Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Losing Layers

first published in Bayou Magazine. Issue 67. Spring 2017, 49-55. Print.



Losing Layers

by Caroline N. Simpson

With my arm resting between her leg and breast, she begins her questions: How do you know Turkish? Are you married? How old are you?
            Her breasts swing toward my face as she methodically scrubs my arm, hand to shoulder. But when I tell her I’m unmarried and thirty-six, she stops mid-scrub, making no effort to contain her shock: Oh my God! Thirty-six and not married? But why?? You have a beautiful face! You’re tall! You’re strong! Why?!
***
            I am their first customer on a Monday morning. A mild sunny December day in Istanbul, the woodstove in the center of the soyunmalık, or dressing room, remains unlit. Natırlar, female bathhouse attendants, sit half-dressed around the perimeter of the room, drinking tea and eating simit, a kind of Turkish bagel. Transfixed by the melodramatic voices coming from the soap opera on the TV, they don’t stir when I enter, until one nudges the natır next to her and whispers, a tourist.
            Do you speak Turkish? the woman asks me in Turkish as she points to a sign written in misspelled English: 42,50 = scrup + lit masaj 20 min
Yes, I’d like the scrub and massage, I answer in Turkish. She delights in hearing me speak her language, which I learned from having lived and taught in Turkey for four years.
            She ushers me to a private cubicle, hands me a towel, and reminds me not to take off my underwear. I remove my clothes here as many women have before me, the only thing evolved being the style of clothing hung on the hooks.
            Exactly 300 years ago, a Western woman also ventured into a Turkish hamam, but removed very different garments indeed. In 1716, when Lady Mary Wortley Montagu traveled to Turkey with her husband, a British ambassador, she wrote many letters to her friends in London describing her experiences. As a woman, she was afforded more opportunities within the various layers of female life, visiting spaces closed off even to Turkish men. Through her writing, she exposed misconceptions recorded by previous male travelers about the traditions and treatment of Ottoman women. Her 52 letters written during the two short years she lived in Istanbul have become famous as The Turkish Embassy Letters. In one such lettershe details her first visit to a Turkish bath.
            When she arrives in her Victorian riding habit, probably a peculiar sight to the women there, not one of them shows the least bit of surprise or “impertinent curiosity.” They receive her “with all the obliging civility possible.” Lady Montagu notes how no European Court would have behaved so politely to a stranger; she would have received “disdainful smiles and satirical whispers.” Instead, these natırlar repeat over and over to her, pek güzel, or so beautiful. Their complements charm her, and she wishes to spend more time in their company, but like many Westerners after her, she rushes off to tour a famous historic site, in this case, the ruins of Justinian’s Church. It is no more than a heap of stones, and she instantly regrets not having passed more time with the women at the hamam.
            The most famous anecdote in this particular letter involves a natır earnestly trying to persuade her to undress for a bath. When Lady Montagu finally opens her dress to show them her corset, the women immediately stop entreating her, for they believe she has been “locked up in that machine” by her husband and “that it [is] not in [her] own power to open it.”
            I admire Lady Montagu’s willingness to reveal a layer of herself to these women that she probably wouldn’t have revealed to most European females, and I admire her willingness to defend and celebrate the Turkish women’s way of life in these letters, even when the women brazenly judged European men for something widely accused of men in the East. The Victorian era British felt themselves superior in their treatment of women. Of course today, we look back on Victorian dress and etiquette as horribly repressive, but at the time these Turkish women made this comment, it amused Lady Montagu. I’d also like to think it ruffled her, that this moment planted a seed for her later work addressing the social attitudes towards women in England.
***
            I wrap a thin cotton towel around me. The natır leads me to the ılıklık, a warm steamy room with marble floors and sinks around its edges. She leaves me to remove my towel, the last of the manmade layers to be shed, and sit beside a sink. I let the warm water run as I use a plastic basin to pour it over my body, over and over until my fingers become raisins, the rest of my body not too far behind- the desired effect.
            During Roman and Ottoman times, this room would have been full of women and the sounds of their gossip. Hamams were a place where mothers found matches for their sons by scouring the naked bodies of the young women around them. They were looking for beauty and childbearing hips. A kind of meat market run by women.
            After 15 minutes, the natır returns. She takes off her shirt so she is wearing only a pair of white cotton underwear. Her skin is taut and wrinkle-free over her swollen belly. I can’t tell if she is pregnant or has eaten one too many a simit. Now that we are both bare-chested, she is ready to bathe me.
            In a hamam, all body types are exposed to one another unflinchingly. Maybe Americans flaunt it out on the streets more than Turks, but we certainly are very modest indoors with one another, barring the bedrooms of lovers. An American massage therapist does everything she can to avoid exposing body parts unnecessarily, a sheet tucked over a buttock or breast while she massages the nearby area. Many self-care establishments in the U.S. embrace hidden-ness, with the notion that you might feel ashamed were a stranger to see you naked. We dance delicately around each other’s vulnerability as if it resided in our physicality.
            I blush to think not only of myself exposed on an American massage table, but also of my masseuse bare-chested as she goes about her work. It seems like an opportunity for a hundred sexual jokes, as the only time we let ourselves be naked with others in the U.S. is during sex. Yet there is nothing sexual about my interaction with this natır.
***
            She leads me into the domed sıcaklık, or hot room, which has a large marble slab in its center- the göbek taşı, or belly stone. This is where customers lie down, while a natır scrubs and massages away. Star-shaped skylights above called elephant eyes redirect the sunlight onto the scene below.
I lie down on the göbek taşı as she uses a kese, an exfoliating hand mitt used on hundreds of women before me, to remove layers of dead skin from every part of my body. The marble is warm and slippery. My breastbone and hips dig into the hard slab as she applies pressure, running the kese over my back, butt, legs, arms. When she motions for me to roll on my back with arms overhead, breasts pointing to the skylights, my shoulder blades dig into the marble as she scrubs my chest and armpits. Dead skin comes off in rolls, her back-and-forth motion creating black play-dough snakes.
            My American massage therapist once said to me that if I was uncomfortable lying on my back with my heart facing up, an emotionally vulnerable position, to please let her know and she could work on me in another position.
            My natır makes no effort to ensure I am comfortable. She motions for me to sit on the edge of the göbek taşı. She places my arm between her leg and breast as she scrubs it the long way, hand to arm. I’ve been to hamams several times, and depending on the sagginess and size of the natır’s breast, I might be slapped in the face by its swing during this portion of the scrub. She asks my name and I hers. Sevil. A common female name in Turkey, it means “Loved.”  
            After learning I am 36 and unmarried, she asks if I’d consider marrying a Turk, and again I shrug and say maybe, which sends her laughing with an Oooyy! as if this is the cutest answer she’s ever heard. She asks if I still live in Turkey and where my parents live, and says I should come back so I can marry a Turk. I don’t tell her that on this vacation to visit old friends, the last thing on my mind is finding a husband. Instead, I continue to smile and shrug.
            Without fail, I am always asked in a hamam, Are you married? I find the interrogation endearing rather than insulting. I can’t say the same for the constant question I hear in the U.S. by coupled girl friends and acquaintances alike- Have you met anyone yet? –which also contains the assumption that, as a woman, my path remains stalled and unfulfilled. 
            When people ask why I’m single at this age, I’m often taken off-guard. My usual answer is a shrug and one word: life, or hayat in Turkish. I’ve been enjoying a rich life- chasing experiences, developing my career and passions, cherishing friendships, savoring occasional romances. 
The difference between the Turkish and American approach to this interrogation is that my response to such a question usually ends the conversation in the U.S., and I am left to imagine their inner thoughts questioning, judging, worrying, hoping for me. That all this takes place silently somehow makes me feel not enough, even if I didn’t feel that way before.
            But in the hamam, Sevil holds nothing back. She is shocked and wants to understand why and give me advice, yet I don’t feel ashamed. Her giving all of this a voice while we both stand nearly naked before one another, with her bathing and caring for me, her breasts swinging towards my face unapologetically, makes me feel enough. Here we are carrying on the same tradition as in Ottoman times, me with all my woman shapes exposed, and my natır telling me I am marry-able based on what she sees. I can’t step out of this historical trajectory even if I wanted to.
You’d think that young Ottoman women had to have the thickest of skins as they walked around the hamam, their bodies an open invitation for critique of their daughter-in-law worthiness, but somehow my skin is becoming softer and smoother, my pores opening wide as Sevil removes my dead layers.
            For the next part of the bath experience, she sweeps a towel through soap to create a mountain of bubbles on top of my back, then massages me, again pushing my hip and breastbones into the hard marble. Same order of positions: stomach, back, sitting. Next, I sit by the marble sink as Sevil washes my hair, sticking her pointer finger in my ears periodically to wash then rinse them as she pours basin after basin of water over my head. I hold my breath as the water continuously pours over my face. To both rid me of and prepare me for the filth of the outside world, my skin has to come in contact with so much water. Thank goodness my skin is impermeable, or I’d drown.
            Next, she motions for me to stand up and open my hand to her. She pours shampoo into it, then points to my underwear. This is a first. My vagina has never been motioned to in a hamam before. I stare at her to make sure I understand. She motions again. So I stick my hand down my underwear and wash my crotch with shampoo, while she holds the elastic band away from my body and pours basin after basin of water in to assist me.
            I can’t tell if Sevil wants me to clean my vagina of its Western filth (she hopes not), or from its 36 years of underuse (she hopes), or in preparation for my wedding day (which she hopes will be really soon). But I am sure that I have not washed my vagina before another woman since I was a little girl in the bathtub. This time, my mom is not towering over me; I am towering a good foot above my caretaker.
***
Completely rid of dead layers from every part of my body, I return to my private cubicle in the soyunmalık to dry off, pause over a cup of tea, and put on the layers I’ll need for the outside world.
A hamam is a place where you remove old skin to bear the new. You have to be scrubbed and prodded, naked and exposed for this to take place. And the natır has to clean every inch of your body, or you’d feel ashamed.
            In 1715, the natırlar instinctively wanted to rid Lady Montagu of all her layers, to strip her down to their nakedness, but they were stopped by a layer of clothing meant to stop European gentility from negatively judging her, a layer that had to be hidden in order to do its work, one that was flush with her flesh. The Turkish women were saddened when stopped by this “cage,” unable to remove this layer to effectively care for her. Lady Montagu never became fully naked before them. She was never massaged, scrubbed, cleaned of dead skin. She never made it past the soyunmalık.
In the West, we have a tradition of keeping ourselves safely covered while we compare our lives and our bodies silently, speaking ourselves softly, under our breaths.
            You’d think I had to adopt a certain impermeability as yet another Turkish natır asked me why I was in my 30s and unmarried. And you’d think Lady Montagu had to thicken her skin when looking upon the unconstrained waistlines and sagging breasts of the half-naked natırlar lounging in the soyunmalık day after day waiting for the next customer to enter. And you’d think a natır would have to develop the thickest of skins- all the water, unhealthy bodies, and sad stories they come in contact with day after day.

            I can’t speak for any of these women, but finally out loud I can speak for myself. As I leave the hamam and re-enter Istanbul on a sunny December day, my skin is thinner.

Who Left Us Like Orphans?

first published in the online literary-cultural magazine, Riot Material, on May 4, 2017  


US Vice President Joe Biden and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sat in white and gold upholstered chairs in the Presidential Palace in Ankara. It was August 24, 2016, over one month past the July 15th failed coup attempt in Turkey. 
Biden began by thanking Erdoğan for his friendship and for Erdoğan’s condolences when Biden lost his son. He leaned across the gap between chairs, placed his hand atop Erdoğan’s, and said it was hard to fathom that the coup attacked the hotel where he and his family had been staying just 15 minutes after they had left. 
“I can understand how you feel that the world didn’t respond in time,” Biden said. “That’s why I wanted to personally be here. Our support is absolute and it’s unwavering.” 

            
That afternoon, coming home from the city center, I had run into Ahmet and his wife, Dilara, waiting for the service bus to bring us back to campus. Like me, he was a summer school teacher at a laboratory school in eastern Turkey. He was a Turkish literature teacher who taught there year-round, while I was just there for the summer to teach English literature and language. Though he had mostly kept to himself during school lunches, he was suddenly very friendly and excited to see me, introducing me to his wife as an American who knew Turkish. They invited me to coffee at their home that night. 
“We like Americans,” he explained. “Life there is relaxed and problem-free compared to Turkey.” 
Later that evening when Dilara opened the door to their apartment, I barely recognized her without headscarf and long formal jacket and skirt. She looked much younger, like a Turkish college student dressed in westernized clothing, in one of those tight-fitting T-shirts with English writing. This would be the first time I spent with a woman who covered herself, witnessing the unveiling from outside to inside the home. 
“Carrie arrived,” she said into her phone as she opened the door, having already told her mother about me. She ushered me into the salon where Ahmet was sitting. We said hello, and then his phone rang. He apologized because his mother was also calling. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Turkish culture, it’s that mothers always come first, so I was soon alone in their salon. I sat on the same L-shaped white sofa found in all the teachers’ apartments including mine, watching Turkish news while I waited. 


Biden had clearly prepared a polished introduction for this televised meeting, beginning with thankyous, references to their longstanding friendship, and acknowledgments of Erdoğan’s tribulations. But the tension was palpable. Biden attempted eye contact with Erdoğan, who instead faced the camera, stone-faced.
            Turkey is divided between well-educated Turks who despise President Erdoğan’s efforts to turn their country away from its secular foundation, and the slim majority of 52% that voted him into power in 2014. Many of the former had secretly hoped a military coup would overthrow his current Islamist AKP party; however, when the coup occurred, these same people believed Erdoğan had staged it to show that citizens would rise up against the military to support democracy (and him). On the night of the coup, he used the speakers on mosque minarets, normally used for calls to prayer, to call people out into the streets to stand up for their Turkish democracy. He sent mass text messages to citizens with this same message. And it worked. That 52% and then some came out waving Turkish flags and attacked the tanks and soldiers, resulting in multiple deaths.
While his people were high on this burst of patriotism, Erdoğan began cleansing the military and judicial systems by arresting thousands of judges, teachers, and soldiers. My Turkish friends worried he was weakening the military and the system of checks and balances to pave the way for more autocratic rule. 
I had visited the city center of our town the day after the coup. There were no soldiers and few policemen present, just 20-year-old men clogging the streets in dilapidated cars, shouting out car windows, pumped up on testosterone and adrenaline. I ran into two of my high school students who told me that even though they believed Erdoğan had staged the coup, they said the feeling that night, when citizens came out to stop it, was unbelievable. They couldn’t help but get caught up in it, like they were part of the French Revolution, one student said. 
            President Obama was one of the first world leaders to call Erdoğan and express his sympathy and support of the democratic process that had elected Erdoğan. Secretary of State John Kerry also made a televised statement of the United States’ support of Erdoğan’s dissolving the coup. However, these gestures had not been enough for the Turkish President. He had wanted an immediate visit from Obama to show US loyalty to its ally.
            Turkey and the US have long been allies, their diplomatic friendship formally established in 1831 when Turkey was still the Ottoman Empire. Turkey’s economic and political security have been closely tied to the west for decades. However, in recent years, their friendship has been strained by the US’s involvement in the Iraq War and the Syrian Civil War. The Turkish government fears that the US’s military actions in the region will empower Turkish and Syrian Kurds, respectively the PKK and PYD, to claim their independence from Turkey and Middle Eastern countries. 
Despite this tension, during President Obama’s tenure, Turkey’s partnership with the US deepened. In 2013, they established a $200 million fund to fight extremism. In 2015, they initiated a program to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, and the US and NATO continue to use Turkey’s Incirlik Air Base in their efforts to stabilize the region.
However, the accord most relevant to current events was signed in 1947- the Economic and Technical Cooperation Agreement. Offered by the US to democratic nations, per this agreement, the US is bound to support Turkey’s efforts to thwart coups and other uprisings, to aid Turkey in upholding its democratically elected government. 
Therefore, when Erdoğan shifted blame for the coup to Fetullah Gülen, a self-exiled Islamic cleric residing in the US, it was this 1947 promise that rose to the surface of the countries’ friendship. For the next month, Erdoğan repeatedly called on the US to extradite Gülen, but Washington held its ground that he must first undergo a thorough judicial process reliant on Turkey providing evidence of his involvement in the coup. 
Finally, over a month after the coup, Biden had arrived in Turkey to display US sympathy and support, despite the whole world’s skepticism of this so-called military coup, the details still unfolding. But diplomatic friendship means showing up at the right time with a perfectly constructed message, so as not to disturb the long complicated history behind you.
“That’s why President Obama asked me to personally come visit you in his honor,” Biden expressed, though the delay had clearly embittered Erdoğan.


Dilara made repeated trips to the kitchen. She brought out wafers, chocolate bars, the nuts I brought as a gift, and finally two ears of corn on the cob from her mother’s garden. First, we drank tea, and as the evening progressed, coffee.
Sometimes Ahmet would try to speak English, and when I asked in Turkish if he was talking about such-and-such, he laughed that I had to translate back to Turkish to understand his English.
Observing Dilara’s silence, Ahmet asked if she was bored, to which she responded no, she was just listening. When he left to smoke a cigarette on the balcony, she excitedly ushered me to the dining room table to show me something she had made – a miniature bouquet of roses made from decorative frosting, perched in a metal bicycle. 
“Hobby,” she said in English, shyly shrugging. I expressed how beautiful it was.
New to his apartment, Ahmet explained that he had enough books in boxes to fill wall-to-wall bookshelves. We were pleased to discover his favorite author was Raymond Carver of Washington, my state of residence. Carver’s style, “dirty realism,” focuses on the sense of loss and isolation in the lives of ordinary working class people.
Ahmet and Dilara’s whole lives had taken place in the city where we taught- a small, conservative town in eastern Turkey- their families, their universities, and their careers. I asked Ahmet if this was his first teaching job, and he explained how prior, he had taught at a nearby university. He then confessed, in a tone insinuating teaching was second to writing, that he was a poet. I shared that I also wrote poetry, and we were both so pleased at this discovery. We discussed favorite poets, and when I said that not many Turkish poems have been translated into English, he proposed that we translate one poem of each other’s and try to publish them in literary magazines in our respective countries. 
 He went to find a copy of his book from the bookcase. He leafed through it to a poem titled, “Where are You, my God?” This was the one he wanted me to translate. He asked me what to write for the inscription, for he wanted it to be in English. I wrote it down for him, and he copied it onto the first page: 
To Carrie Simpson
Enjoy these poems
Sincerely, Ahmet Sezgin
24.08.2016 
TURKEY 
            Ahmet sat back and smiled. “We are so glad we met you. We really like you,” he said.


            “I salute you with my most heartfelt emotion,” Erdoğan began, addressing Biden yet staring at the camera. He then gave a long overview of the night of the coup. “I would like to extend my gratitude and commemorate the 241 martyrs that were a repercussion of this attempt.” I got the sense that this was recycled from many of his speeches delivered over the last month. 
Then he shifted to the heart of the matter, the Golden Fleece he wanted from the US- Fetullah Gülen. “He needs to be extradited to Turkey as soon as possible. Right now we are amassing certain documents pertaining to the Gülenists’ involvement.” He ended by declaring that the US had a choice to make in whether it was going to uphold the democratic values Turkey was built upon, by handing over Gülen, or turn its back on a longtime ally. 
Biden responded that more US lawyers than any other extradition case in American history were spending countless hours on this case, but that there was a judicial system put in place by the US Constitution that they had to abide by. In fact, President Obama did not have the power to extradite Gülen, or he would be impeached. 
“That’s what we call separation of powers,” Biden explained. “We are bound by the law. This takes time. I wish Gülen wasn’t in our country, Mr. President.”


I translated for Ahmet the gist of what my vice president was saying. I felt proud I could do this, even if it was in Tarzan Turkish. We laughed about how tense the meeting was. I joked that I had better leave Turkey soon, but Ahmet suddenly became serious and said in his Tarzan English, “No, Turks and Americans friends. We are friends,” and waved his hand in dismissal of our televised leaders.
Ahmet said he did not pledge allegiance to any political party in Turkey. He said he was a socialist, then corrected himself: “I am a humanist.” He asked me many questions about my life and teaching job in Seattle. I said that he’d like Seattle very much, that it was a literary, intellectual city with a lot of theatre and writers. He was impressed that Seattle had socialist leanings; he had never heard of the independent party or Bernie Sanders. He wanted to know what kind of degree one needed to teach at my college. He told me he once began the green card process but forfeited due to its complications. I joked that I could give him a “friendship card” so he could come work in the US. He laughed and then asked seriously if a work reference from me might help him obtain a work visa. I explained it was unlikely, that I was just an ordinary person without that kind of power. We both nodded and agreed solemnly that it was very difficult for an ordinary Turk to move to the US.


Fethullah Gülen, an Islamist preacher, exiled himself to Pennsylvania in 1999. Sharing similar ideologies, he had been a longtime ally of President Erdoğan until 2013, when the president accused him of choreographing corruption investigations implicating his senior ministers and son. Erdoğan then deemed Gülen a terrorist and his followers the Gülenist Terror Organisation (FETÖ). Three years later, Erdoğan was convinced Gülen, and the US by default for protecting him, were behind the July 15th coup.
 “We have zero interest in protecting a terrorist,” Biden emphatically explained. “What possible motive do we have? We are bound by our constitution.” 
Erdoğan listened to the translation through his earpiece. At the word, “constitution,” he emitted an audible sigh.
Biden continued, “As of yesterday afternoon, there has been no evidence of Gülen’s involvement in the coup,” insinuating the inadequate nature of the “evidence” the Turkish government had provided thus far. “We need actual, justifiable evidence, not just, ‘This is a bad guy.’”
When Biden finished speaking, he leaned across the divide to shake Erdoğan’s hand and say something into his ear. After he sat back, he leaned in again to shake his hand one more time and say something else. Erdoğan nodded his head quickly so Biden would retreat from this awkward interpersonal moment. It was clear nothing had been resolved for Erdoğan; Biden had not delivered what he wanted.
 After their talk was over, we watched as the news channel played a montage of Erdoğan’s speeches since the coup. The message over and over was that the US had a choice to make – were they Turkey’s ally or enemy? 
Suddenly, the three of us burst out laughing, aware of the irony of what we were watching during my first visit to their home, their having invited me because they “like Americans.” As the evening progressed, the disparity between our burgeoning friendship and the strained relationship of our leaders grew. Erdoğan and Biden’s interaction was strained by the complicated responsibilities of being allies through thick and thin, trust and distrust, while in Ahmet’s apartment, the three of us enjoyed an organically unfolding friendship, discovering our similarities and enjoying each other’s company. 
Often we form opinions about a country’s citizens based on the behaviors of its leaders, when in actuality there is a grand canyon between a government and its citizens. People all over the world want similar things: health for our families, jobs that make us happy and pay well, freedom to enjoy our lives without fear of punishment, and trust in our government that our needs will be taken care of. Ahmet, Dilara and I were connecting on these basic tenets of humanity while our leaders strategically danced around arbitrary lines of loyalties. 
After more coffee and conversation, we ended our evening with the promise to try our hands at translating each other’s poetry, and that my leaving in a week was not the end of our knowing one another.


I am back in the US now. It’s winter. The mornings are very cold and the trees have lost their fall leaves. I left Ahmet with a poem I wrote several autumns ago while living in Ankara, Turkey. The first half aims to capture the early excitement of the season:
The trees whisper, and Autumn awakens my heart,
her ice fingers wrapping around my breaths…
The first bite may rip through warm down feathers, 
but my skin will explode in ten thousand joys. The wind blows.
I feel invigorated by the Pacific Northwest climate after enduring a hot dry summer in Turkey, but I also am having a hard time staying warm these days. 
At the end of the summer, I was able to return to my country whose government is relatively trustworthy and transparent.  Even plagued by the misogyny, racism, and autocratic leanings of our new president, in comparison, the US feels safe, predictable.  I have freedom of speech and protest, and the possibility to effect change through grassroots activism. My Turkish friends could not return to such a place. 
Five days after the coup, Erdoğan declared a three-month state of emergency, and has since extended it two times. A state of emergency allows him to bypass the Constitutional Court’s long process of overseeing the passage of laws. In the US, as much as President Trump would like to rule by decree, we have many more checks and balances. A state government can sue the federal government if an executive order is deemed unconstitutional, and no executive order can reverse a law passed by Congress. However, in Turkey, the president’s cabinet can simply draft a decree, and with his approval, it will go to Parliament for a quick vote, to be passed within 30 days. Under this loosened judicial process, Erdoğan’s government has continued to arrest and detain any individual suspected of being a Gülenist, and to pass laws towards a presidential system based on Islamic values
When my friends and I took a road trip through northeastern Turkey at the end of the summer, the gendarme stopped us many times to check our IDs. They were less interested in our American passports, and more in our Turkish friend’s ID, for whom a phone call was always made to ensure he was not wanted for investigation. 
When we arrived back in town from our trip, we learned that one of our fellow teachers had been let go after working there for seven years. Though the director said he could not discuss with her the reasons, we knew it was because she had taught at a Gülen school five years prior. In Turkey, there is a witch-hunt, and no one is safe from her past. 
According to Human Rights Watch, “100,000 civil servants including teachers, judges and prosecutors” have been arrested without due process in the past six months. The Turkish Ministry of Justice reports only 41,000 arrests.  My Turkish friends can only dream of a transparent government.
There was even news of American teachers at Turkish universities being detained for writing dissident remarks on Facebook. I carefully censored my communication on social media while there. The Monday morning after the coup, I asked my 10th graders to write in their journals about their feelings. Normally a talkative bunch, they watched me with wide eyes after they had written their thoughts. When asked if anyone wanted to share, one boy said he could not because he wrote “bad political ideas,” and, in fact, could he tear up this page and throw it away, because there could be spies outside our window. I looked outside at the vast rolling steppe of Anatolia, and said, “Yes, of course you can throw it away.” In Turkey, fear has silenced even young people. 
I have begun translating Ahmet’s poem. Not yet embellished with rhyme or rhythm, my first draft is raw:
Where are you, my god, for I have lost my tracks?
Who has lost me?
I want some more pain, my god.
My suffering is not enough.
I watch the news carefully. So much has been left unresolved. My Turkish friends still have many questions. Who orchestrated the coup? When will this witch-hunt end? And what state will the country be in then?  
Many more violent acts have ensued since the summer. On December 20th, an off-duty policeman assassinated the Russian ambassador to Turkey. On New Years Eve, 39 people were killed in a posh Istanbul nightclub, for which ISIS claimed responsibility. On January 5th, Kurdish militants detonated a car bomb outside the Izmir courthouse. Turkey is entrenched in conflict. 
My Turkish friends now expect a new violent act to occur each week. Yet, despite this undercurrent of deep worry, they continue to go about their daily lives. They gather for Sunday morning picnics, take walks and practice yoga together, travel on holidays to visit family, even teach literature on the Monday morning after a failed coup. For what can one do with so many questions unanswered, but go on and do what one knows how to do? And pray that what may come will not take away one’s enjoyment of life?
Help, my god, where are my thoughts?
And where is truth?
Come, someone, and tell us who left us this orphan?
Who left us like orphans?
That night, while Biden and Erdoğan struggled to appear as friends before the camera, Ahmet, Dilara, and I were tucked away in a small teacher’s apartment in a Turkish city few Americans had heard of, enjoying a burgeoning friendship. As palpable as our leaders’ tension was our new connection. You could sink your teeth into the warmth in Ahmet’s home that night, from our discovery of shared values, interests, humanity. That evening was one among many this summer, salient in its stark contrast to what was happening in the political sphere.
I sent Ahmet my translation of his poem soon after I returned to the US. He wrote that he was working on a novel and would begin translating my poem soon. 
At 6,000 feet elevation, autumn progressed quickly and soon resembled winter in eastern Turkey. The high steppe winds blow fiercely, the nights are cold, and the snow has crept down the mountains to surround the school in deep drifts. In his apartment, thousands of miles from mine, I like to imagine Ahmet keeping warm by working on the translation of my poem. The latter part addresses the shift in autumn as winter approaches:
A heart’s affections mask and unmask until even Heaven 
shrugs and steps down to the andante of old thoughts chanting 
upon endless grey pavement. This weather will ruin me
unless I swim skyward, and place Heaven back on her shrine.

But I haven’t heard from Ahmet since early fall, and I doubt he’s working on my poem. In Turkey, Heaven has yet to be placed back on her shrine. I imagine the news plays in his home every night, and that he walks in and out to smoke cigarettes on the balcony, worrying about the fate of his country. We’re no longer with each other to translate what our leaders are saying. I watch the news from its limited perspectives here. I, too, worry about Turkey, the US, international relations. But I find warmth in the night we drank coffee and our friendship transcended our leaders’.



Note: To protect the privacy of certain individuals, the names and identifying details have been changed.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Georgia on my Mind



Back in Turkey to teach summer school at BELS in Erzurum, I was only in the country for one week, when we got a one-week holiday to celebrate the end of Ramadan. It’s family time for Turks. For me, it was a chance to visit a new country, one of Turkey’s neighbors. As I was going to Georgia for eight days on my own, it was a giant Artist’s Date (shout out to Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way). I packed my camera, sketchbook, and journal- three items I bring on any adventure, short or long. I found myself in art galleries and bookstores perusing translated Georgian poets. I attended a modern ballet, wandered and photographed off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods, sat for long periods of time sketching old buildings, visited the history museum, wandered a botanical garden- all the things I enjoy doing in any town I live- but I did so with a thirst. I wanted to understand, to “get” the vibe of Georgia. It was my first time in a post-Soviet state. Seventy years is a long time to be occupied, 15 years is a short time to recover from it, and eight days is a really short time for a tourist to put her finger on the feeling of a place, so I suffer from the ol’ But who am I? syndrome in writing this post. But consider that my disclaimer, and consider this my credibility: I really paid attention.

the bus ride from Erzurum, Turkey to the Georgian border
Like Cattle at the Border

I took an eight-hour bus from Erzurum that dropped me off past midnight in the Turkish town of Hopa, near the border of Georgia. I stayed at a Teacher House (öğretmenevi), which can be found in towns all over Turkey- cheap accommodation just for teachers, underscored by the elevated Turkish value on educators. Gotta love it!

ogretmen evi, Hopa, Turkey
Georgian border at Sarpi
The next morning, I took a taxi to the border town of Sarp (called Sarpi on the Georgian side), and went through customs by foot. Going to Georgia went fairly well, but my return trip was atrocious. Both Georgians and Turks have more of the eastern habit of queue-less ‘lining up’; that is, I found myself in a huge crowd of people bottlenecked into one hallway with no moving air, just trying to get to the entrance to the customs booths. Everyone was pushing up against each other with their baggage, and it took me 30 minutes to go 50 feet while two Georgian customs officials periodically opened a red tether at the entrance to the booths and yelled in Turkish, “Come, come! Slow, slow!” to let a small group through before putting the tether back into place. But what most disturbed me was how they seemed to get a kick out of our pathetic behavior, shouting out directives and laughing at us like we were cattle. I’ve jumped ahead to the end of my trip.

Jason and the Golden Fleece

Back to the beginning. Once on the Georgian side, I caught a bus 20km along the coast to the resort town of Batumi. Batumi is home to the Greek legend of “Jason and the Golden Fleece.”
Jason arrived in Colchis, the ancient kingdom which is now western Georgia, to claim the Golden Fleece in order to regain the throne in Ellada (present day Greece). Colchis King Aeetes promised to give it to him only if he could perform three seemingly impossible tasks. Luckily for Jason, the gods conspired to make Aeetes's daughter, Medea, fall in love with him. Love-struck, Medea helped him complete the tasks and together they escaped back to Greece with fleece in hand.
Georgia’s Ministry of Education claims the Golden Fleece was likely derived from the local practice of using fleeces to sift gold dust from rivers, causing them to become flecked with specks of gold. The Museum of Georgia conjectures that the Colchis were known for their goldsmithery as early as the 3rd century BC so perhaps it was just gold Jason was after. Or, since they wrote with gold in their ink, perhaps it was a special scroll Jason was after.
In the town square of Batumi stands a monument of Medea with the Golden Fleece in hand.


In comparison to Tblisi, Batumi has more money; it is a popular tourist destination for rich Georgians, Turks, and Russians. I am not much of a crowded, touristic beach person, so I only planned to stay there one night. I did enjoy exploring the old town; it foreshadowed what I would enjoy about Tblisi.
 



the ceiling in a cool coffee shop
where Jason might have landed on the Black Sea coast of Batumi
Oh, wait! The food! Everyone always wants to know about the food. I am not a huge foodie, but I did take one picture of the national fast food, Khachapuri Adjaruli, which is from Batumi. It’s their version of pizza- boat-shaped bread with TONS of salty cheese, a fried egg, and a wad of melting butter on top. Delicious, and a total gut bomb!

The next morning, I took a six-hour train eastward to Tblisi, where I would spend four nights in a guesthouse in the old town and take a day-trip to eastern Georgia, before working my way backwards to Turkey.

My Guesthouse in Old Town Tblisi

My guesthouse was a renovated double-story house built in the 1900s overlooking a courtyard. It was refurbished only in the most necessary ways, like the insides of the four guest rooms, the kitchen and the shared bathroom. It was located in Kala, one of the oldest neighborhoods in Tblisi.
the door to my guesthouse
four private rooms opening to the balcony
the balcony
 Old Tblisi architecture no longer contains any straight lines. My guesthouse and the surrounding buildings all had dipping roofs, undulating rows of bricks and buckling steps, as if the neighborhood was experiencing a slow motion earthquake. The houses were so tightly packed, they were falling into each other. The neighborhood reminded me of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. The air was sultry. The neighborhood was quietest during the hot middle of the day. Then kids played games on the narrow cobblestone streets. After dinner, women would sit on the steps watching and gabbing, and late at night, adults (mostly men) could be heard drunkenly shouting at each other into the wee hours. The walls of our guesthouse were so thin, it sounded like they were actually in our rooms.

Darkness

         Georgia was occupied by the Soviet regime for 70 years, from 1921 to 1991, and afterwards suffered a huge economic collapse from which they are still recovering. To have been so recently occupied, and to be struggling economically alongside the pride of sovereignty was the heart of the Georgian “vibe” I was so interested in exploring.
I visited the Soviet Occupation Hall at the Museum of Georgia, where looped news footage of air strikes and bloodied limbless victims played, and a bullet-holed carriage used for deportation was on display. Walls contained statistics of the exiled and the executed, copies of breached treaties, and pictures of religious men and artists alongside their execution dates. It was so dimly lit, I could barely read the signs.
A striking take-away was how in the 1940s and 50s, two noteworthy anti-Soviet-occupation groups were formed by 14-year-olds and 17-year-olds respectively. Fourteen-year-olds! I couldn’t fathom how void of play and carefreeness their childhoods must have been that they would apply their youth towards organizing political rebellions.
         Since the post-Soviet economic collapse 1991, supposedly the middle class has been slowly rising, but the lower class hasn’t budged. I met an older gentleman artist at the “dry bridge market” which is open daily along the Kura River.
Most of the market consisted of poor elderly folks trying to sell their china, old cameras, knife collections, and jewelry spread out on blankets along the sidewalks, but one section of the market consisted of artists selling their paintings- a really beautiful outdoor gallery to stroll through.


           The artist from whom I bought a small painting of old town Tblisi asked me if I liked Georgia. He said it was a beautiful country, but the “economy was sleeping.” 
         In general, people seemed weary to me. Though the city was not ostensibly dark as summer brought with it blue skies, many people had dark hair, dark eyes, and dark circles under their eyes. We joke about the “resting bitch face” in the US, but in Georgia it was a “resting joyless face,” especially those who were generations older than me. However, as soon as I smiled, their faces would light up, and they would smile back. The millenials had a very different spirit- more upbeat and dynamic. 
Customer service was really different than anywhere I’ve been. If I entered a store or restaurant where there was an older shopkeeper, often there was no communication at all, no Hello. Welcome. How are you? or Have a nice day. Only silence. Granted, very little English was spoken, but even if I asked a simple question like, “Visa?”, the shopkeeper would shake her head no instead of saying it. Here’s the money, here’s the change, the end. American customer service is so over the top, it drives me nuts. A waitress will interrupt your dinner conversation every 10 minutes to ask if everything is okay, and then at the end give you a survey to fill out about whether or not you enjoyed her interrupting you every 10 minutes to ask if everything was okay. In Turkey, one or two shop attendants will follow you around the store extremely closely in case you happen to have any questions or needs, which feels super awkward and it’s hard to relax or make a decision. There must be a happy medium somewhere.
         Some streets in old Tblisi were full of buildings renovated into cute cafes, shops and bars. I felt like I was in Italy, eating a tasty meal at an outdoor café on a pedestrian cobblestone street. 
feels like Italy!

the opera house
"The Peace" bridge, known as the "Always" Bridge because of its resemblance to a maxi-pad
outside of Narikala fortress
maybe not such a funny name for a restaurant?

Church of St. Nicholas, inside fortress


But then I’d wander down an alley to the street behind, and it was a completely different world. People had made their homes in whatever part of a building hadn’t collapsed.






Venomous Vipers are Less Aggressive at Monasteries

         One day, I had the opportunity to go on a daytrip to eastern Georgia with a couple from the Netherlands who I met at the guesthouse. The guesthouse owner had a friend who was a guide and would take us to Davit Gareja monastery east of Tblisi in the Kakheti region of Georgia, along the border of Azerbaijani.
         We met our guide at 7am. True to Georgian customer service, he was a man of few words. In the two-hour ride to our first stop, the only word we got out of him was his name, Giorgi. The rest of the time, the Dutch couple and I blabbed on and on about our travel plans, Brexit, and American politics. The Dutch woman said she wanted to work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It’s always surprising and embarrassing to me how in the spotlight American politics are all over the world, and how I cannot even name the Dutch prime minister. Yet here was a foreign woman who wanted to work for my political system! (It’s Mark Rutte, by the way. I’ve since looked it up.) I really liked this couple and we got along great. 


         After we left Tblisi, the scenery slowly changed from forested to less and less treed, and by the time we turned off the main highway onto a dirt road, there were only rolling barren hills and rocky buttes. We drove very slowly avoiding potholes for nearly an hour with no manmade structures in sight. So we laughed when we came to a fork in the road, and with nothing around us but vast scablands, the intersection had been marked with four giant signs telling us to turn left for the monastery. Ironically, when we arrived at the actual monastery, there was absolutely no sign, so when we pulled into the understated dirt parking lot and Giorgi turned off the engine, the Dutch woman muttered me, “Do you think this is it? Or is this just a stop?” This was it.
         The Davit Gareja monastery complex consists of 15 monasteries that have mostly been abandoned except for the two we visited. The first, Lavra, was restored after the Soviet occupation and is currently inhabited by monks.

 


It’s named after Davit Gareja, who was one of 13 ascetic Syrians who returned from the Middle East to spread Christianity in Georgia in the 6th century. Before that, they were pagans. Lavra contains the original caves where Davit and his disciple Lukiane lived.
Davit's cave


The monastery was destroyed and rebuilt several times over the centuries by the Mongols, Timur, and Shah Abbas. The most notorious sacking was on Easter night in 1615 when Shah Abbas’ Persian soldiers gathered 6000 monks from nearby monasteries, killed them and destroyed their treasures. During Soviet times, the military used the area for exercises since the topography is so similar to Afghanistan, and again the monasteries were vandalized. 
      Udabno was the second monastery we visited. To get to it, we had to hike up and over the butte where Lavra was situated.  Shortly after starting up the trail, Giorgi turned around and said to me very seriously (now that I think of it, he said everything very seriously), “If you see a snake, stop.” I turned around and passed this simple advice onto the Dutch couple, and we wondered aloud as to what the next step would be. Giorgi could only say that there was a dangerous snake that lived in the area. So we hiked on, watching our steps.
Once we crested the butte, we had a great view of Azerbaijani in the valley below. The trail that we next walked on was the actual border between Georgia and Azerbaijani. Down below we could see the border patrol station.

the path to Udabno monastery, the path = Georgia/Azerbaijani border
 
white buildings = border station
The path led to several cave churches and dwellings. The churches contained frescoes from the 10th-13th centuries. 
refectory


refectory
Annunciation Church
  

The refectory was the most impressive structure. Here, the monks knelt to eat. On the wall was an 11th c. fresco of the Last Supper. The Annunciation Church contained the best frescoes of Christ and his disciples.
         We had lots of questions about the monastery and tried to imagine what it would have been like to sleep there at night with campfires, staring out into the barren valley below. Did they choose such a desolate, isolated locale because they were hiding from Persian raids? Giorgi said they were just trying to be away from society and closer to God. It was strangely beautiful, so we asked him if people could feasibly camp up there. He reminded us about the snakes. “Very dangerous,” he said. “After one hour, you cannot move.”
         From then on, all our questions were about the snakes and not about the monastery. In his simple English, we could gather from him that they were not long, but they were fat, and that they were brown and grey. We asked if the monks had ever been bitten, and he said, “I ask monks. They say no. Not aggressive. In other places, snake is more aggressive. But here, it is a monastery.” Sooooo the snake knows it’s in a place of God and chills the fu*k out? Hmm, neither the Dutch couple nor myself were convinced. Nevertheless, we all made it safely back to the car, unbitten and unparalyzed, and it really was a great hike and a beautiful place to visit. And waiting for us in the parking lot was this man, who had driven all the way down that awful dirt road to charge only two lari (75 cents) for a coffee made in the back of his "bug."


Creatives as the Key to a Culture

I bought a collection of translated poems of famed Georgian poet, Galaktion Tabidze. He was part of the intellectual and artistic elite of the Soviet Communist state in the 1920s. “But if my country fails to treat me well, Yes! I’ll die a death, a poet’s name deserves,” he wrote, as a young poet.  His first wife was a victim of one of Stalin’s purges. She was sent into exile, and during that time, wrote him letters, but he didn’t respond out of caution. When she was executed five years later, his first bout of depression hit him. The mental state led him to attempt suicide several times before he successfully threw himself from the upper floor of a mental hospital when he was 67 years old. Unlike many poets, he achieved fame in his lifetime, and was known as the “king of poets” amongst his peers.
Many of his word combinations were considered indecipherable by scholars; equally, these enigmatic expressions intrigued poetry lovers.

Here’s a poem of his I like. Just a tolerable bit of enigma.

The More Away

The more away, the more I love!
In you I love my dearest dream,
It feels- as if in Eden lives,
Untouched- as if the sun’s bright beam.

You differ, maybe, from that dream,
I never grieve about it now!
My aching heart is apt to wish
You were an angel white endowed.

Let ardour strange all burn my heart,
Let seas be filled with tears I shed.
To trust the miracle of Love,
And ravings of a lover mad.

Niko Pirosmani is probably the most famous Creative of Georgia. He was a self-taught painter who achieved fame posthumously, considered Georgia’s national artist. Most of his works are shown in the National Gallery in Tblisi and the Museum of Sighnaghi, both of which I visited. Giorgi brought me to the musueum in Sighnaghi on the way home from the monastery. He told me he really liked Pirosmani, that “his paintings are so powerful.”
Pirosmani was orphaned at a young age and moved from the countryside to Tblisi with his two older sisters as guardians. He taught himself to paint, and remained poor his whole life, taking on ordinary jobs here and there, like whitewashing, or painting signs for shopkeepers. He died at 55 from liver dysfunction and malnutrition.
He is known for a legend about being so in love with a French actress who visited his town that he bankrupted himself to buy enough flowers to fill the square in front of her hotel window. It is speculated that this painting, called “Margarita,” is of her. 
 

His style is very primitive. His paintings include little detail or 3-D depth. He painted many frontal portraits of ordinary people in the countryside as well as animals in nature. I, myself, am not a huge fan of the primitive style, but spent some time trying to appreciate an artist so revered by a country that he is on their currency.

 

Portrait of a Georgian Taxi Driver

My train from Tblisi back to Batumi chugged along slowly through rain, a reminder that I was re-entering the Black Sea region, notorious for its rainfall, and when I got off 6 hours later, Batumi was covered in dark, dramatic clouds, and the train station was dealing with flooded bathrooms on the bottom floor.
I wanted to eat my last Georgian meal before heading across the border to Turkey, and so I hailed a taxi to take me to Batumi's center.
The taxi driver had been parked at the station waiting, a young man in his 20s. I pointed to an intersection on my map that would put me right in the center of the city. He seemed to know the intersection. Then he asked me for one lari, and I didn’t understand why or for what. He must have said, “Never mind,” because then we got in the car.
The car’s interior was missing paneling so that electrical wiring was exposed, it smelled of gasoline, and it took him some effort to start the car.  Luckily, we were only going a few kilometers.
         To leave the train station, we pulled up to a tollbooth, where he began arguing with the attendant until the attendant got out of the booth and came to the car window to repeat himself in the taxi driver’s face. The driver forfeited, pulling out some change from a purse attached to his dash. He plopped it into the attendant's hand, and then sped away to the exit all of five meters away. He honked and cursed and wove his way through the congested intersection to turn left towards town. As we sped up to ride the ass of the next car, he looked back at me and said in a tone of That was what I was trying to tell you, “One lari.”
         In the traffic back to town, his car stalled several times and was difficult for him to re-start. Unperturbed, he fiddled with some kind of adaptor on his stereo, then cranked up some staticky hip-hop music, to which he bobbed his body as he sped along.
After a minute, he turned it down for a second, looked back at me, and said, “You. Me. Nature?” and drew a big circle in the air with his hands.
I looked at him confused.
He repeated himself. “You. Me. Nature?”
I wasn’t sure if the music had put him in the mood for a nature walk, or if he wanted to make some extra cash by driving me to some hiking trail or what, but I was starting to trust this guy less and less as the gasoline fumes of his stalling car wafted through the back seat.
Enter deus ex machina: An old man walked up to the passenger window, leaned in, and asked a question. A little back and forth, and next thing I know, he opened the door and got in next to the driver, who didn’t seem to have agreed to take this man anywhere. And that was the end of his asking me on a hot date with nature.
         As we got into town and the traffic thickened, his road rage increased, and he aggressively wove in and out of traffic, cursing at everyone around him. I checked my purse to make sure I had a small enough bill to give him so he wouldn’t take advantage of me. Then he asked me for a book.
“What book?” I asked,.
“The book! The book!” he exclaimed, as if I was the biggest idiot in the world.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, to which he got really exasperated and said something to the old man in frustration.
“Address!” he shouted at me.
“Oh, the map!” I said. “No address.” I repeated the name of the two streets and drew an intersection in the air. The old man seemed to understand, and much more calm than the driver, explained what to say to me.
“Number? Number!” the driver yelled.
“No number,” I said, and I repeated the street names.
“No number??” he exclaimed to the old man incredulously.  The old man’s body language said, Don’t worry. I know these streets. Just go straight ahead, to which the driver wove even more aggressively through traffic.
When I finally recognized an intersection- not even the one I mentioned- I shouted, “Here!”
         He stopped, I got out of the car and then started driving forward. I opened the door again, shouted, “My bag!” and pointed to the trunk.
He said, “Yes! Yes!” and pulled forward to get out of the way of a bus. He got out and opened the trunk for me. When I offered a 10 lari bill to him, and he said, “No, 22 lari.”
“Twenty-two? No, only 7-lari trip.” That was the cost of the trip when I made it four days earlier.
He pointed back to the train station and said, “1 lari,” referring to the fee.
“I know. 10 lari enough." I put the bill in his hand, grabbed my bag, and started walking away. I was super nervous that with all his anger, he might follow me, but I was surprised that all he did was throw his arms down, temper-tantrum style, and let out an “Awww-aaaaw,” like a little kid whose mother just said, No, I will not buy you that candy.
I have a feeling life is going to continue to frustrate him for awhile.


Well, that’s the end of my first impressions of Georgia. Overall, I found the country to be even poorer than I expected, the taste of the Soviet occupation still very much present, and from that the people were more worn down and less nurturing than say, Turks, so it was more exhausting to travel in than I had imagined. But I am so glad I visited because it was really interesting and different from any place I've experienced, and now it’s time for the slower percolation that usually results in poetry at a later date. 

Oh, and if you still don’t have a feeling for the culture, maybe this will help:

T-shirt Slogans in English Worn by Georgians
1.   Love me better
2.   We Need C#shtag
3.   We are unique, everyone of us
4.   Stay awesome
5.   I should have been a unicorn