Thursday, October 30, 2008

Books For Sale Istanbul Style

Sahafler Carsisi, Second Hand Booksellers Market

Wondering through the oldest market in the city, the Second Hand Booksellers courtyard is probably one of the most quiet and leafy and pleasant of all the markets in Istanbul. It has been located at this same spot since Byzantine times, where book makers and paper makers worked. Today, bookstalls and bookcases and tables covered with books spill onto the walkways together with sellers of pens, reading glasses and the perfect browsing snack, simit, Turkish pretzels. Everything seems available, such as antique miniatures taken from 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th, and 20th century books, Korans in all sizes and colors, dictionarties, travel books as well as popular Turkish, Russian and Western writers works.

In a miniaturist’s stall I found images painted in shades of indigo of Noah’s Ark, and Jonah and the Whale, both Noah and Jonah wearing turbans. I also saw 17th century paintings of astronomers and alchemists in the Topkapi Palace as well as my favorite, a miniature done in red and gold and black and white of a writer at work. He sat in front of a desk that looked liked a three-dimensional triangular box, which served as an easle-like desk. The author painted his words in calligraphy.

While strolling I stopped at a stall that happened to have the translation of a novel by Michael Gurian Turkiye De Bir Amerikali Mistik, American Mystic in Turkey, a writer from my hometown Spokane, Washington. The book was situated just outside the door of a bookshop, at eye level. The world shrank in that instant and I marveled at the odds that I had stumbled on Gurian’s work.

When the call to prayer permeated the market from the nearby mosque, men clogged the foot traffic as they stopped to wash their hands and feet—the ritual cleansing before entering the mosque—in the marble sinks that line one of the main lane of the market. In the Sahaflar Carsisi —as in a good novel—life and work and prayer are one seamless story.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Claire's Guest Editorial

Claire has a great guest editorial in the Spokane Spokesman-Review today. It's all about listening more and ranting less when other people's political views differ from our own. Awesome job Claire!

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cats, Rabbits and Good Fortunes -- Part 1

Kediler. Istanbul is a city of cats. They crawl between your legs beneath restaurant tables. Cry outside your window day and night. They melt men’s hearts. Or at least in most instances, I see the men in this neighborhood feeding the cats. Engin, the carpet artisan I had mentioned in an earlier blog when discussing Wall Street, poured a bowl of milk today for a mother and two kittens. "I will have to move them somewhere, perhaps to the camii, the mosque, where they won’t get hit by cars." A ney or reed flute master, whom I met a few days ago, only after I waited for him to spoon cat food from a can into two bowls, one for each cat, that lived by his studio in the quiet medressah beside the Kucuk Ayasofya—a church, now mosque. Lastly, the waiter who took away my left over eggplant and lamb kabob, who said he had alti or six kediler to feed.

Cats, Rabbits and Good Fortunes -- Part 2

There are rabbits in Istanbul too, but as far as I can tell, there are only iki—two—and they tell your fortune. People stop and pet them and some, like me, ask for a fortune. The rabbit fortune teller offers them in English or Turkish. His rabbits sniff out a fortune for you from a board that is stuffed with tiny pieces of paper, inside which are morsels of lettuce. I chose a fortune written in Turkish, which my Turkish teacher read but unfortunately would not translate for me during class time. After much anticipation, and much trouble while using my oversized Turkish-English sozluk, I showed my slip of paper with the fortune typed on it to the clerk at my hotel. Ufuk, who studied English for two years in New York. relayed the good news...Whatever problems I may have had with my work in the past, after taking a respite (which, coincidentally, I am doing just now, in Istanbul), will be gone when I return and/or I will bring back new insight with which to deal with these problems. I understand this fortune to mean that after my stay in Turkey I will discover exactly how to revise my current novel, and that the manuscripts my agent is presently trying to sell, will be sold by the time I return! A guzel fortune indeed. Cats and all.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Stumbling Upon an Artists' Colony

have an interest in studying and exploring and writing about places where different cultures and religions come together and Istanbul's past and present seems a perfect fit. Two days ago I went looking for a Christian church, curious to see how an Eastern Orthodox community tucks itself into this predominately Muslim city. As in keeping with most of my adventures, I found something other than what I had set out to find. At one point, on a street corner, a policeman, a taxi driver and an elderly man in a business suit all gathered round me to try to understand what I was looking for. The older man asked, "Agha Sophia? Agha Sophia?" Meaning the large Byzantine Cathedral built in the time of Constantine.

"Yok, kucuk, Agha Sophia" No, a small Agha Sophia, I explained, hoping he would understand that I meant church. My Turkisk-English dictionary, too heavy to carry, I had left in my room.

"Kucuk? Kucuk?" he asked, because undoubtedly I wasn't pronunciating correctly.

The policeman rested an arm on the machine gun strapped across his chest. "Small? Small Agha Sophia?"

"Yes!" I smiled and nodded.

The elder man walked at least a half of mile with me out of his way toward the church. Along our route he asked people of its exact location. "Dort cadsessi," the fourth street, a fruit vendor had told him. When we reached the correct street the old man waved good-bye but stood waiting for the traffic to pass and for me to cross the cobbled stone road. When he thought I was hesitating, he waved me on, pointing to the church. I dared not waste a second to look for a landmark so that I could retrace my steps in this knot of a village within the city, as I was afraid he would waste even more of his time by taking me by the hand and leading me the rest of the way there.

Down this lane, I first came across a pile of split wood, perhaps half of a cord, wondering how it got there as there were so few trees in sight. A few steps further, I received an answer to my question when I came upon a wood artist's studio. A man and women inside welcomed me. Munir Erboru offered me a seat and told that he has been wood-burning images for twenty years. His student Hasipekaya has been studying with Munir for two years. She is also a computer programing student at a university in Istanbul.

When I asked them about the church at the end of the alley, they smiled and said it was a mosque. It hasn't been a church since 1453. Stepping through the gates to the old church, now the Kucuk Agha Camii, or mosque, I could see remnants of what might have been a cloister wall, which later became part of a medresseh, a religious school, and now served as an artists colony. Ney, reed flute musicians, wood furniture restorers, jewelry makers and miniaturists gather here to work and teach.

This church-mosque-artists studio and street felt imbued with a creative spirit of no specific and yet all faiths.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Nobel Prize Winner on Historical Fiction

Orhan Pamuk on Historical Fiction

I have yet to spot Orhan Pamuk, Turkish writer and 2006 recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature, but found his latest essays Other Colours for sale in The Book Shop, a store devoted to English translations of everything having to do with Turkey and regional culture. Ali Tuysuz is the owner of this Sultanahmet establishment along with a twin store across the street. A busy tram cars runs between them every five minutes carrying commuters and tourists.

As I paid for Pamuk’s collection, soon to be released in the U.S., I asked one of the employees his opinion on historical fiction. Did he feel that it helps us understand the world today. "Of course!" Sener, said.

"Can you give me a specific example?" I said.

Sener smiled but clammed up. "Well...take a look at this book, for instance," he reached for the book Birds Without Wings, by Louis de Bernieres and opened it to the page full of blurbs. "Even the guide book for Turkey, Lonely Planet, says, ‘If you read one book about Turkey, make this it.’"

On the rooftop garden at my hotel, I pulled out Other Colours, choosing to read the essay where the book fell open. It was an essay on Dostoevsky novel Demons. This "greatest political novel of all time," according to Pamuk, explored "man’s will to power, his capacity for forgiveness, his ability to deceive himself and others...." What Pamuk said in this essay couldn't have been more pertinent to my quest for the truth about historical fiction. "And so, when as a young leftist I read Demons, it seemed to me that the story was not about Russia a hundred years earlier but about Turkey, which had succumb to a radical politics...I remember asking myself at the time why no one talked about the revelations in this book. It had so much to tell us about our own times."

Do you think historical fiction is relevant today? Do you agree with Sener and the Nobel Laureate or the Governor from Wasilla?

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Books, The Orient Express and The Quest For Truth About Historical Fiction

My walk today turned out to be a literary tour of sorts when I came upon the train station that was the terminus of the Orient Express. These days halls of the station evoke not the mysteries of Agatha Christie, but those of the whirling dervishes, who give performances in this elegant old building. The station faces the Golden Horn, the "inlet" that in some respects bisects part of Istanbul north and south. I cross this body of water by tram on the Galata Bridge en route to my language classes. This bridge, according to Wikipedia, has been referenced or depicted in theater, poetry and novels.

Near the Orient Express station is a warm book nook called Polat Kitabcilik Ticaret Ltd.

Children’s books covered the surface of a bookshelf, which stood in the center of the store. Hopeful to meet local children’s book writers, I asked the clerk, whose name is Ilkay, if there were any children’s authors living in Istanbul. We had trouble communicating, but I believe her answer was yok, no. Browsing among the titles were several from the late Turkish writer Omer Seyfettin, such as Diyet and Verman, who died in 1920. I kept searching, hoping to find a living Turkish author whom I could meet. But the other titles were translations of Harriet Beecher Stowe, R.L. Stevenson, Charles Dickins, and Alexander Dumas The Three Musketeers. I bought the latter, hoping that I might be able to read phrases or even whole sentences from this novel when I have finished my course.

Finding all these historical fiction books brought two thoughts to mind. One was Govenor Sarah Palin’s recent comment to Joe Biden during the vice presidential debate, "There you go again Joe, talking about the past." To which Senator Biden replied, "I like to think of history as prologue." My other memory was the discussion last spring on the Cooperative Children’s Book Center list serve. Someone made the comment that much of what is published in the U.S. for children that is set in the Middle East is historical fiction, which offers little help in understanding the region today.

As a writer of historical fiction I was surprised by this CCBC and Palin’s comment. Like Biden, I believe there is a direct relationship between past and present. Part of the solution to a current problem lies in knowing what caused it. Perhaps if Govenor Palin traveled to a city like Istanbul, she would see tangible evidence of how the past and present co-exist, particularly in the architecture, such as Christian cathedrals, turned mosques, turned museums. Or old Ottoman wood homes turned into souvenir or convenience stores. Istanbul is a palimpsest of traditions and eras all influencing each other. The city’s history of cultural intermingling has produced a positive outcome in everything from cuisine to music to the good-natured people themselves, who appear remarkably unstressed for a city of 10 million. It’s most evident on their subways, the place where one would expect to witness coldness or impatience or belligerence. This relaxed behavior seems everywhere. Men are often seen laughing with one another or relaxing and drinking tea outside their shops. I even saw a waiter inside a bank—just one week after the news of the Wall Street collapse—walking among the office desks serving cay to employees as they chatted quietly among each other.

I believe historical fiction has much to offer contemporary readers, particularly as a comfortable vantage point from which to learn about events and circumstances that happened long ago, which directly apply to issues today. Topics that have not gone away from century to century, such as war, abuse of women and children, love, loss, and discrimination. My novel Anahita’s Woven Riddle, a story about marriage customs in roughly 1900 Iran, is relevant to women around the world today. Muslim or not, the tension between tradition and progress, as well as the notion of choice are topics with which all nationalities struggle, including the United States. I was pleased to learn that Anahita helped a young woman I had taught in Doha, Qatar, when she was considering her predicament of wanting to attend college outside of Doha. She said that after reading the novel she began to think of ways in which she could respect her tradition and yet work out a solution with her parents about her education. "It’s never about throwing out all of the past," she said. "That won’t help change things, but only cause more resistence."

While exploring the bookstores of Istanbul, I decided to get the Turkish perspective on the matter of historical fiction. First, from Ilkay, an obvious booklover. It involved a bit of work. I sat on a on a stool and looked up each word I needed to say to her in my newly-purchased, OVERSIZED, Turkish-English dictionary. After about ten minutes, during which time dozens of people stopped in the store to talk with her and buy books, I had my words for her to decipher: Ben yokluk gorussme sen kakkinda tarihi roman. Bin soru. Bir gun sonra (Turkish punctuation and accents omitted). I want to interview you about historical fiction. One question, someday soon. She knew I meant with a translator from our previous attempt at conversing. Ilkay took my note pad and read it twice, consulting her co-worker. They furrowed their brows and scrunched up their faces. Then Ilkay looked up. "Does anyone speak English?" she asked. I knew this because I recognized the word Inglizce and was fairly certain I must have scribbled gibberish. After several inquiries, one highschool girl said yes. So, I said to her, "Back home some librarians feel that historical fiction offers little toward understanding issues of today. I would like to hear Ilkay’s opinion."

Through my young translator, Ilkay said, "Historical fiction is read here much, it is becoming a...a fashion."

Since I am not sure my question was put forth accurately, I plan to interview Ilkay and several other booksellers along this stretch of the cobble stone road beside the old Orient Express with a transaltor. For now, their thoughts on the matter must remain a mystery.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

All Politics is Local


My intensive Turkish language class is tough but fun. I’ve learned much in just two days but my jet lag kicks in during the fourth hour when I become worthless.

Just when I thought I had traveled far enough from home to leave behind the last several weeks of the presidential debates and the economic capriciousness, I met Engin. En route to the tram that takes me to Taksim Square, where the Tomer Language School, is, I have had the pleasure of visiting with this local rug artisan who refashions pieces of Oriental carpets and kilims into hand and travel bags. He has invited me to join him for tea to practice Turkish and I plan to take him up on his offer. Meanwhile, this is what he said to me when I ducked in to ask him where I could buy a fan for my room.

"For electrical appliances you must go to a part of town called Karakoy. It is like Wall Street in New York, with lots of banks. Only they have money."

I grinned. "Can you believe the mess the U.S. is in?"

"They are all stupid. It’s all about getting people in debt," Engin says, putting down his leather tools so that he can gesticulate better with his hands. "They spend 500, even 5,000 on a dinner in New York and yet people elsewhere feel lucky to have bread. Stupid! But there are people like them here in Turkey, too. Everywhere."

When I visit Engin again, I will ask him how he would deal with the Wall Street debacle and who he would like to see become the next president of the United States. Perhaps after that, I’ll leave politics behind...


Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Greetings from Turkey!

I couldn't have dreamed of a more lovely and inspirational view from my Istanbul writing desk. I am here for two months of soaking up the local culture while I study theTurkish language. I awoke this am to the sound of a muezin, calling the city to prayer from this mosque, which is called the BLue Mosque. It stands opposite the Agha Sophia, once a Byzantine cathedral. Ships are floating alongside clusters of fishing boats in the Bosphorous behind. A sea breeze is sweeping across my keyboard. More to come when I am less jet lagged...


Monday, October 6, 2008

About Those Cinderella Stories...

Check out Joanna Weiss's article, "Fear of Fairy Tales," in the Sep. 21, edition of the Boston Globe. In it, she writes that modern re-tellings of fairy tales are so sanitized, they're rendered impotent. Disney is, of course, an easy target when making this claim. Their "Little Mermaid," drifts so far from the Hans Christian Andersen's original that the only thing left in common between the two is a fin. Disney's heroine marries her prince; Andersen's sacrifices earthly love as well as her own life, but is rewarded with an eternal soul. I read the original to my own daughter when she was about four, skipping over the more violent descriptions. It was, still is, a favorite.

Weiss argues that bland characters sell more associated toys. Based on the number of mermaid dolls my daughter owns, I might disagree. Weiss notes that the original Rapunzel somehow got pregnant up in that tower, and what parent wants to buy her daughter a pregnant Rapunzel? (Well, Sarah Palin, maybe, but that's for another post...) I think there's more to it than marketing. Fairy tales get a bad rap, but they deal with some complex emotions. For the Little Mermaid, the story's subtle message is that sometimes love means letting go. Maybe we assume children can't understand nuance in a story because we struggle with nuance ourselves.

Watch the audience graph droop during the presidential debates when a candidate attempts to explain a complex issue. We grownups need our information in black and white, in bullet points, in sound bites. Save the gray areas for those wacky academic types! It's possible that by spending a little more time in some old-fashioned fairy tales, we'd all do a little better handling reality.

-- cross posted to Under the Covers...