Thursday, 20 November 2014

Turkish Delight: Grand Bazaar

(I traveled to Turkey for vacation during first half of July,2014. Following is an account of my experiences in Istanbul. This is the Eleventh installment of the series, focusing on a missed opportunity to visit Topkapi Museum and things I learnt about Turkey. I hope you enjoy it.)

Cumartesi, On Ikinci Temmuz
(Saturday, 12th July)

I had planned to visit Topkapi palace but as soon as I exited my hotel after breakfast, I felt intense pain in my upper back, just below the shoulder blade.I ignored it initially and took a morning stroll around the half-empty Isteklal Street. During the walk, I bought one of the only English-language newspapers published in Turkey (Today's Zaman) from a small store. During the walk, I noticed the inability to move my neck sideways. It was probably a strained neck muscle, so I visited the nearest Eczane (Turkey's answer to Walgreens) and got some painkillers. Thankfully, I was able to find the right tablets despite the language-barrier.  
I decided to continue with my plan and boarded the Taksim Tünel followed by a tram to Gülhane. I found Meltem and her fellow volunteers Gülhane station. They were guiding tourists about the Istanbulkart Refill machines. I spent almost 30 minutes assisting the volunteers. I wasn’t able to walk comfortable so I decided to postpone the Topkapi visit and walked towards Blue Mosque. My interest was piqued by a sign pointing to a place that used to be Hurrem Sultan's hamam. Initially I ventured towards the ladies' side of the establishment but I was then guided by a lady towards the entrance for gentlemen. At the entrance, I received a brochure for a ‘Royal Message Service’. It felt like a godsend but a) It was expensive and b) I wasn’t looking forward to jumping in the sauna with a loincloth.  
I continued my journey to to Blue Mosque’s gate A and caught up with Hatice and Bayzanur along with their fellow volunteers. Went inside the mosque and sat with Doğukan and Ahmet in the
Shady courtyard of the mosque. It was there that I learnt about traditional Turkish dishes from Sinem, and took some absurd photographs of different varieties of hair. Discovered that Today's Zaman is published by Gülen party sympathizers and they had started criticizing the Erdoğan government since the 17th December crackdown on Gülen sympathizers (Hizmet Movement) in judiciary and police.

I confessed to my volunteer friends that I had already tried etliekmek, kurimpi, simit, börek, patso, doner, Turkish delights, Turkish coffee and baklava among traditioal Turkish cuisine. They asked me to try Iskander, Mantı and Dolma apart from Turkish Pizza. Sinem and I talked about medical education in Turkey and she mentioned that Istanbul University was probably the best medical university in Turkey We also touched upon the cost of braces for teeth. As a former "sufferer" of braces, I empathized with her and reminisced about the difficulties faced by people in braces after eating any regular meal. She explained the education system of Turkey (8 years primary school, 4 years high school, entry exams and then University). I discovered that possessing a Turkish passport was only slightly better than having a Pakistani passport, as people with Turkish passports could only visit a handful of countries without visa.(Being a third world citizen really sucks!) We scattered on sight of Miss Cansu, the supervisor and landed near German fountain.

It was there that I had a good chat with Ertugrul (his name reminded of Chilean midfield player Arturo Vidal) about religion and politics (I learnt that ISIS was called "Ishit" in Turkey). He confessed about his "virtual relationship" with someone in Torino, Italy. Kaan joined us after a while.
We talked to a Ukranian family that wanted guidance regarding a place that was quite far from Fatih and the patriarch of that family was really funny. They were visiting from Kiev and supported the Euromaidan protests. They were amused by my reference to "the Chocolate King"(nickname of Ukraine's current President, as he owns chocolate factories). Kaan made a cheeky comment about him supporting Yanukovich (the deposed Ukrainian president who fled to Russia) which didn’t amuse them and they branded him a “risky boy”.

I was supposed to get a shoulder bag for my younger sister, so I sought help of Sinem in this venture.We walked to Grand Bazaar (called Kapali çarşı in Turkçe) with Kaan and Ertugral in tow. En Route, We encountered a very animated Turkish girl who knew three languages (Turkçe, Italian and Spanish with some knowledge of English). She was interested in our “group” due to the “Ask Me” shirts worn by volunteers. We did a grand tour of the Bazaar focusing on shop that sold bags but the prices were quite high, due to what Ertugrul called the "Grand Bazaar effect". Sinem informed that she could get bags of similar quality from market near her home.

As a last resort, we visited the nearby flea market and finally found a decent bag. On our way back, a restaurant worker recognized me as a Pakistani and tried to tempt me by offering Biryani with kebabs (I would’ve accepted his offer but I was not hungry and am a vegetarian anyway). On our way back, we had to make two stops as Sinem wanted to get bracelets for herself. During the return journey, we talked to a German couple from Dusseldorf who wanted to know directions to the Galata Bridge.

I wanted to get some balance charged in my account and wanted the volunteers to help me interpret it to the sales person. They took me to the nearest “Avea” franchise. To my surprise, one of the sales people was a former musician and knew Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan (one of Pakistan's finest Qawals/sufi musicians).I had to sing a stanza from NFAK’s "Dam Mast Qalandar" to convince him that I knew and revered Nusrat. I later roughly translated "Dam Dam Ali Ali" to the guy, who was pleased to entertain us.

Upon reaching the hippodrome, the group split up and I talked about Ataturk, his dictatorial tendencies and effects of "forced secularization" with Kaan and Ertugrul. We were approached by two boys doing a metropolitan survey regarding political choices in the upcoming Presidential elections. I encountered an ex-volunteer (she volunteered last year) named Rabia. She was studying English Literature at the university, favored socialism over the existing political system and had't read any socialist literature (which did surprise me). It was another day well-spent in Istanbul.

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Turkish Delight: Cuma Sermon/Football

New Mosque

Taksim Tunel
139 years of Taksim Tunel

Photo by Kaan, caption: "Depressed Turkey"

(I traveled to Turkey for vacation during first half of July,2014. Following is an account of my experiences in Ankara/Istanbul. This is the tenth installment of the series, involving my encounter with some Turkish teenagers working as volunteers and what I learnt from them. I hope you enjoy it)

Cuma, On Bir Temmuz
(Friday, 11th July)

I was back from Ankara. After a terrible scheduling issue and Istanbul’s heavy traffic, I had failed to make my flight to Cappadokia, and I had decided on the fly, to spend another day in my favorite city: Istanbul. I had a rough night on Thursday, half-awake and dizzy throughout. The breakfast was a low-key affair as usual. Having spent my previous week in a lavish hotel in Sultanahmet area, I had settled for a modest place this time in Asmali Mescit area. I started my day with a walk across Isteklal Cadessi towards the Tunel station, from where I boarded the Taksim Tunel to Karakoy.

From Karakoy, I took the tram to my favorite haunt, Sultanahmet. Upon arrival, I roamed around the half-empty hippodrome and ended up chatting with an Ask Me volunteer who was curious about Pakistan, particularly our (supposed) fascination with Tea.I taught her the recipe for milk tea(the variety that is common in Pakistan) and told her differences between Pakistani and Turkish cuisine. She couldn't understand why we used the bread (roti/ekmek) as a spoon to eat the curry/çorba/shorba. She also found it difficult to imagine lives of vegetarians and how they don't apparently have any variety in their food.She asked me if people in Pakistan consume tea more than water, as she had read it in some book. I replied in the negative but later discovered that it was the case in Central Asian Republics.

Afterwards, I met Kaan's friend Mustafa, who wants to write and teach history and Elif who wants to be a diplomat.I was delighted to talk to Elif as she is a wonderful person and her ambitions at such young age are impressive. We talked about some of my favorite topics from Turkish Politics: The main opposition party (CHP), Presidential candidate Mr. Ekmeleddin Ihsanoğlu, SOMA, usage of religion in politics and “Blasphemy of Ataturk”. We also discussed as to how the Turkish social structure is stacked against older people. Kaan showcased his photography skills with my camera, and I was impressed. It was almost ‘lunch’ time for the volunteers so I accompanied them to their office, where I encountered Mehmet, and did his “photo shoot”.   

While we were sitting outside Sultanahmet Camii (Mosque), the Juma/Cuma sermon started. Elif was kind enough to translate it for me. The Imam (Hatip) talked about marriage and finding a well-educated wife with a job and to beware of apparently "perfect" proposals, that there should age difference between bride and grooms, some spiel on dating and even mentioned 'tourists from pakistan' in some context that was not apparent.I was pleasantly surprised to hear such ‘progressive’ views from the pulpit, having been accustomed to hearing utter drivel during most Juma sermons in Pakistan.  

The pleasantness was short-lived as the Hatip switched to English in the final part of his speech. He railed against many aspects of modernism and how latest technologies are driving people to loneliness. He mentioned refugees from Syria and that they should be helped, ended with "May Allah Help muslims in gaza, east Turkestan, and Myanmar".

I moved near Hagia Sophia after the prayers where I met another Mustafa and my favorite volunteer: Özge. I discovered that Mustafa was also a football fanatic like myself and I learnt a lot from him. We discussed major Turkish football clubs, Turkish football league and its structure, famous players who played for Turkish teams, nicknames of supporters of Istanbul’s big three(Galatasaray=Lions, Fenerbahçe=birds, Beşiktaş=Eagles), Coldplay, English Premier League, Merlin, Turkish wimmens and much more. He was studying to become an interpreter and wanted to move to the UK after studies. Upon his insistence, I tried Simit (a Turkish snack) for the first time. It was a chocolate Simit and was probably a bit dry for my taste. We sat on the steps facing Hagia Sophia, between Million Stone and Basilica Cistern, till the time for departure of volunteers arrived. I spotted Mehmet again and took some more snaps for the “Behlul look-alike album”.

On my way back, I finally gave in to the temptation and indulged myself by getting a new cover of the iPhone (which as I later discovered, was too expensive). During my daily stroll around Isteklal, I decided to try "Kumpir" for dinner, which is basically a baked potato stuffed with different toppings. It was actually quite tasty. While walking back to my hotel, I witnessed that the impromptu musicians that throng Isteklal Street hide their instruments as the police approaches.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Turkish Delight: Disappointment

(I traveled to Turkey for vacation during first half of July,2014. Following is an account of my experiences in Ankara/Istanbul. This is the ninth installment of the series, involving an aerial journey to Istanbul and a missed flight to Cappadokia. Later I hung out with a Kurdish fellow and had a jolly good time. I hope you enjoy it)

I woke up fairly early on my last day in Ankara and was ready to get down to the airport by 8 am. My Turkish friend Yigit had promised to pick me up on his way to the airport. My flight was supposed to leave at 9:30 am. Yigit picked me a bit later than we expected him. I bid my Pakistani friend goodbye and thanked him profusely for his hospitality.

During our long journey to the airport(which is quite far from downtown), we had a good chat.I told Yigit about the number of cousins I had and how my mother used to cook when we hosted an annual party, about population explosion in Pakistan and how the population of only Punjab province is larger than whole population of turkey. We also talked about conspiracy theory culture in Pakistan and turkey (his master’s thesis was on conspiracy theories while I have written about this topic for many years). We reached the Ankara Airport just in time for me to check-in at the last moment. Pegasus airlines has the cutest pre-flight instruction videos, involving kids only. I wish more airlines used a "human" touch like that. The flight went seamlessly and I was at Sabiha Gökçen Airport, Istanbul by 10:15 am. I later discovered that “Sabiha Gökçen” was the name of Ataturk’s adopted daughter who was a fighter pilot. The airport is located almost 55 Kilometers away from Ataturk Airport from where I had a flight booked for Cappadokia. I was supposed to be there within 2 hours till the check-in counter closed. I had two options: Either take the Havataş bus service which left from Sabiha Gökçen to Taksim every 30 minutes and took almost 1.5 hours, or I could take a Taxi which would’ve cost more but was supposed to be faster.When I exited the airport, the 10:30 Havataş shuttle was full so I could either wait for the 11:00 am bus (and pay 19 TL) or ride into one of the Taxis.
I chose the later option and took the first available Taxi out of Sabiha Gökçen. I was unfortunate because the driver didn’t understand English and my Türkçe was not good enough to get across my message. I asked him to drop me off at the nearest Tram stations (which, in any case was pretty far) but he took me to Kabataş. The roads were very crowded and it took us almost 80 minutes to reach Kabataş station. His meter showed 85 TL, but he charged me 96 TL due to some stupid reason. I was in too much hurry to argue with him at that point. I recharged my Istanbulkart and took the Tram to Yusufpaşa from where I took the Aksaray-Havalimani line. In hindsight, I should’ve changed the trams at Zeytinburnu but I was in full panic mode at that time. The tram reached Ataturk International Airport at 12:26 pm. I ran like crazy towards the Domestic Departures lounge which is on the second floor. By the time I arrived at the check-in counter, I was 10-15 minutes late and check-in counter had been closed. I talked to a Turkish Airlines representative who informed me that I had lost the flight and my only option is to get a new ticket from their office.

I found Turkish Airline’s office on the same floor and waited for almost 40 minutes before I got a chance to exchange my ticket at the counter. I was informed that I had to pay 200 TL if I wanted the ticket on next flight to Cappadokia. I had previously paid the same amount for a return ticket and this felt too expensive (considering that I was looking forward to an air-balloon ride which cost almost 350 TL). I pondered over my options for a moment and decided that it was too much of an investment, and asked for a refund. I got 93 Liras back and I walked away dejected. I had gotten hotel booking through my Iranian friend in Istanbul but this was an unexpected turn of events so I decided to call my friend and get the reservation for another night. With a heavy heart, I strolled back and took the tram. I was extremely tired after the panic-ride on taxi and tram followed by the airport hassle. On my way to Isteklal (where my new Otel was based), I decided to take a detour of Sultanahmet and catch up with my new friends, the Ask Me volunteers. I had missed them immensly during the Ankara visit. I grabbed a Tavuk Doner from a nearby shop and reached the Hippodrome arena. I met Doğukan, Ahmet and some other volunteers near the entrance of Old Bazaar. I recounted my tragic tale of missing the flight due to terrible traffic and how I decided to stay another day in my favorite city.
After spending an hour or so with the volunteers, I collected my luggage and took the tram to Karakoy and the Tunel from there. My next hotel was located in Asmalimescit Cadessi, at walking distance from Isteklal. I was welcomed in the hotel by the reception guy with an impromptu rendition of "Jeevay Jeevay Pakistan"(means Long live Pakistan, a famous anthem back home). I was allotted a room on the 4th floor and thankfully, there was Wi-Fi availability in the room. I rested for a while and then decided to take a detour of Isteklal Cadessi.  

On my way back from Taksim I square I found the stall of a socialist party (it had a long name which I don’t recall but their flag called for promotion of socialism, income equality and feminism). They didn't have anyone there with English language skills so a Kurdish guy became my interpreter. They showed me their newspaper (more of a newsletter actually) and despite the language barrier, were quick to dissociate themselves from "Turkish Communist Party". Later on, I accompanied the Kurdish guy across Isteklal and we ended up having a long conversation about Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and Iraq.He told that he was studying cinema at Erbil University and was working in the youth and culture ministry of KRG. He was in Istanbul to work in a stage production. One was his brothers was in the Peshmerga force (KRG's national army) and he showed me a lot of pictures of Peshmagras and himself in a Peshmerga outfit (as he had portrayed them in a drama).
He mentioned the natural beauty of Erbil, KRG's capital and how victims of chemical weapons (used during the Saddam era) were still suffering from the after-effects. He emphasised his strict dietary habits (lots of water, some fish, oranges and lemon juice) because he wanted to stay fit as an actor. We talked a bit about situation of Turkish and Iranian cinema during which I name-dropped Antonioni, the only legendary producer I had heard of, from some film aficionado friends. 
He used the word "very" quite a lot and had difficulty in explaining some terms but my cursory knowledge of Arabic was enough to keep us away from a communication blockade. We shared contact information and had Turkish coffee at a chic coffee place in the Galata area.

I finished the wonderful evening by having an "Aaloo paratha" at an Indian restaurant run by Turkish owners. They were playing Bollywood songs in the background, probably to emphasize their "Indian connection". I had a lot of difficult sleeping that night (despite my tiredness) because of strong Turkish coffee. I chatted with a Pakistani friend who was visiting the United States in those days and a Greek friend who told me about “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response”, a technique to help insomniacs. It probably helped and I finally slept around 3:30 am.