Prosecards from the Edge (of a Continent)

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

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Happy What? (On Christmas in Turkey and the New Year's Claus)

Although this is a Muslim country, and one would not expect to find hide or hair of Christmas come December 25, this is not entirely the case. Although certainly not to the extent that one would see it in Christian countries, the symbols surface here and there -- Christmas trees start cropping up in shops and apartment windows. Lights are hung at shopping centers. At the supermarket, there is a giant bin of Christmasy odds and ends -- reindeer candles, little snow-covered porcelain house candle-holders, plush Santa Clauses, mini Christmas trees, shiny colored ornaments.

I talk with my students about this. That tree, I say; the one with all the lights and ornaments. What's that all about? It's a New Year's Tree, they reply. Really. Apparently the idea of a brightly decorated pine tree is so appealing (really, it is, isn't it?) that it has been adopted here, but stripped of its Christian association and made into a New Year's symbol. Further questioning reveals that the gift-giving tradition of Christmas has also been incorporated (they are New Year's gifts, of course). Okay, I think indulgently, let them have their pretty lights and gifts, even if it was our idea, and I am quite magnanimous about all of this until Santa Claus comes up in conversation. Ladies and gentleman, meet New Year's Claus. This is when I flip -- how dare you corrupt Santa Claus?! He's ours! You can't have him. I am irate. My friend C., ever more of a passionate firebrand than I am, is even more irate. She rants about this on the way to our Christmas getaway in Şirince. I try to put my own feelings aside and reason with her. Look, I say; there are no new ideas. We constantly recycle and revisit things that other people have thought of. Look at fashion -- the same styles keep coming back, with tiny variations. Christian symbolism was not invented by Christians -- it was taken from pre-Christian religions, then given a makeover in order to take on the symbolism that we wished it to have. We are constantly borrowing from each other; get over it, says wise old me. Still, she pouts. Father New Year???? Secretly, I can't help but agree. And dammit, she exclaims, don't friggin' take the evergreen! Decorate a bloody olive tree, or a pomegrate, but leave our evergreen alone! She's got a point. Where's the originality? Olive trees abound in this part of the world; wouldn't they be a logical choice?

Then there ensues a long conversation about Islam and holidays. It begins with the observation that there are no lavishly celebrated holidays in this religion. Bright lights and pretty things are antithetical to Muslim piety, it seems. The most you get is a string of lights and some extra nice chocolate displays in the stores around Bayram time. And where are the rich traditions? Perhaps there were some that have been lost; perhaps there are some that we do not see. But it seems to us, as outsiders, that there is something lacking, an absence of stories and mysteries and high celebration. We have the story of the immaculate conception, the trip to Bethlehem, the infant in the manger, the three kings, the shepherds, the star; we have the modern tales of the all-seeing Santa Claus and his nocturnal visits to deposit presents or lumps of coal. We stoke the imagination with these stories, we provoke both goodness and wonder. Where are these stories in Islam? I know of none. It saddens me to think of growing up without them, for they are some of my most cherished cultural possessions. It seems to me that we humans need the rich stories, the rituals, the pageantry. In a culture where those appear to be absent, what fills people's souls? What makes them wonder and dream? Is this, perhaps, the source of the hüzün, the melancholy, that grips the Turkish people and indeed from all appearances, most Islamic nations?

Turkish Christmas

Christmas in Turkey, a 99% Muslim country, is a lackluster affair. More accurately, it just isn't. It is a painful time of year for foreigners, as it slowly sinks in that this year there will be no pretty lights and trees and family gathered round, no Elvis crooning "Blue Christmas," no hot mulled wine, no mistletoe under which to kiss or not, no tantalizing window displays in the shops to drive one into a frenzy of consumer indecision. It is just another day, another work day, a fact that can be understood by the intellect but is totally incomprehensible on a visceral level. Work? On Christmas??????

Our school is not an international school, but a Turkish one -- and therefore Christmas is just another work day. Out of consideration for the foreign staff, however, the board has made Christmas Day a half day of school, and a full day holiday for the foreign teachers. But Christmas Eve is just another day at the salt mines, and this, I confess, is hard to handle. I am not an ingrate, and certainly appreciate the concession to our faith and customs, however small. But Christmas Eve. More special, more ambience-filled than Christmas Day, and of all days, the day when you do not work. You shop, you cook, you wrap; you are together. Faces glow. Tummies ache with Mexican Wedding Cake overload. Carols are hummed as you go about your Christmasy errands. But this year, here, for us, was just a normal Wednesday. Which happens to be the most stressful day of my week, leaving me exhausted and panting at the end of it, so it was with a sense of bewilderment that at the end of this Wednesday workday, as I sat in my teacher chair flattened, it suddenly dawned on me, 'hey, it's Christmas Eve!'

Had it not been for my dear friend C., Christmas would probably have galloped by, celebrated by me alone with a large glass of spirits and a DVD. But she's a dreamer and a planner, and a fighter -- she does not give in to depression and naysaying. And so she orchestrated an escape to the charming village of Şirince, an old Greek village an hour from Izmir that has been largely restored to its former loveliness.

Six of us rented an entire house for a night. It was the kind of house I can imagine living in: all wood and stone, cozy niches in the walls for vases or candelabras or statues of the Virgin Mary, heavy beams across the ceiling, frosted glass in the ceiling of the upper floor to let the light stream in, a hamam style bathroom, all granite and made for sitting and splashing yourself with warm water; a fireplace ready for use, a basket of wood just outside the door; no TV!; no phone; just simplicity, a place that insists that you simply be, with yourself, with your company. Like the kings to Bethelehem, we brought offerings -- ginger cookies, bottles of bourbon, Christmas CDs, card games and books. We settled in, lit the fire, toasted our toes on the hearth, managed to hear Elvis crooning "Blue Christmas" after all (followed by the Vienna Boys Choir), and slowly, slowly, the spirit of Christmas began to seep in. It was like having been stuck out in the snow on a winter's night, and being brought in from the cold by a good Samaritan. The chill is in your bones; it takes some time for the warmth to permeate down deep. So was it with us...but it did. And by bedtime the very marrow of my bones had been warmed by the glow of Christmas, in all the right ways -- and it occurred to me, maybe a little ironically, that in this non-Christian country, my Christmas felt more authentic than ever before. We brought nothing, really, except ourselves and a few simple items to share. We had no commercial distractions. We found ourselves in this little white town, nestled into the curving side of a hill. Our house was perched at the very top, and we could look down on the rest of the town, the white houses, the occasional grazing horse or donkey or sheep. I couldn't help noticing the resemblance to the artistic renditions of Bethlehem that I have seen. The stars were myriad, dazzzling in their brightness, the air clean and crisp. This, I thought, is as Christmas as it gets. Even the sadness I felt at being away from my family was mitigated by the intensity with which I felt them in my heart on that starry night. A sense serenity and optimism filled me. Peace and hope -- isn't that the essence of Christmas?

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Kurban Bayram -- The Feast of the Sacrifice

Once upon a time, God, back in the bad-ass days when punishments such as instant-transformation-into-salt-statue were meted out on a regular basis, thought that a great way to test Abraham's obedience would be to command him to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac (Ishmael in Islamic scripture). Abraham (naturally) wept at the prospect, but was nonetheless loyal to his god and set about preparations for the sacrifice. I can't help thinking how in modern days this man would have been branded a psychopath (hearing voices? from God? telling you to kill your child? All righty then....) and summarily put away in a safe place for life. Luckily for Abraham and Isaac, and for that other, theoretical modern-day Abraham vis-a-vis the law, God intervened at precisely the critical moment and provided a sheep for Abraham to cut in place of his son. And thus was born the tradition of the Kurban Bayram (Eid al-Adha in Arabic), the feast of the sacrifice, commemorating Abraham's absolute obedience to God.

These days, people are not called upon to sacrifice their sons and daughters. A sheep, a goat, or a camel will suffice. A prayer is said over the animal, and then it is slaughtered with a quick and deadly (and hopefully painless) slice to the throat. One leg is left untied so that the animal may kick as its life force ebbs away. The blood must be allowed to run free, as congealed blood taints the meat (so it is believed). The meat of the slaughtered animal is divided into parts -- one for family, friends and neighbors, one for the less fortunate in the community, and one for oneself. The idea is that no one, no matter how poor, will go hungry on at least one day of the year.

In Islam, this method of slaughtering animals is the only accepted way to do it -- holy day or not. A prayer is said, God's name is invoked -- it is a reminder that life is sacred, that our power over animals and the bounty we receive from them is a gift from God. As squirmy as it makes me feel to contemplate direct aquaintance with the animal I plan to eat, it actually seems the only truly right way. When I think of the millions of animals that are anonymously machine-slaughtered on an assembly line in American abattoirs, coming to us only after they have been neatly processed and wrapped in celophane, it seems inherently wrong.

I am getting my first taste of personal acquaintance with the victim today. On this crystal-clear, sublimely blue-skied morning, a flock of sheep wait anxiously in the entrance courtyard to the highrise building across the street. It is yet another of the endless, fascinating juxtapositions of ancient and modern that one constantly enounters in this country. My neighborhood is the most luxurious and modern in this most-Western Turkish city. The streets and sidewalks are carefully paved with bricks, high-end restaurants abound, new jogging and bicycle paths are being installed, some of the buildings are modern high-rises...and yet, there are the sheep. And as I type this from my perch on my fourth-floor balcony, I watch the men who stand around the sheep, assessing the merits of haunches and shoulders, the glossiness of the animal's eye and the perkiness of its disposition. Much discussion ensues. Finally an animal is selected, and it is pulled, kicking and protesting every step of the way, away from the rest of the flock. It looks about it panic, attempts to flee, but two men are holding it, wrestling it onto its back. For a moment it lies still, and even from this far-flung vantage point I can see its belly heaving in fright and exhaustion. Then a kind of calm comes over the animal, and I see one of the men pray over it. I do not see the knife, but I can, even from 50 meters away, visibly observe the life ebb out of the animal, the tension dissolve. Miraculously, this living will- and instinct-endowed creature becomes in an instant merely a carcass, food for the masses. The men are busy now, washing and processing it (I can't make out exactly what they are doing), but finally they hang the carcass on a nearby tree, and the business is concluded, for now.

It has been a long time since I have lived in California, but I still remember the growing organic consciousness, the idea that one's food ought to be natural and chemical free, and the rapid spread of vegetarianism, due to (among other things) the awareness of the horror of American feed lots and 'animal processing' techniques. Vegetarianism -- choosing not to participate in fear and death -- is how many Californians responded. I probably would have joined their numbers had it not been for my fondness for meat (particularly lamb chops). It is interesting, and oddly life-affirming, to be here in Turkey and see another approach. There is no horrifying wholesale mechanized slaughter, and neither are there many vegetarians. Animals roam relatively freely with their shepherds, living naturally off the land. There is a sacred relationship between them and their humans; from the human side, a deep respect for life, but also a belief that these creatures are a gift to us, provided for our nourishment. It is the cycle of life as it should be, all things fulfilling their purpose, and in return, great respect accorded to the gift.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Dawn Reverie

Every morning, I wake around 5:30, and drift in and out of dreams and consciousness for another fifteen minutes. Then I throw on a robe and slippers, put the kettle on for coffee, and step out onto the balcony. All is dark still, and the bay before me is a field of black velvet ringed with a golden necklace of flickering light. A lone nightbird sings, getting a jump on his diurnal friends. And then, out of the ether, floating and dreamlike, comes the ezan, the morning call to prayer.

It is my favorite moment of the day, this poetic, echoey summons to God issuing out of the blackness. There is none of the fire and brimstone character of the prayer calls in full daylight; this is soft, sleepy, winding its way into your sleep, a soft touch nudging you from slumber towards devotion. It seems to last twice as long as a normal prayer call, and I love to sit there on my balcony, utter stillness apart from this ethereal voice, waking my soul along with my body. It occurs to me what an extraordinary life I have: from my balcony I can gaze out onto a Homeric sea, and I am woken each morning by a dreamlike chant from a minaret. How many can say the same?