Belonging

May 30, 2011 § Leave a comment

Fellow Fulbrighter Amy sent an e-mail a few weeks ago that she had secured State Department funding for a Turkey Fulbright ETA traveling photography exhibit and needed our best photos from the year.  Eager to contribute, I borrowed Alex’s ‘one day when I’m a real adult I’ll own one of these’ DSLR cameras and headed to one of my favorite and quietest places in Tekirdag: the Jewish cemetery.

When I found out last June that I would be living in Tekirdag, the first thing I did was google the place, study its history, and contact current residents.  Tekirdag used to have a vibrant Jewish population who, after centuries of residence, gradually left throughout the 1900’s for greener pastures: Istanbul, Israel, and America–specifically Seattle.  Yes, Seattle.  It’s surprisingly home to one of America’s largest Sephardic population (read more about their arrival here).  The Jews left for various reasons: greater economic opportunity, the formation of Israel, difficulties in the new Turkish republic, and a 1934 pogrom.  So while the town’s got a great history behind it, I am the only living Jew in Tekirdag.

Last summer I called various members of Seattle’s Bikur Holim Synagogue to talk with the children and grandchildren of Tekirdag emigres.  They were eager to discuss their 2005 congregational trip to Turkey and their relatives’ memories of their ancestral home.  One man in particular, Isaac Azose, sent me DVD footage of his 1992 voyage to commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Sephardic Expulsion from Spain, and also sent me the name of one Nissim Hasan, an old Muslim Turkish man who used to work for a Tekirdagli Jewish family about 50 years ago and spoke Ladino.  But Isaac didn’t have Nissim’s phone number; instead, he had the address of one Turhan Ozbek, a real estate agent who could magically put me in touch with Nissim.  So one aimless October day, I went in search of Turhan.  One small problem: most streets are horribly labeled in Tekirdag and I had just arrived in the city.  I had nothing to lose and absolutely no shame, so I walked into a real estate office in the center of town armed with a big smile and my dictionary and asked where I might find this Ozbek character.   Huseyin, the man behind the desk, was confused but genuinely curious about me and my mission to find an old man I’d never met before.   Wouldn’t you be?  A whole parade of mustachioed men came in the tiny office, drank tea, looked puzzled, drank more tea, made some calls, then left.  Finally Huseyin put his daughter Deniz on the phone, an Internet cafe proprietress  who had lived in London for a year or two.  It was determined that Huseyin and I had reached our Turkish/gesticulation communication limit and that Deniz’s translation assistance was desperately needed.  To the cafe!

While Deniz’s English skills were marginally better than her computer skills, they still weren’t great.  She also was horribly confused about why I needed to find Ozbek to find Hassan but went along with the whole crazy scheme and tried her hardest.  Through a whole network of phone calls and asking passersby, we found Ozbek’s office.  Not surprisingly he’d moved in the past 15 years.  To his office!

His office, as I later came to realize, was a typical Turkish real estate office.  A ground-floor room, apartment ads plastering the outside windows.  Inside, one small clean desk facing the door, and one filing cabinet.  But while many of T.dag’s agents have entered the 20th century and use computers, Ozbek’s office looked like a 1970’s relic: a fading poster of a Middle Eastern tourist site lettered in Arabic, and a typewriter.  Oh yes, a typewriter.  Even Huseyin thought that was funny.

We sat with bated breath, waiting for Ozbek to return from his lunch break.  He returned and told us that Nissim had died five years before.

Well, that was a pretty decisive end.

Huseyin, Deniz, and I went back to Deniz’s cafe and said our goodbyes.  But before I left, I asked Deniz for directions to the Jewish cemetery.  She told me it was located somewhere behind the bus station, “up”, but that I shouldn’t go there because it’s dangerous.  That’s the warning I hear weekly about locations in Tekirdag.  They’re not.  I went.

The Jewish cemetery was located up a hill past the larger Muslim cemetery, behind some new apartment blocks, and under the watchful gaze of a new mosque.  I would have missed it, had I not picked my way down a weedy hill to examine some gray stone slabs half visible through overgrowth.

Many of the older stones at the top of the hill were faded, falling apart, covered in weeds, and inscribed in Hebrew.  I walked through and took photos, then descended to examine some much newer stones with Ladino inscriptions.

The newer stones were elevated above-ground and in much better condition than the sunken ground-level ones.

Ladino grave inscriptions are wonderful descriptive poetry:

As I was adjusting to my new super-fancy camera, a woman came down a dirt path with a large walking stick in hand.  “Merhaba,” she shouts out to me in Turkish, “Hello.”  I respond hesitantly.  While the cemetery is right behind an apartment block development, no one’s ever out there.  The landscape instantly changes to rural–behind the cemetery is a mosque, a farm, and an unpaved road.  Whenever I’ve visited I haven’t seen anyone, including the resident of the shack on the edge of the cemetery.  We ended up falling into a great conversation.  Nefise was super friendly and eager to hear why I was in Tekirdag (isn’t everyone?).  Now retired, she walks a loop around the cemetery and farms every day.  Because she’s out so much, she often meets foreign visitors who come to see the Jewish cemetery (there are foreign visitors?  Who? When?  Tell me!)  Nefise takes great pride in the town’s past Jewish history and always warmly greets the tourists, most of whom are descended from the very people laid to rest there.  The town government supposedly sends someone to clean the cemetery once a month, and when they don’t come (as usual) she calls up to complain.  She has no time for religious or ethnic fighting, and I felt comfortable enough during this conversation to reveal to her that I am Jewish.  Didn’t phase her for a second–in fact, all she did was tell me how much she hated the fighting over Gaza.  After about 20 minutes and the addition of a neighbor who complimented me on my camera (if only!) my Turkish ran out and Nefise and co. headed home.  Buoyed by this lovely and unexpected interaction, I set up the camera again, eager to photograph before the sun sunk too low.

Then a couple of men came down the same path.  One shouted out, “Selam Aleikum”, to which I replied, “Aleikum Selam.”  I was instantly put on edge.  This greeting is perfectly harmless: “Peace be upon you”/”and with you”, more or less.  In fact, plain-old “selam” is the casual Turkish way to say, “what’s up?”  But the whole “Selam Aleikum” bit?  Something only more religious Turks say.  Normally not a problem.  Except when you’re at the Jewish cemetery.

The two men (the Talker and his sidekick, who remained silent the whole time) approached me.  I stood up and closed the camera.  “What are you doing here?” Talker asked me in Turkish.  “Taking pictures of the cemetery,” I responded.  “Why are you here?  The real Turks are over there,” he said, pointing at the neighboring Muslim cemetery.  “This is Jewish.  That is Turk.”

“First I am here.  Then I will go over there,” I replied.

“This is Jewish.  That is Turk,” he repeated.  “Look over there,” he said, waving at the one recent Muslim grave within the confines of the Jewish cemetery.  “That’s interesting.  Take a picture of that.”

“OK, thanks,” I said.  Eager to leave a slightly menacing conversation, I walked over to the grave and pretended to snap pictures.  The two men continued walking.  Once they were out of sight, I returned to the original subject of my trip.

I took some lovely photographs that day.  But I couldn’t get the second conversation out of my mind.   Outside of Istanbul, Tekirdag is one of the best places in Turkey to be an ethnic minority or a woman.  Sure, people still gawk but they’re generally not openly hostile to outsiders.  Plus I can wear short skirts (isn’t that the goal of 3rd wave feminism?)  But really, I’ve felt comfortable enough here to be able to tell colleagues and students that I am Jewish, and I don’t fear any backlash.  This, as opposed to a fellow Jewish Fulbrighter in a small town in Eastern Turkey who tells his friends he’s Protestant, which is suspicious enough.

Turkish identity is a tricky beast.  People who reside in the political borders of Turkey historically speak a variety of languages and self-identify with a host of religions and ethnicities.  Kurds, Greeks, Armenians, and Jews are among the most well-known.  But what about the Laz, the Roma, the Circassians?  Under Ataturk’s goal to create a strong Turkish nation and one Turkish identity, cultural attributes which diverged from the new Turkish norm were suppressed, although generally freedom to practice religion remained.  Some minorities embraced this new push, including many Jews who saw this shift as a chance to finally gain acceptance as equals in the Republic–learn new modern Turkish language and ways, serve in the military, fantastic.

Doesn’t always work out so well.  Examples include the aforementioned 1934 pogrom, the discriminatory Varlik Vergisi Wealth Tax, 1955 Istanbul pogrom, just to name a few.  It’s been and continues to be a bumpy ride.  However, many of the Jews I’ve spoken to in Turkey do identify themselves as Turkish, or equally Jewish and Turkish.  But there seems to be a quite vocal Turkish minority that, well, will just never accept anyone outside of the ethnic Turk/Sunni Muslim identification as a true Turk.  One Jewish woman I spoke with in Izmir said that a colleague once remarked that she was and acted “almost like a real Turk.”  This woman’s family has lived in Turkey for about, oh, 500 years.  Ouch.

I don’t have a conclusion here.  Part of me feels glad to be returning to America, where I’ve never had my national identity called into question because of my religion.  To my face, anyway.  But I’m most certainly in the minority during a decade of substantially increased xenophobia building on a long history of strained racial and ethnic relations.  The Jews of Tekirdag were lucky to find a safe haven in Seattle; I hope when their families visit Tekirdag in the future, more people like Nefise are there to welcome them.

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Pesah alegre! Part One: Food

April 20, 2011 § Leave a comment

“You will come to our seder, sweetie, where have you been?”

My mother is most likely separated from the majority of folks in the Western world by, at most, 5 people.  So when I decided to come to Turkey, of course her friend Elaine appeared, whose cousin’s cousin (or something along those lines) Leyla lives in Istanbul.  She gave me Leyla’s e-mail address and told me not to hesitate to contact her.  Of course I hesitated to contact her–I couldn’t tell if the invitation from Leyla to connect was genuine or simply a nicety no one expects either party to follow through.

But I did finally call her in early December and she picked me up for tour of Istanbul, driving me through the formerly Jewish parts of Sisli and up to Kagithane, where her family’s clothing store and factory are located.  She treated me to a huge European-style lunch at the store’s cafe (European-style, she explained, to appeal to visiting businessmen in the area who want something more familiar than Turkish food), then drove me up to her family’s apartment overlooking the Black Sea in Tarabia.  From the moment I stepped into her car I felt welcomed–Leyla is the talkative, take-charge, bustling Sephardic mama I’d been searching for.

With Leyla in December at her familys clothing store in Kagithane

I saw her again twice in late December when my dad visited.  We took the metro up to Tarabia to join her entire extended family for a lively and gut-busting Shabbat dinner.  Later that week, we joined Leyla, her husband Vedant, her Argentinian friend Mati, Mati’s London-based son, and Leyla’s high-school-aged son for a bottomless meze dinner at a Bosphorus-side fish restaurant in Sariyer.  Basically, all of my interactions with Leyla happen over food.  Not too different from most of my relationships in Turkey, really.

Come Passover-time, Hakan is kind enough to give me Tuesday off so I can celebrate ‘Hamursuz Bayrami’ in Istanbul.  I contacted Leyla about locating a community seder but she wouldn’t hear of it and I was immediately invited to her family’s first night seder (maybe exactly what I’d been angling for…).  After lessons on Monday, I caught the 3 o’clock bus from Tekirdag and was safely ensconced in my favorite anarchist cafe sipping tea by 6 o’clock.  Around 7:30 pm I made the more imperialist transition to the Taksim Starbucks, from where Leyla picked me and Mati up.  I imagined we were going up to Tarabia, but instead we drove around laberinthine Beyoglu streets for an hour trying to locate Barinyurt, a Jewish old folks home where her extended family had rented out a room for the evening.  The car ride was filled with fast-paced Turkish/English/Spanish conversation (Leyla and Mati are ‘like sisters’, in their words) so when the interminable search finally terminated, we weren’t any worse for the wear.  I had also wolfed down some last minute bread and hummus in my friend Rebecca’s apartment, so hunger wasn’t an issue.

I’m not sure who was older, the building’s residents or the building itself, but Basinyurt was gorgeous–immaculately decorated, high ceilings, privacy and communal areas on each floor for the residents.

We peeked into the residents’ seder, then headed up to the penthouse floor for our private room overlooking the rooftops of Galata.  The 6 tables in the room each seated about 10 people, and according the guest list (where I was listed only as ‘Sherry’), I was at the cousin’s table.  A bit of anxiety about being separated from my mama, but luckily the cousins were late 20’s/early 30’s, and most spoke English and were baffled and pleasantly surprised by my appearance (random Americans don’t appear at family gatherings all that often).  Virna on my right was a 29 year-old advertising exec, and her sister Selin and boyfriend Moni were eager to talk about their lives, their travels, levels of Jewish observance in their family, and traditional seder foods.  Izzy on my left, a 30 year-old pharmaceutical developer, had spent a year doing research in Birmingham, Alabama (the American equivalent of coming to Turkey and going to Tekirdag?) and we talked about American and Turkish accents, that awful 4-month adjustment/depression in a new country, his crazy family, and once again, food.

The seder was run in a rather domineering way by a rabbi whose relationship to the family I couldn’t quite determine.  We all joined in the kiddush, then he barreled through the haggadah in Hebrew, pausing just briefly for us to scramble and wash our hands, break the matzah, and pass around the traditional foods from the seder plate.  To the rabbi’s loud solo, the seder attendees provided the back-up gossip chorus; there was a din of table conversation the entire Exodus retelling.  People idly flipped through the haggadah, but given that there was no chance for participation, coupled with Virna and Izzy’s assurances that no one in the family really cared for observance all that much, the seder was a one-man show.  The most educational part for me was the haggadah, which was written in Turkish, Hebrew, Hebrew transliteration, and Ladino.  A student’s dream come true, I could follow along with the seder flow and pick up some new words.

Unfortunately, the new words were squeezed out of me to make room for the Passover feast.  First came the fish course, an unidentified (meaning, I didn’t ask and my new-to-eating-animals sensors couldn’t identify it) hunk of fish fillet covered in a thick lemon-egg sauce.  Then the salad, a standard mix of lettuce, shredded carrot, and one lone tomato dressed in olive oil and a  hint of vinegar.

First course:

–Ispanak: spinach, mixed with matzah meal and egg
–Batates koftesi: potato slices breaded with matzah meal and fried
–Bezelye: pea salad with cubes of potato, vinegar, and a bit of dill
–Yumurta: hard-boiled egg
–Bunuelos: egg and matzah meal mixed and fried
–Prasa koftesi: leek, ground beef, and matzah meal mixed as a meatball and fried

I would have been quite happy to end dinner here.  Then came the hunk of lamb, accompanied by some wan potatoes and peppers and displayed on some sort of feather duster?

Finally, dessert.  Fruit skewers of strawberry, kiwi, seedless grape (my first in Turkey!) and melon, and tishpishti, a cake of matzh meal and almonds soaked in honey syrup.  But wait, we weren’t done yet!  To celebrate a few birthdays, there appeared a chocolate, cherry, and walnut cake and “Happy birthday” sung in English and Hebrew.

Like a truck driver who stops for a nap before speeding to deliver his goods by the deadline, the rabbi picked up after dessert, when the attendees probably cared less and less about finishing, and barreled through some post-feast blessings and “Ken supiense i entendiense?”, the Ladino version of “Echad Mi Yodeah.”  Some more chit-chatting, some unfruitful attempts to leave, and some more chit-chatting later, we finally rolled down the stairs at 12:30 am and drove home.

I woke up the next day and I couldn’t eat.  If you’ve ever lived with me or woken up with me (lucky you!), you know it’s s a rare morning I’m not scrambling some eggs or chopping fruit.  It happens maybe twice a year.  I spent the day transcribing Ladino, avoiding Molotov cocktails, and readying myself for the second seder.

Around 6:30 pm, I headed to Taksim, Istanbul’s transportation hub, to catch the metro straight north to its last stop, Darussafaka.  There, Avram picked me up and brought me to his family’s flat for the evening.  I met Avram last fall on Ladinokomunita, a worldwide Ladino-only conversation group.  He knew me as nothing more than a bizarre American attempting to learn a dying language but was generous enough to invite me for lunch with his wife and son in October.  We had a delicious time but hadn’t reunited since.  Passover was the perfect time to visit the northernmost Jewish enclave of the city and catch up with the extended family: not only Avram and Rosa, but also their son (whose name I can’t remember), daughter Verda, Verda’s in-laws, Verda’s two daughters, and the helper/babysitter who was not introduced to me but still deserves recognition.

We made the usual small talk and watched and applauded as Verda’s 4 year-old sang and counted in Turkish and English and generally ruled the evening.  Since I hadn’t really eaten that day I was eagerly eying the seder plate.  Luckily Rosa noticed my wandering stomach and offered me some candied orange that she just happened to have hanging around in china cabinet.

And then, the seder.  We gathered round the table and opened a different multilingual haggadah–still Hebrew, Turkish, Hebrew transliteration, and Ladino, but with more and bigger pictures (!).  I was eager for a more participatory seder, which this was in that Avram and Father-In-Law both shared the lead.  They also occasionally pointed to me and made me read random sections in Ladino (I led a rousing solo rendition of “Nos Abastavamos!”, the Ladino version of Dayenu).  So the seder was a bit more of a shared success except that almost everything was read in Hebrew, which not a single person at the table understood.

Exodus retelling out of the way, the feast arrived.  Start drooling, here comes the photo essay:

First course:

–Spinach and mushroom casserole
–Batatas koftesi
–Bunuelos
–Prasa borek: leek casserole
–Kabak borek: squash casserole
–Salad
–Fried fish

Second course:


–Prasa koftesi
–Lamb and potatoes, sans feather duster
–Bezelye–just plain peas this time
–Taze Fasulye: fresh stewed green beans

Dessert (sorry, no picture)
–Mixed fruit (strawberries, pineapple, and something else I can’t remember)
–Tishpishti–homemade and significantly better
–My homemade lemon-orange macaroons (a heretofore unknown Passover dessert)

We sipped Turkish coffee, melted into the couches, and finally called it a night around 10:30 (early!)  The In-Laws gave me a ride to the metro stop, I melted into the metro car, then rolled down the hill from Taksim to Rebecca’s apartment.

But the magic doesn’t end here!  I’ve got a kilo of matzah and a kilo of matzah meal straight from Israel, with the Turkish head rabbi’s sticker of approval.  Tonight Alex and I are making my dad’s Passover rolls, my mom’s matzah ball soup (also unknown in Turkey), and some quinoa salad.  I’m going to try my hand at some Turkish Passover dishes this week.  Wish me luck!

Hiatus

March 19, 2011 § Leave a comment

Oh wow I’ve been so neglectful of this blog and of you, my faithful readers (Mom, I’m looking at you).  There’ve been a number of responsibilities occupying my time recently and I feel I’ve been too busy doing to reflect and write about doing.  But here are some links to things I’ve been working on lately:

1) http://istanbuleats.com/2011/03/the-boyoz-are-back-in-town-a-sephardic-returns-to-the-izmir-street/
I spent 3 weeks in Izmir from late January to early February working on a Ladino oral history project.   I also ate enough food to keep all of Tekirdag going for a week.  This review is the love child of that research and consumption.

2) http://sephardiccenter.wordpress.com/
I’ve been continuing to volunteer every two weeks at the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Cultural Research Center.  My main responsibility has been to create and maintain this blog.

3) Teaching.  Still 21 hours a week, though digging my job a whole lot more this semester–mostly.

4) Traveling.  January Black Sea and Aegean, February Spain, March Ankara, Istanbul, Edirne, and Diyarbakir (inshallah).
Still love you, I promise.

Slideshow of not my photos!

February 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Update on Izmir coming soon…for now, this feel-good summa summatime video will have to do.  Trust me, you wish you were here.

Thanksgiving Resurrection

November 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

I’m mixing two holidays here, but go with it for a minute.

When most people are having difficulties or major life changes, they write to describe, analyze, and organize their thoughts and emotions. Me? I turn inward.

It’s been a combination of looking inward, being beyond busy, and lack of Internet that’s kept me away from this blog. But fear not, devoted readers! As long as the wireless connection in my office works for at least 15 minutes a day, there will be updates. Oh yes, there will be updates—hopefully with photos.

Many of you think I must lead an extremely exciting life here in Turkey. Well, you’re right and you’re wrong, to varying degrees. Working abroad is, well, working. Here’s my schedule:
Monday: 6 classes between 8:45 and 4
Tuesday: 5 classes between 9:40 and 5
Wednesday: 4 classes between 11:30 and 5
Thursday: 6 classes between 8:45 and 5
Early mornings, long hours on my feet, and alternately chatty/disengaged students mean that my days are pretty draining. Lesson planning and, well, life (cooking, shopping, trying to keep in touch) fill my weekday nights. Add in a Wednesday night Turkish folk dance class and gym sessions(on hiatus due to a bad back), occasional nighttime Turkish lessons, and attempting to jack Internet while standing on one leg with a finger on my nose (our home connection can be pretty temperamental/nonexistent), and there you have it: everyday life, albeit in another country.

Here are some Namik Kemal photos

Sunset over the campus

We're pretty well-protected here

The Hazirlik classroom building

The student and faculty cafeteria and gym. I need to go the latter more often than the former.

But Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays are mine, all mine! Weekly funds and travel opportunities dictate where I go; some weekends I stay in Tekirdag, drinking tea by the Sea of Marmara and wandering the streets. But more often I’m affected by the travel bug; I’ve graced Istanbul with my presence every other weekend and I’ve made additional trips to Karabuk, Safranbolu, and Thessaloniki. I usually travel on a whim—coach service is so plentiful and relatively inexpensive that I can hop a bus to the ‘bul and head anywhere in the country without much advance notice. My dream come true! I do have all the bus travel to blame for my achy-breaky back right now (sleeping horizontally is so underrated) so this upcoming weekend I’m Tekirdag-focused.

As you may remember (and as I’ve mentioned in most places in my life and this blog), the main reason I chose to come to Turkey was my interest in Ladino. To that end, I’ve hopefully worked out a weekly internship at the Ottoman-Turkish Sephardic Cultural Research Center in Istanbul. I’ve offered myself for whatever projects may need assistance—as is usual for research centers, they’re short-staffed and welcome volunteers. Just call me His Gal Viernes.

Thanksgiving is this Thursday, and Alex and I are hosting and cooking a dinner for our Tekirdag friends on Saturday night. Get past all your “Turkey in Turkey” jokes now—provided we do actually find a turkey, it’ll be gracing our table along with cranberry sauce, matzah ball soup, mashed potatoes, and whatever else looks good at the Thursday bazaar. We’re inviting our NKU colleagues and anyone we’ve ever met in Tekirdag—dolmus drivers, water delivery men, guitarists, Internet café proprietors. We’re looking forward to expressing our gratitude to our new friends. Their support and generosity get us through each day and we want—nay, need—to express our love through food. L’chaim!

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