Sunday, December 16, 2012
As the end of my time is drawing nearer, I’m having trouble articulating my appreciation for Turkish culture and traditions in words. My feelings get lost in translation. There’s so many stories I want to write about, both personal and impersonal, and so many things I wish I could document through more deserving methods than photos. But nothing has the capacity to sufficiently recreate good times except for things that allow you to only have greater times. Shifting energies from trying to replicate and duplicate, to just create. And trying my best to absorb it with all my senses, and preserve it the best way I can.
Today we decided to pay the Asian side a visit and tour Kiz Kulesi, known as the Maiden’s Tower, a popular attraction in Asian Istanbul. It has been sitting on an island just a few meters from the Asian coast since the medieval Byzantine period. The tower opened up in 2000 for public visitation and is now home to a café, restaurant, and an observation deck. This tower has 2 legends that I will try to eloquently sum up for you:
Legend 1: There was once a sultan and he had a beautiful young daughter. It was prophesized that a sultans daughter would be killed on her 18th birthday by a venomous snake bite. In effort to protect his daughter and cheat her death, he had the tower built to protect her. For 18 years he was her only visitor. On her 18th birthday, he brought her baskets of fruits to celebrate overcoming her ill-fated prophecy, but a snake had come in with the fruit and bit the princess. She instantly died in her father’s arms.
Legend 2: The cheesier, less believable and more Bollywood legend has origins in Greek mythology. The Goddess of Love, Aphrodite, had a priestess named Hero who lived in the tower, and a man named Leander fell in love with her. He would swim across the water to see her every night guided by the light of her lamp shining in the window. One night there was a storm and the light was blown out from the wind. Leander lost his way and his body washed up at the bottom of the tower in the morning. In heartbreak and unable to cope with her grief, Hero threw herself out of the tower.
So which do you think is true? I can’t say, they’re both pretty bizarre.
After returning from Kiz Kulesi, we decided to join Turks of every age, shape, and size on the seaside. We enjoyed a little hot drink and watched the sun do a magical dance in the sky as dusk came upon us. We were seeing Istanbul from a contrasting lens today, a completely new dynamic—Asia to Europe not Europe to Asia. We rested along the Bosphorous on blocked, concrete steps covered with Turkish floor cushions (a genius idea, by the way). I was sipping on my çay which was serving dual purposes. First to make me appear more culturally well-rounded because it’s almost chic to be sitting outside in the cold with a cup of çay in hand. And secondly, to warm up my lifeless fingers with the heat radiating from the wall of my cup. Yesterday shared a similar sentiment as my friend and I sat outside Sulemaniye Çami post-jummah and sipped on cups of tea while our teeth were chattering, observing all the congruous activities around us.
Those who know me, also know I’m not keen on drinking much tea nor am I reliant on any kind of hot drink to get me through the day unless some condition proves otherwise. Now that I’m 21, a legitimate but poor excuse for an adult, elders ask me if I want some tea. I almost always respectfully decline, and the response to my rejection is a look of surprise or what I’ve interpreted as blatant judgment. I guess it births some notion that since I don’t drink tea, then I probably can’t make a good cup of it either, which means I lack a very fundamental cultural skillset. Well, for the record: I make a great cup of tea.
Coming from a culture where drinking tea is a naturalized ritual and a symbolic part of daily life, I didn’t think the fervent Turkish drinking culture would be much of a shock. I know all there is to know about various teas thanks to my mom who taught me at a very early age that Lipton is a sad excuse for “tea.” In fact, we’ve been importing our tea from England for as long as I can remember, and continue to do so whenever an opportunity presents itself. But Turkish tea has really won me over and I’m happy about it.
Turkish tea is a whole other story, contrary to what you may think. Firstly, Turkish tea is nothing like the “colonized” version of tea that most people are familiar with. All you Indians and Pakistanis out there: you only drink your çay with milk because that’s how the British taught you. Turkish tea comes from customary Ottoman lineage and is brewed much differently than conventional methods. It’s a black tea, but even if you’re a staunch milk-tea drinker you’ll come to love it with a cube or two of beet sugar and no milk
çay (prounounced chai), is served uniformly in nearly every public establishment. Whether you’re taking a little extra time browsing in a jewelry store or sitting on the street corner waiting for a friend, there’s always a little time for a sip or two of Turkish heritage. Slurp. Served before meals, after meals, between meals, in place of meals, çay is everywhere. In areas with dense tourist and pedestrian populations you’ll probably see a man carrying around a tray of freshly prepared çay to satisfy your instant çay demands on quicker than short notice.
My first time having Turkish çay was in a small alley right off the street in Sultan Ahmet the day after I arrived. I was sitting on short Turkish stool made of straw, excited to embark on my first çay drinking experience like a real Turk. I won’t lie, I didn’t like it but drank it anyway because it seemed like a necessary culinary accessory to have on your table at all times. Overtime, ordering a çay became my mechanism to get the Wi-Fi password at many cafes. Unknowingly I developed a peculiar attachment to it, something I didn’t foresee happening at all. This begins the first reflection of many things I’ll undoubtedly miss about Turkish culture: tea time (which ironically doesn’t even exist because it’s tea time is all the time).
Of course, just like any custom, çay also has many deep cultural and traditional facets. Among the most important is a gesture of hospitality. It’s typically served in the arrangement of an ornately decorated slim glass, a matching saucer, and a small teaspoon. They say the glass should be thin and delicate like the waist of a beautiful lady (scandalous, huh). Anyway, all this got me thinking of the good moments and hearty laughs I’ve had with a cup of çay in hand on countless occasions. The warmth of drinking a cup of çay is unparalleled. I feel invincibly warm both inside and out. Today I watched people sharing news, joys, and laugh upon laugh over cups of çay with a peaceful Bosphorous as a backdrop. Deliberations, introductions, discussions, and relaxation can all seamlessly take place with a cup of çay. The drink emits a sense of congeniality and goodwill. It brings you together and breaks the ice. It’s a ritual people have shared for generations and that’s where the beauty of it stems from. Plus, its versatility is boundless, a pallete cleanser and a medical agent? Oddly enough, I’ve started liking kiwi tea. It tastes like hot kool-aid and has a funky green shade.
Another thing I’ve acquired a taste for over the months is Turkish coffee, which has a taste unlike any coffee I’ve had. Every Tuesday I have a sculpting class that I enrolled in for kicks and giggles. Overtime, I’ve come to be rather impressed by my work and surprised how therapeutic/fun sculpting can be even if you don’t have any innate artistic talent. Over these 14 weeks I’ve definitely developed a reverence for sculpture, and more broadly for art. As we sculpt, my teacher always prepares us small cups of Turkish coffee. Turkish coffee and fortune readings go hand in hand. Upon finishing your coffee, the saucer is supposed to be placed above the cup and then turned face down immediately then left to cool. Someone other than the drinker is supposed to lift the cup from the saucer and interpret the pattern that forms inside as it is supposed to trigger some kind of psychic insight. Although elaborate Turkish coffee fortune telling is seen as a right of passage, most people only reveal the positive revelations. They’re called “soothsayers.” The cup is divided in to horizontal halves. The bottom half share messages from the past and the top half from the future. One of my classmates told me that the right side with the handle will tell you about your family, and the left side tells you about your love life.
Being the periodic klutz that I am, I usually end up forgetting to turn my coffee cup over to cool, which leaves me with an empty fortune. My teacher always laughs, shakes her head and says “Ufff, Zareen” disapprovingly. The Turkish students have even gotten used to this reoccurring mistake that seems almost habitual. In my defense, I’m usually dealing with a clay crisis so fortune-telling is lower on my priority list. But this Tuesday I’m determined to do it right. I’m pure entertainment in this class, I know they all enjoy seeing the only America kid make a fool of herself time and time again. They’ll miss me when I’m gone.