Thursday, July 26, 2007


The Yale Institute is over; everyone is gone; Greta, our Yale Institute leader, has gone on to Syria. I’m very tired. Today I tried to rest, especially because it’s been unbearably hot and you can’t walk for long before feeling dizzy, despite drinking bottles and bottles of water. I had been considering going on to Bucharest, but I saw on BBC World that over 500 people have died there this week because of the extreme heat. Budapest and Sofia are no better. There are raging fires in Greece (while monsoons drench northern India), so I looked into the Mediterranean coast in Turkey and was told by a travel agent that it’s equally hot and uncomfortable. Thus, I’m going up in altitude to Cappadocia where it’s cooler than Istanbul and there’s less pollution and even more history. I’ve been assured by the travel agent that there’s wireless in my cave hotel, so I aim to continue this blog. As I write this, a 6.9 earthquake has rocked Indonesia. Over two million Iraqi refugees have overwhelmed Syria; the US has agreed to take 7,000 of them. The new sensation on is a 4-minute video of 1,500+ inmates dancing to Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” in the Cebu Provincial Detention and Rehabilitation Center in the Philippines. In Harare, Zimbabwe, as the country prepares for a weeklong demonstration against the government, thousands of protesters have been brutally beaten and imprisoned. India has agreed to buy nuclear technology from the US. Twenty-two Koreans are still in captivity in Afghanistan; one has been killed by the Taliban, their 42-year-old Christian minister, whose body was dumped in the dessert. Bulgaria makes the news again: Europeans are horrified that impoverished families willingly sell their children to shady individuals who traffic them to affluent parents who bypass legal adoption processes. And, Istanbullus continue to seem surprised by the outcome of Sunday’s election. (I’ve updated my blog entry on politics; check it out.)

The heat seems inconsequential. If only Lady Mary Wortley Montague (a Brit who traveled through Turkey and lived in Istanbul in the early 1700s) could be here now. I was just reading a letter she wrote in 1763: “The climate is delightful in the extremest degree. I am now sitting, this present four of January, with the windows open, enjoying the warm shine of the sun, while you are freezing over a sad sea-coal fire; and my chamber set out with carnations, roses, and jonquils, fresh from my garden.”

The news is absurd, depleting; I’ve no words to describe what it does to the soul. Better to get lost, for just a little time, in Turkish history, beauty and culture—coffee, for instance. (Alright, twist my arm, I admit that I’ve been hanging around coffee houses.) I did not know that Turkey introduced cafés to the world. Yes, the very “cradle of civilizations” that has the remnants of 13 successive societies (Hittites, Assyrians, Phyrigians, Urartians, Lycians, Lydians, Ionians, Persians, Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Seliuks and Ottomans) spanning 10,000 years also gave birth to neighborhood cafés! (And you thought it was Starbucks? Sorry, their first store opened in Seattle’s Pike Place public market in 1971, and yes, it was innovative in that it sold fresh-roasted whole bean coffee.) Okay, the coffee plant grew naturally in Ethiopia, but the Turks were the first to adopt it as a common drink, often adding spices such as clove, cinnamon, cardamom and anise to the brew.

Prior to 1000 AD, members of the Galla tribe in Ethiopia were energizing themselves by using ground coffee beans mixed with animal fat (eeeeeeuuu!). Then at about 1000 AD, Arab traders brought coffee back to their homelands and began to boil the beans. By 1453 coffee was being used in Ottoman Constantinople. (At that time, Turkish law allowed a woman to divorce her husband if he failed to provide her with her daily quota of coffee.) The world's first coffee shop, Kiva Han, opened in Istanbul in 1475. (The first coffee house in Italy opened much later in 1645; in England in 1652; in Paris in 1672.) By 1600 coffee had been introduced to the West by Italian traders. By 1607 Captain John smith who founded Jamestown in Virginia had brought coffee to North America. By 1668 in New York coffee had become a breakfast staple. By 1920 prohibition had boosted the sales of coffee so that by 1940 the US imported 70 percent of the world’s coffee crop.

My favorite place to drink coffee is the Pierre Loti Café at the top of the hill in Eyüp Cemetery. From there, you can see the Golden Horn, which was settled in the 7th century BC and historically has been described as the world’s greatest natural harbor. You can see the whole city, and the Galata Bridge that was built in 1992 to replace the (now rebuilt) pontoon bridge (also called the Galata Bridge) located further away. You can distinguish the rebuilt pontoon because the lower level is packed with restaurants; on top, men line the sides where they spend hours fishing. Galata Tower, the most recognizable feature of the Golden Horn, looms nearby. I took the elevator up the 196 feet high open balcony for another magnificent view (despite the haze of pollution) of the city. I like the Loti Café because it’s decorated in 19th century furniture (even the waiters wear period clothes), because the views are exquisite, and mostly because of the romance and literary history.

It turns out that the café is named for one of its customers, Pierre Loti (his real name is Julien Marie Viaud Rochefort), who was a prolific and romantic travel writer, and who had great affinity with what we now call the Middle East. Loti once admitted that he felt he had a “half-Arab soul.” He also said, when he was a child, “I will wander all the world over and return, a grey-haired man, to the home of my father to muse on the strange and beautiful things I have seen.”
Loti was a midshipman in the French navy and thus traveled widely. He first visited Istanbul in 1876, immersed himself in Turkish life, lived in a house in Eyüp and fell in love with a married Turkish woman, Aziyadé, who dared to sneak out of her husband’s harem to spend time with Loti. Loti had to leave in 1877, and years later when he returned to Istanbul he found that Aziyadé had died. Overwhelmed with sadness, he sat at the café that now bears his name and he mourned. Eventually, after turning his memories into a semi-autobiographical love story titled Aziyadé, he took her tombstone back to his house in Rochefort, France, where it can still be seen.
I leave for Cappadocia on the 31st; I’m sorry I’ll miss seeing Konya. I'll leave you with more wise literary words written by Turkish painter, writer, journalist, sculptor and cineast, Abidine Dino (1913-1993) who wrote:

Every summer Turks placidly watch foreign migration flowing into their country, those same Turks who had at one time practiced an admittedly more belligerent form of migration. But the old motive is still there: a delight in seeing the world. Today the verb “see” is gaining ground: one learns to see, one is able to see, one occasionally loses all hope of seeing. We try to see in paintings, photography, films and television, with the eyes of others and with our own. Nothing is ever totally satisfying. I still remember one morning in 1953 at Vallauris, where Picasso said, with a note of sadness: “A man sees only once or twice in a lifetime.” It is true, but also shattering. How does one approach this Turkey? Should you forget about seeing and instead, taste grilled swordfish or Bosphorus strawberries? Or the contraband alcohol known as bogma “stangler” or lamb grilled over vine shoots? To glimpse Turkey would it be better to prance dead drunk to the beat of an enormous drum on the roofs of a village in round dances of another era? Or is the answer to sit at the bow of a Bosphorus boat under the finger of light piercing a snow storm at night? Perhaps one could guide a plough behind a bony ox or suffocate from dust on a road while jeeps race by.

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