Call to Prayer

The call to prayer in the still-dark Istanbul morning reminded me of Sri Lanka. I got out of bed and stood on the balcony. There was nothing to see but lights on Istanbul’s Asian bank and the ships moving across the Bosporus. The voice called again and I felt cold. But also warm.

“What are you doing?” Z asked, propping up on one elbow.

“Listening,” I said.

“Can you listen with the door shut? It’s cold.”


One day years ago, I was stuck in traffic on the 520 Bridge that connects Seattle to The East Side. To the south: rough water, and Mt. Rainier. To the north the water was as smooth as a bath tub. A call like I’d just heard came over the radio, followed by an NPR voice. At the time I’d thought the story was fantastic: Turkish Imams were called in for voice training based on neighborhood complaints on their calls to prayer. While they were gone the voice teacher gave the mosque a tape of his call to prayer to play morning, noon, and night. The question, the NPR voice asked, was whether the Imams returning from voice school were still playing the recording and sleeping-in in the morning.

Of course they wanted to sleep in, I’d thought. But now, shivering, I felt they could not but want to be awake.

Chicken Pudding, Tavak Gogsu

Istanbul, Turkey

Several months ago, when Z and I decided to go to Istanbul, our good friends and eating companions, Shyam and Thanuja decided to go too. Not with us, but before us. They got home a week before we left.

“The women there know how to dress,” Thanuja told me. We were in Seattle, on our way to pick quince. “You need good boots, and a nice coat. And I have a book for you, for recommendations, restaurants and little places to eat. From the same people who wrote the Istanbul Eats blog.”  This is great, I thought. It’s like I have a scout.

As soon as we got to Istanbul, Z  had the book out and was flipping through it, looking for dinner.

“They left notes for us,” he said, almost smirking. “Says here that Shyam won $500 dollars—betting that some chard they had in a meze was steamed and not sautéed.”

“And he was right?” I asked. Thanuja is more of the cook.

“I guess so,” Z said, “If he won the money.”

I laughed. If you know them, this sounds quite familiar. It is wonderful to have friends. They were so far away, but it felt like they were right there with us.


We rattled down the stairs and up the hill and onto a road so full of people that they seemed to flow like a river. Lights hung between the buildings, above the glass store fronts, from the old ornate molding. Chestnut roasters stood behind red carts, turning their chestnuts and warming their hands. A trolley that reminded me of San Francisco slowly parted the people and the women, in their boots, clicked and clacked on the cobblestones.

When I was living in Italy, I had a night, alone, in Milan, on my way home for Christmas. Heels and coats, window displays, lights between buildings. It was so beautiful it had made me lonely. I took Z’s arm.

“What are you thinking?” he asked.

“It is like Milan,” I said. The biggest difference was not in the place, but in his presence.

“What were you expecting?”

Only when I said it did I realize: “I was expecting it to be more foreign.”

Z nodded and steered me towards the side of the street. We peered into a window. Trays upon trays of small confections were stacked on top of each other. Green, brown, crispy, soft, translucent…

“Baklava.” Z said. I recognized them, and yet they were completely different.

Before I could go in he steered me back across the street and pointed to another glass case. The light in the shop lit up his features. “And tavak gogsu.”

“Is that the..?” But before I could finish my sentence Z was inside the pasteleria, talking to the man at the counter. I followed him in. We sat down. The man brought a dish to our table, white and wobbly, browned on top.

“Sweet chicken pudding?” I finished. Z already had the spoon in his mouth.

He nodded.

“So there’s chicken in there?” I asked, more to emphasize my skepticism that to hear his answer.

“It’s a thickener,” Z said, when he swallowed. “You can’t even taste it.”

“Then why use it?” I asked.

“It’s a texture thing. Here have some, it’s delicious.” He stuck a bite in my mouth, quick and decisive, like he was feeding a toddler.

Smooth and thick, rich and toothsome. My first thought? “This is so familiar.”

“Did I ever tell you,” I asked, as I took another bite, “how my sister used to make pudding at night?”

Z nodded and I began the story.

Very safe. Very boring.


After several weeks of waiting for a reply from the Servas hosts, Z and I decided to go ahead and try to extend our hotel stay.

“We can always meet them for dinner,” I said, “If they get back to us later.”

Z made the call. “All taken care of. The hotel even insisted on sending a taxi to pick us up at the airport.”


We flew into Istanbul at the pink of sunset. “Look,” Z said, taking my book from my hands, “We should be able to see the mosques.” I leaned over him and into the window. The plane banked. I saw only sky. Z sighed. “I guess we are on the wrong side.”

I looked up. All of the passengers from the middle of the plane over were bent towards the windows. Sighs eased from their mouths. An orange ray shone on their faces and up onto the cabin ceiling. I leaned over too, but I couldn’t see a thing.

“Do we call when we land?” I asked. Z shook his head. ‘They said the driver would be there with a sign.”

We walked out of customs, looking. Men leaned against the railing, some clean-shaven, some in beards, some wearing the same small cylindrical hat Z said Sri Lankan Muslims wore after making a pilgrimage.  They held signs with names, clipboards and tour company posters. I’ve always wondered who these signs were for, who would be meeting someone they didn’t know, what the meeting would be like. We looked for our names. And then looked some more. Then we looked at each other. There was no one here for us. “What do we do now?” I asked, just to say the words.

Z shrugged. “Wait?”

And so we waited. I watched the women. One, in a track suit, leaned over the currency exchange counter, petit, but rounded. She had the figure of my best friend. Another, young, her head covered in black, ran into the arms of an older woman, smiling so widely I had to smile too. She put the woman’s hand to her forehead, and then kissed it, before falling into her with a hug. She was a large woman, but soft. Good, I imagined, for a hug. Many others wore scarves over their heads, silk flowers folded into a triangle, and tied under the chin. With this: long winter coats that came to their ankles. Children holding their fingers. Their cheeks ruddy, their eyes kind and black.

“More heads are covered,” I said, “than I expected.”

Z nodded. “They are probably returning from their Pilgrimage too.” We’d seen many muslim families in the airport in Sri Lanka. “It is the season.”

I looked over again. One woman took a small child from her shoulder and handed it to a man with the same eyes, and lashes. The woman next to her took two corners of the child’s blanket. The mother took two others. The man placed the child inside, and walked away. The women swung the blanket and the child back and forth, laughing. His cries ceased. I turned Z to show him. When I turned back a man with a sign was rushing past. 5 Oda it said. And then it said my name.


“Besh oda?” The man asked. And I learned my first word in Turkish. Besh, rhymes with mesh. Five. 5 Oda.

“Besh oda,” I nodded.

The man sighed. “This way please.”

We drove along the Bosporus, black and glinting, in Friday night traffic, passing, with busses, under what I’d call ruins. We stopped and started. In the distance the minarets glowed, tall yellow spires. “Four is Suleymaniye, 6 is Blue Mosque,” the driver said. I leaned over Z to look. They looked like tall thin, supermodel rockets.

The driver turned into a narrow road, with small shops lighting it from either side. People pulsed down the sidewalk. The car rumbled over cobblestone. The driver made another turn, as if into darkness, and stopped.

“Here?” I asked. I am always amazed that ‘here’ can be anywhere. And that when you don’t know where you are you can arrive without even knowing it.

“Besh Oda?” The driver said turning around, tired, with a hint of exhaustion and doubt.

“Yes,” Z said, “Besh Oda.” The driver sighed.

“Tesh…” Z closed the door.

“What did you say?” I asked him.


“Say it again?”

“Teshekur ederim,” Z said, very slowly.

I tried, he shook his head. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I couldn’t say it either. When I was here before Murat’s mom invited us over for dessert, and when I tried to thank her, she said, ‘Speak Turkish, you are in Turkey! She then drilled me till I was perfect.”

“Tech…” I tried again. Z shook his head again.

So I turned to the driver, and said “Thank you.”


We walked through a small homey kitchen and right into an elevator. “We’ll see,” said the young man who met us, “which is faster, technology, or legs.” He patted his legs as he said this, in case, I imagined, he had gotten the word wrong. As the elevator door closed I could hear the metal stairs ring under his weight.

Z smiled that “we’re here” smile and the doors opened again. The man was waiting for us on the small platform. Behind him a ship in night lights floated down the Bosporus. “As I thought,” he said, “Legs!” and smiled. He wore a slight mohawk, an earing and a cashmere sweater.

He showed us all the light switches and extra pillows and then unfolded a map on the dining table. It might as well have been his home.

“How many days do you visit?”

“Six,” Z said, “Seven nights.”

“Ah,” he said, and I thought how that sound, to me, belongs to a much older man.

“This is here,” he pointed and then circled, “and this is Istiklar,”he drew a long line, “and this is where antique shops are,” he said, drawing a circle. “But for tomorrow, the Mosques?”

He looked up, we nodded, he picked up his pen.

“From here, you go over the Galata Bridge, or under, there are very good fish restaurants to the right, there, and then you see the Mosques, and the Bazar. Spend maybe one day. Look, see, and then cross the street. There the prices are,” he clicked his tongue, “much lower.”

Z took the pen and pointed to the larger areas around the mosque. “Is it safe?”

Our host took the pen back, and made larger and larger circles. “Here and here. Very conservative areas. Very safe. Very boring.”

“Anything else?” he asked.

“Laundry?” Z said.

“Ah,” he said, with a smile, “I do not know. I give my laundry to my friends. Sorry.” He turned back to the map and made another circle. “This is a very nice place. 5 Kat. You can go for a glass of wine, and see the view.”

He smiled, and closed the door. The stairs rung as he descended.

5 Oda was great. You’ll hear more about it soon, but it is definitely recommended.

An Offering

From Tangalle, we spent a day driving north into the hills of Kandy and the next three preparing for the bana (sermon) and the dhane (meal offering) we were here to give on the one year anniversary of Thaththa’s death.

When I try to put them into words I find that last year’s ceremonies are in my mind as images. But then people and places always are.

Last year, Z and I arrived in Sri Lanka only hours before Thaththa passed. There was grief. There was tiredness, acute and chronic, mixed like a bad dream with the energy of pain. There was jet lag and lack of sleep. There were people I had never seen before moving the furniture out of the living room.  I had no one to ask.  I do not speak the language and Z’s family had not been religious. Neither he nor Amma had experienced this before either.

Thaththa died in the afternoon. In the evening a monk arrived. Z bowed to him. In my head, I have an image of Z, his head at the monk’s feet, orange robes and orange tiles on the floor.  The monk chanted. I have an image of the living room cleared out, except a small table and the seat the monk is sitting in. On the table, there is a statue of the Buddha, a bowl of flowers, a glass of water and a clock.

For the dhane, the next morning, I have images of a full, full kitchen, and of fog, and of Ravindra, who was Thaththa’s caregiver, cutting pieces of banana frond into circles to cover the plates. He looked up at me and explained: “We offer the foods Sir liked to eat.” Ravindra always called Thaththa Sir. I remember thinking, Thaththa liked to eat everything.

I went back into the kitchen.  Rani, who has been part of the family longer than I have, was cooking. Pots and pans were stacked on every surface: Kiribath, and rice and stringhoppers (steamed rice noodle nests), steaming; smoky sour polos (jackfruit curry), coconut sambol, plates and dishes I didn’t recognize, can’t remember.  Besides those, fruit plates and sweets plates for each monk, who, when they arrived, sat along the perimeter of the room, in their orange robes, eating in the begging bowls they brought with them.

I could not explain what was happening, or what the monk said, but I had these images.

This time, I asked Amma if it was okay to take pictures of monks.

“I don’t know,” she said, but I can ask them.


We talked about the menu during the car ride. “I made marshmallows for the sweets plate,” Amma said, “Mahamma said she’s bringing bibikkan, and Kumari will probably send potato sweets.

Bibikkan is one of my favorites. Mahamma brought bibikkan for me and Z the first time I met her.  She took Z by the hand and gave him a heavy loaf all wrapped up in layers of newspaper, like she’s done every time I’ve seen her since then. I asked her the ingredients, but I could not understand her accent. Or, as Z likes to point out, she could not understand mine.

When Mahamma arrived for the bana I asked her for the recipe again. “Coconut water, golden syrup, cashew nuts, candied pumpkin, semolina, rosewater…,” she said, folding down fingers as she counted of the ingredients.

On our last visit to her house we caught a man delivering the cakes, the pans still warm. I’d forgotten this until I asked her how long to bake the batter. She shrugged. “I don’t know. My oven is not large. The baker always does it.”

As we left Mahamma’s, the time the baker delivered the cakes, white streamers crisscrossed over her alley.

“Look, a wedding.”

Z shook his head. “No, baby, white is for funerals.”

I finished writing down the recipe and asked Mahamma if I could take her picture. She smiled, but turned her head away.

By six that evening the living room was empty except for the monk’s chair, Z was on his way to the temple, Mahamma was in the kitchen, and Amma had changed into white.

I was sitting in our room, filled with the living room furniture, watching the sun go down. The sky was orange. Geckos chirped. Voices were starting to echo in the empty room downstairs. I tried to take a few pictures, but the light was low.


After the sermon, Z said to me, “I had a nice talk with the monk in the car on the ride home. He wanted to know if you spoke Sinhala.”

Z continued. “He said at first he thought you did, but then he wasn’t sure. I told him you didn’t. He said he would have translated for you if he’d known.”

It seemed funny, the idea of chatting with monk. “What else did you talk about?”

“We just talked. About politics, about the new road.” Z thought for a minute. “Because I don’t know the customs there isn’t that formality.”

“And he’s not offended?” I asked.

“No,” Z said, slowly, as he closed our bedroom door, “I think he likes it.”

Z and I folded our white clothes over the back of the stacked up living room chairs, slept, got up, and put them on again. By five thirty the next morning Z was on his way to get the monks for the dhane and I was taking pictures of Rani making cashew curry in the kitchen. Mahamma began to portion out the bibikkan. Someone rolled out a mat in the middle of the living room floor. I thought of Ravindra and took pictures.

The phone rang. Amma answered it. “They are leaving the temple now.”


The house is laid out it two parts, the living room and kitchen on one side, the bedrooms on the other. The formal front door is in the middle. Except for the dhane last year, I have never seen it used.

Amma stood at the door to the living room. I was just coming down the hall from the bedroom. The head monk was right outside the front door.

“Do you have your camera?” Amma whispered loudly.

I was trying to get it on when the head monk walked down the stairs, and then turned towards me. He held out a book. “This is for you,” he said, gently.

He handed it to me and then walked into the living room. Seven monks followed him. Z bowed to the floor.  They sat in their orange robes and ate from their begging bowls. And somehow I didn’t want to take any pictures.