Letter from heybeliada: II

Brian Felsen & Elif Savas


Although we have no television, no computer, and no telephone, Elif's mom has all three, and you can see that tonight, at her house, I'm getting far less work done. Right now on TV they have Gas-Man, which is the Turkish equivalent of Howard Stern's Fart-man. Also showing on other channels is a transvestite singer, a belly-dancer, a variety show featuring a parody of Tarkan (their new pop sensation), a 1960's political satire film, a very graphic news program showing bloody bodies coming out of a traffic accident in Konya, a religious program, music videos, a talking-head expounding on Socialist philosophy. Except the religious programs and the news, on TV people are laughing and dancing, and most of the sets look like Wayne's World. I just flipped to a channel showing Turkish classical music, and a man is playing a beautiful instrument that Elif tells me is called the Ney. This instrument seems so perfectly halfway: itís a bamboo instrument that looks like a flute but is played and held at a diagonal, halfway between a flute and a clarinet. She says they overblow it like the flute but when she tried it she couldn't get a sound out of the thing, not even a squeak. And its sound is also halfway between a flute and a Japanese flute, as it geographically should be. Another man is playing the Zurna, which looks like an oboe but sounds like a bagpipe.

There's a good amount of nudity on TV, which is interesting given the religious bent of the country; tonight one channel would have even shown "Private School", an 80's American sex-tease film. I say "would have", because the channel today is only broadcasting the message: "Because on February 2-5 on our news program we said a man was guilty when he was only allegedly guilty, the government has forced us to close down programming for the day." Another channel is off the air because they couldn't pay their Satellite bills, and it says so right there. Right new Elif just flipped to a group of 5 male dancers from Erzurum, who just did two dances: the first was a line dance with their arms around each other; the second involves hopping up and down and thrusting knives in each others' faces. Absolutely beautiful.

According to Elif: "Erzurum is in eastern Turkey, and the people there are very macho, very clear-hearted, the first to fight for their country in a revolt. Another such group from the same town, last year in an international folkloric dance competition in Stolkholm, made a mistake and slashed up the face of one of its members during the dance. They continued on as if nothing happened, and then they took their bows. The crowd was horrified and screaming. Finally, the injured man, bleeding profusely, announced that he doesnít mind bleeding because he is proud of his blood and that red is the color of his country's flag. The group won the gold." Last week we went to the mainland to meet a friend of Elif's from high school named Nasli. Her name means "someone who plays hard-to-get, saying no before actually giving in" - a very interesting name for a woman! However, what is even more interesting to me, given the fact that I am an extremely subtle and sophisticated person, is the fact that she has a huge nose - this lets me call her Nostril, which rhymes wih her name, and therefore provides me with much amusement! In fact, I sometimes call her Nasal, which doesn't really rhyme with Nasli but it sounds just fine to me! What makes it even better is that the woman is actually rather insufferable - something of a party girl, giggling her head off, tossing her godawful blond-dyed hair. Now, if I were god, instead of merely thinking I were, one of the first decrees I would pass would read: "Thou shalt not have blond hair if thou hast Mediterranean blood. Yes, even you, Italianos." A few days ago, Nasli called announcing that her birthday is coming up and that she was going to have a party on a boat, so we said, of course we'll come! Then, she called back and said that the boat was too expensive to rent, and that we'll all meet in a loud smoky nightclub instead - wouldn't that be great? But suddenly, Elif at the last minute got too sick to come, so we couldn't go! And as soon as she hung up telling the bad news to her friend she felt 120% better! Now the reason I'm going into this story about Elif's friend, Nosehair, is because of the following interesting tidbit which she mentioned about Elif's ex-husband when we were together.

The first thing we heard is that he and Jacques Derrida have finally started their university in Paris, and he's there teaching right now; the second thing we heard is that his new book, published in Turkish and German, is, according to Nasli, about my wife. Elif wants no part of it - she's sure it's a combination of his art (Iíve been flipping through program books from his exhibits: extremely interesting stuff - lots of burnt objects, glasswork, engravings, writings, pirhanas...) and his art-philosophy (read Nietzsche - I mean lots of Nietzsche), which are intertwined in his work. She doesn't care whether the book is about her, or her philosophies of life, or their relationship, or if it's an angry rant like Philip Roth's book about his ex-wife, or if she's barely in it at all.

The voyeur in me (that is to say, me) is curious, but my German and Turkish aren't quite at the point where I could get through such a book. I'm getting around pretty well; I can understand most conversations around me if I really concentrate, but it's very tiring to do so - the grammar is feeble-minded but there is an endless supply of Arabic and Farsi-derived words to wade through that throw me off. The extreme kindness of many of the people I encounter, combined with the fact that my accent is worlds better than my vocabulary (the opposite problem I had with French), sometimes gets me into a bit of trouble: people think I know way more Turkish than I do and often happily launch into a rapid-fire conversation with me about anything and everything. Weirdness has resulted from this. For example, I asked one loquacious shopkeeper why the Ezan had sung 6 times that Tuesday, did someone die? But I had committed an error: the Imam is the singer, and the Ezan the song. So the shopkeeper thought I said Eczane, which means pharmacy, and he also thought that because I talked about someone dying that there was something terribly urgent, and he frantically began to draw me a map to the pharmacy.

I got into a conversation last week with a guy on a boat who was a history buff who was pining about the glory days of the Ottoman empire (!). Here was a Turkish Minniver Cheevy, and he wanted some kind of national glory, not even a current fascist state, but one of a misty poetic nature. As I got off the boat, he gave us the address of his workplace (he worked in a health club) and told us if I ever wanted anything, to stop by. When Elif and I take a boat together, I constantly hear people around us saying things to each other in Turkish, like "You talk to them in English." "No, I'm too shy." "No, come on, you talk to them." "Some student you are!" And then I put them out of their misery with a "Merhaba," and we talk a little in both languages. I have yet to hear anything nasty about America, Americans, or Jews, but I stay away from religion and politics in conversation. The food here is fantastic. At the Wednesday Bazar we buy kilograms of fruit, which are invariably much smaller than the equivalent American fruit but usually ten times as tasty. We get fresh baguettes daily for 15 cents a pop - the bread prices are government-set so everyone can eat it, but unlike what I hear of Italian government-fixed-price bread, this bread is exquisite. I often splurge: 25 cents for a baguette covered with sesame seeds. There is no fat phobia here, which makes for great yogurt proudly announced on the package as "Tam Yagli! Kaymakli!" ("Full fat! With Kaymak!") Kaymak is a hard film on the top created by the fat, or cream, in the yogurt which adds a lovely texture and taste to the yoghurt.

As I mentioned, we just got back from Edirne, a town bordering both Greece and Bulgaria, where we attended the 637th-annual Kirkpinar - the hot-olive-oil-wrestling competition. It was really something - people aged 5 to 50 having hot oil poured all over themselves in the 95-degree heat and wrestling with each other in a small stadium, two at a time, single-elimination, until one is left standing. (If nobodyís pinned to the grass after 40 minutes, they declare a victor on points). There are weight-divisions. It's really fun when somebody sticks their hand down another guy's pants (no grabbing by the balls) and picks him up and flips him. Lots of people being carried out on stretchers. People writhing around not because of broken bones but because having olive oil drip into your eyes burns so damn much.

Outside the stadium, lots of Gypsies were camping and dancing to the Zurna and drums that were beating inside, which provided a constant, fearsome noise-backdrop to the whole event. There were maybe 10,000 people inside the stadium; at least a dozen of them were women, including my wife. The guy sitting next to me was a former wrestler and demonstrated some holds on me that I can still feel in my shoulders as I write this. We're going to the north and east in a few weeks to sight-see - I'm particularly excited about some of the Georgian monestaries and palaces near the Iranian border, as well as the Nemrut Dag volcano and ruins (south near Syria). Since the PKK terrorism has sort of spread out all over the eastern half of Turkey and not just the southeast, Elif's mom figures that since we're going to die anyway, we might as well see Lake Van, but Iím steering clear of anything smelling of southeast - my adventurous spirit, while pretty healthy, does not extent to travelling straight into the heart of a war zone wearing a "please kill me" sign.

In any event, if we do get kidnapped by Kurdish terrorists, Elif's mom' boyfriend is completely toast, being a judge; Elif and her mom will be raped first (and then killed); but I have a much better chance at survival (due to my close and important friends in the Philadelphia press). Please write soon, and put Elif's name on the envelope as well, because the mailman gets very confused by the name Brian. I'd much prefer you send me a postcard, a joke, some news or celebrity gossip, than to leave this on your desk for weeks because of some urge you might have for reciprocity. Besides, you know how I hate long letters. J Yours, Brian, Elif



(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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@The Light Millennium magazine was created and designed
by Bircan ÜNVER. March-April 2000, New York.