The respectable Istanbul hotel is no longer so cheap, and the small sign is now in handwritten Arabic, but I still don't know what it means! And in other ways I continue to fail Turkey. Still have next to zero listening comprehension, although I am at last beginning to detect accents. This vowel-harmony thing is overstated. I think Turkish has vowel harmonies and every region picks its own, or dispenses with it entirely, or - why not? - just uses one vowel! The guy who sold me the bus ticket from Taşucu to Adana might've picked just "ü": from his business card he read off the names of the companies whose buses might show up at one o'clock and while the consonants in "Akdeniz" and "Metro" were clearly all there and in that order, the letters in between were a total surprise. Without that business card as a kind of script, I could not have made out what he was saying, even with such short words.
On one of my first two visits to Turkey, in 1992, the clerk in the Ankara hotel told me he was from Rize, way over near the Georgian border, and said thereabouts the accent was different, and I had to take his word for it and still do. But I sure hope no one is still taking my word for what Turkey was like. On this trip - ostensibly to Northern Cyprus, and had I been willing to stay awake 'til the final minute of my 57th birthday rather than check right into a hotel after the long scenic ride in from Antalya, I could have caught a ferry there - I was mainly just embarrassed at how poorly I was still doing with Turkish and perforce with Turks. At least I could see how much the country had changed, and how outdated a lot of my early impressions were. I think I can and should list those. Specifically I can and should make three lists, of things which are scarcely encountered anymore, things which are now much more common, and things whose incidence has stayed about the same.
I am fond of telling myself, when feeling mildly discontented with the world I find myself in, "It's 1492 and you want to be an astronaut." Meaning, of course, in 1492 you couldn't be an astronaut, but you could leap into seemingly empty space on other explorations and enterprises, and those would soon prove far more significant than anything astronauts have ever done. I wonder if any Turk uses 1992 in a similar way, feeling stuck in that year and wanting to do something that would have been impossible that year, yet must admit that he could have done other things that year which over the ensuing two decades turned out to be much smarter and better. Unable to quiz Turks, or understand 'em if I did quiz 'em, I have no idea. But I do sense that 1992, give or take, as grim as that period had looked, was really a special time. I hope it was!
Enumerating things that Turkey now has more of, or is in one way or another more superlative at, I'll just blurt it out because there aren't many things, a blurt-length emission should suffice, and anyway it's mostly just shopping. They got it in Turkey. In Afyon I was going to amuse myself by asking, "Afyon'da afyon var mı?" or "Is there opium in Afyon?" but even on the outskirts of town I could see the joke would sail by everyone: there were billboards for a big shopping mall called Afium. I believe the locals have embraced the wordplay.
I don't think I saw Afium; at least the malls the bus blew by didn't display that name. The only reason I don't call Afyon a shopping mecca is not that I fear anyone would take offense at that wordplay but that Istanbul and Antalya appeared likewise saturated with really huge shiny outlets. In 1992 it was evident to me that Turkey was a place to shop but only in a miserable, better-than-nothing way, strictly for ex-Soviets. Certainly back then, if I came across the Turkish words for "wholesale and retail" (toptan & perakende) at all, it was at nowhere near the frequency I was seeing them now.
Apart from shopping, though, the only things I now detected more of in Turkey were Israel news and healthy cats. Being incompetent at the business of interviewing Turks, I cannot tell that any actually cares about Israel, but news media, or the government that feeds them, sure seem to. I have no idea why. Speaking of ferries, and in view of the wildly inaccurate online information I got on the Northern Cyprus one, maybe I shouldn't believe websites that say there is service between Turkey and Israel, a trip I think I'd like to take. But back in 1992 Turkey showed a mature calm toward the place, maintaining diplomatic relations, never getting loopy like Arabs. I do not know why anyone's getting exercised now.
As for the cats: there had always been cats visible in Turkey. Except when I saw an old man in Erzurum stroking an evidently ill one stretched out on a chair, I guessed they were all strays. They'd never looked skinny - "independently fat on garbage and vermin I presume, though there was little of either in this country," so I'd written in 1992. I think in 2014 they're still all that, only it's clear now they're being fed. They were used to people; they didn't run away; some let me scratch their grateful little heads. Near the Aksaray subway station in Istanbul, in an area which should be called Livertown for all the restaurants promising or threatening the stuff - there's even an eatery called, in Turkish, Liveristan - some cats were eating red glop which had been tossed to them. Near the Eminönü boat landing I saw cat food strewn, presumably by local merchants. Cat food!
They have cat food in Turkey. That has got to be new. They even have dog food in Turkey. On the plane from Adana back to Istanbul I attempted the inflight-magazine crossword puzzle, and one of the clues was "One kind of dog food." Man, I am impressed Turkey has more than one. And they've named 'em too!
Reviewing my list of Turkish features which seem not to have changed over the last 22 years, I suppose there might be detected an Islamic theme. I myself am skeptical: I still think that if there were no Islam, Turks would still act as they do. Well, they wouldn't have anywhere near as many muezzins; I'll admit that. Technically, though, the Muezzin-Disregarding Rate would remain close to 100%. They get on their loudspeakers and briefly moo five times a day, and I have never seen anyone paying any attention at all. Turkey has a Religious Works Ministry; I suppose the guys are on the government payroll.
Beer distributorships were and still are sparse. I could never not get it; but then as well as now I had to walk a ways to find a shop or kiosk that was selling it. There was and is nothing furtive to the transaction. You see the beer right there on the shelf or - this is new - in a cold case, you ask for it, they sell it to you. I have never seen anyone besides myself buy beer, or wine or liquor, which are likewise available. Turks are minimally interested. Alcohol* just doesn't correspond to anything social, or ceremonial, or silly, or serene, or melancholy, or mature, or familiar, or fun. It strikes me now that the concept of "tailgating" would make a Turk's head explode, not out of religious outrage, but simply because everything about it was utterly unimaginable. Beer. Brats. Hardly anybody smoking. And it ends when the game starts.
Gas stations always had mosques attached; big shiny new roadside rest-stop operations also have mosques attached. In all cases these can't be much more than chapels, and in no case have I seen anyone coming or going. A sign in a men's room said one should be washing his feet not in these sinks but back in the mosque. Got it. I am there.
Signs in Arabic remain rare, about as rare - and possibly as recondite - as signs in Russian. Neither language would be familiar to Turks. Such Russian ones as I could decode said "bank" or "pharmacy" or "exchange"; few were by any means verbose. Arabic ones might be, but I think every one I've ever seen was either right on the southern border or in Istanbul. The latter often had m-k-t-b in them, but that just means "office" and these were above offices. Such as are handwritten and wordy are probably as functional and unsanctimonious as what would be in a hotel lobby. No smoking, unregistered guests, or unrolled prayer rugs in the elevator...that sort of thing.
I don't know if "diversity" has hit Turkey yet but if it did, who could tell? Turkish female attire has always been diverse. If you're the sort of person who hates everything stale-pale-male, you will agree, and if you're the sort of person who hates how "diversity" no longer means simply "natural variety" but "government-enforced racism," you will still agree. What Turkish females wear was and still is anything-goes. I have seen in recent years more news stories with başörtüsü (headscarf) in them, as if these were potent symbols - on this trip I learned from a sports page about a female soccer ref being allowed to wear hers, which she'd probably need to do anyway just to keep her hair out of her eyes - but again I can't tell that anyone is compelled in any way to wear or not wear the things. I do idly wonder, though, if the vertical-black-bodybag look, which has remained stably infrequent but definitely nonzero over the years, occasions some holier-than-thou exasperation. I'd guess not. To me the modern standard of religious fury is environmentalism, and unless someone screeches at me through her black mask to recycle my beercans - or, for that matter, some muezzin climbs down off his minaret to lecture me on sustainability - I'd say Turkey has over the past 22 years preserved a civility the U.S.A. could be losing.
There are many things Turkey now has less of. Or are less conspicuous to me now. Like Atatürk quotes - where the heck did they all go? They can't have been taken down! I feel certain I was not dreaming them back in 1992. 'Course I spent much more time in eastern Turkey back then - maybe that makes a difference. I would not be surprised however if Turkey has turned a corner. This trip spanned November 10, the day of Atatürk's death, and I can tell you what everybody wasn't doing at 9:05 AM, the time of day at which the man passed and supposedly still occasion for a moment of motionless silence nationwide: everybody wasn't motionless and silent. My Istanbul-Afyon bus was pulling out of the station at that instant, and so were all the others.
What else has gone, or is going? Prayer beads - saw 'em all the time in '92, was even given a set by a friendly Kurd in Tatvan, and now I wonder where mine and everyone else's are. People stationed on sidewalks with bathroom scales, offering to weigh me - saw that exactly once on this trip. Kids hailing me with "Hello hello OK Alman" - as unstinting and as mindless as truckers honking at my bicycle in Brazil, only they'd probably still do that while Turkish kids have completely settled down.
Everybody seems to have settled down, or perhaps in, like into a groove, a busy one. The first Islamic country I visited was Egypt in 1983, and the first thing I noticed was all the idle males, hordes of 'em. Later on that trip, I'd notice the same in the Sudan. I noticed it first thing in Turkey in 1992, and first thing in Azerbaijan too, as briefly as I'd been over the border. For all those reasons, I had long maintained that this was the most interesting and important thing about the Islamic world, that it wasn't necessarily connected to Islam, that what these people suffered from was some profound character defect that likely no religion could cause, and that if you failed to notice this then I for one had to wonder what, if anything, you had noticed at all.
Well, I'm not wondering that anymore, because it's clear my early sightings aren't valid anymore.
Most of what I did sight in 1992 was on, or from, trains. Naturally I did not gauge idleness - I did get off the train for that! - but on Turkish Railways, I did perceive quite a lot of other things. On this all-bus trip I did not perceive all those things, though I do believe that has little to do with the form of transport and more to do with Turkey itself having changed. In 1992 military service was compulsory; in 2014 it still is; yet back then I was constantly asked how I'd got out of it and this time nobody asked at all. Back then it was assumed all countries had compulsory military service; maybe Turks are much better informed, or a little more imaginative, about the outside world. In any case I suspect I confused everybody back then: I kept phrasing it literally as to-me military-service necessary not (Bana askerlik lazım değil) rather than to-us military-service obligatory not, (Bize askerlik mecbur değil) so they probably all thought my father's uncle's uncle knew the Governor and I was on a squash court when my butler handed me the telegram confirming that I'd been declared 4-F.
Then again, would such a well-connected person be riding Turkish trains? I had certainly surprised Turks then, but I wasn't doing that now. Back then, I was asked if I was an artist or if my family was dead - Turks couldn't imagine any other circumstances under which a guy would just travel. It may be that on Turkish trains right now, fellow passengers would still be surprised and ask such things. But there aren't that many Turkish trains right now; I saw none; and from TCDD's website, I get the idea the emphasis is now on high-speed, relatively luxurious service. In Istanbul, I took a boat from Catfood Landing over to Haydarpaşa, just to visit the train station where I'd first arrived in this great city. The station was perfectly clean and in excellent repair, but I saw no trains or passengers. Just a bride and groom, being photographed in the beautiful main hall.
I'm sorry the trains are gone, but I begrudge Turks nothing. I believe their country has very much improved with time.
*Since I've got on the subject of alcohol, I will take this opportunity to marvel, once again, at how Atatürk drank himself to death. He did. Died of cirrhosis at age 57. Both the English and Turkish Wikipedia entries for him make it sound as if he simply caught it. From what little I've been able to find out, he drank openly, and his lieutenants made sure not to carry out orders he issued after he was too intoxicated to notice. I like to imagine that if anyone ever took him to task, he said, "Hey! This is part of my legend!" Even though it isn't, at all.
© 2014 J.A.Hutter