Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Religious Rackets Racquets

Honestly, I don't know why this story amuses me so much but it does. And I have absolutely no doubt that it says far far more about me than anything else but, still, petty, juvenile, puerile amused I remain.

In the Anatolian town of Konya - one of the most religiously conservative parts of Turkey - the mufti there has announced that students taking a summer course in Qu'ranic studies will also have the opportunity to learn badminton.

Yes, students who opt to save their souls by taking the 8-week God-intensive classes and, of course, who express a modicum of interest in the game, will be able to "watch a CD on badminton and then participate in the sport." There is no mention of an actual instructor.

The roots (or feathers) of badminton can be traced back to ancient Greece and given the on-again/off-again hostilities Turkey harbours towards Greece (i.e., since the dawn of time Greece has stolen anything & everything it possibly could - including a few islands in the Aegean - from Turkey), I'm surprised that they even allow it played here, let alone in a religious institution. Indeed, one of my favourite games at school is suggesting to students that it was the Greeks who invented baklava or the döner. Money just can't buy moments like those.

Then again, besides producing stunning carpets and religious zealots, Konya is the final resting place for Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, the Persian poet who was the founder of the Sufi order - of Whirling Dervishes fame. Maybe spinning mystics and flailing racquets aren't that incongruous.

In any case, I just hope the word shuttlecock translates into something equally prurient in Turkish.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Close Encounters of the 4th Kind

It's been a while (I think) since I've dipped my toe into the churning waters of political incorrectness so I think the time to stick my foot in it (i.e., those churning waters of political incorrectness) is long overdue. And to be fair, I wasn't even going to bother spilling any more ink on this topic (my previous vents are well-documented) were it not for the fact that a visiting friend, himself a Turk now living in Canada, raised the topic while we catching up in Istanbul recently.

What's with these women? he asked. Look at them! What's happening to this country?

My friends: I give you The Headscarf.

But not The Headscarf per se, but The Turkish Headscarf. (Or perhaps what fashionistas might call The Scarf à la turque.)

So while Presidents Obama and Sarkozy battle over a woman's right to wear a scarf - which itself is tied up with Turkey's future in the EU - and rather than airing my own feelings about covered women, or even commenting on the often volatile politics of the headscarf in this country tempted though I am, let me just say this: headscarved women here are weird-looking.

And by weird-looking I mean that those heads that are so modestly covered by shiny gaudy synthetic silk scarves look
like they belong on a space alien or an 18th Dynasty Egyptian princess.


It just seems that Turkey is overrun by women with misshapen heads. Our friend, who had just returned from a trip to Saudi and the Emirates - where no women wore their scarves accordingly - couldn't get over it: they look like aliens he gushed. Yup. Took the words right out of my mouth.

I have lived and worked and travelled in enough Muslim countries to know that covered women needn't look like this. It is avoidable! And yes, I understand that there are different styles for different regions and for different ages and for different budgets: I have seen the so-called rapunzel-style, the Jerusalem twist, the simple ribbon style, the simple square scarf. But this?

At first I thought there might be a head bustle at work or a skull extender of sorts under all that rayon. Then I thought that perhaps women here are tying back their hair into a chignon of sorts, a chignon which juts out almost perpendicularly from the back of their heads. Once layered and scarved, the hair bump becomes exaggerated. Or maybe not. Of course, I could just shell out the cash for the videos How to Wear a Turkish Hijab (volumes 7 and 8) but didn't I find the links on youtube? - which is banned in Turkey because of anti-Atatürk comments made on the site, but, because this is Turkey and everything is possible, there are ways to circumvent the ban.

So I checked out the tutorial (don't bother unless you've already seen its sister video: How to Watch Paint Dry, volumes 2 and 3) and, for the most part, it was as useless as tits on a bull although I did appreciate the tip on hairspraying the scarf to keep it nicely arched. Then finally at the 8:12 point, the demonstrator mentions that the wearer should put her hair up in a high bun with a loose pony-tail which makes no sense to me because it's either a high bun or a pony tail, right?

Nonetheless ... bingo! Voilà: The grotesque head bump.

Of course, not all women look like they're packing a cycling helmet under their scarves: many don't bother covering their heads at all while others opt for the cocoon-like vitamin D-sucking full niqab. And of course some wear a normal headscarf and I-can't-believe-I-just-made-reference-to-a-normal-headscarf. But it does seem that the covering of female follicles is on the rise in Turkey where over 60% of women already wear some form of head covering.

Personally, I'm rather smitten with one of my alien-headed female students who came to class last week with a face piercing. Not sure how that fits into the whole ideal of feminine desexualization modesty but perhaps the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh) just wasn't all that forward-thinking. Ooops, did I just say that out loud?

Monday, June 8, 2009

When Om Means No

After I left Morocco, I swore that I would never work in a Muslim country again which, at the time, meant never ever ever again but which actually meant that I would never work in a Muslim country again unless the conditions were really really really good. Unfortunately, those particular Muslim countries which offer really really really good conditions either hold little or no appeal to me or won't hire me.

But when the prospect of gainful if not somewhat illegal employment in Turkey reared its wattled head, I paused and considered the matter. After all, as I said elsewhere, Turkey is not an Islamic country, its 99% Muslim citizens (and its gazillion mosques) notwithstanding
. Turkey is a secular country, does not promote any one religion, and supports religious freedoms. At least on paper.

And while I'm talking about paper, let me toss up this little gem which recently saw the light of day in one of Turkey's English-language newspapers. Entitled It's OK to Stretch, Just Don't Believe, it outlines concerns that Ali Bardakoğlu, the head of the Directorate of Religious Affairs has about - wait for it - yoga.

Let me just say that when I saw that such an animal as the
Directorate of Religious Affairs should even exist in a secular country, which does not promote any one religion, and supports religious freedoms (at least on paper), my head spun. Not in any Exorcist sort of way, but spin it did.

So here it is in a nutshell: Mr. Bardakoğlu is worried that people - presumably Muslims - who practice yoga will become extremists. Funny, I never equated the words yoga, extremism and Islam before but then again, I never bothered to read the 9/11 Commission Report. Anyway, as we all know, and he goes to great pains to remind us, yoga-induced extremism leads to the disintegration of traditional Islamic beliefs. These concerns were widely published in right-wingnut, conservative papers with the headline Yoga Warning from Religious Affairs. And I thought the only warning we needed to heed before assuming Downward Facing Dog was to consult our physicians before attempting such exercises.

Moreover, he adds, it is often loneliness that pushes otherwise Allah-fearing men and women towards yoga. And for him, the real concern is why these
otherwise Allah-fearing men and women aren't finding the answers to what ails them in Islam. Because the answers are there. All of them.

It's probably because the poses aren't much fun.

According to Mr.Bardakoğlu, because its roots lie in Indian-oriented Far Eastern philosophy, yoga is at fundamental odds with Islam and its practitioners are doing nothing less than indulging in missionary (proselyting not the position) activities. By asserting that yogis are only relieving stress and acquiring flexibility by a Half Lord of the Fishes pose is, at best, disingenuous. And of course, at worst, it propagates a "religion" which is anti-Islam. And in the middle? - it's feeding a cash sacred cow, i.e., the yoga industry. He adds "The services in Islam, for instance, are free." Fair enough. One for Mr.Bardakoğlu.

Mr. Bardakoğlu's comments have instigated a flurry of responses from around the country ranging from wholehearted support to the more sane some head-scratching what-the-fuck?'s. Personally, I would like to pause and have a WWAD (What Would Atatürk Do?) moment. I would like to think that Modern Turkey's Founding Father would have a few shots of rakı (his favourite tipple) and remind Bardakoğlu that blessed are the flexible, for they shall not be bent out of shape.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Relic Hunter 2009

It was announced recently that a certain Mr. Necat Selimoğlu has filed a petition to quash the serving - and presumably, the drinking - of alcohol from the Konyalı Restaurant at Istanbul's Topkapı Palace. In other words, he wants the restaurant's government issued & inviolably legal pre-existing alcohol permit torn into a million little pieces and strewn in the Bosphorous Sea. Or possibly the Sea of Marmara. Maybe even the Black Sea. I don't think his petition is quite that specific.

In any case, the
Topkapı Palace is just one of many sparkling jewels in Istanbul's jewel-heavy crown - whether you're a historian, tourist, or a cat-lover (there is a formidable herd of well-tended cats on the Palace's sprawling grounds) - a visit to what was once the official residence of the Ottoman Sultans for some 400 years is de rigueur. But what may no longer be de rigueur is a nicely chilled glass of Efes beer after a day gawking at, among other things, thrones, calligraphic manuscripts, porcelain and more diamonds than you can throw a stick at.

And why, you ask, does Mr
. Selimoğlu wish to snatch this not very guilty pleasure away from millions of visitors? Well, it would seem that among the sacred relics housed on site are:

* the Prophet
Mohammed's (pbuh) mantle
* the Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) standard
* the Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) sandal
* the Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) cup
* the Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) seal
* the Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) footprint on a stone (my personal favourite)
* the Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) swords & a bow
* the Prophet Muhammad's (pbuh) soil which he used for ritual ablutions, and
* the Prophet Mohammed's (pbuh) tooth

Do you detect a common theme? Moses' staff, the forearm of John the Baptist (the head would have been really neat), King David's sword, and Joseph's (He of the Technicolour Dreamcoat) turban (the Technicolour Dreamcoat would have been far more impressive) are apparently kept on the Palace grounds as well, but their proximity to gin martinis and nicely chilled glasses of Efes beer doesn't seem to be rattling Mr. Selimoğlu too much.

Nope, it's the Prophet's
(pbuh) swag.

According to
Mr. Selimoğlu, the alcohol permit is a "curse" on the Holy Tooth. I don't know if he expects some divine retaliatory action taken against Turkey on account of this juxtaposition of tooth and tipple - apart from granting Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and me residency permits - but he is seething with righteous indignation. The government is taking his petition seriously, (i.e., it's been officially received) presumably - and hopefully - because it has to. Turkey is not an Islamic country, its 99% Muslim citizens notwithstanding. And my limited understanding of all things Turkish suggests that the government likes receiving millions of tourist dollars tourists a year.

Needless to say, the restaurant's owner is less than enthusiastic.

I have my own opinion about relics of any faith - Calvin once opined that there are enough fragments of the "true cross" to build a sizeable ship - and I don't want this post to devolve into a fit of giggles debate about their authenticity and veneration.
(Tempting though it is.) No, this is about something more important: it's about liquor. And given that the Prophet (pbuh) himself is said to have said (to have said) that there are rivers of clean water, fresh milk, and wine - "delicious for the drinkers" (Sura 47:15) in no less than Paradise, then perhaps Mr. Selimoğlu's petition should be filled away in a manner which would have made those ancient file-pushing byzantine bureaucrats of Old Constantinople weak in the knees. Like under a mile-high stack of paper.