Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

Monday, April 23, 2007

Family Matters -- Footnote

Thumbing through a little booklet on Turkish customs and etiquette, I came across a charming note regarding the wooing of women. As previously mentioned, in more liberal, 'Western' Turkish families, two people who wish to marry are generally free to do so, and typically the proposal takes place pretty much like it would in Europe or the U.S. -- namely, as a private conversation between the man and woman. They tell their families, and after this the groom-to-be's family pays a formal visit to the bride-to-be's family. This is largely symbolic, meant to indicate the blessing of the union by the two families. Contrast this to the old days, when it was during the first meeting of two families that the actual proposal was made (articulated by the parents of the groom-to-be), and it was a second visit that indicated the blessing and finalization of the arrangement by the two families.

In some parts of the country, the older customs still hold sway. If a boy (or his parents) takes a fancy to a particular girl in the village and decides that he wishes to marry her, he and his parents pay a visit to the home of the prospective 'bride,' possibly without her ever having met the boy or his family. This is a little water-testing exercise, a chance for the potential bride and her family to meet the potential groom and in-laws. My book reports:
"In order for the man not to lose face, his prospective bride answers his proposal in a subtle way. She makes [Turkish] coffee, and if she wishes to accept the proposal (or is instructed to do so by her mother), she puts sugar in his cup. If she rejects it, she puts salt in the cup."

I love the subtlety of the whole ritual. The bride's family, even if they (or she) have no intention of accepting the suitor, can receive his family and act as gracious hosts, thus saving face (no good Turk or Muslim may refuse hospitality). The response to the proposal is given so tactfully that the whole business, whether it ends in success or failure, ends with everyone feeling that their dignity has been preserved. And dignity, after all, is what it's all about.

I'm told that this custom is regional and not necessarily practiced by everyone. Other not-quite-as-charming methods of rejection exist, such as writing a thank you note to the prospective groom's family the day after the visit, and enclosing his calling card (which he left during the visit) in the letter. This also signifies a 'thanks, but no thanks.' My poetic self prefers the idea of salt in the coffee.

Although gradually succumbing to the forces of globalization and Westernization, Turkish society is still highly coded. It can be beautiful to watch the intricate and subtle dance of words and gestures in situations where Westerners would have simply said it -- or done it -- directly. It can also be intensely frustrating, and anxiety-producing for the foreigner. What to say, what not to say? As an outsider, you read up and arm yourself with as much information as you can, but at the end of the day, you've simply got to plunge in with good will and a smile, trusting that people will know that you mean well.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Family Matters

You don't have to live long in Turkey to get the impression that the triumvirate of football, friends and family are among the most sacred factors of Turkish life. Of the three, family reigns supreme. Family members keep in close contact with each other, provide emotional and financial support, coddle the children, and show a deep respect for their elders. Relationships are highly important, and there are far more words in Turkish for family relationships than exist in English. An older brother, for example, is an ağabey, an older sister an abla. There are different words for maternal and paternal uncles and aunts, and on and on and on. For the foreigner, trying to remember them all can be a challenge. If family relationships are important, so too are the forms in which those relationships are played out. Custom and ritual, long dead in the good old U.S.A., are very much alive here today -- even here in Bostanlı, the most "Western" part of the most "Western" city in the country (excepting, perhaps, Istanbul). Women may wear miniskirts and hang out in bars, but the rules that govern social behavior when it comes to family remain intact. On important holidays, it is always the younger people who visit the older ones. Children kiss the hands of elderly people and press them to their foreheads. There is a much stronger sense of 'what is expected' from each family member in his or her particular role than there is in American society.

Recently Levent's niece (yeğen) and her college sweetheart decided to marry. These days young people, particularly in the west of the country, tend to decide for themselves who to marry; this does not, however, necessarily free them of the obligation of going through the ritual of parent approval. Therefore, when M. announced her engagement to O., it's was the duty of O's family to make the journey from their home in Kuşadası to the wintery climes of Kayseri to meet M's parents. This was a formal visit, expected by tradition, seen as the official seal of approval on the engagement. Following O's parents' visit to Kayseri, it then became the duty of M's parents to make a reciprocal journey down to Mediterranean Kuşadası to formally visit O's parents. Since Kuşadası is a mere hour from Izmir by bus, we were encouraged to tag along.

I'll be honest: I dreaded it. A weekend of sitting and trying to talk in a language I struggle with, with people I have nothing in common with (yet) filled me with an intense urge to come down with the flu. But remembering my mother's oft-repeated words of advice 'Just go; you might meet someone,' I sucked it up and packed my bag. If nothing else, I figured, I would get a huge amount of Turkish practice in one short weekend. And the beaches around Kuşadası aren't too shabby, either.

We arrive in the afternoon, picked up from the bus station by M, O and O's brother F. We stuff ourselves in the car, do the customary Turkish devil-may-care careening around blind corners on the wrong side of the road, and screech to a stop before a lovely house on the side of the hill. Off to one side there stretches the startling blue of the Mediterranean as far as the eye can see; before us, flowers in a riot of color drape themselves over the garden walls, their scents intoxicating.

We are welcomed by a middle-aged, matronly-looking woman who magically produces out of thin air (or so it seems) enough house slippers for all of us, in exactly the right sizes. I still can't figure out how Turkish hostesses always manage to do that. We are ushered through the house and out onto a serene terrace overlooking the garden, which in turn overlooks the sea. The parents of the young couple are already there, the women sipping tea, the men working on rakı and fruit. Levent is offered rakı, and to my dismay, tea is proffered to me. I must look chagrined, because at some point the tea is withdrawn and a glass of rakı is poured for me, too. I love the pungent anise, the way the drink goes cloudy when mixed with ice and water, the wonderful way its flavor pairs with fresh fruit, how it cools you on a warm day. To say nothing of its powers of easing awkward social situations. Sipping on it, I have the very distinct feeling of acting like a yabancı (foreigner) -- Turkish women, on the whole, don't drink rakı, especially not in the presence of family -- but after a few guilty sips I realize, "Hey! I am a yabancı! I get to do this!" And the guilt vanishes. Or most of it, anyway. Still, I do frequently struggle with this feeling of being uncouth. At restaurants, it is quite common for waiters to offer rakı to Levent, and then suggest sodas or fruit juice for me. Stubborn me, I keep insisting on drinking with the boys. Ahh, well.

The afternoon starts out well. I immediately like M, the bride-to-be, and we talk about college, foreign languages (she is fluent in Russian and studied in Moscow), work and travel. My Turkish is flowing remarkably well. Slowly food starts to trickle out of the kitchen. The lady of the house appears with long, shiny green peppers, tomatoes and a chopping board, and sits at the table and works at chopping as she talks. There is not a lot of talking, and there are frequent silent periods where there is no sound but the breeze in the trees and the musical tinkle of spoons in tea glasses. I like the pace of things here, the communal working and talking and eating, the lack of hurry, everything in its own time. The day slides onward into dusk. Levent and I sneak out for a walk down the long, long hill to the marina, where we admire the ships in the light of the setting sun. Hatching feverish plans to buy or steal one and sail off into the sunset, we make the long climb back up the hill, to where they are surely making the final dinner preparations. O's younger brother F is beautifully attentive, and I think to myself what a well-mannered young man he is. Constantly on the lookout for empty glasses, chilled shoulders crying out for shawls, grills that want lighting, chairs that require pulling; do we have these people in my country any more? I cannot honestly remember any...

The grill is lit, and my journey into bliss begins. The lady of the house brings from the kitchen a platter of delicate pirzola, tiny lamb ribs with large sections of fat that crackle and sizzle on the grill and take you to a nirvana-like place when you put them in your mouth. Mr. I., our host, applies them delicately to the grill, and when they are done moments later we devour them, interspersing bites of pirzola with sips of raki, stuffed grape leaves, salad, and snippets of conversation. I draw breath and take in the smells, the tastes, the sounds. It is a festival of the senses; I am purring with contentment.

Soon an enormous platter of fish appears from the kitchen. They are mackerel, fresh from the sea -- not farmed. This is a luxury in these days of depleted fish stocks and exorbitant prices for 'wild fish'. They are plied with olive oil and salt and laid gently on the grill, where their scent mixes with the pirzola, the lilacs on the garden wall, the sea air...the evening wears on, and the conversation is still lively and enjoyable, if slowed somewhat by the food. The cooked fish make their appearance, and we make tender approaches to them with our forks, discovering succulent, cooked-to-perfection white flesh inside. We eat in near silence, I think because we are all lulled into a peaceful place by the wonderful food and setting. At this particular moment, I think to myself that I could happily accept death, should it come my way now.

Eventually, slowly, the meal draws to a close. Plates removed, chairs pulled back, raki reinforcements brought in. The men are drinking heavily; I, wisely, limit myself to a couple of glasses (the guilt has done its work). The conversation has lost the momentum it had before dinner, and suddenly and inexplicably it starts to feel forced among the women, and slurred between the two paters familia. Friends and neighbors started popping by, seemingly out of the blue, and it is at this point that the evening takes a turn towards the comical.

A tall and slightly unsteady man makes an appearance on the terrace. He is welcomed by our host and presented to us as a neighbor and a good friend. He is a doctor, apparently. It is not long before we figure out that the good doctor was already roaring drunk long before he arrived. His speech is slurred, his remarks inconsistent and often incomprehensible (and not just to me), and his odd behavior induces an increasingly deep and awkward silence among the guests. At one point O makes a remark about the doctor's dog (who is sleeping in the backyard and has recently given birth to puppies). Because the father of the puppies is unknown, O refers to them as piçler, Turkish for 'bastards', and the doctor takes great umbrage. What follows is at least an hour of indignant slurring on the doctor's part, defending the honor of his dog. He becomes verbally aggressive towards O, and it is all that the rest of the guests can do to stage an intervention and ward off fisticuffs. It is awkward, to say the least.

We have all had quite enough of the unwelcome doctor. At this point a woman arrives with her family for a visit. Apparently she is a very close friend of our hostess. Picture the scene now: 10 of us are seated around the table on the terrace. Three are drunk and slurring, and seven are speechless with embarrassment and discomfort. Our hostess arrives on the scene with her friend, and there ensues a ritual of greetings of hilarious proportions.

New Arrival (to person sitting at table nearest her): Nasılsınız? (How are you?)
Person sitting at table: Iyiyim, teşekkürler. Siz nasılsınız? (Fine, thanks, how are you?)
New Arrival: Iyiyim, teşekkürler. (Fine, thanks.) Then, looking to the next member of our party, she begins again:

New Arrival (to next person sitting at table): Nasılsınız?
Person sitting at table: Iyiyim, teşekkürler. Siz nasılsınız?
New Arrival: Iyiyim, teşekkürler.

This is repeated a grand total of nine -- NINE -- times. By the time it gets to me (I'm the second-to-last to go through the drill), I am all too aware that our new arrival is fine, just fine, thanks. I fleetingly wonder, do I really have to ask? Couldn't I just ask for something useful instead, like, say, her name? But not wanting to be the infidel foreigner who comes in and disrupts local customs, I dutifully perform the ritual and discover to nobody's surprise that the woman is, indeed, fine.

The group makes its way to the salon, leaving the drunken doctor and our host on the terrace. We sit in silence, the women maintaining impeccably upright posture and pleasant, if somewhat vacant looks on their faces. Nobody seems to have much to say. Occasionally a remark is passed, to which stock responses are uttered, as if on cue.

In his essay about "The Horrible German Language," Mark Twain wrote that you could get by in German with just two words -- "schlag" and "zug". I'm not sure I entirely agree with Mr. Twain on this point, but I think his idea could be transferred and applied much more effectively to Turkish. All you need to get by at a Turkish tea party is three words: nasılsınız? (see above), inşallah (God willing), and maşallah (God protect, said especially when talking about children).

So the conversation in the salon, as much as I am able to grasp, goes something like this:

A: We'll come visit you in Kayseri in summer, inşallah.
B: Inşallah. Look, here's a picture of my brother's children.
A and chorus of others: maşallah, maşallah.
B: (Seeing F for the first time that evening) "F, merhabalar, nasılsınız?"
Iyiyim, teşekkürler. Siz nasılsınız?
Iyiyim, teşekkürler. You should come and visit us sometime.
F: Maybe in July, inşallah.
Inşallah. How are your sister's children?
F: They're fine and healthy, maşallah.
Chorus of voices: maşallah, maşallah.

The comical takes a turn for the ugly when our host enters the room, staggering himself and supporting the drunken doctor on his shoulder. The doctor is plopped on the couch next to me, and we all sit there, tight little phony smiles on our faces, teacups frozen in mid-air, wondering what to say. S, the brother of the bride-to-be, says something sarcastic to the doctor which I don't catch, but is probably well-deserved. The doctor reveals an ugly side to himself when he responds with a comment questioning the purity of S's blood. At this point the father of the bride -to-be starts quarreling with the father of the groom-to-be, the one defending his son against the slur, the other defending the doctor friend. The young couple look mortified, justifiably. Our hostess flips out and begins screaming at her husband for letting the doctor in in the first place. The doctor's wife arrives and tries to pull him off the sofa, but needs a little help. Everyone has a deer-in-the-headlights look, and its all we can do not to race for the door when the groom-to-be announces that he'll take us to our hotel when we're ready.

It was a day that started out as a poem, slid briefly into comedy, and nearly ended in tragedy. It pains me to think of the poor young couple who wanted nothing more than for everybody to get along for a day and a half. The ritual was maintaine
d, but its seriousness forgotten, our host preferring to get sloshed with his neighbor than attend to his guests. I had started out feeling wistful, wishing we had all the traditions, rituals and obigations that bind one another in Turkish society. I left thinking that maybe Turkish people don't really love these obligations any more than Americans love them -- we have just been quicker to throw them off. Maybe it's a universal wish to escape the mantel of obligatory visits, courtesy to strangers, and saying the right thing, and this was one little glimpse into that. One thing is for certain: the young people were non-drinkers before the weekend started, and in light of the evening's events will most assuredly stay that way.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Friday afternoon

There are long, lazy slow days, punctuated by the ting-a-ling of spoons swirling in tulip-shaped tea glasses, the sun hot on the back of your neck. Tantalizing aromas of meat on grill, seagulls calling one another, headscarved women moving, talking slowly. People sitting, everywhere. A couple cuddles on a bench by the waterfront. He nuzzles her neck and she giggles in little bursts. Dignified mustachioed men lounge in the shade of a tree, smoking. Placid street dogs slumber wherever sleep overtook them. Sellers of cotton candy, stuffed mussels, simit, packets of tissues, flowers, and fortunes told by white rabbits slowly but doggedly ply their trades along the waterfront. Still harnessed to their colorful surreys, sleepy horses snooze, one rear leg crooked nonchalantly in a posture of repose. The world is in slow motion today, and even the great pelicans, jumbo-jet-like in their enormity and girth, seem to cut through the improbably blue sky at half their normal speed. The grass is cool and soft beneath me...eyes flicker and close; sleep arrives on tiptoes.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Spotted: Weird Word

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Words, Wonderful Words

I wish I could have been an etymologist. You know, the word detective, not the bug fetishist -- the bug people get an extra 'n', and an 'o' instead of the 'y' -- critical differences seeing that although I adore words, I cannot bear insects.

But anyway, what kind of a profession is etymology? Who pays these people? Dictionary publishers? Eccentric millionaires who've decided they've absolutely got to have their own in-house word expert? I just don't see that much of a market, maalesef. A pity, since words, especially foreign ones, are so endlessly titillating. Just today, for example, I was pondering a couple of Turkish words that have been tickling my curiosity. Adam, the Turkish word for "man"...does it have anything to do with the Biblical Adam, or is it pure happenstance that the two bear the same name? Continuing along Old Testament lines, the Turkish word for 'snake,' yılan, is only one letter removed from yalan, the Turkish word for 'a lie.' Satan, the Father of Lies, is typically portrayed as a snake...again, coincidence? As a believer in the fundamental interconnectedness of most things (to paraphrase Douglas Adams), I tend to think not. The question is, what's the story there? I, for one, am dying to find out.

Alas for me, I can't make much headway on unravelling these puzzles, since they cross the language barrier and require delving into sources that I can't begin to penetrate. But here's one I had a bit more luck with. Unlike many other languages, the Turks have two different words for orange, the fruit, and orange, the color. The color orange is turuncu (the 'c' is pronounced like an English 'j'). If you say it often enough and fast enough, it starts to bear a slight resemblance to the English word 'orange.' Why? According to the online Dictionary of Etymology, the word 'orange' hails from the Persian narang . ''The initial n- was lost probably due to confusion with definite article (e.g. une narange, una narancia)," it reports. Hence 'orange' in English, and, if one indulges in a bit of imagination-stretching, turuncu in Turkish.

The orange fruit is another matter. In Turkish it is portakal , which inevitably conjures up images of sunny Portugal. A consultation with my online source reveals that the first oranges introduced to Europe were the Persian ones, which were the bitter, marmelade kind. The first sweet orange trees probably originated in India. It was Portugese traders who were the first to bring sweet Indian oranges to Europe, sometime in the 15th century. Following their arduous orange-laden journey through the Indian Ocean, around the Cape of Good Hope and back home to Portugal, the traders must have then headed into the eastern Mediterranean, hawking the newfound fruit to the peoples of those regions. An interesting footnote to the orange story: the dictionary reports that "only modern Greek seems to distinguish the bitter orange (nerantzi) from the sweet (portokali)." My theory is that the Turks originally used their derivation of the Persian narang for both the fruit and the color, but abandoned their use of the word for the fruit when Portugese traders came along hawking the ever-so-much-more-delicious sweet oranges. Fascinating.

Pondering the whences and wherefores of words makes me happy. When I close my eyes, I see the planet from a God's-eye view, and I think I can nearly make out the whole tapestry -- the ebb and flow of tribes and tools and customs and language, everyone minutely or significantly touching on someone else. We are all connected, whether we see it or not, our actions all meaningful ripples in a pond. Tracing the transformation of a word across time and geography is about more than that tiny, humble word. It is the unraveling of an intricate and beautiful tale, no less than the story of life of on earth.