Turkblog Part 3: The Fire of Anatolia

Our Sunday began with some rare and much-coveted free time until our late morning meeting time – these are, after all, working trips for the fellows and they tend to involve jam-packed schedules that make it impossible to confuse the trips with vacation. Some people were adventurous with their spare time, heading out into the neighborhood and exploring the environs. Others, myself included, luxuriated in doing virtually nothing other than sleeping late and making a quick jaunt up Istiklal Caddesi. Istanbul 02.19.06 05If I didn’t mention it much before, it’s a pretty magnificent (mostly) pedestrian cobblestone thoroughfare, although the occasional tiny tram snakes along the central tracks or a flashy sedan boldly intersects the street to or from any one of a number of embassies held behind wrought iron fences. The first night we got here, the street was alive and buzzing. Street musicians competed with the blaring soundtrack from music shops, shoppers and walkers popped into any number of eateries or clothing stores, illuminated by decorative lights strung between the buildings, like Christmas time in the states.

During the day, it’s less busy but still hopping and Chris and I took a moment to assimilate ourselves before picking up some snacks to carry with us for the day, since we’re at the mercy of the eating schedule which varies greatly and isn’t ideal for my hypoglycemia. There are several small shops offering up barrels filled to the brim with dried apricots, apples, dates, bananas and every kind of nut imaginable. In addition, they serve up strange and exotic sweets and treats so different than what we’re used to in the states – various kinds of powdered-sugar-rolled Turkish delight, sesame and nut pastes sweetened with honey, slabs of dense nougat and nuts. We picked up some dried apricots and raw almonds to carry with us and hustled back to the hotel. Our first event of the day was the schizophrenic pairing of a lecture on youth in Turkey and the experience of tea and waterpipes. We packed into a tea house in an area I can’t remember and began the loud and confusing business of ordering teas or coffees while those planning to hookah it up ordered from a number of different flavored tobaccos.

Istanbul 02.19.06 17It was the first time I really paid attention to Turkish tea, which comes in the most elegant little hourglass shaped glasses, served on matching saucer with sugar cubes on the side. It seems like a small serving until your first sip, when you realize it makes up in strength what it offers in size. Some people opted for another Turkish specialty, apple tea, which they mixed with plenty of sugar. It smelled heavenly.

The café we were in was relatively small and while we took up a good half of it, regular folk chattered away on the other side. The shelves on the walls were lined with nargile - or Turkish waterpipes - in a variety of bright colors and one or two of these were delivered to each of our tables. Shortly thereafter, a gentleman came by with a can full of hot embers and used long tongs to place the embers inside each pipe. Afterwards, the tobacco went in – in flavors like apple or strawberry – and people started puffing.

I wasn’t among those who took to the pipe. I haven’t had a cigarette in six years and I must admit fear of liking the tobacco was enough to make me pass on this curious cultural experience. (Of course, it seems as though everyone in Turkey smokes cigarettes, so this probably isn’t odd to them at all.) In my corner of the room, both Tony and Amy were inhaling for the first time in their lives, which is pretty darn admirable.

During all this experimentation, observation and chaos, poor Yesim Burul was trying to compete. Young and energetic, she teaches at Istanbul Bilgi University, focusing on areas of cultural studies, including consumer and popular culture. It was exceedingly difficult to hear her in that environment, but what I could catch about Turkish youth was both fascinating and discouraging. It seems the Western-driven ideals of mass consumption and moneyed lifestyles have taken over Turkey and the youth are largely as politically lethargic as those in the states, worrying more about getting their paws on a new car or the right pair of jeans.

Istanbul 02.19.06 29Yesim quoted a poll of 18-25 year old Turks ranking their top five goals, which were, in descending order of importance: 1) To be rich and famous. 2) To be successful. 3) To get a job. 4) To have good relationships. 5) To start a family. Istanbul has a tremendous number of unemployed college graduates right now, although among them are a number who have had everything handed to them on a plate and have developed a sense of entitlement. In an interesting note, Yesim mentioned that effective advertising to Turkish youth not only has to strike the hipness quotient Western youth seek but also plays into that strong sense of Turkish nationalism at the same time. Interesting, no?

Unfortunately, the distraction of all the noise and the effect of the smoke on my contacts and lungs really detracted from the experience. That said, it may just be the sweet smell of the apple or strawberry tobacco, but there’s a definite hypnotic effect to the whole experience. Maybe it’s the ritual itself, triggering past-life experiences of other recreational smoking, but people seem to fall sloe-eyed and the pipes are passed in a smooth, slow motion accompanied by relaxed shoulder slumps and satisfied grins. Still, I’d probably have been just as happy to peek through a window to witness the waterpipe experience – which, actually, you can experience right here in Ann Arbor. I know, I know…not the same thing.

Our leisurely pace continued as Ferhat accompanied us on a long cruise on the Bosphorous on a fishing boat that had been reclaimed as a tour boat. The Bosphorous is a lively body of water, and we could feel every sway as we climbed to the open-air deck at the top. There, we stumbled to seats on benches around the perimeter of the deck and enjoyed cups of tea and coffee as we experienced the landscape around us.

Istanbul 02.19.06 45The boat dropped us off late afternoon at the bottom of a set of steep stairs that wound up through a beautiful garden toward the entrance to the Sabanci Museum . The ultra-modern museum is housed, as hard as it was to imagine, in an old waterfront residence that once housed royalty and, most recently, Turkish business royalty – Sakip Sabanci, head of the Turkish family-run conglomerate, Sabanci Holding .

We were there to take a gander at a special Picasso exhibit which is Istanbul’s first major exhibit of Western art. Ever. As a result – and as a reflection of citizens’ response – the place was absolutely wall-to-wall packed. Over-packed, if I may say so. Even though we had a docent to lead us around, the crowds made it next to impossible to hear what she was trying to teach us or to get a meaningful glance at many of the sketches – some of which were, supposedly, being shown for the first time. (Note: I only say “supposedly” because there was some question about the authenticity of some of the sketches but it seems not to have been enough to arouse too much interest from the art world.)

Afterwards, we met up in a giant ballroom/conference room where a long U-shaped table was prepared so that we might have audience with Guler Sabanci. Since taking over for her uncle Sakip following his 1999 death, Guler is the first woman to head up a major conglomerate in Turkish history. But before we got to hear her take, we got a quick but thorough intro into the vast world of Sabanci Holding, courtesy of Barbaros Ineci, the group’s chief economist.

Ineci informed us – backing up the info in a heavy packet each of us found at our seat – that Sabanci had an estimated 2005 revenue of $10.5 billion (US) and invested $550 million (US) in the United States in 2005. While there’s been much debate over the economic future of Turkey, Ineci’s talk was entitled “Turkish Economy: The worst is over.” He noted that the country boasts the 18th largest economy in the world and stressed that its unique position as a bridge between the east and the west gives it untold potential export growth. Nevertheless, he conceded that the average per capita annual income in Turkey is $7,990 (US) and that it is suffering from a high unemployment rate.

He talked a little about the pots in which Sabanci Holding currently has its fingers and the list is wide and varied – covering everything from cars and car parts, energy, food, tires and tobacco. In fact, their list of joint venture partners includes Hilton, Toyota, Bridgestone, Mitsubishi and Philip Morris. An impressive roster by any standards, let alone from li’l ol’ Turkey.

Then we heard from Guler Sabanci, who gave us a very general overview of the company and her idea that its philanthropy is as important as any business endeavor. She pointed to the very museum we sat in as an indication of Sabanci’s sense of responsibility to the community. Unassuming in appearance, Guler’s presence is nonetheless commanding, particularly her deep and emphatic voice. She is clearly used to being asked any number of questions and, frankly, not answering them if she doesn’t feel like it.

While on the one hand her savvy sense of control is admirable – she answered one question with, in toto, “Yes, I get asked that all the time” – it was also a tad frustrating. I’d been looking forward to asking her about her position as a role model to Turkish women, what it felt like to hold a place in the country’s feminist history and what responsibility she felt she had to encourage young women to follow in her footsteps. These were questions I got the opportunity to ask, but never quite received an answer to. Although Guler was not once rude to any of us, it was quite obvious that it was a topic she was uninterested in discussing.

Because that clearly wasn’t a full enough day for us, we then attended a performance of The Fire of Anatolia , an energetic dance production that explores Turkey’s history in a frenzied Lord-of-the-Dance-meets-Stomp kind of way. With very little knowledge of the history of Anatolia, I found it a little tough to follow the narrative. Especially with so many raven-haired beauties in sparkly outfits making high-pitched squealing noises. There were plenty of men, too, mind you. And smoke. And the local crowd went nuts for it – screaming and yelling and applauding until it looked like their hands might fall off!

Afterwards, we attended a brief reception at a hotel just down the street from the theater. By candlelight, we were fed small canapés before sitting for an audience with the show’s creator and director Mustafa Erdogan and a few of the show’s principles. (On the gossip tip, Erdogan is married to and was accompanied by his wife, Gulben Ergen, who is apparently one of Turkey’s most famous pop singers. And something of a former porn star, I guess. You Google it.)

It was a bit of the tired meeting the tired – we struggled to ask pertinent, coherent questions and the director and cast struggled to entertain us with their responses. But considering it was the longest day in the history of earth, ever, we were grateful when it was time to climb on board our beloved bus and head back to the hotel wondering what on earth there could possibly be left to do the next day.