Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Wednesday, June 12, 2013 - No comments

Mundane Terror, Roaring Calm

photo from

There is a strange sort of calm in my village these days.  It’s not any calmer than it usually is, but the fact that there is so much unrest around the country makes the quiet in my own backyard all the more disquieting.  For the past fifteen days, in nearly every city in the nation, hundreds of thousands of people have been staging anti-government protests, often resulting in violent clashes with the police.  I watch the rallies and the resulting “skirmishes” on the news each day, but if it weren’t for the fact that all the placards and graffiti are in Turkish, I might as well be watching events unfolding in Aleppo or Tahrir Square.  It feels that far away.

Last week, turning to Facebook and YouTube for current events when the local stations were downplaying things, I watched in disbelief as protestors set fire to vehicles in front of the ruling party’s headquarters just a few miles from my house.  Social media was alive with information on which streets were “controlled” by the police, which pharmacies were open ‘round the clock to take in wounded protestors and home remedies to combat the effects of tear gas.  The whole nation was on fire, it seemed.  

Still, in my municipality, a stronghold of the party in power, the only signs that anything has been going on at all are the quiet removal of a few flags from balconies (lest they be mistaken for support) and the clucking of tongues of a few teyzes who disapproved of “the mischief of those young people.”

In my city, for the most part, the TOMAs (riot control vehicles) are back in their garages and the battle has shifted back into a mainly ideological one.  A large plaza downtown - like so many around the country - has been “occupied” by protestors staging what is now largely a peaceful sit in.  Students chant slogans, people browse through an open-air library, tea is distributed with generous smiles. But this isn’t the case everywhere and things are far from settled.  It may well be a long, turbulent road to next year’s elections.

I read an article recently by a journalist who lives in Istanbul, just off Taksim Square, the epicentre of the uprising.  She detailed the sights and sounds - the “mundane terror” - that, whether she chooses to take part in the protests or not, have invaded the most minute aspects of her daily life since this season of unrest began - tear gas wafting through her windows, the banging of pots and pans in opposition to the status quo, and riot police stationed on her street.  

We may live in the same country, but her experience is the polar opposite of mine.  With the events of the last two weeks at the forefront of my mind, the very absence of that “mundane terror” feels all the more pronounced.  The “revolution” is all around me - in my newsfeed and in the recently tear-gassed eyes of the friend I sit across from at Starbucks - and yet nowhere to be seen.  The contrasting normalcy of my immediate surroundings makes it all feel like a dream, the silence shouting back in counterpoint.

Outside my window, I hear the gardener spraying the grapevine with a hose, and I can’t help but wonder how many people are being knocked off their feet by water cannons at this very moment.   In the apartment building across the olive grove from me, an old woman hangs her laundry out to dry in the sun.  Downtown, her secular counterparts hang flags and pictures of Atatürk on their balconies, wishing they were young enough to join in the marches.  A child playing on my street calls out excitedly, “Mom!  The watermelon truck’s coming!”  while somewhere in Adana a university student screams to her friend, “Look out!  A TOMA is coming!”

At the pazar, sellers cry out, “Peaches, two lira a kilo!”  In İzmir, a mob cries out, “Hükümet istifa!  Hükümet istifa!”  (“Government resign!”)  A hurdacı (junk collector) rolls through my neighbourhood gathering broken furniture and old washing machines, while in Beşiktaş, residents grab their brooms and clean up the debris after another night of rioting.  At the bus stop, a woman pulls the corner of her headscarf over her mouth to block the dust.  In Taksim, a professor pulls a gas mask over his face and stands his ground.

When I arrive home in the evening, I inhale the sweet smell of honeysuckle and akşam sefası.  In Kızılay Square in Ankara, a woman gasps for air as she is bombarded with tear gas.  The clatter of silverware on plates gives way to laughter and the sound of tiny spoons in tea glasses as my neighbours settle in for a night of balcony chatting.  Downtown, the clanging of the nightly “pots and pans protest” begins promptly at the stroke of nine.  I run excitedly to my window, trying to catch a glimpse of the wedding fireworks I hear exploding in the sky.  An old man in Istanbul tosses and turns, unable to sleep for the sounds of tear gas canisters and rubber bullets bursting in the street below.  

And so, with my eyes glued to the evening news and my knees glued to the floor, I continue to live in the tension between “here” and “there”.....

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Wednesday, June 05, 2013 - No comments

It Comes With the Territory

I am a teyze magnet.  I attract little old ladies everywhere I go.  It’s a fact of my life here that hardly a week goes by without a cheek pinch or an invitation to marry a young nephew or grandson by a wrinkled and toothless auntie on the bus or at the market.  

I suppose I attract them because they attract me.  I find a group of ladies knitting on the sidewalk positively irresistible and don’t have to be asked twice to come and sit awhile.  Besides children, they’re the easiest segment of society to smile my way into, and I love the cheeky way they’ll joke and speak their minds, having cast off polite restraint decades ago.  They have all the time in the world to tell stories and, as long as I can sort out their accents, they are usually fascinating.  And there’s almost always çay.

Last week, my roommate and I were showing her niece around Kapadokya.  I’m always excited to visit my favourite region of the country, but sometimes when the activity is something I’ve done before (can we say six trips to the Göreme Open Air Museum?) I like to wander off and do my own thing.  After a straight week of guests and gezzing (sightseeing/showing people around) I was in desperate need of some alone time and my friends’ planned stroll through the carpet and pottery shops provided just the opportunity I’d been waiting for. 

I’d brought my journal along and had an hour of introverting at a cafe in mind.  Trouble was, I’d also brought my camera, and all those old stone houses and winding cobblestone streets proved too much for me and my Canon sidekick to resist.  After a satisfying meander through the upper old quarter, replete with the wooden doors, stone arches and wrought iron balconies my eye so loves, I came upon a gaggle of teyzes sitting on cushions and knitting slippers in the shade. 

I called out a “Merhaba” (“Hello”) and a “Kolay gelsin” (“May your work come easily”) which were instantly reciprocated with a “Come sit and talk to us!”  Throwing all introverted needs to the wind, I obliged.  Şalvar-clad hips made room and a fresh cushion was laid.  After the usual “Where-are-you-from-how’d-you-learn-Turkish-maşallah-you-should-marry-a-Turk” chitchat, they settled back into the rhythm of their knitting needles, their hennaed fingers flying.  

The woman to my right, who didn’t look a day over a Turkish sixty (which, incidentally, looks like a Canadian ninety) turned out to be eighty-one years old.  She modestly regaled me with her family history - Grandpa was a pasha, Dad was a military officer during Atatürk’s “taking back of the land” and the founding of the Republic in 1923.  (“Did he meet him, Teyze?”  “Of course, and he loved him.”)  Her father, who had been dead for 57 years, moved the family back to their hometown of Avanos before she was born, so she knew nothing of the Istanbul life of her older siblings and had lived in this neighbourhood all her years.  (“That house is the one I was born in.  That one over there was my mother’s sister’s but we sold it to some Dutch tourists....”)

The “younger” woman to my left, darker than the others complexion and clearly from out east (“But I’ve lived here forty years”) was singularly interested in selling me her woolen booties. 

From the end of the row came an offer to show me around some of the prettiest houses (“I have to walk up that way anyway”) so off we went.  Sahide Teyze, in her white headscarf and brown sweater vest, led me up the block and made a tottering beeline for an elegant stone mansion that, judging by the way she walked up to the wooden outer door and started fiddling with the latch, I assumed was hers.

“Hoo hoo!  Are you home?”  She shouted instead of knocking.  “Oh, they’ve shut it tight,” she said, beginning to shove her shoulder against the sticky door.

Teyze, be careful, let me do it!”  She either didn’t hear me or didn’t care and continued to fuss with the door.  

“They’ve locked it, I see.”  She reached through a small hole and tried to lift a metal bar.  I started to wonder if I was about to become a trespasser.

“There, I’ve got it,” she exclaimed with a wheeze and a look of triumph.  “Come in, come in.”

I followed her into a high-walled courtyard dotted with pomegranate and apricot trees, a wheelbarrow and bags of cement.  The main house rose in front of us, its tall arches gazing down like eyes from the second floor, intricate designs carved into the pale yellow stone walls.  

“Come see the restoration they’ve done.”  She led me through an archway to a white-washed room with a vaulted ceiling.  “These walls used to be painted so pretty.”  She shook her head, fingering the plaster.  

The faint sound of a drill came from somewhere upstairs.  

“Ah, they are home!” she exclaimed, making her way towards the stone staircase in the courtyard that led to the upper floor.  I was beginning to wonder who “they” were.

The stairs were a considerable feat for her old legs, but she persevered to the top.  I followed behind in spotter mode.  In front of the house’ magnificent stone facade was small garden in which a grey haired man of about sixty, wearing protective goggles, was crouched down drilling holes into a piece of wood.  

“Hoo hoo!  Merhaba!” Sahide Teyze called out.  

The man looked up, his expression going from startled to mildly irritated to resigned in a matter of seconds.

Kolay gelsin,” I said to him.  

“Thank you,” he replied in English.  “Please, sit.”  He dusted off two plastic chairs and we sat.

“You aren’t Turkish?” I asked.

“No.  And neither are you.”

I laughed.  “I’m sorry to have barged in on you like this.”  I glanced at the grinning teyze beside me, who was watching a caramel-striped cat with great interest.  “She insisted on showing me.  I thought this was her house.”

“Ah, yes, well, it used to be.  She likes to stop by unannounced.”

Sahide Teyze leveled her eyes at the man.  “You still haven’t come over for tea!  Where is your wife?”

“Working in the house,” he answered slowly in Turkish. 

Just then a tanned woman with dyed-blond hair in a strappy pink tank top and cut-offs emerged from the house’s arched entryway.  He eyes lit up when she saw Sahide Teyze - seemingly more in genuine delight then faked hospitality - and she kissed the older woman on both cheeks.

“You said you were going to come for tea!”  Sahide Teyze swatted her on the bottom.  

The woman smiled good-naturedly at this accusation and gestured at the house.  “Çok iş var.”    (“We’ve had so much to do.”)  “Bu hafta,” she said, her hand over her heart.  (This week.)  

“I’ll go get us some lemonade,” she continued in English and disappeared into the house, returning a minute later with glasses of cold, thick peach juice.

“Where are you from?” I asked the man.


Ah, the “Dutch tourists!” I thought.

“And did you just buy the house?  Congratulations.”

“Oh, no, we bought it six years ago.  We come work on it every summer holiday.”

Six years and she still feels free to pop the latch and poke around!  And to bring in some foreigner off the street for a tour!  Then again, she is a teyze.  I suppose it comes with the territory.