July 26, 2015
Have you ever passed an attraction in Istanbul, or (insert famous place) in your hometown that you’ve never been to and thought “Hmm, I really should go there, you know, while I’m living here…Eh, one of these days”?
That’s how I felt every time I passed an Okey salonu (Okey room) or kiraathane (which literally means “starkly lit, tackily decorated storefront coffeeshop filled with unemployed men serving bitter tea and overpriced sodas”).
The game of okey had always been something that I though I was going to learn one of these days. I was never in any burning rush to learn it. I always figured my time would come, that I would be in a social situation, with, say, my Turkish in-laws at their summer house, sitting around on a lazy evening in the dog days of summer, when one of them would jump up and say “hey, let’s reenact the Battle of Galipoli!” then someone else would say “nah, we don’t have enough plaster cannon balls…I know! Let’s play okey!”
You can hear the sound of okey being played all over Turkey: the gentle clicking of the off white tiles on cheap table cloth or felt topped tables, as a one of the players mixes them around in circular motions with his hands, as if he were waxing the hood of a car with a tissue. The tiles are played from the ıstaka, a two-floor holder of wood, like a double decker Scrabble tile holder. People then seemed, to my untrained, passing eye, to be laying the stones down in patterns, as if playing dominoes.
Actually, the game is really a tile version of rummy…yes, that rummy you played in Mr. Van Ness’ 8th grade homeroom. The object is getting straight sets of all your colored tiles, be them in different numbers, same color (suites, in cards) in numerical order, or three of the same number, different colors.
The twist is keeping an eye on the joker, the wild card, aka, the okey.
Except if no one explains to you, or doesn’t use the article the while explaining a game, you can run into problems, as I did the first time the tile “hand” were laid out before me on the ıstaka:
My wife Zeynep pointed to an upturned red 3 tile in the middle of the table.
My wife: So this is okey.
Me: Why is it okay?
Her: Because we picked it randomly, so…
Me: Okay, but are my other tiles not okay?
Me: Why not? They look fine to me.
Her: Yes they are fine, but they are not okey.
Me: Ah, you mean the okey piece?
Her: Yes! You got it?
Me: So what if I get the okey, and I pass it on accidentally to my opponent?
Her: No, that’s not okay.
Me: It’s not? I thought you said red 3 was the okey.
Her: It is!
Me: Okay, okay, let’s just play already.
I think we had this conversation at least three times that evening, leaving me more confused than when I started.
For some reason I had the idea for all these years that it was mind-numbingly simple game. I think a bitter expat told me that once. I suppose it isn’t very complicated. In fact, it involves about 40 percent skill and 60 percent luck, so there is a lot of things that are out of your control, but there is a fairly high degree of skill going once you get in to the team level (four players, you team up with the person sitting across from you). You can play defensively, passing tiles to your neighbor he doesn’t need, even if you yourself need them, and so forth.
Another bizarre thing about the game is the way the tiles are randomized to ensure fairness. Instead of shuffling them 32 times and having the opponent cut the “cards”, each player stacks the tiles five deep, and puts the stacks into rows. Then each person gently plows them toward the middle, rendering the ıstaka multi functional roulette shuffleboard thingy.
Then comes the Byzantine (Ottoman?) process of distributing tiles to the players. It goes a little something like this. The person to the right of the “dealer” roles the dice once to determine who to distribute the first stack of tiles to, then he rolls again and counts that many stacks to his left, and gives the second stack to the same player, then he goes back the first number of stacks back to his right and adds one and gives that next stack plus four to the left again and gives those two stacks to the next guy. Then, the person counts how many times he/she has eaten liver in last year and divides that number by the number of the last okey tile, or something like that…You get the picture.
When it was my turn to deal, my father in law basically guided by hand like a kukla (puppet). I still say swishing the tiles around and picking 14 is the best way, I mean, we aren’t card counters from MIT.
Once I got the hang of the game, it was pretty fun. Similar to Mahjong and Rummikub, okey can be very competitive, yet it is entertaining and doesn’t take itself too seriously. It’s fairly straightforward, but a game can turn on one wrongly discarded piece.
Tournaments are held in kiraathanes and summer house complexes (siteler) all over the country. Tavla seems very one dimensional by comparison, so if you get bored of backgammon, and your Turkish father-in-law opponent is basically moving the pieces for you because you are playing too slow, try okey.
June 29, 2015
I was in a buoyant mood on Sunday afternoon; buoyed with patriotism from the news of the past week: marriage equality, Obamacare standing pat. I hadn’t felt that proud for America in a long time, and I was transferring that pride to my adopted second home, Turkey, looking forward to the 20,000-plus in attendance for what was billed the biggest Pride parade to ever take place in the Muslim world. It was a glorious, not-too-hot summer day in Istanbul. Breezes from the Black Sea, good vibes…. Then…
“Don’t go!” my wife messaged me as the Metrobus groaned and galloped over the Bosphorus Bridge.
They were shutting Pride down, the parade, Istiklal Caddesi, everything, she wrote. Flashing to the event page on Facebook, I found frantic “iyi misiniz, arkadaslar?” (“Are you ok, friends?”) posts and comments on the actions of the police, who were not allowing the protestors to go to the main promenade.
Tear gas, rubber bullets — memories of 24 months ago flashed in my mind.
Back to real world of self expression in Turkey.
Defiant, I went there anyway. I was too late for the water cannons and rubber bullets. Probably for the best.
By the time I exited the metro station at Taksim, the cops had already formed a human chain around the Ataturk victory statue in Taksim Square and Istiklal Caddesi. The atmosphere was decidedly non-festive. People, however, were funneling down Siraselviler Caddesi, so I followed them, toward Cihangir, the indomitable bastion of progressive Istanbul, right?
What I found was not defeated protestors cursing the police, more like season veterans clearing their throats of tear gas residue — and then, smiling, defiant revelers.
What I found in the central Cihangir square in front of Firusaga Camii was smiling faces, signs saying “get used to us, we’re here!” “there ARE trans women!” Chanting. Singing. Jumping up and down.
Walking down the avenues, I saw blond tourists from Europe, couples meandering the streets, students — including one from the conservative university where I work — music (yes, “It’s raining men!” played at one point, stoking memories of countless parties from my 20’s), great costumes, people from all walks of life.
While it all made me realize how far Turkey has to go before catching up to Europe and the U.S. when it comes to marriage equality, there was a victory of another sort in Istanbul on Sunday. You won’t read about it in the headlines, and rightfully so: canceling an approved parade for no discernible reason is wrong, and Al Jazeera, CNN, etc., were right to put it on their homepages.
But the less reported story, which made me smile, was that pride won.
In Turkey, it’s always 2 steps forward, 1.8 steps back with these sorts of things. But that tiny step kept Istanbul’s link to the biggest civil rights movement of our time alive and smiling.
Indomitable Cihangir, Indomitable Istanbul, Indomitable Pride.
June 15, 2015
We crave you, we miss you, we yearn for you
Your eight legs of heaven
Jump in some rice
or olive oil
for us –Zeynep & Ezra
Seems like we ate octopus in some form every day during our recent vacation in Portugal: usually chopped up in bit size chunks, drizzled with virgin olive oil, served cold. Once, at a Fado night in Lisbon’s Alfama district, it was mixed with rice, a light and garlicky tomato sauce.
So, on honor of the octopus and her 8 delicious legs, which both Turks and Portuguese love (it was on the tourist menu, at least), I thought I’d write about similarities between my adopted country and Portugal.
8. Yearning for the past — Melancholic nostalgia is so strong in both cultures that both have a word for it: saudade in Portuguese; hüzün in Turkish. For the Portuguese, they yearn for the glory Age of Empires of the 15th and 16th centuries, when Portugal’s tentacles (hey-oo!) of trade and conquest stretched from Brazil to Japan. Turkey’s, of course, is all about the Ottoman glory days — which happened around the same time — and its centuries of land based conquests from the gates of Vienna to the Bab el-Mandeb. Saudade is expressed in Portugal by means of fado.
7. Waiting for the savior — Both countries revere strong leaders, and according to a couple Portuguese people we met, at least, Portugal is waiting for that great noble leader to take them back to aforementioned glory days. Portuguese wait for another Alfonso I, the brash first king of Portugal in the 12th century. Some Turks yearn for Süleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman conquerer at the apex of Ottomania. More recently Turks wait for a benevolent dictator like Atatürk, and the culture of head strong, confrontational leaders explains the popularity of Recep Tayip Erdoğan. Portugal had Antonio Salazar, who was, like Atatürk, a learned and authoritarian leader — albeit far more controversial. Both men presided after times of chaos, Salazar’s being after the first republic, when there were 44 governments in 16 years. Atatürk , of course, came after World War I to resuscitate a devastated Turkish society.
6. Futbol! — Yeah yeah, futbol is big EVERYWHERE, you say. What I mean is the similarity of their respective top-heavy domestic leagues. Both have a “big three” which have won nearly all domestic first league titles. Turkey has the big three Istanbul clubs, Galatasaray, Beşiktaş and Fenerbahçe. Portugal has Benfica, Sporting Clube de Portugal and FC Porto, which of course, is located in Porto, the second largest city.
5. Lower Brittania — White, pasty bodies hop off the plane; lobsterbacks hop back on. Droves of British tourists and retirees form contribute to a huge portion of the GDPs of both nations. About 2.1 British nationals visit Portugal every year, 2.5 million visit Turkey, according to official statistics.. In Turkey, it’s Marmaris, Kusadasi, Bodrum. In Portugal, it’s Lagos and the south coast.
4, Brain Drain — There was a brief period of hope that Turkey would be a boom country around the time I came to Turkey, but especially now, secular Turks are leaving, fearful of an intolerant, religious, authoritarian regime and sluggish economic growth. The outflow started in the 1960’s with German guest worker programs. Portugal had a similar exodus in the 1960’s of people fleeing Salazar. But those emigrations in both nations were mostly poor, uneducated. Now, it’s the educated human capital which is leaving. Apparently, London is the most popular destination for young Portuguese. Hey, at least Portugal is in the EU.
3, Climate — Both have Mediterranean climates. But both also have a number of climate zones for being relatively small countries. The moist, maritime climate of the costal regions of Portugal is like the Black Sea. The Douro Valley is classic Mediterranean. Lisbon feels like Istanbul: the metropolitan area is at the confluence of Mediterranean and continental/maritime zones. Sintra (north of Lisbon) and Sile/Agava (north of Istanbul) are green and cloudier places influenced by the Black Sea and Atlantic, respectively , while the Princes’ Islands and Lisbon’s estuary fronting areas have distinct Mediterranean feels.
2, Complaining — Ok this one is a bit of reach, since everyone loves to complain. But like the Turks, Portuguese can complain about their culture all they want, but you are better off not complaining too much if you are a foreigner! The sun is shining, there is delicious seafood and wine, but the Portuguese will still find something to complain about, or so I have been told!
1. Food! — Did you think I was going to end with anything else? I’ll start with seafood, as it’s the theme here. Hand it to the Portuguese for more creative culinary creations, like octopus rice, but the staple is throwing the fish on the grill, eating it as it looks when it’s alive, as it is in Turkey with balık izgara. Cod, now no longer found in Portuguese seas, is everywhere, but so are common fish found in Turkey, such as sea bream, mullet, etc. There’s loads of olives, too, of course, not to mention mezze/tapas culture (our octopus salads are quite similar) called petiscos in Portuguese, and long slow dinners over a bottle and some conversation.
However, I will end with two key differences, things one can learn from the other: First
Turkey: wine! Learn from the Portuguese example (something unlikely with this government) by refining the wine making process. And Portugal: Breakfast! Any Turk or Turkey expat will very soon miss the royal breakfast treatment of a serpme kahvaltası, with the cornucopia of morning delights. Gulping an espresso and devouring a croissant is too continental for my blood! (but I love the amazing espresso!)
Did I miss anything? Leave it in the comments below!
March 7, 2015
A blazing effigy of the Carnival Tsar, parades of floats and costumed troupes serenaded by blasting techno and Euro pop, fireworks, and walking around stumbling drunk with a water bottle filled with tsipouro. Oh, Yes. Istanbulus don’t have to go to Brazil to enjoy Carnival season. In fact, there is a carnival just down the road — with all the confetti, costumes and dancing in the street. And it’s all a few hours away by bus. To top it off, it’s mostly locals: you don’t feel like part of a tourist spectacle.
But like other Carnivals around the world, this one is filled with costumes, pranks, whistles and (a few) scantily clad women. This is perhaps the closest carnival to the frontier of the Christian-Muslim world. We first got wind of this mysterious Greek carnival from our friend Fatih, who booked an ETS weekend tour trip to Thessaloniki and towns in western Thrace. It was over drinks at a friend’s farewell party in Kadikoy. A carnival you dare say? We asked incredulously. What is this…close-by, small town revelry of which you speak? I was suspicious at first. Eh, I’ve been to “Thess” thrice, I murmured, when my wife Zeynep immediately begged us to go. I’m not going to join a tour where we spend the night there.
So we went…alone, minus Thessaloniki, and on the overnight bus/Couchsurfing style like it was 2010, when I was a border-running, private-English-lesson vagabond. Xanthi (Iskece in Turkish jive) is located about 400 km and one boring border crossing to the west of Istanbul. It’s home to a significant Turkish population (about half of the total city’s count) a quaint old city with late Ottoman era buildings and charming winding little streets…and the second largest carnival in Greece. For those (like me) who didn’t know, it’s not just the Catholics who enjoy colorful festivities in February. In Greece, it takes place in the weeks leading up to “Clean Monday”, the Monday in late February (this year, the 23rd) which kicks off the meat-free Lent season. We arrived on an Ulusoy overnight bus from the big Istanbul otogar (Esenler) at 5:30 in the morning, after the border round up featuring a zombie middle-of the-night duty free shopping spree. It was a good sign that there were still a smattering of drunken revelers heading home. Yes, I thought to myself, this seems like a bona fide carnival. Not wanting to disturb our Cuchsurfing host — a man who turned out to be the Greek god of Couchsurfing hosts — at such a wee hour, we were surprised to find a börek shop open, and more surprised to discover they spoke Turkish quite fluently with a strong Greek accent. (I’ve been told that the Turks in Kominti and Alexandropouli, towns closer to the Turkish border, speak Turkish better than they do Greek, but those of Xanthi speak Greek as well or better than they do Turkish).
We waited until the more reasonable time of 6:30 to head to Sotiris’s house. After we took a short nap we headed out to see the action. Sotiris took us to the Saturday bazaar. If you live in Turkey, or have spent more than 16 hours here, this bazaar will make you feel right at home. The difference may be the consignment-store feeling of the name brand steals in jackets that can be had, or the kalamata olives, but other than that not too much to make you feel alien. We walked the main streets of new town, where the carnival takes place, past the famous 19th century clock tower in the platia (square), past a couple costume shops and the large speakers placed along the parade route. This being Greece in winter, the weather can be rainy, but on the Saturday of that last weekend of Carnival, it was a fairly pleasant 8 C and sunny.
That night we partied. We watched a minin-parade warm up featuring people dressed in last year’s carnival costumes, a prelude to the grand parade the next day. Wooo boy! we partied like we were at, well, a you know. Sotiris took us to a quaint, low ceilinged bar in a stone building owned by a friend. Most of it’s a blur. I will say this: I’ve never seen my wife more drunk. Moving on…
The next day we stood in attention waiting for the big parade, hungover heads absorbing the music from the baboon-sized speakers posted every 50 meters along the main drag (it starts at about noon). At about one, there was the Carnival king float (see first picture), and the procession began: There was about an hour of various Greek “societies” consisting of 20 to 100 people, walking down the street in matching colorful costumes — dogs, Mickey Mice, cavemen and the like. I thought they were unions, but Sotiris said they paid like 30 euro and got the costumes.
“One thing that used to be different at this carnival,” said the 30-something Sotiris, born and raised in Xanthi “is that people used to take time to make their own costumes. Everyone’s was different, no cheap masks. People also used to throw candy to the parade watchers.” We then meandered around the city. The town gets very quiet very fast once you leave the main area. Perhaps it’s my own bias: but the Muslim community there seems happier, calmer, more prosperous and content than most Turks do, and you get an inkling of what it might have been like in the more peaceful times of Ottoman days, various cultures living with what — on the surface, of course — appeared to be multi-cultural harmony. After a mediocre meal with atmosphere in a village house-themed restaurant, it began to get dark and rainy. Nevertheless, we were going to take an overnight bus to Istanbul in a few hours, and we’d be damned if we weren’t going to see an effigay of a giant headed Russian Tsar, who looked eerily like a caricature of a 19-the century “trickster” Jew, albeit with a green beard and a purple vest like something from a Duran Duran video (in other towns in Greece, they do call it the burning of the Jew). The tsar was in a riverbed below a bridge and flanked by a park. Finally, around seven, some men lit brambles of dried brush placed around the head, and the Tsar was blazing. As he smoldered, a fireworks show, rivaling that of any small town July Fourth show, kicked off. It was a fitting end to a great weekend escape, to the beginning of Lent, and to the ingraining of a memory of a weekend getaway that beat the late winter blues.
To get there… Ulusoy (the better alternative) has two buses daily to Kavala-Xanthi-Thessaoloniki, departing at 9 am and 9 pm from Esenler Otogar. It takes between 6 and 8 hours to Xanthi, depending on the wait at the border. Return trips are at 11:45 am and 11:45 pm. Metro also has three daily trips to Xanthi leaving Istanbul Otogar at 10 am, 6 pm and 10 pm. Exact Return times are unknown due to a crappy Metro website. Google “metro turizm” for theirs.