The Trouble with Monuments

Fall 2011. Istanbul, Turkey

More tourists at the Blue Mosque. And chestnut sellers and roast corn.  The Hagia Sophia, and then a glass of tea from a small boy in a vest and a hat, like I imagine on a monkey. With sugar it smelled like bitter roses.

The air smelled like rain. Dirty puddles reflected dark clouds and tired faces.

In both places, I think I was meant to feel splendor. But I felt cold. When I looked up at the great domed ceiling all I could think about was the people who built it: their hands and their backs, those stones and those lintels.

Christian, then Muslim, then museum. Constantinople, Ottoman Empire, Republic of Turkey.  Impermanence; even in a building so old that paths are worn into the marble.

Which is the trouble with monuments, mostly. By the time you are allowed to be there, their day is done.

Red and Delicious

Istanbul, Turkey

In the windows, in the shops, there are round red fruits with stems that look like lips, in a pucker. They are made of ceramic.

I point.  Zilla nods. “They used to fill them with rubies, to represent the seeds.”

I don’t know if this is true, but I like to imagine.

In the crates, in front of the stalls, the real red fruits are cut open, the seeds in shapes like henna on a hand.

I point. The man behind the counter nods.

He reaches for a pomegranate and slices it open. Several rubies fall out.

Quickly, he brushes them to the floor.

He puts the fruit in his juice press and pulls down the lever. Pure color drips out.

I hand him a lira.

He hands me the cup.

It is cold but his hand is warm.

Raspberries, sweet corn. Or pomegranate.

Maybe I have never tasted pomegranate before.

In the window, my lips are red.  So were his fingers.

To Buy a Turkish Carpet

Istanbul, Turkey

Z and I walked stepped out of the courtyard of the Suleymaniye Mosque quiet.
“Shoe shine?” a man asked loudly.

Z shrugged and smiled and put his boot up on the man’s stool.

“Madam?” the man said, after he had finished with Z.  His boots glimmered.

I put my foot up on the  stool too. His thick dark fingers wrapped around his brush. He polished and buffed, and then nodded. I took my foot down. He looked up at Z: “Twenty Lira.”

“Twenty lira?” Z asked. My scarf was ten lira, Zilla’s coffee was two. Twenty was too much. We shook out heads.

“Twenty lira,” the man repeated. He pointed to the mosque. He looked up at us from his stool. “Have three hungry children. Twenty lira.”

*

“Next time,” I told Z, as we walked down the cobblestone street, “keep your foot on the ground.”

He shrugged. “When you travel, you open yourself up to these things.”

“I know,” I said, “But it doesn’t feel good to feel cheated.”

“Maybe I should have kept my scarf over my head,” I said.

Z smiled. “Maybe.”

*

We walked around the corner, past a row of small shops, welders and smiths working. Inside one of them I saw a pot of beans.

I was still full from breakfast, but I gazed a moment too long. A round man smiled and waved us in, ladled us a plate of beans and set down a basket of bread.

When I was a child, I would spend afternoons with my Grandma. Probably whole days too, but I remember the afternoons. She’d make me Campbell’s Bean and Bacon soup; open the can, add water, and ladle the white beans and orange broth into a heavy white bowl.  Then she would set it in front of me and unroll a sleeve of Saltines.   Her house was quiet, shadowy, and now, years ago, sold.

I took the last bite.

“You were hungry,” Z said, smiling.

“My grandma used to serve me something like this when I was young.”

He nodded and motioned to the man for the check.

He walked over to the table and peered into bowl, smiling.

Twenty lira, I thought, but instead he held up five fingers. “Bech?”

Is that fair? Are you satisfied? He seemed to ask. He patted his belly and smiled.

*

We walked out feeling warmed.

“He wasn’t trying to scam us,” I said.

“No,” Z agreed, “He wasn’t.”

We turned a corner and followed the wall of the university. Students passed us, holding books, holding hands. Large red Turkish flags hung over the walls, swaying gently in the breeze.

A man scooted by us, and dropped something. Z dropped my hand to pick it up. A shoeshine brush.

“Sir! ir!” Z said, running after him.

The man sighed and bowed in thanks and continued on in his direction.  A moment later he was back with us. He put down his shining stand and took out his recently recovered brush.

“Please,” he said, “Please.”

Z put up his foot. A moment later, another man appeared.

“I him cousin,” he said pointing to the man we had helped, “Please.”

And so I too put up my foot. When they were done, we thanked them.

“Twenty lira,” The first said whose brush Z had retrieved.

“Twenty lira,” the cousin added, frowning.

“No,” Z said. “I thought…”

“Three hungry children,” the first said, with great injury.

“Three hungry children,” the cousin said to me.

We paid them ten each and walked around the corner to the edge of the Grand Bazar. Our shoes had never been shinier.  A man was setting out his wares, on the sidewalk.

I turned to Z.  “Do you want to buy a carpet?”

Bizarre

Istanbul, Turkey

“Spend your money! Madam, Sir, Hello, MADAM!”

I turned my head.

“Please,” he said softly, his eyes glittering, his hands together, as if in prayer.

I stopped and looked at him.

His mouth moved into a smile, “leave your money HERE!”

I jumped. Z took my hand. Another man in grey stubble swept through the scarves and saffron, lanterns and locum, with his tear-drop tray tipping, collecting abandoned glasses of tea.

We ducked out of the close gold light of the Bazar.

“So bazaar, means market?”

Z nodded.

Bizarre, I thought. For me it still means crazy.

*

Behind the Bazaar the shops were full but the streets were empty.  Naked mannequins, and plumbing parts, coats and carpets and vacuum cleaners and samovars stacked quietly behind glass.

“What’s next?” I asked.

Z looked at the map.  “The Mosques. Suleymaniye is closest. It’s just around the corner.”

I nodded and sighed as we climbed the hill.  When I looked up two women were walking down the street past us. The older covered her head. The younger, the daughter maybe, did not.

I stopped.

Z looked at me.

“Should I cover my head?”

“If you want to.”

I wrapped my scarf around my hair, knotted it in the back, and brought the tails into my coat like a scarf.  I was sure it looked wrong. But Z nodded. And you should know he is very honest.

“Not bad.”

*

Suleymaniye was quiet, almost empty.  Slabs of grey marble rose into the distance and slim spires rose into the sky.  Long thin grave stones leaned against one another, like they had been blown over in the wind. Dry leaves danced around them.

“What is he doing?” I asked.

A man sat on a small stool in front of a long wall of taps.

“Cleaning himself,” Z said. “Before prayer.”

We passed a great pile of carpets, removed our shoes and stepped inside. The ceiling domed upward like a great round breast. Large gold lanterns floated down, like jeweled earrings.  The windows glowed blue and green and gold. Red carpets covered the floor.

No nave, no cross, no echoing footsteps. Silent. Still. A place to look inside, not out.

*

I stared.

Z read the sign in a whisper. “Built in 1550… the biggest dome at the time of construction…the carpets are gifted by the faithful.”

A man rose from his prayer. His long white cotton dress flowed.

Z turned to me.

I took his arm. “Can you imagine all of the prayer it would take to wear out a carpet?”

Z reached for the shelf where our shoes were stacked.

“Taking our shoes off  probably helps,” he said, “keeps them clean.”

Then he pointed to a vacuum in the corner.  The cord plugged directly in the mosque wall.

I turned to him to smile and headscarf almost slipped off.

“I guess they’ve upgraded since 1550,” Z said.

Bizarre, I thought. Imagine the noise.

Over the Edge

Istanbul, TurkeyIstanbul, Turkey

Z and I finished our breakfast, walked up our hill, and then down to the end of Istiklal Avenue. All of the people had gone home. Street cleaners and cats roved up and down picking up bits and pieces. Sleepy-eyed simit sellers stood behind their red carts, made change, and then shoved their hands in their jackets and waited.

The street had the feeling a carnival ground in the morning.

We stopped under a tall brick cylinder. The Galata Tower.

“So this is home,” Z said, “If you get lost.”

I looked up.

Z looked at me. “You can see if from all over the city.”

A burly man set up his brass shoe shine stand. Two older women walked past, hand in hand: same ankles, same waist, same long coat, head scarf, low heeled shoes.

“So apparently this the tallest structure in the city when it was built in 1348.” Z looked up from his phone. “By the Genoese. When Istanbul was Constantinople.”

He chuckled to himself. “Wikipedia says that in 1630, a man jumped off of this tower wearing a pair of wooden wings and sailed all the way to other side of the Bosporus.”

Icarus, I thought. The women sat down and crossed their ankles in the same direction.

“And his brother,” Z said, “Shot himself off the top of the tower with a rocket. They both survived.”

The women looked up at the tower. Dear god, I thought, their poor mother.

*

We walked down the hill, long shallow steps, with empty tea glasses stuck in the corners, by doorways, on electricity meters.

“And that would be the Galata Bridge?” I said, “And the fisherman?”

Z nodded.

Shyam had said they were always fishing. And there they were, with long poles, and ironed slacks and buckets full of tiny fish.

I could not remember the name. Thanuja’s book of restaurants had mentioned them. We were supposed to eat them battered and fried. And we’d seen them last night, a man crouching in front of a bucket of the finger sized silver fish, snapping off their heads. I scrolled through my photos. Hamsi.

*

From the bridge the wind was strong and the Bosporus was dark. One of the fishermen pulled up his rod. A string of hamsi wiggled a foot apart on the line. He dropped them into his bucket and his line back into the water. Another fisherman did the same. And then another.

I looked over the edge. I expected to see the glint of the hamsi in the water. But I could not. Instead, there were jelly fish. Hundreds, thousands. Floating, translucent, like plastic bags, breathing in and out with the current.

One summer when I was young, my father ran and jumped off the seawall into the ocean. When he came back up again, his right eye was red, blood shot, swollen. We went over and looked in where he’d jumped. Floating there, in our warm green bay water was a similar slight purple creature, breathing with the current.

“Do you see all the jellyfish?” Z asked.

I nodded. I could see the Galata Tower behind us.

“I wonder if anyone ever jumps in?”

The Extra Hours

We picked Istanbul for the food, and 5 Oda was for the breakfasts. They were supposed to be very good.

“When you are ready for breakfast call us and in 10 or 15 minutes, we will bring it.”

I looked for the number. Then I realized it was six in the morning. They did not serve breakfast until eight.

Part of what I love about traveling is the extra hours, when you cannot sleep and don’t want to; time to read, and to write, which so often slips away when the whole world is awake and moving.

Before we left Seattle, my friend Thanuja said she’d been reading Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul.

I don’t usually read about a place before I visit it. Somehow, it always feels wrong– like reading the Cliff Notes to a great novel. But it was early morning and Z was still sleeping, so I opened the book.

Istanbul. 1950’s. Pamuk as a small boy, staring at his Grandmother, having her breakfast. She always took her breakfast in bed. Little Orhan is learning how delicious it is to hold a piece of salty cheese in your teeth while you sip at your sweet hot tea.

I imagined this woman, lying in bed, fat and stern and indulgent, reading her newspaper. What did she look like? What did any of them look like—the people of this city–in the mornings, in the privacy of their homes.

*

The sun came up and so did breakfast. I could not count the dishes. There were eggs with the yolks like Indian gold. Tomatoes, cucumbers. Coffee and cream. Orange juice and cherry juice. A basket of breads, sliced, dark and light, and pieces of something that looked like a pretzel, covered in sesame seeds. I stared at these pieces and my mind was in the classroom, with little Orhan, looking into the school bag of the girl he adored, a simit on top, all of the sesame seeds it was covered in, collecting at the bottom of her bag.

And then there was cheese: three types, soft, and hard and salty. And jam: quince, orange, rose. Honey, and sesame butter, and borek.

The borek was my favorite. Layers of phyllo and dill and cheese….

I prepared to try Orhan’s grandmother’s trick, but realized, with everything I had, I only had coffee.

Z looked up at me. “Shall we see the mosques?”

I nodded. The cube of cheese was still in my mouth.

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.