Friday, September 18, 2009

Oranges, kebabs, and mosques

‘Hairy men’ they say. ‘Hairy macho men,’ and ‘Oh they are rude, more than the people in Istanbul.’ These are some of the descriptions I get when I ask people about Adana, a city in the south of Turkey, where I am going in less than a week for a teaching job.

I know that Adana has a large agriculture industry, is famous for kebab, and from what I see of photos online there are many mosques. Beyond this I have no concept of the place, and have relied upon the answers of Turkish and non-Turkish friends alike to help me visualize my home for the next several months.
Based upon what I have heard thus far, I admit to being frightened about the experience to come.

There is little variation in the answer to the question, ‘How is Adana? ’ ‘Hot, boring, conservative.’ ‘Hot.’ ‘Really hot.’ ’Very hot’. ‘HOT!’

I start to picture myself walking the streets of Adana. They emit smoke, and the air glows red and orange like a red light district. Everyone moves really slowly, and my face bubbles and blisters from the heat like a science fiction movie.

I should know better than to let my imagination run. I usually have odd static images of places that I have not visited that are so detached from reality they are laughable. When someone says ‘Armenia’ I see green plains with a single house and a bald man standing with his hands on his hips, just looking at his house. The image is so detailed in my head and feels so real, however I am going to assume that absolutely none of it is true.

Before my first visit to Istanbul I envisioned it as one would see an image on a television screen. The image was tilted like the villains were in the old Batman show. Istanbul in my mind was endless brown and red streets crowded with stampeding bulls.

Producing images of the future and places not seen has been an involuntarily evoked system for coping with fear of the unknown. I suspect that by imagining in great detail what we don't know makes us feel somehow closer to knowing.

But sometimes the ways we try to ease our mind to make the unknown more familiar make it more bleak or scary than simply allowing the mind to be a blank canvas for reality to fill.

Up to now my Turkey travel has been limited to Istanbul. I am looking forward to the chance to see how representative Istanbul is of Turkey, or rather how much Turkey might not be Istanbul.

It is certain to be a different existence and I hope that in some ways it could even be a better one. There is comfort knowing that the population is around two million, and that it is quite urban. But in the coming days can these comforts stand up to the preconceived notions of Adana that I and others have conjured up?

Is it really a dreary land of meat, brutes, and sweltering temperatures?
I’ll have to resign myself to the following truth: I’ll know when I see.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009


I weave in and out of human traffic, shrewd and calculating. Here in Istanbul the population is an estimated 15 million people. That is fifteen million people, fifteen million worries, fifteen million inspirations and life paths, walking in fifteen million directions. I walk deftly, dodging people and strollers, always passing to the left as if behind the wheel. This is the pedestrian Autobahn.

I often breathe a sigh of thanks when I have reached my destination with a few near misses, but no collisions.

Elsewhere I have a characteristically lazy stroll and do things in a leisurely fashion. But just as one is unable to defy the laws of gravity, the tourist, local, and everyone in between are subject to this obligation to rush. All actions are seemingly carried out with a consuming sense of urgency.

I see it in the faces of others and frequently recognize it stirring within myself. Stress tightens its grip around the thoughts, asphyxiating peace of mind, the forehead wrinkles, the shoulders collapse inward, the heart races, and fists clench. Leaving your door every day you age a little if you are unaware of these responses.

A weakened ability to focus is another byproduct of this speed of existence. I find myself perpetually distracted by the scent of roasting street food or fruit from a stand wafting from delicate skin, voices in the streets, interesting looking and passionate people, striking contrasts in architecture and scenery, bursting colors of foods, turquoise waters, and sunsets. There is so much to seduce the senses that it lures me from productivity. Everyone moment ignites creativity and simultaneously extinguishes it.

With the profound voice of the oracles my friends told me ‘Do not stop writing when you are in Istanbul.’ And indeed I had stepped away from it, having found it surprisingly difficult to write. With so much stimulation it is easy to lose focus. A plethora of sites, sounds, and smells strike me at the core of my being, but by the time I can reflect on and articulate the feeling, the feeling is gone and replaced by a new one. As such, this is not writer’s block, to which I thought my friends might have been referring. It is writer’s ADHD.

I leave my apartment and on the way to the subway I smell corn roasting, fish from the market, bread from a bakery, a car horn honks, a child yells for his mother, a vendor yells, there is a stunning dress in the clothes shop window, the call to prayer begins, a man with piercing blue eyes walks by and another whose features are very dark searches for eye contact with me, an angelic little girl with red hair eats ice cream, a wave of warmth flows over me at seeing another black face, the tram bell dings, there are deep purple figs, rich green cucumbers, bright red tomatoes, a man’s prayer beads, the clinking of a spoon stirring tea, musicians in the street, music from the cafe, colors burst from flowers for sale in the bucket of a woman sitting on the sidewalk…

As I start to run for the metro stop life around me begins to blur like objects in the side window rushing past when driving down the highway. I reach the platform and jump into the train before the doors close and I see an advertisement that inspires a thought. I reach for my notebook to jot down the thought but my stop has come and I am rushing for the exit, rushing down the street, rushing to,.. and a voice deep within asks for my sake and for every single person doing the same, ‘to where?’