Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why Did the Turkey Cross The Road?

First let me say that since I've been in Turkey, I have never seen a car - or rather a car driver - stop for a pedestrian at a crosswalk. In fact, I could expand upon that theme and state that since I've been in Turkey, I have never seen a car - or rather a car driver - stop for a pedestrian (period. full stop) ... but that's not terribly relevant to what I want to relate (but I did want to say it).

Today, however, on the way back from (the italics demand that you pay attention to the preposition) Carrefour, Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and I actually saw two real live traffic police officers not sitting idly in their cars stationed along a very busy stretch of road - at crosswalks. At crosswalks. And what were they doing? you ask. They were stopping traffic to allow passengers, descending from the gazillion dolmuşes - the veritable stuffed grape leaves on wheels - which pull over willy-nilly to the sides of the road, to safely cross at the crosswalks. Without the traffic police officers, the cars, buses & trucks which careen perilously along these roads would never have stopped. Even with the traffic police officers, many of the cars, buses & trucks which careen perilously along these roads didn't stop.

Nonetheless, this is a mighty step forward.

But why were the traffic police there in the first place
rather than sitting idly in their cars? An hour earlier, on the way to Carrefour, Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and I saw a woman enter a crosswalk and get beaned by an oncoming truck. Although to be accurate, Mr. This Cat's saw a woman enter a crosswalk and get beaned by an oncoming truck - I didn't. As soon as Mr. This Cat yelled omigodthattruckisgoingtohitthatwoman! I closed my eyes and turned my head (just for good measure). And although she wasn't killed, she was nonetheless hit. By a truck. By a truck who completely disregarded the crosswalk sign - like every other driver in Izmit.

And the moral of the story? Well, there is none. But whenever I bring up the issue of Turkish drivers and their wanton disregard for human - i.e., pedestrian - life, my students snigger. Sometimes that snigger is accompanied by a what-can-you-do shrug which I think is supposed to pass as acknowledgement but without any accountability. Frankly, it makes my blood boil. And although I know that the government says that it's taking the fact that drivers routinely plough through crosswalks seriously, it's a little hard to believe when

a) you've never seen a driver stop at a crosswalk, or
b) you've never seen a police officer ticket a car who failed to stop at a crosswalk

Of course, one might observe that the truck in question did stop at the crosswalk, but only to extricate the pedestrian from his front right wheel well. The good news - if there is any - was that it took less than 5 minutes for the ambulance to arrive.

Theoretically Turkey still wants in to the EU, although popular support is waning. Many many people believe that the EU is either putting up insurmountable roadblocks to Turkey's accession because it either hates Islam or just hates Turkey. For Turkey to join the EU, it must first successfully complete negotiations with the European Commission on all 35 chapters of the so-called acquis communautaire - the corpus of EU law. Once this has happened, all other EU members vote and, if they are unanimous, Turkey will become a member state. Turkey has performed miserably on many of the chapters - notably, on issues concerning the environment, justice, and freedom. But I'd like to add one more: crosswalks. Until drivers here are fined or trained or enlightened to the point where they stop for pedestrians, they don't belong in the EU.

End of rant ...

Oooops, I almost forgot: and why did the turkey cross the road? Because it had a death wish.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Visa Run 2009

Bayramı begins on Thursday - a black day on the calendar if you are a cow or a sheep in the Muslim world. Or a vegetarian. Or by caring human beings. And what now seems a long time ago, with the prospect of these five days of merriment and death a scant 106 days away (and counting), Mr. This Cat's (Not) Abroad and I came up with the rather brilliant idea of spending Islam's Festival of Death in the Greek city of Thessaloníki (also known as Salonika or Saloniki) in Macedonia. The city, it seems, has much to recommend it:

a) it's in Greece where the chances of watching cows running down the street in a futile attempt to escape their executioners would be minimal, if not nonexistent
b) it was reachable by a groovy overnight train
it's touted as "Greek's Hippest City" by no less than the city itself
d) it's a UNESCO World Heritage city with 3000 years of history, with relics from its Roman, Byzantine, Jewish and Ottoman past.
e) it's the birthplace of Atatürk and therefore, a worthy place of pilgrimage.

And in spite of the fact that one of our most educated and erudite students (a judge, no less) told us that
Thessaloníki (also known as Salonika or Saloniki) was a 3rd World City in a 3rd World Country not worthy of being in the EU (= sour grapes), we made further enquiries. We booked a hotel. We were excited.

But because this is
Byzantium Turkey after all - the cradle of red tape bureaucracy - all of our best-laid plans inevitably went circling around the bowl when, after five dozen or so nagging reminders to my Place of Questionably Gainful Employment about my work visa (i.e., where is my work visa?) finally bore spoiled, rancid fruit (i.e., we don't know). This, two weeks before my residence permit was set to expire. This, three months after Mr. This Cat received his work visa. So, to recap:

a) After 9 months of waiting, I still had no work visa and the likelihood of it ever surfacing was finally recognized as, well, unlikely,
b) I would be here illegally in two weeks,
c) I would have to do a border run.

Although my Place of Questionably Gainful Employment suggested that I do my border run before the residence visa expired (i.e., losing several days of work), we decided to do it during Islam's Festival of Death and pay the hopefully minimal fee for overstaying my welcome by 4 days. Our decision then was to scrap Thessaloníki (also known as Salonika or Saloniki) and head to Bulgaria, the border run favoured by most Illegals in Turkey. We made the decision to accept this Plan B with more grace than we usually do and actually got a little excited at the prospect. We chose the city of Plovdiv - the country's 2nd largest city and home to ancient Roman ruins and craploads of casinos.


And because
we would be travelling at the beginning of Islam's Festival of Death - not unlike travelling on Christmas Eve - we decided to take the (soon-to-be-dead) bull by the horns and go into Istanbul and buy our tickets in advance. We patted each other on the back. How proactive we are! we said to each other (pat-pat). Even though our buying tickets early is truly unnecessary (pat-pat). I mean, who goes to Plovdiv? Who goes to a city which sounds like the plop-plop sound human excrement makes when it hits the water? We even prepared a note with our travelling dates and our destination to facilitate the ticket-buying process (pat-pat).

So Saturday afternoon, we take the bus to Istanbul. Our spirits are high. We would pick up our tickets to Plovdiv (plop-plop) and then do some shopping. Such fun we will have! we said (pat-pat). Along the highway into the city we pass cramped corral after
cramped corral, packed pen after packed pen of Doomed Sheep, and not too surprisingly, our spirits fall.

I made a vow, I said to Mr. This Cat. (Specifically:
I will never be present for another Eid)
I did too, he said.
Fuck, we said.

We pass the last of the Doomed Sheep - fruitlessly wishing them a speedy and painless death - and get off the bus. Soon we are at the train station which houses The Most Unhelpful Tourist Bureau in the World. Fortunately, we don't have to avail ourselves of its stellar services today, and we approach a wicket.

Do you speak English? we ask what looks to be a Nice Woman.
A little, she replies - which in Turkey means a fair amount, while in Italy it means absolutely none at all.

We show her the note we have prepared and Mr. Cat starts his spiel and shows her our prepared note. She lets Mr. Cat finish his spiel and then points around the corner.

International tickets, she says.

We round the corner where there is a sign for international tickets, as well as several ticket windows for international tickets, several desks - presumably to accommodate those agents who sell international tickets, but no agents. And no lights on.

We wait. Eventually a man appears. Eventually a man appears who does not seem to be as nice as the Nice Woman. We choose to not enquire into his ability to speak English as he works at the international ticket counter, so he undoubtedly does. In a very short time we would learn that his repertoire of English is limited to the word no.

No, as in, we'd like tickets to Plovdiv for the 26th of November.
We hand him the note. Perhaps this will help.
It's full? Sold out? we ask.
He nods.
Mr. This Cat and I look at each other rather
desperately. A Plan C? Do we have a Plan C?
What about the 25th?
He nods.
And a train back on the 28th?
And a train back on the 29th?
Fuck, we say.
Mr. This Cat and I look at each other rather desperately. A Plan D? Do we have a plan D? We don't have a Plan D. We feverishly send each other telepathic thoughts: How are these trains sold out? Who goes to Plovdiv? Who goes to a city which sounds like the plop-plop sound human excrement makes when it hits the water?

I look at the hand-painted sign on the wall with its international (this is, after all, the international ticket counter) destinations.

How about Thessaloníki (also known as Salonika or Saloniki) on the 26th?
The 25th?
He nods.
Returning on the 28th?
He nods.


So there you have it. Mr. No takes out his pen and a ream of carbon paper (!) and, considerately assuming that we want first-class compartments, writes out
our tickets - tickets which we cannot for the life of us read - but which we sincerely hope are for the 12 1/2 hour overnight train Thessaloníki (also known as Salonika or Saloniki) ... for my border run - an escapade whose tickets cost three times the price of tickets to Plovdiv, the city which sounds like the plop-plop sound human excrement makes when it hits the water. Yes, in three days, we will be hurtling through a countryside ankle-deep in the blood of sacrificed (killed) animals on our way to a 3rd World City in a 3rd World Country not worthy of being in the EU. We are excited. What can go wrong?

We are excited. What can go wrong? ... did I just write that? Really, we should know better.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Curbing Kurban

Wherein the reader will condescend to allow the author a relatively brief (for her), politically incorrect and religiously intolerant rant ...

Back in January of 2006, I promised myself that It would be my last. In December 2006, I kept my word. Ditto for December of '07. December of last year comes and I stay true to my word. I am awesome and oh so very very principled.

Welcome to November 2009 and I am here. And they are out there: millions and millions of sheep and cows awaiting the butcher's knife and millions and millions of Muslims are standing by, kebab skewers in hand. It's not like this has come as any surprise: for weeks now, grocery stores have been sending out flyers to finance your sacrificial (soon to be killed) animal (in 12 easy instalments); for your viewing displeasure, promotional meet-your-meat-sacrifice videos can be seen in shopping malls. Mr. This Cat and I joined the crowd this afternoon in front of one such monitor. We saw:

a) unhappy-looking cows,
b) the cramped conditions of
(soon to be killed) unhappy-looking cows,
c) a (soon to be killed)
unhappy-looking cow being led into a rotating box while a vigilant vet (man in a white lab coat & holding a clipboard) watches nearby,
Unhappy-looking This Cat's Abroad and Mr. This Cat walking away to avoid splattering the floor with partially digested bits of their granola bars.

A Brief Digression: Muslim - like Jewish - regulations for slaughtering animals typically run
along religious lines. Many so-called religious slaughterhouses have been reproached by caring human beings for using shackles & hoists (to suspend a leg or legs), trip floor boxes (boxes with a slanted floor which cause the animal to fall down), as well as leg clamping rotating boxes in an effort to control the (scared shitless) animal. For more, read me in a previous rant incarnation.

Muslim slaughtering practices were recently defended - if not extoled - by an acquaintance of ours who said that (soon to be killed) animals are individually hugged by their butchers (killers) just before they are killed. Let me very plain about this:

a) no, there was no hugging during the promotional video
b) yes, this acquaintance of ours isn't 7-years old but believes what he says.

of Brief Digression

To resume ... in 13 days, Muslims around the world will celebrate Eid al-Adha - what is known in Turkey as Kurban Bayramı - the Festival of the Sacrifice. Coming 70 days after Ramadan, it is a time of joy and celebration (unless you are a cow or a sheep) and for me, a time of mourning.

The ritual slaughter (it's not killing, my students continually correct me, it's sacrificing - small consolation to the sheep and the cows) is drawn from that pluckiest of feel-good books, the Old Testament, wher
e Abraham's gobsmacking willingness (what OT fans call "faith") to sacrifice (see, I didn't say kill) his son Ismael to Yahweh was rewarded by a ram being sent in to pinch hit at the last minute.

Unfortunately, there was no last minute reprieve for the ram.

So now, in just less than 2 weeks, the country will be awash in the blood of sacrificial (i.e. freshly killed) quadrupeds. In January 2006, after watching my Moroccan neighbours kill their sheep (plural) in the parking lot below my bedroom window, and hang their (i.e., the sheep's) carcasses (plural) on nearby palm trees, I did in fact swear that I would never be present for another Eid.

I will never be present for another Eid, I said.

In Morocco's capital city, it was common to hear the sheep destined for the hibachi bleating from the city's balconies, underground car parks and roof tops during the days (and nights) running up to the Eid. Then, of course, it would be deathly silent by 10:30 that morning. O the horror!

And so far I've managed to keep my word. But I can't get out of Death Valley Dodge fast enough. Our train to Bulgaria (that's for another blog ...) doesn't leave until nightfall.

And here? I ask. Will I hear bleating? Pitiful pitiful bleating? Pitiful pitiful bleating followed by the Silence of the Lambs?

We do not kill lambs, my students admonish me. Sheep must be at least 1-year old.

Fuck you. It was a literary allusion.

And usually we sacrifice (kill) cows - not sheep, my students tell me. It takes 7 or so men to restrain and sacrifice (kill) a cow.

(translation = real men don't kill sheep. Sheep are for wussies.)

How manly you all are! I gush (inside my head).

And the actual killing?
I ask out loud, abjuring the s-word.

It's illegal to sacrifice (kill) your animal at home, they assure me. It must be done at a certified abattoir (killing place), by a certified butcher (killer).

But ... they concede. It depends on the municipality. And if you have a garden ...


There's a huge parking lot below our bedroom window. I swear to God th
at I'm going to have the biggest breakfast known to humankind (I have a much coveted and slightly dented tube of Pillsbury Crescent rolls bought in Athens, just waiting for the right occasion) and if any animal dies below that window, I'm going to hurl a whole lot of lovin' from the oven onto my neighbours' heads.

Either way you slice it, it's not going to be pretty.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Tattoos for Turks

In a desperate attempt to introduce a topic which might just possibly, sort of, perhaps appeal to my weekend class of under 22-year olds (having judged the 5-page biography of Helen Keller as a sure-fire egg bomber), I wrote "tattoo" on the board. Love them or hate them, at the very least everyone has an opinion about tats. I inwardly giggled in glee at the hours and hours I could milk out of this topic - for surely this is every teacher's dream - the passing of time without exerting any effort. In my case, it was 4 very long hours to kill on a very long Sunday morning.

Yes, we would talk about everything from Maori face tattoos to nautical themes to hula girls to tribal designs to prison tats.
I am so freaking brilliant. And I am (under normal circumstances), but not, as it turns out, in my weekend class of under 22-year olds.

Does anyone have a tattoo? Silence
What do you think about tattoos?
Is there a tattoo parlour here in Izmit? Silence
Have you ever seen a really interesting tattoo? Silence.

O sweet mother of god. Don't they watch Prison Break?!!

This did not bode well. It turns out that, for the most part, Turks are not big tattoo people. One student went so far as to say that it is anti-Islam to sport an "I heart Mom" tattoo because, since it is permanent, it cann
ot be washed away in pre-prayer ablutions and therefore its very presence would nullify one's prayers to Allah. Yeesh.

Yes, The Prophet (pbuh) is said to have said "May Allah curse the women who do tattoos and those for whom tattoos are done." In the same breath he vilified women who plucked their eyebrows, but that doesn't seem to have made much of an impact in Turkey - the land of the stencil-perfect eyebrows.

As I watched my particularly clever topic circle 'round the bowl, I mentioned the spiffy tattoos of North Africa's indigenous people: the dots and crosshatches and geometric designs which can be found on the faces of Berber women. And yes, I know that these are pre-Islamic in origin but I really don't care at this point. Yes, one girl conceded, there *are* tribes in the east of Turkey who tattoo scimitars on their faces, but .... Are they Muslim? I asked. Yes, she admitted, but they're barbarians. Barbarians. Great.

Do you know anyone who has a tattoo? One student raised her hand. Hallelujah! I cried (inside my head). My friend has a tattoo, she said. What of? His arm. No,
not where, what? (yeesh). His name. His name? Yes, his name. Where? On his arm, she said, pointing to her forearm. Why did he tattoo his name? I asked. Is he prone to forgetting his name? He likes his name, she replied.

In one last charitable effort to save my class from having to plough through 5 pages of Helen bumping into furniture, I asked each student, would you like to get a tattoo some day? Of course, everyone said no. But then one added, our parents wouldn't allow it. Unless .... Unless? I asked perhaps a little too hopefully. Unless we get a tattoo of Atatürk. Seriously? She nodded, most parents won't get too upset if we come home with an Atatürk tattoo.

Of course, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, Atatürk is about as close to being a god as you can in these parts. And what God-fearing Atatürk-loving Turkish parent would (or could) raise an eyebrow to the Father of Modern Turkey appearing on their child's body? Now that would be sacrilege. After all, so revered is he that you can buy fridge magnets and cigarette lighters which bear his hallowed image.

So it turns out that getting a tat of Atatürk's signature - normally on the forearm - is not totally uncommon in Turkey. The heavily slanted, very masculine I'm-going-to-found-the-Republic-of-Turkey signature is de rigueur; his face is optional. His bottle of raki is, presumably, optional as well. Really, it shouldn't have come as a surprise to me. When, in another class, I asked a young girl what one thing she would change about the world if she could (I'm anticipating obliterating world hunger & disease) she replied, I would like to give my life up for Atatürk, so he would be alive now. Fuck almighty. You know he'd be 128 years old if he were alive? I asked. Silence.

But back to Sunday morning. So an Atatürk tattoo, I resumed, would any of you consider getting one? Several heads nodded. That, ladies and gentlemen, is youthful rebellion at its finest. Now let's turn our books to page 163 where Helen campaigns for women's suffrage ...

Sunday, November 1, 2009

A Turkish Haiku on a Rainy Sunday Afternoon

rain, drizzle, grey skies,
plummeting temperatures
flip-flops gone... gone... gone ...