Tag Archives: Golden Horn

“Ottoman”: It’s pretty good: understanding an opponent’s mythology

28 Jan

“Understand an opponent’s mythology…”

Last night I figured I’d just buck up, get over with it, and start watching the Netflix docudrama — got through first two episodes — and it’s actually pretty good. Some key notes: The Turkish perspective is not insufferably jingoistic or Islamically triumphalist, like it was in that trashy 1453 film that came out a few years ago, which I also put off watching for a while because I thought it would be disturbing, but I ended up turning off after 20 minutes, not because I was disturbed or offended but because the script and acting were so horrendous and the production values so cheap — it looked like the set was composed of stuff bought wholesale from a Moroccan antique shop in the East Village or Çukurcuma– that it was simply unwatchable.

* We’re not portrayed as craven cowards or decadent dinosaurs à la Gibbon, whose destiny it was to float off into extinction. Both Constantine and Mehmet are portrayed as equal opponents, Hector-Achilles style: it’s probably no accident; both were, I’m sure, as acquainted with the Iliad as the other. Constantine’s heroic and complex combination of resistance and resignation are portrayed as thoroughly as possible: he did everything he could until there was nothing to be done anymore; Mehmet’s impressive intellect, cosmopolitanism and warrior skills are highlighted without going overboard. And both are pretty sexy, as is Giustiniani, as is even Notaras père (costumes and sets are beautiful too). I do dread the thought of how they’re going to treat the fate of the Notarades, though. It’s much too scintillating to just leave out of the whole narrative, yet to show it to us they’d have to admit that their revered Fatih Mehmet was what we would today call bisexual, and that he was also a cruel sadist, and I don’t know how that would have sat with the Turkish side of the production.

* Unexpectedly, I thought, we’re called “Romans” from the beginning of the series, in the fictional segments (and I think some of the Italians, Giustiniani even, calls us “Greeks” at one point); there’s more “Byzantine” used in the doc segments obviously. Either way, it’s hard to say whether they wanted to take a calculated risk in doing that, because using “Romans” probably leaves all non-Greek viewers baffled, or because “baffling” and confusing were the desired result for what’s always been the Turkish state’s policy: that is, separating us from the Byzantines/Romans and not giving us our due rights to claim descent for ourselves there, by calling us something different, the same reason Turkey calls Istanbul’s 3,000* remaining Greeks “Rum” to this day, while the rest of us are “Yunan”. It’s satisfying to hear, in any event.

* Whether advertently or not, it punctures some pretty giant holes in the Turkish mythology of heroic feat. One, by admitting the fact that we were outnumbered by the tens of thousands, so that the speed with which, for example, Rumelihisarı was built doesn’t seem quite so miraculous, plus there were already foundations on the site from an older Roman fortress. Two, by showing the glaring technological disparities between the two sides, meaning, that the Siege and Fall of Constantinople was the last great military event between mediaeval fortifications and early modern cannons and artillery, so that instead of being an incredible military achievement, it was more like the Spanish conquest of Tenochtitlán, with as dogged and determined a defense. And enough already with the “genius” of dragging the ships over from what, I would guess, would be somewhere near Kabataş, over the ridge, down Dolapdere into the Horn. It must have taken an enormous amount of manpower — too bad Erdoğan’s tunnel wasn’t there yet — yet not everything that’s just super-hard is necessarily “genius”.

* And stop comparing it to fucking Game of Thrones. GOT was Tolkien with sex and was the most maddening piece of trash to enthrall the masses in a long time. Ottoman is about a series of deeply traumatic events in the history of a real people that still exists, and who have been persecuted and are still threatened and harassed by Mehmet’s descendants to this day: US.

All in all it’s good; watch it. I mean, wtf, whatever. Maybe the inevitable escalation of violence, especially against civilians after the entry of the Turks into the City (The Religion of Peace gave an army three days’ right to loot, murder, rape and enslave if a city resisted and didn’t capitulate on it own) will make later episodes more disturbing. And the long arm of Erdoğanism is always felt throughout the whole thing. If Netflix were to produce a series portraying the destruction of the Second Temple and the horrendous brutality with which the Romans massacred and expelled most Jews from Judaea that made the Romans look even slightly heroic for even a second — “due to be released next Tisha B’av” — there’s not even a question of whether it would face a howling riot of protest or not; it would simply never have been produced. That’s not a “Jews control Hollywood” argument. It’s the truth. Just too many people would be offended. But even as Turkey sinks deeper into self-isolating dictatorship, it does wonders projecting a certain image to the rest of us and the rest of the Ummah.

But, at best it’s an exercise in what Helequin above calls “understand-[ing] an oppenents [sic] mythology”. You don’t have to be a trained Jungian to understand (or at least try) that “myth” is the only “reality”. That means understanding the other’s myth/s is crucial to the development of empathy, the one form of intelligence that homo sapiens [?] are still tragically deficient in.

It’s certainly the only thing in Palestine, or between Hindu and Muslim in India, and in the continuing bad divorce that is Greek-Turkish relations that will inevitably make a difference. Put yourself in a Turk’s position. Think about the massive baggage of tradition around the idea of taking Constantinople that animated them. And then [smerk]… put yourself in our position: if everybody wanted it so badly for 1,200 years, it must have been one puta madre of a city we had built there.

And in the 19th and 20th centuries, we built them another real city — “over there” — the likes of which they also had never known, and they threw us out of there too.

What are you gonna do? After a certain point, anger is too tiring. And they pay and are paying the price for their political culture anyway.

************************************************************************* The number of Greeks today in Istanbul is somewhere in the 2,000 to 3,000 range, there’s an issue of whether deaths and marriages and births will keep things in the range of critical mass… Near 300,000 in a city of around a million in the 1920s, three-thousand — in a city of 15 million today.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

What is January 6th? (Reposted from 2014)

9 Jan

This is a question, or comes as part of misguided well-wishing, that I get at this time of the year when people find out I’m Orthodox.  “Your Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Epiphany?  What’s Epiphany?”  “That’s right!  Three Kings’ Day?!”  “But Russian Christmas is January 6th, right?”  “Is that what they call ‘little Christmas’?”  And the thing is that this is one of those questions that people aren’t really interested in hearing the entire answer to because it’s so complicated, and you see their eyes start glazing over just as you’ve started to explain, so I usually mumble “uh-huh” or something and change the topic.  So let this post be my official statement on the issue that people can refer to when they want to know what the deal is, or on those nights when the Ambien isn’t working.

Once upon a time, Julius Caesar created a calendar.  Well, even if it wasn’t Caesar himself but his astronomers, it was known as the Julian calendar and it was what the entire Christian world used until the sixteenth century.  That’s when Western astronomers — during the reign of Pope Gregory XIII — who were smarter than Caesar’s astronomers, realized that the calendar we were all using was off, vis-à-vis certain fixed astronomical events like solstices and equinoxes, and especially the all-important Vernal Equinox* by which the date of Easter is calculated: that it had drifted back some ten days over the centuries, meaning the day that was actually March 20th, let’s say, had slipped back to the day we were calling March 10th at the time.  So they came up with a new calendar that was more accurate, called Gregorian, like the Pope.  They just skipped the errant ten days.  And one fine evening of March 10th, let’s say, Christians the world over went to bed and when they woke up it wasn’t March 11th but March 21st.  With me so far?

After some fuss, Western Christians accepted the new calendar.  The hyper-traditional Russian Orthodox Church and the rest of the Orthodox Churches, which were mostly part of Muslim states at the time, kept the Old/Julian Calendar, till the early twentieth-century when the Greek and Romanian churches adopted the New/Gregorian Calendar, while the other ones (and the monastic communities of Mount Athos) continued and continue using the Julian Calendar.  One of several critical points: since the sixteenth-century change the discrepancy has grown so that the Julian Calendar is now thirteen days behind the astronomically correct Gregorian Calendar.

So, Christmas?  Well, Russians celebrate Christmas on what the West calls January 7th.  Mind you, their church calendars say December 25th when ours say January 7th, so they don’t really celebrate it on January 7th.  It’s just January 7th to us.  Though, actually, if you ask a Serb or a Russian when, for example, St. Nicholas’ Day is, they’ll say December 19th — meaning on our current, modern Gregorian calendar — though on their church books it’s still December 6th, when the West and Greeks and Romanians celebrate it.  The key point is that on the Old/Julian Calendar everything is thirteen days later.

gregory xiiiPope Gregory XIII (click)

I generally find this calendar difference to be a nuisance, one of the negatives of the decentralized structure of the Orthodox Church, mostly because you get vacation at all the wrong times and have to ask for days off, but also because, despite the often scathing condescension I feel for most of Western Christianity, I am an oecumenist at heart.  And it’s unpleasant to celebrate Christmas on a different day than other Orthodox Christians or even Easter on a different date than the West.  On the other hand, sometimes it’s nice.  It’s nice to celebrate Easter without the cheap plastic crap of Easter Bunnies and parades all around.  And it’s nice to get to drop into church in early January when the late December craziness of Christmas in this country — no matter how hard one has tried to stay out of it — has made it impossible for you to even light a simple candle for the holiday. Convenient, in a sense, as well; if I can’t get to a Greek church on August 15th, for example, for the Dormition of the Virgin, (or here) I can always go to a Russian one on August 28th.  But generally, I think it’s the dumbest kind of traditionalism to stick to the Old Calendar.  I mean, even if we’re so literal-minded as to think that we know when Christ was born — or even so literal-minded as to think He actually existed — we now know, scientifically, that the day we were calling December 25th is not December 25th.  So what’s the problem?  Russians, of course, make off like bandits with this deal.  Communism made New Year the most important holiday of the year, but even then everyone still celebrated Old New Year on January 13th.  Now festivities in post-communist Russia start around Western Christmas, go through New Year’s, celebrate Russian Christmas proper on January 7th, and still celebrate Old New Year on January 13th — a month of more than the usual everybody-being-plastered.

Easter?  Oh, Easter.  Why do Greeks celebrate Christmas with the West but Easter with other Orthodox Churches?  Again, a result of the decentralized structure of Orthodoxy.  The Greek Church switched to the Gregorian calendar for everything else, but, due to the fundamental centrality of Easter and the Easter cycle (Lent-Easter-Pentecost) to the faith (something the West has quite seriously lost sight of), it was decided that Greeks and Romanians would continue to calculate the date of Easter according to the Julian Calendar in order to stay in step with the others and maintain Orthodox solidarity.

“But what about January 6th then??!!” you ask, desperately seeking Christian truth.  January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  I repeat: January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany.  The Богоявление in Church Slavonic, Bogojavljenje — The “God Revelation,” literally, or also colloquially called Jordaninden in some South Slav languages: “Jordan Day.”  Er, like the river, right?  That’s right.  It’s the day Jesus Christ was baptized in the river Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist and the beginning of Christ’s ministry.  But this happened when Christ was 30.  He was baptized on January 6th, thus the Twelve Days of Christmas, but it was January 6th thirty years later; it’s purely coincidental that they come so close to each other, but understandable that Christian observance would lump them together into one holiday season.**  But Epiphany is not a holiday thematically related to Christmas or Christ’s birth; it’s not part of the first few weeks of His life.  It’s also purely coincidental that Epiphany comes twelve days after Christmas and that the Old and New Calendars diverge by thirteen days.  But that’s the reason people have heard of something about January 6th and think “Russian Christmas” is January 6th.  It’s not.  It’s the 7th.  January 6th is Russian Christmas Eve.  And that means Russian Epiphany is…..?  Have you been paying attention?  Very good.  January 19th.  Thirteen days later.  Though, again, Russian and Serbian and Bulgarian Churches are celebrating it on what — for them — is January 6th.

The Epiphany is one of the Great Feasts of the Church and of great theological significance, which is really why I get so worked up about this issue.  It’s not just the day Christ was baptized in the Jordan by his cousin John the Baptist.  At the moment of His baptism, the Holy Spirit descended from heaven in the form of a dove, and the voice of the Father was heard saying: Οὗτός ἐστιν υἱός μου ἀγαπητός, ἐν εὐδόκησα.” “This is my Son, in whom I am well pleased.”  Thus, it’s the first time that the Trinity was revealed to mankind in all three of its forms at once.  That’s what Epiphany, or Theophany, as it’s also known, (Επιφάνεια or Θεοφάνεια) mean: the “showing” or “revelation” of God — in all His forms.  It was also my father’s nameday (“Fotios,” like “photo” for light — the day is often colloquially known as “The Lights” in Greek) and an important holiday in his village.

Baptism_(Kirillo-Belozersk)Russian icon of the Epiphany, the baptism of Jesus Christ (click)

And the Three Kings?  Three Kings’ Day is an abomination whose prohibition I will begin to work towards as soon as I am elected to the College of Cardinals.  Honestly, sorry to be so churlish and ruin the fun of hundreds of millions of little Hispanic kids, but I genuinely find the observance to be more than mildly offensive.  I don’t care that it doesn’t make any sense textually – that the gospels are clear that within days of His birth Mary and Joseph had whisked Christ off to safety in Egypt and that they weren’t sitting around in the cold for almost two weeks waiting for these “kings” to come.  (Though it’s cool that these “kings” were likely Zoroastrian priests from Iran — searching for something they had heard would happen towards the West around the Winter Solstice — Yalda).  I just think it’s the Catholic Church at its cheapest, most propagandistic worst to let a holiday of such theological importance degenerate into a by-product of Franciscan Christ-Child piety (like most of Christmas in the West anyway) and to officially condone this sentimental tripe about frankincense and myrrh, while the real meaning of the holiday is completely forgotten, as if believers are incapable of understanding the real theology behind the day.  It’s the Catholic Church at its Grand Inquisitor worst, actually — and there I’m with Dostoyevsky: give ’em a show and a nice little parade and keep their loyalty and submission; they’re too stupid to get the deep stuff anyway and you’ll only risk confusing them and then, enraged, they’ll turn on you: “Ecco homo….Ἰδοὺ ὁ ἄνθρωπος.”  It’s one of the many ways that Rome still seems to be incapable of finding a way between the most ruthless authoritarianism and the cheapest populism.  Though that, of course, was exactly Dostoyevsky’s point: that the two work hand-in-hand.

Which is why, aside from its incredible power as a scene in and of itself, I find the segment from Twelve Years a Slave I posted at top to be immensely gratifying; a slave at least knew that “John” and “baptism in the Jordan” had something to do with “Three” — and not three kings

blessing-of-the-waters

In seaside parts of Greece, the “blessing of the waters” is performed, where the priest throws a cross into the sea and young men dive in to retrieve it.

A few years ago, the Turkish government permitted Greeks in İstanbul to perform the rite again, though for the Patriarch to do so at the Fanari on the Golden Horn, they generally have to call out Turkish commandos to protect the participants from the Çarşamba*** crazies from up the hill.

Oh, and just to add to the confusion, early Christians actually did celebrate the Nativity of Christ on January 6th, but the Church moved it to the 25th of December at some point so they could get a piece of the Saturnalia and Mithra-Birthday celebration market.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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* Easter is the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Vernal Equinox, thus, the first Sunday after the first Full Moon, 14-15 of Nissan — the first night of Passover — in the Jewish Calendar…I think.  In short, the first Sunday after the first night of Passover, one more indication that the New calendar is the more correct way to calculate and number things.

** On the Old Julian Calendar Easter often came so early that Carnival began in late January, thus Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, was considered the beginning of Carnival — one long wintery festival season from Christmas to Ash Wednesday.  This is why Shakespeare’s play, which has nothing to do with the Epiphany, was called “Twelfth Night” — because it was a comedy commissioned for the beginning of Carnival.  For some reason, in the more Slavic, — yes, I said it: S-L-A-V-I-C — parts of northwestern Greece, like Lerin or Kostur, serious Carnival time is early January, and includes elements much like what we know of the Roman Saturnalia, and not the pre-Lenten season that it is elsewhere.  And he have evidence that the Byzantines celebrated a similar, Roman-Saturnalia-derived extended festive time throughout the winter.

Oh…  But what’s Carnival?  And Lent?  Ash Wednesday?  Oooofff….other posts…

*** Çarşamba is a hyper-religious — yes, I’ll just call it fundamentalist — mahalla, up the hill from the Fanari, the once entirely Greek neighborhood on the northern shore of the Old City where the Patriarchate is located.  It’s the only part of İstanbul I — and not a few İstanbullus themselves — genuinely feel uncomfortable being in or walking through, and occasional bits of fun like Molotovs tossed into the Patriarchate’s compound usually come from these lovely black-clad, bearded neighbors of ours.

The adventures of me and my nephew Vangeli in C-town

2 Jun

IMG_0779

(click)

This is my nephew Vangeli from Tirana, who came and spent an extended weekend with me in Istanbul last week, eating a simit in the Staurodromi.  When I started this blog I said to myself I wasn’t going to include personal names.  When you represent something ideologically problematic for me, you’ll usually be described by a repeated sociological profile: “the Athenian thirty-something” or you’ll get a moniker all your own; in any event, if you read regularly, you’ll know who you are.  But the warmth of certain experiences I had with my family in my village this past spring has made me want to “call their names,” both because these are people I learned to love a great deal in a very short amount of time and to do them the honor, even if these experiences are not that interesting for the objective reader.  It’s obvious that it’s for them.

Vangeli is my second cousin Calliope’s eldest son. (See Easter Eggs… because, believe me, you don’t want me to run through all the lineages each time and I can’t do it either.)  When I first went to Derviçani in 1992, after Albania had safely opened up for good, Calliope was already living in Jiannena and we met there first, so we could get to know each other before going into Albania together.  When we arrived in the village for the first time, hers was the face I was constantly looking for as a reference point among the throngs of relatives who were constantly surrounding me.  It was her and my cousin Panto, Pantele, who is still my official bodyguard everywhere I go in the village, telling me who’s who since I can’t keep track, taking me everywhere I want to go, counting the tsipoura (raki) I have at every visit, so they don’t add up to too many in one afternoon, etc.  His mother, my Kako Poly (Polyxene), is a saintly woman who made great sacrifices caring for my grandmother in her final years under conditions of great material deprivation for all.  In video we have of my grandmother, taken by complete fluke by a cousin of my mother’s who went to Albania in 1988, a year before my grandmother died, as part of a Greek commercial exchange delegation — these groups were always taken to Derviçani as it was the showcase Greek minority village in communist times — my grandmother says: Να, αυτή είναι η Πόλυ, μ’έχει επάνω της… — “Here, this is Poly, she (lit.) carries me.”

IMG_0050This is Calliope, with her two sons Vasili (left) and Vangeli (right) on Easter night in church (click).  She’s an extraordinary and extraordinarily loveable woman: a great housewife, a competent businesswoman, funny, generous, always smiling, as flirtatious and open as a teenage girl — she’s one of my great relative-loves.  Here she is below at the Monastery on Easter Monday, having just deposited a huge piece of lamb shoulder — no, actually, a lamb shoulder — on a paper towel in front of me, cold and glistening with shiny white fat like some Homeric offering.  My father always loved cold lamb, and would never let my mother reheat it, because it reminded him of the Easter dance at the Monastery.  This is a typical pose to catch her in below, because her innate generosity is always giving something to someone.  (Click)

IMG_0119I hadn’t met Vangeli before, and if I had he would’ve been a baby.  But in church that night, when we were introduced, he said to me, in his classic Aries way — breezy and confident: “Actually, I don’t know you, but Christos Aneste!”  And my Aries replied: “I don’t know you either, but Alethos Aneste!” and I knew right then we’d hit it off.  We talked the next day at the dance; I invested some of the best days of this trip visiting them in Tirana on my way back from Montenegro, and of all the people who said they would come to Istanbul to see me while I was here, I knew he was the only one who would actually do it.  We locked horns on titles or terms of address for a while; I am literally twice his age, fifty and twenty-five, but we hang out like cousins and that’s what he used to call me, whereas I want to be called “uncle.”  He wasn’t having it.  (I have a similar problem with some nephews in New York on my mother’s side.)  For a while we agreed on “şoku,” which is “buddy” in Albanian but also meant “comrade” in communist times, so that didn’t last very long, nor did the Russian “tovarishch” which means the same thing.  Finally, when he got to Istanbul, he heard some guy addressing another as “abi” — big brother, technically, but often just “mate” — which they use in Albanian as well, so it’s been “abi” since then and that pretty much describes how we relate to each other. 

I’m an only child.  Calliope is like the big sister I never had and it’d be hard to imagine a more loving one.  But my parents also had a first son that died when he was a baby, so, even more deeply, I’ve always felt literally haunted by a living presence and desperate absence at once, and by an entirely metaphysical need for a being that I feel is out there to incarnate itself again as an older brother.  But being an older brother to someone else is just as gratifying, especially to a kid like Vangeli.

Because he’s good at his role and he did me super-proud here.  He studied computer engineering in Birmingham and speaks flawless English, dresses impeccably, works for a company that sends him to Italy on a regular basis, so he speaks some passable Italian as well.  (Some fashion-victim friend of mine from New York saw him dancing in the second video here and wrote to ask me who the funky kid with the curly hair and the Prada glasses was — she had recognized the Prada frames from five-thousand miles away…)  We went out for a classic Istanbul fish-and-rakı dinner at a really good place in Cankurtaran in the old city; he immediately recognized that this was not just any meal, but that he was in the presence of a certain ritual to be respected, like Japanese kaiseki, and he acted accordingly.  He was put off by the anise in the rakı at first — we drink ours unflavoured in Epiros — but then realized that Turkish rakı is not the cough-syrup by-product that Greek ouzo is and enjoyed it thoroughly.  He had no negative preconceptions of Turks and Turkey and he never, never — not once — tried to insert one of those slimey negative innuendos about Turkey into the conversation that almost every Greek tries to do when he’s with Turks.  He just listened to the two female friends we went out with, asked questions, tried to learn, gave his opinion, talked to them about Albania and Argyrocastro and Tirana and our families and Britain and anything else you could imagine, and charmed the skirts off of both of them.

He wanted to see everything.  I hate going into the old city.  I find it depressing, crowded.  I love the mosques, but the Byzantine monuments discourage and sadden and, sometimes, anger me, and I prefer to not be confronted with the interface between the two and just stay here in Pera, expelled from the walls in my gavuriko varoşi.  Also, getting there is alright, but getting back means trudging up and down and then up and down again some incredibly pedestrian-unfriendly streets and intersections and underpasses, unless you take some sleazy Sultan Ahmet cabdriver whose meter suddenly races to 100 lira by the time you get from Hagia Sophia to Pera.*  But for Vangeli I went.  And we saw everything there was to see.  We even stumbled upon the Rüstem Paşa mosque, which if you ever asked me to find, I never could.  We sat in the Süleymaniye for an hour and he listened to me talk about why I like sitting in mosques and watching Muslim prayer — Istanbul was the first time he had been inside one — and find them so calming and peaceful.

Rustem pasa tiles

Suleymaniyeimg_redirect.phpThe tiles of Rüstem Paşa above and the interior of the Süleymaniye (click)

We covered every inch of Topkapı, where I hadn’t been in years and where I was re-dazzled by that Ottoman sense of elegance and comfort that Rebecca West speaks of so often.  He was interested in the oddest things.  His favorite palace was Beylerbeyi, as it is mine, but he was fascinated by the story of the French empress Eugénie, born Eugenia de Montijo of the highest Andalusian aristocracy, who extended her state visit there for so long that it began to turn into a diplomatic scandal in Europe: he wanted to know how beautiful she was; he wanted to know whether Abdülaziz was such a stud that he was actually shagging her and how Napoléon III could have been such a nebech that he didn’t come grab her by the hair and drag her back to Paris.  “Άμ,’ ήθελες γυναίκα Ισπανίδα…” he decided, after much pondering — “that’s what you get for wanting  a Spanish wife.”  And an Andalusian one at that.  But once you’ve seen Beylerberyi, where she was put up on her visit, which is like a gigantic Turco-Venetian palazzo opening up onto the fresh, cool waters of the Bosphorus and not some smelly canal, you realize that once anchored there, leaving would be hard even if you weren’t getting any from the Sultan.

Beylerbeyi Palace (click)

beylerbeyi_palace_by_shidikujThe Empress Eugénie of France, née Eugenia de Montijo of Granada; the Jackie Kennedy fashion plate of mid-nineteenth century Europe and considered one of the most beautiful women in the world at the time (click), subject of the copla by Rafael de León and Manuel Quiroga, made famous in Concha Piquer’s incomparable rendition.

Eugénie;_keizerin_der_Fransen_(2)

The last day I was exhausted but he wanted to go look around Turkish supermarkets for yufka to compare the quality and price to what his family’s company makes; this is my Uncle Vangeli’s business; they make yufka and tel kadayif and sell it throughout Albania.  The name of the company is Demetra, like the ancient goddess of agriculture and cereals.  We went to a couple of Carrefour and he wasn’t impressed.  We went to some small bakalika and they didn’t have any at all.  And, very cutely, he made the assumption, in those hushed tones of respect that the Ottoman culinary tradition still carries with it in the Balkans, especially in the western Balkans from Epiros to Bosnia, where börek is an institution and a strong regional identity marker: “They probably open up [that’s the term we use] their own phyllo at home still.”  I didn’t want to pop his bubble.  Then he wanted to go to Dolmabahçe too — the energy of youth — but it was already too late in the day.  As compensation we went to dinner at the Çırağan, the hotel that’s now in the palace most similar to Beylerbeyi.

What I most admire about Vangeli is that he’s smart, sophisticated, has a C.V. that could take him anywhere in the world that he might want, but he wants to stay in Tirana, not just because he wants to help the family business, but because he actually wants to stay in Albania and build a program design business of his own, in the country he grew up in and lived his entire life in, and that that doesn’t get all mixed up with dumb ethnicity issues.  I didn’t ask him; he probably doesn’t “love” Albania any more than I “love” the United States.  He probably doesn’t have an answer.  But where he lives — what state he lives in, in particular — doesn’t have any bearing on who he is.  Like me.  He’s Vangjel Stavro; he’s a computer engineer; he’s Greek and he lives in Albania.  Period.  He may be the New Balkans.  In fact, soon all of the Balkans might be the New Balkans except for us, who will still be left blinkered, frozen like a deer in the headlights, wondering why the “Europe thang” didn’t go as we planned.

There are a couple of inside jokes to the photo at top where’s he’s eating a simit at the Staurodromi.**  One is that we both felt like hell that morning, which is why I’m not in the picture, not that I like being in pictures anyway.  Two nights before we had had that splendid fish dinner in the old city and had put down a fair amount of rakı, but it was with food — basically, after a few rounds of great meze, this beautiful lithrini (lüfer):

Fish20140522_214540(click)

But the night before the simit photo, I had wanted to take him to the bar on the rooftop of the Marmara Pera hotel, so he could see the places we had visited in the old city that day from across the water at night and illuminated, and then we were planning to go hear some Greek guys who play rebetika at a very cool, shabby old meyhane near Taksim.  But we spent too much time at the Marmara and by the time we got to the rebetiko place all the food was gone and all that was left were stragalia/leblebi.  Now I don’t know exactly how leblebi are made — I think they’re dry-roasted chickpeas — but I detest them as much as I love cooked chickpeas/rebythia/nohut.  Something happens to the dense, almost meaty, velvety texture of chickpeas when they’re made into leblebi that produces something that tastes like a highly compacted nugget of sand, or like taking a teaspoon of raw flour and popping it into your mouth.  I think the only reason they’re considered a drinking snack is because you’ll choke on them if you don’t have anything to wash them down with.  Vangeli hates stragalia too, but I tried to encourage him: “Come on man, this is the exclusive diet of the Great Father; this is how he defeated Turkey’s enemies and brought his country glory, with a pocket full of leblebi and a flask of rakı!”

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So we ate as many as we could, starving as we were, and had way too much to drink in too short a time on top of it.  We then went outside when the performance was over, and suffering from the drunk munchies on which rests the drunkard’s philosophy that if you pile more crap into your stomach on top of too much booze it’ll make you feel better, we had two plates each of chicken-and-pilav from the street vendors (one of the most delicious things you can possibly eat in Istanbul — Turks are magicians with rice), and then on my corner we found Orhan, my favorite Kurdish midye kid, and I think closed down his shop that night as well; we must have had about twenty mussels each.  So we were not very happy the next morning.

The second insider joke is actually one me and Vangeli share with Epirotes down the centuries.  Legend has it that Epirotissa mothers would slap their sons on top of the heads to flatten them from the moment they were born and say: “Και σιμιτζής στην Πόλη” — “And may you become a simit vendor in the City” and that this explains the idiosyncratic beer-can shaped heads that a lot of Albanians and Epirotes have, like some of my chorianoi:
IMG_0148or a guy as seriously Kosovar-looking as Novak Djoković:

DjokBearCanBnhbw7ZCYAAgVoE.jpg_largeor me:

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The point is that the flat top would make it easier to balance a tray of simit on your head.  Of course the joke is based on false modesty, because Epirotes did not come to Istanbul, or go to Roumania, or Odessa, or Alexandria, or the United States or anywhere else in the world to become simitçides.  They went to make money and, some of them, fabulous amounts of it.  This is why you can be driving through Epiros, through empty, lunar karst limestone landscapes where you wonder if you could even herd goats, much less sheep, much less plant anything edible, and then suddenly come upon villages with massive two or three-story stone mansions, and equally impressive churches and schools.  And this is why Epirotes contributed so greatly to the Greek Enlightenment, to the creation of the Greek state’s institutions and educational establishments, and generally had an exceptionally high standard of living and literacy — even for womenfor rural Greece, until the whole exclusively male emigration structure collapsed and was followed by a massive exodus to the cities after WWII.  Like certain islands of the Aegean or the Saronic, it was the very barrenness and lack of resources that the land could not provide that drove the movement, ingenuity and creativity of traditional Epirote culture and that allowed them to make such lives for themselves at home (at least for their families, because they themselves were gone most of the time) and make such important contributions to the wider Greek world.***  Of course, it was also the institution of emigration that led to the endemic, marrow-deep sadness of the culture as well.

Traditional Epirotiko village architecture from various parts of the region, obviously not the communities of poverty-stricken hillbillies, built with money made abroad by emigrants; the final picture at he very bottom is the front gate to my mother’s patriko, the house where she was born.  Her family made their money through three generations of baking businesses in Bucharest. (click)

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And below — in order — the Zografeion and Zappeion Lycées in Istanbul, the Zappeion exhibition hall and gardens in Athens, the National Polytechnic School in Athens, the Zosimaia in Jiannena, and the Zografeion college of Kestorati, all just a few of the institutions funded and built completely by Epirotes (click).

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I have a friend in Greece who’s from a part of Greek Macedonia that, before the refugee tents went up there in the 1920s, was inhabited exclusively by mosquitoes.  We were good friends but we had more than our share of tensions because he was an insufferable kind of arrogant Eurocrat that Greece used to produce at the time and had some supposedly hot-shot job with one of the sleazier Russian-type Greek communications moguls to appear in the nineties — μιλάμε principles yok.  And for some reason, he had this implacably neurotic competitive impulse that he would always unleash on me any time I spoke about Epiros, especially if it was with any amount of pride.  “It eez the poooorest proveens in Euuurope…Galicia in Spain and Epiros…are the pooorest proveeenses in Europe…” he would say to me constantly, like a Brussels parrot.  And after WWII, the practice of leaving families behind and going off to work abroad and returning only occasionally became untenable, and most of Epiros did become tragically depopulated.  But it was poor because it was depopulated and the only permanent inhabitants of many communities were pensioners, not because it was a region that traditionally suffered from desperate poverty.****  The hot-shot job and the whole Euro-thing has collapsed since then, along with the whole balloon in which it existed, of course, and he’s a significantly humbler person today.  But it was just so infuriatingly ignorant and anistoreto on his part to see Epiros as some Greek Appalachia and his motivations for harping on that distorted image escape me to this day.

Anyway, that morning I wanted to buy five or six simitia and pile them on Vangeli’s head as a reference to this simitçi tradition, but I could see he wasn’t having it, so I didn’t even try.  He insisted it was the anise in the rakı that made him sick and has sworn that from now on it’s only “real” raki for him — straight and Albanian — with no sissy Politiko flavorings to eff him up.

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* Turks are among the most honest people I have ever come across in all my travels, and not because of modern efficiency like in Europe, but out of traditional philotimo or honor.  I’ve had a Turk from a Taksim pilav stand recognize me as I walked by, and come up to me to give me one lira change he owed me because three days earlier I had eaten there and he was short.  I’ve had to fight with a Turkish simitçi because he wouldn’t sell me a simit because it was late in the day and they were stale, begging him, eventually giving up because he simply refused — the famous Turkish “yok”; when you hear it give up immediately.  I’ve had Turks — this happened to me in Afghanistan once too — run down the street after me to give me a Bic pen I had forgotten on their restaurant table.  But something happens to a Turkish cabdriver when he’s in the Sultanahmet area and he becomes the biggest sleazebag in the world.  I think that now that tourists have discovered the Beyoğlu side of the city and generally prefer to stay there, there’s greater tourist traffic between Pera and the important monuments of the old city, and these jerks take advantage of it.  But be tough with them; simply refuse to pay more than 20 or 25 lira — no matter what his rigged meter says — and walk away and tell them you’ll call the police if they don’t like it and, being cowards, like most frauds and liars, they’ll immediately back down.

The route from Şişhane or the Galata Tower, across the Galata bridge to Hagia Sophia has to be — and always has been — one of the most important pedestrian traffic axes in the city.  And instead, both Karaköy and Eminönü — the two districts and “squares” that face each other across the Horn and are like the two ventricles of the historic heart-like link of the City — are hideous, dirty, badly designed nightmares to walk through.  Instead of worrying about Taksim so much, Erdoğan might want to put some effort into redesigning this essential, central binder of the two Istanbuls.  But that would be a massive project that would involve levelling almost everything that’s been built there in the past forty years and starting with a clean slate.  Plus, you don’t want to give him too many ideas because he’s perfectly capable of building something as ridiculous as a ski-lift from Şişhane to the Hippodrome to assist tourists in their sight-seeing.

** The Staurodromi is one of the nicest spaces in Pera.  The gates of Galatasaray are beautiful, the other corners have their original turn-of-the-century buildings intact and there’s one modern, kind of semi-Brutalist building in travertine that I really like, that houses a bank and a bookstore and that you can see in the picture above behind Vangeli and in this one below.  The only thing that mars the whole space is this ugly sculpture:

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Does anybody know what it’s supposed to be?  Missiles of some kind?  I don’t know what enriched uranium piles look like, but during Fukushima and every time someone talks about Iran or North Korea and uranium piles, my imagination immediately conjures up this horrible sculpture.

*** This was all part of what I can only generally call the “Great Mobilization” of the Greek world that began in the early eighteenth century.  The confluence of factors that caused this are so intricate that they’re hard to summarize: the primary spark was perhaps the massive wealth accumulated by the Phanariotes — Greek aristocratic families in Constantinople prominent at the Patriarchate and, by extension, at the Porte — who had used their influence in imperial circles to turn most of what is now Romania (Moldavia and Wallachia) into their own autonomous Greek kingdoms, which they sucked dry, and how that wealth was poured into Greek institutions and trickled down into Greek hands generally; the concurrent spread of Greek educational and commercial networks in the Balkans and Eastern Europe and later in the Near East, in the rapidly modernizing economy of post-Mehmet Ali Egypt especially; the way the so-called Greek Enlightenment worked through both these kinds of networks.  The increased mobility that the nineteenth century made possible; most people, for example, don’t know this, but the Greeks of the Anatolian Aegean coast and the Marmara were almost exclusively migrants from the islands and mainland Greece — and even later the Kingdom of Greece itself, Greece basically having been an economic basket-case since the get-go — that started settling there in large numbers in the later eighteenth century and not, as we romantically like to believe, descendants of Byyzantine Hellenism; the only remnants of Byzantine Hellenism in Asia Minor were the Greeks of Pontus and Cappadocia, of course, and small pockets near Konya and Kula and Isparta and that lake region, all of whom, except for Pontioi, were Turkish-speaking until some of the men started learning Greek in the nineteenth century.  (In isolated areas of Cappadocia, a dialect of obvious Greek origin had also survived into the nineteenth century but was already dying out by then, and was so heavily Turkish in vocabulary and had even developed extensive agglutinative structures like Turkish that it’s almost impossible to call it Greek, any more than you can call Vlach Roumanian.)  Then there were the colonialist economic incursions into the Ottoman Empire and its reduction to a European debt-slave (much like “Memoranda” Greece today) that together with the privileges for Christians that the Great Powers forced the Ottomans to grant, created a space for growing Greek and Armenian prosperity from which Muslims (and Jews, for that matter) were excluded, and that produced exclusively Christian micro-economies within the Empire in which Greek rural migrants could find work and prosper.  All this had an enormous effect on Greek life everywhere.  You can see it in the village architecture of certain regions of the Greek world.  And you can see it in traditional dress of Greek rural women.

My father’s villages in the valley of Dropoli are situated in one of the few extensive, arable parts of Epiros, the fields you see in the pictures taken from atop the village itself (click):

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Paradoxically, it was this theoretical asset that kept our villages relatively poor until the mid-nineteenth century, because these fields were all çiftlikia of Muslim landowners (“fiefs” I guess; don’t ask me to explain Ottoman land tenure to you, or tell you the difference betweeen a çiftlik or a timar or anything else, because every time I try and read about it I fall asleep and don’t remember anything I’ve read when I wake up) and we were essentially sharecroppers for them.  Only with the exponential growth of emigration in the nineteenth century did any kind of considerable prosperity come to our villages and many were even able to buy their village lands from the increasingly impoverished ağadhes themselves.  Like I said, this was markedly obvious in the changes in female costume and the complete switch of male dress to frangika, Western clothes; traditional male outfit of the region would have looked something like this, the characteristic white felt pants called poutouria (this photo is from southern Serbia actually, but was the nearest approximation I could find) and not the fustanella kilts that folklore groups in the village like to use today indiscriminately and inaccurately:

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While, with the women, in extremely old photos from Derviçani, you can see that almost all the articles of the costume were home-made by the women themselves, with growing wealth you see the gradual addition of articles of clothing that had to be made by professionals.  My grandmother’s outfit here, for example, especially the vest and apron:

Family…obviously had to be made by a professional sirmakeşi — an embroiderer of gold thread — in Jiannena or Argyrocastro, and the dress of some particularly wealthy villages, like those of Lunxhi, behind the mountains to the left across the valley in the photo (Albanian-speaking Christians with whom we intermarried extensively and still do, the homeland of Zappas and Zographos, the benefactors mentioned above) had, by the end of the nineteenth century, simply become regional variations of Ottoman urban dress, like in this photo, which the museum of Kozani (why it ended up in Kozani?) felt it had to put its water stamp on, like someone was going to sell the design to YSL or something:

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**** Despite my friend’s condescension, regional funding initiatives for these “poorest provinces in Europe” have greatly expanded the university in Jiannena and developed an extensive and prestigious medical research center there, an information technologies industrial park, renovated (sometimes over-renovated) large parts of the old Ottoman city and created a general climate of growth and prosperity seemingly unaffected by the problems of the Greek economy.  Epiros has become a little bit like a Greek Bavaria or the French south-west: a traditional, somewhat backwards area that made the leap over the ugly stages of modernization to post-modern comfort and prosperity.  Half-ruined villages have been renovated, largely through the skills of Albanian craftsmen, who still were trained in the traditional building skills necessary to preserve the region’s distinctive architecture.  There’s good traditional and contemporary food in Jiannena and in some of the newly developed tourist towns.  There’s skiing in the winter; there’s hiking and mountain-climbing in the summer and gorgeous beaches only an hour-and-a-half away from each other on the new highways.  And it’s generally agreed that Jiannena is one of the most pleasantly liveable of Greek provincial cities and Epiros one of Greece’s most beautiful and pleasantly liveable provinces.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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