I’m sorry. But I hate boutique hotels. I do. I hate the small minded stinginess: the lay-out of these miniscule, hyper decorated rooms that masquerade as trendy. So tiny, there’s only space enough to collapse and sleep. It’s nice. That the rooms are always so meticulously neat and tidy, the rolled up towels, the tight tucks of hospital corners, the cute little amenities displayed in metal and wicker baskets: condoms wrapped as candies, Frisbees, retro offerings of jellied Chuckles and chocolate Milky Ways. None of it has anything to do with service, of course. There is no service in boutique hotels. Even checking in and out has become like shopping at a local CVS.
No, I’ll take the ramshackle charms of The Splendid any day.
Oh my God, Mom. It’s like The Shining, “
These are the first words out of my daughter’s mouth as we stand in a lobby the size of a football field. Floor to ceiling gold encrusted mirrors, felt covered bezique tables, and the occasional tatty, group of Art Deco chairs and tables. The black and white marble floors, as cracked and wrinkled as the powdered skin of an old dowager’s face, seem to stretch on forever. And we are alone. It is blissfully empty. Totally Deserted. So, too, are the salons and dining room. I meander along another long corridor and stumble into a glass covered, sun lit inner courtyard with a magnificent, albeit dry, marble fountain .
“There are three sounds that make a Turk happy” says Selcuk, the sad eyed, elegant manager. “The sound of water, the sound of a woman, and the sound of money.” Selcuk has been here at the Splendid for 42 years. He works offseason and throughout the winter as a caretaker at a fantastically grand but rickety wooden mansion that once belonged to an Armenian shipping magnate.
The Splendid is in the town of Prinkipo on Buyukada in the Princes Islands—a 90 minute ferry ride from Istanbul. Built in 1906, at the height of the Art Nouveau movement, the hotel was a summer residence/resort for Istanbul’s wealthy upper classes . “Mostly Greeks, Jews, and Armenians,” says Selcuk. The annual exodus from the city was a family affair with the same suites reserved year after year for children, servants, and parents. Many travelled, even the short distance from city mansions and villas, with all the comforts of home, including their own silver tea services. One of them still sits in Selcuk’s office. A beautiful creamer, sugarer, tray, and pot, floridly monogramed with the initials D+D., two Armenian brothers and pashas.
Surrounded by all this luxuriously empty space, it’s easy to imagine the children, excitedly, climbing the sweep of wide marble stairs while nervous parents pull shut the squeaky metal grills of the only electric elevator in town. (2 persons only, reads the sign), As we extricate ourselves from its wood paneled cage, we step into more empty space and pull out our heavy gold keys. They stick in the tumblers and need teasing but when the doors open, I grin. The rooms are enormous, barely furnished with French windows, terraces, and spectacular views of blue skies and the sea of Marmara. Ecstasy, I say to my daughter. ‘
A nightmare, she replies. I’m not gonna sleep all night.
Centuries before the island became a posh resort, the piney hills that surround it were dotted with monasteries. Home to monks and exiled Byzantine emperors, princes and princesses who dreamed of politics and abandoned palaces while gazing out at the sea from the tiny grilled windows of their cells. Leon Trotsky was another famous exile. He lived in a fancy timbered palace that still stands with his four bodyguards and his wife from 1929-1933. He spent his days, fishing and writing. waiting for that invitation to return to Russia. An invitation that never came. “The world arrives here only after great delays, “ he wrote to a friend before moving on to what would become his final resting place in Mexico. City
There are no cars on the island. The horse driven fayton is the only mode of transport. I love that word and its allusion to the mythical boy who steered his father’s chariot too close to the sun and plunged through the skies to a fiery death. The faytons wait for passengers in a lot near the ferry. Like taxis at Kennedy airport. Taxis that snort and smell of dung. The hooves are shod in rubber from car tires to mute the sound of travel at night. This is another miracle on the island. There are no sounds at night. The 2,200 horses sleep in a vast complex of barns and stables at the other end of the island. There is no meowing from the hundreds of cats, no caw of seagulls, no bass or thrum of disco, no baying dogs. It isn’t until the first rays of dawn when the mournful horns of the first ferries arrive that our silence is disturbed.
There is a wonderful Turkish word that describes the charms of The Splendid. Buzun, they say. Broken glamour. Other hotels also had it: the old Peras Palace in Beyoglu, the London Connaught, The Grand in Rome. All gone now, unrecognizable. There will come a time soon, too soon, when the Splendid, this grande dame built during the twilight of the Ottoman empire, will succumb to the inevitable; when some property developer will either raze her to the ground or renovate and create a modern ruin. Rooms will be split up and subdivided and the glory of all this wasted space, space once filled with the gossip and chatter of those who have already disappeared (the Jews, Armenians, and Greeks) will be nothing but a distant, very distant, memory.
Wanna walk with me, Jay says.
I just stand there, f’ing frozen.
C’mon, he grins.
Do I want to walk with Jay Z?? Me and Jay Z? Jay Z and me? Are you kidding? I drop everything: wallet, pen, paper. Everything. And I’m over the rope. And it’s the two of us, strolling around this HUGE white space and he’s rapping Picasso Baby in my ear—oh what a feelin. I just wanna fuckin billion— and there are like 8 gigantic cameras, ahead of us and behind us, and in his face. And I’M DYING. Why, oh why, don’t I own a freakin’ cellphone?
It’s a performance piece—a video for the new album, Magna Carta. Fifty people at a time, mostly artists, at the Pace Gallery in Chelsea. Jay doing Marina Abramovic but not. At the MOMA, Marina didn’t move. She sat there as still as stone for hours, for days, while people sat across from her, staring, fidgeting, crying. I’m the first group in. So it’s a first for Jay, too. He’s never done it before. And it’s awkward. At least, in the beginning. “Like being in a 6th grade talent show,” says this scruffy, deeply hip painter, after his 3 minutes on the bench. “You’re in this creative force field. You don’t know what to do. I just felt soooo white!”
I know exactly what he meant. I was as stiff as a zombie during our stroll. Terrified I’d ‘bust a move.’ HAH! Me? Bust a move. I don’t think so. This was the weird thing about the event. All these deep hipster white people without a clue. But Jay took it all in that long, easy stride. He touched, he smiled, he posed. “See I’m posin’ now,” he said to two giggling women. “Did ya catch that? Did ya Tweet that? Here, I’ll do for ya it again.”
Then, he invited us all in and over the rope. And we’re this wall around him. No security. None of his people. We give him room. He raps. He breathes. He laughs. We’re polite. But the boundaries are blurred. It’s strange, how it somehow released the tension. His tension. I imagine that it must have been disconcerting—the sudden switch. Always protected; shielded by his ‘people’ from the public. Forget the fact it was a stunt (and that Marina Abramovic should NEVER have stood up and tried to dance.) Forget the fact people say he’s sold out to the system and there’s no such thing as a happy rapper.
I was fascinated by the proximity—by being close enough to sense/to feel his nerves/discomfort. On stage, the man is always in such total command/control. I’ve seen him silence 15,000 screaming fans for minutes at a time, just by quietly asking. And he seems so huge—colossal. The close ups of his face on those giant arena screens, the pyrotechnics, the amplification of sound. They’re all a reminder of the distance that both makes (and unmakes) a star. Yesterday, when he walked out alone into that vast, open space—no entourage, no spotlight, no special effects— when he rubbed his hands together and searched for eye contact, I was stunned. It was if he had suddenly shrunk. And I wondered how in hell you handle being human when it’s distance not proximity that makes you a star.
Sure, it was P.R., a spectacle, self serving. But it’s like the joke another artist, a dancer, next to me told her friend.
How many performance artists does it take to screw in a light bulb?
I don’t know, says the friend.
Who the fuck cares.
OMG!! I have NOTHING to wear. Soooo excited. Come back tomorrow for details.
Do you think they love their wives, Mom?
I answer instantly, impulsively.
OF COURSE, they do, N. Of course, they love their wives.
We’ve been watching a woman in a black linen burka eat her dinner.
Her husband and kids, dressed in designer jeans and button down shirts, happily chat and wolf down their meze appetizers and lamb entrees. The woman furtively lifts her veil out with one gloved hand like the flap of a pup tent while the other hand, also gloved, forks the food into her unseen mouth. The surrepticiousness, the speed, with which she does this makes the act of eating seem almost illicit, dirty.
It’s so humiliating, says N.
For us, yes, I reply. But it’s complicated.
Later, I will ask myself… How much more complicated is it than so many women at home who “choose” to remain in abusive relationships; modern, enlightened women who may not always endure the agony of physical abuse but for whom humiliation is a fact of life. They love their men. Or think they do: these smart, vivid women who tip toe through their daily lives, constantly belittled, diminished by fear and the cruelty of verbal assaults. Why do they tolerate it? What makes them different from the women here?
Earlier in the afternoon, I had spoken, briefly, with another middle-aged woman. We were visiting Suleiman’s mosque.
Where are you from, she says, adjusting her silk head scarf.
New York, I reply with a smile
Oh, she says, touching my elbow. Such a great city. I am from Saudi Arabia.
Really, I say, nonplussed.
Yes, From Rihadh.
I’ve never been there, I say.
Isn’t this beautiful, she adds, eyes gazing up at Sinan’s soaring dome.
It’s magnificent, I reply, alluding to the nick name of the sultan who built it.
What I’m really thinking the minute I hear the words Saudi Arabia from a woman, a woman who is obviously from a somewhat liberal- minded family (she is wearing a headscarf not a full burka) has nothing to do with sultans or the splendor of the 15th century structure that surrounds us. What I’m thinking is: has your husband ever attended a public execution in Riyadh? (Criminals are still beheaded with a silver sword.) What do you think of men stoning girls and women to death? What does it feel like to be alone, to be unaccompanied, even for a moment? Is it a luxury? And why are woman like you forbidden to enter a mosque and pray on Fridays, the holiest day of the week?
I should add that my reflex response to this woman and the news that she comes from Saudi is similar to my knee jerk response when I first listen, closely, to the call to prayer. Alluh Akbar! Alluh Akbar! All I can think of is Homeland and the scenes when Damien Lewis, aka Nick Brody, Marine and suspected terrorist, sneaks out of the house to pray in his garage.
As this woman retreats behind the latticed grill and sinks to her knees, I wonder how this perversion, this unholy and distorted view of women, could possibly have a place in a building as glorious as this. I have been in churches and cathedrals all over the world, from Jerusalem to Chartres. None of them speak to me as articulately or as intimately about the power or rather, the possibility of a god as these mosques. I’m not talking about the grand, showy masterpieces that define the city’s ancient skyline. Not the Blue Mosque, or Suleiman’s, or even the New (400 year old) Mosque near the Galata Bridge. It’s the tiny jewels like Rustem Pasha and the slightly more remote, Sokullo Mehmet Pasha Mosque in Kadirgalima, that confound and move me. It’s that seduction, the illusion of space, created on a smaller, more personal scale. This is what invites me to think irrationally about the divine.
Take the Sokollu Mehmet Pasha Mosque, for example. One of the greatest grand viziers of 16th Constantinople, he was the son of a Bosnian priest. Recruited as a young Christian to serve the Sultan as a Janissary, he converted to Islam and quickly rose through the ranks: admiral, soldier, confidante of not just Suleiman but of the two sultans who followed him. He commissioned this particular mosque in 1571 as a gift for his wife, Esma Han Sultan, the daughter of Selim 11.
Designed by Sinan, the great Ottoman starchitect, it’s hidden from the street, like a secret or some private thought. You descend the steep, wooded slope of a hill, overlooking the Marmara sea, and carefully walk down the mossy, uneven steps of a marble staircase. Then through a damp, stone tunnel, there is the sudden, miraculous surprise of a wide open marble courtyard. The Ablutions Fountain, folly- like with it stripey pink and white marble and whimsical conical top, still has its original brass taps.
Only gently restored in the 1930’s, the complex feels utterly abandoned. Which, for me, is part of its charm. The marble isn’t shiny or polished. The grey leaded domes of the medrese are dull with age. Tufts of grass poke through the roof in spots. Dervishes taught here long ago. They danced in a tekke beneath my feet. The tiny cells of the medrese that encircle the courtyard each had room for a single bed, a fireplace, a rug, and a shelf of books. The hamman or baths, the kitchens, the caravansary or stores that contributed to the upkeep of the mosque, haven’t functioned in hundreds of years. But oh my, the mosque itself…
First, you remove your shoes (which is practical not spiritual. Shoes would be unsanitary, unhealthy, in a space where the worship of Allah demands prostration and the repeated touching of the forehead to the ground.) Stooping beneath the heavy leather curtained doorway, a gesture of humility, you enter. The shock of snow-white plastered walls, the brilliantly cool blue Iznik tiles and swirling gold calligraphy, the sheer height of the kaleidoscopically painted dome, and the light. So much natural light…. All of it must transform the required acts of submission and prayer, the physical prostrations, into an almost unearthly pleasure.
Although the mosque does have its share of relics, chunks of the black meteorite from the Kaaba stone in Mecca are embedded in the lintels and mihrab, there are no heavy wooden pews, no altars, crucifixes or statues of saints. Not even the distracting sound of footsteps. There is nothing but stillness, silence., (Tho I am totally depressed to note that , thanks to religious authorities, the layers and layers of old rugs, some exquisite and priceless, others tatty but all donations, gifts, from the faithful, have vanished. They’ve been replaced in every mosque by the same, monotonously garish, wall- to- wall carpeting—carpeting that might just as easily cushion the footsteps of some Turkish oligarch in a McMansion on the Bosphorus.)
“He constructed a lofty medrese and house of knowledge at the courtyard of the joy-giving Friday mosque and soul expanding place of wonder which he built with artful wonders and heart alluring decorations….” This are the words of the dedication from the Grand Vizier in his foundation deed.
Where in this language, not to mention architecture, devoted to knowledge, joy, and wonder: even to heart alluring decoration, is there room for the abysmal treatment of the women who also came to worship here? One of whom was the beloved wife of the Grand Vizier himself. It’s a mystery to me: such exaltation, beauty and ugliness, this combination of the pure and the corrupt, of piety and pitilessness, arrogance and humility.
But I love that the mosque is untouched; that it remains overlooked and forgotten. For the past ninety years, since Ataturk created his vision of a secular, modern Turkey and abolished the caliphate, officially closed the medreses and took over the nation’s mosques, only the tourist attractions and heritage sites in Sultanahmet have been maintained with government money. This, of course, is now changing. Dramatically, as our ferociously smart and skeptical friend, Murat, points out. “The Arabs are bringing in money. Lots of money. They’re investing in our businesses. They’re renovating and opening new mosques, spreading the holy word. It makes us nervous.”
When the Arabs first arrived in Constantinople, they came as merchants. (This, after repeated attempts to conquer it during Byzantine times had failed, miserably.) They introduced the Ottoman empire to coffee which one disgruntled pasha described as “the black enemy of sleep and copulation.” Money, it seems to me, is a much blacker, more sinister enemy. I see it in the pristine, Disney-like renovation of the square in Sultanahmet. The imperial hammam of Aya Sophia looks like a spa in Los Vegas. Ditto for the gigantic fountain near the Hippodrome. Just add music and a light show and you could be at the Bellagio.
I remember when I wandered through here in the 80s. The place was deserted but so alive—It was alive not with touts pushing tours of the Bosphorus or busloads of weary tourists but with whispers of conspiracy and gossip among jealous eunuchs and ambitious viziers. Though many of the cobblestones were missing and the area was poorly lit, there was room in the shadows to imagine everything from the stealthy footsteps of the Sultan’s assassins, the deaf mutes who strangled their victims with a silken bowstring to stories of caiques crossing the Golden Horn from Topkai, dragging schools of bejeweled fish behind them (they were attached to the caique with silver chains.) Constantine, Justinian and his low born wife, Empress Theodora, Mehmet the Conqueror, Suleiyman the Magnificent and Roxelana, the most powerful woman in Ottoman history… All of them ruled, worshipped, lived, loved, murdered, even went mad, here or not far from this square. In fact, the man who built my favorite mosque, Sokollu Mehmet Pasha, issued an edict here in 1557. It guaranteed the rights and religious freedom of all inhabitants of the Ottoman Empire.
“See this tiny door,” says Murat, pointing to the service entrance of the luxurious Four Seasons in Sultanahmet. “This is the door prisoners walked out of the day they were released. It is why the street is still called Happy Day.” We grin. “And the other street up there,” he adds, pointing to the hotel entrance now blocked by a line of black Mercedes and BMV sedans. ”That is where they went in. It’s called Arrest Alley. We Turks find it amusing. They spend millions and millions of dollars turning a jail into a prison but forget to change the names of the streets.”
Gallows humor comes naturally to Murat. The friend of a very old friend in London, he is a jolly looking man in his early 70’s with a small belly, scruffy salt and pepper beard, and brown eyes that glint, occasionally, even twinkle. He is also a legend, an old world Marxist, an intellectual and author, who spent three years in prison for political crimes back in the 80’s. This, when Turkey was ruled by a military junta. “I have to respect Mr. Erdogan,” he says early in our tour. “He is the man who put the generals in jail. But then—and he chuckles—he is also the man who put the press in jail.”
Dodging a sudden rush of pushcarts, we weave through the insanely crowded, steep side streets of Eminou, an area that reminds me of the once bustling garment district in New York. Here, he he comes to another abrupt halt. Pointing to the names chiseled into the sooty, stone facades of ornately decorated 19th century buildings, he says: “These are hans, commercial houses. They were built towards the end of the Ottoman empire, back in the last days of Constantinople. And the names, all the names, are Armenian.”
Not long ago, this quiet homage, this gesture on the part of Murat, would have been considered subversive, even treasonous. Because the names are a form of testimony; proof that for centuries, more than a quarter of a million Armenians lived and worked in this city. The subject of the massacres, the wholesale slaughter of the country’s Armenian population, in the 1840’s and then again, in the 1920’s when Turkey successfully fought to become a nation, is still hugely controversial. To acknowledge it endangers the heroic god-like stature of Ataturk himself. It is only thanks to the stubborn, courageous voices of men like Murat, the writer, Orhan Pamuk, and others, that the taboo has, finally, been broken.
Perhaps, it is his outspokenness, his own personal history, that explains why so many young people ask for iPhone photos. I’m delighted, of course. These occasional paparazzi stops allow me to breathe a bit; to take the weight off my broken toes. (Yes, I broke my fucking toes, a week before departure.) “I am going to surprise you now,” he grins. “I’m going to take you somewhere few tourists ever go.” And he’s off, like some Turkish Sherpa, racing through the labyrinth of the Grand Bazaar. Touts shout and beg us to buy. I see a blur of neon lit signs for Caviar (“All gone”, says Murat. “Fished out.”), trendy bath and leather shops, watch shops, shops selling diamonds, and a spectacular gold domed pavilion where we take a sharp right. “The pavilion was famous for pudding,” Murat says. “I ate it as a child. Now no one wants it anymore.”
The sharp, fluorescent lights, and these oh so clean and pristine little lanes are nothing like Aleppo. It wasn’t grand, that fabulous bazaar beneath the Citadel. The medieval maze, the labyrinth of shops… They were dirty and barely lit. Camel’s heads hung from hooks, dripping blood. Slow moving donkeys, even sheep, blocked our impatient path. Looms were worked by fast moving fingers while men whittled wood and shoveled dough into ancient ovens. Until that moment when everything changed; that moment when we stood helpless and panicked, watching Idris, our “guide”, hit over and over again in the head by men, wielding those heavy metal poles they use to roll up shutters in the souk. His screams haunt me, still. I’ve heard that half of the souk was burned to ashes last spring. Yet despite that one hideously violent encounter, I treasure the memory of being there.
And I wonder what has happened to the incredibly kind, generous people we met? Where are they now? Are the mothers and children in camps on the Turkish border? Are the kids, the teenage boys, who introduced themselves as ‘professors’ of English, now fighters? Have they disappeared? Are they dead? I wonder why it is that when you hear that someone has died, someone you may have met maybe only once or twice, they no longer feel like a stranger. Then I hear Murat’s voice. “ It’s just ahead,” he shouts. “Up those flights of stairs.” I’m grateful for the voice. Like the hand that wrenches one out from the pull of a treacherous undertow, it brings me back the present. ‘
We’re standing in the ruins of an ancient han, an 11th century warehouse. The arcade, the galleries, above the courtyard are totally intact. “Nothing can be more animated and original than the great hall of these buildings when caravans arrived, ” wrote Charles White, a wandering Brit in 1846. “A wild and picaresque mixture of camels, horses, and mules in fantastic trappings, attended by men attired in every possible garb, armed with every possible weapon.” As we climb the first set of marble stairs, stairs worn thin and slippery by the feet of those who climbed before us: Persians, Russians, Armenians, Greeks, Jews, Africans, and Egyptians, I am thinking of how astonishing, how truly cosmopolitan, this city was during the times of the Sublime Porte, the Sultans. Peering into the doorways of tiny cells that line the darkly lit corridors, I fantasize about their contents. Rich, heavy silks, European broadcloth, frankincense, cotton, gold, sable and other furs, emeralds from India via Egypt, spices, even toothpicks made of ivory, orange and olive wood. I read somewhere that when money was exchanged between merchant and buyers, the coins were washed in purified water. A ritual that dated back to the terrors of the Plague.
Then, we’re climbing higher. Murat is speaking to a toothless old man, a man so diminished by time, he could be a jinn. He heads into a cell, furnished with a miniature mattress, a bunson burner. He grabs an enormous ring of keys from a hook near the window, and eagerly leads us towards another door. “We call him the porter,” says Murat. “Before I started coming up here, he had no job. He ran errands for the men who work here, carrying trays of hot tea or cleaning out the garbage. He is happier now.”
The door seems reluctant to open, even with the cajoling of our jinn. He pushes, it creaks, he pushes some more, and slowly, ever so slowly, it opens. Murat smiles. “You’ll like this,” he says. And I do. Suddenly, we’re strolling across the roof of this spectacular han, wandering along its twelve leaded domes. Grass, flowers, even a small tree grow around us. Like a meadow on top of the world. The sky, as blue as an Izmit tile, and the view… I put my hands on my knees for a moment and breathe. Suleiman’s mosque is so close, I feel as if I could reach out and touch it. Hundreds of boats: ferries, fishing boats, even cruise ships make their way across the Golden Horn. I can see the Bosphorus, the Sea of Marmara, and Uskadar, the Asian town once known as Scutari, where Florence Nightingale came as a nurse during the Crimean War. I am so moved by this orgy of sensations, I want to cry. And then, there is that explosion of sound from the minarets, the muezzin’s call to prayer. It’s everywhere. This is what I’ve missed in my years away from the world of travelling— these rare moments of such radiant happiness; of such child-like awe and wonder, you don’t think. You don’t dream. You just submit. You surrender. “Thank you,” I say to Murat. “Thank you.” He touches my arm. “A pleasure, he says. “Really.”
Ceyda G. is the daughter of Turkish diplomats. 31- years- old and eight months pregnant, she was with us in Gezi Park on Thursday afternoon, proudly pointing out the marvels of improvisation that, until police savagely destroyed it on Saturday night, had transformed this makeshift encampment of protesters into a symbol of hope and change for millions all over Turkey. An executive assistant for the president of a small but successful mergers and acquisition firm, Ceyda is one of the most level headed, dispassionate women I know. “Our company is connected to the government, of course. All successful companies are. But I have been here every night after work with my colleagues since June 1st. And my boss knows it. We bring medicine for the hospital tent, fire extinguishers, and food. “ Circling in and around the maze of tents, I stopped to read a placard: “Foreign Spies Within,” it said. The tousled head of a boy popped out. “We’re Erasmus students,” he croaked, before disappearing back inside to sleep. I also shook hands with an author who was signing copies of her new novel at the free library. The books were then inked with a special stamp: Gezi Park, Istanbul, 2013. The children’s art school was closed but the café was open. Two bearded middle-aged men in suits handed out hot bread, luscious fresh tomatoes, and bottles of cold water. I nodded and smiled at a beautiful, dark haired, woman emerging from yet another tent. Dressed in a linen floral print shift and slender brown leather sandals, she was carrying a briefcase. “Business as usual In Turkey,” Ceyda laughed.
Not quite, I thought. The night before we had eaten dinner at Bukhara, our favorite restaurant in Sultanahmet, the ancient neighborhood of Istanbul where busloads of tourists wait in endless lines to gape at the Blue Mosque, Aya Sophia, and Topkapi. “Two weeks ago, you could not get a chair inside or out without reservation,” our waiter said. “Now look.” The place was almost empty. There was something surreal not just about the vacant restaurant but about that whole scene at Taksim Square, the day before we left for New York. The idea of a woman, 8 months pregnant, casually strolling past hundreds of armed riot police—the same police who, only two days earlier, had fired tear gas and water cannons into the crowds. Yet here we were watching them devour their lunch-time salads and kebabs from take-out containers while peddlers in nearby carts and kiosks sold fresh flowers, gas masks, and pastel colored swimming goggles.
“Many of them have been here as long as we have,” said another young woman named Aylin as she walked us towards a restaurant to re charge her iPhone. “They don’t sleep, they haven’t seen their families. They’re scared.” Her compassion astonished me. A freelance human resources consultant, she and two friends had been sharing a tent since June 3rd. “I haven’t left the park for a meal in over a week,” she added. “Not until today. I feel guilty. The energy, the connection, inside here is so strong. “ As the waiters embraced her and offered free glasses of tea (‘from the heart’, they said. ‘On the house.’), she talked about her social media campaign. “Allah versus the Internet, I call it. There’s a big group of us who reach out every day to friends in Europe. But it’s getting more difficult. I’m not sure if the government is jamming our servers or if they are just overloaded.” Taking me by the hand, she then led me down the street towards the 5 star Divan Hotel. “These are our heroes right now, “ she smiled, waving to the uniformed doormen. “The Koc family. They have opened their floors to us, taken in the wounded. People say that their friend Erdogan, has already launched a tax investigation into their businesses.” The Koc family also owns Migros, a chain of Turkish supermarkets. “They have set up a digital service for protestors,” Aylin said. “We place an order on line, punch in our credit card number, and the food is delivered right to the park.”
This complicity, this silent support on the part of one of Turkey’s richest families, with a group Erdogan himself has referred to as ‘looters’ and ‘drunkards’ would have been unimaginable a mere month ago. But no more unimaginable than the support of women like Ceyda, and Aylin and the corporate lawyer we met in Alacati, a resort town on the Aegean coast that is Turkey’s version of East Hampton. Dressed in a short black silk skirt and transparent white chiffon shirt, she and her extremely elegant date were seated at a table next to us. Within minutes of our arrival, she insisted on sharing a glass of Raki, (“lion’s milk,” she winked) and their main dish, a salt encrusted sea bass. “I have been bored for years in my work,” she said, delicately removing the skeleton of bones for us. “I have wanted a job that would make me happier, more peaceful. But for the first time in my life, my work means something. I am helping defend the people who have been arrested.” Her date leaned over and kissed her.
Oddly enough, it was the coffee we shared with a rug dealer three hours before our departure that touched me the most. He and his uncle owned a store down the block from our hotel. We called him the Turkish Daniel Day Lewis. Every morning, he would catch a glimpse of us, rushing past and run out, shouting: “Please, let me help you spend your money, lady. I am good at spending your money. “ (The only thing more persistent and/or reliable than the muezzzin’s call to prayer in Istanbul is this constant, clamorous call to buy, buy, buy.) But on Friday afternoon, there was no sales pitch. “Come in for coffee,” he begged. “No rugs, I promise. Just coffee and talk. “ So we sat, cross legged on a magnificently threadbare old Kerman and listened. “Did you go to the piano concert,” he asked, hopefully. (The concert in the park on the night of June 12th made news all across the world.)
“No, we missed it.”
“Ah! It was so good, he said, wistfully. “There is no business now,” he added, matter- of- factly. “I have never known this to happen. But it is OK. Because I don’t think about that now. All I think about is Gezi Park.”
This is all I am thinking about, too, on this Monday morning in New York. I am thinking about and wondering what happened to Aylin and the beautiful, young woman I saw emerging from her tent with the briefcase. I am wondering if the lawyer we met in Alacati has been arrested and if those doormen at the Divan Hotel were hurt when police tear gassed the lobby on Saturday night. I am even wondering about the Koc family. Thankfully, our friend Ceyda is fine. We spoke on Saturday morning, an hour after the police, those same police I had watched eat their lunch on Thursday afternoon, demolished the physical evidence of what had become such a fragile but incredibly courageous symbol of hope and change. “I’m alright,” she said. “I thought about going in but I was so tired. So I stayed home. But I forgot to tell you about my appointment with the doctor. He did a sonogram. He pointed to the baby’s hand. “See that?” he said. “The fingers of the hand are closed.”
“Yes, because it’s a fist,” I said to the doctor. “A fist of defiance.”
This morning, Wednesday, Ceyda is back at work in her office near Taksim Square. She e mailed me a photo of the famous Standing Man with this comment: I love the idea of a movement symbolized by stillness.
She also sent along a recent government press release with her favorite paragraph highlighted. “I think I am living in the Twilight Zone,” she said.
Statement on the Recent Developments by Egemen Bagis
Minister for EU Affairs and Chief Negotiator
“Turkey has the most reformist and strongest government in Europe and the most charismatic and strongest leader in the world. Should anyone have a problem with this, then I am truly sorry. Only for those who feel overwhelmed, the leadership of Prime Minister Erdoğan is a problem.”
Feel free to check in or not. Back mid June. Thanks to all for reading.
"She carried herself in such a way as to suggest that she judged you by how you overcame your fears. This, she seemed to say, was the purpose of being alive."
"I can say that this moment is what makes us human and the very darkness you confront will make you burn with a light so heartbreakingly short, just a breath on coals, but which (if you are like me) will be distinguished by your caring for others. That is the best. The darkness that you face is cunning and it knows that time is its ally, its devious, vicious compatriot, and that the two together can get people to do all kinds of things out of fear, out of terror, which let me tell you, is not something to be sneered at."
"just a breath on coals…" sublime. From All the Dead Yale Men. A marvelous, marvelous book
Picture this… It’s Friday night and you’re at a pet circus. (And OK. What the hell are you, what am I, doing at a pet circus?) The theater is packed, hundreds of little children, screaming. The lights dim. More screams. Then we see a four story cardboard building. It’s on fire. No, surely not. But yes, smoke billows from the windows. We hear a sound track of barking dogs and meowing cats. The audience whimpers. What the fuck? Pets trapped in a burning building? How sick is this? But hey, we’re in Brighton Beach. And this is a RUSSIAN pet circus. So, of course, there are pets trapped in a burning building. A tiny red fire engine roars to the rescue. Bells ringing. Cats stand, drunkenly, on two legs, carrying pails of water. Two of them attempt to climb a ladder and fail. We gasp. Eventually, with the help of their trainer, a man who looks like a geriatric, alcoholic, Daniel Craig, the fire is put out.
Oh how I love Brighton Beach. Land of tortuously teased, blown out, bottle blondes in spiky heels; of thug-like men in shiny suits and the original babushkas, grandmothers wrapped in the carcasses of short-haired mink and squirrel. Smiling, always smiling. This is not a group with much grace or style. But there is canniness, a great love of small children and a sense or respect for occasion. I’m sure that the audience still dresses not just for Church but perhaps even for trips to the airport. Stuck in its own twilight zone; in a time warp, Brighton Beach is all that is left in the world of Old Russia. Pre oligarch, pre Putin and designer logos, it is the Russia that was once ruled by a single logo: the hammer and sickle. Obviously, this is a demented sort of nostalgia. No one misses Communism, except perhaps, for the millions who are pensionless, hungry, and broke. The audience around me are immigrants, all of whom fled the old Russia. But there is something about the tackiness; the fact that the show is so imperfect and even wildly inappropriate, that appeals to me. Unlike extravagant, multi million dollar spectacles like Cirque de Soleil , spectacles that are now almost boring, precisely because they are so flawless and sanitized, there is an intimacy to the shows here in Brighton Beach. It is an intimacy that, despite its casual cruelty to animals and the weary, sad face of the trainer, seems utterly human.
When we discreetly sneak out of the theater for dinner nearby, I remember my favorite scene in Slava, The Snow Show. (Slava is Russia’s most famous clown.) Slava enters the stage dragging a rope. There is a noose around his neck. He’s tired. As he slowly, ever so slowly, walks towards the other side of the stage, he continues to look back, pulling and dragging on this endless piece of rope. He looks out at the audience. He shrugs. He goes back to work., Then, suddenly, we see what’s at the other end. It’s another clown. With a noose around his neck. I guffaw. I laugh so hard, I’m crying. The rest of the audience, mostly American, is not laughing. They sit there, stunned and silent, wondering what they missed. Namely, the point. Two suicidal clowns, unable to even kill themselves because they share the same piece of rope. I thought it was brilliant. The scene was cut after that first performance on opening night.