An American's journey in Anatolia (Turkey)

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January 15, 2019

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February 14, 2019

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March 15, 2019

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Why I moved to Turkey

May 10, 2019

Since moving to Istanbul one month ago, a common question I hear from Turks is, “Why would you move to Turkey? All of us are trying to move to America.”

Undoubtedly, Turkey is in an economic crisis. Inflation has, in fact, bloated consumer prices to a painful degree. I feel that discomfort almost as keenly as Turks because in my new position as an English copyeditor I earn Turkish liras.

For instance, I pay the equivalent of $25 for one bottle of shampoo. A small bag of kibble for my American feline companion, Cleopatra, costs what would amount to $80 in the United States.

My penny-pinching lifestyle contrasts with my vacation here in November 2018. Then fortified with U.S. dollars, Turkey seemed an inexpensive and exotic shopping wonderland. Due to the dramatic gap between the value of the U.S. and Turkish currencies, everything I bought with U.S. dollars was effectively 80-percent off. Since November, the gap between the two currencies has only widened.

Perhaps more perplexing to my American friends was why as a journalist, I would want to go to a country that holds the worldwide distinction of jailing the most journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

While I weighed those factors in my decision, I was more concerned with how the experience of living in Turkey would fit in with the overall arc of my life. My longtime goal has been to live abroad. What kind of experiences could I have here that were outside my reach in other places? On that basis, Turkey fulfilled most of my desires.

If I live in only one country outside the United States, Turkey seems to offer the most varied experiences in one place. Where else than Istanbul can I within 10 minutes visit both Europe and Asia without leaving the city? Turkey is one of the few places where I can experience European and Middle Eastern culture at the same time.

Around every corner, the land offers spectacular views of nature and geographic wonders – such as the whimsical cone-shaped rock formations in Cappadocia in central Turkey and the stunningly white, travertine-encrusted terraces and hot springs in Pamukkale.

Meanwhile, the historical and archaeological finds are so numerous and rich that even the locals have a hard time keeping up.

The Turks have made me feel incredibly welcome here – a fact that contrasts with the impression many Westerners have about whether Turkey is a safe destination. Complete strangers have helped me for no reason other than to be kind.

As a colleague remarked upon hearing my reason for moving here: “Turkey is the perfect synthesis of Europe and the Middle East” and of nature and civilization.

- Paris Achen

Turks: Warm-hearted and cold-blooded

May 20, 2019

Aboard the shuttle to the office, I turned back toward Yusif – the only other fluent English speaker on the bus – and smiled conspiratorially.

“Yusif, look, I have my own air conditioner,” I said.

I unfurled the black and turquoise wings of the bamboo accordion fan in my hand.

“I just hope I don’t hit anyone with it, because it’s quite large,” I said, as I fanned up a breeze amid the heavy humid air inside the bus.

He laughed.

I have lived in Istanbul  for six weeks now, and there’s one thing I just can’t get used to – the subtropical temperatures at which Turks like to keep their offices, homes and busses.

Turks are among the warmest-hearted and hospitable people I’ve met, and they’re remarkably sensitive to cold.

Some women in my office wear turtleneck and cowl-neck sweaters in mid-May.

Before I bought my fan, I often jury-rigged whatever was in my possession into a fan, be it a book, piece of paper or wallet. Sometimes, fanning myself would prompt a bus driver to switch on the air conditioning. As soon as the air started blowing, I would see a wave of hand shoot up to close their vents.

On a bus ride to the airport on Friday, the temperature felt unusually comfortable.

Around the time I was thinking this, a Turkish woman sitting beside me asked whether I felt cold.

“Uhhhhh, no. No way."

Then, she kept fiddling with the vents to see if she could close off more air.

I have yet to discover why Turks are so cold-blooded, butI recently gained some insight from reading a list of Turkish proverbs and sayings. 

A Turkish-American, Sevil Delin, compiled the list in a post in December 2016 on the Matador Network travel website.

“Turks have a congenital fear of catching a chill, which can strike any part of your body,” Delin wrote.

The Turkish saying, “Kafayı üşüttü” literally means: “They’ve caught a cold in their head.”

“If you’ve caught a cold in your head, it means you’ve gone crazy,” Delin said.

- Paris Achen

My musical life: Ramadan drummers, opera and more

May 21, 2019

It’s Ramadan in Istanbul, a holy time when Muslims fast from sunup to sundown and give to charity to draw closer to God and gain a better understanding of human suffering.

Between the Muslim call to prayer five times per day, my opera-singing roommate and more recently, pre-dawn Ramadan drummers, I sometimes feel as if I’m living in a musical.

I leave my balcony door ajar so that my cat, Cleopatra, can go out to her litter box or entertain herself with views of nature and neighborhood bustle while I’m at work.

The open door invites a lot of noises that can wake me up at odd hours.

During Ramadan, interrupted sleep is a nightly occurrence particularly when around 3:30 a.m. traditional Ottoman drumming echoes through the nooks and valleys of the hills of Ortaköy, the Istanbul neighborhood on the Bosphorus Strait where I live.

When I first heard the banging before dawn, it sounded as if a 2-year-old had surreptitiously gotten hold of a drum and was in danger of his parents confiscating it at any moment.

I didn’t know what it was or its purpose.

Some perfunctory Google searches revealed that the drummers serve as human alarm clocks to notify the faithful that they should eat a pre-dawn meal before fasting resumes at the first light of day.

The tradition dates back to the Ottoman Empire, circa 1300 to 1920. Turks have mixed feelings about the drummers. Some secular Turks view the tradition as backwards. I hear from other Turks that they feel nostalgic about the drumming. As children, adults heard the drumming - a sure sign of the Ramadan holiday.

The Salvation Army ringing we hear in the United States around Christmas time comes to mind. I don’t know if the ringing would sound particularly appealing if it weren’t so pregnant with the meaning of Christmas, such as charity and generosity.

Similar to Christmas, Ramadan is a time for giving. Charity - known as “zakat” in Islam - is obligatory during Ramadan. And Muslims make much of their charitable donations during this time of year, according to the Charity Navigator.

As the sound of the Salvation Army bells evokes hope, charity and nostalgia for some Americans at Christmastime, perhaps Ramadan drummers spark similar feelings among Turks.

Turks generally seem to cherish the Ottoman tradition - or, at least, tolerate it. Some even give the drummers a donation toward the end of the fasting period, known as “bayram” in Turkish.

A resident in Turkey’s western province of Izmir made headlines when he sued the local administration in 2008 for allowing the drumming in the middle of the night, according to a report by Demirören News Agency.

The complainant took his case all the way to Turkey’s highest court, which ultimately denied his claim.

While acknowledging that the noise affected his quality of life by waking him up when he was sleeping, the judges wrote that “it is difficult to say the noise was too loud and prolonged at a level that would be intolerable for the average person.”

The drumming occurs only one month during a year, “an important factor that makes it tolerable,” the judges wrote.

The village head of Ortaköy told me she has received no complaints from her constituents about the 3:30 a.m. drumming.

“In Ortaköy, we like it,” she said. “It is a tradition.”

But when I visited the encampment of the Ortaköy drummers, I wondered if the tradition may partly be fueled by economic need.

The village head said that the drummers come to Istanbul from other towns just for the month of Ramadan often in hopes of collecting tips during the “bayram” sugar feast June 4-6.

I brought a translator, a Turkish friend, with me to their camp after I got home from work around 8 p.m. one evening. We found them sleeping on the ground under a tent they had fashioned out of stakes and a blue tarp. Their camp was set up in the yard of a derelict and crumbling house. Not wanting to disturb them, we left.

Unfortunately, my translator, a Turkish friend, was available only that night, so I have yet to find out the drummers’ story. Another friend, Kubilay Karabulut, took this shot of two drummers in his Istanbul neighborhood of Gaziosmanpaşa.

Where do they come from? How long have they been doing this? Is it a generational tradition? How much do they make? Does anyone yell at them for waking them up? Do they drum to preserve their culture? Does the ritual feel spiritual? Or is it at the end of the day, a way to make ends meet?

Why you should see whirling dervishes in Turkey

June 19, 2019

Watching a performance of whirling dervishes - who worship God by twirling into a mesmerizing spiritual frenzy - are a hallmark of any visit to Turkey.

As a souvenir, you can buy figurines depicting the mystical dancers, and if you go on a tour, such as an evening Bosphorus Tour, you might see a performance as part of the packaged tour price.

I recently joined an American friend on an evening Bosphorus tour, where a whirling dervish performer (pictured above) decked out in a black sequined robe delighted us with a dizzying performance set to soothing instrumental music – the kind of music you might listen to while sailing.

But if you would prefer to see a more authentic rendition of whirling dervishes, you might consider visiting a dergah (house of worship).

My friend and former Airbnb host, Kubilay, took our friend, Zeynep, and me out Monday night for an authentic evening of whirling dervishes. By authentic, I mean that we went to an actual Sufi worship service, not a whirling dervish performance arranged for the pleasure of tourists.

Every Monday night, Nurettin Efendi Dergahı – an authentic Sufi order in the Fatih district of Istanbul – holds a “sumi” – the name for the worship service. It’s usually held around 9 p.m., but in the summer, they begin around 11 p.m. (Click here to see a photo of the dergah dome and Zeynep and Kubilay.)

And unlike professional performances for tourists, seeing these whirling dervishes is free of cost.

Zeynep and I were required to cover our hair for the sumi. Women ordinarily are required to worship up in a latticed loft above the ceremony hall. Zeynep managed to convince the lady in charge to allow us to sit away from the men in the main ceremony hall, where we could see the action.

As a side note, the mosque has a dresser full of scarves, so if you arrive with an uncovered head of hair, the mosque is equipped to cover you. With typical Turkish charm, the ladies searched their cache of scarves for scarf colors that flattered our complexions. (You can see our outfits here.)

Before I continue, for those of you who are new to the subject, whirling dervishes are part of Sufism, a mystical style of worship within mainstream Sunni Islam, the origins of which remain in dispute even among Sufi scholars.

The followers of world-famous poet Rumi (Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi to be exact) founded the Mevlevi order of Sufism shortly after his death, and the Mevlevi order gave the world whirling dervishes, according to tour guide and blogger Burak Sansal.

Rumi, who was born to Persian-speaking parents in present-day Afghanistan and lived most of his life in Konya, Turkey; is wildly popular in the United States and worldwide. In 2014, he was America’s best-selling poet, more than 700 years after his death, according to the BBC.

The rituals established within the Mevlevi order focus on spiritual introspection and closeness to God through poetry, chants, music and you guessed it, dancing.

And that’s where the whirling dervishes come in.

The best place to see whirling dervishes is in Konya, where Rumi lived and died, but if you can’t make it to Konya, Istanbul has some alternatives that are just as authentic.

Inside Nurettin Efendi Dergahı, the dervishes, dressed entirely in white, began with slow turns and gradually worked themselves into a state of transcendence through whirling and reverberating chants and music performed by worshippers.

As the worshippers chanted and swayed in a swirling motion with their upper bodies, I felt myself involuntarily swaying along with them. See the video.

As they prayed – a ceremony called the “zikr” – they held their palms up. As a yoga practitioner, it reminded me of yoga meditation: Upward open palms position the mind and body to be open and receptive.

We couldn’t see the whirling dervishes that well because on that particular night, they were in an adjacent room. We just saw their reflections in the glass. Occasionally, the corner of a whirling white robe whipped out of the door frame into view.

Typically, whirling dervishes perform their worshipful, meditative twirling in the main part of the mosque (the equivalent of a church sanctuary). On Monday night, however, the dervishes were trainees and were not yet ready for their public debut, Kubilay said, after speaking to someone at the dergah.

Apart from the experience of seeing this moving form of worship, going to a “suma” can be informative to a visitor to Turkey, because whirling dervishes played a pivotal role in the evolution of Ottoman culture. They obviously influenced the visual arts, but they, additionally, shaped music, classical poetry and calligraphy, according to Sansal.

Kubilay plans to hold an Airbnb event to attend future whirling dervish ceremonies at Nurettin Efendi Dergahı.

You can find him on this Airbnb event page.

An unwitting intro to Turkish pop music

June 22, 2019

Two Turkish pop music stars. One night. Two separate locations. It might seem unlikely, but it just goes to show that anything can happen in Istanbul. The Queen of Cities has been leaving visitors awestruck for more than a millennium.

Apart from hearing Turkish rap blasting from vehicles on the motorways, I have been somewhat inattentive to investigating Turkey’s music scene.

Just as the discovery of Turkish rap was inadvertent, so too was my unwitting introduction to Turkish pop music on Monday night, June 17, 2019.

As you may remember from my last blog post, my friends, Kubilay and Zeynep, took me to a whirling dervish ceremony on Monday at a dergah (house of worship) in the Fatih district of Istanbul. Before entering the mosque, a bald man with expressive eyebrows started talking to us. When he learned that I was American, he zoomed in on me. He had a lot to say about Americans and U.S. President Donald Trump, specifically.

He started out by expressing his hope that Trump will follow through on his plan to visit Turkey in July, as first reported by Middle East Eye last month.

Trump and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are already scheduled to meet at the G20 summit June 28-29 in Osaka, Japan, where, according to Turkish media reports, Erdoğan hopes to dissuade U.S. officials from imposing sanctions over Turkey’s decision to purchase S-400 anti-aircraft missile systems from Russia.

I had no idea who this man was.

“He’s a famous Turkish singer,” Zeynep whispered to me, before we took a group photo together.

Later, I found out his name. Mazhar Alanson is a Turkish pop music singer and guitarist who represents the “M” in the famous Turkish pop music band, MFÖ (Mazhar, Fuat and Özcan).

Alanson explained that Americans have major misconceptions about Turkey. A visit from Trump could shed more light on this secular country that sits strategically where the East meets the West.

“They think Turks are Arabs who carry guns around everywhere,” Alanson said.

That sounds more like America, I thought, considering all of the mass shootings at schools, malls and other public places.

“Americans are very pure-hearted,” Alanson continued.

The problem between Turkey and America is between the governments, he said.

“People are people everywhere in the world,” he said.

As if that weren’t enough for one evening, Zeynep, Kubilay and I had another chance encounter with Turkish pop stardom while stuck in a traffic jam in Beşiktaş, on the way to my home in the Ortakoy neighborhood.

Eurovison star Can Bonomo and his wife were sitting in a shiny black car directly next to us. A Syrian beggar was badgering them to buy a bouquet of wilted roses. Bonomo handed the man a 10-Turkish lira note but didn’t want the roses, so the man pulled off the petals and scattered them over the couple’s car. People in neighboring cars were hanging out of windows to snap photos of the musical celebrity.

I had never heard of Bonomo either, but my impeccable luck for running into Turkish pop stars did prompt me to look them both up on YouTube.

Alanson sounds a bit like American singer-songwriter Tom Waits. Here is MFO’s song, Yandim, which means “I have a burn.”

Bonomo’s music is really catchy. Here is one of his songs called Bardak Tasiyor, which I believe is an idiom that means, “That tears it!”

I have yet to learn what that means.

The moral of this story is I never would have known whom I had met if it hadn't been for my Turkish friends, Zeynep and Kubilay. I think that speaks volumes about how important it is for foreigners to befriend the natives in the country where they live. It's more comfortable sometimes to cling to those whose cultures are most similar to ours, but we miss out on so much that way. For instance, I would have never been at that mosque that night if it hadn't been for Kubilay's inside knowledge, and I might never have known that I had encountered Alanson and Bonomo if I had been out with non-Turkish friends, who like me, probably wouldn't have recognized them.

And if you're just a traveler, there are ways to befriend natives in the country you're visiting. An app called Couch Surfers allows you to stay with people who live in the country, but if you're not comfortable doing that, you can just meet someone for coffee or a meal. It's a good way to learn the inside scoop on the country for which you have probably paid a lot of money to visit, and you might make a lifelong friend.

Christmas in July in Turkey

July 4, 2019

Back home in America, it’s Independence Day, and here in Turkey, it’s Christmas in July.

Since my first visit to Turkey in November 2018, I have been puzzled by this predominantly Muslim country’s fondness for Christmas decorations. One of the first things I saw upon arrival was a Christmas tree along Istiklal Street. And one of the last things I saw on my vacation here were Christmas tinsel and snowflake cutouts at Ataturk airport.

At the time, I dismissed all of the decorations as a seasonal phenomenon similar to that in the United States, but when I returned to work and live in Turkey in April, the Christmas decorations were still here.

A figurine of Santa Claus commandeering a train wrapped like a present bedecked my coworker’s desktop at the newspaper. My Turkish roommate’s coffee cups featured a Christmas tree, ornaments and Santa Claus with a bag of toys. And in June, aboard a night cruise on the Bosphorus Strait, glitter-coated ornaments in the shapes of reindeer, snowflakes and stars were dangling from the ceiling in the ship’s dining hall.

So why do Turks love Christmas decorations so much … and not only during Christmas?

My initial thought was that the year-round decorations were a source of national pride over the fact that St. Nicholas (i.e. Santa Claus) was born, lived, preached and died in present-day Turkey.

Before I go any further, let me make something clear: Turks do not acknowledge that the glitter-coated reindeer ornaments, Santa Claus illustrations and snowmen inside snow globes are Christmas decorations; these items are known as “New Year’s decorations,” said my Turkish friend, Zeynep.

“We don’t use them to celebrate the birth of Christ,” my coworker, Engin, said in his deep, methodical voice accented with rolling Rs.

“O.K., but why do Turks display the decorations in June?” I asked Zeynep.

“They are probably gifts, and they use them all of the time,” she replied.

Turks often exchange gifts on New Year’s Eve, and Christmas-themed knick knacks, decorations and dishes are common items that are gifted.

Turks don’t have as much space as Americans to store belongings that aren’t used 10-11 months out of the year. A typical flat in Istanbul lacks a garage, basement and attic. And unlike in the United States, the bedrooms in Turkey don’t have cavernous built-in closets in which you can sometimes forget things that you own. In fact, the bedrooms don’t have closets. In Turkey, a closet is not a room; it’s a piece of furniture - a wardrobe.

Perhaps one reason Christmas ornaments are on display year-round is there is nowhere else to put them.

Another coworker, Nihan, had another hypothesis.

“They leave them out because they’re too lazy to put them away,” she quipped.

While some other coworkers and I were having tea on the newspaper office grounds one afternoon in late June, I looked up and noticed the fir tree giving us shade was decked out in sun-faded red, silver and gold Christmas tree bulbs.

“What is your take on why Turks love to decorate with Christmas ornaments all year round?” I asked, indicating the ornaments over our heads.

“They’re cute!” chirped my coworker, Didem.

Nihan was not so charitable.

The Turks' adoption of Christmas decorations during the New Year is nothing short of “cultural appropriation,” she insisted.

“They’re basically doing everything that Christians do to celebrate Christmas, but they’re calling it a New Year’s celebration. It’s disrespectful to Christians.”

The celebrants are mostly secular “Western wannabes” who have fallen for the commercialization of the holiday, or use the decorations to help distinguish themselves as Europeans rather than Middle Easterners, she said.

I did seek some expert opinions on this topic, thinking perhaps I could enhance this blog piece into a newspaper article, but I received no responses from the Turkish studies professor at Harvard, the Turkısh filmmaker who tackles pop culture subjects using black humor and the Istanbul tour guide to whom I posed this question. I have no hard feelings, though. In terms of Turkey-related topics, this one might vie for one of the most trivial.

This year, I am missing out on spectacular July Fourth fireworks displays, goosebump-inducing patriotic songs and people sporting red, white and blue garments in ways my eyes can never unsee.

But in Turkey, every day is a day worth celebrating with Christmas...I mean, “New Year’s” decorations (wink, wink; cough, cough).

Menengiç: Coffee that breaks the rules

July 17, 2019

Monday marked my third month living in Turkey. The anniversary prompted me to reflect on how things have changed, from feeling utterly lost in my new environment to feeling a sense of confidence and acceptance.

When I say “acceptance,” I mean I have finally accepted that my life in Turkey is different from in the United States in both positive and negative ways.

One of the small things I had trouble accepting in Turkey was Turks’ patent refusal to add milk to my Turkish coffee – something I tried in the UAE and really enjoyed.

On a discouraging Saturday afternoon during my first month in Turkey, I stopped inside a small coffee shop by Istanbul’s Eminönü ferry terminal. I had been lost for almost two hours, having missed a couple of bus connections and wandered around looking for another bus that was supposed to take me to the Ortaköy neighborhood to look at a flat, which eventually would become my home.

I ordered a Turkish coffee and asked the barista to add milk. In Turkey, that’s like adding vinegar to baking soda: It erupts.

“Turkish coffee, no milk!” he yelled.

“Can I just have some? I like it that way,” I replied.

“Turkish coffee, no milk,” he insisted.


For a while after that, I tried to convince baristas that Turkish coffee with milk is delicious and that they should keep an open mind. But after consistent backlash, I ultimately gave up and largely stopped drinking Turkish coffee.

The marvelous ending to this story is that acceptance eventually opened the door to my desire.

The door led to a spectacular vista in Cappadocia’s Ihlara Valley in Central Turkey.

During a guided group tour of the valley in May, our tour guide, Aysel Sivri of Woop Woop Travel Agency, pointed out some wild pistachio trees growing on a ridge over the valley.

The wild pistachio seeds are used to make a very delicious coffee, she said in passing.

As we hiked through the valley, I asked her to repeat the name of the coffee and jotted it down.

Her next words stunned me: “It is like Turkish coffee, but it is made with milk.”

Once back in Istanbul, I was on a part-time mission to find the coffee, which is called “menengiç” coffee. It is also called “terebinth” or “turpentine.” I found some shops that sold the grounds, but having never tried it and not knowing how to make it, I held out for a coffee shop that served it.

My coworker, Didem, gave me the name of coffee shop in Kadikoy – Okkalı Kahve – that offers menengiç on its menu, so I added that to my list of places to try.

Before I had a chance to visit, I was unexpectedly served the coffee during a meal with my friend, Zeynep, at Ciğeristan, a home-style kabob restaurant in Istanbuli’s Aksaray neighborhood.

The restaurant serves the coffee on fire. They ignite a flammable salt-like substance on the saucer to cook the coffee in its cup. Beyond its thrilling presentation, the coffee is the most delicious coffee I’ve tried. It has a nutty – and more importantly to me, a milky – sweet flavor.

Calling it coffee could be a misnomer because menengiç coffee has no caffeine. In that respect, it is a good alternative to caffeinated coffee in the evening. Menengiç has digestive benefits and is packed with vitamins, including A, B1, B2, B6, C and E. It also contains protein, fiber, fat, phosphorus, calcium, iron and potassium, according to the Turkish food website, Harbi Yiyorum (which means “I am really eating).

The coffee – which originated in Iran and is served there, in is cooked in the same way as Turkish coffee, in a Turkish coffeepot and on a heavy fire, the website says. To make it, add two teaspoons of menengiç grounds to one cup of milk, as well as sugar to taste. Boil the ingredients while continuously stirring. It’s traditionally served with nuts and water. In Turkey, the beverage is most associated with Southwest Turkey, especially Gaziantep, where wild pistachio trees flourish in the region’s dry, soft soil.