ever a fan of texture and color, cloth and textile, I was dazzled. If there hadn’t been a recession on, if our salaries hadn’t been cut 5%, if I’d had someone to buy for, buy with—or simply enjoy my purchase with, I would have walked out with beauty.
But it was enough to be there, soaking in the show. No one bought anything, though Jim and Janet came close. They were looking at large wool on wool carpets in rich reds with complex geometries. Sally and Bill should have bought that engagement carpet for their daughter, and Bill pressed for it even as Sally balked. With an artist’s appreciation, Anne just sat there with her eyes open, leaning down every once in a while to touch one of the pieces. It was like being at a shrine. We stumbled out of the shop dazed, like people who’d been staring for too long at the sun.
We made our way to another Gulen Movement site, Akdim, a cultural exchange center, with charming second story offices in the old city. This organization works with international groups and many of the ex-pats who settle in Antalya to foster familiarity with Turkish culture, food, arts, language, etc. I was reminded of Pacific Institute’s “friendship dinners” and “cultural fairs.” Very low-key and fun—though the air-conditioning was cooooold.
We departed and made our way to the bus. Along the way, another Westerner rushed Stephanie, who embraced the hijab when she converted to Islam, but still looks like the Missouri Synod Midwestern Lutheran she used to be. He wanted to talk to her. With Mahan at her side, the rest of us felt everything was OK. It turned out he was a also a convert—and wanted to simply share his story and find out a bit about hers. It made me aware of how we all stood out physically, but also in terms of dress and gesture, style and volume. Michael stands out in any crowd, and he’s used to it. His ease with himself made me more comfortable not even trying to fit in: on some level, it’s presumptuous to even think that you can. But this was quite an encounter. When we got on the bus, Mahan announced to the group: “If anyone ever needs a judge, we know the guy!”
We were to have dinner with families that night, and on the bus Yavuz split us into two groups for the meal. Chuck, Farshad, Donal, Suat, Anne, Janet, Jim, and I went to the fifteenth floor of one of the newer high-rise apartment buildings to the home of the Helhels. It was a small apartment, and they’d filled the living room with tables. The wife was not wearing a head scarf—Anne said she looked Armenian. As the couple rushed to make more room at the table, we chatted with their lovely 11-year-old daughter Asiyenur. Her English was terrific—her father said that had she not been at a Gulen Movement school, her English would not have progressed so rapidly. She was eager to speak and wholly unself-conscious about it. She had a completely disarming way of looking up to a corner of the ceiling as she was thinking of what to say, then zeroing in on whomever she was talking to with a smile. The meal was terrific, and afterwards we sat around the room talking and eating fruit and dessert, as Mr. Helhel told us of his life. He was a university professor, as was his wife—she was up for assistant professor in finance, and he was in engineering. Most of the Gulen people we met were in the sciences, applied or research. In fact, I think Arzu was the only person I remember meeting who was in the arts.
The conversation was fun, not deep—but we’d all had a long day. It was so lovely to be in the home of such welcoming people. Eventually Asiyenur’s younger sister came into the room; she was shy. Her mother’s English was not good, so that hampered conversation. Still, gratitude and laughter communicate across a lot of language barriers. After a couple of hours the bus came for us, and we picked up the others.
Apparently, the other group had been with several families of astrophysicists, and the conversation was more wide-ranging. Judith gave me a rundown of the menu—which sounded fabulous. She also noted that this was a more solidly middle-class family than our first family meal had been, which corroborated the experience our group had had. Apparently, this group had talked more about the Gulen Movement and its goals, in the course of the discussion making an important distinction between the freedom from religion and the freedom for religion. Ataturk decreed that there would be no place for religion in public life: headscarf and fez alike were banned; people found worshiping in mosques were frequently fired from their jobs or quickly reached a glass ceiling. His was a militant secularism and, like all fundamentalisms, oppressive. After the experience of this enforced freedom from religion, people were coming to embrace a freedom for religion. And the Gulen Movement found a home in this space. It believes that Islam has something to contribute to civil society—and here the language of values is strong: service, sacrifice, education, love, and tolerance. These values work across religious beliefs, but Islam has a particular purchase on them, as we saw again and again.
We may not have talked about these values, but they were clearly embodied by the Helhel’s household. I was becoming more and more impressed with this movement.
Sunday, May 31: Gardens and theaters and Rumi’s “thumb”
The schedule we got the first day of the trip promised a visit to Rumi’s “thumb.” This was our first lesson in how different Turkish is from English. “Thumb” would be the exact phonetic spelling of “tomb” in Turkish—but not in English. On the beach in Antalya as we were all sitting at the water’s edge collecting stones, Michael found a piece of white rock that looked exactly like a missing fossilized digit: “ Rumi’s thumb!!!” he chortled. The rock got dragged out a lot on the bus, always with great merriment.
But to see the real site of Rumi’s thumb—and the rest of his body—we had to get into the interior of the country, central Anatolia, and the ancient city of Iconium, present-day Konya. It would be a long day—and a five-hour bus-ride.
We took off, stopping about thirty minutes outside of Antalya at a religious garden in Belek. The site was quite new and boasted a synagogue, a church, and a mosque—as well as a sanctuary for turtles! We didn’t see the turtles, but we did see the buildings, stopping in the church to do a brief Liturgy of the Word for the Feast Day of Pentecost. It was thrilling to be in the country where so many of the peoples gathered at Pentecost had been from: Medes, Parthians, Elamites, residents of Cappadocia, Phyrgia, Pamphilia. Best part of the church was an icon of the incarnation, with the right side of the face depicting the divinity of Jesus, and the left side, with droopy brow and dark shadows under the eye, depicting Jesus’ humanity. “If you don’t know this, it just looks like bad art…,” I told the group.
In the mosque, we covered and took off our shoes, while the imam and director of the site read from the Koran and chanted prayers. After the ancient mosques of Istanbul, it was fascinating to see the design of a more modern space. All of the buildings were intentionally arranged on an axis of communion with one another, and you could look from the doorway of one into another.
We took off for the great theater of Aspendos, once upon a time the easternmost city in the ancient kingdom of Pergamum and an important trading center. What remained today was a beautifully preserved Roman theater, which had served for centuries as a caravanserai. Nor was Aspendos just a ruin: in a few weeks, the theater would host Aida, as part of the Aspendos Opera and Ballet Festival. Indeed, as we walked into the site, we saw all the pyramids and pillars for an Egyptian extravaganza. Sound carried to the very last seat in the house, and several of us climbed up to verify the fact. The theater seated 12,000, and it was set into a hill along which ran an aqueduct built in 100AD, parts of which we’d seen on the way—a built-in refreshment stand! And what little breeze blew down the valley wafted through the gallery of the stadium. The design was flawless. Even the museum shop was exquisite, with beautiful jewelry, and Judith bought a lovely silver necklace with an ivory medallion and black cord.
Farshad stuck to ice cream, treating me and Donal who walked around licking his popsicle stick and exclaiming: “This is so creamy! This is so creamy! This is so creamy!” An upset stomach grounded Donal on the last day of the trip. Missing him, we tried to invoke his presence by smacking our lips and saying: “This is so creamy! This is so creamy!”
Somewhere along the way, Donal had forgotten his baseball cap and picked up a white woven cap, which Muslim men who’ve done the haj wear. It fit him perfectly and kept the sun off. Though the cap didn’t make him look terribly Muslim, it attracted a fair amount of attention. Especially in the Grand Bazaar, people stopped him to exclaim: “Haji!” “Haji!” One of those exclamations came from a roast chestnut stand. Sniffing, Donal thought he was being offered some more interesting substances. When someone exclaimed “Haji!” he thought they were saying “Hashish!” To which he politely responded: “No, thank you.”
Along with Rumi’s “thumb” these stories got told over and over again: we were developing our own collective history.
We moved from there back along the coastal road to Manavgat, where we had lunch at another of the Gulen schools. It was Sunday, so there were no children there, but the principal greeted us in an entrance full of bright lavender recliners. Maybe it was the Gulen palette—and maybe the Turkish palette is just brighter than ours—but all the schools we visited were bright with color, particularly orange and lime green, pink and lavender. It made me smile just to walk inside.
We ate—and hit the road, heading north-northeast into the interior of the country. This was the long bus ride—and it was spectacular! Dry and barren at the outset, we felt like we were on the Silk Road—and indeed we were. As we traveled away from the coast along a dry coastal plain, I sighted the snow-covered volcanic peak of Mt. Hasan looming in the distance like a mirage. We would move toward and around it on our way to Konya. After a few hours, we stopped for tea at this immaculate rest-stop, complete with prayer room and place to do ablutions. Then we loaded up and took off into the Geyik range (Geyik Daglari), which was extraordinarily beautiful. Along the way we saw lots of roadside stands selling honey—and, I think, tea. And the valleys were honeycombed with hives, as well as people out for a Sunday picnic in the fresher air of the mountains.
On the bus, people watched the scenery, took pictures, slept. And indeed, everyone who slept got their picture taken. This long bus ride marked the origin of the Napping Gallery, chronicling for time and eternity the sleeping faces of anyone who dared nap while Farshad, Michael, or Mahan had a camera. This would have all been highly irritating had Michael and Mahan not already made it into the gallery. Farshad, on the other hand, never seemed to sleep.
On the other side of the mountains, we entered what must geologically be the Anatolian Steppe region, where we saw fields and fields of bright red—were they tulips or poppies? We had to know. The bus driver obliged us, stopping at a field, where we hiked through some underbrush to discover a field of planted poppies. Michael managed to sink knee deep into a dung heap, collected to fertilize the crop, which led to great drama and a fairly intensive clean-up operation. He sat alone for the rest of that trip—but alone does not mean quiet. Thanks to Michael, the Napping Gallery got more entries, as we made our way into Konya.
We arrived in Konya around 6pm, and the city was crowded with people out enjoying the last of the weekend. Konya is built on what used to be the ancient city of Iconium, a site inhabited since Hittite times, then passing under Roman control, then Byzantine, and then capital of the 12th century Seljuk Sultanate of Rum. City streets radiate like spokes from a wheel from the high oval Alaeddin Park, which is also the site of Konya’s largest mosque, the Alaeddin Mosque, finished in 1220. Our hotel was off on one of the side streets, and we checked in and washed up for dinner. I discovered a fitness center, and with Suat’s’ help I persuaded the clerk to let Donal, Farshad, and me open it early, so that we could get in a workout before we visited Rumi’s “thumb” the next morning.
We had dinner at a pizza bistro in a newer section of town, sampling one of Konya’s fabled thin-crust pizzas, which cheese and ground lamb. As always, we walked in—and the table was prepared for us, often already laden with mezes, the fabulous Turkish first course of bread, yoghurt with chopped herbs, grilled red peppers, and chopped tomatoes with cucumbers and parsley. We had a rather raucous dinner, Michael in fine form, playing off Farshad and Mahan. The owners and other diners seemed to get energy from our group — though I did notice that the room emptied out and incoming diners were discretely seated elsewhere.
The bus dropped us off after dinner on the edge of the oval Alaeddin Park, and we circled the park at night. The moon was almost full, and the mosques were lit with spotlights. We saw the ornate facade of the seminary of the Slender Minaret, and then moved into the streets of the old city, which were full of still-open shops and young people. Bill and I stopped in one of them to scope out bottled water—and a journal. We had luck at least with the water. There was a lot of energy on the streets, lots of women wearing Western dress, lots of women wearing more provocative clothing than we’d seen thus far. In a way that fit with Konya’s more conservative image….
We were back at the hotel late in the evening, but it felt good to walk—and the night was magical. Captivating to see all this Seljuk and Ottoman architecture under spotlights and moonlight.
Monday, June 1: The “Thumb” of Rumi
Farshad and I had made tentative arrangements to watch Konya wake up, then do a real workout in the gym. We missed our connection: he was waiting in the gym; I was in the lobby. With nothing more than an aerial map on the back of the Otel Selcuk business card, I took off to see the city. I figured if I really got lost, I could produce this—and someone would get me back. The city did not seem to have a grid, but streets radiated out from the Alaeddin Hill, the highest and central point of ancient Iconium, like spokes from a wheel. Istanbul itself had the same design, with Sultanahmet as its hub. One of the main spokes was Mevlana Caddesi, which went straight to Rumi’s “thumb.” I decided to take a look.
Konya is a more observant town, and we’d heard the muezzin’s call from a half dozen mosques close by. People—mostly men—were already on the streets, buying simit and tea and walking to work or home from worship. Even dressed conservatively, I felt noticed but never afraid. The tomb was a large, gated complex, with mosque, museum, and literally, a seminary for dervish life. When we went later that morning, it would be packed with tourists and pilgrims, but for now things were quiet, the sound of swallows mingled with water flowing from the fountains. I explored a bit of the neighborhoods around the Mevlana Museum, but did not push beyond the tourist hotels. On the main street beyond the tomb was a long straight road lined with flags honoring lined along a cemetery on the side of the road. Probably it was desirable to be buried near such a saint. I retraced my steps back to the hotel, almost losing myself in the warren of streets crowding the Alaeddin Hill. I found the street to Rumi’s tomb—and started all over again, this time successfully.
I ventured down into the fitness center, lights flicking just as the darkness was ready to turn me back. Farshad was there sitting in the massage chair, his workout finished, reading Rumi. We’d missed each other.
I suited up for a quick run on the treadmill, which he protested was not working. I found the on/off button, and then the only problem was programming the machine for a quick job: could I overcome my inability to speak Turkish with its inability to speak English? Eventually I got in nice metric run, Farshad reading aloud Rumi’s poetry from the massage chair. Over the hum of the machines, he’d read a poem, then exclaim—“this is a really bad translation!”—and offer his interpretation of what Rumi meant to say, inserting commentary from his wide-ranging acquaintance of things Persian, Arabic, and human and making jokes. Laughter interrupted my pace, but the workout went quickly: that’s the first time I ever worked out to Rumi, and I recommend it. The meditative structure of his poems—even in a bad translation—works well with the rhythm of running. Maybe people should try this more often!
We had time after breakfast, and I kidnapped Farshad and Suat for a quick stroll to the highest point of the city: the Alaeddin Hill. From the top, all of the cities’ mosques—and there are many!—assert themselves. We got back to find all our luggage piled in the lobby—and no one in sight. I visited the breakfast room and the waiter pointed me to a neighboring room where the group had gathered around our guide’s computer to watch a DVD on the Dervishes.
We later bought one in the bazaar, because it was so mesmerizing. Donal commented that dervish life was quite similar to his own Jesuit formation—and there’s much truth to that. But Jesuit formation does not center on the cook or the kitchen! The would-be dervish is admitted into the order by the cook, who dispatches him to an upstairs room off the kitchen, where he fasts surrounded by the smell of food cooking. The supplicant leaves his shoes by the door, and when he comes down after three days, if the shoes are pointing toward the wall, he has been admitted for further study. However, if the shoes are pointed away from the wall, he didn’t make the cut. Quite an admissions policy! Nor does Jesuit formation follow the 1001 day retreat at the heart of becoming a dervish, as candidates take on the daily tasks of the monastery and its religious discipline. After completing this novitiate, the dervish is free to leave the compound, marry, and pursue a career. Some, however, stayed on, becoming musicians, poets, linguists, and artists.
We walked to the tomb and museum site, where crowds were already starting to gather. Rumi, or Mevlana, as he is known in Turkey, was born in Balkh, in present-day Afghanistan, in 1207. His father was a scholar, teacher, and good provider for his family. Under Mongol threat from the east, Mevlana’s father, Bahaeddin Veled, set off in the opposite direction, eventually settling in Konya. Mevlana studied under his father, developing his native intelligence and quickly gaining a reputation for his insight. While on the faculty at a Muslim seminary in Konya, he befriend a wandering dervish from Persia, Sems-i-Tabrizi. The two developed a strong bond, withdrawing from the academy and continuing his studies with his friend. His friend disappeared, possibly murdered by jealous followers who missed the company of Mevlana, and the mystic was inconsolable. He poured his energies into an epic work of poems and stories which laid out a philosophy of love, tolerance, and charity. Shortly after finishing the work in 1273 Mevlana died. His son Veled assumed leadership of the sect, organizing it into a series of tekke, of schools for dervishes. These spread around the city and throughout Anatolia, exerting considerable religious and political influence.
Ataturk found them dangerous to his secular reforms—and banned all dervish orders in 1925. We saw the kitchen, where novices were screened and tested, complete with a practice board where dervishes learn how to whirl. The square piece of wood had a raised knob in the middle, and beginning dervishes place their left foot on a raised knob as they begin learning how to twirl: it keeps their circles straight. I could see how minutes and hours of this created a natural arabesque in the body, neck back to gaze at right arm extended by the torque of the twirl. Keeping one’s eyes fixed on something that was not moving was the only way to twirl without losing balance—or breakfast! It was all stunningly simple.
We then visited the school, the medrese, where the novices studied for 1001 days, graduating from room to room and teacher to teacher. These rooms were tiny cells large enough for only four or five including the teacher. Floors, walls, and couches were covered with carpeting.
Then we entered the tomb of Rumi, a mausoleum holding the graves of Mevlana, his father, his son, and other important dervishes. The tombs are draped in heavy cloth and topped by outsized turbans, style reflecting rank. The tombs without headgear were women’s: they too could become dervishes. The mausoleum was in four parts, the first part containing tombs of important dervishes, the second containing the tombs of Mevlana, his son, and his father, the third, officially the semahane, where dervishes used to whirl on a polished wooden floor with mirrored chandeliers catching their movement, and the fourth, a room displaying ancient Korans, including one tiny palm-sized “pocket” Koran! All was beautifully decorated with ornate floral designs, gilt Koranic calligraphy. The atmosphere was charged: the space held with ease pilgrims, tourists, sight-seers, and we saw people kneeling and in tears, fingering their prayer beads.
I moved through with Farshad or Mahan, who could “read” the symbolism, as well as much of the Arabic script. In the twirling room, we saw a display of the accompanying instruments, particularly the nine-chambered flute, or ney. Nine chambers symbolized the nine sections of esophagus, as the ney represented the voice of a soul longing for God. We went out into the sun, stunned both by the light and the holiness of that place. There were more tombs outside, even a special cemetery for the flute-players. Headstones with rosettes on them signaled the tombs of women, and these were particularly beautiful.
Outside the “thumb” we loaded up onto the bus and skirted the large cemetery I’d seen that morning to visit an archeological museum, which had some very Neolithic and Paleolithic artifacts, a stop specially requested by the anthropologist among us, Bill Loker. I spent time upstairs looking at textiles and rugs, which were marked in English with their patterns. I tried to memorize patterns like “snake-eye,” “wolf mouth,” “ram’s horn,” etc. Twenty-five minutes in the museum was hardly enough time to see even a small part of these treasures, but we were off to go shopping on a narrow street radiating up from Rumi’s tomb. Here we scored DVD’s of the Sufi Whirling Dervishes that we’d seen that morning, and I bought one along with a CD of ney music.
Some pop Turkish music playing in the street caught Farshad’s ear, and he quickly located both the originating shop and the CD. Then we went into a tiny shop with ceiling-to-floor merchandise and three old men sitting there. With their presence, two visitors made the space suddenly crowded, and we fell into a conversation that was a mixture of German and gesturing. The owner had worked in Augsburg for a month—and I’d just been there for a conference. And we chatted until our language wore out—about fifteen seconds. Farshad and I bargained for two strands of prayer beads, long turquoise strands with 99 beads set in three clusters of 33. Most prayer beads had 33 beads, and the devout simply went through them three times, saying first, “Subhan Allah!” Or “Glory to God!” Then: “Alhamdulillah!” or “Praise God!” And finishing with a set of “Allahu Akbar!” or “God is great!” With 99 beads clustered in three equal sets of 33, the pious could go through the entire prayer using each bead once. We got what we thought was a great deal—then discovered on the bus the beads were plastic, reminding us of the sign Mahan had seen in Istanbul: “Genuine Fake Watches!” Still, we still hadn’t paid much for them—and the story they bore was worth it!
We hurried back to the bus and were taken to a Gulen-run elementary school in Konya for lunch. The schoolyard was packed with kids: they were enjoying recess after lunch. They thronged us, eager to practice their English. I noticed a boy in a wheelchair with an adult shooting baskets with great accuracy from his chair. I walked over and introduced myself. Mustafa was surprisingly strong—and his English was very good. He was as aggressive in conversation as he was persistent in shooting baskets. Soon we were thronged by other children and members of our group—and a pick-up basketball game started. Kids were getting more and more charged up, with Michael whipping them up with his great voice and outrageous antics.
Our hosts literally peeled us away from the kids: one of the English teachers strong-armed me through a crowd of kids shouting “Are you the First Lady?” But their energy and enthusiasm was infectious: the kids are clearly one of the great selling point for this movement!
We had lunch with the principal and two of the English teachers. The principal was very focused, very passionate, very articulate. We pushed the conversation to more depth, asking about both teachers and students, who they were and where they came from. Lots of questions concerned the teachers: how did he recruit them? Or did they come to him? What happened when a teacher didn’t quite work out? What did that look like? I was aware that the teachers were listening in very carefully—throwing in their own commentary, sometimes to him, sometimes to the people around them. It was clear that this man’s chief goal was formation: of the students and of his teachers. Anne asked about discipline, and his response was quite ready: discipline the children with love. Involve their parents immediately and get the parents aware of the problem and behind the solution. Emphasize the solution more than the problem. Sometimes the kids would spend a few days or weeks in public schools, a very effective punishment, because then they’d be begging to come back. But it sounded like problems were dealt with immediately, before they go out of hand.
I admired this man enormously, both for what he said and for the ready and open way in which he said it. As the session ended and the group broke up, I asked him: “I like everything about this school, and I like everything you said about your staff. I’m not a practicing Muslim, but I am a practicing Christian. I share your values, if not your faith. Could I teach at a school like this?” Without missing a beat, he responded: “Yes!” And he went on to elaborate that they had a “foreigner” coming to teach there next year—their first, an experiment.
We loaded ourselves back onto the bus for another long bus ride to Nigde, a town with a large university. We traveled for the rest of the day on the flat Anatolian steppe, a bowl rimmed by mountains, including the higher peaks of Hasan and Erciyes. Nigde was at the bottom of the region known as Cappadocia, and we would spend the next day touring around the volcanic fairy chimneys. But tonight was the night of our home stay—and Yavuz promised a special treat.
We passed through the very modern, very spacious campus of Nigde University then stopped at the schoolyard for a combined elementary-secondary school. There were lots of people there to greet us, parents of the children and our host families. We then met with Mr. Celal, an important and wealthy patron of the Gulen movement, who lived in Nigde and would host us for breakfast the next morning.
With our host families, we gathered in a room, waiting. After about 30 minutes, Mr. Celal joined us, impeccably dressed in a fine business suit, seated at an ornate chair that, given the atmosphere, seemed like a throne. We all introduced ourselves, and among our host families there were a lot of businessmen and doctors. As we sipped juice and tea, Yavuz translated Mr. Celal’s remarks to us. Even in English, Yavuz was using a more elevated form of speech. I could only imagine what it sounded like in Turkish. Ottoman Turkish had a good bit of swagger and flourish, and I had a suspicion Mr. Celal was being treated as a potentate. We were formally welcomed and told about the school. Eventually someone came in and told us the children were eager to begin—and only then were we dismissed. As we sorted out luggage to go to the host families, Anne turned to me and said: “Now I know what an ‘ audience’ is!” We’d just had one with Mr. Celal.
Dinner was in this huge hall set up with decorations. We guests were sitting around in a horseshoe framing a microphone. We had place cards, and we’d been mixed in with those in the host families who could speak English. There was a huge spread of about 28 dishes, mezes, hot dishes, salads, etc. It was all quite extraordinary—and it took a while to feed the 100 or so folks gathered. I was seated next to Fatmah, clearly the most stylishly dressed woman there. Most all the women had head scarves and long coats or tunics. Fatmah had turned the dress code into a fine art: she was stunning. She shepherded me through the line, introducing me to her daughter and other children as the meal went on. On my other side was Mr. Celal’s granddaughter and Esra Erdogdu. She was ten years’ worth of pure charm, hazel eyes, and great spirit. We quickly exhausted what we could easily talk about, then took to drawing pictures: I supplied the pictures, she supplied the Turkish name.
After most people had eaten, the show began: 2nd and 4th grade school kids came out in native costume doing Turkish dance steps. The first piece was lively—and vaguely familiar. We realized later that Farshad had picked this up in Konya earlier that day after hearing it as we shopped! Songs were in English and Turkish: I think the Turkish lyrics must have been more tame. The English lyrics of the song these kids were shaking their pom-poms to was pretty suggestive. I wouldn’t have liked my second-grader listening to it—and I had a feeling my parenting style would seem too cavalier for this crowd. I was dying to see if anyone in the group caught the lyrics. The show went on, despite several power outages! And there was a good deal of merriment.
At some point in the evening I went downstairs to the bathroom, grubby but equipped for ablutions. I noticed a bunch of women’s shoes lined up outside what must have been a prayer room. People had quietly been leaving the festivities to pray. This must have been going on all evening.
The rest of the evenings events featured a kind of oil painting in a large shallow pan, a creation that the art teacher started — and then invited our group to complete. As people were assisting with this, I fell into conversation with the music teacher. I was asking about Turkish instruments, and he asked if I’d like to see a few. He brought some broken ones down from his office: they couldn’t be played, which I what I really wanted, but I could see them at least. I could also tell this was an unscripted moment, and I hoped my request had not gotten anyone into trouble.
I had a feeling that for all its merriment, the evening was very tightly choreographed. After the group had finished the oil painting, we had a formal presentation with gifts, and Mr. Celal gave each member of our group an oil painting the art teacher had made for each of us. These were all flowers, daisies or tulips, and I recognized the tulips later in a religious arts store in Istanbul that I walked past every morning on my way to the bridges. The form and/or the image must have important religious significance. This was one gift Judith and I did not take home: we brought them back to Istanbul, where we decorated our hotel room with them for the last three nights. Then let the cleaning woman have them.
After the formal presentation there was—an indoor fireworks display to close the night down. I couldn’t quite believe this, particularly after all the power outages, but it was quite splendid, shooting sparks, glitter, and pieces of colored foil over everything. Anne still had pieces of foil in her hair the next day.
We packed up with our host families, and Judith, Arzu, and I climbed into the car with Nurhan Ozmen, whose husband Mehmet had just taken off for Copenhagen. She couldn’t speak any English, but this didn’t hamper communication: Arzu translated, and I had the impression that Nurhan had a pretty lively sense of humor. At her home, Judith and I shared a downstairs apartment, completed with a full bath and kitchen. Judith took the bedroom, and I slept out on a couch.
But not before spending some time with the family. Nurhan invited us upstairs, where we sat with her daughter Side, almost ready to graduate from high school, and their three-year old Tahan. The boy was very pale and quite shy, and we learned that he’d had three heart surgeries already—and was scheduled for more. He had a congenital problem they were working to correct, and he hid in his mother’s skirts. He kept pulling up his shirt and rubbing his undershirt, probably because it consoled him. He’d had stitches there—and was used to them itching. He was such a frail, delicate child—but with his mother’s spirit. We watched each other while the others chatted, smiling and talking with our eyes. We presented our gifts and were served baklava—and of course, tea! I was exhausted, and while some of our group reported staying up and talking until midnight, I was falling asleep in my teacups. I excused myself—and everyone else quickly followed suit. We climbed into bed—and slept well!
Tuesday, June 2: Nevsehir and Kayseri—or Nyssa and CaesareaI’d asked the night before about the possibility to going for an early morning walk. Downtown Nigde looked clean and cosmopolitan, but we’d climbed out of it to get to the Ozmen home. We’d also driven through a gate, making me wonder what that gate was meant to keep in and out! Through Arzu, Nurhan said—fine! No problem: there was door beside the gate. I could easily pass through. I had a feeling the door would also lock behind me—and the next morning I discovered I was right.
But I found myself up early and itching for a walk. With the specter of another long day riding in the bus around, I decided to take my chances.
The front door locked behind me: I dearly hoped someone would be up when I got back. And the door beside the gate locked behind me: I dearly hoped someone would be driving out to get to work when I returned. On the other side, I felt—what the hell? And traced my path back into Nigde. It was a stark landscape with long brown mountains surrounding it. Nigde was settled in Hittite times and has a few ruins, but now is known for its university, potatoes, and cereal cultivation. And, I suspect, the presence of Mr. Celal. We were going to have breakfast with him—but not until I walked the town.
I head down the spine of a hill into the center of town, turning back at a mosque outside the main street. This was far enough—and besides, it might take me quite a while to get into the house! When I got back to the compound, I noticed a man delivering newspapers inside the compound. I called out to him, gesturing that I wanted to get in, and mentioning the name “Mehmet Ozmen,” the name of our host. When he got close enough, I held up first four, then three fingers, trying to indicate Ozmen’s house number. He started laughing, asking “American?” I nodded, and he smiled and let me in. He accompanied me down to Ozmen’s house, where he gave me the paper to deliver. I rang the doorbell, and a sleepy boy answered and let me in.
Judith and I made tea, and she wrote in her journal while I showered. Nurhan appeared smiling and loading up a bowl full of oranges to take upstairs. I mentioned to Judith—“wouldn’t one of those oranges be great right about now?” But we were to have breakfast with Mr. Celal’s—and we’d have to stave off hunger a bit longer. Side came downstairs offering to help with luggage. Without her headscarf she could have passed as an American teenager. When we got upstairs, Nurhan had put all those oranges to good use: we had fresh-squeezed orange before leaving.
We were a bit late to Mr. Celal’s, though people were still eating. It was a huge breakfast with most of the host families, both men and women, in attendance. Mr. Celal was in more casual attire this time, and he helped serve us, much as the eighteen-year-old sons had done at our first host family dinner.
Afterwards we sat around a huge living room. In the same formal, elevated language he’d used the day before, Yavuz prompted Mr. Celal to tell his story. It was worthy of a novel! Mr. Celal had been born in Nigde and lost his father early on. He had to support the family, and so he bought wholesale first parsley, then apples and sold them before and after school to support the family. It worked, and he got into the grocery business, opening a store there, and later in Istanbul. People loved his store, he told us, because he made them smile. At some point he moved into furniture and moved to Ankara. Again, fabulous success in business. But he said in the 1980s he felt that, despite his success, his life was meaningless. He wanted to do something with his considerable wealth and asked Gulen for counsel: should he build a mosque or a fountain? Gulen made a very quick and very strong response: “Build a school! Build a school! Build a school!” And he did. Mr. Celal’s first school was the one we’d visited the night before.
We asked a few questions chiefly about education and formation. I returned to Mr. Celal’s conversation with Gulen: I was impressed with how important education was to the Movement. Indeed, the whole intercultural trip was like a school for us, embodying for our group the values of love, tolerance, hospitality, and excellence. We were being formed the way they formed their children in the schools, following the same principles we saw embodied in the grade schools—only, I added, adults are a lot harder to teach than children. We could only hope to be as ready and loving as the children, teachers, and host families we’d seen. With this, one of the men on the other side of the room responded: “And this is a school you never graduate from. It’s the course of a life-time.” There was a lot of assent around the room for this exchange. Another one of the hosts acknowledged that they also learned from their guests.
Of course, there were gifts, this time finely wrought silver bowls and covered dishes and cruets, presented by Mr. Celal to each member of the group. We dispersed to transfer luggage from our hosts’ cars to the bus, but as I left the man who’d responded to my comment sought me out and said: “There won’t be any graduation—but let’s hope we all pass the final exam!” His benign affect undercut the content of his remarks. I knew they were not directed at me personally, but rather reflected the conviction Muslims have that death brings judgment on the basis of one’s earthly deeds. I again thanked him for his hospitality and acknowledged the wisdom of his remarks.
The exchange reminded me of a conversation in Iris Murdoch’s novel, Nuns and Soldiers. On the surface, the plot resembles so many of her other novels: Nigel is in love with Caroline, but Caroline is married to Geoffrey. Caroline is in love with Patrick, but Patrick is in love with Nigel. And Geoffrey is in love with—Caroline’s sister Jessica. In this novel, Anne, a nun struggling with her vocation, visits Guy, a viciously brilliant MP, who dying of cancer and in his last days. Philosophical about his impending death, he remarks: “I would like to be judged.” (4)
Like most of us, Anne is somewhat taken aback. We’d all like everyone else to be judged, and we’re happy to advise God on how. But we also imagine we might somehow escape sentencing ourselves. Guy has lived as if his actions would have “moment” or consequence. He wants a reckoning, and he’s ready to take criticism along with acclaim. As we pulled out of Mr. Celal’s estate, I remembered this; it illumined the exchange we’d just had.
We left Nigde for Nevsehir, the ancient city of Nyssa, home of the Cappadocian fathers. En route, we picked up our guide for the Cappadocia tour. She was a young woman with big dark glasses, tight jeans, a peasant blouse, and beautiful brown hair. Uncovered! Farshad suddenly discovered he had to know more about Cappadocia, and Michael invited her to take her shades off so we could see her face, which she did immediately. She was gorgeous—and spirited. I could tell she would enjoy the energy of the group and still manage to lead it. By the end of the day, she was laughing with us—and throwing up her hands in despair at us—and with us. And we were a merry, whacky group, but we were also on time, surprisingly obedient, and unfailingly respectful. Yavuz noted our timeliness and said with most groups, there’s always someone who lags behind, and he’d have to stake himself at the end of the line to look out for stragglers. He said: “I was never at the end of the line with this group; I was always in front.” To which Suat, the dear Caboose, said: “That’s because I was at the end of the line!” And we all laughed.
Literally, Cappadocia means “land of the beautiful wild horses.” We didn’t see many horses, but we did see beautiful wild rock formations. Geologically Cappadocia was created by the eruptions of two volcanoes that still dominate the landscape: Mt. Hasan and Mt. Erciyes. Pyroclastic blast and lava blanketed the region with ash, which hardened into easily erodable material called “tuff.” In places this tuff was overlaid with a harder basalt flow. With the effect of centuries of winter, wind, and temperatures that burned by day, then plummeted to below freezing at night, the tuff wore away in interesting conical formations. Where the tuff was covered by the harder basalt or volcanic rock, erosion left tuff cones with mushroom-like caps or basalt hats, the fabled “fairy chimneys” throughout Cappadocia today. Because they were all carved at the same time from the factors, these towers all had the same tilt, and a glade of them looked for all in the world like whirling dervishes, sporting hats and frozen in the middle of some graceful spin. To me, the landscape had great, latent energy. Erosion also created canyons with cave-like pockets in them. Inhabitants continued excavating the rock to create large underground cities, protecting them from invasion or persecution.
We first visited the underground city of Kaymakli, which was discovered in 1964. The five underground stories accommodated probably thousands of people between the 6th and 9th centuries. We began scurrying through, climbing down eagerly into the cool stone such a contrast to the heat outside. Near the top was a church, next to which was a cemetery—or holding tank for the city’s dead until they could be buried above ground. There were kitchens—with hollowed out bowls for grinding spices and holding amphora. There were wine cellars, shafts for ventilation, sleeping quarters, even latrines! Parts of the city could be shut off for invaders by simply rolling these huge round stones across entrances. Each stone had a hole in the middle big enough for arrows to pass through. Any enemy who approached would be easily dispatched. These cities served to protect the region’s Christians from persecution, and it did not escape my notice that they were sealing themselves in tombs—“thumbs?!”—to stay alive. It was all quite cool, both in temperature and design.
Judith and Anne left at the second level: Anne was slightly claustrophobic and Judith’s hips protested the tunnel crawls. We met them upstairs when we finished, and they’d had tea and spinach borek.
From Kaymakli went to a beautiful spot with a roadside bazaar overlooking a canyon filled with some of the more spectacular outcroppings of fairy chimneys. I think this might have been the Valley of Kiliclar, between the valleys of Aktepe and Goreme. There was a large fortress on a hill overlooking the valley. Most in the group decided to shop; Bill and I took off to get a better look. It was too dangerous to hike down into the valley, but we hiked along the rim, trying to notice as much as we could. Around one of the larger cones, there were a series of toeholds or finger holds—ancient or modern, we could not tell. The floor of the canyon was cultivated: people were growing things down there. And it appeared that some of the chimneys were inhabited, with small doors and ladders in evidence. It was all quite mysterious, and two volcanoes that created the landscape still visible in the distance, guarding it still.
Time for lunch—and when the bus pulled up to a cave, we were all delighted. It was cool and beautifully lit, and a man was sitting in the center of a large room playing the zither. We had rice, soup, salad, and lamb stew ladled from this huge amphora that had been baking in the coals of a fire for about six hours.
We loaded up and headed to the Goreme Open-air Museum, a site that boasts the greatest concentration of rock-hewn chapels and monasteries in Cappadocia. The site dates back to the 9th century—and was packed with people. We toured the Tokali Church, with some beautiful frescoes painted in a deep, rich blue. The Serpent Church had large frescoes of St. George fighting a dragon, along with St. Onuphrius , a man/woman with very stylized chest muscles, breasts, and a beard. Onuphrius was originally a beautiful woman, who wanted to devote her life to prayer—but kept drawing unwanted attention. She prayed to become a man—and her prayers were granted. The Carikli Church had a depiction of the Last Supper with a big scaly fish replacing the traditional bread and wine. There were also a turbaned figure is depicted as one of the “builders” of the church. The iconography was stunning, and the layout impressive. As I walked around, I tried to imagine the place populated with, not the busloads of tourists elbowing each other to gain entrance to these small churches, but monks moving through their daily rhythm of work and prayer.
Several of the cells caught my eye: outside the door were a score of carved pockets in the wall. I imagined candles in them, much like the white lights people rim their windows with today.
We loaded ourselves into the bus and head into Kayseri, skirting the foot of Mt. Erciyes, which rises 3917 m above the steppe. It’s a stunning peak, probably responsible for much of the landscape. We stopped in Kayseri, the ancient city of Caesarea, home of Basil and site of a huge citadel built by Justinian in the 6th Century. Bill and Sally ducked in to see it, while the rest of us found the restaurant and climbed seemingly endless flights of stairs to reach the table that had been prepared for us. Yavuz and Suat took turns saying prayers, and the rest of us had a light dinner. We head for the airport for a two hour flight back to Istanbul.
Airport security caught up with Stephanie and Mahan, who’d bought a dagger for their son—and forgot to put it in checked luggage. Their luggage was searched more carefully, and Mahan was found to have some nail scissors in his carry-on. They detained Mahan. Yavuz stayed back to see if he could translate Mahan’s release. A bunch of us waited outside gate security to see how things were going. As the very last passenger passed through gate security, we began to be worried. No sign of Yavuz or Mahan. Then just as we were going to get on the plane, Yavuz appeared, shaking his head and indicating that they’d kept Mahan. Then, just as Farshad finished described in graphic detail what happened to Pakistani nationals in Turkish jails, Mahan appeared, smiling and beatific. It had all been a ruse.
We boarded the 8:25pm flight to Istanbul, arriving in the city around 10:30pm—and back at the hotel close to 11pm. It was beautiful flying into the city at night with mosques lit up—but we were dog-tired. And with a busy day the following.
Wednesday, June 3: Between Gulen and the Grand Bazaar
I got up early, and Farshad and I did the walk to the Galata Bridge. He’s an ace jay-walker and swears he got his training on the streets of Tehran. We needed the skill: we were out later than usual, and cars hurtled down the Ataturk Boulevard, spewing diesel and moving too fast to brake for anything unexpected. Sprinting across the streets, we got in a good workout—though no Rumi. We passed a couple of men camped out in front of a bank. They sat on stools, working at desks with manual typewriters, typing out transactions or letters for the gathering crowd. We stopped for tea and water, then walked home through the part of Fatih that reminded me of Paris, greeting the cats that seemed everywhere.
Our first appointment was at Zaman, the Gulen-affiliated press. We had a quick tour of the building, which prints both Turkish- and English-language papers, Zaman and Today’s Zaman, along with two magazines, Cihan, which means “the world,” and Acyion, or “action.” We were then ushered into a room to meet with one of the editorial page journalists, Kerim Balci. He spoke with us for about an hour, and in many ways this was the high point of the trip. We had absorbed enough information to ask intelligent questions; he had a fabulous command of English, experience, patience talking with Westerners, and a clear philosophical background. He could talk journalism; he could also talk meta-journalism.
Balci laid out the Zaman group’s commitment to responsible journalism—and just as we were about to ask what he meant by “responsible,” he defined it. Four principles guided it. First, there’s a commitment to “social responsibility,” which he defined as not just reporting the news, but analysis and solution. “Most newspapers love the problems, but we also want to love possible solutions.” Concretely, this means no sensationalism or negative reporting, no nudity in advertising or graphics, no advertisements for credit cards, no interest rates, no misleading headlines, and a move away from the traditional journalistic formula—“if it bleeds, it leads.” “For us,” he said,” “bad news is not the only good news. We also report good news.” He emphasized that their headlines were always full sentences, giving a fuller, more objective and truthful account of the situation.
Second, the Zaman group publications are text-intensive, and their articles are generally three times longer than the average newspaper. Zaman readers spend 90 minutes reading the newspaper, while the average reader spends 18. The group is committed to raising literacy among the Turkish peoples, using more complicated and elevated expression without apology. He was not into “dumbing down” journalistic practices of any sort.
Third, the group is committed to formation of their journalists. They often hire young journalists straight out of university, many but not exclusively from Gulen-affiliated universities. Like American companies like Esprit or Microsoft or Oracle, this isn’t just a job—but an ethos. He related the story of a popular journalist from a rival newspaper who came to them seeking work. She said she needed to change to a more positive environment, and as part of her interview, she shared a conversation she’d had with her young daughter, whom she couldn’t convince to study. When pressed, her daughter responded: “What’s the point—the world is in terrible shape. There’s going to be no future anyway, so why should I study?” Surprised, she asked: “Why do you say that?” “Mom,” the girl responded,” you’re the one reporting these things.” She knew she had to get out.
Fourth, he spoke of the group’s marketing commitment to creating an ethos, not just reporting the news among its subscribers. “We’re not just selling newspapers, we’re creating a family.” We were impressed with how much the group knew about its readership. Zaman readers spend more time with their families than their non-Zaman counterparts; they are more committed to education; they are concerned about the impact of sensationalist, violent, nudity-ridden media on their children—and they have money! Zaman readers in general have greater wealth and education than average readers.
Finally, Balci addressed the very neuralgic question about the group’s relationship to politics. He emphasized that reporters tend to keep an equal distance from all parties: “The party in power at the moment just happens to share our values. We are not a mouthpiece for its values.” Responding to questions from the group, he said at the outset that he didn’t like the Gulen Movement to be called a “movement,” because it makes them sound more monolithic and organized than they really are. He spoke of the “movement” as a very diverse crowd, with very different opinions among themselves about specific issues but a similar set of values unifying them. He said a lot of the accusations leveled against the “movement” were both laughable—and untrue. For example, the “movement” was simultaneously accused, on one hand, of trying to turn Turks into Christians and, on the other hand, of trying to turn Turkey into an Islamic state. “Both accusations cannot be true.” He had devoted a lot of editorial energy to setting people straight, and he acknowledged the cost: “In the first moment, attack hurts me; in the second moment, it gives me an opportunity.”
Balci strongly resonated with Michael’s comment that language creates culture—and went on to point out that most of Zaman’s titles and concerns were time-related and space-related: Cihan or “the world,” and another publication meaning “the Galaxy,” or “the Milky Way,” reflecting Gulen’s commitment to expand communities of belonging. Instead of being member of a particular tribe or ethnic group, citizen of a specific country, the Gulen “movement” tries to cultivate citizens of an interconnected world. He called it a “social movement which has political positions,” based on an ever-growing, ever-changing body of ideas. This gives the “movement” “a kind of plurality that we adore,” he said. Then he went on to make one of his most provocative distinctions, that between identity and ideals. “The Gulen movement for me is not a source of identity, but a source of ideals. If the movement becomes a source of identity, it becomes dogma.” The distinction was dazzling, suddenly illuminating the difference between a vital, ever-shifting, living tradition and a static, ossified fundamentalism. Under Ataturk Turkey seemed to have experienced a fundamentalism of secularism. This group did not want to move the nation into an Islamic fundamentalism—or any other, but to keep the civic life/the public square alive with ideas, diversity, and conversation.
These commitments to reflexive dialog and a larger world were embodied in Balci’s assignment. In 1996 his editor sent him to the Middle East with the following assignment: “Go and learn about Israel and Judaism—and tell us.” For several years he reported on the Middle East. Now he’s reporting from Istanbul, telling the larger world about Turkey and Turkish Islam.
In conclusion, he acknowledged that “the movement is maturing. Ten years ago I wouldn’t have given this speech.” I sensed he may not give it a year from now. This man struck us as deeply rooted in the present and highly sensitive to the various forces of religion, politics, and culture that shape it. He was also unafraid of changing his mind, unwilling to be coopted by anyone else’s agenda, and deeply reflective. He recounted an old Turkish saying that pretty much summed up his thinking: “From the clash of ideas, the truth is born.”
Finally, he spoke of a Gulen conference in Germany he’d attended the week before. We remembered reading about it on the bus; every day we had a couple of Today’s Zaman we passed around bus and breakfast table. With such spotty internet access, it had been our connection to the outside world—and it had been a good one. We’d read about the German conference. He said a German journalist had given a beautiful paper, capturing the movement fairly, well—and with much praise. He sought out the journalist afterwards, accosting him bluntly: “Good words are not helping us. Tell us what we can do better.”
This prompted Mahan’s question: “What are some of the inside criticisms about the Gulen movement?” Balci spoke of a process of “continuous learning” inside the movement, which made it ready to change with outside influence, not just inside impetus.
Somewhere in the course of this rich and wide-ranging conversation, some more controversial issues came up. Balci said he was not happy with “Facebook,” blogs, or the “msn culture.” He also alluded to a stance against evolution: “Creation is a faith issue, not a science issue.” He wanted to keep creation in the realm of divine sovereignty: God could have used evolution, to be sure, but there may have been other options. We didn’t have time to pursue these, and it’s worth noting that most of the Gulen people studying in this country are studying in the sciences, though mostly applied sciences of engineering, mechanical and electrical, medicine, etc. We talked about this with Yavuz and among ourselves.
We emerged from this conversation in awe of this man’s spirit and commitment. He was an impressive person—and a great spokesman for the Gulen “movement”—whatever it was called.
As we moved to the next stop, the Gulen-affiliated Fatih University, Farshad explained that the term “movement” has loaded significance in the Muslim world in general. If such generalizations can be made, they are best made by a Persian! “Movement” almost always connotes political ambition, and that seems one thing the Gulen “movement” wants most to avoid. Certainly Islam has and should have a voice in civil society, but it must be the voice of values, values like hospitality, tolerance, love, sacrifice, and service. I thought these folks were in fact clearer and more articulate about the role of Islam in the public realm than my crowd is about the role of Christianity.
Fatih University was established in 1996 in Buyukcekmece, outside of the city, and we fought traffic to get there. Mostly, it was a lunch stop, which was fine. The chair of the history department hosted us. He’d transferred to Fatih from the University of Istanbul. We ate at tables with some of the professors, then repaired to a side room where we had dessert and conversation. Most interesting to me was the roster of departments at Fatih, particularly the languages offered: Russian, Chinese, Spanish, English, Turkish Language and Literature, and Modern Turkic Dialects.
We returned through intense traffic to Istanbul, heading to the Journalists and Writers Foundation near Taksim Square. We heard a presentation from a very passionate, articulate director of the society. This is an organization at the heart of the Gulen Movement: when the country polarized in 1994, Gulen asked journalists and writers to come together and ease tensions. Our host identified three major problems in global society: ignorance, poverty, and disunity, and he spoke of the mandate to address them as a religious duty, not simply a personal one. And yet the solution was not to build another mosque: “We have enough mosques,” he quoted Gulen as saying. “Don’t open another mosque!” Indeed, we’d seen a mosque almost every block in both urban and rural Turkey. Farshad said that even in Iran, an Islamic state, there were not as many mosques.
This meant dialogue was a tool, dialogue across the world religions. Both of our hosts had studied Catholicism, and they professed to be “citizens of the world,” a sense of belonging that our host illustrated with a story: “This is my village: if I burn part of the village, fire will come to me as well.” This prompted a question from Mahan: what about dialogue among the many Islams within Islam? He noted that he hadn’t seen many Gulen-movement schools in countries that practiced Arabic or Persian expressions of Islam. We didn’t get a coherent answer to this question. The man closed with a statement similar to what Kerim Balci, the journalist we’d seen that morning, had told us. He identified the four main allegations against the movement: that Gulen is trying to Christianize Turkey, that Gulen has all this money from Wahhabist Saudi Arabia, that Gulen is a secret agent of the United States, and that Gulen schools stockpile guns for the Chechen separatists. It was a snapshot of what the Movement faces. “I heard these allegations in Turkish ten years ago; now I’m hearing them in English from the outside.” Clearly part of our task was to take the resistance back to the home front.
As we spoke I watched first Yavuz get us, head to the bathroom, then leave the room. When he returned, he nodded at Suat, who did the same. They were doing the ablutions for prayer, then praying. There must have been a prayer room in the building. Then and now, their piety impressed me. Without ostentation, but with great regularity, they made certain they prayed. They invited us to join them the next morning at the Eyup Sultan Mosque, built in 1458 to honor Eyup Ensari, who’d been killed during the first Arab siege of Constantinople in the 7th century.
More gifts at the end of this visit, all in beautiful velvet boxes. I was beginning to wonder how to get all of this home! And next stop was the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar! Judith didn’t want to go on the tour, so Yavuz helped her find the tram and go back to the hotel, where she had an early dinner and some needed rest. This might have been the better course: we’d all been running hard. We split off into groups with Arzu and Suat to do first the Spice Bazaar and then the Grand Bazaar. The Spice Bazaar was built in 1660 as a part of the New Mosque complex, and the area reflects the spirit of Old Istanbul, near the water where cargo is unloaded and where ferries cross the Bosphorus transporting people from Europe to Asia and back again. The streets bustle with commerce, and shops spill out onto the street. The Spice and Grand Bazaars are huge tourist draws, but the surrounding streets seem to be the outdoor supermarket for the Istanbullians themselves, selling everything from house wares and fabric, to food, jewelry, and lingerie. It’s a fun place, with a lot of hustle, a lot of bustle, and tons of energy. I liked the streets more than the Bazaars, because of the local traffic.
Because the streets were where local folks bought clothes, they were not displaying for tourists. It was here that Farshad inaugurated his gallery of mannequin shots. Shopkeepers hung mannequins from the awnings, dressed in the latest fashion. The easiest way to display was to simply tie rope around the mannequin’s neck—and there were alley upon alley of all these “hung” children, their faces frozen into smiles but with ropes around their necks. Sometimes the shopkeeper had added garish make-up, and the effect was even more macabre. They looked ready for their wakes! Farshad didn’t miss a single one. Looking at them later, Michael attested to their “Exorcist” effect: “I’m going to have nightmares of this for the rest of my time in Istanbul,” he vowed.
We got great shots of Donal in front of a shop dedicated to clothes for boys going through the circumcision ceremonies, a rite which happens when they are about nine years old. The shops offered these miniature white tuxes with little white, gilt-edged capes and crowns. We got a nice shot of Donal standing in front of one—with his hands crossed over his crotch and a mixture of pain and embarrassment on his face. Throughout our tour of the Bazaars, people would shout “Haji! Haji!” referring to Donal’s white “haji” cap, but he first thought they were saying “Hashish! Hashish!” and turned to a particularly persistent caller and said very politely: “No, thank you.” We laughed and laughed, in between haggling for our purchases and snapping photographs of the Hanging Children.
Farshad made a particularly good bargain—to which the shopkeeper acquiesced, but then yelled after him: “But I tell you: you are not a good man!” We downed cucumbers a vendor was peeling on the spot and salting. Farshad bought some roasted corn—and ate it along the way. We joined the rest of the group on the steps of the New Mosque, built between 1597 and 1663 by the mothers of Mehmet III and IV. Like most of the mosques in Istanbul, this one was multi-purpose, serving not only as a place of worship, but a school, hospital, soup kitchen, and public baths. Full-service religion!
The van picked us up and took us back across the Galata Bridge to Taksim Square—and we were unleashed on the Istiklal to shop, eat, wander around until 9pm. We’d have dinner on our own—naturally everyone who stayed found themselves in the same restaurant, a lokantasi where we could point to things we wanted. It was fun, though, ordering on our own: we couldn’t have done this any earlier in the tour, though I bet we could have made ourselves understood. First, though Yavuz took a group of us down the street in search of music. Michael and Anne, Bill and Sally, Farshad and I would love to have heard some real Turkish music at a meyhane, but the two places Yavuz checked out were not beginning music until 10:30pm. We’d either be stuck in Taksim until then—a happy thought, actually!—there was lots of life in the side streets and in Istiklal itself. Michael lobbied for a trip home, first, so that folks catch a nap before a late night. I knew this would rule me out.
But I enjoyed exploring Taksim while all this was being negotiated: one block off the square the neighborhood was dark, crowded, and full of Greeks. While Istiklal itself looked like the Turkish version of the Corso in Rome, behind it you could see that parts of Beyoglu that Pamuk writes about in Istanbul: the place where Greeks and Jews were allowed to live, a kind of pogrom which the Turks ravaged whenever relations between the two groups sparked. We hadn’t heard about this in the Jewish Museum—but I’d read about it in Pamuk’s book. Seeing the narrow, crowded streets with people spilling out onto the sidewalks and old men sitting in the evening playing backgammon, I could imagine how easily things could flare.
After settling people with food and scouting out live music venues, Farshad and I asked for help with CDs. We found a CD store—and we wanted some real Turkish music. I was in the market for jazz; Farshad wanted some pop music. Through Yavuz’s help, one of the kids working in the store directed me to the jazz section—and a CD Mehteran featuring the work of a renowned Turkish drummer Okay Temiz, a jazz version of Turkish marching music. Apparently, Mehter is music of the Janissaries from about the end of the 13th century into the 19th century, and the music accompanied the armies of the Ottomans into battle, with distinctive marching step and chants “God is good. God is compassionate. God is great. I listened to it flying out of Istanbul, and it’s more bracing than a cup of Turkish coffee, full of horns, drums, great rhythms, and haunting harmonics. Not exactly what I’d expected, but it’s certainly something I can’t get back home!
We joined the others at the restaurant, ate quickly, and boarded the bus for the hotel, arriving at the Golden Hill at a respectable hour—for once! As people made plans to go out for live music, I knew I’d fade, and I was happy to fall into bed.
Apparently, Michael, Anne, Yavuz, and Farshad set out for live music an hour later, tired enough to forego music for an evening for an evening at one of the bars under the Galata Bridge, playing backgammon and smoking coconut-flavored tobacco in a hookah until the wee hours of the morning!
(1) The story is related in the introduction to James Clifford and George E. Marcus (eds.), Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986, 8). Cf., H.R. Niebuhr’s comment: “It is not evident that the man [sic] who is forced to confess that this view of things is conditioned by the standpoint he occupies must doubt the reality of what he sees.” The Meaning of Revelation (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 13).
(2) The term is Mary Louise Pratt’s. See her book Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation (New York: Routledge, 1992) and the essay, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” in David Bartholomae and Anthony Petroksky (eds.), Ways of Reading, 5th edition (New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999). Also available online.
(3) Pratt, Imperial Eyes, 6. Pratt uses this to examine colonial encounters in particular, though that will not be my purpose here.
(4) Iris Murdoch, Nuns and Soldiers, New York: Penguin, 67.