Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Man Who Drank 15 Cups of Coffee Every Day

Ataturk: The Biography of the founder of Modern Turkey
Ataturk: The Biography of the founder of Modern Turkey by Andrew Mango

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Andrew Mango's biography of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk is a very informative and serviceable portrait of the founder of the modern Republic of Turkey. Mango clearly admires Atatürk and does not try too much to hide his feelings about the man, though clearly he set out to write a book that would clear away some of the mythology that has grown up around the figure of Atatürk in Turkey over the years. At times, his tendency to frame every episode in Atatürk's life as a legend in need of revision to reflect historical evidence and realism can be irksome. Before reading this book, I knew very little about Atatürk, and so I had little interest in hearing about every apocryphal anecdote and rumor followed by Mango's judgement about their relative believability.

The book was most effective when it explored the Turkish War of Independence and early formative years of the new Turkish Republic. These were the key events and contributions of Atatürk's life. Mango spent most of the book documenting these events, but the early life and later years of Atatürk may have done with even less emphasis. My favorite parts of the book were the colorful details about odd historical characters like Arif the Bearkeeper and Atatürk's increasingly eccentric obsession with forging a Turkish pseudo-history and pseudo-linguistics. The book would have profited from organizing itself more around the compelling true stories of Turkish history rather than dispelling the boring hagiographic mythology of Atatürk's personality cult.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Turkish Travels No. 4

On May 22nd, we visited the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art and saw lots of works by many different 20th century Turkish painters and artists. I was pleasantly surprised by the number of female artists that were represented. A few of the artists represented were not Turkish but had worked in Istanbul or Turkey at some point and so their work was being exhibited. Some of my favorites included Fahrelnissa Zeid, Eren Eyüboğlu, Yüksel Arslan and the American Jennifer Steinkamp.
The view from outside the Istanbul Museum of Modern Art
After the museum we found a small gallery exhibiting new works by the American artist Mel Bochner. His work had a pungent, garish irony to it. Then we left to find lunch. We explored (and by explored I mean we got a bit lost in) some of the narrow side streets of the Beyoğlu district. But getting lost is part of it. In the alleyways, we saw men playing backgammon and drinking tea. For Turkish men of a certain age, this seems to be the primary pastime.
Backgammon in the alley
We were seated briefly at a restaurant but they had finished serving lunch and so we left as a hungry, disgruntled nuisance. Cecily finally went inside a Turkish grocery store. She seems to think that you can learn a lot about a country from its grocery stores. She may well be right about that. We eventually ate dürüm at some little hole in the wall that was well attended by a desperate host who spoke little English.

Near the end of our meal, a man from a small village near Bodrum ordered some tea and proceeded to tell us about his life in Turkey. He said we were lucky to visit prior to high season, particularly when we were to go to Bodrum, which he said becomes absolutely choked with vacationers during the summer months.

We felt tired by then and proceeded to make our way back towards the tram stop. On our way, we stumbled into the building of the Society of Turkish Architects. We looked at some designs for buildings, and then photographs of how the buildings actually looked after being constructed. As we peered through the windows of the closed bookstore, a helpful employee shuffled over and unlocked it for us. It had a very nice selection of art and architecture books.
Cool image from one of the books at the store
Later that evening, we met some folks back at the hostel: Henry Shelton from Queens; Raffir from Bangladesh by way of Dubai and Holland; a fellow I took to calling '5 Hour Energy' from D.C.; a medical student from Colorado by way of Chicago; a fellow from Rio; two women from Calgary. The nine of us hit it off pretty well and we all went out together for a late supper at Safir, a rooftop restaurant with a spectacular view of the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia.

Henry was a wild storyteller. He would shoot up and march around to illustrate his points like a true performer. He spoke with a slight accent that sounded like it might have been from the Caribbean somewhere. He mentioned that his next destination was London, where he would be staying with family. Over the past six weeks, he had been traveling through India, Uzbekistan, Jordan, Israel and Russia. Much of his performance concerned a militaristic, fanatical, almost frightening portrayal of what it was like in Israel.

He did note his sympathies with the Israeli government's conduct given the violent hatred of their Arab neighbors. 5 Hour Energy, formerly of the U.S. Army, quickly agreed. This raised a pointed objection from Raffir, and I sensed a potentially volatile argument around the corner. I tried to head it off by suggesting extremists on both sides were at fault, citing Israeli settlements as another example of fanatical aggression, as Henry had mentioned earlier he had witnessed an Orthodox Jewish riot over the desecration of the sabbath in Jerusalem. Ordinary people on both sides (read: "agreeable people like us") get caught up with the madness and end up dead. That explanation seemed to satisfy everyone.

On the quieter side of the table, I listened intently to the Brazilian to learn where I should travel in South America, while the medical student told us about Germany as she had dual citizenship there. Cecily and I dug into a delicious mixed kebap plat with chicken, beef and lamb on skewers along with vegetables, kofte, lamb chops and lavash.

The conversation drifted towards the popular question regarding why the birds swarmed at night about the six minarets of the Blue Mosque but completely ignored the four minarets of the Hagia Sophia. No satisfactory theory was proposed.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Turkish Travels No. 3

Cappadocia has awakened my inner Indiana Jones.
Cappadocia is a remarkable and strange landscape infested with secret worlds, hermetic and sacred, and unlocking their magical wonders constitutes a job for only the most intrepid of archaeologist-adventurers. In a terrain of volcanic anomaly, in underground cities and cathedrals built into caves, we vanquished the the most terrible of our fears. We met loneliness, despair and anguish with curiosity, wonder and braggadocio.
I'll begin again.

On May 25th, we explored Derinkuyu, the biggest underground city in Cappadocia. There are dozens of underground settlements in Cappadocia, though most are very small and only able to house a few families. The underground city of Derinkuyu is by far the most fascinating thing I've seen on this trip.

Derinkuyu stretches deep beneath the earth. The thirteenth level is over 300 feet underneath the surface of the earth. Only the first eight levels are safe to visit. When we reached the eighth level, we were roughly 180 feet underground.
It is believed the first two levels of Derinkuyu were built at least as far back as 1200 B.C. by Hittites, possibly to escape marauding bands of Phrygians. Later levels were built by the Christians starting in the second century AD. At that time, Christians were looking to escape persecution by the Romans and other pagan sects. Expanding the underground city was one strategy that Christians in Cappadocia employed to escape this persecution. It is believed that Christians added about one level per century up until the 9th or 10th century.
Underground cities like Derinkuyu were not permanent settlements but rather provided temporary shelter for a month or two until immediate danger passed. Still, they appear to be complex subterranean systems with extensive living quarters, kitchens, meeting halls, storage chambers, animal dens, flour grinding and wine making facilities as well as a cruciform church and a baptism pool. Among the few symbolic carvings on the walls of Derinkuyu are crosses. There are also extensive networks of ventilation shafts to let air in and smoke out along with many connecting passageways, one of which extends miles to connect with another underground city called Kaymakli.
One of my favorite architectural features was the confessional passageway. It follows a long half circle arc near the church. The confessional passage starts and ends in the same room. The idea is that you enter it confess or say your Hail Marys or whatever it is that Christians do to feel pious (less lonely) and when you exit, you are different even if you're in the same place as where you entered.

When I tried it, I felt no different when I left but the place felt somehow different as if I had gone somewhere new even though I was back where I started. It reminded me of something out of a Jorge Luis Borges short story. The whole underground city of Derinkuyu had that sort of feel.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Whore of Rhodes

The abandoned front of Smokey Joe's Artemis Restaurant 
Don't go to Faliraki.


It is one of the worst towns I've ever been to in Greece or anywhere else. Faliraki is on the eastern coast of the Greek island of Rhodes. It is infested with the dreary remnants of the most outlandish kitsch and sleaze.

On one block you will find the Tiger Tiger Strip Club, on the next Bedrock - a Flintstones themed 'family restaurant - and on the block after that, an abandoned amusement park of horrifying clown faces that looks like it comes straight out of a monster reincarnation of Coney Island.

The town is studded with massive, overpriced resorts that aspire to luxury but could never achieve such a thing in the place they are located. Everyone looks like they are taking their last vacation ever before they have to pack it in and face the cruel justice of death.

Faliraki: Where the Fun Never Stops Killing You

You would never know you're in Greece. All signs are in English and most people speak the same. It could be somewhere outside Atlantic City. Or more likely, it's a dying little seaside attraction in Southern California.

Gives history a bad name
We hate Faliraki. We couldn't be happier to have escaped it alive.