Saturday, May 20, 2017

A Guest Appearance

I am a guest in this country, a long-term guest, but a guest all the same. I have a residency card and an apartment, but during orientation two years ago, one facilitator informed us that “We are guests in this country,” a message that I interpreted as we are welcome here but we are not welcome to complain or be obnoxious. This implication was lost on some. (Just imagine a loud American wandering the streets of Istanbul, calling out, “Where’s the Trader Joes?!”) But to be fair, I’m not always adept at reading between the lines. I’m still trying to understand the security advice: “Remain vigilant.” Does that mean stay home and eat popcorn and stream movies on my laptop? If that’s so, then the fort is secure. Roger that. Over and out.

Recently, I watched the first six episodes of The Handmaid’s Tale, a terrifying cautionary tale which explores the depths of desperation for male supremacy and religious brainwashing. Women are used for breeding only and given patronymics, like “Offred,” which means property of Fred. This show has messed me up. When I talk with friends about the similarities between the show and Trump’s America, it feels like we’re Girl Scouts gathered around a campfire telling ghost stories. I’m the one trembling and jumping with fright at every sound coming from the woods: a crackling of dry leaves, a coyote howling in the distance. But The Handmaid’s Tale isn’t just women sharing scary stories. Everything in the show (women being forbidden to drive, be educated, express themselves freely, have money, own property, have ownership of their bodies and reproductive rights) has all happened or is currently happening to women in the world today.

In The Handmaid's Tale, foreign guests visit the land of Gilead, formerly the United States. The leaders and their wives instruct the handmaids to be on their best behavior. Offred, the handmaid at the center of the show, is asked by a guest if she is happy and Offred lies. How could she be happy? A handmaid is never at home. She’s not even a guest. She’s a slave and her own body is meant to be used as a guest rental for a baby that will be yanked away as soon as it’s born.

The word “guest” implies that you are not staying long enough to capture the essence of a place, that you’re not getting the full picture. Your hosts will tidy up the place, be on their best behavior, shield your eyes from any unsightliness (in the case of the show, scrub the blood off the execution wall). They will try to make your stay as pleasant as possible.

The American South, famous for Southern hospitality, is learning how to be a little bit more hospitable to people who may be offended by statues of Confederates who fought to uphold slavery. Those racist monuments are coming down, and perhaps they will be replaced with uplifting statues and monuments, depicting people who have done something honorable. I’m glad. Then maybe guests such as myself can visit the South and truly appreciate Southern hospitality, without feeling uncomfortable.

Turkey is another country famous for its hospitality. But judging by the recent violence in Washington DC, when Erdoğan’s bodyguards attacked peaceful protesters, some Turks need to work on what it means to be a guest.

I’m okay with someone telling me I’m a guest in this country. When I go to America this summer, I will be a guest too. I think I’m a considerate guest. I don’t kick my hosts in the face. I suppose we are all guests on this planet: here today, gone tomorrow. Let’s try to be polite guests, no matter what country we’re in, or however much at home we feel. 

Friday, May 5, 2017

Happy Hıdırellez!

Happy Hıdırellez, everybody! I would tell you more about Hıdırellez, but Wikipedia has been banned in Turkey. That didn’t stop me from celebrating it, whatever it is. Tonight, I dined at a Syrian restaurant with a friend and her book club members. I drank potent mint lemonade and sampled several delicious dishes. I met people from America, Scotland, New Guinea, Syria, and Turkey.

When I asked a Syrian man if he liked living in Turkey, he answered, “You can’t drink the whole ocean in a cup.” If I were as dumb as our fake president, I would not have understood this metaphor, as with the metaphor, “The oval office has no corners you can hide in.” Luckily, I’m not so stupid and I understood what he meant.

After dinner, Maureen and I ignored the State Department’s security warnings to avoid crowds and went to a jam-packed party in celebration of Hıdırellez. These days, I don’t usually venture out to the neighborhood Sultan Ahmet, the home of the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, but it felt comforting to be back in such a beautiful place on a beautiful night like tonight. The population of Istanbul must have been concentrated in that very densely populated party, because the streets of Sultan Ahmet were oddly vacant. Actually, I don’t know where everybody was. Maybe they were asleep already.

They certainly weren’t out lamp shopping. That job was left up to me. Maureen and I went into a lovely shop and I bought a white mosaic lamp that shines beautifully when lit up. That was my Hıdırellez present to myself. I wish everyone a spectacular Hıdırellez. Good night.



Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Holding on to Core Values

Years ago, my friend Muhammad told me that his life in America closely resembled his life in Saudi Arabia. He was a strict rule-follower, like someone who waits for the walk signal even when there are no cars for miles. I admired his discipline, but I didn’t know if his loyalty to his Saudi lifestyle came from a strong sense of self or from being so entrenched in traditions his whole life that he simply did not know how to deviate from his conservative status quo. 

He was only twenty when we used to meet at cafes to help each other with our native languages, and although it’s possible for young people to have a strong sense of self, I wondered if “a sense of self” was something to which he aspired. Maybe that was an American notion, as elusive as the book Of Mice and Men, which Muhammad was forced to read for his English class. (Note to EFL teachers: Just because a book is slim does not mean it’s an easy read.) 

I didn’t realize it at the time, but while I was serving as human Cliffs Notes, historical context provider, and old-timey slang interpreter, I was receiving quite an education myself. That’s because no matter how overwhelming that little book seemed, Muhammad never grew frustrated. Years later, I keep his calm steady determination in mind. When I see Americans cutting corners and doing things they might not do in America, I think of Muhammad’s cookie-cutter core principles that would stay the same, no matter if he were in Vegas or Mecca. 

With all my travels and people I meet, I hope to pick up traits and knowledge I didn’t have before. In Turkey, I’m learning to be more generous. Every day, I’m learning to be more patient. However, patience for my fellow Americans needs replenishing somehow. When I see Americans using their privilege to mistreat people or do mediocre work, I feel more disillusioned with my country. My first thought is that this unethical behavior is un-American, but when you think about it, America is run by people who have used their privilege in unethical ways. In spite of some politicians tarnishing the image of what it means to be an American, I’ll try to hold fast to my ideals, no matter how easy it is to break the rules.

To go along with that theme, here's some classic Whitney Houston. Enjoy!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Spring Has Arrived

Behind my apartment there is a wisteria tree that forms a canopy over a picnic table and chairs. This setting is idyllic for reading The Fellowship of the Ring. I am not yet finished with book one in the trilogy and already I’m becoming a Lord of the Rings fanatic, excited about visiting Oxford this summer to channel Tolkien at the pubs he used to frequent as part of his writing group, The Inklings. But when I’m not losing myself in the realm of hobbits and elves and daydreaming about where I will be traveling in the coming months, I am trying to enjoy all that Istanbul has to offer. The sweet fragrance of peonies and lilacs in bloom, as well as the excitement I feel about reading, has given me a burst of energy to explore this city. Like Tolkien’s Middle-earth, Istanbul is a land of polarities: East and West, old and new, Europe and Asia, conservative and modern.

Despite the solace of my wisteria tree, I need to flee my conservative neighborhood every once in a while for the restoration of my sanity. Last night, I took a dolmush (a shared taxi) to Kadikoy. This was after I couldn’t find coffee filters anywhere in Uskudar. I thought that in addition to the inhospitable “Damn you, crusader!” glares I’m occasionally subjected to, now I was feeling the shock of a terrible assault on American coffee. Okay, that is a ridiculous thought to run through my mind, but that is what coffee depravation does to me.

Living in Uskudar, I find myself running away more than I did as a teenager. I’m a little more practical when I run away now. Instead of packing ten books in a backpack, thinking I’m going to be gone for several months, I pack one book in my purse, and I think you can guess what book that is.

Today, two friends and I visited the Istanbul Modern to watch a Polish film. I have never liked the Istanbul Modern, and in fact it ranks dead last on my list of museums, but I do like Poland and I also like foreign films. Now I like the Istanbul Modern even less after a woman ordered us not to look at any art as we made our way through the museum to the theater. We joked, “Don’t look at the art! Stare at the floor!” I know admission to the museum wasn’t included in our ticket purchase, but I wish people would lighten up and lose the authoritarian persona. The movie, a disco musical about two man-eating, vampire mermaids who fall in love with a guy who has exceptionally bad hair, was one of the worst films I have ever seen. We snickered at the stupid dialogue as well as any effort to be tender, or shocking, or suspenseful-- basically anything other than utterly ridiculous, which was the only achievement of The Lure, if you can even count that as an achievement. At one point, I looked at the confused and stern expression of my German friend sitting next to me and burst out laughing. After the film, we made our way to the museum restaurant, still not looking at any art, trying to process what we had just seen. My German friend said in her thick accent, “Now we know what Polish people are capable of.” This was such a terrible line, yet it elicited more laughter from me.

After lunch, we walked around Karakoy, a cool artsy neighborhood in Istanbul. We went to a Russian Orthodox Church, an underground mosque, and then took the ferry back to our own neighborhood, which provides a stark contrast to the creative excitement of Karakoy. Despite the terrible film, I’m still glad I went out today. If I hadn’t I wouldn’t have interacted with a sweet boy. He was by himself, selling packets of tissues. I had sat down on a stoop to photograph a golden retriever when this adorable boy appeared. I photographed him with the dog and when he approached me, he smiled and said, “Hello! How are you?” Most children who are wandering the streets alone, begging, and selling packets of tissues, will tug on my clothes, cry, and yell “Abla!” (Big sister.) I smiled back and told him how cute he was, which he didn’t seem to understand. I felt the urge to hug him, but I buried this urge. I gave him some money and he wandered off. I’m still thinking about him, wishing I could adopt him and give him a brighter future than selling tissue packets on the streets of Istanbul. I’m worried about a lot people these days, but unfortunately, I cannot magically help them. When I am helpless to do anything beyond giving a little bit of money, I suppose the only thing left to do is hope for a brighter future

Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Surreal Celebration

The streets of Uskudar are quiet now, but up until a few hours ago they were hopping with religious, nationalistic fervor after President Erdoğan’s apparent win of the vote that will essentially make him a modern-day sultan. My friend Maureen and I had spent the afternoon at the Hilton, smoking melon nargile and drinking mocktails. (Alcohol consumption is forbidden on Election Day, for fear people will fight.)

Relaxing on a terrace overlooking the Bosphorus was actually the perfect way to spend the day and I’m glad I felt inclined to be more adventurous than usual today. The alternative--staying in my apartment, checking the news obsessively and tearing at my fingernails--seems a bit insane asylum-ish. Besides, the day was too beautiful and I needed to get out. We reclined on our couches and puffed out smoke like the caterpillar in Alice in Wonderland, making lethargic observations about how relaxed Turkish culture is and how we much prefer relaxing by the Bosphorus to getting mixed up in America’s competitive culture.

I had spent last night eating a lovely Easter dinner with friends who talked of staying holed up in their apartments this weekend to avoid protests and crowds. I told myself I would play it by ear. I felt warm and satisfied after such a perfect home-cooked meal and I slept in till late. Then my thoughtful German neighbor visited me in the morning and gave me an Easter goody bag filled with chocolate bunnies and painted eggs. She came over with her son, who’s visiting from Germany, and he felt vindicated when I shared some of the safety precautions that were running through my mind. His mother is more carefree and wanted to go to church, until her son convinced her not to. Although I visited an Armenian church a couple weeks ago and would like to go back, I thought today would not be the best day to do it. He agreed with me, saying, “If I were a terrorist and I wanted to really annoy people, I would choose Easter.” I find imprecise word choices, such as “annoying” to describe terrorists’ intentions, to be one of the most charming and delightful amusements of engaging in conversation with non-native English speakers.

As it turned out, the more liberal European side was the calmest place to be on Election Day. We walked from the Hilton to the swanky neighborhood of Nişantaşı and immersed ourselves in the cultured, aesthetic appeal of this groove that’s so different from the heavily conservative one we inhabit in Uskudar, on the Asian side. The whole neighborhood seemed sedated. We took a ferry back to Uskudar, where suddenly the mood went from dreary to jubilant. Watching the celebration of Erdoğan supporters gain excitement and momentum with fireworks and revelers chanting “Allahu akbar!” was surreal. I took photos and videos, went to Maureen’s for margaritas, then came back home.

Last night the eve of the election felt like a fun, yet somewhat somber occasion. One of my friends brought up that this was the last night before something transformative happened. I slipped into an English accent, declaring, “Wendy, this is your last night in the nursery!” (You can always count on me to quote a children’s movie.) Replaying the Disney version of Peter Pan in my head, I realized that it was Wendy’s forced transition to adulthood that prompted Peter Pan to teach Wendy and her brothers to fly and take them to Neverland, where they would never have to grow up. I would like Peter Pan to save me and take me to Neverland, but if my luck is anything like Wendy’s, I’ll probably get saddled with being a mother to twenty lost boys, which if you ask me, is kind of a raw deal. Isn’t it strange how men get to stay little boys forever, but girls like Wendy have to grow up and care for them? Sounds a little bit like real life.

This has been a very unusual weekend, as Maureen put it, “a softened Iranian Islamic revolution.” I’m not sure what will happen now, but I hope people in this divided nation can find a way to get along.