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Letter from heybeliada: 1

Brian Felsen & Elif Savas

Dear Michael:

Hello! I'm writing this from Elif's mom's house; we're stopping here on our way back from Edirne. It's July 22, (22 Temmuz), which I believe is also a month in the Hebrew calendar although I may be wrong about that. There's a Sumerian god named Tamuz, I think. The computer on which I am typing was acquired by Elif's mom through a trade with a client, sort of like a PMC ad trade.

In truth, she probably doesn't have much use for it, but weíre teaching her how to use it anyway. It has no CD-ROM and no modem. I rearranged the keyboard for her by popping out the keys with a screwdriver to match the Turkish keyboard layout that she's used to (instead of QWERTY itís FGãIO. The "I" sounds like the "OO" in "good," as opposed to the i, which sounds like "EE"; the (is silent and lengthens the vowel that comes before it). I then installed the US-Dvorak setting on her Microsoft Word software, so I'm typing that configuration on her Turkish keyboard.

Istanbul seems different even from last year in a few respects: everybody's got cel phones; whereas the dolmuÅ'es (literally: "stuffed" - taxis that wait at a corner until they have 8 or so people and then they go along a set route) in '95 and '97 largely used to be old 50's American Packards, now they are almost entirely minivans; some of the Turkish money I had left over from last year (10-and 20- thousand lira bills) have now been phased out of circulation and are now no longer accepted - the lira, which three years ago was worth 46,000 to the dollar, is now approaching absolute zero in value, being at 270,000. On the mainland you see teenagers wearing T-shirts with English writing on them, which may explain why Elif has an allergy to my wearing shirts with any writing on them whatsoever.

Mercifully, none of the street signs, storefronts, or restaurant menus are in English; where I used to think the Quebecois were being rather "French" (in the perjorative) for banning non-French languages from Montreal storefronts, I now agree with them. Apartment-hunting in Turkey is a slow process, as is buying bread anything at all, not because of bureaucracy or bread lines, but because of their way of doing business: no matter what you do, it has to involve drinking tea and lots of what Elif calls "blah-blah-ing." No matter how hot it is outside or how many appointments you have, you can't even see an apartment that doesn't have a tea tray. Yesterday I went into a store and asked the shopkeeper if he had 200-speed film, and he answered me, "Cay istiyor musun?" ("Would you like tea?") The question was rhetorical - I was holding the tea before I could ask if it the tea was 200-speed.

We settled down on Heybeliada, a small island in the Marmara Sea, southeast of the Bosphorus, closer to Asia than Europe. It's away from the smog and noise of the mainland, but close enough to it to go there should we want to attend any cultural events (next month theyíre having a Georgian dance festival which should be fun). Our island is simply beautiful. It's about seven miles in circumference. On it are several beaches (with lovely sunsets that are never quite the same from day to day), forests, graveyards (with a Moslem one right next to a Greek one), a small naval base, a few playgrounds, a mosque, a Greek Orthodox monestary and Jewish synagogue. We walk every day at sunset through the forests or on the beaches. They rent bikes here for a buck an hour but the small size of the island, as well as the terrain of the forests and beaches, make it really preferable to hike around. You can also rent a horse-carriage (phaeton) to get around, which we used once when it poured.

The best part by far is that there are no cars allowed on the island. Cars are something that you don't realize how intrusive they are until theyíre gone - about two or three times a day, you'll see a police car or military truck, and the effect is similar to being in a large room and realizing that someone, somewhere, has lit up a cigarette. The island is quiet, except for five times a day when the Ezan goes off (six times on Friday or if somebody dropped dead) - and our house is rather close to the mosque. The Imams (singers of the call to prayer) on the island are just about the worst I've heard in Turkey. There are three, and they take turns: one sounds quite inebriated, one has no conception of scale or pitch, and the third sounds alarmingly like Tuli Kupfelberg of the Fugs. The only call to prayer that took some getting used to is the first one of the day, which during the summer months is around 4:30 AM. When it goes off, if there are street dogs around, they will all howl along with the Imam, and the faraway dogs sound like weird wailing ghosts. At such times, the Moslem call to prayer becomes, for me, a call to pissing.

Wednesdays and Sundays (the two days that in America, Carvel Ice Cream has their sales), the island transforms itself. On Wednesdays is the Carsamba Pazari - the Wednesday Bazar that turns the place into a cleaner and cheaper Italian Market. On Sundays, people from all over Istanbul come to the island to picnic in the outer edge of the forest. We can watch people from our balcony, which is perfectly situated about 40 feet back from the street, make the parade up Refah sehitleri late-morning on Sunday and then parade back down at 6 PM to catch the boat back wherever it is they came from. This parade provides us much merriment. The women walking to the beach are often both covered (wearing a Moslem head-covering) and wearing makeup.

Now you'd think that the three (beach, makeup, and Moslem head-covering) would be mutually-exclusive sets, but not here. The men walk down the street holding hands, or interlocking arms, or with their arms around each other's backs. Perhaps it is of some significance that the Turkish word for friend is arkadaÅ, which means "sharing the same back" - standing back-against-back, guarding each other's back. When they pass at 11AM and at 6PM, they carry boomboxes playing either the wimpiest Eurotrash dance music or lovelorn Turkish arabesque music. It makes for an awesome sight - these rugged-looking men, bragging about their girlfriends, holding hands and blasting love songs - as if they are but an instant either from starting a gang fight, or from doing the bump to "YMCA." Our house is like a charming bed-and-breakfast with antique furniture.

We have two balconies, both shaded. It's always cool no matter what the weather outside, because of the breeze and because of the shade of the garden trees (olive, cherry, and walnut). The cherries from the trees were delicious, the walnuts interesting (never had non-dried walnuts before) and the olives inedible (they need to be treated). The tangerines haven't come out yet. There are also grapes, rose bushes, and lionís head flowers. It's across the street from the President's mansion (the 1st one after Ataturk, in the 1930ís). Whatever his faults as president (been reading some Turkish history lately - quite horrifying stuff), the fact that he managed to negotiate his own country and borders after losing WWI is undeniably impressive.

My cat loves it here, especially the garden. When we first arrived, the fleas were eating her up despite the fact that we gave her the Program pill to keep them from biting her, so we kept her inside and gave her a thick collar so she couldn't bloody her neck from scratching it. But she sat on the balconies and looked at the garden below - and then one day she looked at us, looked down at the garden - and lept down 25 feet. So once again, after two years of captivity, sheís an outdoor cat, and is happy as hell. She wears a bell around her neck and goes out as she pleases for about an hour at a time and comes home and sleeps by us and purrs her head off. We keep her in after 4PM to minimize fleabites. I couldnít believe how well she took the flight and being trapped in her cat carrier, unable to eat, drink, or piss for 22 hours. She never cried once, so we didn't bother tranquilizing her with the Ace Promizone pills - she just slept in our laps on the plane. We had a fun time at the Turkish INS the week after arrival.

From New York, I had mailed $40 along with several photographs, forms and tax returns, in order to get the extended-stay visa from Turkey. And before we left, Elif's mom called me and told me that they informed her that my application had been approved. But once we arrived it Turkey, it seems that their entire file on me disappeared. So we went down to the Turkish INS and got forms, waited two hours and paid ten bucks to have a typist type them out in quadruplicate (carbons) and to have eleven pictures taken of myself. I then waited on another line to get a form signed, and then I had to go to another line. Up until that point it was merely Kafkaesque, but then it turned ugly: we were smashed against a wall in a crush of Armenians, Georgians, Bulgarians, and Azerbaijanis, unable to breathe, with even the venerated Turkish police unable to keep the peace or stop the moshing.

There were no exits, just a bunch of elbows and armpits, in a small hallway that was way over 100 degrees. (You may have heard about Turkish hygiene; nobody there was glad they used Dial.) We finally literally fell out of the line, and that was it. When we got home, we found out that even if we made it to the front of the line, we would have needed other documentation that we didn't bring that day, as well as $120 for the extended-stay visa (the same one for which I had mailed away $40 dollars from the US). We told Elif's mom that we weren't going back, gave her my photos and told her to take care of it or to have one of her attorney friends do so. A week later, she handed me the visa. As Dilek tells it, it was quite simple. The INS officers informed her attorney friend that it was absolutely necessary for me be there in person, and that there was simply no way they around that regulation; if I didn't like it, I could go home after three months.

Then, one of the officers noticed the pretty paper that she had accidentally left on the desk (I believe the Italians call it a bustanella). Another officer in the room walked over and also admired its dimensions and its yellow color, as well as the picture of Ataturk on it; he was obviously in a patriotic mood, as he simply had to have one too - and as coincidence would have it, she had another one right in her purse! My visa, which I am now holding, is good for a year. Speaking of pretty paper with nice writing on it, I am chewing a flavorless Turkish gum (that has a faint rosewater odor) as I type this. Its pieces are individually-wrapped, and the wrappers have sayings on them, which are sometimes terrible jokes, sometimes "words to live by," and sometimes quite surreal. Here's what my wrapper is saying now; you decide which category it fits into: The other people may come and go But life is a pasta strainer But you will settle down With a Capricorn (a crab).

 

For the second part of the letter please click:
LETTER FROM HEYBELIADA II


BRIAN FELSEN & ELIF SAVAS HOME PAGE
(Producer and Director of the documentary film COUP; about the 1960,
1971, 1980, and 1997 military interventions and coups d'etat in Turkey)

E-mail to Brian Felsen & Elif Savas> darbe@altavista.net
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