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The Hand of God Throws Another Curve Ball

Istanbul - April 1 to April 7, 2008

semi-overcast 58 °F
View The Scholar Ship on mpho3's travel map.

From Barcelona, we pushed through the Ionian and Mediterranean seas to Istanbul. The days at sea were jam packed with activities and with the addition of 25 or so study abroad professionals from various institutions around the world; several staff members from the TSS home office in Baltimore, and the TSS President. Meanwhile A.G. had left to attend her father’s funeral. I was immersed in getting things done and not getting swept up in the politicking that seemed to be materializing amongst those who want a piece of the action on the next voyage.

In the LRC we found ourselves having to crack the proverbial whip in order to focus our student assistants on the fact that after Istanbul, there are only 10 days left on the ship and in that time we will need to have fully inventoried and packed up the library materials so that the space can be reconverted back into the gift shop. When the voyage ends on April 19, the ship will be immediately turned back to its original state in order to carry its full capacity for a summer’s worth of traditional cruise touring.

My mind was mainly preoccupied with the day-to-day stuff and the routine I’ve created for myself on the ship. Thus, I was fully caught off-guard by a message I received the day before we arrived in Istanbul. My brother had sent me a message with the subject line “Important News from Africa.” To be honest, I thought he was forwarding a news article so I skipped to other messages before opening his, and my heart sunk when I read that my dad had had “some kind of accident.” During the next several days, we pieced together bits and pieces of information gathered from long distance phone calls over barely audible phone lines to aunts and uncles. We found out that our father had suffered a stroke and was in critical condition.

As of this writing he has been released from intensive care, but I still have no details about his treatment or prognosis, and I’m not sure how to proceed. I have spoken to him directly three times since this awful event has struck our family, and he is adamant that my brother and I continue living our lives where we are. Of course, that’s difficult to do.

Istanbul has been forever tainted for me by this seeming cruelty. When I say that, it’s not to meant to scapegoat god, my father, or the universe. Though Istanbul was the place that I was most excited about encountering and even though most of the people on the ship would number it among their favorite destinations, I now believe that I wouldn’t have taken to the city under any circumstances, even without this monumental occurrence. I’m not sure what I expected or wanted to see, but I do know what I wanted to feel.

In his Istanbul: Memories of the City, native Turk Orhan Pamuk writes about a form of melancholy known as hϋzϋn. In discussing it he starts with two descriptions offered by others:

“[Robert] Burton, who was proud to be afflicted, believed that melancholy paved the way to a happy solitude; because it strengthened his imaginative powers, it was, from time to time, to be joyfully affirmed. It did not matter if melancholy was the result of solitude or its cause; in both instances, Burton saw solitude as the heart, the very essence, of melancholy. By contrast, while El Kindi saw hϋzϋn both as a mystical state (engendered by the frustration of our common aim to be at one with Allah) and as an illness, solitude was not a desirable or even admissible condition. The central preoccupation, as with all classic Islamic thinkers, was the cemaat, or community of believers. He judged hϋzϋn by the values of the cemaat and suggested remedies that return us to [community]; essentially he saw hϋzϋn as an experience at odds with the communal purpose.

Pamuk then goes on to formulate his own definition and the purpose thereof, stating: “… We begin to understand hϋzϋn not as the melancholy of a solitary person but the black mood shared by millions of people together. What I am trying to explain is the hϋzϋn of an entire city: Istanbul. ...the hϋzϋn in which we [Istanbulis] see ourselves reflected, the hϋzϋn we absorb with pride and share as a community.”

He proceeds in describing the city which he was lived in all his life, showing rather than telling the reader that the hϋzϋn of Istanbul, formerly Constantinople, lies in its heritage as the former seat of the Ottoman Empire:

“In Istanbul the remains of a glorious past civilization are everywhere visible. No matter how ill-kept, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in every side street and corner … inflict heartache on all who live among them. …The people of Istanbul simply carry on with their lives amid the ruins. Many western writers and travelers find this charming. But for the city’s more sensitive and attuned residents, these ruins are reminders that the present city is so poor and confused that it can never again dream of rising to its former heights of wealth, power and culture. It is no more possible to take pride in these neglected dwellings, which dirt, dust and mud have blended into their surroundings, than it is to rejoice in the beautiful old wooden houses that as a child I watched burn down one by one.”

In my first and many readings of these passages, I was reminded of my woebegone yet beloved Detroit, a living archeological specimen. Once the seat of the auto empire, scars from the fiery 1967 riot and the resulting “white flight” are still painfully present in the Motor City of 2008. When I read Pamuk’s chapter on hϋzϋn, I felt a kindred spirit. Perhaps mistakenly, I approached Istanbul as if I would already know it. And of course the differences between his city and "the fabulous ruins" of mine proved too great to ignore. It’s not that I sought to find a bit of Detroit in Istanbul, but I wanted to meet others with the same fluency in the “black mood” – a shared cultural literacy unique to very few places in the world as I’ve seen it. Of course what I found is that Istanbul is its own animal.

Just as I have been disoriented by this twist of fate with my father, I also found myself lost among the mosques and hills of Istanbul. Everything looked the same to me on both the Asian side and European side. I never knew where I was or where I belonged except for the day we were given a river cruise of the Bosphorus and Golden Horn. At least then I knew I was in the middle of two continents, but I would have been hard pressed to identify which was which. As we sailed underneath one of the two bridges, we spotted a jumper, and I was forced to conjure scenes from a documentary called The Bridge, about the many suicides committed at the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, my other “home city,” each year. We stared up from down-below, some people willing the man to get back in his car. I had to look away; I didn’t want that lasting image seared on my brain; that’s not hϋzϋn.

The things that usually serve to rouse me from this near-tangible mood pollution did nothing to provide me with a respite from thoughts of my father, my family, my self, life itself. Food sometimes serves to ground me, and though the Turkish cuisine is not without its charms, I am not in love with it. I had the best dolmas I’ve ever had and some wonderful lamb and eggplant dishes, but never did I feel an urgency to eat my way through the city as I had in Thailand. Food is sometimes a comfort in times of distress, but aside from the sumac juice I guzzled one day, I wasn’t able to tap into my usual culinary excitement.

Nor did the sun warm me as it has the tropical destinations from earlier in the voyage. Like the spring that I know from Michigan, the days were hit or miss with the first and last days of our visit being very cold and grey and accompanied by drizzles. But the in-between days often became only teasingly warm and slightly overcast. Just when I needed it most, I couldn’t take refuge in the weather.

My visit was also marred by the overbearing sense of patriarchy in Turkey. Even amongst the modern Istanbulis, feminism is largely nonexistent. The men are quite domineering and accustomed to flaunting their status. In my experience, it was not uncommon to be asked for a kiss (or more), to be called “baby,” or to be suffocated with unwanted attention, yet it was equally common to be derided in one way or another – whether through exclusion or dismissal. Sometimes I felt like men didn’t see me; other times I wished that they didn’t.

S. and I went to a hamam, or Turkish bath one afternoon. Massage and sauna always gives me hope, and I thought the experience might rouse me from a sort of electrified numbness. Nowadays, Turkish baths are mainly a tourist activity so we chose a hamam that caters blatantly to out-of-towners. Typically, men and women are separated, sometimes even using different entrances. The men’s facilities are usually more ornate and well-kept, while the women’s sides are utilitarian only. I chose Cemberlitas because the experience is said to be more egalitarian – not much difference between the men’s and women’s sides. As it turned out, it was the one place that I didn’t feel the overt downside of being a woman in Turkey.

The process of a Turkish bath is pretty simple. First you are “cooked” or “baked” by reclining on a “hot” marble slab. This produces sweat and opens your pores. Then you are doused with a soapy, bubble bath and scrubbed and exfoliated from head to foot with various types of loofas and sponges. I had to laugh when the woman bathing me exclaimed: “DIRTY!!” and made me feel the stuff that was coming off of me. I wasn’t surprised because the water pressure in my cabin isn’t very good, the water itself is often yellow or brown, and many times that bathtub drain is so clogged that I’m up to my ankles in dirty water as I shower with water that refuses to get hot. Of course, I couldn’t tell her all that, so I let her believe I’m just a filthy pig, though surely she’s encountered worse. They even wash your hair, though mine was braided so I skipped that part. Then you are rinsed. Some elect to have an oil massage, which I did. It was very nice – about half an hour. My friend also had a facial clay mask, which I skipped. The whole event took about 2 hours.

There were some other highlights in a trip that wasn’t entirely grim. Before we arrived, I happened to chance upon the discovery that the International Istanbul Film Festival was taking place while we were in town. One of the features was a restored, uncut version of Visconti’s The Leopard (1963) – starting Burt Lancaster and Alain Delon and another of the film’s stars, the wonderful Italian femme fatale Claudia Cardinale, would be appearing just before the screening. I have always wanted to see The Leopard, which many contemporary directors cite as being an influence on them, and my friend Mary Letterii is a huge fan of Cardinale as well has having turned me onto another of Visconti’s great film’s Rocco and His Brothers (1959). I was thrilled to be able to acquire tickets and I took F., our resident ESL expert and proud Roman Italian paisan, as my “date.” We had a nice time both during and afterward when we maneuvered our way away from Taksim Square to find an alley named Bastille, filled with cafes and restaurants. It reminded me of the Bastille Alley in SF.

Taksim, by the way, is one of several centres of the city. I laughed the first time I went there because I had been warned by a Turkish man that it is “perhaps the busiest, most crowded street you’ll ever see in your life.” I didn’t have the heart to tell the guy that I’ve just come from China and India. While it’s true that Taksim is an astoundingly crowded thoroughfare lined with global and local brand name stores, filled with lights and groups of friends (usually male), couples out on dates, and tourists, his warning still made me smile. Taksim is a bit like London’s Piccadilly Circus, where, if my memory serves correctly, the crowd sweeps you along and to try going otherwise is akin to a salmon trying to force its way upstream.

To add to this feeing of being swept along by forces – the forces that have temporarily felled The Bishop aka The Ox aka The Bull aka my dad – and the invisible forces that have taken me so far from what I might have wished for myself in the past year and half – being in Istanbul made me feel like I’d escaped from the zoo. People stared and they ogled me quite open and blatantly. Many of the Istanbuli migrants from rural Turkey simply haven’t been exposed to very much outside of their culture, though perhaps they are hungry for it. When I was with J., who is Chinese, we joked that maybe they were looking at us and seeing chocolate and a banana, like in cartoons where one character looks upon another and sees only a tasty morsel. Though I understand where it’s coming from, I didn’t like it – especially when I was already feeling a bit raw.

Thus I can easily say that Istanbul was not for me. The sites such as the Grand Bazar, Hagia Sophia, the Basillica Cistern, etc. were all “typically awe-inspiring.” To use that phrase is to indicate that perhaps I am now dulled by all I’ve seen in the past few months and the wow factor is diminishing. Or maybe it’s because I was working during the first part of Istanbul, fulfilling my contractual obligation to serve as a Participant Leader for the students signed up for the Academic Field Program in the department with which I am affiliated – Global Cultures and Social Change. The first day, we attended some very thought-provoking lectures at Bilgi University on topics like “Turkish secularism and its petition to join the EU” and “Global Lifestyles and Consumerism.” Then we went to the Blue Mosque. The second day our group heard lectures at the Sabanci Foundation, the Sabancis being an overly wealthy, philanthropic family akin to the Rockefellers. We learned a lot about their efforts to boost the country’s failing higher education initiatives with scholarships and a private university, and similar projects in health care. After their presentations, we visited their private family museum of Turkish and Ottoman empire artifacts. On day three we visited the Kadikoy Market on the Asian side of the city; ate at Chiya, which is supposedly one of the Top 50 restaurants in Europe (it was good but not all that); followed by a cruise up and down the Bosphorus attended by all students of all the Learning Circles. Surrounded by dolphins and jelly fish, it was kind of like a dry rehearsal of the goodbyes that will be coming soon enough; the students were sentimental, endlessly snapping photos of themselves and each other and cuddling in the cold wind.

Working the AFPs is always more grueling than one expects because the days are long and the students, though mostly well-behaved, constantly have to be reigned in or corralled and accounted for. In the midst of all this I was making phone calls to South Africa and the U.S., monitoring the situation with my dad as best as I could. The whole of it wasn’t easy, but I gave myself plenty of slack. I was far from a party mood or even a people mood, so aside from the hamam and film, I never pushed myself to go and do or see anything. Aside from getting coerced into making an appearance at a staff member birthday party at a bar in the Taksim area, I spent a lot of time alone in my cabin on the quiet ship, taking advantage of the fact that the students were out and about. But I didn’t isolate myself either. I just tried, as I have been doing for so long now, to roll with the punches.

And now we’re back at it. In six days we’ll reach Lisboã. Four days after that, the grand adventure comes to a grinding halt. I am ready for it. Not sure if I’m ready for what comes next, but I am ready to express myself on land again. I have some ideas but no confirmed plan as to what part of the world that will be. Armed with prayers, I have been gathering no moss. And that’s okay. I’m really okay.

Posted by mpho3 17:26 Archived in Turkey

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