Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Song of Istanbul

The Song of Istanbul

Listen.  It’s a symphony.  An all-day symphony.
Beginning at the moment when dawn lifts its puffy eye lids .
Wait – even before first light it begins.

The prelude: andantino
Rhythmic steps of the Imam on his way to the mosque.
The click click click of his heels on the dew-slick cobblestones.
The electric clack as he turns on the microphone in the minaret's black chamber.
“Allah akbar!” he sings out at the precise moment when the sun slips its red-polished fingernails
over horizon’s gray wool blanket.

 The 1st movement in our symphony commences. Adagio

One after another after another after another, muezzins call the faithful to first prayer, 
                                      their voices
in a helical
waltz of sound.

A primal elementary song of soul-searing Truth wafting through dawn’s damp. Its notes playing along oriental meridians, pushing mystic pressure points.

At Galata Tower, thick brown dogs lift their heads from slabs of cardboard placed there for them by doggy lovers.  They blink, yawn, raise themselves off their night time beds and howl along with the imam, welcoming the new day.

Mauve doves, gray-blue pigeons, and sea gulls ruffle their dew-coated feathers and flap flap flap their wings rising up to circle the Tower.
Seagulls dip and pivot, cawing their first entry into the performance
As the doves cooo cooo cooo in velvet undertones like do-wop back-up singers.

2nd movement: Andante
The parade begins:
"Demir! Demir!"
“Demir!” “Demir” Iron! Iron! Sing out the men pushing their weathered-gray, rough-hewn hand carts, beseeching souls to donate scrap metal to their carts.

Then a hush.

Slowly from the main street the low rumbling of voices--fruit and vegetable hucksters theme song.  The sound growing and growing until the truck turns the corner, enters our street, and the amplified voice of the driver blasts out:” Tomatoes! Potatoes! Green beans! And then in a note held like the finale in a street opera: “Oniooooooooooooonnnnnnnnnnnnnnns.”

The baskets are lowered from the windows, raised again filled with red red tomatoes, or green cucumbers, potatoes or onions.

Hush. Hush. Hush.

“Kastamonu sarimsak!”  “Taze Kastamonu sarimsak!” a husky male voice cries. Fresh garlic from the garlic capital – Kastamonu.
A warble begins from the corner.  The old mustachioed Turk walks his weary walk bleating his weary cry: 
“Yatakci ci ci ci  ci…” “Bedman  man man man man.” And what does this “bedman” do?  He carries a special tool.  A tool for pulling apart the cotton that has become lumped and hardened in the old cotton mattresses.  Re-fluffing it, adding space and air, transforming it to a soft lush bed of  drowsy comfort.
“Yatakci  i i i !” sung like the sound of shivering, teeth chattering—filling you with the longing for the warmth of a cozy bed on a dark cold morning.

The sun rises in the sky.  New performers appear on the stage.
“La la la la. La la la la la la. Ay Gaz!” blares the recorded song from the natural gas truck, steel-gray canisters of natural gas bouncing about in the back of the pick-up. A sweet female voice repeats this melodic refrain over and over as the “Yatakci” bleats and the fading melody of the vegetable man recedes.

3rd movement: Allegro
(Song of the women and children)

“Fatma! Hadi!” Fatma hurry!
“Buraya gel!”Come here!
“Anne! Anne! Anne!” Mother! Mother! Mother!
Squeals giggles orders complaints pleading squabbling shouts and shrieks!
Squeals giggles orders complaints pleading squabbling shouts and shrieks!
Squeals giggles orders complaints pleading squabbling shouts and shrieks!

“Ben geldim! Gidiyorum!  Ben geldim! Gidiyorum!” I came. I’m going.  I came. I’m going. The song of the poaji man.  Cherry cheeks.  White hair.  Short and squat.  He makes his rounds of the neighborhoods carrying his two woven baskets filled with Turkish cheese pastries.  The children run and flock to him like the pied piper.  They slap his hands and circle round as he trods the dirty old streets of Istanbul trying to sell a pastry or two.

Then another hush.  Early evening’s quiet.  The rustle of pots and pans.  The sizzle of frying onions.  The clatter of dinnerware. 
The final belch!

Grand Finale: The Night’s Vivace.

In Beyoglu the finale starts its crescendo.
The popcorn man pops his corn over his portable stove: pop pop pop pop
“Sicak poacha!” sings out Murat pushing the two-wheeled cart holding the warm fresh pastries baked by his wife. “Hot pastries!”

“Taze badem! Taze badem!” Fresh almonds! Cry out the men sliding through the alleys filled with young Turks, middle-aged Turks, men, women drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, poking at plates of meze. As the almond seller lowers his tray of peeled fresh almonds on ice.

Boom! Boom! Boom! Pounds the bass from the amplified music of the bars.  Boom! Boom! Boom Boom!
Taze badem!
Sicak poachi!
Balon! Balon! Calls out the man holding a bouquet of red balloons.
And gypsy musicians beat a 9/8 rhythm on their darbukas as the clarinet wails.
The pop corn pops, the sellers yell, heels click

Until 2 am or 3am.

night’s black berka slides over the form of beyoglu, covering her curvaceous body from the eyes of the lusty, and the 2-wheeled pop corn carts are chained up, the unsold almonds tossed into trash cans, music systems shut down, and the snores of saints and sinners alike saw away at night’s stillness.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Turning 'Dirty Harry' Diane in Egypt

Bread line in Luxur

The short plump receptionist at the Venus Hotel in Luxor, Egypt insisted that the street noise completely died down at 10.  He tugged at the brim of his NYPD baseball cap and eyed me up and down.

Staring into the darkness, wide awake at 2am, the scream of cars, motorbikes and trucks winding their way in front of the hotel was not exactly a lullaby.  And for reasons only known to the drivers, a cacophony of horn blaring was also part of the late night serenade. At about 3am I fell into a blessedly needed sleep only to be roused at 5am by the screaming of the muezzin from the mosque next door inviting the reverent to prayer.

We had come to Egypt post-revolution to support the brave souls who had struggled so valiantly and non-violently for democracy.  We would spend a little money in this now non-touristed country and I hoped to be able to write several articles when I returned to my home in Istanbul encouraging all who had ever wanted to visit Egypt to do so now.

 After breakfast at the hotel we made our way through the souk to the Nubian Coffee House.  Enroute every man in front of every stall barraged us with sales pitches.  Pushed shawls into our faces.  Kept up a non-stop verbal drone:
                “Madame where you from?”
                "Madame, you France?”
                “Madame, want pyramid?”
                “Madame, me best price.”
                " Madame, why you no stop?”
                 "Madame.  Madame. Madame."

We sat down at an outside table across from the local oven.  Men in long shirt-collared dresses and scarves wrapped around their necks stood in line waiting for the rounds of fragrant fresh bread to be passed out through the open window.  From the store next to us the smells of Egyptian musk, amber, and hibiscus wafted over to us. 
Having been grossly overcharged for a “Turkish coffee” the day before in Aswan, Daniela and I had vowed to ask the price before ordering. When the sweet young waiter came to take our order we ripped into him.
 “How much is it?” we demanded.
              “Five pounds,” he stammered recoiling from the onslaught of our aggression.
              “With sugar?” we asked, perhaps a bit more forcefully than necessary.
              “Yes,” he said eyes wide with alarm.
              “Okay, sorry,” we apologized somewhat abashed at our response.  And left a generous tip trying to make up for our rudeness.

I am not a rude person.  Daniela is not a rude person.  But something was happening to us.  The non-stop assault by touts and hawkers was eroding our normal decorum.  Overcharged, taken to places we didn’t want to go, our every step barraged by: “Where you from?  Madame come here! You want Felucca?  You know how much?  Best price.  Only 50 Egyptian pounds.  Maybe later, okay?” Men following us, talking incessantly into our ears, pushing their faces into ours, blocking our way: “You remember me?” My name Omar, Ahmed, Hamdi, Mohammed, Nassar and even Ziggy. “I wait here, okay?”  “You promise, okay?”  “You want husband? I have the big one.”

At first we tried to be polite.  Walking along the Nile on our first day in Aswan we were happy and relaxed.  “No thank you,” we said to the first tout.  He kept following.  “La shukran,” we tried in Arabic.  He continued pitching his felucca.  I turned, looked straight into his black eyes, and said firmly: “We took a felucca yesterday. We don’t want to take a felucca again today.” But undeterred he walked alongside us.  When he finally dropped off, the next one in a long line of white–robed touts attacked.  Lined up along the promenade above the Nile, they looked like roosting egrets waiting to pounce on prey.  They followed, mouths to our ears.  Over and over repeating prices, promises.  Blocking our path: Caleche, Madame?  Felucca, Madame?  Spices, Madame?
                “Come here!”
We tried to ignore them.  But like hungry 
mosquitoes they whined in our ears. Like angry bees they buzzed around our heads. 
I started to get firmer:  “No!  We don’t want a Felucca or a Caleche.”  No!  We don’t want to drink anything. We do not want to buy anything right now.”
                “Maybe later?”
                “Yes, maybe later,” Daniela would say.
                “You look like Chakira,” they repeated over and over to Daniela. 
                “You look like Egyptian,” they told her.  She’s Italian.

Then we tried speaking in Turkish.  Acting like we didn’t know any English, we stared at them blankly, shook our heads as if not comprehending.  Jabbered in Turkish. Undeterred by a language they didn’t know they prattled on in French, Spanish, Italian.  Finally, I reached the end of my endurance.  I cracked.  I, a tiny, sixty-three-year-old, forty-six kilo woman suddenly metamorphosed into Dirty Harry.

The dark-green gowned, dark-skinned Egyptian trailed alongside us unsuspecting. Never realizing that the petite old lady he was hounding was really Dirty Harry.
                “Felucca, Madame?  You know price?  You know price?  Fifty Egyptian pounds.  Best price.  You take?”  He followed us delivering  a non-stop diatribe of pleading, coaxing, haranguing, wheedling.
                I turned in front of him and stopped. A woman whose shell had cracked wide open.  And emerging from the shell, sprung a fully-formed, and ultimately dangerous Clint Eastwood.  My eyes narrowed into slits of pure malice.  I had become Dirty Harry.
Feluccas on the Nile
                ‘I killed my last Felucca driver,” I hissed out between clenched teeth.  You want me to kill you?  Come on let’s go to your Felucca.  Make my day.”  I stood before him jaw set, body tensed.  I drew my index finger across my throat while staring him down.
                “No Madame.  Don’t kill me!” he whispered scuttling backwards until he turned and fled in the opposite direction.
                It was then that I noticed the look on Daniela’s face.
                “You scared me,” she said and then we both started laughing so hard we were bent over, tears rolling down our faces.
I’m normally a mild-mannered woman.  A lover of humanity.  Compassionate.  Empathetic. I understand this is their job.  They have families to feed.  Bills to pay.  I forgive them all.
 But when a strange man touches me, blocks my path, lies to me or deceives me, I turn into Dirty Harry.  It took Luxor to provoke this transformation.

Then one smiling man shouted “Hello!  Welcome!”
We kept walking, ignoring him.
               “Welcome Madame!” he sang out again.
We avoided eye contact.
                “What’s wrong with you? Why are you so unfriendly?  I just welcome you to my country and you can’t even smile or say hello.  You are not women!”         

We tried to explain. “Because there are so many men who…”
                “No,” he insisted. “You are wrong!  You can smile.  Say hello.  You are not women!”  He turned and walked away scowling.

And in the end we’re the ones who are made to feel wrong.

We walked along the Corniche.  The blue Nile shimmering on our right.  The ancient one-sail feluccas gracefully skimming its calm surface, our heads bent in shame, feeling like we’ve failed ourselves, behaved less than admirably.

The massive papyrus columns of Karnak’s Hypostyle support our weight as we lean against them 
 spotlighted in rays of sunlight, reflecting on our journey.
Travel teaches so much.  Many of its lessons are unpredictable and unsolicited.  But always, a learning process.