Underneath

Girl wearing a veil--from Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis

Last night, at dinner, I told a friend I wanted to visit Morocco. “Istanbul,” she said, “that is where you should go.”

“And go to a hammam,” she said, “Where you will get well and truly washed. You are lying on this marble slab sliding around because of the soap in this ancient steaming bath full of nearly naked women, and the woman who is washing you is naked too, and her boobs,” my friend stopped to show me with her hands, “are huge, HUGE, and inches from your face. And when she wants you to turn over she starts slapping you on the ass. “Lady,” she says, “Lady,” because that is all the English she speaks, and you are thinking: What does she want? What am I doing here? When she finally gives up and practically picks you off the marble and turns you over -plunging your head into her breasts- herself.”

My friend was so involved in her story that there wasn’t a moment to tell her that I’d experienced the same thing myself.  For a long time, after we got back from Istanbul, I told almost the same story. The same slippery marble slab, the same HUGE boobs. Everyone always laughed.  My version involved the phrase “human car wash” and some moralization about how we were all the same underneath.

Then there was the Arab Spring, and more recently the Istanbul Protests, and I became more sensitive to encroachments into democracy and religious conservatism into secular life. I started to worry that anything I might say about Islam or women might seem disrespectful, or unkind—even though that is not how I felt—and so I decided to stop telling my hammam story, to shut up.

Woman in red Headscarf, Taskim Square, Istanbul

When it comes to politics I have often taken the position that I don’t know enough to have a say. Regardless of the subject, this is always my stance. For years I thought I was respectful. Now I think just think I was afraid.

In the very first essay I ever published, I took a stance that many people didn’t like. I said that the Blue Angels Air Show at Seafair made me uncomfortable. The fighter jets were awesome but they were military machines and it scared me that we turned them into entertainment, especially when we were—and still are, at war.

The piece, which ran in the Stranger, five years ago this week, got a huge response. Many, many people commented, and thanked me, and agreed. Many others insulted me, my writing (which was sometimes justified), my ideas and myself. They called me names, including ignorant, unpatriotic, ungrateful and misinformed. That is not how I thought of myself, or felt. I wanted to hide.

Before publishing Still At War, I thought having a voice and claiming an opinion would make me feel strong. It didn’t. As the comments came in, I felt exposed and weak. I didn’t understand that people can like you and–sometimes–hate your position. That you can simply disagree. So I decided to shut up.

Another thing I didn’t understand is that silence is the loudest, most dangerous, political comment of them all. So I try and publish again for years. And when I did, I tried to distance myself from the piece, and instead of Lauren, I used “Beth,” which is my nick-name, instead.

There is a simple practice of small honesties, and I think for me, now, this is where politics begins. Not grand statements about policy and practice, but the humble rumble observations of our lives.

Here is something true: When we visited Istanbul I often wore a headscarf.  I thought the headscarves—and the women wearing them—looked beautiful. I wanted to know what they felt like.  I chose a blue silk scarf at the Bazaar and mimicked the wrapping that I’d seen. At the Blue Mosque the guards directed us to the believers’ entrance, away from the tourists who were struggling to cover their shoulders and knees. I found this thrilling.

When I think about it now, I do not know if the Turkish women who covered their head wanted to or not. I am sure there is no one answer.  Some wore black headscarves and lace headscarves and headscarves of colorful silk and pastel blue and printed cotton. Some wore headscarves with long robes, others with designer jeans.

It wasn’t until the end of our trip that I learned enough history to realize how little I understood. The Republic of Turkey was not a Muslim a state, but a secular one, ever since the 1920’s when The Ottoman Empire fell. Men were discouraged from wearing the fez and women the headscarf since Ataturk’s secular reforms all the way back in the 30’s.

And now, we face a surge of conservatism, military force, and an infringement on secular life. I happened to be reading Marjane Satrapi’s graphic novel, Persepolis, about the rise of religious extremism in then-secular Iran when I heard about the Gezi Park Protests in Istanbul. Satrapi wrote about being forced to wear a headscarf as a girl. I remembered standing in Taskim Square and Istiklar Avenue where the protests were taking place. I felt strangely implicated, in my own small personal way, because I had covered my head by choice. Was I lending support to the oppression they protested against?

Here is where I would stay quiet, but think I should say what I think.

The story I have absorbed as a Western woman is that a veil is oppressive, both for society and for the women who wear it. I’m not comfortable with this idea, not always, not as a rule. Maybe I don’t know enough. Maybe oppression is something I would rather not see. But might the veil, in all its variations and colors also be expressive? Like a haircut. An ornament? Like jewelry. A symbol? Of beliefs, like a cross. Simply a personal choice? Like vegetarianism.

How does the scarf express property and ownership of women any more than what we see as the loving practice of exchanging a diamond ring? I see more and more women covering their head in America, in Seattle; women, presumably, with education, democracy, a vote, and a choice. Isn’t it rude it to assume they are oppressed?

Turns out that my friend and I visited the same hammam, not a co-ed tourist destination, as many of them have turned into, but a working, local, centuries old community bath.

What I remember now are not naked antics but a sense of familiarity, of neighborhood life, and of peace.  It was November, and cold. Outside it was just dark. The street lights reflected off of fallen leaves.  At the corner shop a woman bought vegetables for the night.  A small boy sat in a large barber chair watching TV. A clutch of bearded men leaned into a game of backgammon and laughed and drank small glasses of tea.

Then we saw it, the hammam, below a dimly light staircase and a sign.  I opened the door. An older woman, her hair wet, sat on a stool watching TV.

I remember standing in the small changing room in the near-dark, facing the wall, and taking off my clothes. The woman knocked, I wrapped myself tightly in my towel, and she led me to the bath.

The ceiling was domed.  Water trickled like an underground cave. Two other women sat in the corner. I wanted to talk to them. They were about my age. But their voices were distant and echo-ey even though they were sitting only a few feet away.

After an hour or so I went back out to the dressing hall.  The two other women came out and paid. They dried, changed, put their headscarves on, and went back into the night.

My hair was wet. I didn’t want to catch cold. So I did the same.

Post Script: My fear is still alive and well. I know because this post took me ages, really weeks to write. I was so afraid of a few simple ideas and what you might think, that my first draft chronicled the rise and fall of Constantinople and The Ottoman Empire (2000+ words alone), my second a walking map of Istanbul, and my third a list of all the edibles in the city, rather than get to the humble scary little point. Of course I didn’t see that for what it was; instead I panicked and assumed I could no longer write. I am a little bit scared that I will post this and everyone will scream at me, but more importantly, I think I now realize something about writer’s block: just like getting quiet, it happens when you are scared and trying to avoid your real thoughts.

But things happen for a reason. I happened to get in touch with my college writing teacher as I was struggling—as if contact with her might help me—which it did. She said, of her own work, that it takes its own time. That was exactly what I needed to hear. Besides, if I posted this last month, when I started it, I could have avoided talking about Seafair, which was clearly on my mind, and more than half of the point.

A note on images: I hope it is ok with Marjane Satarapi that I included some a few snaps from Persepolis. I think everyone should read it. It’s an awesome book.

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.

Very safe. Very boring.

Istanbul.Turkey

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.

“Tesh…”

“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.