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. 

Monday, April 10, 2017

The Humor War is No Laughing Matter

I smile pretty naturally, usually when making eye contact with people, or performing some minor transaction or while engaging in small talk. What I don’t like is men telling me to smile when I’m not in the mood. Unless a man is a professional photographer directing a paid model, he can’t tell any woman to smile. He has to earn that smile. Crack a joke. Do a funny impersonation, say something stupid to break the ice. I was once at a party, eating from the same gigantic popcorn bowl as a man who asked me, “Was it fate or popcorn that brought us together?” That deserved a laugh.

Although I am a teacher who’s obliged to keep my students’ attention by being engaging and sort of funny, even at my own expense, I’d say I go through life receiving more laughter and enjoyment from others than spreading it myself. Life is a cabaret and all the men and women merely court jesters. Isn’t that what Shakespeare said? Anyway . . .

Christopher Hitchens wrote an article for Vanity Fair titled, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” He defended his position in a video in which he said that women as a gender are not funny. Well, neither are men, in the same way that any group of people is not collectively anything. I love Christopher Hitchens, but demeaning women for allegedly not having a fully evolved funny bone seems unfair.

Women’s historical roots are not all that funny. For most of history we couldn’t vote, receive formal education, marry whom we pleased, divorce, have children if and when we saw fit, wear what we pleased, fend off sexual harassment and other types of violence and intimidation, and pursue a career that gave our lives meaning and satisfaction. To subject women to all this nonsense, to deprive them of basic rights and then say, “You’re not as funny as we are,” seems a bit naïve.

If a man says, “Was it fate or popcorn that brought us together?” or something equally charming and dopey, social tensions are eased and guards are lowered. This innocent humor and silliness lets women know that such a man is not a threat. That letting down of the guard is the “surrender” Christopher Hitchens was referring to.

Unfortunately, we live in a world where men need to pass the humor test to show they are nice guys. We make the world we live in, and right now, with sensitive egos at the top, women who make jokes, especially at the expense of men, are often treading on thin ice. People who attempt to be funny know that sometimes the jokes go terribly wrong and offend people. Well, what if offending people could get you shunned, shamed, yelled at, or beat up by someone bigger and more powerful than you? Men have been able to bounce back more easily after their jokes bombed than women have.

Not only are women not free to be as funny as we could be, but I’ve found even the type of laughter we exhibit and what we choose to find funny is up for disapproval. On a night out, I recently laughed at a man who was trying to dispense deep powerful wisdom. The problem is what he was saying was so hilariously idiotic, demented, ignorant, and delusional. If he could have controlled me like a puppet, I’m sure I would have nodded and smiled appreciatively at being in the presence of a great philosopher. Instead, I laughed with derision and left.

Comparing men’s and women’s ability to be funny, with equality being a mere concept and not a reality in most of the world, is like comparing plants that are not being cared for equally. One plant sits in the window, is watered daily, and turns a vibrant shade of green. The other wilts in a dark corner, is not watered, and is eventually kicked into a little patch of sunlight and told, “You’re not as stately as that other plant.”

Really? Is that fair?