Turkblog Part 4: Chicken pudding?

CNN Turk has some fancy offices. I know, because that’s where we spent the earlier part of our day today. Dressed up in spiffy professional gear, still bleary-eyed from a late night of Anatolian Fire, we were nonetheless all ready to be whisked by bus to the CNN Turk headquarters, an impressive modern grey building subtly guarded by a man with a semi-automatic weapon in hand. Hello! Istanbul 02.20.06 01Upon arrival, we were escorted through the cavernous, ultra-mod entry way into a giant meeting room. One entire wall, from floor to the 25-foot-ceiling was glass window to the outside. One half of the room was dominated by a giant u-shaped formation of tables already set for lunch with white table cloths, plates and napkins. At the other end, we made ourselves comfy on leather sofas and chairs of tan leather arranged around a giant glass coffee table already laden with plates of sweet treats and pots of coffee and tea.

Our day began with a talk delivered by Yalim Eralp, diplomatic commentator and former ambassador, and Semih Idiz, CNN Turk’s current diplomatic editor. The topic of the talk was, of course, Turkey. The goal of this trip is, after all, to help us understand more about the country and its role in the world. Eralp and Idiz shared with us their views on Turkey’s current position in the world in terms of economics and politics before turning to an analysis of the now infamous cartoon controversy and its impact on Turkey. It’s compelling, enlightening – and sometimes a bit frightening – to hear passionately expressed viewpoints that are, in some ways, very different from the US-centric ones on which I cut my teeth. I wish I could list specifics, but it’s important to me to honor the KWF program’s request that sessions remain off the record.

The morning meeting ended and Semiha took us on a grand tour of the CNN Turk facilities. We got to take a peek at everything from the set of a morning talk show in-process to their massive news gathering and editing facilities. It’s an impressive set up and it always fills me with a certain amount of electricity and excitement to see a giant media operation in process. Even if you can feel like a bit of a dolt being shepherded through busy peoples’ work spaces, I love being a witness to it.

Afterwards, we met for a lunch that mixed many staff members at CNN Turk and the Fellows. We alternated seats to make sure fellowship folks and our Turkish hosts got to know one another. By some strange twist of fate, I wound up sitting between Yalim Eralp and the man (forgive me for forgetting the name) who hosts CNN Turk’s version of 60 Minutes and is considered a broadcasting legend. Suddenly feeling woefully ignorant – a sensation I was growing increasingly familiar with – I stammered to make compelling conversation with the men.

I don’t remember much about the meal we were served that day – probably some fish and salad or some sort of thing – except for dessert. It was the strangest consistency I think I’ve ever experienced – somewhere between pudding and gummy bear, a custard-yellow mound of gooey sweetness that resisted the spoon and broke off in gelatinous clumps. The taste was not unpleasant, sort of a gummy crème brulee. Of course, that all changed when I found out later that it was a very common Turkish dessert called Tavuk gö?üsü and its unique consistency is achieved by or chicken pudding. Made with chicken. By which I mean, in case you’re not getting this, chicken.

After our meaty dessert, we were herded off to a talk with Elif Safak, novelist and op-ed writer who shared with us many of her opinions about feminism within the Muslim society. At the center of much controversy is the head scarf worn by many Muslim women. Perhaps the thing Safak said that resonated most with me was the notion that westerners tend to associate women in head scarves with oppression and unhappiness – something I reluctantly plead guilty to.

What I didn’t realize is that there are more than ten words for head scarf in Turkish – necessary because there are so many different meanings of the scarf. In other words, women who wear the head scarf do so because it’s their choice. But the type of head scarf they wear, how they wear it and why they wear it may vary vastly from other women.

Still trying to get a handle on what the situation is for women in Turkey, I broached the subject during question-time. I observed that it seemed to me that it was too complex to boil down, that the things I had witnessed ranged from the young belly dancer at the Flower Passage who seemed none-too-happy with her job to a woman like Guler Sabanci, who seems stunningly successful yet unwilling to talk about it. I didn’t expect my comment to inspire a rather defensive response from some of the men in our group regarding the belly dancing incident.

What was particularly interesting to me is that I mentioned that while some in the group had been offended by the table-top belly dancing, I had very conflicting emotions about it. On the one hand, is this woman only doing this kind of work because, in a patriarchal society she has no other choices? Or is she a savvy young business woman in charge of her own fate?

During and after the session, a couple of the male fellows who had danced with the belly dancer came up to me and apologized for offending me. I think it’s interesting that because I expressed conflicting emotions, they presumed that I was offended. I’m not sure I was. I think I was torn between enjoying the costume drama/cultural difference of the experience and feeling strange at being expected to clap and applaud the objectification of this young woman getting her bra stuffed with US dollars. It’s very complicated stuff.

And, as far as I can tell, so is life in Turkey for women. There are few generalizations to be made, as the variables are few and far between. Some of the modernization you see in Istanbul would be scandalous in rural areas, I’m told. Feminism in the Muslim world is a complicated issue – which I knew going in, but knew more definitely as a result of today’s session.

In addition, there was an interesting and spirited discussion about hate speech, inspired by yet more analysis of the Cartoon Issue. While Safak expressed what seems to be a common Turkish view, that the cartoon constitutes hate speech, our own Thomas Kamilindi, from Rwanda, disagreed quite strongly. It was his contention that hate speech requires some sort of call to action, usually violence, against a certain group or person. It was interesting to see how different experiences contribute to equally passionate but opposing viewpoints.

Next on our agenda was a visit to the coffee shop that serves as the offices/cerebrum/inspiration for the staff of Le Man , a magazine of political cartoons. Suitably funky – with mish-mosh furniture and crazy-painted walls – the second floor of the coffee house was already hazy with cigarette smoke when we climbed the spiral staircase and spread out to take our seats. I mean, seriously. Turkish people smoke. A lot!

Then we were treated to a sometimes lively discussion about…the cartoon thing. It was safe to say that we’d all probably have been happy not to think about the topic again for a week or two, through no fault of the speakers. I don't think we'd expected to discuss it at our previous two sessions.

But it was intriguing to hear the viewpoints of men who consider themselves artists first and foremost. And they, too, objected to the cartoons -- but not because of the content. No, they objected to the cartoons because they thought they were poor quality, not high in artistic merit and, as one of them noted repeatedly, “not even funny.” It was obviously a far bigger sin to the cartoonists than offending their religion.

We were let out into the cobblestone streets of Iztiklal Caddesi again post-sundown to fend for ourselves for dinner. To be honest, dining with 30 every night gets to be overwhelming and so we broke off into a number of different groups. Chris and I had made plans to dine with Sally and Drew Lindsay, something we hadn’t seemed to be able to arrange stateside. Asu recommended what she called one of the best traditional Turkish restaurants in the city and we decided to find out once and for all what really good Turkish food tastes like.

After all, we’ve been eating Turkish food all week – strange root vegetables soggy in olive oil, strange purees and cubes of mystery meat – but we figured it would probably be very different prepared by the best. Turns out, it’s not. We had a mixed plate of appetizers and main course dishes which turned out to be both expensive and not that appetizing. I have to confess here to a debilitating texture issue that makes it difficult for me to consume more than two or three cold slimy veggies in a row. I will say I was impressed by the lamb shank in puff pastry because, after all, anything in puff pastry gets my vote.

But the company was delightful, of course, and we were attended by the nicest bus boy – a bit of a misnomer, since he was probably in his early thirties. He told us he’d been studying English for six months and wanted to know if we’d help him practice. His eagerness was incredibly charming and his English actualy very good, and the sheer pleasure he took in being able to practice it made the meal truly remarkable.