Wednesday, July 25, 2012


On Sunday, we were invited to the village of Rumman for iftar, the breaking of the fast.

We left Amman around 6:45, aiming to reach the village just after the call to prayer announced iftar. As we sped out of the city, climbing the many hills of Amman and relishing in the expanse of the valleys, the sun was setting, blood orange. I've never seen a sun set so violent and majestic and raw. It felt like the end of days, the final sun to disappear beneath the curve of the earth in a fiery haze of uncertainty. My heart stopped, my breath caught. Someone once told me that the reason birds go haywire during sunset is because their memories aren't strong enough to recall prior cycles of the sun, the way they have felt the sun set and rise many times. Each sun set terrifies them, as they think that perhaps they will never see light again. I wonder about the validity of this statement, but it certainly describes some of what I was feeling. I felt inter stellar chaos, and my human eyes were too caught in the brilliant colors to return to what was logical, and calm my beating heart.

Our favorite taxi driver (kind of our adopted uncle), Yusuf, was delighted by our reaction to the stunning view. He's been telling us about it for weeks, offering to take us to the top of the hill free of charge any evening we choose, to see the sun set. We've been putting it off, caught up with other things, but in the end I'm glad I experienced it with Yusuf in the driver's seat.

We sped down the road with few other drivers, most people having already made it home for their first meal of the day. Yusuf stopped at a road side convenience store once the sun had set to get water, but returned with chocolate bars and fruit juice for both of us. It felt like a real, honest to goodness road trip. The further we got away from the center of Amman, the clearer the air felt. Like ocean air. The smell of it hit me in the chest and left me spiraling into images of two lane highways dotted with modest homes, of expansive golden fields and perfect creeks, of barefoot wanderings on summer nights. My bones ached, not for the first time, for the sweetness of North Carolina, and it again managed to catch me by surprise.

The hills here are dotted with olive trees, date trees, shrubs and other unfamiliar vegetation. Some of it reminded me of the view from my bedroom at Yagmur and Ugur's house, and suddenly I longed for them too, for the strange comfort Istanbul had provided. The familiarity and warmth of older women was a happy discovery upon arriving at Om Nidal's. Sisterhood, even with strangers, always leaves me feeling as though I've come home.

Om Nidal had prepared a beautiful meal for us, a long table covered in salads, rice, chicken, fish, okra, beans, bread, hummus, and soup. I observed the spread with wonder. My recent, improvised, mediocre endeavors in the kitchen have left me with a new found appreciation for those who can handle dishes even as simple as rice- let alone feasts involving the handling of raw chicken, a feat which I find to be wholly impressive. Jasmine and I were seated and served carab juice in wonderfully elegant glasses. Carab, I learned, is a locally grown alternative to chocolate. The drink is thick and sweet in the warm way chocolate is, and I took to it at once. Something about it reminded me of Brunei, perhaps the texture or the unassuming sweetness present in so much of their food- and people. 

Om Nidal is one of Jasmine's many former students from her time spent at the Royal Botanic Gardens. While there, she worked in the village teaching block printing and fabric dyeing, some of the many skills the women learned and practiced in the workshop. Unfortunately, upon the end of Jasmine's time there, the project fell apart. I get the impression Om Nidal- indeed, all the women- made a valiant effort to rescue it, but the powers that be let things falter for a little too long, and it hasn't been the same since.  They spent time discussing the saga of the workshop, accompanied by Nausreen, Om Nidal's charming daughter-in-law (and soon to be mother!). However, as Jasmine pointed out early on, these are people who don't believe in gossip, and hold strictly to that. Earlier in the day, when advising me in how to dress, she told me to prepare for what basically amounts to church ladies. Upon her comment about gossip, all I could think of was the old stereotype, of southern "Bless her heart," church ladies, and had to laugh at the strange parallels and contradictions constantly melding and separating in my perception of the world.

As we continued our meal, more ladies from the workshop began to join us in Om Nidal's living room. Men were not present throughout the whole of the evening. I could hear them murmuring, sometimes, from the other side of the curtain in the hallway, but didn't lay eyes on one until we were headed to Yusuf's taxi in the dark. All of the women kept their abayas and hijabs on throughout the evening, which I thought was fascinating. They joked and smiled with Jasmine, eager to hear what she's been up to since leaving RBG, and to show her the work they did in her absence. Fadia, a striking woman in her late 20s, showed us exquisite ribbon embroidery that had done on pillowcases and the like on her blackberry, which she kept neatly tucked in a red drawstring bag. Om Nidal shared some of her cross-stitching work, and we marveled at the black, gold, and red creation she had made that was hanging on her wall.

The women were all kind and good humored, each with distinctive, feisty personalities. Om Nidal is clearly the leader of them all, but they each seem to have their place in the group. The evening was full of stories, witty banter, and plenty of laughter. As our time winded down, Om Nidal invited us to the rooftop, pointing out her pomegranate trees on the way. She pointed to a much smaller structure behind the house, explaining that it was the house she had lived in when she first married her husband. She and her husband, she said, had built the whole complex with their bare hands, which is why her knees gave her so much trouble now. SHE BUILT A WHOLE FREAKING HOUSE.


Guys. I can't even manage a sand castle. Om Nidal is the ultimate badass.

We climbed the staircase to the roof, the women pointing towards the lights of Jerash with delight. The stars drifted and swayed above us. I felt as though I had raced the sun to greet my old friends, the stars.

Nausreen graciously showed us into her portion of the house, the second floor apartment she shares with her husband. It consists of a spacious bedroom, a beautiful balcony, a small but functional kitchen, and a sitting room. After marveling at the views from the balcony, we were seated in the sitting room and served Arabic coffee. Nausreen also broke out three photo albums; miscellaneous, engagement, and wedding.
We began with the wedding album, and I must say, some of the pictures were very surprising. The group shots were relatively predictable,showing the bride and groom surrounded by their jovial extended families, Nausreen shining among all of them- swathed in a white satin cloak and hood, like a winter queen.  The photos of her with Hassan, however, were something else altogether.

The cloak was shed to reveal a strapless, beaded princess gown, and her long dark hair was piled elaborately on her head. In many of the photographs she held a red rose, and Hassan was pretty much invariably staring at her in wonder, whilst she gazed straight into the lens. Ladies and gentlemen, Nausreen can smize unlike anyone I have ever seen. Smoldering, seductive, powerful, expressive eyes- and she knows it. While Hassan is reverently kissing her shoulder or her neck and holding her waist, she unabashedly stares down the viewer, owning her beauty and her power. They were very romantic, very posed, and very sweet. The engagement album was similar, Nausreen in a deep maroon strapless gown and a tiara, leaning against her fiancé and allowing him to look totally swept up in puppy love as she focused on her posing.

The final album was by far the greatest. It began with pictures of her and Hassan as children with their families. These were fascinating on their own, but the last 30 or so photos take the prize. While Nausreen was in college, she had taken some glamour shots of herself. Some were done at a studio, with the kitschiest, blown out, 1980s gradient backgrounds and superimposed beach themed borders- and some were down by herself (or maybe with a friend), in her bedroom. In them, she portrays a multitude of different personas. The most memorable and prominent included punk rock girl, Spanish dancer, and American Eagle girl. Punk rock girl wore mid-thigh green plaid dresses with industrial zippers and combat boots.  Spanish dancer was most often seen in a lace up, black lace corset/tank top with various brightly colored skirts, posing coyly on chairs, staring seductively through kohl lined eyes. American Eagle girl was fresh faced, wearing white linen shirts and denim shorts, and the trademark American smile. Jasmine and I were delighted to find a kindred spirit, someone else who believes in the power of photos as a form of self expression and amateur anthropology. "Pictures are the best thing, " Nausreen said, "because you can look back at yourself and remember." Later Jasmine and I discussed how aging doesn't scare people here, and how refreshing that is. The pressure to stay young in America is really very strange, and discredits all the amazing things that accompany physical changes as we grow old. I hope that I can age gracefully, without the bitterness I often see in amongst women in the states. I hope that I can look back on pictures of myself from this time in my life with fondness and gratitude, and without the slightest bit of jealousy.

We headed home soon thereafter. Om Nidal plucked small jasmine blossoms for each of us, as well as two pomegranates from her tree. We set off into the night with fruit, flowers, and hearts fuller than usual. I let myself be carried away by the lights in the valleys on the drive home, let my thoughts wander, as they often do, beyond words and into something closer to energy. I rolled down my window (fun fact: on the back windows of Yusuf's taxi, he has a decal of King Abdullah waving. It's hilarious.) and let the wind call me back from being too far inside my head, reminding me to smile and let myself move past contentment and into joy.

When we reached our duar (circle), we stopped back at the sweet shop. They remembered us from earlier, and made a small pass at Jasmine- "Please keep coming back! We make only sweet things here, including our customers."


Armed with a kilo of a little bit of everything they had to offer, we retired on the terrace and chowed down. I had never been drunk off of food until that night. We were both totally slap happy, giggling uncontrollably under the stars at two in the morning, feeling the sugar push through our blood and the world turn under us. 

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Moments That I Haven't Mentioned: Part 1

So, contrary to all the negativity I've been trying to gracefully express in recent posts, lots of good things happen in Amman too.

Today, after spending roughly three hours writing in a coffeeshop and catching up with my mother, I stepped into the brutally hot madness that is Sharia Jamia, or, University Street. Trying to catch a cab between 12:30 and 5 is virtually impossible. There are girls who move in packs and swipe taxis, and mousy teenaged boys who pop up out of nowhere and slide into cabs before you can really process what's going on. Plus, there aren't really any cabs to be had. They're all occupied, hustling busy Ammanites from place to places. It was with this knowledge that I ventured into the street at roughly 3 pm today, clutching my laptop and kicking myself for having broken my sunglasses. Squinting into oncoming traffic, I foresaw a long wait, and I tried to prepare myself for the inevitable break in sanity that accompanies these moments.

About seven or eight minutes into my wait, I finally get a taxi flagged down. He pulls in front of me, but then I remember that there's an elderly woman with her middle aged son behind me, and I offer them the cab. They gratefully accept and speed away in what might have been my vessel of escape. My twinge of regret is quickly countered by an image of the woman, Arab soap opera style, falling to the ground with heat stroke and her son melodramatically falling to his knees and screaming as I zoom away in a cab and the people in the streets curse my name. Better to avoid that scenario and find another cab.

Thinking I see one that is empty, I raise my right arm with exhaustion. The cab pulls in front of me, and perhaps the most regal looking woman I have ever seen in my life motions for me to come into the cab. I shuffle forward in my confused, sweaty, and disheveled state. I confirm that my destination is acceptable to the driver, and jump in, thanking the queen in the back seat in breathy Arabic.

She tells me she is heading to the University Hospital, and that from there Faisal will take me wherever I want. Her voice is soft but sure, and I turn to thank her. She is swathed in a black abaya, with a dark rose hijab surrounding her face and making her glow like sunset.  Her eyes are lined with bright black kohl, and her thick, arched eyebrows run parallel to her windswept cheeks. The smile she gives me only serves to illuminate her further. I hold to the belief that God manifests in many different forms throughout our day, and in this moment, she appeared to be no less than an angel of mercy.  Something told me I was in the presence of royalty, and I repeated, "Shukran jiddan," still dazed and out of breath.

Her name was Aem, and though she didn't speak much English and I don't speak much Arabic, we managed to hold a pretty substantial conversation with the help of Faisal. She told me she made Faisal stop because she thought I was beautiful, and it was not nice for women to have to wait for taxis anyways. She told me she was a teacher, and that I reminded her of one of her students. I couldn't believe she thought I was beautiful, when she was easily the most striking person I have ever seen in real life.  She teaches writing and literature at a private high school, so I told her writing was my first love (which is something I've only realized recently). She touched her hand to her heart and smiled wide. By this time, we had reached the hospital and we both got out of the car to say goodbye. We kissed three times on the cheek, as is the Arab custom, and I wished her well before she went on her way. My heart swelled with the sentiment of unexpected sisterhood.

I slid into the backseat and reminded Faisal where I was headed. After a moment, he clucked his tongue.

"Sad story, sad story."

"Whose? Aem?"

"Yes, yes."

"What is sad?"

"She has, uh, very bad sickness. I do not know the word in English. Starts very small and grows and grows. Wait one minute, it is on the building here…"

But before we have moved past the trees that block the English lettering on the building, I know what he is saying. Sure enough,  on the side of the beige tower, the word "cancer" beams at me in cobalt, washing over my smile.

"Oh no. Oh no."

"Yes. Sad story. She has big meeting tomorrow with doctor. With knife, you know?"

I wince at his language barrier enhanced description of surgery.

"I know. I will pray for her."

"Yes. She would like that."

We are silent and he rolls the windows up, opting for the buzz of air conditioning to fill the space Aem has left. I look to the miniature taxi bobbling on his dashboard.

"I like your small car," I say in Arabic, and he turns around with a smile.

"Ah, really? Speak Arabi?"

"Shweya." (A little).

Faisal becomes impassioned.

"Ah, Madison! I will teach you everything!"

The remainder of the ride is the equivalent of the world's most entertaining pre-school vocabulary lesson. He points with gusto to body parts and things we pass on the streets, and I laugh so hard that later, as I recount the tale to Jasmine and Atef, I find that I can't remember what I learned. When we arrive at my building, he refuses my money and asks that I take down his number, should I ever need a ride. I thank him profusely and head inside, not bothering to fight back the smile plastered on my face.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Consequences of Foreign Lands and a Stunted Sense of Reality

I am in a fight to the death with Amman, the beige gem, the land of sand and screaming winds.

Eventually I'll probably do something of a top 10 moments post. I think by now we all know that I don't respond terribly well to structure, and writing comes most easily when I am organically inspired. Unfortunately, this city has me paralyzed.

It's not that I don't love it. It's that I don't know it. I don't know where to start, and at this point, I don't have the cash to start with. When I stay in, I'm plagued by a sense of failing as a traveler, and find myself wallowing in lethargy and self loathing. For all the beauty I'm surrounded by on a daily basis, it's been a dark couple of weeks. This kind of low is rather foreign to me, and though I can feel myself climbing out, if you had asked me a couple of days ago, I wouldn't have known what to say. Coming to Amman has been, I think, one of the most challenging things I have ever done. Back home, I tend to be pretty fearless. I confront the unknown. I explore. Even in Istanbul I was constantly energized by this intense longing to discover. Here, I'm mostly just afraid, and as a result, lonely really for the first time in my life. The way I feel, the way I have made myself feel, is more foreign to me than the city. I can't explore Amman properly until I get myself under control.

And so my mission in Amman, first and foremost, is to center myself. I need to fill my time, and the only way to do that is to get over myself and get out into the city.

I've been here for awhile, and even with my sudden frozen state, I've experienced too much to really write it all down.

(For the record, I am currently out with new friend and fellow North Carolinian named Evan Gearino, a NC State student here researching  perceptions  and awareness of the Palestinian conflict among college students. He has the happiest voice of anyone I've ever met, is really good at Arabic, and generally just a cool guy. I ran into him today on campus after meeting at a July 4th party and he allowed me to tag along to Hollywood Café, which sounds super American, but in reality is wonderfully Jordanian.)

So let's start with classes.

The University of Jordan is record breakingly unorganized, but it all seems to have worked out in the end. My main professor, Dr. Mothanna, is a riot. He's a 5'6" balding man with broad cheeks and beautiful blue eyes, and he possesses the kind of infectious smile found exclusively in children. His enthusiasm is heart warming, as is that of several of the students in my class. I'm thinking of one in particular, Somi Kim. She's Korean, and has the happiest and loudest voice of anyone I've ever met. She repeats every word that comes out of Dr. Mothanna's mouth, with a smile and a quick nod of the head. Her high energy physicality is fascinating, she moves in long and languid strides with stiff arms, and her gestures all become very quick and repetitive, somehow expressing all she needs to from the way she moves her neck and shoulders. She's easily the best student in the class, and certainly possesses the best energy. My closest friend in the class is  Danna, just barely 16 and studying while she stays with her grandparents here in Amman. We're both pretty quiet, but share a love of Biskrem cookies, and enjoy the feeling of solidarity as we try to understand what the hell is going on in our grammar lectures.

Jasmine, my roommate, is a never ending source of energy and ideas. She is a writer, an artist, a designer, and a force to be reckoned with. She is her own art, and is always the strongest presence in the room. She is helping me crawl out of my self-imposed cage of t-shirts and jeans, encouraging me to explore brightly colored dresses that I would ordinarily deem as something I could never pull off, and happily introducing me to her world of bright pink lipstick, blue mascara instead of black, and the knowledge of my "colors." All of this initiation into her world of up-cycling used clothing and blending the anthropology of designs has led to a wonderful and entirely unexpected thing: photo shoots.

Cameras, on the whole, make me nervous. They still do, I guess, although the ANTM antics of my counterparts during my travels abroad last summer, Ian and Jessica, helped me to outgrow it. Still, though. A month ago, I wouldn't have really believed that I'd be standing on a terrace at sunset, wearing a bright orange 1960s cocktail dress, nude pumps, and a Bedouin chandelier on my head. Twists and turns, my friends, twists and turns. And yet, due to the perfect combination of Friday market finds, color coordinated props, and the magic light of sundown, we had an impromptu photo shoot. And it was magnificent. Jasmine has a far more carefully trained eye than I, and she's teaching me how to see the integrity of the composition as a whole, rather than focusing solely on the human in the photo. It led to another impromptu photoshoot, featuring me in what appears to be a romper from the 1930s or 1940s, and a very WWII hat, scaling our front terrace and hanging out with our building's harrus (حرس , which means guard) and friend, Atef. He's a good sport, and when we ask him to run out on quick grocery runs, he usually sticks around for coffee or juice. The night of the photoshoot, we spent about an hour watching belly dancing videos (which were gorgeous) and looking at pictures of him and his kids in Egypt. He's a wonderful guy, and we're lucky to have him.

As it happens, last Sunday, Jasmine and I attended an exhibit opening at The Studio, a gallery, print making studio, and workspace founded by recent college graduates Ghalia Barghouthi, Muna Amareen, Sarah Hatahet and Sara Rashdan. It's an incredible space and has a wonderfully inclusive and stimulating energy. We were there to see the new work of Omar Al-Zo'bi, whose tongue in cheek, graphic,  "mass produced" creations are humorous and lend themselves to the questions of what we're consuming and who's behind it. While there, we met Serene and Basma, artists in their own right, and women looking for an outlet for their creativity. Serene works in film and photography, while Basma is making the transition from art to fashion, and eventually to performance design. We met them at the top of Abdali (Friday Market), close to the center of the city, armed with a box, a suitcase, and a duffel bag full of clothing, accessories, and make up.
We didn't end up making it into Abdali at all- we didn't need to. The Jazzy Jeff, high waisted 1980s pants and obnoxiously bright yellow crop top we had chosen looked pretty darn good next to the taxi, and our favorite taxi driver, Yusuf, was kind enough to let me climb all over it for about an hour. Our quartet attracted quite the audience, and by the time I was standing on the taxi we had attracted about 10 people, plus a few very friendly men in a truck, as our viewers. 

We headed to The Studio, and shot Basma on the balcony in her own designs, with me in a 1940s pastel jumpsuit. Basma's t-shirts are inspired by the geometric designs on Jordanian trucks, and are pretty cool, if you ask me. I can't wait to buy one! Basma ended up in another of her designs, a rich ochre draped jacket and black leather leggings. I was graced with the opportunity to model one of Jasmine' designs, a bright green, regal dress with beautiful, diamond detailing on the back, the sleeves, and the hem. It made me feel like a queen! I'm learning so much from these photo shoots in terms of art design, how colors work with skin tones, how lines and environment can be in dialogue with clothing and the human body, and how to tell a story in a single shot.

We finished the evening off with a beer and promises to meet up to curate the photos soon, and before you know it they'll be up on facebook.

There's a lot more to write about, especially because none of this post has very much to do with Amman itself and more to do with the people. For now, I'm headed to the police station to extend my visa. Wish me luck! More to come!

Saturday, June 30, 2012

WARNING: This is a less a travel blog post, and more of a poorly articulated look into what is currently mulling around my being.

Amman is a city made for sunrise and sunset.

It's a growing, bustling city. Noise is everywhere, and yet, I find it to be a city that demands your silent attention. Amman calls you to inhale and exhale, to honor and practice what you've learned from the world, and to appreciate that you have treasure troves of knowledge left to gain. Maybe it's the history embedded in the dust that cakes the tops of my feet at the end of every day, also found grainy between my curls, and hiding beneath my fingernails. I know that it's dirt, but there is something holy in it. Even washing it away becomes a small, smiling kind of ceremony. Something, however untraceable, of the roots of my heart lies in this place.  Dust to dust, light from light. Dust, the earth, is ancient, and it is what has given us life. It is old and it is new, and therefore so am I, and so is everyone. I feel a calm here that is unprecedented, and it has given way to thoughts I usually shy away from.

I am quiet here, perhaps too quiet. I listen far more often than I speak. This pattern has been developing steadily over the past two years. I trust my ideas less, and I am painfully aware that what I know of the world is limited, that my opinions have been formed rather rashly, and based upon sources that are not necessarily to be trusted. I've expressed this to Jasmine, my flat mate. She is more, though, a kind of soul sister initiating me into what she has learned of the world thus far. She tells me every perspective has value, each place in your life reveals something new. I myself have shared this oft repeated line with friends and  acquaintances in the past, and yet hearing it said to me, it doesn't quite change my striking lack of faith in myself and my ability to think.

Amman is challenging me to grow up. It inspires the kind of self-reflection I have previously feared and avoided, and I fear that my uncertainty is occasionally expressed a little too pointedly to my mother over the phone. As I try to recap my days and explain my internal struggles, I find myself raising my voice and battling on the offensive, suddenly defending ideas that I am only trying to wrap my head around. After traveling through Asia last summer, and the Middle East this summer, it is becoming harder and harder for me to conscientiously pass judgment on anyone. Nothing at all appears black and white. And perhaps some things should, but I'm so deep into this journey of trying to understanding the human heart and the circumstances that shape it, that I can't bring myself to really delineate between right and wrong, true and false, pure and corrupted. Honoring and acknowledging complexity has taken a new role in the way I view the world, sharpened by the fact that I have grown up in an incredibly privileged context. I am from the white American middle class, and have been blessed with married and supportive parents, a good education, a supportive extended family,  and the good fortune to have found part time jobs. How can I know, how I can I bring myself to pass judgment on the actions taken by those who face the challenges of poverty, oppression, corruption, and discrimination?

 I find my heart pushing at the sides of my body the way it did when I was child, desperate to love everyone, and to forget the rest. I haven't felt that kind of compassion for a long, long time. I feel as though I am returning to myself, though this time with challenges I fear my mind will never overcome. I fear becoming "political" on this platform, because as important as politics are (or at least, they seem), the matters of the human heart will always be more my level of understanding. However, one of the issues I have been grappling with is that of Palestine/Israel. From a purely human rights perspective, it's a situation that needs to be remedied immediately. It is unjust and heartbreaking in every way. The things I have learned about the conflict so far in college (since no one bothered to really mention it to me before) make it incredibly difficult for me to sympathize with those involved in the creation of Israel. When I first learned of it, I was shocked by how quickly I could write them off as cruel, and as evil. But of course, nothing is all good, and nothing is all evil, and I quickly distanced myself from that snap judgment. The situation is layered and complex and beyond my grasp. I try to articulate all this to my mother, who retorts with hints of shock and disapproval in her tone, "Well what about the Israelis killed by suicide bombers? What about them?" I have no answer, and immediately regret my decision to share. I regret the venom in my words of response even more.

The issue of suicide bombers and the resulting death is equally heartbreaking, without a doubt. But I can't pretend to know the truth of circumstances that lead people into suicide bombs, just like I can't pretend to know what it's like to feel like a people without a land, and to fight for what you feel you deserve. I can't pretend to know what it's like to have my identity challenged and ignored, to have my house occupied or bulldozed, to be denied access to a good education, to have my life controlled by a military power (supported by the super power of the US) set against my very existence. I can't pretend to know what it's like to have all of this exploding and raging inside of me, leaving me vulnerable and angry and scared, and then to be embraced by extremists who brainwash their young. I can't know, and I won't pretend to. This is not an attempt to defend murderers, it is an attempt to understand the context from which healing and peace must arise. The perpetrators here, in my eyes, are the governments and the things they have done with their militaries. People are pushed to these ends by powers that care nothing for them as individuals, that aim to divide and conquer, that use the livelihoods of innocents as avenues and leverage for the own secret and corrupt games. Israeli citizens are not to blame, and neither are Palestinians. In a perfect world, less people would stand idly by, and more would take a stand. But perhaps I should begin implementing that in my own country before I go prescribing it to an issue beyond my understanding.  

I hesitate to put all of this online, for friends and family, for acquaintances and total strangers. I don't claim to know everything, or to be set in my ways. I only claim to recognize a problem, and to be grappling with it as best I can. If you are incensed by what I've written and want to give me a mouthful, I urge you to do so in a way that fosters understanding, and not anger. I am eager to learn all that I can, but it is hard to listen to arguments meant to defeat, and not to educate. Keep in mind that this post is less of a political statement, and more of an invitation into what my mind and heart are trying to process. My aim is to be honest about my journey to understand, and who knows if I'll ever come to a stopping place. I hope not, I think it's better to let yourself always be flexible and open and curious. Things that stagnate tend to die. No matter what I come to know, it would be foolish to expect that I could singlehandedly solve the conflict. My chief occupations, I hope, will be to actively seek understanding, and to actively demonstrate love.  Be the change, ya dig?

I am trying to pray to Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, who made peace among the murderous  fathers and sons of her own family, who fought over who would control the land of their kingdom. She seems to be an old hand at resolving conflict among those that are, in reality, all one.

So, now that I've gotten all of THAT off my chest and my mind is a little clearer, I can move on to the more light hearted parts of life. The next post will be full of the things I've been doing! I need to go work on Arabic for a while and attend a gallery opening (and set up our new furniture for the terrace!), but I promise the second post will be up before midnight, a definitely happier.

Thanks to anyone who read this rambling, half baked, uncertain expression of a struggle to understand with compassion.

Here's an article by Omid Safi, one of my incredible professors at UNC, and the man who led the educational tour portion of my time in Turkey. He is far more articulate and knowledgeable than I, and manages to express the factual evidence that has fueled my understanding of the conflict.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Buses, cafes, and motorcycles

Okay, guys. If you didn't know this already, I'm playing catch up. I spent two wonderful weeks on Omid Safi's Turkey Educational Tour, learning about Sufism and documenting examples of Islamic Art for the Kenan Institute. In a way, this was my first venture into a world where my favorite things combine- art and the Middle East. The ART\Islam project has some very noble and exciting goals, and I feel very lucky to be involved with its conception. I think it has a bright future, and I hope to continue working on it throughout my time at Carolina. Anyways, as I play catch up, life is happening. So I'm going to write for a little while about life right now, and return to story telling soon.

Life in the present moment: sitting in a super trendy, chic café tucked a few streets away from Istiklal. It's way swankier than cafes I usually frequent, but there's nothing wrong  with a change of pace. It's called The House Café, if anyone feels like googling it.

Today, I ventured for the first time onto Istanbul public transportation. I've got to say, for being all alone and not speaking the language, and having a vague idea at best of the city layout, I did a pretty good job. I did have a pretty long and poorly planned walk from the Yenikapi bus station to the Sultan Ahmet area (complete with creepers and the overbearing sun), but it wasn't totally dreadful, and just as panic hit, I magically found myself right in front of the shop where we had had a carpet workshop! The guy I needed to see, Adem (Burhan's brother) was there anyway, so I was able to return his bus card to him. They invited me to join them for watermelon, bread, cheese, and salad, and if you can believe it, I almost refused.

How American of me. I really had no where to be. I had a vague idea of getting myself up to Taksim and exploring a bit, then eventually getting some work done in a café. The first words out of my mouth were, "Oh no, I really should be going."


I have a terrible habit of rushing, and an unnatural fixation on efficiency.

I stopped myself, put my purse down, and retracted my statement.

"Actually, I'll stay."

Mehmet (the man who had shown me how he repairs carpets) was there, carefully rolling up the carpets that lay on the floor from a day of selling to customers. Something about his posture is very poetic. He has careful hands, as I suppose you'd expect, and a slow kind of grace in the way he balances on his toes, squatting to roll carpets and meticulously clean the wooden floor. His presence stays with me, quiet as he is.

I sat with Ebu Bekir, Adem, Mehmet, and Yasar, listening to them tell stories about customers, discuss pricing, and laugh  about things I simply didn't understand. The conversation, as usual, was in Turkish. It felt so good to be there, to have been invited in by near strangers. As time goes on I find that I have little pockets of friendship in this city. What a lovely thing.

And now I'm sitting in this trendy café, on a side street, my newfound confidence in Istanbul public transportation leading me to the sad realization that there is so much of the city that I haven't seen. This place of winding streets and endless hills is particularly adept at shielding its gems. I'd need to spend a lifetime here before I felt like I knew any of its secrets. The idea of spending a semester abroad here is on my mind more and more.

As for yesterday, close friends and family will be surprised to find that I overcame my lifelong fear of motorcycles and spent the whole day riding on the back of Ugur's bike. Ladies and gentlemen, 'twas magnificent. I now believe the best, indeed, the only, way to truly drink in the Bosphorous is to speed down coastal roads on a motorcycle. Sheer glory, and apparently, the best place to come to very large and emotional realizations.

After spending the day between the American embassy and swanky meetings with actors and producers (more on that later), Ugur was taking me to a lakeside café for some chill time. It was dusk, and the sky just above the rim of the earth was bruised purple, and surrounded by a ring of gold. The sky above us was still that light, innocent shade of blue, and its reflection in the water was brighter than its true manifestation. I felt like I was gliding between two magical realms. And somehow, in all of the vast mystery above and below me, I began thinking about the little thing that is my life.

How did I come to be on the back of a motorcycle with one of the most important playwrights in Turkey?

1.       Middle school: I get literally the smallest part in the school play, and fall in love with theatre.
2.       Dad lost job
3.       Moved to Greenville, NC
4.       Met Merle Pereira, who would later introduce me to Emily Ocker, who would be the biggest influence in making my decision to attend UNC much easier and keep me from feeling like a total failure. (Not that UNC is a bad school, I just had a very different idea of where I'd be going).
5.       Attended UNCSA
6.       As fate would have it, Julianne Lawson happened to be visiting her home in Chapel Hill the same weekend my interview for Hampshire College was scheduled. I caught  a ride with her and stayed with my cousins instead of having my parents take me and stay in a hotel. They gave me a tour of the campus, which led me to apply to the school.
7.       Rejected from UNCSA.
8.       Emily Ocker was accepted to UNC.
9.       My family's financial situation leaves me with one choice: UNC.
10.   I decide to go, and the two of us decide to be roommates.
11.   She informs me of SEAS.
12.   I apply, and am accepted. Best summer ever.
13.   The next year, I immediately begin applying for grants to travel abroad again. My acting teacher from UNCSA hooks me up with the ART\Islam project.
14.   I find myself with two grants to study my favorite things in Turkey and Jordan.

I have been worrying so much lately about my future, specifically career path foolishness. But God has led me to beautiful things, and through beautiful struggles, why is it that I don't trust that he will do the same in my future? I started crying (I cry a lot here), and felt shivers go down my spine at the realization of how totally blessed I have been, how blessed I am, and how much potential exists within my future. 

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


One of my favorite people on this trip has been Roya, Omid's daughter. But I hear "jan" attached the end of their names so often that it has all melded into one word for me. I think of them, now, as Roya-jan, Omid-jan, Nausheen-jan, etc. "Jan" means soul or life force, and is used in a context similar to "dear." So, when addressing someone  you love, you add "jan" to their name. More than once, when I have said Yagmur's name to get her attention, she has responded with "janam?"

This is equivalent to, "My dear?" or, more literally (and beautifully), "My soul?"

I am not from a culture where this term of endearment is the norm, and yet, I feel deeply inclined to use it. So, I've begun to, a bit. At least with Roya, because it flows so well.

Roya is only eleven, but she is, by far, one of the smartest "kids" I've ever met. Calling her a kid feels wrong, somehow. She's more mature than that. Young lady seems more fitting. I have had the honor, on this trip, to be occasionally graced by her precocious company. She absorbs everything we say, everything we see. She often picks up on details of places that my distracted mind passes by. She is incredible in every way, without losing that essential love of life present in every child. She cracks jokes and loves Magnum bars, sings Adele and Lady Gage like she is an award winning recording artist, and lectures often on the dangers of smoking. She is more powerful and beautiful than she knows, and I feel so lucky to have witnessed even two weeks of her growth as a human.  

Monday, June 11, 2012

Repairing Carpets, Confidence, and Faith

Following my afternoon of overwrought emotion, my fellow students and I were led by Omid to a carpet shop, owned by Adem and his family. Upon our arrival, we were presented with plates upon plates of fresh cherries, and they were to die for. My mood improved significantly with that alone.

Ebubekir, one of the owners, spoke to us at length about the nuances and subtleties within the world of carpets. As he  moved through the four different types, he and his partners held up example after example, so that by the time he had finished his 20 minute speech, the floor had risen beneath him, carpet upon carpet upon carpet. To be perfectly honest, what I have always known as "Persian carpets" have never held much appeal for me. They feel too grandiose, too laden with history and saturated color. They demand to be kept clean (But it's something people walk on! Does not compute.), to be taken care off, to be shown off with pride. I far prefer used things, perhaps with cleaner lines, simpler patterns, brighter colors, and less expectations of high society behavior.

Somehow, though, in this smallish, wooden room with my friends, all of the carpets around me suddenly held their own charm. Adem spoke to us about the significance of carpets in the lives of people of the region, the meaning of common symbols, and the evolving use of carpets in the modern world. Carpets serve very practical purposes, as do related pieces such as cradles and saddlebacks, which are now cut and turned into carpets as well. But they also mean a great deal to tribes, who all possess their own unique patterns. As women are married outside of the tribe, they meld their design with that of their husbands family, creating a new pattern for that family. Designs can include symbols for many things, commonly relating to fertility, eternity, and luck.  It is, traditionally, a female occupation, to make carpets. Even as they emphasized this, they proudly spoke of their own weaving skills. The bending of gender normative roles only served to please me further.

As I am a broke college student, buying one of their many masterpieces wasn't an option for me, no matter how much their complex patterns were beginning to grow on me. So, I settled instead with asking an obnoxious amount of questions about the process of carpet weaving. Eventually Adem tired of me, and called in his friend and colleague, Mehmet Konukcu, to take care of me.

As he graciously showed me his weaving work on carpets needing repairs, a theme we had been discussing within Islamic art suddenly hit me.

“The jewel is already inside. Get rid of all that is superfluous.”

In Islam, the essential quality of a human being is known as fitra. It is our nature as we were intended to be. Much of what we have come across in speaking with religious leaders, our teachers, and artists, relates back to this. Art, within the context of Islam, focuses on revealing the beauty of God’s creation rather than being something the artist created independent from the divine.

This quality is especially clear within architecture. The glorious and beautiful Sultan Ahmet Mosque was already within the marble, the excess simply had to be carved away to reveal the truth. This is what we need to do to ourselves, to carve away our egos until all that is left is the perfect human being, living as we were intended to.  Balance has also been a prevalent topic of discussion, particularly when discussing the names of God in the Islamic tradition, which usually come in pairs. God restrains and expands, abases and exalts. Artists work every day between the two qualities. Beauty is nothing without the grotesque.

Mehmet took us outside, and showed us his materials. When he is repairing carpets, he unravels the ones that cannot be saved and reuses the wool. He recreates the design that had been there before, but disappeared for a spell. As Adem said, "He breathes life into carpets that have died."

His hand skillfully laced back and forth, tied knots and changed colors. It was like magic, and he did it all effortlessly, even needing to slow himself down so that we were able to tell what it was he was doing. I held my camcorder and tried to not let it distance me from the experience. We simply sat and watched him work in awe, a life's passion manifesting itself before us. Destinies are funny things- I don’t know how much I believe in them, or rather, how much control one has over them. But I do know that when you see someone who is on the right path, it's impossible to look away. They're blazing through their excess, and heading straight to the core of their being, letting it be what the world around them can see. 

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Loneliness, prayer, and being called an American bitch.

Due to the fact that I had about ten days in Istanbul with the best host family in the world prior to joining Omid's group, I had the good fortune to have already seen most of the optional sites. So whilst my friends were all headed for Topkapi Palace, I decided to visit St. Chora Church.

Another adventure all alone! One day I'll learn how to really share these experiences with another person, but at least for now, I far prefer to go it alone. And I needed the alone time on this day in particular. I had made a total fool of myself the night before trying to communicate with a waiter, didn't feel like I was upholding the expectations of the ART\Islam team, and was feeling generally lonely. I was about fifteen days into my travels, and was finally coming to terms with the fact that it would be a very long time without Ian's insane laughter, without my mother's hugs, without antics in the kitchen with my dad, without Emily's tender and unwavering support, without Merle's expertise, without James' often hilarious commentary and encouragement. It made me very sad. Travelling is my very favorite thing. I like who I am when I'm abroad. But jumping between casts of characters, to have people in your life for just a few days at a time, can be hard. As much of a loner as I am, I really love my friends and family.

So, some alone time to calm myself was much needed. I headed for a cab, requested a ride to Kariye Muzesi, and headed on my way. As we began the drive, I looked at the meter, which was set at 15 TL.

"Are you going to set the meter back?"

My driver dismissed me with a wave of his hand.

"Please set the meter back."

"It's broken. Where you from?"

And we proceeded to have a lovely conversation in English about the charms of Istanbul and my reason for being there. By the time we arrive at the church, the meter is at 25 TL.

"25 lira please."

"No. You didn't set the meter back. Here's ten." Furthermore, I had taken a taxi to Taksim the night before, which is about the same distance if not further, and it was only ten. So I knew I wasn't nuts.

He pushes my hand back and starts rambling loudly and angrily in Turkish.

"You didn't set the meter back! I'm not paying 25 lira!"

This only leads him to raise his voice and gesture angrily. I shove the 10 lira in his hand and begin to get out of the cab.

"American bitch! American bitch! Get out!"

I slam the door and he speeds away. Residents of the street are watching me with a sort of disgusted interest, and I nearly burst into tears on the spot, ready to allow myself to melt into nothingness and flow between cobblestones into the Bosphorous. I walked toward the church, trying really hard to hold my shit together, when tears start rapidly leaking out of my eyes. I sit on a little ledge outside the church and pull it together pretty quickly, before calling my mother (costing me a lot of money and cementing me in her mind as an eight year old), who quickly makes me feel at least a little better.

I pay, and enter the museum/church. They have a lovely grassy area with flowers and benches, and I look forward to hanging out that after going inside. I have the pretty awesome idea to get Mimi (my mother's mother) a rosary while I'm there. I decide that this will be a good trip. Whilst inside, I listen to some Eric Whitacre on my iPod, and survey the frescoes depicting the Virgin Mary's life. Once again, I feel deeply touched and feel another ginormous wave of emotion coming on. Looking at the depictions of the annunciation of her birth to her parents hits me hard for some reason, and I stare at it for a long time. I decide to take some pictures, and before I can even get to the part depicting the life of Mary, my camera dies. In the moment, this is a profound blow to my fragile composure. I move into the gift shop, ready to purchase the rosary for my grandmother and pray it out in the garden.

Not a rosary in sight.

And that's the end of it. My lips start trembling and my temples do that weird tightening thing when you're about to cry. I push my way outside and ungracefully make my way to a bench, where I plop down and sob for about ten minutes. There's an Italian family trying to take pictures a couple of feet away from me, and I feel bad for killing the mood, which only leads me to cry some more.

It was about 4:30, and the museum was closing. I headed for the café across the street, ordered some tea from a clearly concerned waiter, and let the sun dry my face. It was in this moment of post catharsis relaxation that I realized I had a video camera and an iPhone with me, and easily could have taken photos with them. Drat.

Instead of rushing back to the hotel, I sat at the café for about an hour. I wrote, I people watched, and drank as much tea as my little heart desired. I watched the church and tried to imagine it as it would have been a thousand years ago. Contented, and feeling quite a bit calmer, I caught a cab back to the hotel.

God granted me the grace of a kind cab driver. 

Meeting John Travolta, and flirting with a Turk

During our stay in Istanbul, some people from the group and I decided to go for some tea and nargile (known elsewhere as shisha or hookah). Looking forward to a night of relaxation, we stopped by Adem and Burhan's textile shop for some recommendations. Adem and Burhan are brothers, and very good friends of Omid. They held a carpet workshop for us earlier in the week, check that out at the ART\Islam blog. Burhan, in his nifty European scarves and skinny jeans, graciously walked us to a nargile place nearby, explaining that he and Adem had taken Omid there, and that is was his favorite place.

As we walk, he says, "Ever since you come into my shop two nights ago, I've been searching for your face. Come visit after tea?"

Burhan is a genuinely nice guy (pretty handsome, too), but apparently has quite the reputation as a smooth operator. I smile and agree, because I can always use another friend, and he seems, despite the reputation, like a lovely person. After we're seated in the café and he orders Bomba tea (rose, mint, and lemon) for all of us, he and his contagious smile are gone. The evening progresses over flavored smoke and laughter, induced mostly by a ridiculous and highly entertaining TV drama playing on the big screen TV. It's like The Tudors, but for the Ottoman Empire, specifically Emperor Suleyman and his wife (second, to be exact) Roxelana. As well as all of the women in his harem. The costumes were beautiful, the storyline was engaging even with the language barrier, and we had a grand time predicting what would happen next.

(On a slightly (very) nerdy note, watching the show made me a little uncomfortable, because it was as though Turks were Orientalizing themselves. European artists went on a kick a couple hundred years ago in which they depicted "Oriental" scenes, usually involving scantily clad "exotic" women, and very angry, almost animalistic men (Whom the women had to be rescued from. Obviously). Harems were a topic of special interest, as you can imagine, and are basically depicted as places where women would hang around naked, waiting wistfully for their Sultan to stop by and choose them to bed. We know, however, that this was not the case. Harems (though they're by no means my favorite institutions) did a great deal for educating the women who resided in them. Most of the time, they weren't busy in bed, they were reading, learning music, or making art. Furthermore, life "in the Orient" simply didn't just consist of decadence, naked women all in love with the same man, and angry men. The TV show, however, did a pretty good job upholding that image. All the women in the harem fought over the same dude, and the Sultan was depicted as pretty gnarly and generally unapproachable. I guess this formula of silly women and fortress-like men exists in many a historical drama, but something about this felt particularly off. Rant over.)

So, as we're all giggling over the silliness of this show, a man at a nearby table starts telling us who's who and what everyone is doing. Eventually, he introduces himself as John Travolta. He moves his whole, extremely large pipe over to our table and joins in the fun. He's about 50, and certainly looks nothing like John Travolta, so we ask where the name came from.

"When I was about your age, or a little older, I had these great white suits. American tourists would come and see me, especially when  I went dancing, and point and smile and say 'John Travolta!' Eventually, I asked someone what they were talking about, and they told me about his movies and I watched them, and now I love him. Here's a picture."

He proceeded to pull out a picture of him in the 1980s in which he did, in fact, look pretty much like John Travolta. He shared many stories with us, including his smoking escapades with Daniel Craig and Rachel Weiss. He also, upon finding out Lily was from DC, called his American friend who lived in DC, and had Lily talk to her on the phone. Turns out they've got very similar educational backgrounds and interests, so the two of them are meeting for coffee when Lily gets back. Networking is an amazing thing.

Upon his promise to get us into the best and most expensive club in Istanbul for free, we took our leave. He was quite a character. Some of the other girls were a little sketched out, but he was harmless. We headed back to Adem and Burhan's shop, to say good night and thank them for the recommendation. Lily, Jo, and I began looking pretty seriously at their pashminas, and the shopping began. I chose a few to try on, all of which Burhan  insisted on tying for me. Homebro has some skills. He even showed us how to make trendy little vests out of our scarves! It was quite impressive. Eventually we were all alone in a side room, and as he was folding one of the scarves I had decided against, I noticed an eyelash on his cheek.

"Do you wish on eyelashes here?"

"Uhhh, pardon? What?"

"Do you wish on eyelashes? When an eyelash is on your cheek do you ever wish on it?"

Burhan is looking at me like I'm a little crazy.

"No, no. I don't think I've ever heard of that."

"You just put it on your fingertip, and then make a wish and blow it away."

"Okay. Will you get it?"


Upon retrieving the eyelash in question and presenting it to Burhan, he flashed his eyes and smiled mischievously before squinting like a child, making a wish, and blowing it gently off my finger.

"I will not tell you what I wished for," he said, "But I will say that you are in it."

Oh, Burhan. What a line.

He asked if he could see me when I came back to Istanbul, and I said sure. Because you're only in Istanbul once, right?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Aya Sofya

Sofya is a word for feminine, divine wisdom. Being within the Aya Sofya, at one time a church, then a mosque, and ultimately (and, in some respects, unfortunately) a museum, has been one of the most empowering experiences of this summer. It is majestic, to say the least. It was as if I had been engulfed in the faith of millions who came before me. The images of the Virgin Mary are striking, and something of the initial wonder and devotion I had for her as a child rose gently to the surface, guiding me once again to the realization of how very small I am, and how lucky I am to have this gift of life. Omid has spoken of a kind of parallel between Christianity and Islam. In Islam, the Qur'an is the word of God, delivered by Muhammad. In Christianity, Jesus is the living word of God, delivered by Mary. As I get older, Mary wields greater and greater influence over me, and I am in wonder at her role in the salvation of humanity.


I have been seriously blessed in the realm of roommates throughout my life. For whatever reason, our relationships never stop at the appropriate boundary of "just someone I live with." It's always a case of fast friends, and I am so grateful (Shout out to Megan Pinto, Ellie Barone, Danielle Blakeman, and Emmie Ocker). Alhamdullilah (Thanks be to God), this time around was no different. Nausheen is straight up the only person on this trip who is as goofy as I am. We have a grand time together, especially in our hotel in Cappadocia, but more about that later. It's basically become a two week sleepover, complete with night time antics, spiritual conversations, and her professional Turkish hijab stylings. See picture below. We share a love of chocolate, poetry, dancing like fools, and good music. I have so much to learn from such an amazing woman! I am so, so glad to have met her.

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Further poorly organized stories.

I am sitting in the garden, near Ugur and Yagmur who are giving an interview to a Turkish television station. Bizdek, the cat, purrs on my lap, and Lucky (as in Strike), the dog, is panting happily.

Today I leave my newfound family for adventures of a different kind, and join Omid Safi's educational tour to work on the ART/Islam project. I am, of course, very excited, but I am also a little melancholy. How I will miss our late night (early morning?) conquests of toast and foolishness!

Here is another list of the Top Ten Moments of the Week, simply because I could never write about them all.

1.       Eating traditional Turkish food. Anyone who knows me well is aware of my poorly adjusted infatuation with Anthony Bourdain. I have both a professional and legitimate crush on him, and envy his life of country jumping and gastronomical glory. HOWEVER. I am slowly but surely working my way to his level. Thursday night, late, Yagmur and I met Ugur and Dogukan after they had finished teaching their class. We left Takskim and headed for Bakirkoy (Copper City), where Ugur grew up. Ugur was tempting me with promises of a delicious Turkish soup, and despite the fact that I was totally full from  dinner with Yagmur, I couldn't wait. We headed to Sarihan Gusto, a restaurant Ugur and his family helped to expand to the size and grandeur it exists in today. We were seated by a man who seemed to know Yagmur and Ugur well (no surprise there) at a lovely table on the patio. Ugur ordered, and minutes later I had soup in front of me. A medium sized bowl of white liquid with raw egg floating on top. Ugur doctored it with various spices, and I prepared myself for the challenge of eating raw egg. Little did I know that raw egg would become as easy to swallow as milk. As I ate my soup, a very tangy and warm concoction, I began to come across diced meat of some kind. But not meat exactly, something chewier, with little bumps. I peered at it in my spoon, and decided it was squid. Easy peasy lemon squeezy. It's like eating calamari with some egg. I confidently took a few more bites before asking what it was. Dogukan smiled. "Just eat and then I will tell you."

"No, no," I insisted, "It's fine, I eat everything!"

Because I do. Really. I've never ever been anything less than adventurous when it comes to food (the only exception being fish cakes in Singapore. I tried them, and I will never, ever eat them again).

He made mischievous eye contact with Ugur, and Yagmur laughed through her cigarette. It was only at this moment that I noticed Yagmur was not partaking in the squid/egg soup.

"Sheep's stomach."

"Oh? Great!"

I heartily took another bite.


Ladies and gentleman, I finished my soup. It really did taste good, though the texture was a little strange, and stranger still as this thought became emblazoned behind my eyes, "There is a stomach inside my stomach." Difficult? Yes. Seeing Ugur's delight at my empty bowl was worth it. He then motioned to a platter that had arrived, and hastily pointed to different meats and shared their Turkish names, all of which went in one ear and out the other. He and Dogukan each took a very little bit of a couple of things, and then proceeded to give me double helpings of everything. I asked them to explain again what everything was.

Apparently my conquest of the soup had given them confidence, as there was no hesitation in pointing out sheep intestine and lung.

I smiled and began, imagining a high five from Anthony Bourdain with every bite.

2.       Meeting Ferhan Sensoy. He is an extremely prominent writer and director in Turkey, and he was Ugur's teacher. He inherited the Kavuk, which a symbolic hat passed down in Turkish theatre and is of the utmost importance. His plays are notoriously aimed against conservative and religious influence in the Turkish government, and in the late 80s, one of his plays caused so much of a stir that his theatre was burned to the ground. Foul play is almost certain, though it seems nothing was ever proven.

His theatre now is on Istiklal, and you enter through a kind of cheesy mall area. I never would have found it on my own. It is called Ses-1885, and was an opera house in the 19th century. Everything is red and gold and spectacular, he restored it after his playhouse was burned.

There is no way I could have met with someone as influential as Ferhan without the help of Ugur, and I am eternally grateful. We had dinner with him after watching his play, and he answered my questions about Turkish theatre and politics with the help of translation by Ugur and Yagmur. He is extremely proud of Turkish theatre and the traditions it is born out of, especially because Turkish theater was doing things Western theatre found to be groundbreaking long before they began utilizing them. Breaking the fourth wall, for example. Or using unconventional stages and audience participation. He was gracious, and funny, and I feel very lucky to have sat down with him. Now he and his company are on tour, but perhaps we will run across each other sometime in the future!

3.       Having a family. When I was in tenth grade, I had this outrageous goal of having a close friend in every major city in the world. I realize now that this is pretty ridiculous, but as I grow closer to these people, I am reminded of what I was really yearning for in that goal. Something about quickly deepened friendships, born out of somebody teaching me something or sharing something with me, are simply magical. Here are some memorable moments from the past week:

a.       Ozgur watching my pathetic attempt to dice tomatoes for Yagmur's soup, then hastily intervening to show me how it's done.
"Madison, Madison," he admonished me, expertly peeling the tomato. "This is an art."
He did some nifty and strategic slicing while keeping the tomato all in one piece, and suddenly, magically, it was diced. He leaned over and said conspiratorially, "I had to learn because I am not married, eh?"

Oh, Ozgur. One day you will dice tomatoes for a woman and she will fall madly in love with you.

b.      Yagmur making her tea, or as Ugur says, her witches brew. We both had (have?) pretty miserable colds, so she said she'd make tea for us. I imagined this to be made similarly to chai, as in, hot water poured over some pre-packaged leaves. How very wrong I was. Home girl speared an apple with some sort of spice, put it in some boiling water with lemons and herbs, and let it simmer for a few hours. She served it to me later, as I was curled up in misery on her extremely fuzzy orange couch, and I instantly felt better. Best tea in the whole world.

c.       Later that evening (morning?), we (Ugur, Yagmur, Dogukan, and myself) were sitting watching Julie Taymor's The Tempest.Ugur was very clearly not enjoying it, and at one point he left the room. When he returned, he had donned tights, a leather trench coat, a sword (a flyswatter), and had artistically thrown a bright orange knitted scarf over his face. He proceeded to make many a grandiose statement and gesture, leaving Yagmur and I in a fit of hybrid laughs and coughs.

4.       Topkapi Palace. The palace acts as a sort of museum now, housing many artifacts from the splendor of the Ottoman Empire. The artistry present in the designs and handiwork of the jewelry and the thrones is simply unbelievable. It is the most delicate, carefully constructed art I have ever seen, and it takes my breath away. Yagmur and I stared with wonder at ivory hand mirrors with miniscule Arabic script carved into every inch. Absolutely stunning.

But, believe it or not, Topkapi palace holds even more wondrous objects than these.

There is a section holding Islamic relics, including the swords of the first four caliphs, a mold of the footprint of Mohammad, the sword of David, and the rod of Moses. 

I was inches from objects that God had chosen to work through directly. God himself might as well have put his hand on the sword or the rod, and being near them brought tears to my eyes. My faith in God is ever evolving, and moments in which I am witness to something as ancient and profound as this both rock me and reassure me. It was a truly unforgettable feeling.

5.       After an afternoon of walking around Besiktas with Dogukan and being introduced to Taraca Café, which operates as his sort of second home, I was off to Istiklal alone. Ugur and Dogukan teach their acting class just around the corner from Istiklal, so Dogukan thought I might enjoy exploring the famed avenue a little more than sitting 3 hours of Turkish rehearsal. As I began my trek, I was thrilled. All alone, the sense of departure, anything could happen. The moments of breaking into the unknown are the finest I will ever know in life, they give me joy that shoots through my nerves out of body, and straight into the sun. I did my best to not immediately drop into my ultra-American go-go-go routine, and strolled leisurely past chain stores and Turkish eateries. I stopped to listen to some street performers, checked out a couple of rare book stores, and was generally enjoying my little adventure.

That is, until, I found a little man at my side, with a decidedly cocked eyebrow, heavy lidded eyes, and sleazy smile.

"Hello. Where you from? Holland? Netherlands? Germany? America? So beautiful. So white. Come home with me. From Holland? America."

"Defol," said I. This means, "Piss off," in Turkish. I kept walking, separating myself from him by putting space between us. He repeated his lines even with about six people between us. I continued to stroll leisurely, stopping in stores windows, surveying the crowd with ease. Eventually, however, I could no longer ignore that he was staying a calculated fifteen feet behind me. I continued walking until I saw a man, clearly an employee, standing in the threshold of Columbia Sportswear. I waved and smiled like I knew him, and bounded with what I hoped appeared to be familiarity to his side. He looked at me, obviously confused.
"Merhaba. Sorry, I just needed to get away from someone following me."

"Ah yes! Take your time, sit down. Would you like us to get you chai?" Three very kind men had formed a semi-circle around me, and one was looking out the door both ways and staring angrily at anyone he thought might be the man in question. For a moment, I had a very strange feeling of being in Snow White and the Seven Dwarves.

"No, no! Teshekkular. I'll just stay for a few minutes, if that's alright."

And I did. Ahmet, Jem, and Shukru were very kind, and even offered to walk me to the theatre. I politely declined, looked both ways for the creeper as I left, and was not but ten steps out the door when I heard my name.

Ryan Pater, a friend of mine from UNC-School of the Arts, was coming at me on Istiklal. What a small, small world. We hugged and exchanged contact info, perhaps we will see each other again! It was a lovely and serendipitous moment.

Shortly after I left Ryan, and was walking back down Istiklal to go the theatre, the creeper had returned, this time with a friend. Every time I turned my head to look at them, they would try to move behind some people in front of them, or quickly look away. They were definitely following me, but at a distance. Eventually they got closer, and creeper reached a hand towards my waist.

"Siktergit!" That's Turkish for, "Fuck off."

I said it loud and proud, just the way Ugur and Dogukan taught me.

He scoffed and he and his friend backed off for a while, only to return and disappear again when I turned the corner for the theatre.

Creepers. Helping young travelling girls put foreign language into practice world-wide.

Okay, guys, this might actually be a top 5 entry. I'm sitting in the lobby of my hotel now, and it's 1 am. I still have pictures to upload, and you know, sleeping to do. So now I'll just rattle off lots of things I've loved.
1.       Basilica Cisterns. Walking through them and feeling somehow connected to the Empress Theodora, who was the ultimate badass.
2.       Walking through the Grand Bazaar with Yagmur and having some guys come up to ask if she was the actress, because they had made a bet. She is, of course, and one guy won a watch.
3.       Finally going to SALT, an art gallery/collective I've been reading and dreaming about for months.
4.       Istanbul Modern, housing some incredible video art and Turkish photography.
5.       Ferry ride with Dogukan to the Anatolian side and back. I love boats, and I love late afternoon sunshine on the water. It's something so simple, and yet that half hour is without a doubt a highlight of the trip.
6.       Cars careen down hills here with complete lack of concern. It's hilarious.
7.       People use 2 in 1 shampoo instead of shampoo and conditioner. I'm rolling with it.
8.       Sunset at Besiktas (I've deemed it my favorite neighborhood, excepting only Ortakoy), on the water. We got to watch the sun go down and the bridge light up. It was relaxing and good for bonding a little with Dogukan (he is still my relentless translator and escort and dear friend).
9.       Seeing Oyun, which means Game, a Samuel Beckett play. Really bold staging, beautifully timed and choreographed. I can't understand Turkish, but I can understand the human body. Wondrous work.
10.   Being interviewed by a Turkish television station. Today they came to Ugur's house to interview him, and afterwards they hooked me up to a microphone and asked me a few questions about what I was doing in Turkey, my meeting with Ferhan Sensoy, and my thoughts on Ugur and Turkish theatre. It was great fun, and certainly a memorable experience.
11. Meeting Ugur's cousin at his fur shop. He is apparently very strong, eats raw spleen, and can beat Ugur up. He also gave me a beautiful black fur stole. :]
Alright. Pictures and then bedtime. Tomorrow, I begin really exploring historic and religious sites! 


Monday, May 21, 2012

Top 10 Moments

Okay everyone. At least for now, I don't have time to give blow by blows of what is going on, as much as I'd like to. So I'm going to provide a list of the top 10 moments over the past couple of days.
1.       Meeting Dogukan (pronunciation: Dohkahn). He has asked that he get his very own entry, but for now he'll need to settle for being number one on my top ten. He is basically like family to Ugur and Yagmur, and his presence is always a welcome and warm addition. He is unfailing in his commitment to translate things for me, and I am very, very, grateful. You should know a couple of things about him: he refuses to eat eggs, cheese, and olives. He studied film at university, and has been working with Ugur at E.S.E.K. for eleven years. He is an international man of mystery, and he loves his mother. He visited the United States a few years ago and loves Boston. He is a very talented photographer, and his best photos seem to be of clouds or skylines. He is quickly becoming one of my very favorite people on the planet. Today he gave me a lovely book of 50 short stories, and I love it! He seems to understand the beauty of things that are communicated in casual words or actions, and the weight that can be held in a single moment. He is a kindred spirit, to be sure.

2.       Going to Yagmur's dance studio. Yagmur teaches a classical ballet class as well as a contemporary dance class at a dance studio downtown. The girls in classical ballet are probably about 6-14, and they are as sweet as can be. You couldn't pay me enough money to keep a straight face in that class, it’s impossible to watch them without a smile on your face. Gulen, the owner, was a prima ballerina in Istanbul. She is every bit the stern ballet instructor, but has a way of sweetening things near the end of her lectures. During their break, even though we couldn't communicate, we played a game of tag together. So, so sweet! Sitting in the kitchen of the studio, I made many friends, including a man named Cemal (pronunciation: Jamal) who read my fortune in my Turkish coffee. The high points were as follows:
a.       A new boyfriend is on his way, with long hair and a motorcycle.
b.      I will visit Bodrum, a beautiful area of beaches in Turkey.
c.       One day, far from now, I'll have twins, a boy and girl (this is terrifying).
d.      Istanbul will become my second home.
e.      A man who once did wrong towards me will get his come-uppance.
f.        There was a dolphin in the cup, which brings good luck.
g.       Something about  a navy and white polka dot bikini?
h.      The story of The Maiden's Tower will be important to me. Once upon a time, a sultan had a daughter, and it was prophesized that she would be killed by poison on her 18th birthday. Her father built a tower in the middle of the sea (Bosphorous?), and locked her there to protect her. He was her only visitor. On her 18th birthday, in celebration, her father came to the tower with a basket of fruit. However, an asp had been hiding in the basket, and killed the maiden upon her fathers arrival. The tower is also attributed to Hero and Leander, but their story is a bit more complex, so I suggest you google it.
This day was also a national holiday, and Cemal gave me his Ataturk scarf/banner as a gift. I also met Ahmet, who is about 60 with a very cool ponytail. He plays bass in a rock band in Turkey, and is quite famous. He raved about Topkapi Palace, and told me to spend 3 days there without leaving. If only!

3.       In an attempt to be as cool and fashionable as the women in Istanbul, I donned my nude heels with black jeans on Saturday. I had only walked the equivalent of five or six blocks (granted, up and down cobblestone hills) before my left heel was torn to shreds and bleeding everywhere. Fail.

4.       Goya exhibit with Yagmur. We grabbed a bite to eat beforehand, and sat outside to gaze at passerby. She has such a wonderful energy. Warm, wise, and caring. I listened to her opinions on everything from fashion to politics, and her expression is enviably well articulated and polite. She's like a real life Grace Kelly. We headed to Pera Museum and had a coffee on the steps as the sun set, which was a beautiful moment in itself. I felt magnificently European. Then into the exhibit, of Goya's later work. Nightmarish sketches and etchings, with the titles handwritten in Spanish. There was one depiction of Ceres and Stellio that I can't seem to get out of my head.

5.       Later that day, we crossed the Bosphorous bridge, to the Asian (Anatolian) side of Istanbul. It is breathtaking at night, with the lights sparkling from either side, hinting at secrets behind windows and doors. The bridge itself is lit in blue, and it driving on It gave me the impression of being inside a Coldplay song. We went to visit her parents, who don't speak English but made me feel welcome all the same. Her mother prepared dinner, a dish with green peas, carrots, and thyme over white rice, a communal salad, and fresh bread with yogurt. The food here is incredible, I don't know how I'll ever survive the bland flavors of America when I come home. Her mother gave me small, red, drawstring bag, on which she had cross-stitched a rose. She made it for a spring festival in Istanbul, where you bury a piece of paper with your wishes and coins under a specific kind of tree, and then, the next morning, you put the coins in your wallet to bring wealth and toss the paper into the sea so they can come back to you.

6.       Chill Out Festival. Sunday we went to a country club on the outskirts of Istanbul, where a Chill Out Festival was being held. Chill Out Music is kind of jazzy, high energy, with great rhythm. We saw Baaba Maal from Senegal, Alice Russell, and Jazzanova. We danced for six hours straight! Dogukan was a very good dance teacher, just as he is a very good Turkish teacher. Nothing particularly remarkable happened, it was just a lovely evening with good friends, good music, and the joy of dancing.

7.       Following the Chill Out Festival, we went to get delicious toast at this 24 hour restaurant, and then headed home. Ugur was still awake, so Ebru, Yagmur, Dogukan and I sat around the kitchen table with him until about 4 am. They told story after story, joke after joke. Dogukan was translating most of it, but even when he wasn't I found myself laughing at their body language. These languid meal time conversations are quickly becoming my new mode of existence. At home, if I'm eating, I'm also working on something. Reading the news, or a book, or writing, or talking on the phone. People here are better at taking the time to connect, and to reflect. No one seems to ever be in a rush. Anyone who knows me know that I walk very fast, and I love efficiency. I can't tell you how good it feels to let go of that.

8.       Friday night, Yagmur took me to the same restaurant we were at on the first day for a reunion with her friends from a television show she was on, called "Where's My Daughter." Everyone was terribly nice to me, even though I was the awkward, non Turkish speaking addition to the group. Burack and Yunca were both especially kind to me, and I hope I get to see them again! Burack was named best model in the world or something about ten years ago, and another girl at the table was the 1st runner up for Miss Universe. Even if I did speak Turkish, I think I would have trouble finding things to say to most of these people. I feel like Alice in Wonderland. I'm not only in a foreign country, but their world, their way of life, feels foreign as well. I'm a nobody college student from North Carolina (I explain this location, when asked, as being between New York and Florida), and have trouble feeling like I fit in here. All the same, each person is gracious and kind beyond anything I could ever expect. Now I just need to step up my social game!

9.       Today, we went to Ortakoy and Bebek, which are districts on the Bosphorous. They are the among the most beautiful places in the world. I must admit, I've always been a little skeptical of the beauty of the Mediterranean. When it comes to travel, I'm a bit of hipster. Somehow, I had this impression that if so many people have already seen it, then some of its charm has somehow gone away with them. Absolutely not true. The rainforests of Brunei are gorgeous and I am lucky to be among the few to have seen them, but the streets and windows of Ortakoy and Bebek are beautiful as well, I cannot deny them that. And the water is bluer than anything else in the world. Kingfisher blue, and somehow it seems to hold the promise of better things. I read somewhere that Turks have a certain kind of cynicism, but I don't know how anyone could be anything less than optimistic when you have that water at your feet.

10.   Yagmur and Ugur really do know everyone. Today in Bebek, we went to Mudo Concept, a sort of high society café right on the water. We sat there for about two hours,  and in that time, countless important individuals shook my hand and spoke with Ugur at length. Members of parliament, former governors, actors, popular musicians, intellectuals, journalists, producers… Their network is mind blowing. This is one of those situations where the conversation turns to Turkish, so I went  off on my own to explore a bit. It was the first time I had really been alone, and walking the streets of Istanbul. I literally couldn't wipe the smile off my face. The setting sun glowed brighter, reflecting like gold off the water. The faces of people held all the meaning in the world, and as I stood and surveyed the steep hills and villas on the other side of the water, I felt timeless, and utterly infinite.

I will add in pictures soon, I promise!