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.

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