January 5, 2015
When you live in a different country for long enough, you begin to experience some major life events there. If those years coincide with your late 20’s and early 30’s, you will attend a few weddings there and…maybe you will be lucky enough to have one one of your own.
One thing I hadn’t been to — fortunately — since arriving in Turkey was a funeral. My purpose in this post is to inform what to expect when this solemn event occurs.
I attended two funerals in the past few months. The first was a Sunni funeral. The second was an Alevi funeral. Both of those who passed on were fathers of friends.
The Sunni Village Funeral
The first who passed on was the father of my “godfather”, Mehmet, Ali. Mehmet is a dear friend of ours. He is a sort of godfather because, in the absence of my real father, he “requested” Zeynep’s family for their daughter’s hand in marriage. He was a witness at our wedding. He’s shown time and time again what a true friend he is.
So rushing to his side wasn’t a question when we heard the dire news.
“Hey Mehmet! How you doing, buddy? You want to watch the match?” I called on a Saturday evening in October. Galatasaray and Fenerbahce were playing their semi annual derbiy and being good-natured fans of the opposite teams, we enjoy watching the matches together with my wife Zeynep and our mutual friends.
“I’m…not bad I guess, not bad.”
“What’s up, man?”
Then he told the story: his father had begun mysteriously bleeding internally approximately a week earlier. He was admitted to Göztepe Hospital (in Kadikoy), and his condition deteriorated. I offered my sympathies, then watched the match alone thinking he’d pull through.
But later that evening, a mutual friend called.
“It’s getting really bad, we are going to congregate at the café at the hospital,” she said.
In Turkey, like a lot of other cultures, friends and family congregate near the hospital to be near the grieving at the time near demise.
We sat around on that chilly, rainy Friday night drinking cheap cays with his mom and grandkids, eating homemade börek, pastries and sour ayva (quince) with salt. The fruit was from Mehmet’s village in Sakarya, a forested province about two hour’s drive east of Istanbul. One of Mehmet’s uncles tried to lighten the mood with a story of flipping a 50 kurus coin and it landing upright. “It is basically impossible!” He tapped the table with that proclamation.
Mehmet’s dad’s condition stable, we went home. Next morning, around 10, we got the call that he passed on. We greeted sobbing relatives back at the hospital.
Then, unexpectedly to me as an American, everyone started arranging car ride options.
We were going to a funeral. In a village. In Sakarya. Two hours away.
Not what I expected…though not surprising to me given that Jewish burials also take place very shortly after death.
We rode with Mehmet’s good friend’s brother. It was a crisp, cool sunny day in the bosom of autumn. We turned off the expressway in Sakarya, the topography began to look like parts of the Coast Range in the Pacific Northwest of the US.
We came to the village, on a hillside with varied, modest, cozy looking homes, a slapdash of colors with some haphazard sheds and lean-tos thrown in, potted plants on small front porches surrounded by unpruned fruit trees.
This was a sunni village, so women and men gathered separately to mourn in front of Mehmet’s old childhood home.
Zeynep and I split up, as did our driver friend and his wife. Slowly , a procession of strangers from the village came to shake my hand, and the hands of Surreya and Cengiz, other friends in our close crew who had made the trip with us.
Suddenly, a van showed up. It was the Istanbul Municipality’s Department of Dying, so to speak, and they, as a free service, carry the deceased to his or her final resting place. This service is surprising in that it’s free. More surprising is that they brought the body a couple hundred kilometers.
Prayers were said, hands were held upright with finger tips touching. This pose felt spiritual, a pose for receiving life energy not unlike some meditation gestures I’ve learned.
After a protracted silence, wailing by the widow, the imam, with a portable loudspeaker of terrible sound quality, said prayers over the body.
The men in the group, carried the body to the mosque. There, I shook hands with people and we murmured “Başına sağ olsun” (literally “health to your head”) to each other. This condolence is said among close relatives and distant acquaintances alike when someone dies.
Then I went along with the heard of men and lined up in the courtyard of the mosque, facing the body and Mecca for the cenazi namazı (funeral prayers).
All Turkish Muslim funerals contain some version of the following question/response:
Imam: Hakkinizi helal ediyor musunuz?
Congregation: Helal olsun!
This is a blessing given from the congregation to the deceased. While no exact translation exists, the imam is asking the people in attendance to accept and bless the deceased person, to proclaim before Allah that they have no claims against or misgivings toward the deceased, and will therefore not have any divine grudges, so to speak. It seems like a ritualistic letting go.
We stood. Hands held up, facing the deceased and Mecca. We then turned our heads to the left and right.
All the men then gathered for tea. After a hot cup in the crisp autumn sunshine, the casket was again picked up. The procession escorted it to its final resting place.
Close male relatives began digging the grave, which had already been started by workers. The casket was laid quite deep (though we have the expression “six feet under,” it’s surprising to see how deep below the headstone the casket is laid). After prayers, various male mourners empty a few ceremonial shovelfuls of earth were placed on the casket before the burying began in earnest.
We then returned to the house for some food prepared by neighbors. Helva — a mealy wheat dessert made with milk, water, butter and semolina — is a staple of Turkish funerals. A full meal is often served. In Alevi funerals, chicken/meat and rice and ayran are served. In Sunni funerals, many variety of foods can be served. I can say I enjoyed the best turşu (pickled vegetables) I have ever had.
An Alevi funeral in a Working Class Suburb
As deaths seem to come in bunches, a couple months later, another friend’s father passed on. Ercan, coincidentally, is best friends with Mehmet, which has proven to be cold comfort for their sharing of sorrows.
Alevi funerals can be said to be less orthodox, especially in terms of separating of the sexes. An imam similarly gives comforting words at an Alevi funeral, and say requisite prayers. Men and women are allowed to stand in line together for this. Post-funeral meals are eaten together as well. In my experience, the prayers said seemed quite similar, with head turning and hand gestures.
The biggest difference is perhaps that the alevi funeral takes place at a cem evi. The cem evi is a center of prayer, known as cem to alevis of the Haci Bektas order, and for sema, ritual dances a la the whirling dervishes. A cem evi is a bit like a neighborhood small town church and community center in the States, whereas the mosque is more like a cathedral. The cem evi is not officially considered a place of worship by the government, only sunni mosques are (that’s a controversial topic for another time.)
Cem ceremonies were done in old times done outdoors and with candles, and people gathered outside both outside and inside for this funeral. People often eat in cem evi. A cafeteria and bookstore were located in the cem evi I attended. Songs are sung and even a baglama is played at cem services, though there was no music at this funeral. Nefes, a bit like Christian hymns, are also sung during normal prayer times.
On this occasion, plain pide (flatbread) and ayran were distributed to the attendees, as was the usual helva. We offered our condolences. Then we went to a suburban cemetery for the burial. There was no formal procession, as the crowding and distances of Istanbul doesn’t seem to be conducive to walking processions.
The experience felt similar, though the plots for the dead were as crowded in as the plots for the living. I noticed in this graveyard that the average lifespans on even the recent headstones was less than 65 years, a reminder that this was a working class Turkish cemetery.
After Ercan’s father’s funeral, we went to kız kulesi (Maiden’s Tower). It was my first time in the iconic Istanbul landmark. Someone asked: should we have felt guilty about taking pictures and throwing them up on Facebook, since we just came from a funeral? Life’s short, mumbled. I guess the deceased would want to make sure we lived life fully.
The cemeteries of Turkey were a bit like Maiden’s Tower, which is a tomb in its own folkloric right. I’ve seen them from afar, never entered. I must have passed by cemeteries on busses thousands of times, yet never experienced them fully. But now I’ve entered and left both. And in their own completely different ways, experiencing them are reflections of a fuller life lived.
Basic Differences Between Sunni and Alevi Funerals
|n women and men pray separatelyn Only Arabic prayers are allowedn It’s called “cenazi namazi” funeral prayer.
n Takes place in a mosque
n Respects are paid to Prophet Muhammad.
|n women attend and are mixed during funeral prayersn If you have other prayers to say, you are welcome to pray in your own languagen Its called “cenazi toreni” or funeral ceremony
n Takes place in a cem evi
n Respects are paid to Muhammad, the Imam Ali and the other twelve spiritual successors to Mohammed.
October 7, 2014
The following tale, sworn to be true, was submitted by a group of four residents traveling from Kadıköy, down in the central flats of Istanbul County. Mr. Josiah Stufflebean was a schoolmaster at the local school house, teaching literature, wood culling, and bathtub energy drink brewing. His wife, Mrs. Merve Stufflebean, dabbled in supernatural witchcraft and pagan symbolism from the Orient, all whilst running the local soap factory. Their companions included, Mr. E.J. Mannix, who also taught Literature at Murat Ulker Divinity Normal School, and a one Mrs. Zeynep Mannix, who had ties to the League of Nations and worked with displaced Indians.
People who lived in the local Çanakkale region where the party of four was traveling had a proclivity for slaughtering sheep and goats and other livestock, disfiguring them first by decapitation, then hanging their bodies out in the sun for all to gawk at, dogs running around deliriously with their bones in their mouths.
They said it was all those bovine souls which crept up the side of Goose Mountain (Kaz Dağı) from the little towns in the lowlands joined forces to create a phantom seen only by only by mixed Turkish American groups: inexperienced campers, lambs for the slaughter, so to speak.
The party was camping at Ayazma, on the north face of Goose Mountain, which is about an hour and a half southeast of Çanakkale city by jalopy. It was late, Mr. Stufflebean was intoxicated on the homemade energy brew his students had concocted. The party went to sleep under a thick canopy of evergreen and oak trees, by a gurgling creek. The campers had an eerie feeling, periodically searching the woods by candlelight. Infamous Anatolian bears, hyenas and house cats were known to prowl in the wee hours.
The group reluctantly fell asleep, with one eye open, lulled by water over rocks. All was fine through the first few hours of that fateful night, the campers only leaving their tents to relieve themselves.
But…they say it’s always darkest before the dawn.
At five a.m. the phantom menace circled around Mr. Stufflebean’s tent, imploring him to “come out and plaaaaayy”. It threw pine cones branches hot dogs, books about country living, imitation marshmallows, and more, onto the tent.
“Hey!!” Mr. Stufflebean is reported to have shouted, wailing on the tent with his appendage. “What happened?” Mr. Mannix echoed in the local pidgin that maybe the local phantoms could understand.
At once, the machete wielding furry, spiked monster with six inch fangs and Satan’s red eyes retreated high up Goose Mountain.
Safe til the morning was the party, but no one could say when or where the phantom ghost of Goose Mountain would strike.
Shaken, searching for breakfast of fabled Ezine cheese, olives and pterodactyl eggs, the survivors of the ordeal lived to tell the tale the next morning.
Mr. Stufflebean: “We think we’ve discovered a way to protect ourselves from phantom invaders when camping. First you yell ‘Hey!’ in English and hit your own tent. Second, you yell ‘N’oldu?’ in case they don’t understand English. And we think this method will be effective for all campers.”
Mr. Stufflebean was the man for that place and time. The phantom, however, lurks in the shadows, waiting to exact revenge when the campers returned south to Goose Mountain…
To be continued…
September 17, 2014
On the morning of my wedding day I looked to the sky, searching for an omen. Black clouds, rain clouds, wind, sun, certainly they all have significance, right? The weather WAS a bit iffy, black clouds and wind, not too bad…yet. If it rains on your wedding day, that’s supposed to be lucky, right? But sunny skies are what you need for an outdoor wedding. Can’t have rain on the wedding day? Alanis Morisette now plays in my head. It’s like raiiyaiinn…on your wedding day! What? Really?
Chattering monkeys in your brain, Ezra, chill.
Waking up with mom and dad
My divorced mother and father both stayed at our small, hot (by American standards) apartment on wedding eve — and reminisced about their own marriage — but my future wife didn’t.
Around 9 am, I went out with mom to forage for some breakfast, which turned out to be some good and expensive su boreği. “It’s kugel, basically,” I told my mother, trying drawing a similarity between this Turkish breakfast food and its Ashkenazi Jewish, carb-filled cousin. You need protein, Ezra, I thought to myself, got a long day. It was windy. What does wind mean? Does it mean an unstable marriage? Winds of change? We are going to be on a boat! People’s hair is going to fly. Oh no!
You have it easy, Ezra. Your bride may be thinking all these things and wearing a lacey tent and a pound of makeup. I couldn’t help but feel bad for Zeynep, wondering how she was doing.
Bless Mehmet, Zeynep’s “witness” at the ceremony, my “father” at my engagement ceremony, and one of our best friends. He arranged to have our friend Cengiz pick us up at 11:30. As we had breakfast, I tried to remember all the things Mehmet said at the meeting the night before the big day: Make sure you have plenty of 5 and 10 lira notes, because kids will stop a wedding car festooned with flowers for a little extra coin. I knew kids asked for money on the street on a wedding, but didn’t know they’d risk life and limb to stop a car for it. Make sure to have a lot of cash on hand for other miscellaneous expenses. Tell the parents to sit all together at the ceremony…
It must have looked strange to see a man walking around at 10 am in a 1000 TL tux, going corner store to corner store, asking if people could break 50 and 20 TL notes. I wondered if they knew why. Turks often pick up immediately on these kinds of things.
Cengiz came and my mother, father and I loaded in the car for the drive to the parents’ house. We a bit late as per request from Mehmet, who was acting as the intermediary between bride and groom. In Turkish tradition, a brother is a gatekeeper at the bride’s home. He doesn’t let the groom pass until he doles out some cash to show…well, I’m not sure what it shows, a gesture of good faith I suppose. Mehmet told me to have 50s and 100s ready. Zeynep doesn’t have a brother, though, so the job fell to the cousin, Özgür. To our surprise there was no one stopping our way so we entered and sat down in their modest apartment, in Istanbul’s Maltepe district. Homemade Turkish börek (pastry) varieties greeted us, and some çay.
Then it happened. After the suspense, there she walked in to the living room. My bride. I could describe here her dress, her hair. But to me, she just looked like a bride. My bride. I cried.
She was nervous, asking me to play with her hair. We were pretending to talk, lips moving for raw footage that the videographer could put into a montage. After the first of seemingly endless photos, we made our way to her aunt’s wedding car. In Turkey wedding cars are draped in a large ribbon with a bouquet placed on the hood. When the bride and groom leave the house, everyone on the street claps and there is often a motorcade of several cars taking relatives to the wedding, horns blazing all the way.
We were off to the Wedding Factory. For those who don’t know, most couples married in Turkey are officially married in an evlendirme dairesi (official wedding call), usually in their local districts. A young population, a shortage of these district wedding halls, and a summer Ramadan means from May to September, couples are slotted one after the other at 15-minute intervals, an assembly line of life altering moments.
We were whisked to the bride and groom waiting room. Other couples were either coming up before us or entering back from their own wedding to catch their breaths and gathering their belongings. Zeynep’s hair guy graciously followed us around, touching up her quaff as needed. One bride was wearing a full body white dress and white hijab, another an open backed dress showing tattoos on arms and back. This is Turkey.
After a predictable snafu with our “waiting for the couple” music, we entered through what I thought was an elevator door, but was really the entrance door to the Star Trek Enterprise flight deck. We were greeted with hearty applause. The room is a glorified conference hall, with cushioned seats facing a table that looks set for a panel discussion more than a wedding. But this is a socialist, decidedly non-religious looking affair. In fact, religious weddings in Turkey have no legality.
The justice of the peace was a middle-aged bureaucrat. He asked me if I knew why I was there. I said, “I’m getting married” in an innocent, child-like tone, to a chorus of chuckles.
The official then states that upon inspection, we are deemed legally fit for marriage having jumped through all the hoops (to be described soon in a future post). We then sign a large official notebook, and then are given a 6-inch long booklet known as our aile cüzdanı, we stand up to applause. Then I unveiled my bride, and had our first kiss as a married couple. The witnesses on hand (you are allowed two, foreign or Turk, but foreigners must have a Turkish ID number) also gave their emphatic “evets”.
Off the stage, on with the procession
Then it’s your turn to be a prime minister greeting dignitaries! Your friends and family rush out to a foyer next to the ceremony hall. You stand there. People pin gold or cash on you or put it in a cloth bag. They kiss you and wish you happiness, pose for a photo, and get a small “door prize” for showing up (nikah şekeri, usually a chocolate or small ornament).
Relief was taking over. The burdens of all the ceremony started lifting. The fun was to begin. Some of the people in the procession were acquaintances of Zeynep’s mother and father. “Who was that?” I asked my wife while watching the amateurish wedding video after. “I don’t know, some friend of my fathers.” People you’ve never met dropping a 145 TL gold coin or pinning a bank note on your sash underscores the system of honor and reciprocation that is standard in Turkish weddings: when you go to a business associates niece’s cousin’s wedding, the unwritten rule is that they return the favor when your kid ties the knot.
After hundreds of kisses, well wishes, staring through a camera lens, as part of our American touch, Zeynep arranged to have rice thrown on us. The feeling of being showered by rice was a few seconds of unexpected bliss.
Before we could get into the car, our, the cousin standing in as the tough brother, made his appearance, blocking our way. Laughter erupted as I offered first a 5 TL note, then 10. Finally, 50 was enough to get us through the door and back to the car.
It was off to her parents’ house before changing and heading to a train station to get on a wedding boat. Where else can you do that!
At the late great Haydarpaşa train station
I was standing inside the glass-paneled door of the venerable, turn of the century Haydarpaşa train station, Zeynep was standing outside. We were mimicking each other’s slow hand gestures. Seeing each other so clearly, yet unable to touch each other, a metaphor for pre-marriage chastity, perhaps? Emre, our videographer, was taking shots for his montage.
Outside, the revelers were showing up, many of them our friends who didn’t come to the ceremony. At the nikah: older folks, business associates, pillars of the community plus family and the closest friends. At the boat party: younger folks, more friends there to have a good time with the newly minted couple…plus family and the closest friends. The average age must have dropped 10 years in about three hours.
As the wedding boat started to churn into view from the European side of the Bosphorus, One of Zeynep’s childhood friends then had an idea. “Look, I found this picture online,” Fırat said. In the picture were strangers all assembled on the grand steps in front of the train station, waving their hands. Everyone quickly assembled on the steps like a military marching band and hands were no sooner in the air for an iconic photo.
Then it was onto our pleasure craft, and a look to the skies. A group of unfriendly dark clouds scooted across the sky blocking out the sun and bringing a gust of wind with them Oh gods above us, what does this foretell?
We placed some valuables in the captain’s room and a semi-argument broke out. Nihan, Zeynep’s close friend from university and an extremely helpful uber planner, fretted about the next bit: another Americanism, the giving away of the bride by her father to the groom. So this church/synagogue/all-American church had to be adapted to our Turkish wedding by adding them to our boat reception. Nihan wasn’t sure how we were going to pull it off. Ideas sprang from different angles. Zeynep got frustrated and wanted to forget the thing all together. I went to stand in front of the boats deck. Then, Ahmet, Zeynep’s father (see my “I met Dad” post) came out with our woman, our song played, and all that wedding stress melted away.
“Look after her” Ahmet Baba whispered in my ear. Then John Lennon’s Imagine began to play. Our first dance. Our very own darling flower girl, 7-year-old Özgür’s daughter, Özgü, was our flower girl throwing petals in the air, we donned those classic Lennon round sunglasses.
Improvising, that national pastime of Turkey, worked out beautifully in our favor. During our dance, the sun came out low on the horizon for a brief, blissful moment before setting below Sultan Ahmet mosque, and I thought about all the things coming together at that moment: my love for my wife, the Bosphorus as the common vein uniting our cultures, and, of course, the golden late summer sun.
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
The sky gave us a good omen, if there ever were such a thing.
August 13, 2014
Turkey doesn’t have a lot of tidy consignment shops or well-publicized clothing charities like Goodwill, but if you are looking to donate some clothes, especially if you live in the Kadıköy area, at least one place that will gladly take them.
Açik Gardırop (Open Wardrobe) is a small, unassuming place run by Kadıköy Belediye’s (municipality) cultural and social projects directorate. It’s located in Fikirtepe, a poor neighborhood perhaps best known to outsiders as being home to the Salı Pazarı (Tuesday Bazaar). They will take any unwanted, but GENTLY used women’s, men’s and children’s clothing.
Every 10 to 15 days the local muhtarlıks (offices of district councilmen) of Kadıköy organize pick ups of the clothes for poor families and clothes are also given the homeless, according to one shop representative.
You are given a receipt (I’m not sure what I am going to do with mine, I don’t write these things off on my taxes here) and are on your way.
The easiest way to get there is by taxi (if you are carrying bundles of clothes). From the center of Kadıköy, it’s about 10 TL. If you are going by public transport, its conveniently located near the Uzunçayir Metrobus stop. After getting off, go down the stairs on the Fikirtepe side of the stop, turn right, and once you get through the underpass there is a path on the left which heads for Özbey Caddesi.
The address is 111 Özbey Caddesi. Drop off hours are The building can be seen from the highway. They close at 4:30 and are closed from 12 to 1 for lunch.
They also do pick ups, but when called, they said they’d come sometime in the next 10 days (but would call before they came).
The center does not accept books, but has a strong need for toys.
If you go on a Tuesday, you can pick up some cheap NEW clothes for future donation at the Salı Pazarı! Happy giving!
March 23, 2014
The statements above, which PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made, are lies, of course.
But when do lies stop mattering? It seems that PM Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has blurred the lines between lying and truth telling.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to matter for most of the Turkish populace. By campaigning all over the country in a blitzkrieg unrivaled by anyone else on hte national stage, the AKP has confirmed that it is still in power and is likely to win most of the key races in the March 30 local election.
Ever since bombs were dropped in the form of leaked wiretapped phone conversations between Erdoğan and his son surfaced, and since the blue bird “bombs” being dropped by Twitter users since the Twitter “ban” began a few days ago, Erdogan has seemed to stumble at the most inopportune time. Rumors are that he has cancer. A guy I played basketball with in Kadikoy today said “we will slap him right out of power, don’t worry.” But what tangible effect it will have on the outcome of the elections remains to be seen.
Are the Turkish local elections important?
With all this, it’s sometimes hard to forget that Tayyip isn’t even running for office. It’s just the local elections.
This begs the question: are the local elections important? While it is true that they are a barometer of national sentiment heading into national elections in 2015, they are more than that:“Nowadays local governments are also a significant laboratory of political life and a genuine springboard into national politics for successful leaders. Many current ministers and parliamentarians have served as mayors or held local government positions in the past, including the Prime Minister Erdogan, who was the former metropolitan mayor of Istanbul. –Al Jazeera Center for Studies
The study also highlights that local governments have taken a larger role in the social welfare of society, account for more than 30 percent of all infrastructure projects, and employ nearly 300,000 civil servants.
Is the silent majority still the majority? On the local level, it is for now. The government runs about 1,400 local municipalities, while the CHP and MHP combined control less than a 1,000. The mayoral elections in Istanbul and Ankara might be tight, but those in the smaller provinces around Anatolia still will go to the AKP.
Distracting ads and an international incident
Crafty marketing, a ruler ripe for the take down be damned, it seems that because of the dynamics of most voters here, there won’t be too much in the way of real change following the local elections — bluntly, the majority of the voting population is uneducated to just how much Erdogan and his cronies have gone off the deep end to suppress opposition.
On top of that, the time seemed to be ripe for a tangible distraction. Today, Turkish military has struck down a Syrian F-16 fighter jet on the border. Turkey says the plane crossed into Turkish airspace, Syria says it remained in Syrian airspace and that the event was a provocation.
This seems to be a last ditch distraction for a party that is nervous, despite its heady previous returns. The party has already stated that anything above its 38.8 percent it took in the 2009 local elections would be considered a victory. And, emotion aside, it would be a victory indeed for a party that has caught so much negative publicity to get anything more than 36 percent.
Another shrewd distraction was a recent AKP ad, a 3-minute patriotic tear jerker which shows Turks literally running from all corners of society to save a massive Turkish flag from falling off an impossibly high flagpole (the flag was cut down by a shadowy, faceless man). Using some CGI, the people are depicted literally piled on top of each other to reach high enough to save the flag.
AKP knows full well that the national flag and images of Ataturk cannot be used in political advertisements, but the government seems to want to start a national discussion — using their trademarked hubris — so as to get people to say “why not use the Flag in local elections! Those crying foul are unpatriotic! Let’s change this law! Good for Tayyip for having the will (irade) to change things!”
At the end of this illegal ad is a slogan that reads “The people will not be bent, Turkey will not be defeated” alongside a picture of Erdoğan.
The slogan isn’t a lie, but it’s going to take someone else in power to make it the truth.
Watch the controversial ad below: