Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Christmas in Turkey

Chora Church

So, I live in Turkey which means that I have to spend my holidays primarily in Turkey. And, while I am finally getting paid (woo hoo!) I am not paid quite well enough to splurge on a flight back to the States, as tempting and as cliché as it may be to go home for the holidays. 

Instead I did the next best thing, I imported family from the States. While the original plan was for Kelsey, my sister, and Samantha, our cousin to join, Mother Nature had different plans in store. Since most of you spend the majority of your time on the western side of the Atlantic, you may not have been monitoring the weather that descended on north-western Europe in the days leading up to the Birth of Christ, but since one of the only two entirely English channels we have here in the 'dağ is the BBC, we heard all about it.

And, unfortunately, we had to experience first-hand the incompetency of the British Ministry of Transportation. Basically, two-thirds of flights going in and coming out of Heathrow were cancelled outright, for the four day surrounding Christmas, the four busiest travel days of the year. Major problem since its one of the world's most important air-traffic hubs. So, Samantha was stranded, at work, in Boston, at Christmas. 

Kelsey and I carried on without her, much to our chagrin. After relaxing a few days in the 'dağ, we headed to Istanbul. We went to Chora Church, a fabulous gem of a place tucked a bit outside of the typical tourist section of the city. Amazing mosaics and frescoes from the 14th century are still in phenomenal condition, so we marveled at Jesus and Mary for the afternoon. 

Turkish J.C. says "hi"
Later we went into the Spice Bazaar,

and we made friends with a vendor who makes, as far as I can tell, extremely expensive tea sets. He was quite the shop owner, offering us everything from historical explanations for various Turkish idioms, to rose lokum, to tales of fame and glory. Just in case we didn't believe his excellent-ness, he whipped this out, 

"From Fidel Castro to Kevin Costner, the famous drink from these cups"

Upon arriving back in Taksim, we were greeted by a Worker's Party protest. Nothing says Christmas like communists, right? 

The Turkish Communist Party's headquarters overlooks İstiklal street, the capitalist center of the city.

When we saw busloads of riot police being carted into the area, we, ever so poetically, took refuge in a Catholic church where we basked in the Christmas decorations and the abundance of candles. I was able to snap one photo before being accosted by the caretaker. I would have felt bad, but then I saw him blowing out prayer candles to make more space for new ones, and my guilt magically disappeared. Honestly, who blows out prayer candles? On Christmas?

That night we hit a fasil restaurant on Istiklal. We chowed, drank, listened to traditional music and danced. Kel and I went back to our hostel and watched the Holiday for possibly the tenth time in a week and snoozed til morning. 

Friday, December 17, 2010

An end of year recap

Because the next few weeks are going to be filled with travel and holidays, this will probably be the last blog post of 2010. I've spoken with many of you in the last few days about my time here and, depending on the day you talked to me, I have both loved and loathed my experience so far. 

Turkey is a very interesting country, it straddles Europe and Asia just like it straddles the traditional and the modern. While their bus system should be internationally recognized for its efficiency (I'm not talking environmental), their bureaucracy should be condemned for its arcane and anachronistic alleyways and dungeons. Its an abyss of confusion and notarized contracts. 

I have found Turkish hospitality to be the warmest of any country that I have visited. I have been constantly tea-ed (not wined unfortunately) and dined by new friends and colleagues who have made every conceivable effort to make our time here easier. And, in the face of what seemed an insurmountable heap of unresolved problems, they have taken time out of their chaotic lives to ensure I never feel alone or abandoned. 

The locals have been patient with me and my pigin Turkish, helping me find the butter and not the rain in the supermarket, after I asked Yağmur nerede? when I should have asked Tereyağ nerede? Our constant flow of fix-it men have been gracious and kind, even when our problems are of our own making (you must turn two knobs to get the heat going.) 

And, while bacon is scarce (or really nonexistant) the food has comforted me in ways that nothing else can after a rough day of misunderstandings and mistranslations. There's nothing like a hot bowl of mercemek corbası after being soaked through from a sudden rain-storm. 

I'm excited to share these things with Kelsey and Sam as they come next week. I'm excited to dive deeper into Turkish culture and language as 2010 turns to 2011. Sherri and I sat eating köfte last week, doing research for an article we will be writing for Istanbul Eats, thinking back to what we were doing this time last year. I was in the middle of final exams with one semester of my undergrad left to complete. I had no idea what, let alone where Tekirdağ was and could never imagine I would be living this experience.

And, though about 50% of my day is spent keeping myself from going on murderous rampage, the other 50% has been truly rewarding. I was invited to a student's birthday the yesterday. They made great efforts to speak to me in a language that only three months ago, they did not know. And, while I personally cannot take great credit for the accomplishments of my students, I hope that I am having as positive an impact on them as they have had on me. 

So cheers to Christmas and to New Year. May the next be as exciting and rewarding as this last.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Christmas or Consumerism?

The other day I ran a lesson about holidays. It was our first class back from the week long Kurban Bayramı break, and I for one, wasn’t ready to dive back into school. As it turned out, my students weren’t either.

This was the week of Thanksgiving, a holiday rarely on the radar of non-American/Canadians. We discussed the types of holidays—cultural (or civic) and religious. I asked them to list a number of holidays, Turkish, American, and international. Each class did an exceptional job coming up with a broad variety, though there was one class in particular that takes the cake when it comes to a creative approach to the assignment.

When we discussed what Christmas is, they were baffled. The word, like in many European languages, is based on the latin word for the holiday, its Noel in Turkish. Once I explained that there were Christmas trees involved, they perked right up and figured out what I was talking about. When we went back over the long list I had amassed on the board to categorize the holidays, there was a unanimous opinion that Christmas was cultural. I corrected them, saying that no, Christmas is a religious holiday. To this, one vociferous student stood up and said, no hocam, its not religious.  Well, actually first he clicked at me (you Fulbrighters know what I'm talking about) then he denied my statement. 

I tried to explain to him that I really was quite sure that Christmas was a religious holiday, but he stood his ground. I tried to explain that it is the birthday of Jesus or in Turkish İsa but he assured me that this is not true. The whole class had chimed in, telling me that I didn't know what I was talking about and that I also had the date of Christmas wrong. Then, I thought, ha maybe they are thinking of the Greek Christmas. But no, Christmas is, according to my students, on the 31st of December. 

No, that is New Year, I explained. Yes, they said, New Year and Christmas, these are the same. 

Figgity-false. (That's for you Mr. Richard.) 

Turks have recently imported American consumerism. And, with this has come a few extras bundled into the mix. One of these is every marketing team's wet dream, the Christmas shopping season. But, what do you do in a country that has no religious or cultural holiday that routinely occurs in late December? You bundle your plastic Christmas trees and tinsel in with the New Year's celebrations. They even eat turkey on New Year's. The problem it seems, was that nobody had bothered to explain to the Turkish people that they don't celebrate Christmas, they are celebrating something called Consumerism

Now, don't misunderstand me. I'm loving this. I found molasses and tree ornaments at the local Migros shopping center yesterday. And, while they may not have cookie cutters, they have all the necessary ingredients to make Christmas cookies. One of my colleagues, who will probably get his own blog post at some point, sent me an email wondering where online we could purchase Christmas trees. It seems one of his friends wanted to know. I told him something along the lines of "Hell if I know, but let me in if you get to the bottom of it." I encouraged my roommate to respond to his email, "Bitch, I'm a Jew." I don't know if she did, and if she did, I don't know if he would have understood but man...

Even so, I must admit, there's no place like home. 

But of course, I'm not one to roll over and take it. I fought back. I went to the Carrefour (the French version of a super-Wal-Mart) and loaded up on said molasses (3 jars' worth--I wasn't sure which would taste best so I got all of them just in case), made both sugar cookies and gingerbread cookies

 went on iTunes and downloaded The Holiday and Love Actually, scrounged around for some printer paper and cut up paper snowflakes 

and listened to the most amazing Christmas mix ever-- A Very Special Christmas (the first one made) featuring songs like Christmas in Hollis, Back Door Santa, and Winter Wonderland by the Eurythmics.

And of course, we're in the middle of Hanukkah, Sherri and I had a makeshift menorah, 

Dara and I made  latkes and stumbled on an old synagogue in Edirne when I went to visit her in Kırklareli this past weekend. The Turkish governement is investing over 3 million TL (roughly 1.75 million USD) over two years to rebuild the building. After talking to the engineer in charge of the project, it seems that weathering did the enormous structure in. Edirne is probably one of my favorite places in Turkey (far behind Istanbul, but I mean, Paris is behind Istanbul...) it used to have an enormous Jewish population until the population exchange in the 1920s. 

There is something to be said for living in a part of the world that gave birth to the Big Three, no not Garnett, Pierce and Allen, but rather Islam, Christianity and Judaism. There is an enormous amount of historical sites here in Turkey that really are the roots of all three of these religions. I got to go to Nicaea a few weeks ago--I had no idea it was in Turkey until I was there. 

I'm not a fan of spending the holiday season outside of the United States, but I guess Turkey has really come through for me in terms of holiday cheer, historical sites, and molasses. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Trip to Trabzon Or, A polemic on the Turkish planning process

You know those weeks where nothing quite goes right? I mean, nothing really goes wrong, but man, nothing works the way it should. This has been a large part of my experience in Turkey. Moving to a new country is bound to have its emotional ups and downs and sure, each country has its quirks.

In France I was made to wait outside at 5:30 in the morning to get a ticket so I could come back in the afternoon with an unknown array of documents that nobody seemed to be able to agree upon, all just to get a residence permit that I really didn’t need.

In the Netherlands your bike could be stolen while you were still on it—well not literally but damn, you turn your back for one second…

In Turkey, nobody seems worried about paying us.

It seems the Turkish Higher Education Commission (YÖK) decided they wanted more Americans through the Fulbright program. So, they told the American Fulbright Commission that they would pay our salaries. They Americans handed us over, with only a cryptic notification, without asking it seems any questions at all. Well YÖK changed their minds, passed us off to the universities who are now telling us they don’t really have to pay us for the first month we were here because according to the paperwork that we had no access to, we didn’t legally exist. Some universities, saddled with this new salary and no increase of funding from YÖK, denied the housing we were guaranteed, ignored the Turkish lessons we were guaranteed, and are now saying they may or may not be able to pay us some time perhaps in January or February maybe before we leave but who knows maybe not. The Americans feel badly, but ultimately they can’t do anything because they gave us to the Turks.

I have spent a few weeks debating about writing this in the blog. It is a pretty sad picture of an incredibly well respected program, but it’s the truth and I believe that while this may not be the most professional thing I have ever done, it is the right thing to do. If I wanted to battle for housing, salary and general decency, I would have joined the Peace Corps. And while I have been amazingly lucky, with a staff and administration who genuinely care about our well being, who have mobilized to help us in each and every crisis, ultimately this should have never been allowed to occur.

Every conversation I have had with my colleagues seems to reinforce that this is a typical day in the office. And, while I am loath to impose my American standards on a foreign situation, I signed a grant authorization with THE AMERICAN GOVERNMENT and not the Turkish one. But, I guess, this is the situation and I can complain until my face is purple, but I have found that the more I look the more I find evidence that this is not a unique situation here, it’s a cultural thing.

Take my most recent trip to Trabzon…

After a 16-hour bus ride, we arrived at 4 am. The whole thing was nothing short of a fiasco. I am still not entirely sure who was responsible for the planning of the whole week, but it seems that they did not pay any attention to several critical details. It all started on Saturday night when Selen discovered that we were both scheduled on a bus that would arrive in Istanbul the following Sunday, at 3:30pm.

Problemo numero uno.

Remember, this is an 18-hour bus ride. Remember that I must hop a bus to Tekirdağ once I arrive in Istanbul. Remember that there are thousands (literally) of students making this exact same trek. Remember that I work at 8:45 in the morning on Monday. Remember, any of you who have had the pleasure of interacting with me when I’ve been deprived of my necessary 8 hours of sleep. Problem, var.

Typically this could be remedied with a quick phone call to the bus station, or even better to the airport but, yes, it is the week of Kurban Bayrami. What does that mean? Ever tried to catch a flight anywhere in the continental US the day before Thanksgiving? Multiply that by like a thousand and you’ll pretty much have it. There are no busses. There are only planes at astronomically high prices (not 45TL one way but something more like 185TL).

Now, I have just met these people. Like, really, about five minutes ago. I am not about to complain about an important family trip that I have been graciously invited to partake in, plus they must have the anxiety of the engagement to contend with. Selen, however, is having none of it. After about an hour of going back and forth we finally decide to take the Friday tickets (initially meant for the parents of the man getting engaged) to Bursa, and then on Saturday I will take a bus to Tekirdağ.

So, like I said, we hop the bus to Trabzon, well, we try to hop the bus, but its an hour late. Not quite the ideal way to start an 18-hour trip. We get on; everybody is already in a bad mood. I believe I have talked about the quality of Turkish busses, I have stated before that typically they are quite comfortable especially considering the prices. Some even have little TVs (not that I really use them, since I don’t understand much still.) This bus was more of a Fung Wah. While it did have an attendant (all busses have an attendant who serves tea, water, and little goodies periodically) he looked sleep deprived, then Selen and I noticed the water had been stored under our seats. The bus smelled of stale cigarettes, and said attendant would take my coffee/tea before I drank it since I would let it cool longer than he felt like waiting.

My biggest fear going into this whole thing was that there are no toilets on Turkish busses. After many discussions, we have still yet to comprehend why this is. I was unsure, therefore, how often we would stop. Well, much to my surprise, we stopped at least every 2 hours, this pleasant surprise quickly soured once the sun went down and they would throw the lights on and open the two doors letting the cold night air rush in. There was, therefore, very little chance of sleeping for more than two hours at a time.

There was a man who got on the bus about half way to Trabzon who sat in front of me who had a habit of lowering the back of his seat abruptly. Each and every time he would pin my leg in a most painful way, once he smashed me in the face and even my loud yelps of pain did nothing to get his attention. My favorite stop had to be the one at about midnight or 1 am. It was probably about 40 out, windy, and there was nowhere to go. The restaurant smelled of something putrid, plus their windows and doors were all open, and the outside courtyard had a horrid mingled smell of human refuse and stale hot-dogs. I assumed the human refuse smell came from the bathrooms, but when I went to relieve myself, I found that they were particularly devoid of smell. I am still perplexed where that smell came from but needless to say, I chose not to buy any food from the establishment.

Finally we arrive in Trabzon—an hour early, even with the hour delay at the start, problem is, it is 4am and freezing. We make our way into the bus station and everyone kind of just lingers. Selen starts asking questions and I know there’s something wrong. Apparently we had reached the end of the planning. This was the end of the line. It was 4 am but nobody had thought to figure out where we would be sleeping, even though they knew we would arrive after the hotel closed for the night.

Problemo numero dos.

Selen (just please, picture this if you know her) flies into a frenzy. She’s yelling at her uncle—the plan’s architect—who it seems, was completely aware of the pitfalls and totally fine with his plan’s lack of plan. He was content to hang with the homeless in this semi-closed bus station until his sister woke up and could come rescue us from this hellhole. I was just sitting, semi-comatose, on a radiator letting it warm my backside. It was—unlike anything else that whole 24-hours—quite soothing.

Ultimately Selen won. At about 4:15 we hopped in some taxis and drove to Selen’s uncle’s sister’s house. She and her family were up to welcome us. Then we all sat down and started chatting. I noticed that nobody seemed to have any plan of sleeping. It was damn early and we could, if we got down to business, get 5 or 6 hours in before we had to do anything. After close to an hour and a half of bleary-eyed discussion (all in Turkish) I gave into the idea of sleep, it seemed all anybody needed was for one person to give in so that they wouldn’t feel bad giving in, too. I was perfectly content being the ringleader. I am foreign and was getting nothing from the conversation, especially in the state I was in. So, after two hours of a nap, I got up and started our first day in Trabzon.


I am trying now to reajust my expectations, and I am making a great deal of progress. Patience is a virtue right? And I have never been one to be called patient. Its good practice and all of this has brought me closer to my friends here in Tekirdag, because they have been my sanity lifeline. But, I am no f-ing volunteer. I want my money. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Getting engaged

No, not me. After what I’ve seen, the engagement process here is a sort of familial hazing. It seems to be designed to see if you can hack it. The whole thing actually seems like a pretty good idea, it reinforces something that I think many American lovebirds neglect to reflect upon; marriage is a blending of families. Sometimes this blending is not so much of a delicious smoothie but more of a literal putting of family members in a blender, but we'll get back to that.

So, typically when a couple gets engaged in the US there is very little family involvement. Sometimes, if you’re really old-fashioned, the father’s permissions is sought, but everybody knows that if he protests, there’s not much that can be done. Turkish engagements are an entirely different animal.

Aytaç and Sibel decided to get engaged, but it was less a decision to purchase a diamond engagement ring and more a decision to tell their families that they would like to get engaged. Sibel lives in Giresun, Aytaç lives in Bursa. They met at university and now live, like most unmarried Turks their age, at home with their families. The problem is, their families live about 18 hours away from eachother, complicating their courtship. They decided, like many in their position, to become engaged. So, here we are in Trabzon, where Aytaç's father is originally from--about two hours from Giresun. 

Sibel, her mother, her aunt, her sister and her sister’s fiancé all came to Trabzon to join Aytaç, myself, Selen, Şengül (Aytaç ‘s aunt), his mother, and Selen’s mother, Sennur in the traditional shopping for the engagement rings. Sibel and co. were an hour late, and poor Aytaç was all bent out of shape. It had come to my attention through several conversations that Sibel’s family was particularly difficult. Her father was an ass (again, as far as I was informed), her sister was difficult and self-centered and her mother was something of a wet blanket. It seemed as if this evening was headed for disaster. Aytaç’s family made no secret of being no fan of Sibel’s family. They also seemed to have no qualms about wearing these sentiments proudly on their sleeves.

Finally they arrived and we made our way into the çarsi (bazaar-ish market place), we went from jewelry store to jewelry store looking at and comparing engagement rings. These rings are not what you typically receive in an American engagement. Rather, they are more ornate wedding bands. These bands are exchanged at the engagement ceremony and worn on both the man and woman’s right ring finger until the day of the wedding when they are moved to the left hand. We went to several stores before the couple decided on their rings. They made the purchase and then we continued on to the second half of our adventure.

Sibel needed a dress that she would be wearing during the engagement ceremony. I figured some sort of nice cocktail dress would suffice, but no. Think prom dress. We went into half a dozen stores, but it seemed that she had tried on a dress in Giresun and had not found one in Trabzon that could match it. She was finally convinced to try on several dresses and almost made two purchases before backing out last second. It was like wedding dress shopping on crack. Everybody had an opinion, everybody liked a different dress, and poor Sibel was constantly being overpowered by her mother’s, aunt’s and sister’s opinions. After several cups of tea, a simit or two, and about two hours later, they called the shop in Giresun and reserved the dress there.

Two days later, we headed out to Giresun where we went straight to the hair salon. Now, going to the hair salon is still a very posh thing to do. Think 1950s—when every woman with any kind of income would go to the hair salon in the morning to get her hair done before doing her daily activities. I mean, it’s not that common, but women go regularly before any sort of important social engagement. This is no exception. After spending time at the hair dresser’s—about 2 ½ hours of time—we finally headed over to Sibel’s house. None of us had eaten since about 10:30 in the morning and it was now about 6:30pm. Everyone was stressed and excited and very much in need of food, but alas…

We arrived as Sibel’s house where there were already easily 35 people crammed into their tiny apartment living room. The heat was on and everyone is looking slightly uncomfortable. All the men were dressed in old suits, sitting on the gigantic sectional, reclining with their thighs splayed, leaving very little room for all us new arrivals. Nearly all of the women were dressed with headscarves in floor-length jackets, bustling around after nutty children. We were quickly directed to the children’s bedroom and offered seats on the bunk bed and a few chairs crammed into the open floor space. Neither Selen nor I were entirely sure if this was going to be a gender-segregated ceremony. She had never attended one of these before, plus we were in Trabzon, on the Black Sea, where they have their own distinct traditions. Plus this family was significantly more conservative than Selen’s. Eventually the women convinced the men to move into chairs, freeing up space for us so we were offered a seat in the stifling living room. After about an hour of a penetrating, awkward silence, Sibel and Aytaç arrived, Aytaç’s father decided it was time to make the proposal.

Now, this is what Selen translated for me, he said something to the extent of: “We have travelled a long way to come out to Trabzon (for more about this—see the next post), we believe that Sibel will make a good addition to our family, we are asking for your permission.” To this, Sibel’s father stood up and responded something of the following, “We as a family have thought a great deal about this. We have discussed it as a family and we have come to the conclusion that they will make eachother happy. So, yes, we give our consent.”

Now my understanding was that her family was very reluctant at the beginning, her father made a big fuss about her Aytaç taking her across the country, and who would look after him in his old age? Who would pray for his soul at his grave? Hmm? I don’t know if this was an outward manifestation of his reluctance to allow his 24 year old daughter to become engaged, but it seems he relented to the whole thing. When I first met the mother, I mean, wow. She looked like one of those mother-in-laws that only film writers seem to be able to create.

To all this, Aytaç’s family was of course hurt. Though, Aytaç himself is a very young groom. Also, 24. It seems his father too was looking perhaps to prevent such a union. This made for a very uncomfortable push and pull between the families with Aytaç bearing the brunt of it all. His English was labored, but he explained to me the whole time leading up to this day that he was terrified that he wouldn’t be able to handle all this animosity between the families. This takes me back to the comment about the engagement being some sort of a hazing process. The families must interact for this event because tradition has held firm, they are still the ones who must participate for the engagement to become a reality. While I’m not sure I could handle something like this, it did bring up some very important questions that many couples don’t really confront until they are already deep into a marriage.

In my opinion the best part of the entire scene was the fact that Sibel and Aytaç were forced, by the sheer number of people, out into the hall the whole time that this was happening. They had absolutely no say in anything that was going on. They weren’t phyiscally present when the decision was made. Okay, yes, they dated for several years and they had chosen eachother, but I just couldn’t keep myself from comparing the whole thing to an American engagement, something that is so personal and really something that only takes place between the couple.

Anyhow, after this they brought out the rings which they exchanged. The rings were tied together by a red ribbon adorned with nazars, The ribbon was cut, then a cake was brought in, they fed eachother cake. Finally after this, everyone relaxed, we GOT TO EAT, and take thousands of pictures. I got asked a million and a half times if I was married. When they finally understood that nope, no husband, not even a boyfriend, I had all sorts of offers from grandmas about their grandsons who lived all over the place.

Now, they wait, until 2012. I’ve got an invitation, all I need is a date.... 

Monday, November 22, 2010

Kurban Bayramı

Yep, that's what you think it is. 

The Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha is called, in Turkey, the Kurban Bayramı, or Sacrifice Holiday. While an unlikely holiday to spark a family reunion, this is one of the biggest holidays on the Turkish calendar. Though I have lived in different countries before, each with their own peculiar holidays (like the Dutch Sinterklaas and his minions the Zwarten Pieten) I have never actually lived in a country that was not predominately culturally Christian. I knew before coming that I would obviously not be given the traditional Christmas break that we are so accustomed to in the US, but I hadn’t given much thought to the surprise holidays of the Muslim calendar.

The first one was a welcome Friday off, which coincided with Halloween weekend. Which I described a few weeks ago. The second I don’t know if I would classify as a typical holiday, because we didn’t get work off but, wow. It needs to be classified as something. It was the day of the anniversary of Ataturk’s death. Now, if you ever talk to a Turk, and you don’t know whom Ataturk is, just pretend you do. There is an impressive (if a little off-putting) cult of personality surrounding the founder of the Turkish republic. But, considering what the man accomplished, as well as the era in which he came to power, an era that threw up such leaders as Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin and Mao, I am reluctant to say anything negative about the guy (and its not just because it could land me in prison.) He was the military leader during the Battle of Gallipoli, he was the one who reconsolidated power after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of  WWI, and he is the man responsible for both the modernization and secularization of the country. He had the power of a dictator, but he wielded that power in a way that actually benefitted the Turkish people.

Its no surprise therefore, that they commemorate the day of his death. The way in which they commemorate his death is what really threw me for a loop. On the 10th of November, at 9:05am (the date and time he died) everybody stops—people, cars, busses (as far as I can tell)—and for one minute, sirens sound and people honk their horns. Now, I knew this was all coming, I had been warned about it and had read about it, but I guess that I assumed that the siren would sound and then there would be a minute of silence. Nope. There was a full minute of sirens and horn honking. Then, at the end, everybody just went back to work. Our university had a commemoration where they played (and sang) the national anthem, and then over a loudspeaker they played a really loud siren sound on a loop for a full minute.

Intense. But, back to the sacrifice.

Everybody takes a week off—a welcome break from work. It’s also impossible to purchase tickets anywhere. This is the homecoming, kind of like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. And since 99% of Turks consider themselves Muslim, forget the diversity of vacations found for Passover, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa (do people take that off?), Chinese New Year, Greek Easter, etc. There is one holiday season, and this is it. No, “Happy Holidays” to be P.C., but rather iyi bayramlar, happy bayram.

So, the Sacrifice Holiday. Well, I must say that I love the names they give to holidays; Halloween in Turkish is Cadı Bayramı or “The Witch Holiday.” But really, the Slaughter Holiday, sounds intense right? And, it is, but it certainly wasn’t what I expected.

The way it works—and I am only speaking about Turkey here—is that the head of the family, of any family that can afford it, goes to one of the slaughter centers and bargains with a farmer and purchases an animal to slaughter. Now, what on earth is a slaughter center? Well, the Turkish government, in an effort to protect the quality of the meat (I think) designates specific centers in cities where this exchange and slaughter can occur. In the villages it seems that this still happens wherever the town square happens to be.

So, the men all gather and haggle over the price of the animal. Then, once they have agreed upon a price, the animal is slaughtered and the meat is donated to the poor. This is one of the important parts of being a Muslim, giving alms to the poor. This holiday celebrates Abraham’s near sacrifice of his son Ishmael (yep, Ishmael and not Isaac--if you're up on your Biblical history--it’s a slight differentiation in the Qu’aran.) Ismael was the son of Abraham’s maid Hagar and he was the one, according to the Qu’aran, who was to be slaughtered and not his proper son Isaac. When God told Abraham that he would in fact not require him to prove his faith by killing his son, Abraham sacrificed a lamb to show his generosity to God. Think of this as a reenactment, on a greater scale.

The thing that struck me the most about this holiday was that you would have been totally unaware that it was a holiday, if you ignored the closed shops. I almost forgot it was the day of the bayram since the women have no part in any of the ritual. There was no special meal, no special religious service. All they did was add a few prayers over the course of the day to the typical prayers—and since I don’t pray I really didn’t notice much of anything. I assume for the men it is a different experience, but for me it was more or less a typical day.

So to spice up what was turning out to be a very ho-hum day, I asked Selen if there was any way I could go and see the slaughter. I wasn’t sure when I would again have the chance to witness this holiday and I wanted to be sure I didn’t miss it. So, we walked down to the slaughter center, which was, ha, get this, in the front courtyard of the local school.

See the school behind? Just what you want children seeing when they return on Monday-- BLOOD.

There were two cows still awaiting their demise, and there was everything else I was hoping for. There were heads of dead cows, just hanging out on the ground, big heaps of intestines lying in the sun. There were ribs being cut into more manageable sizes with—wait for it—an ax. Other hunks of meat were hanging letting the blood run out the way that halal food preparation requires (it’s the Muslim version of kosher.) We just pretended I was a journalist and I was able to get pretty close to the action with Selen’s boyfriend’s awesome camera (mine is still awaiting the charger to be sprung from Turkish customs).

PETA, eat your heart out.

This has gotten me all geared up for Thanksgiving on Thursday. I am still working on getting a turkey, which, of course would be difficult to find in Turkey. I have a contact at the Istanbul consulate who has offered to scrounge around the boxes of foodstuffs shipped over by the government and dig up a few cans of cranberry sauce and perhaps some Jiffy mix. So have a happy Thanksgiving, 

lots of love to you and yours on Turkey Day from Turkey.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Thoughts on the Turkish hazırlık, its students and uncomfortable racial discussions

So my camera is out of commission. I, like the genius I am, packed the wrong camera charger when I came to Turkey. So, for nearly a month now I have been wandering around camera-less. Trying to think of something to write without having images to back it up has led to this entry. One about my students. 

Anyone who spoke to me at any point last year is pretty aware of my aversion to teaching. After being a teaching assistant at HWS for the French department, I was pretty aware that teaching is not my calling. However, if you're a broke twenty-something and you want to travel for free, teaching English is the way to go. Still didn't interest me. When I saw the Fulbright ETA program, why on Earth would I have applied then? Teaching university aged students seemed interesting to me. They were adults who would need minor parenting, because they were enrolled in these English classes, they had an already-established desire to learn English. Well, much to my dismay, I was informed, upon arrival in Ankara that I would essentially be teaching kids in a post-grad year. "Damn it," was really all I could muster. 

After nearly eight weeks of teaching, much to my surprise, I actually enjoy my job. Yes, there are days where I want to physically assault a student or two, but really what workplace doesn't have that kind of tension? There are days where I wish either my Turkish or their English were better so I could explain, properly, how they have made my day or even my week with the little things they say or do. There are other days where they pull me out of a pit of dispair without even realizing they are doing anything comical. 

For example: The American government gave us these massive pictures for us to use in the classroom. They are supposed to show "average American life" but I mean, what the hell does that even mean, right? To them it means showing our diversity, be it ethnic, cultural, social, or educational. I decided to use these massive pictures (they're probably 18"x 24") and have them describe what is happening in the images. They could come up with their own ideas about what the people are doing or thinking. The whole goal was to get them to have a combined use of the present continuous (I am doing) and the present simple (I do). Unfortunately, Turkish-English dictionaries can have poor translations and they certainly don't take the time to explain nuance. So, I kind of laughed it off when, to describe an image of two boys in wheelchairs playing tennis, my students started the sentence with "The two defective boys are playing..." For some reason, handicapped and disabled are not in their dictionaries. So after five classes of this, it got to be pretty funny. I had to explain that no, people are not defective but rather that word is used for tables, chairs, windows etc. The students were embarrassed, but things like this happen all the time. 

For example, the word for a black person in the Turkish-English dictionary is negro. Which, yes, I had to take the time to explain was not a word that people use. In fact, it is a word that is very hurtful to many people. It also doesn't help that Eti, a Turkish version of Nabisco, has a chocolate cookie called a Negro.

Yep, that's right. A negro

But really, trying to explain such a complex socio-cultural history as racist language, to a bunch of students that think "I am go to the my home" is a correct sentence, is a very difficult matter. It also forced me into some pretty uncomfortable situations. One student, a real rap connoisseur, asked about the word... yes... nigger.  I cringe to even write it here. Saying it in a loud enough voice that my students can hear me, I find myself saying, almost yelling, one of the most foul, hurtful words in the English language. I find myself diving into the deep abyss of racial history, I find myself explaining slavery and Jim Crowe to a bunch of Turkish bio-chemical and agricultural students who really, for the most part, couldn't care less.

Then there are the times when students say truly silly things, for example, they are a street walker. When I explained that this means prostitute, they certainly listened up. They often confuse prepositions. One student told me that his window is in his bed. And, while certainly not a roaring hilarity, it makes me chuckle to see how difficult our language really is. Turkish does not have prepositions but rather cases that indicate in, at, on, under, over, to, from etc. which is really a whole kind of nightmare for me, but they are literally having to include words that simply don't exist in their own language. 

Then there are the little things, like the name Ufuk, a common name here that (it means horizon), you know, the 12-year-old me finds pretty hilarious. There are also little things like these that I see around the city on a daily basis that, while they can't even come close to China's legendary poor translations, are still pretty funny. 

But wait, what's that in the lower right hand corner?

Sexed-semen? Is there any other kind?

Again, heh, my inner twelve-year-old. Snot, heh.

The little white family, with white teeth, on the toothpaste tube, wait, white power? 
The NAACP would do well to come to Turkey and do some sensitivity training...

Now again, not to make light of these racial issues but in Turkey, they simply aren't an issue for Turks. Of course that's not to say they don't have their own problems, but their problems aren't defined by race. They simply have no platform from which to begin to understand my aversion to these racially charged words and phrases. Plus, it doesn't help that you simply cannot discuss their historical "problems" and yes "problems" is in quotations because I can be thrown in jail for mentioning them. Best not to, not here any how. 

There's also a town called Batman.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Halloween- American style!

I have never been a major Halloween person, but I would be lying if I said I don’t enjoy a good costume party. So when the opportunity to attend one such party offered itself up, of course I jumped on it.

I spent all last week teaching my lovely students about Halloween and we used spooky-themed vocabulary. We discussed the history of Halloween (when the Celts—pre-St. Patrick—thought the barrier between this world and the afterlife became so thin that spirits could cross through and menace the living) and the modern, more cultural (let’s get dressed up and drink ‘til morning) version of the holiday. They learned such great terms as “to scare” “to dress up as” “goblin” and “zombie”. They also practiced the formation of sentences such as, “Jacob is a werewolf. Werewolves bite people during the full moon.” As well as, “ Edward Cullen is a vampire. Usually vampires turn into bats and they can fly. Edward does not turn into a bat.” 

This whole lesson was introduced with the question, “Does anyone know what holiday is this weekend?” This produced some confusion initially since this past Friday was the Turkish Republic Day (87 years and counting...) I had totally forgotten about the holiday, but of course my lovely students were quick to remind me. Why does this matter? Because there are NO CLASSES! So, to celebrate, Sherri and I hopped a bus to Istanbul.

While walking together through Sultanahmet, quite possibly the most packed section of the city, we ran into Eli, another Fulbrighter. He was on his way to see Sarah, Michael, Hayfa and Hayfa’s friend (who was visiting from her ETA post in Romania) who were all having lunch at a kebab place just across the street. We all hung out and caught up. Hearing about other people's situations is always a great way to remind yourself that you're not alone. Michael's student told him some cryptic message about being in a cave with a burning bush and that he was afraid for his safety (...yeah, strange right?) Others have been evicted by their university and barred from teaching. It makes everything I am doing sound particularly rosy...

After this, Sherri and I went to meet a former Fulbrighter named Rebecca who lives in Taksim. She and some of her awesome expat friends were heading over to the American consulate where the marines were hosting a Halloween party in their residence. Two of them had been travelling in the Balkans working on a story and had only just returned to Istanbul the day before. They had no costumes. Another, a Kurdish-Danish journalist didn't seem aware that you dress up for Halloween parties. But, her American friend Ascher decided (last minute it seems) to dress as "Hipster Ahmadinejad" the costume consisted of hipster clothing and a tattoo of Arabic script saying something like God is Great.  We took a while to get over to the consulate (which is in the boonies) so when we arrived around 10:30, the party was in full force.

Ahmandineja-diggy in the flesh.

Walking into a full-blown, frat house style party is never a good idea unless you are several drinks deep, which none of us were. I felt (for all of you HWS folk) like I walked into a Chi Phi party the second week of school, except rather than having a bunch of drunken underclassmen, it was a bunch of drunken 40-somethings.  There was a bad strobe light in the corner, which destabilized rather than added atmosphere, a covered pool table that became a dance-stage much to the chagrin of one particular marine and several very inappropriately dressed men and women. Ahhh, America.

Semper fi (... that's the marines right?)

I was worried that the whole scene might be a bit too much of a culture shock, but then a miracle happened. I went to the bar and ordered a beer. Then the bartender asked, “What kind?” Now, for those of you who have never been to Turkey this may sound normal, but in Turkey there is one kind of beer, Efes Pilsen, which tastes like watered-down Miller Lite. Sometimes you can find Tubourg too, but it’s rare. So when she told me that they had SAM ADAMS, the night made a brilliant turn for the better.

Once we acclimated ourselves, met some people, and saw the gorgeous view from their massive terrace, any feelings of apprehension I had felt upon arriving had melted away. I gave in to the Lady Gaga remix, did my best to ignore the strobe light and danced the night away.

Rebecca as Minnie Mouse, me as Rosie the Riveter and Sherri as a pirate.