Saturday, October 13, 2012

Life in Istanbul

One of many reasons to travel is to challenge our own assumptions. My impression of Muslim countries is that women are subservient, kept in a "down" position with few rights, and are miserable creatures. Starting with the woman from Saudi Arabia that I met at the Alhambra, I can tell you that women may wear long dresses, scarves and even a covering over the mouth, but they are hardly weak or subservient.

Based on discussions with Pinar (my angel from the previous post), another woman I spent the day with named Waifa from Morocco, and some of Cheryl's Turkish friends, women are the foundation of the family and therefore of society. The power they wield is emotional and economic. But mostly emotional, and therefore the most powerful of all. Men may run the world, but women create the atmosphere they grow up in, where they form their values and ideas.

In the courtyard of a Mosque
near the spice market. Notice
the men washing behind me?
Walking through the spice market and the Grand Bazaar yesterday, it was apparent that men work and women buy. With few exceptions, women were not in the shops as owners or as workers. And the men work hard! They haul stuff, build things, and are always in a hurry to get places. They interact with a lot of energy with customers, very polite, but still pushing all the time, engaging and talking. Women purchase. And they are quite demanding, the men work very hard to please them.  Even though I speak no Turkish, body language is easy to read. Women's body language is one of confidence and control. I can see how the religion wants to cover them up, to subdue their sexual and emotional power. It oozes out from under their long dresses, flits off their hands, and flashes from their eyes.

Istanbul is a modern and enormous city of 17 million people. Women's dress is all over the map from mini-skirts and high heels, to fully covered up with black material, only eyes and hands showing. Waifa said that most people would claim to be Muslim but many do not practice, meaning they don't dress according to the Koran or pray publicly at a mosque. Men dress mostly in western style, but never shorts, and some wear beautiful long shirts that are called Kurtas in India. I even saw some men in the airport with long brilliant white suit coats, fitted and of very fine material, like a button down rain coat, only more stylish.

Turkey is a secular country, made that way by the founder of modern Turkey, Ataturk. But clearly the conservatives are gaining power with their current president. Recently laws have been passed allowing 14 year old girls to marry (ie: be married off by their families) and to change the laws requiring school. Now parents can chose not to educate a child. Before, any parent who did not send a child to school would be thrown in jail or fined heavily. This is not a way to prepare a country for the future, it's a way to keep certain elements of society stupid and controllable.

Ataturk did a number of interesting things for Turkey besides making it secular. He changed the writing to the current alphabet, away from Arabic. I still haven't mastered all the sounds but can read words out loud and pronounce them reasonably well. (At least Pinar said it was pretty good!) And I've picked up a few really important words like "su" for water, and "sogol" (the g is silent) for thank-you. I'm sure a month in Cappadocia will give me more opportunity to improve and maybe get around a little easier. Plus many words are easy to recognize: Elektrik, kontrol, programme, koc ('coach', the 'c' with a squiggle is 'ch' sound).

Smoking is prevalent, even though it is banned in restaurants, public offices, and bars, and by the Muslim religion. People smoke constantly, men, women and many teenagers. Their concession to not smoking is to smoke at an open window where the breeze wafts the smoke into the room. Pinar said that in Europe, if you want to insult someone's bad habit, you tell them they "smoke like a Turk". Ditto for alcohol. It's not unusual to see drunk men playing the drums badly, or strumming helplessly on a oud while others dance like women thrusting their hips in a poor imitation of a belly dance. Waifa told me about a beverage that is about 50% alcohol, but doesn't taste like it has much. You're totally plastered after just one drink.

As for food, sweets are big! In search of breakfast (no bacon and eggs to be had) I went across the street to the same little restaurant Cheryl took me to the first night. Lovely people, but no English. So I looked over the photos of the food and picked something called Kunefe that looked like breaded cheese, toasted. The only thing I got correct was the cheese part. It was a stringy cheese, covered in some kind of super thin tiny noodle, then baked with lots of butter in a special pan, flipped over and baked on the other side with even more butter, then smothered in thick sugar syrup which was quickly absorbed by the noodles. No wonder the waiter had looked at me funny, I had just ordered a very rich dessert for breakfast.

The famous Turkish Delight isn't........ It's one of those things you love or you don't. After 5 different versions I've decided to quit trying. The baklava and variations on that theme of crispy wafers with nuts and honey is definitely superior. Turkish delight is a gooey jelly-like substance with nuts, cut into cubes and covered with powdered sugar or spiced powder. I even tried a white foamy looking concoction that was like eating an old rubbery marshmallow with pistachios stuck on the outside. The poor pistachios could not overwhelm the texture and make me appreciate it.

So life in Istanbul is very European, full of shopping malls and famous stores, sophisticated, with opportunities for lots of people from elsewhere in the world. On the buses I've talked with several people from Bosnia, Hungary, and Slavic countries who have moved here for jobs and a better life. Their English might not be great, but here they only need to speak Turkish!!

Kabab (shaved meats) and "hamburgers", meat
and sauce in a bun are very popular!

Kunefe, really good. Really weird. 

Waifa, my day-companion, met
her on the bus and we touristed together.

Another popular snack, dried fruits with nuts jammed inside.

A little bit of Texas in Istanbul.