$18.95True Stories

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By James Villers Jr.
September 2002
ISBN 1-885211-82-1 320 pages


Turkey is quite literally the bridge between Europe and Asia, Christianity and Islam, and is an ideal springboard for understanding the Islamic world because it is culturally Islamic but also an avowedly secular state. Travelers’ Tales Turkey unveils this dramatic land through stories that range from whimsical to profound. Notable authors include: Robert D. Kaplan, Tim Cahill, Bruce Feiler, Mary Lee Settle, Jeremy Seal, Nicholas Shrady, Tim Ward, Stephen Kinzer, and many more. From cosmopolitan Istanbul to villages where people have never heard of America or England, the writers in this collection reveal Turkey as a place with a rich history (think Troy, Ephesus, Gallipoli, St. Paul, Kemal Ataturk), exceptional hospitality, engaging traditional culture—including Sufi mystics—and diverse landscape dotted with the ruins of antiquity.

I tell you truly,
everything you now see
will vanish like a dream.
—RUMI, “From Box to Box”
Rumi was not a Turk by birth, but he whirled to spiritual fame in Konya, an ancient Turkish Islamic capital. He is recognized as a mystic (the founder of the order of dervishes) and poet, and, as such, his verse is meant to touch the spiritual voyager in all of us. His words on the intangibility of dreams strike me as paradoxical, a reminder of the illusory nature of time and of the impermanence of human creation, but also of the importance of the immediate. Never mind these mundane struggles, Rumi seems to be telling me; but pay close attention to your surroundings, nevertheless.

His words seem particularly relevant to the subject of these stories: Turkey and its inhabitants. Journeys so often lead us to profundities, in any case, deeper ways of thinking than we’re accustomed to in the everyday. Why not flip the process? Let’s begin this journey with Rumi’s universal truth in mind, a truth that’s applicable to the subject in more ways than one.

Turkey is shockingly timeless; all around the country, from mountains to plains to coastline, it’s impossible not to step into the currents of past, present and future. It is ancient, young, and not yet born. The cradle of civilization—the river basin of the Tigris and Euphrates—lies within its borders; countless cultures have trod its shores and plains, leaving behind no more than layers of crumbling ruins and echoes of whispered voices. Modern Turkey, however, born as recently as the 1920s, still struggles to find its true nature; positioned at the crossroads between Europe and the Middle East, it teeters from one way of life to the other, swayed by the forces of politics, religion, tourism, and television. And this precarious balance gives rise to a question pertaining to Turkey’s unknown future: Which way will the country swing in the coming years, and how will this color the lives of its inhabitants, world neighbors, and curious visitors?

I didn’t know much of Turkey before I left to go there. Nor did my friends or family. When I shared the news that I’d gotten a job in Istanbul and would soon be moving, the most prevalent comment made by people was, “Have you seen Midnight Express?

The question was never asked in genuine fear for my safety. At least I don’t think it was. Still, there’s something a bit strange in the question coming up at all, because many of those who asked the question hadn’t even seen the film. I certainly hadn’t, and, what’s more, I absolutely refused to see it before I left. I didn’t want any sort of nightmarish Hollywood vision clouding my perception of a place I hadn’t yet seen.

The point seems to be this: enough people I talked to had long-lasting negative impressions of Turkey based on the 1978 film, whether they’d seen it or not, that I refused to see it. How many others in the West have avoided Turkey based solely on this film?

Turkey is not the land of Midnight Express. As certain of these stories attest, brutal acts have been perpetrated within its borders, but Turkey’s shadows are no different from any other country’s, developed or not.

I had been in Turkey—in a strange suburb near Istanbul—for exactly fourteen days when the first major 1999 earthquake hit; my new job as a teacher was to start that very week. It was approximately 3 a.m., and I was awake when the shaking started. As habituated to earth tremors as I am after nearly a lifetime in California, I wasn’t ready for the violence of this upheaval. The rocking was long and strong, and it gathered in force over a full forty-five seconds. I leaped from the sheets, and stood, shakily, in my bedroom doorway until the trembling stopped.

Even with the intense fright—deeper than any I’d ever known—I still might have climbed back under my covers; it’s what I always did back home, whenever we felt tremors.

The voices of my neighboring Turks, however, lifted up from the outside and in through my open window. Looking out, I saw them filing out from our apartment building and the ones nearby, to huddle together in and around the playground. I watched the growing crowd, heard the incomprehensible murmurs (nothing in view had crumbled—unlike the devastation in Izmit and Avcilar, thirty or so miles away—and so the crowd didn’t seem at all panicked), and became convinced that the people down there knew something I didn’t. I descended to join my neighbors, to await any aftershocks or news.

After two years in their midst—as friend to some, stranger to most, observer of all I came across—I’m now positive that Turks know many things that I do not. How to make the most of any open patch of grass, for example, or how to profit from a sunny day (first step, go outside, no matter what kind of landscape you find yourself in). Lingering over breakfast is an art, particularly on a weekend. Soccer is a religion (albeit, a gender-centric one; but men also embrace warmly, and kiss each other on the cheeks when they meet). Bread is considered sacred, and never thrown out (in Istanbul, the hard, inedible ends are left outside for the numerous street cats and dogs, both of which share a shaky, often perilous existence with the vast city’s human inhabitants). And children come first, for all Turks. In each of these aspects of daily Turkish existence, there seems to be an echo of Rumi’s admonition that the present moment matters. It matters very much.

Two years wasn’t enough to begin to know Turkey in its entirety of place and people. I even came back to California with the vague and uneasy feeling that, despite my daily wanderings in Istanbul and frequent travels around the country, I hadn’t let much inside of me. The research I’ve done for this book, however, has changed that feeling, revealing to me faces and sites that I easily recognize, even ones I’ve never actually seen.

Turkey is exactly what you’ll read here, and more. Ancient. Diverse. Hospitable. Harsh. Stunning. Paradoxical. A little nutty. And timeless. But the pieces you’ll read here—for all their color and character, for all their diversity and depth—certainly can’t do complete justice to the country. I hope that these stories, though, will give you just enough of a taste of the place that you’ll decide to go there and sense for yourself, before the Turkey of today vanishes like Rumi’s dream.



Part One: Essence Of Turkey

A Dazzling Kaleidoscope — Stephen Kinzer
Above The Ruins Of Ephesus — Mary Lee Settle
In The Hearts Of God’s Children — Nicholas Shrady
Waiting For Gözleme — Pier Roberts
From Troy To Gallipoli — Tony Perrottet
The Barefaced Pleasure — Thomas Goltz
The Best View Of Istanbul — James Villers Jr.
Who Are The Turks? — Robert D. Kaplan
A Visit To Soapmakers — Jeremy Seal

Part Two: Some Things To Do

Ye Pipes, Play On — Stephen Kinzer
Clash Of The Camels — Laurie Udesky
The Road To Urfa — Laurence Mitchell
How To Buy A Turkish Rug — Laura Billings
The Blue Voyage — John Flinn
In The Hands Of Kismet — Catherine Watson
Turkish Wrestlemania —Stephen Kinzer
Swimming The Hellespont — Richard Halliburton
In Cappadocia — Mary Lee Settle

Part Three: Going Your Own Way

Looking For Noah — Bruce S. Feiler
A Wedding In Ekinlik — Irene-Marie Spencer
Encounter With The Goddess — Tim Ward
Çay In Çankiri — Piers Letcher
A Step In The River — Barbara Bowen
Anybody Seen A Tiger Around Here? — Tim Cahill
Remzi’s Curse — April Thompson
Tears From Turkey — Stephanie Elizondo Griest
Allah Hit Me — John Krich

Part Four: In The Shadows

Turkish Knockout — Rolf Potts
Where’s The Outrage? — Nick Danziger
The Fairy Tales Of Van — Jeremy Seal

Part Five: The Last Word

On The Bosporus — Scott L. Malcomson

Index Of Contributors
Recommended Reading

Waiting for Gözleme

by Pier Roberts
In a race against time, hunger is everything.We’d been exploring the wonders of Cappadocia in Central Turkey, marveling at the man-made and geological beauty of the area. Bright, colorful frescoes adorned the walls of churches, the oldest carved from the rocks more than 1,300 years ago. Beautiful rock formations known as fairy chimneys filled valleys with their strange forms. From the soft porous rock of the area emerged Zelve, a whole village of troglodyte dwellings that had been inhabited until quite recently.

Throughout the long day, my friend and I had forgotten about eating, distracted by the sights around us. Finally, as we headed to the bus stop in Zelve to catch the last bus back to Ürgüp, due in at six o’clock, we remembered that we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. A typical Turkish breakfast offered massive amounts of food—bread, cheese, olives, tomatoes, cucumbers, hard-boiled eggs—and was usually enough to tide us over. But not today. When the hunger pangs hit we immediately started to talk about what we’d eat for dinner once we arrived.

We got to the bus stop with little time to spare, and that’s when we saw two women sitting on the side of the road, a mother and daughter team, selling fresh gözleme. Both were beautiful, with long dark hair, loosely covered with a simple beaded headscarf. They were wearing the traditional dress of the area—a gauzy peasant blouse on top and baggy colorful pants on the bottom. They smiled at us and pointed to a large griddle by their side, offering to cook us some gözleme. I’d never tasted gözleme, a mixture of cheeses and spices wrapped in fresh dough and cooked over a hot griddle, but Kenan had, and he said that we should try it. I looked at my watch; I looked at the women and the griddle, a bowl of dough sitting next to it. I told Kenan that we didn’t have time, but in the spirit of adventure, he said, “Let’s try. We’ll pay the women anyway if it’s not ready when the bus comes.”

Kenan explained to the mother that we had to catch the six o’clock bus back to Ürgüp, and immediately I saw something sparkle in her eyes when she met his gaze. I saw that she was determined to take on the challenge, to work against the clock. She looked back at him, intensely, gravely, seriously—the way that Turks can often look—and told him, “You will have your gözleme.” Then she stood up and ordered her daughter to a shack a hundred or so feet away, and the daughter went off like a gazelle.

The mother turned up the heat on the griddle and took out two clumps of dough from the bowl. She began to roll out the dough, an expert at the task, this way and that, back and forth, a miracle before my eyes: in seconds, the thinnest, most perfectly round pieces of dough I’d ever seen. Just as she finished rolling, the daughter returned, panting, with a bowl of the filling—fresh cheese, parsley, red pepper, other spices, salt and pepper. The mother quickly flipped the dough onto the griddle, turned it once, sprinkled the filling over the dough, and I saw it beginning to happen: the birth of my first gözleme.

And then we heard it, all of us, in the distance, the dolmus‚—a minibus whose name means stuffed—on its way to Zelve. We all looked up to see it, rattling over the narrow road, working its way down to where we stood, suspended in the moment. It still had a few curves to take, a hill or two to climb and descend before it would arrive. But we all knew in an instant that we wouldn’t make it; that it was a good try, but it wouldn’t work; that the filling in the gözlemewouldn’t melt just right; and the raw dough over the filling wouldn’t cook just right in the amount of time that we had left before the bus arrived in Zelve.

As the bus approached, we tried to stop the women, tried to give them money anyway, tried to thank them for a valiant effort. But they wouldn’t hear of it, and they insisted on continuing, the gözleme beginning to sizzle on the griddle. When the bus driver opened the door, Kenan and I stood still for a moment, not sure what to do. But the mother, she knew. Maybe she has done this before, I thought. She jumped up and asked the bus driver to wait for a moment.

He resisted.
She begged.
He resisted some more.

She implored. “Lütfen, lütfen.” Please, please, she nearly wailed. Wouldn’t he please, lütfen, hold on, rest a moment, wait until the gözleme was finished. It wouldn’t be a huge problem now, would it? “And look,” she pointed to us, “the visitors are starving.”

We put on sad faces and tried to look really hungry, while I added in the best Turkish I could, “Çok aç” (very hungry) as the bus driver roared and moaned, protested profusely, claimed that he couldn’t wait at every bus stop on his route for meals to be made. But she argued her case well, and she argued it long, and all the time she argued, the gözleme sizzled and sizzled, and the aroma from the griddle rose up from the side of the road, wafted through the open doors of the bus, and made its way slowly and purposefully down the aisle. Suddenly, I heard a sympathetic voice rise up from the back of the bus: “Oh come on, I don’t mind waiting a little bit. Let them have their gözleme.” And soon another voice joined that voice. Until eventually we had the support of everyone on the bus to wait out the cooking of the gözleme. “What’s the big rush anyway?” someone from a front seat asked.

The bus driver turned to face the mutinous crowd of passengers behind him, and finally shrugged his shoulders, turned back to the mother, and said, “Okay. Okay. Tamam. But don’t ask this of me again.”

And so the bus waited at the Zelve bus stop while the women finished cooking our gözleme. The mother folded the dough over the filling as if she were sealing an envelope with a secret message inside. When it was all done, the dough was perfectly cooked, light brown spots dotting the outside, the cheese soft and warm, the spices just beginning to send out their flavor. The daughter wrapped up one and the mother wrapped up another as we paid for the food and then jumped onto the bus. Someone on the bus cheered as we sat down, and a few other passengers joined him. I smiled at everyone on the bus, a little embarrassed, but happy too to have my gözleme. We turned and waved to the women on the side of the road, now settling back down, squatting next to their hot griddle.

We sat on the bus, and the sun sank further into the Cappadocia landscape as we ate ourgözleme, one of the best, and certainly one of the hardest won meals I had in Turkey.

Pier Roberts lives and works in Los Angeles, California. Her stories have appeared inTravelers’ Tales Spain, A Woman’s Passion for Travel, Escape, and Atlantic Unbound.

James Villers moved to Turkey in 1999. His welcome to the country—two weeks after he arrived—was a major earthquake that killed more than 10,000 people. Despite this shocking initiation, he stayed, spending more than two years there—teaching high school English in Istanbul, and traveling in and around Turkey. He has lived most of his life in California, but spent a year in France, and six months in Switzerland. He is a secondary school literature and drama teacher, with an M.A. in English from Sonoma State University. He now lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.