Minarets & Memories

Touring Turkey with “Morocco”, July, 1996

It’s hard to determine where to start in my account of my tour of Turkey with Morocco and seven other dance enthusiasts (including WAMEDA’s own Mary Tuthill), June 30-July 16, 1996. I cannot help but be subjective. What thrilled me may not be your cup of tea; in fact, what thrilled my may not have enchanted the other people on the tour. Foreign countries are, after all, foreign. For me, it was a fascinating, unforgettable experience and Rocky was the perfect person to share it with.

Looking through the airplane windows on our approach to Istanbul, I was struck by the sight of red tile roofs in the bright sunlight. In the airport, I marveled at the handsomeness of the Turkish people. But then, I was to become happily dazzled by almost everything I saw.

We were taken to our minibus and introduced to our guide, Selim (back by popular demand from Rocky’s previous Turkey tour). A ride through the bumpy, winding streets of Istanbul took us to our hotel in busy Taksim Square, in the city’s financial district. A visit to the money-changer’s next door made us all millionaires: about 12 U.S. dollars equaled a million Turkish lira. Changing large amounts of money proved unnecessary: most local merchants were happy to take U.S. dollars in cash.

According to Rocky, Turkey is the easiest Middle Eastern country for Westerners to deal with, and indeed I felt immediately at home and safe at all times. English is readily understood; if you want to do business with someone who doesn’t know much English, he will excuse himself, disappear for a moment, and return with an interpreter in tow as if by magic.

The food is cheap, safe, and delicious. The men took a little getting used to; it seems a woman can’t go anywhere in Istanbul without some man or another trying to get her attention: “Hey lady, nice lady, come here!” Their strenuous efforts amused me; they were all so handsome as to make such verbal attention-getting ploys redundant.

While Rocky had warned us that our group would seem like a “smorgasbord on foot” to the young Turkish males, she hadn’t suggested that it could go both ways, and indeed without her watchful guidance, some of us might have had a cultural experience of an altogether different sort than what we had signed up for.

People have asked me if I saw any evidence of “fundamentalism”. Hard to define, but in Istanbul there were “raincoat ladies” aplenty, grim-faced women in headscarves and buttoned-up raincoats, protected from unpredicted outbreaks of rain or sin.

Still, I was fascinated by the variety of Islamic dress I saw in Istanbul, from black-cloaked tourists from the Gulf, to the aforementioned raincoat ladies, to women in conservative Western clothes with head scarf added, artfully draped and pinned.

We saw all the usual sights of Istanbul, but his seems an understatement when they include magnificent mosques, an ancient Roman cistern, the incredibly lively mosaics at St. Savior in Chora, and Aya Sofia. Not to mention the surprises along the way.

En route to the Suleymaniye Mosque, our bus took us down a veritable boulevard of bridal shops. Mannequins in fluffy white gowns, some in hijab, looked out of every window, for blocks. It was a stunning visual, and I made a mental note: If ever I need a wedding dress, I’ll come here. Competition is obviously fierce and prices must be excellent.

After an excllent tour of the Topkapi Palace Museum, four of us opted to take the special Harem tour (which is not included on most package trips). Having to wait in a long line to get in meant we were able to see the Janissary Band marching by, another unexpected treat.

While the Harem itself is a gorgeous, tragic prison, I was captivated by the religious relics in “the Suite of the Felicitious Cloak”: A letter from the Prophet, his bow and arrow, a rain gutter from the Kaaba, soil from the Prophet’s tomb, his tooth, his footprint, all displayed in a hushed room while the Qu’ran was chanted in an adjoining chamber.

I am very sensitive & suffered from too much secondhand smoke inhalation to be able to report in finite detail on the state of the dance in Turkey: from what I could see through the smoke, it’s not that bad! Not always, anyway.

We saw dancers with skill and presence, as well as a few vulgar ones. Admittedly, nothing better and nothing worse than one sees in the D.C. area.

The folk dancing was really exciting, and did not greatly represent what I’ve seen presented as Turkish dance back home.

Simultaneously appalling and fascinating was the “belly dance lesson”. This was repeated every evening, in one form or another, usually with women picked randomly from among the innocent tourists, at every club we visited, in Istanbul and in the country.

At one place in Cappadocia, a few male victims were selected from the audience, encouraged to remove or roll up their shirts, and sacrifice their dignity as they attempted to copy the dancer’s movements. Disgusting, but sometimes well deserved!

The costumes were slightly more modest than I had expected (perhaps a reflection of Turkey’s growing conservatism). Want to wear the latest in Turkish dance fashions? Decorate a bra and belt with silk flowers. Mix bead fringe with coins. Wear platform shoes or, failing that, lace-up boots. Make an extreme fashion statement by cutting out holes in the underside of your dance bra cups, or wear lame pants decorated with fringe around the top and leg holes instead of a conventional belt and skirt. Okay, that’s not conservative at all, but I was told that last year’s costumes were racier.

The most quotable observation was made by Mary Tuthill regarding a particular dancer. “I don’t know what religion she is, but she sure has a lot of faith in her costume.!”

Morocco personally took us to two costumers in Istanbul. No disappointments there. I had budgeted for one costume purchase on my trip; I came home with two, including a custom-make silk skirt and matching sleeves, and a gorgeous red velvet coat with embroidery–all within that one-costume budget!

At the Covered Market, I made out like a squirrel in a bird feeder. There is an overwhelming display of bright shiny objects, and I discovered to my surprise that I possessed supernatural bargaining powers.

It was thrilling, albeit time-consuming, to talk a merchant’s price down to less than half of what he originally offered (all the while drinking the requisite tiny cups of hot tea). Dramatically walking out of a shop in disgust (as a last resort) invariably produced capitulation, with cries of “Lady, come back!” I maintained a poker face while reveling in this ancient ritual.

The local cuisine was delicious; I marvel that anyone would bother to put a McDonald’s in Istanbul, but there it was. (The golden arches should at least have been pointed, in accordance with the local esthetic.) The small local restaurants were always cheap and satisfying. “Bad” food (comparatively) was restricted to the nightclubs that exist for the foreigners.

After a week of becoming steeped in Turkish heritage and culture, and metropolitan sophistication, for almost a week, we said a temporary good-bye to Taksim Square and took an hour’s flight to hot, dusty Ankara.

No time for sightseeing there. We were met by our bus and crew (driven by the flamboyant Hakim, assisted by shy, sensitive Serka), and taken to Cappadocia, a journey of four hours, stopping for typically delicious meals along the way.

As I said at the very beginning of my review: Foreign places are foreign. there might be some people who wouldn’t care for Turkey the way I did. Admittedly, I don’t get out much. By all this I mean to say, there’s nothing like being out in the middle of nowhere, staring out the window of your air-conditioned but without a care in the world.

The dusty towns, the silver-domed mosques, the mud-brick village dwellings all struck a chord in me that I’d never heard before. Sweet music! I longed for the bus to stop and leave me behind in some little settlement, to toil in the sun and dust, tend donkeys, and marry a man named Turhan.

A beautiful resort hotel was our home for two nights in Cappadocia, with fabulous & sumptuous breakfast & dinner buffets.

An unforgettable evening was spent at a taverna that was carved out of the tuff, and here we saw the most stunning dancing of our tour: Georgian precision drills, Turkish folk dances (with the dancers beating rhythms on the floor with scythes!), cabaret-style dancing, and knife-tossing.

We joined in a line dance that led us out into a courtyard and around a huge bonfire. Glowing embers floated upward into the starry Turkish sky, and I left initiated into citizenship with The World.

Konya was divinely weird, surreal, like a dream you’d have after eating too much melted cheese. Who would expect to find a military base there, or pasta factories, or a tiny Roman Catholic church in this Muslim holy city?

I happily soaked up the good vibes a the Mevlana Museum, where a bright blue-green minaret stands over Rumi’s tomb, poised to draw Divine attention to it on Judgement Day. May God keep his secret!

Watching a dervish Sema that night, and being awakened by the predawn call to prayer the next morning, were archetypical Konya experiences that I was happy to have.

The steppes of central Anatolia gave way to greener landscapes as we left Konya and moved on to Pamukkale to see the famous calcium springs and the ruins of Hieropolis.

We visited the ruins of Aphrodisias and Ephesus and found them ancient and vast. A little too vast, in fact. I was footsore and feeling quite apathetic about looking at any more old stuff when we were taken up a green mountainside to visit the House of the Virgin Mary. This is a place of pilgrimage to both Christians and Muslims (Mary is mentioned more times in the Qu’ran than she is in the New Testament).

Here’s the ritual: you go into Mary’s little stone house, put a coin or two in a box, and take a candle. You light the candle at the altar, silently say a prayer, and proceed out of the house to one of three “wishing trees”.

Here you press a tiny wad of paper into the bark after you’ve made your wish. Then you say another silent prayer and wash your face in the spring water (it’s on tap). If you have the foresight that I lacked, you can bring an empty bottle with you and fill it up with Mary water to take home.

This area of Turkey, the west coast, was particularly beautiful and green. We passed through picturesque little towns where storks nested on chimneys. (Yes, they really do that.)

At Kusadasi, after watching the sun set over the Aegean (another of many firsts for me on this trip), we were taken to a loud nightclub located in a former caravansary. There was some very fine Georgian dancing, and the usual cabaret routines in the raciest costumes that we saw on our tour.

By then we were ready to go “home’ to our hotel in Istanbul. At the Izmir airport we discovered that an onyx statue of Bes (the little god with a huge erection) in the luggage of one of our fellow travelers, can look suspiciously like a gun when viewed through the airport fluoroscope, much to the initial embarrassment (he blushed when it was discovered, taken out & unwrapped) and then amusement of the airport security guard, who pointed this out to his co-workers. You don’t need to know fluent Turkish to understand what “Hey Mehmet, come over her and get a load of this” sounds like.

Back in Istanbul we finished our shopping. Our final night was commemorated by a farewell cruise on the Bosphorus, joined by Rocky’s friend Sureyya, who had been good company and a useful translator at the clubs and costumers in Istanbul.

I was heartbroken at having to leave. The melons were never so sweet. The next morning, as we left for the airport, I was choking back the tears, as if I were leaving, not returning, home.

Would I do it all over again? Yes! In a heartbeat! I’d follow Rocky to hell and back!

There can be no better traveling companion in the world, and we had some unforgettable breakfasts together. Her engaging personality and vast cultural knowledge made her the ideal person to introduce me to Turkey, and I hope to soon return.