Tag Archives: Pera

From Culinary Backstreets: A Beyoğlu Legend Passes on

25 Nov

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Why did we know that even if we were not definitely told by anybody?  i.e., that the whole culture and ceremony of meze-fish-rakı is a Greek contribution to İstanbul.

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The last Greek restaurant, İmroz (Ίμβρος) on Nevizâde Sokağı closed soon after its owner passed away in 2015.  Before that there was still İnci, the patisserie on the Jadde itself that was momentarily a part of the Gezi protests in 2013.  See my: “Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013.

So, it’s over; I think it’s now official.  At least as far as I know.  I’m 99.9% certain that there are no longer any Greek retail businesses left in the City.  Anyone who knows any different, let me know.

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On any given night, bustling, narrow Nevizade Street in the heart of Istanbul’s Beyoğlu district buzzes with thick crowds of evening revelers searching for the best table while clean-shaven waiters in their customary uniform of pressed white shirts and V-neck sweaters attempt to lure the crowds into their establishments.

Hyperactive as it may be, Nevizade – a hub for the meyhane, the Turkish taverna where plates of meze are enjoyed alongside slowly sipped rakı and grilled fish – has for decades had one distinctive, constant presence: Yorgo Okumuş, co-owner of the meyhane Krepen’deki İmroz and sole proprietor of a pair of almost comically bushy white eyebrows and an enigmatic mien that seemed to say he’s seen it all (which he probably had).

This week, sadly, Nevizade lost its elder statesman, with Yorgo Baba (as he was affectionately known) dying at the age of 94 after a short period of bad health. With the passing of Yorgo, a member of Istanbul’s dwindling Greek community, Beyoğlu lost one of the living links to its once vibrant multicultural and cosmopolitan past. At the same time, with his meyhane, Yorgo leaves behind an Istanbul institution that itself serves as a link to that past and that tells the incredible story of the fall and rise of the Beyoğlu neighborhood and its nightlife and dining scenes.

Imroz, photo by Yigal SchleiferWhile Nevizade and the streets surrounding it comprise one of the most lively and well-known nightlife hotspots in Istanbul, the meyhanes there trace their roots to a humbler, grittier period from where a time traveler would find the Beyoğlu of today utterly unrecognizable. “We were the first meyhane to arrive in Nevizade, in 1982. No one else was around in those days, and there was a mortician next door,” 57-year-old Mustafa Yıldırım, co-owner of Krepen’deki İmroz, told us during a recent visit. The name, which translates as “İmroz from Krepen,” is a nod to the island (known in Greek as İmroz and Gökçeada in Turkish) from which Yorgo hailed and a reference to its former location, the late Krepen Pasajı, where it opened in 1941.

Built sometime in the second half of the 19th century, the arcade was home to shoemakers and tailors until the early 1940s, when meyhanes began to move in one by one, resulting in a rowdy alcove of debauchery, where good-natured hell was raised on a nightly basis until the passage was razed in 1982. It was later rebuilt as a more mild-mannered arcade for secondhand bookshops, and remains so to this day.

Krepen might have been demolished, but Yorgo and Mustafa decided to carry on, relocating to Nevizade Street, just off Beyoğlu’s fish market, and İmroz became Krepen’deki İmroz so that it would be recognized by patrons from the previous era. “The backstreets were dangerous,” Mustafa said of Beyoğlu in the ’70s and early ’80s. “They were terrible back then. As far as a woman walking through during the day, forget it. It was even difficult for men to pass by. There were drunks and junkies, and the possibility of a fight breaking out was high.”

“We really struggled against this,” he said, adding that mafia pressure (still a factor in Beyoğlu today) was a major reality back then, with legendary kingpin Dündar Kılıç exerting a formidable presence in the area.

The cosmopolitan feel of Beyoğlu created by the Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Levantines (residents of European descent) who once dominated the area began to disintegrate in the second half of the 20th century, when non-Muslim Istanbullites vacated the area en masse, leaving a wealth of gorgeous, European-style architecture behind as tokens of their once established presence. The devastating anti-Greek pogrom of September 6-7, 1955, set its sights on minority-owned homes and businesses throughout the city, but the damage in Beyoğlu was particularly severe, resulting in a large number of Greeks leaving the country. Just under a decade later, thousands of Istanbul Greeks were expelled from the city as Greek-Turkish relations turned sour over Cyprus, a nail in the coffin for the once robust community and the urbane quality of Beyoğlu.

Krepen Pasajı, with its raucous array of meyhanes run by both Turks and Greeks alike, successfully navigated those complicated twists and turns in Beyoğlu’s social life. The Turks learned the trade from the Greeks, and Yorgo was perhaps the last meyhane proprietor of his kind in Istanbul, where the Greek population has now fallen below 2,000.

Mustafa of Krepen'deki İmroz, photo by Paul OsterlundYorgo and Mustafa opened Krepen’deki İmroz in 1982, but the two had actually worked together since 1970, when a 12-year-old Mustafa was hired on as a busboy in the meyhane where Yorgo was working as a waiter at the time. When they opened their own place, the beginning of a new social life began to take root in Beyoğlu. “In the 1970s, while working in Krepen, there were no female customers. Maybe in a month you would see one or two. Families would not go there,” recalled Mustafa. “The atmosphere was one of vulgar, slang-ridden conversations between men. After we moved to Nevizade in the ’80s, women started to show up, and the men began to watch their mouths.” Kadir’in Yeri (“Kadir’s Place”), one of İmroz’s neighbors from Krepen Pasajı, followed suit by opening on Nevizade under its current moniker, Krepen’deki Kadir’in Yeri.

At that time, Beyoğlu was far from the vast entertainment hub that it is known as today. The back alleys were beyond sketchy, and young people did not go there to socialize, instead heading to the quarters of Ortaköy, Nişantaşı and Etiler, which now rank among the most expensive and luxurious neighborhoods in the city. Krepen’deki İmroz was part of Beyoğlu’s gradual change, which surged after 1988, when the district’s main avenue, İstiklal, was designated pedestrian-only, and the adjacent Tarlabaşı Boulevard was expanded across six lanes.

“Eventually the pavyon segment of Beyoğlu began to transform into one of pubs, cafés and grillhouses, and young people began to come hang out,” Mustafa said, referring to a kind of “gentlemen”-only nightclub where customers would pay to have women flirt with them tableside and which was once a main fixture of the district during its seedier days.

Krepen'deki İmroz today, photo by Paul OsterlundDining habits in the meyhane also changed in the post-Krepen era, Mustafa told us. Back then, the meze affair was much simpler: While İmroz’s meze tray today groans with the weight of some 40 selections, it only carried a half-dozen or so in the old days. Not-for-the-faint-of-heart choices such as grilled kidney and ram’s testicles were also on the menu once upon a time, but have since quietly disappeared.

The years treated Mustafa and Yorgo well until recently. Mustafa said that the Gezi Park protests of 2013 and the subsequent iron fist of police violence that slammed down on Beyoğlu for months afterward have irreparably damaged business, sinking revenues by as much as 50 percent. The constant cat and mouse of police and protestors – and the ensuing tear gas – routinely spilled over into backstreets like Nevizade and profoundly affected the area.

“Since we’ve been around for so long, we have been able to stay on our feet. Some of our neighbors are having a harder time,” Mustafa said solemnly.

Wreaths for Yorgo Okumuş included one from Yeni Rakı, photo by Ansel MullinsMany of those neighbors turned up for Yorgo’s Wednesday funeral at the Greek cemetery in Istanbul’s Şişli neighborhood. Meyhane keepers, merchants from the Beyoğlu fish market and waiters, some in their work attire, all came to pay their respects. One man walked through the greeting line wearing an apron. Near Yorgo’s grave was a large funeral wreath from Coşkun Kasap, an old-time Beyoğlu butcher who supplies many of the meyhanes. Not far from that wreath was one sent by Yeni Rakı, Turkey’s largest distiller of the anise-flavored spirit.

Old customers were there in force as well, unshaven, many looking hungover. They smoked and gathered in knots, as if congregating in the dining room of İmroz, all wearing a photo of Yorgo pinned to their jackets. “He was the last of the Mohicans,” Emre, a tour guide and regular, told us. A spice merchant from the fish market said, “He was a four-star human, a beautiful person.”

One old regular of İmroz recalled Yorgo’s occasional temper, which over the years became part of his charm. “Many times I’d do something to annoy him and he’d blow up on me. But that came from his love,” he said. “Love and friendship – that should stay in our minds when remembering Yorgo Baba.”

Yorgo’s son, giving an interview to a television station, simply said, “He was the heart of Beyoğlu, the heart of the fish market.”

Not far from the freshly dug grave, a group of friends caught up with each other. “We’re getting the team back together,” one said. “5:30, İmroz.” They all nodded. “5:30, İmroz!”

Additional reporting was contributed by Ansel Mullins.

(photos by Ansel Mullins, Paul Osterlund and Yigal Schleifer)

istanbul pogrom aftermath

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Turkish Jews: A Spanish right of return redux

15 Oct

istipol-synagogue-istanbulİştipol in Istanbul

When I first came across this idea of that Spain was granting Sephardic Jews Spanish citizenship I was mildly condescending, thinking that it was the most pointless kind of Western guilt for the past and that maybe Europe had better things to think about.

Then a friend sent me this article about the shrinking Jewish community of Istanbul from Young Turkish Jews trickling away from shrinking community from the Times of Israel:

Turkey’s economic boom in the first decade of the 21st century has slowed, and its currency has lost 20 percent of its value against the dollar in the past year alone.

As tuition prices in Turkey’s increasingly competitive universities have skyrocketed in recent years, the quality of education lags behind schools in western Europe, the United States and Canada.

Like many middle-class Turks, Turkish Jews have contributed of the country’s brain drain.

“There’s no doubt anti-Semitism is a motivating factor,” said Louis Fishman, an assistant professor at Brooklyn College who has split his time in the last decade between New York, Istanbul and Tel Aviv. “But there are other groups [in the Jewish community] that are leaving because they’re part of the middle class, they can go to school in the US and get a job abroad.”

T., a 30-something resident of Istanbul who, like other Turkish Jews, preferred to speak anonymously for fear of backlash, works in a multinational company, which he said offers many Turks a means of emigrating with financial security.

“Almost all my friends think about what to do next,” said T., especially after the 2010 and 2014 anti-Israel uproar in Turkey. “Even though we are staying here, everyone is thinking of their next move.” He said that in the past five years he’s noticed a marked rise in Jewish emigration from Turkey.

Another indicator of the anxiety pervading the community is the number of Turkish Jews who have jumped at the opportunity to acquire Spanish citizenship. The vast majority of Turkey’s Jews are descendants of Spanish exiles who were welcomed into the Ottoman Empire.

Earlier this year the Spanish government announced its intention of extending citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews expelled in 1492. Shortly thereafter 5,000 Turkish Jews — roughly a third of the community — applied for dual citizenship, potentially opening the doors to life in Europe, according to a recent Financial Times report. [my emphasis]

I don’t know why this idea — that Spanish citizenship would open the doors to life or work anywhere in the European Union — completely skipped my mind; it’s the reason that I got my Greek citizenship (along with a little bit of a more personal tug, granted…)  Maybe it’s because all discussion of the issue was focused on the Israelis that would be granted citizenship and I totally forgot about the only real Jewish community in the Muslim world (aside from Iran) that still exists.

Still, the article gives you enough to worry about in terms of minority life in Turkey: the people who wouldn’t go on record for the writer is just one.  And, I wonder if having dual citizenship is actually allowed in Turkey and if you’re not setting yourself up for trouble.  In 1964, Turkey expelled all Greeks who held both Greek and Turkish citizenship from Istanbul, in such an over-night fashion that it effectively meant confiscation of their property as well.   Next time you’ve found the perfect Airbnb space in Pera or Tarlabaşı, ask the owner if he knows anything about the building’s history.

Below is my first post on “Spanish right of return” and below that a 1964 article from The New York Times article on the Greek expulsions.

Turkish synagogueMembers of Turkey’s Jewish community pray at Neve Shalom Synagogue in Istanbul on October 11, 2004, during a ceremony to mark the official reopening of the synagogue (AP/Murad Sezer)

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A Spanish right of return for Sephardic Jews?

9 Feb

Boy, that’s a wild idea…

And I can’t help but think it’s EU-ish political correctness taken to the point of silliness.  Don’t you folks have a few other things to think about right now?

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“Why make a fuss about Spain’s ostensible effort to atone for bad behaviour, even if it’s about 524 years too late?” asks this Al Jazeera article about the Spanish offer, as it also examines some of the other complexities, ironies and…hypocrisies…behind the whole notion:

“To be sure, atonement in itself is far from fuss-worthy. Goodness knows this world could use more apologies, reparations, and truth-telling – and in fact, 1492 is not a bad place to start.

“That year happens to be rather synonymous with the decimation of indigenous populations in the Americas in the aftermath of a certain nautical expedition, authorised by the very same Ferdinand and Isabella who expelled the Jews from Spain.

“This is not to say, then, that the repercussions of centuries-old injustice aren’t alive and well; it’s merely to point out the ironies of an international panorama in which Mossad officials are granted additional homelands in Spain while Palestinians languish in refugee camps for nearly seven decades.”

And just another thought: it could hypothetically mean a minor flood of Sephardic Jews from Argentina, say, or other Latin American countries, looking for better economic possibilities.  But in Spain?  At this particular moment?  I think the days of heavy Latin American emigration to Spain have been put on hold for a while.

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ISTANBUL, Turkey, Aug. 8 —Harassment and deportation of Greek nationals in Istanbul in retaliation for Turkish set­backs on Cyprus was declared today “an open policy” of the Government.

Unless a solution to the strife between Greek and Turkish Cypriotes is found soon, the Greeks here fear that their community, once numerous and prosperous, will be dispersed before winter.

“The pressure on the Istanbul Greeks will be gradual,” said a spokesman for the Foreign Min­istry in Ankara.

Tactic Held Ineffective

Sources close to Premier Is­met Inonu said the Government believed “pressure on Greek na­tionals” was the only way left to Turkey to force Athens and the Greek‐dominated Cypriote Government to accept a satis­factory compromise.

Istanbul’s Greeks have many Turkish friends who believe the new tactic will prove as ineffec­tive as it is harsh. The consen­sus among the Greeks them­selves is that Turkey is using Cyprus as “an excuse to do what they have long wanted to do—get us out.”

This week 58 more Greeks were added to nearly 1,000 who had been deported on short no­tice since March.

New lists are expected within a few days, and the 9,000 re­maining Greek nationals are sure their days here are num­bered. Turkey has canceled, effective Sept. 15, a 1930 agree­ment under which Greeks have been privileged to live here.

There is fear now in the hearts of 60,000 Turks of Greek descent, They, too, complain of harassment, “tax persecution” and ostracism, although Premier Inonu has declared repeatedly that these minority nationals will not be discriminated against.

In the business districts of Istanbul, many Greek‐owned shops may be seen under pad­lock. They were closed on Government order or because the owners were summarily or­dered from the country. Wives and other dependents are in many cases left destitute.

Many Born in Turkey

Every morning large numbers of Greeks crowd into the arcaded foyer of the Greek Consulate to ask help and advice. Some ac­cept an emergency dole provided by the consulate; others are well dressed. Some are old and frail.

Most of those deported so far were born in Turkey, according to the consulate, and many had never been to Greece. They have no particular place in Greece to go, and they say they have no idea what to do when they get there.

Greeks scan the Istanbul newspapers for published lists, fearing they will find their names. When they do, they go to the police to be fingerprint­ed, photographed and asked to sign deportation statements. They are given a week to leave the country, and police escorts see that they make the dead­line.

Asset Sales Difficult

Families of deportees protest that it is impossible to sell businesses or personal property in so short a time. “Few want to buy from us, and no one wants to pay a fair price,” one victim said. A deportee may take with him only his cloth­ing, 200 Turkish lira (about $22) and his transportation ticket.

At first the Government de­nied that these deportations had anything to do with the dispute over Cyprus. AU the deportees were charged with “activities harmful to the Turk­ish state.”

The Greeks have found wry humor in this claim. According to a source close to the con­sulate, the deportation lists have included the names of six per­sons long dead.

There have been 121 deportees more than 70 years old and 20 over the age of 80.

Many charges have been raised against the Greek aliens: smuggling money out of the country, for example, or evad­ing taxes and military duty. The Turkish authorities say the Greeks have invested their wealth abroad and that this has damaged the Turkish economy.

Wealth Put at $200 Million

Turkish estimates of Greek wealth here have gone as high as $500 million. But recently this figure has been reduced to $200 million. Greeks say the Turks “reduced their inflated estimates when they realized that someday they might have to settle for properties taken from us.”

They blame Turkey for not having offered better invest­ment opportunities.

In addition to abrogating the 1930 agreement on residence, trade and shipping privileges, Ankara has suspended a 1955 agreement granting unrestricted travel facilities to nationals of both countries. A number of Greeks caught outside Turkey when this suspension took ef­fect are reported to be unable to return.

More seriously, Ankara re­cently decided to enforce strictly a long‐overlooked law barring Greek nationals from 30 professions and occupations. They cannot, for example, be doctors, nurses, architects, shoe­makers, tailors, plumbers, caba­ret singers, ironsmiths, cooks or tourist guides.

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Memo to: a certain generation of “progressive” Turks

4 Aug

From: NikoBakos

Re: the final and total castration of the Turkish military

Date: August 2017

Ataturk Mausoleum Yildirim Chiefs of staffPrime Minister Binali Yildirim of Turkey, front right, and the chief of staff, Gen. Hulusi Akar, third from left, visit the Mustafa Kemal Ataturk Mausoleum before the Turkish Supreme Military Council meeting in Ankara on Wednesday. Credit Adem Altan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

ARE YOU HAPPY NOW???

I have two groups of friends in Constantinople:* one a group of mostly Alevi**, first-generation urbanites (from Dersim and Antiocheia); another of at least several urban generations, who are pure “White” Turks in every way.

A sub-category of this second group of friends (who are fast becoming ex-friends) are/were or considered themselves to be “leftists” (“I should cough” as one of the characters in Hester Street says).  These were always violently allergic to anything that had to do with the military, Turkish or otherwise.

Peaceniks, of course, our rift began when it proved completely in their interest to paint me as a super-American hawk during the Iraq war, even if I’m deeply un-American in my self-identification and was never a supporter of Bush’s adventure.  I simply did not know what to think about the idea of invading Iraq and toppling Saddam Hussein and took issue with their knee-jerk, anti-American attitude, with their facile certainty they knew what to think.  In the end I just decided that anybody who was automatically against the completely justified invasion of Afghanistan and the removal of the Taliban — and if that’s a tragically uncompleted project, that doesn’t mean the initial result or victory was not worthwhile…ASK ANY AFGHAN — was going to be a robot-thinker about any kind of American intervention or just about war of any kind, so I couldn’t be bothered.

Of course, these types DON’T KNOW ANY AFGHANS to ask, because they’re shameless hypocrites living in their pleasant, sheltered suburbs in C-Town, who know our Cyclades better then they know the rest of their own country — certainly better than I do — and wouldn’t dare head out to Afghanistan, even on a dare.  Why do they irritate me so much?  It’s simple.

If the original sin of the Right is selfishness, the original sin of the Left is self-righteousness, by which I mean the need to see one’s self as morally correct no matter what, even if this means a breezy indifference to the realpolitik or the reality of what’s really happening on the ground.***

Of course, they were steadfast in their belief that the Turkish military was an institution of bastardized Kemalism that was the greatest anti-democratic force in their society.  This was their justification for eventually rejecting their parents’ admittedly corrupt CHP as well, Turkey’s Kemalist Republican party.  And yet it’s ironic that the Turkish military’s “anti-democratic” orientation has repeatedly prevented the complete descent of that society into chaos.  One of these types has a whole sob story she used to recite to me about how, as a young girl in the 70s, she was terrified every day when her father left the house that he wouldn’t come home because of the terrible and constant terrorist violence that was then occurring on the streets of Constantinople.  But it was the military that put an end to that violence in 1980, like it was the military who got rid of Menderes, architect of the 1955 anti-Greek pogrom, in 1960.  And as soon as Erbakan started exceeding his limits (btw, he was the first who tried talking about limiting alcohol consumption and tables on the street in Pera and Galata), the military got rid of him too in 1997 — not exactly cause and effect there.

As a Greek, there’s obviously little love lost on my part for the Turkish military.  I just feel that if Turkey’s twentieth-century history, culminating in the Erdoğan phenomenon, has proven the country to be incapable of forming a democratic civil society that doesn’t spin out of control into violence, corruption and chaos, then you just don’t have the luxury of being anti-military.  Furthermore, from our perspective, Erdoğan’s pre- and post-“coup” military is a far more threatening force than it was previously.  Violations of Greek air space have increased exponentially under Erdoğan’s tenure, as has his, and formerly Davutoğlu’s, irresponsibly imperialist Neo-Ottoman language.  And just like it wasn’t a military junta that organized the pogrom of 1955, it wasn’t a military government that invaded Cyprus in 1974, ethnically cleansing and occupying 40% of the island to protect a Turkish minority that is only 18% of the island’s population.

Lately there had been a weird shift in their attitudes though, as it has slowly sunk in that they had supported (“I voted for him!  My God!!”) the most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid (photo below).  After the takeover and purging of the daily Zaman in March of 2016, I ran the idea past a few of them: “do you think it’d be a good idea for the military to step in? …they already have more unconstitutional dirt on him than on most Turkish heads of state.”  And even the Teşvikiye girl who had worried so much about her father, didn’t get apoplectic on me like she would’ve done in the past; she simply mumbled passively, in the static cadences of Turkish passivity: “I don’t even think they’re in a position to do anything at this point.”****

AbdülhamidAbdülhamid

Worse was one who said to me: “What Turkey needs now is unity.”  Well, your compatriots have actually shown a quite impressive amount of unity in the face of the Erdoğan challenge.  Every time he has engineered some sort of spectacular violence to terrify them over the past almost three years, they have unitedly come back, in elections and referenda and the mob-mobilization they have always been so good at, to give this “most un-democratic, anti-consitutional, religiously retrograde, paranoid, chip-on-the-shoulder lunatic to rule Turkey since Abdülhamid…” an even greater mandate on power than he had before: Daddy please save us!

Infantile beyond belief.  Is that the “unity” you wanted?  There was great unity in the mob hysteria that this supposed coup was met with (no, I don’t believe it was Gülen; no, I don’t think it was the army, unless it was army that already knew it was going to be sacked; no, I don’t think he didn’t know; I’d probably refuse to believe that Erdoğan wasn’t the architect of the whole thing — see the New Yorker‘s great Dexter Fillins’ “Turkey’s Thirty-Year Coup”).  They displayed impressive unity lynching poor little Mehmetçiks just following orders on the Bosporus Bridge (scenes guaranteed to make the hair of Greeks and Armenians stand on end), impressive unity in the Nazi-style rallies the Great Leader has convened, impressive unity in heckling men from the army and journalists and writers being led into a show trial that can quite possibly end in their execution or certainly life sentence (see “Inside Erdoğan’s Prisons” in the Times) and with the kerchiefed teyzes screaming for blood outside the courthouse in Ankara — and I’m sure they’ll show impressive unity in supporting the reinstating of capital punishment if that goes up for a referendum soon.

Turkish thugs and soldiersTurks beating up young conscripts on the Bosporus Bridge, defending their democratic right to elect a dictator who has abolished Turkish democracy for the most part and soon will have the power to go after whatever’s left…Turkish “unity” in action.

IS THAT THE UNITY YOU WANTED?  The unity of Kristallnacht? (or the “Septembriana” — same difference.)  The unity of Nüremberg?  The unity that comes with thinking that you can enfranchise the newly rich, provincial pious, those with absolutely no democratic education — or education of any kind — and that they won’t turn on you like swine before which pearls have been cast?  (Plato said that the “demos” — the people — shouldn’t have the right to vote because they’ll always vote for the tyrant — τυραννόφρων; Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor says precisely the same thing.)  Did you want the unity of the Italians and the Germans who respectively put Mussolini and Hitler in power with their vote?  Or the Americans who voted for Trump?  Or the Russians who voted and will again vote for Putin?

Tabrik migam, then.  You got it.

And this is the cherry on your birthday cake: Erdoğan replaces the military chiefs of staff with his own men.  Good luck ever getting rid of him now.  He’s now in a position of total control, with no challenges whatsoever.  You’re stuck for life.

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* The days when in the p.c. stupidity of the metapoliteuse we used to refer to Constantinople as “Istanbul” — I mean when speaking Greek…airport announcements and newspaper by-lines used “Ιστανμπούλ“…in Greek…are over.  I’ve now taken to calling it Constantinople in English as well, as Turks are free to call Salonica Selanik or Bulgarians and Macedonians Solun and I have no problem.  I’m not going to tell others what to call cities historically important to them; it actually makes me happy.  For more on this see my: Names: “Istanbul (not Constantinople)”…and Bombay! and keep an eye out for my “Boycott ‘Mumbai” campaign” post.  In general except an upswing in South Asian posts as we approach the seventy-year anniversary of Partition.

** My friends bear out the truth that Turkey’s Kurdish-Zaza Alevis and Syria and Lebanon’s Alawites are religiously the same branch of semi-Shia Islam.  The ones from Dersim have recognized that Syrian Alawites are also Alevi like them, even if that hasn’t made them Assad supporters; and the ones from Antiocheia (Antakya in Turkish or Hatay province in the logic of Turkish science fiction nationalist narrative) are just plain Alawite Arabs, who have understood that if there’s anything separating them from Syrian or Lebanese Alawites, it’s only the Turkification campaign they were subjected to when Turkey annexed that part of then-French-mandate Syria in the 1930s.  If papers like the Times feel the need to add the caveat that they’re different in every article they publish on the subject, it’s because they’re ignorant, the Turkish Press Office has made a fuss every time they don’t add that caveat, and it’s easy to think that people separated into difference by the ethnic nation state aren’t religiously brothers.  I’ve written extensively on this in a Twitter dialogue I had with a Turk who thought everybody should fight “lies and defamation” against their country when they appear in the media:

Syrian Alawites and Turkish Alevis: closer than I thought

Turkish Alevis and Syrian (or Lebanese…or Turkish?) Alawites — a Twitter exchange

Alevis and Alawites addendum: a “p.s.” from Teomete

More on Alevis and Alawites…or Alevis and Kurds…or Iraqi Kurds…or…Christian Kurds…or Assyrians…or…

Look out for Alevis in the current struggle in Turkey.  Whereas Kurds proper are not trusted by the political establishment or most Turks because they’re convinced they’ll never give up their separatist aspirations, Alevis, who suffered terribly under the Ottomans and the early republic and still do on some level, are still loyal to the Turkish Republic and Turkey itself.  This puts them in the position to become the secular backbone of all democratic impulses that still exist in that country, something like African-Americans in the United States were in the mid-twentieth century, since their form of Islam does not aspire to becoming the State itself, as all forms of conventional Sunni Islam do.  They were a disproportionate share of the casualties and deaths that occurred during the crackdown of the 2013 protests, not because they were targetted specifically, but simply because they were already a disproportionately large percentage of the protesters.

*** It may seem irrelevant, but this type always reminds of a passage in Chesterton’s Orthodoxy in which he trashes this kind of moral correctness by trashing the New Agers of his time:

“Only the other day I saw in an excellent weekly paper
of Puritan tone this remark, that Christianity when stripped of its
armour of dogma (as who should speak of a man stripped of his armour of
bones), turned out to be nothing but the Quaker doctrine of the Inner
Light. Now, if I were to say that Christianity came into the world
specially to destroy the doctrine of the Inner Light, that would be an
exaggeration. But it would be very much nearer to the truth. The last
Stoics, like Marcus Aurelius, were exactly the people who did believe in
the Inner Light. Their dignity, their weariness, their sad external care
for others, their incurable internal care for themselves, were all due
to the Inner Light, and existed only by that dismal illumination. Notice that Marcus Aurelius insists, as such introspective moralists always do,
upon small things done or undone; it is because he has not hate or love
enough to make a moral revolution. He gets up early in the morning, just
as our own aristocrats living the Simple Life get up early in the
morning; because such altruism is much easier than stopping the games of
the amphitheatre or giving the English people back their land. Marcus
Aurelius is the most intolerable of human types. He is an unselfish
egoist. An unselfish egoist is a man who has pride without the excuse of
passion. Of all conceivable forms of enlightenment the worst is what
these people call the Inner Light. Of all horrible religions the most
horrible is the worship of the god within. Any one who knows any body
knows how it would work; any one who knows any one from the Higher
Thought Centre knows how it does work. That Jones shall worship the god
within him turns out ultimately to mean that Jones shall worship Jones.
Let Jones worship the sun or moon, anything rather than the Inner Light;
let Jones worship cats or crocodiles, if he can find any in his street,
but not the god within. Christianity came into the world firstly in
order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards,
but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a
divine company and a divine captain. The only fun of being a Christian
was that a man was not left alone with the Inner Light, but definitely
recognised an outer light, fair as the sun, clear as the moon, terrible
as an army with banners.”  [All bold emphases mine.]

**** “yanlış oldu” — See Loxandra‘s amazing “duck with bamya” chapter; I never tire of recommending it.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

Photo: Sarajevo gastra and börek…or Börek I

24 Aug

Börek gastra Sarajevo

(click)

These are börek in Sarajevo being baked in a gastra, a strange piece of High Ottoman technology that is still used in much of northern Greece, especially Epiros and the rest of the Balkans, particularly the western parts: Albania, Montenegro (where uniquely in the Serb-speaking world, they call börek pitta like in Greek), Kosovo and southern Serbia — regions, interestingly enough, where börek is a particularly strong regional identity marker and the object of a powerful cult of affection and snobbery.  Every and each börek in these parts is subjected to intense scrutiny; is there too much filling (major demerit points because you’re obviously trying to make up for the poor quality of your phyllo/yufka); is each layer fine enough, but able to both absorb serious quantities of butter and not get soggy, like a good croissant or a good paratha.  Finally, that you use real — and good — butter, which makes almost all commercially sold varieties not worth trying, since using good butter on a commercial scale would make a börek that is prohibitively expensive, and especially in a country of culinary philistines like Greece, store-bought versions are almost inedible, as is most product in Turkey these days too, Turkish street food having suffered a marked decline in quality even as the tourist literature on the country continues to rave about it.  But I have had good börek in Macedonia, in Mavrovo, and in Montenegro, in Žabljak, where the hotel made us a great cheese and a great cabbage one for a hike we went on.  And in a high-end restaurant in Jiannena too; but next to me was an Albanian woman, who first smelled it, pricked at it with her fork, counting the layers of pastry, and then after a few minutes of just staring at it, pushed it away in disgust.  Like I said, it’s an object of great snobbery.  And forget Old Greece.  It’s a standard rule of thumb that the further away in place and time a region of Greece is from the Ottoman experience, the exponentially worse the food gets.  No one south of Larissa can bake a pitta to save their lives, or make a decent plate of pilav for that matter.  Epiros is probably the only place you can still get a nice buttery mound of pilav — like the kind Turks make — with good yogurt.  Southern Greeks seem allergic to rice, and have friggin’ potatoes with almost every meal.  Maybe It’s a Bavarian thing — I dunno.

some really good borek

Reaaally good stuff, in Mavrovo, Macedonia (click)  (See post: Macedonia: Mavrovo, Dimitri and the Two Falcons)

But everything baked tastes better in a gastra, the same root as the word for “womb” in Greek (or “gastritis”): rice and lamb, even zeytinyağlı vegetable dishes.  It’s just incredibly tedious — and dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing — to use.  It’s a cast-iron dome, suspended with a very complicated chain mechanism over a stone platform.  You first lift the dome and light your charcoal fire underneath it on the stone platform.  When the fire has been reduced to hot embers, and the cast-iron dome has also gotten nice and hot, you brush the embers aside, position your tepsi of food, lower the hot cast-iron dome, and then pile the still glowing embers on top of the dome.  Usually when they’ve cooled down completely the dish is done.  The picture above shows gastras at all steps in the process.

I dunno really.  Does it make that much of a difference?  Everything is better when it tastes slightly smokey or when a little bit of ash has fallen into it — like Turkish coffee made in hot ashes.  But it’s a ton of work and really impractical.  If, for example, the embers go out completely and you raise the dome and the food isn’t done yet, you have to start the whole process from the beginning.  Arthur Schwatrz, in his ever-best cookbook on Neapolitan food, Naples at Table: Cooking in Campania — which, like most good cookbooks these days, is as fantastic a source of history, anthropology and ethnography as it is of good recipes — says that a lot of foods legendary for how long you had to cook them for them to be the “real” article, like a Neapolitan ragù (pronounce with a double “r” and a “g” that sounds like a light Greek “gamma” – “γ”) that should take at least half a day to simmer or no self-respecting Neapolitan would eat it, were never really cooked that long.  Rather, they were cooked on wood fires and braziers, which were constantly going out, had to be relit, while the sauce cooled off and took time to reheat, etc.  Of course, for certain sauces and stews, and the fatty, sinewy cuts of meat we like in “our parts,” this kind of cooking is ideal.  And not just the slow, long heat, but the cooling off and reheating especially.

Naples at Table

Ottoman mangal

(click)

It’s like that other piece of Ottoman high-tech (I don’t mean to make fun, but it wasn’t exactly their strong suit), the mangal home-heater or charcoal brazier. (above)  You’d pile charcoal into it; leave it out in the street until the carbon monoxide burned off, then cover the embers with the lid and bring the whole incredibly dangerous, glowing — and often very large — brass behemoth inside to warm the house, or one hermetically sealed room really.  Then, as my mother used to describe it, you’d get under the blankets or flokates, facing the mangal, so your face would turn all red and sweaty while your back was freezing, and hope you had fallen asleep before it started cooling off or that you had generated enough body heat under the blankets to last till morning.  There were countless stories about families being found dead in the morning, because in the rush to bring this silly contraption into the freezing house, the carbon monoxide often hadn’t burnt off entirely and people would die from poisoning in their sleep.  I can only imagine that their use was required because it was probably tricky to build chimneys in mostly wooden Ottoman urban housing — my mother only remembered them from Jiannena; in her village where the house was stone, there were regular stone fireplaces where you could keep adding wood because the chimney would let the smoke and gas escape — and I’m sure that many of the massive fires that consumed whole mahallades of Ottoman cities over the centuries and killed thousands on certain occasions, were probably caused by one accidentally knocked over mangal somewhere.

And whole neighborhoods would burn down and then be rebuilt in wood again, something I comment on in another post — Macedonia: Sveti Jovan Bigorski“:

This is a kind of Ottoman tradition: build in wood, suffer repeated fires like the kind that wiped out whole districts of Istanbul throughout its history and killed tens of thousands.  Then rebuild in wood again.  It’s not known who said that the definition of neurosis is repeating the same action over and over and expecting a different result, but it also might be the definition of stupidity.  Only after a fire destroyed two thirds of Pera in 1870 in just six hours did people in those predominantly Christian and Jewish areas start building in masonry, which is why those neighborhoods are architecturally far older today than those of the now ugly two-thousand-year-old city on the original peninsula, where there is almost no old domestic architecture left (except, again, in former minority neighborhoods, for some reason, like Fanari or Balata or Samatya).

More on the symbolics of börek and the break-up of Yugoslavia in the next post.

Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

“Might they open the doors of the wine shops And loosen their hold on our knotted lives? If shut to satisfy the ego of the puritan Take heart, for they will reopen to satisfy God.” — Hafez

3 Nov

WineryimageFrom Pulse News: Beer, wine flow in West Bank Christian hamlet”  by TIA GOLDENBERG | November 3, 2014

TAYBEH, West Bank (AP) — A tiny Christian enclave in the overwhelmingly Muslim West Bank has for years crafted the only Palestinian beer and brought thousands of visitors flocking to its annual beer fest. Now, it is adding wine to its list of libations, hoping a boutique winery will be another tourist draw and contribute to keeping the small village afloat.

While Christians around the Middle East have seen their numbers dwindle due to conflict and the lure of better economic opportunities abroad, Taybeh has remained an exclusively Christian village, the last in the West Bank.

The family behind the wine and beer says they are carrying out “peaceful resistance” by investing in their homeland and staying put.

“This is how we believe the state of Palestine can be built: by people like us to invest in the country and encourage other Palestinians to come and invest in their country,” said Nadim Khoury, who founded the brewery and winery.

I’ve always been fascinated by the association, in so much Persian(ate) poetry, of alcohol with non-Muslims — and by extension, licentiousness, sexual desire, subversiveness, sin, etc.  There’s probably a dissertation out there somewhere that I should try looking for.  I thought about it a lot in my rant on the Gezi Park protests and the symbolic importance of Pera in the İstanbul imaginary that I wrote from Kabul last November.  In fact, it was pretty much the thesis of the piece:

“And here we run into our first paradox, or the origins of a chain of paradox: that this now central “heart” of Istanbul began as a space of marginality.  The Byzantines originally put some of their unwanted Catholics there: Galata’s mother city is actually Genoa.  In Ottoman times, Christians and Jews lived there and made wine and everybody else came there to drink it.  While not an exclusionary, extramural ghetto of any sort – to their credit the Ottomans didn’t often do that kind of thing – it was sort of the wrong side of the tracks: the Ottoman equivalent of the suburbs or the across-the-river Zoroastrian neighborhoods in Iran where Hafez and company went to drink the infidel’s wine and torment themselves with the beauty of the innkeeper’s son: the other side of town, the refuge of disbelief and transgression, of unorthodoxy and the unorthodox in every sense.  The alcohol…”

…….

If 2013’s protests then – at least Istanbul’s –were at their core about protecting aspects of the essential urbanity of Istanbul, and Greeks played such a large role in shaping that urbanity, shouldn’t that be acknowledged?  If Turkish society is playing out – again, at least in Istanbul – its most intense culture wars on a ghost blueprint of vanished minorities, then wouldn’t making that a more explicit part of the contest be immensely productive – all around.

See it all:Nobody really cares about Gezi Park: Greek thoughts on the protests of 2013

 

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Comment: nikobakos@gmail.com

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

2 Jun

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(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.

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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!”

Lebpic1340611232r779452Leblebi

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:

Uranium piles

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):

IMG_0075

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:

Poutouria220px-Teslacirca1880(2)

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:

VI2M8774.TIF

**** 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

My Circassians

25 May

AdygeaReaders might remember I’ve had a long-term interest in Circassians since high school.  Of all the peoples collectively known in Turkey as muhacir, the Ottoman Muslims who took refuge in the Anatolian heartland of the Empire as it shrank, probably none had a more torturously, circuitous odyssey to ultimate safety in Turkey than the Circassians.  Here’s a selection about them from a post I wrote in February about why I was boycotting the Sochi Olympics; it wasn’t just for Putin and his filthy, murderous personage, but because the games were being held on land an admirable and honorable people had fought long and hard to keep and had been brutally thrown out of by Imperial Russia:

“And then there are the Circassians.  I became obsessed with Circassians in high school because I had to know who these people were, so physically beautiful apparently, that they held the entire Near East in thrall for centuries.  Circassians were the first reason I ever went into the New York Public Library, because the library at Stuyvesant didn’t have anything on them.  This is also around the time, as a nerdy sixteen-year-old, that I started developing the totally adolescent, romantic fascination I still suffer from, for honor-obsessed, heavily-armed highlanders — Montenegrins, northern Albanians, Pashtuns — who don’t easily let themselves get pushed around by outsiders.   It fed a lonely teenager’s fantasies of empowerment then.  Now, I couldn’t tell you.  Probably still.

“The Circassians lived in a huge swath of plain, foothill and high mountain country in the northern Caucasus.  Most of the sites of the this month’s games are being held on formerly Circassian territory.  This is a map of their general distribution in the eighteenth century, right before Russian expansion southwards began:

Circassia_in_1750

(click)

“For more than a century they fought a brutal tooth-and-nail war against the Russians and their Cossacks.  When they finally capitulated in 1864 it was in Sochi.  The majority, which would not agree to an oath of loyalty to Russia were deported, in what was probably the first campaign of ethnic cleansing of such dimensions in modern history.  For months, the beach at Sochi was a Dunkerque-like humanitarian disaster zone, with tens of thousands of shelterless, starving and diseased Circassians waiting for Ottoman ships to take them to safety in Anatolia or the still-Turkish Balkans or dying on the spot.

Expulsion_map_of_the_Circassians_in_19th_century“It certainly represented the largest civilian death toll of any war up to its time and today, ninety percent of people of Circassian descent live outside their original homeland, mostly Turkey, but also Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.”

(To read the whole post: Ignoring Sochi.“)

And as with Native Americans in North America, as their government was massacring and expelling them, Russian poets and writers like Lermontov, Pushkin and Tolstoy were romanticizing them, sympathizing with them and entering in a love affair with all the peoples of the Caucasus that literary Russia still has not recovered from.  Someone, everywhere, at all times, has a heart and a soul — for whatever good it does.

I had assumed muhacir is constructed from the Arabic “mu = doer of something” plus the roots ‘h’ + ‘j’ + ‘j’ (?) which almost sounds more like “pilgrim” –  as in “Hajj.”  But “mu” turns out to be a passive participle marker of someone who is made to do something, in this case not as in “Hajj, pilgrimage, but  ‘h’ + ‘j’ + ‘r’ as in “Hejira?” which would mean “fleer,” as in those who fled with Muhammad to Medina from Mecca in 622.  That would make more sense than traveller, which would be the “mu-sa-fir” recognizable to any Greeks as an old-fashioned word for “guest,” except to those Neo-Greeks that are so Post-Ottoman that they’re Post-Culture-of-Any-Kind and most certainly Post-Hospitality.  The Muslims that left India after Partition in 1947 to go to the land of Islamic Purity are also known as muhajir in South Asia.  I say that the Circassians’ route was particularly circuitous because many of them were first settled by the Ottoman government in the Balkans — especially Bulgaria and Kosovo (where there’s still a tiny community), where they were used to demographically offset the Christian population and because their warrior reputation would come in handy against Christian rebellions and Russian invasions.  (Though there is one wild episode of the Greco-Turkish War where a band of Circassian çeteler [çetes] in western Anatolia actually aided the invading Greek army.  Go figure.  Any-thing is possible in our part of the world.)  Needless to say with the coming of independence for the nations of the Balkans, they were uprooted again to Anatolia and other parts of the still Ottoman Arab world.

This year is the 150-year anniversary of the final, catastrophic expulsion from their Caucasian homeland and local Circassians (“Çerkes” in Turkish) have been holding demonstrations in front of the Russian Consulate down here on the Jadde (I wouldn’t even lower myself to asking for Putin’s ear) and then closer here to my place in front of Galatasarary.  (Click)

IMG_0777IMG_0775But I was kind of disappointed because I couldn’t get any really good pictures except some like these above.  Then I get on the ferry from Beşiktaş to go to Kadiköy with my cousin, Vangeli, to feed him at the spectacular Çiya restaurant there and visit Beylerbeyi, my favorite Ottoman palace, and by blogger-photographer’s luck right across from me is sitting this handsome Circassian kid from central casting (click):

IMG_0780 He was surprised I knew that his t-shirt said “Адыгэ” – “Adyghe,” which is what Circasians call themselves, written in the Cyrillic script they now use.  I asked him if he spoke the language and he said no, but some other Circassians I found the next day in Pera said that due to a concerted effort on the Turkey-wide community’s part — language classes, theater workshops, radio programs — more Circassians in Turkey of this kid’s age speak more of at least a little bit of the language than their parents do and that interest is increasing.  Insha’allah.  Cool.  So if you don’t respect these people for their legendary beauty, their ferocious warrior rep, the fact that they managed to stave off the forces of Imperial Russia for two centuries, that as the Mamluk military elite they effectively ran Egypt for five-hundred years till Mehmet Ali the Albanian massacred them in a totally, shitty, un-Albanian, pabesiko (“pa” = no + BESA), dishonorable, ambush — see  (“BESA: A Code of Honour,“) — then just admire them for sticking together as a cohesive and living identity after being scattered across the world for a century and a half now.

The suffering of Circassians and all the other Muslim peoples of the Caucasus are laid out in a bit of an uneven but heartfelt and informative book by Oliver Bullough called Let Our Fame Be Great: Journeys Among the Defiant People of the Caucasus — here’s his website too (check out some interesting pics): Oliver Bullough: Let Our Fame Be Great.

lofbg-usa-cover-300wUnfortunately, I don’t know if there’s a Turkish translation (or Arabic: Jordan, where Circassians still make up the King’s Royal Guard, Syria and, some extent Israel, is where most Circassians outside of Turkey now live) for young Circassians today to read.

Another book that I do know there’s a Turkish translation of, and is probably the only monograph to deal with the step by step expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Ottoman Muslims through the nineteenth and and early twentieth centuries, but tracing roots of the process back to even the century before is Justin McCarthy’s Death and Exile: The Ethnic Cleansing of Ottoman Muslims, 1821-1922Not polemic, not propagandistic, just the facts and figures that speak for themselves.  It should be required reading for every Christian in the former Ottoman sphere.  It’s not exclusively about the Circassian tragedy but there is, as you can imagine, a great deal of material on their experiences.

51qnwpuNCVL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Turkish-speaking Circassians should definitely check this book out that’s available everywhere in İstanbul; they’ll learn a lot.  I really hope they get a chance to.  Share this post with friends if you found it interesting.  Feel free to write me with any comments.  And keep the memory alive!.  NB

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