Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

A running commentary on my life in Izmir, Turkey...and other thoughts.

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Hoedown in a Muslim Land

I have a sneaking suspicion that some of you out there may entertain certain, shall we say, less than warm and fuzzy feelings towards the Islamic world. Feelings for which you can't completely be blamed, based on media portrayals of Islam and the way that the news, as much as any religious group, thrives on extremism. Curiosity about the reality behind media shock campaigns was one of the many reasons I came to Turkey in the first place. I couldn't believe that all Muslims wore black hats (or turbans?) or for that matter that all, or even most, Christians were so terribly lily-white. Islam is spreading at a phenomenal rate these days. If it is as extreme, unjust and death-centered as we are being brought to believe, why are there so many new subscribers? Surely there must be more to it.

So far, my experiences among this 99% Muslim population have been tremendously life-affirming. People here are kind, generous, respectful, humorous, and as far as I can see, not at all prone to blowing themselves up. If I were to fault them, it would only be for their horrendously bad driving (more on that later) and the excessive nationalism with which they are inevitably programmed, as it is a strong component of the country's school curriculum (and there still exist laws that prevent people from making 'anti-Turkish statements'). There is also a latent sense of insecurity that one gradually picks up on -- an odd, paradoxical mixture of "we're fiercely proud of our unique origins and identity" and a self-deprecating "we're not Europeans yet, but hope to be good enough to be admitted to that club someday." These few minor shortcomings aside, Turkish people are on the whole delightful. They are hospitable to a fault, and certainly know how to have good time. The art of eating for hours, chatting, spending time with friends -- they've got it down far better than a lot of us in our hectic, rushing Western lives.

Last Saturday, I had my first opportunity to witness the Turkish 'art of living' in a party setting. The Zirve Mountaineering Club had just had its annual meeting, and that evening a dinner and entertainment were scheduled for club members. Levent and I prettied ourselves up a bit and headed down to the restaurant. We arrived late. Once inside the door we were immediately swallowed by the thumping, gyrating Oriental music, mellow lights and mingled aromas of perfume, cigarettes and food. There were long banquet tables laid with appetizers in a glorious array of colors -- red tomatoes, white cheese, orange carrots, purple beets, green salad, pink radish and yellow lemon all made an appearance. The rakı drinking was in full swing, and judging by the flush in the faces of a few of our table-mates that it had started long before we arrived. Maybe it's because of the hurry-hurry culture I come from, maybe it's simply that I have bad table manners, but I discovered at some point that I was sitting there, intent on my food, quickly and methodically working through my entire plate of appetizers without saying a word to anyone. At some point I brought my head up for air and realized that nearly everyone else (all of whom had arrived before us) still had most of their appetizers left. They were chatting, laughing, sporadically leaping from chairs to go dance to a particularly infectious rhythm. The way they were so civilized about eating, talking, dancing, all in their appropriate measure, stopped me in my tracks. A sneaking feeling of shame came to perch on my shoulder. "Pig!" it hissed in my direction. Remembering that pigs are not particularly well-loved in this culture, I made a silent resolution to stop shoveling down the [magnificent, chop-licking] food and start trying to be part of the group. The band played some classic Turkish art music songs, the old ones that everyone knows, and conversation stopped as these songs came on and the entire room burst into song.

I danced. Admittedly, the generous pitcher of rakı the waiter had plunked down in front of me helped with that. The 'Orientalism' of the movement and music was powerfully seductive...the women with their utterly feminine curves, their flowing hair and the skilled way in which they shook their shoulders and hips, the men with their serious faces, arms outspread, fingers snapping, tracing the slow and methodical cross-step of the dance. It was so mesmerizing that a few times I forgot myself and whatever I was supposed to be doing on the dance floor, and simply stood and stared.

More food arrived -- roasted meat and vegetables, bread from a clay oven, yogurt -- and another pitcher of rakı made a magical appearance. Conversation grew livelier. Fantastically, my Turkish suddenly seemed good. A man with an instrument that looked like a distant relative of the bagpipe got up on the stage and began to play a Black Sea melody. Most everybody headed for the dance floor, locking arms in the traditional pattern of the dance. There were a few more traditional dances, then some more modern hip-shaking Oriental beats. Around midnight a worked of art arrived disguised as a fruit platter. Pink-red grapefruit cascaded into bright orange mandarine, which in turn mellowed into yellow-orange orange slices; oranges gently transitioned to lime-green kiwi, which finally faded into pale white-green apple. It was lovely, a sunset over a summer meadow. Sated as we were, we ate the fruit anyway because ignoring it would have been a crime. An hour and a few more dances later, ears pounding, a group of us who all lived in the same neighborhood decided to make our exit. It turned out that two of our group members owned a restaurant a stone's throw from our apartment, so we decided to head there and finish off the night. Bleary-eyed and stone deaf from the night's pounding music, we sat in the quiet little fish restaurant, where we were immediately plied with drinks and food that we were completely unable to eat. We told jokes, and I think I even managed one in Turkish. We swapped stories, and made plans for an outing the following day. It was the wee hours of the morning when we stumbled back home. As I pulled off my clothes and sank gratefully into bed, I smiled a little to myself and thought, so much for Islamic extremism. That was a good time.


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