Every Man’s Land: Thoughts on Turkey

Ayasofya, Istanbul’s defining landmark at the heart of the city in history-soaked Sultanahmet is often referred in guidebooks as one of the greatest monuments a traveler will ever see. From the outside it isn’t very impressive – its exposed brickwork and peeling façade only downplaying and readying you for the dizzying effect it has upon entering this building built in 537 CE by Emperor Constantine.

And how impressive it is!

For a thousand years it was the largest church in all of Christendom. No one could replicate the size of the dome and its magical ability to have been built without any apparent support – it was perhaps one of the greatest architectural marvels since the pyramids. Its only adversaries that caused it to be rebuilt several times over its millennia and a half history were earthquakes.

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If we’re gaping at its magnificence today, imagine how the subjects of the various successive regimes of massive empires – from the Byzantium to the Ottomans might have reacted to such a marvel.

The soul of the building was its mosaic work. 30 million gold tiles interpreted Biblical images to create works of art that adorned the walls – Madonna and child, the magnificent Deesis, the Comnenus and many more. The ones I mention have survived till today.

And yet right under them you can also see is the Islamic Ottoman additions – a mihrab (indicating the direction of Mecca) and a mimbar (the pulpit) – along with the four minarets outside.

turkey2You see, Ayasofya was converted into a mosque when the Ottomans established their empire in Constantinople in 1453. And it wasn’t until 1934 Ataturk repubicized the country and this mosque and deemed it a museum.

Reeling within the splendor of the cathedral turned mosque turned museum, the only question in my mind was how did everything survive? Today you can still see the Madonna and Child glowing surrealistically in the light from the intricate stained glass windows right above where the altar used to be and where the mihrab stands today. It’s not like the Ottomans couldn’t reach it and simply scrape them off. No, they simply covered it. Temporarily. Images of Christian Gods, preserved, in a mosque.

Ayasofya is a convenient example of the Turkish DNA, which is all about acceptance. Overwhelmingly Muslim at 99% of the population, Turks are incredibly moderate in their interpretation of Islam and still remain a deeply religious people.

Istanbul from the Bhosphorus

The Bosphorus river splits the country into two geographically and yet in a metaphorical sense the bridges that span across Asian and European Istanbul stand for a meeting of two sensibilities in perfect harmony. The essence of the east mixes seamlessly with the practicalities of the west. While mosques with their magnificent minarets overwhelm the landscape, you’re still in throbbing metropolis that could be anywhere in Europe. While you dine in Michelin star restaurants, you will still have to bargain like a tourist as you would in Cairo or Agra. And while you take a cruise down the Bosphorus shelling out inordinate amounts of cash for a beer, you will still be wonderstruck with the beauty and depth of well-preserved history of the Topkapi Palace.

And yet the Asia-Europe split is causing severe consternation in a geopolitical sense. Membership to the EU is a primary fuss for Turks and the world has their own views on this. Significantly, Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognize the state of Israel and the two countries have shared a less hate-total hate relationship over the years. Israel views Turkey as it’s only ally in the region. The Arab countries detest this. The Turks care not for Arabs, and have deep reservations especially for Saudi Arabia. The Arab countries (save for Egypt) accuse Turkey for turning it’s back on the Muslim world and hankering for an EU membership that will essentially alienate it from its eastern neighbors who frankly don’t have a hope in heel to make the cut (we’re talking Iran, Iraq, Syria here.) Strangely enough this is exactly the reason why Turkey is not yet an EU member with Germany and France having their own reservations on admitting a Muslim country within their ranks.

Interestingly the Arab media initially ridiculed Turkey’s bid for the EU. All that changed in a famous outburst at Davos in 2009 when the Turkish PM Erdogan lambasted Israel with a famous “one minute” quote that is a legend in Turkish pop culture. He promised to not return to Davos. He’s kept his promise in 2010. Immediately the Arab media’s voice changed and now was particularly critical of opposition to Turkish membership in the EU by French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Despite serious communication issues, I had the opportunity to interact with many locals over several days and scratched the surface of the many facets of the Turkish outlook. They’re proud of their roots, often not city-based but in towns and villages of the less-ballyhooed east. They are a sexually liberated people, they love their culture and have an over-the-top patriotic zeal. This is evident in the number of flags of all sizes from little ones on taxi dashboards to behemoths over 60 feet fluttering over the city skyline. When in Turkey, be assured you will always be in view of their flag.

They very much love Mustafa Kemal Atatürk – the architect of modern Turkey and indeed in my own academic imbibitions, portrayed as a modern man with a modern outlook – putting the country on the road to becoming a full-fledged developed nation (indeed Indian textbooks praised him endlessly like a hero our own country could never have), but mostly famous for banning all things religious including head-scarves from all government schools and universities. He rewrote the language (a tough-to-learn but fine language Turkish – extremely logical – it was the basis of the failed attempt at an international language called Esperanto.) He even tried to introduce – against all Islamic tenets – azan in Turkish.

fishawy-freedom

It’s my personal belief that perhaps Atatürk went a tad too far and tried too hard to westernize the country. Banning religious symbols are extreme in their own way, aren’t they? Creating a national identity with a new language – wholly acceptable. Disallowing headscarves, a purely personal choice of clothing accessory … well it’s still being debated.

The headscarf debate I suppose has been on since the 1920’s. On my very first day in Istanbul I came across a long op-ed piece in the nation’s largest English newspaper (Today’s Zaman) titled ‘Headscarves. To wear or not.’ It was as if a trivial issue of the week has been raised to satiate a reader’s curiosity. The truth is that it is Turkey’s favorite dining-room debate. A trip to Üsküdar – a tourist-free, more conservative section of Istanbul was a window to the deep attachment most women in Turkey have to their scarves. And this is within Istanbul city limits. You can imagine the rest of the country. The fact is there are more people today than ever before advocating a political role for Islam in Turkey.

Turkey doesn’t need this brand of artificial secularism thrust upon itself. The people are well aware of their own DNA. They don’t understand Islamic fundamentalism the way the rest of the world sees it and rightly proud of saying so. And even with their headscarves on they see themselves as European. This really is the essence of Turkey. It’s a gateway, a meeting point, a go-between for the East and West. It lives up to it’s strategic geography in a very spiritual sense.

My most memorable moment was sitting at a teahouse in a village off Asian Istanbul at 7 am in the freezing cold in the company of men, each of over 70 years old busy with their morning cuppa, cigarettes and newspapers. It can’t have been very different for them or their fathers for generations. It was impossible to start a conversation because we didn’t have a common language. But there were many smiles, an uncharged cup of tea, and meaningless sentences exchanged. The Turks were warm and welcoming. And I suspect they always have been.

Well, almost. By no means have the Turks got it all right. The Ottoman role in the Armenian Genocide (the term ‘genocide’ comes from here) sticks out like a sore thumb in its history. As do its long-standing issue with Greece over Cyprus and its own Kurdish population who continue to resist Turkification – as with anywhere else in the world it is a country with dark patches of history and its own demons to overcome.

Coming back to history, the cold, inhospitable Anatolian Plateau was the center of the fierce Hittite empire. Theirs was a warrior race and their main enemy: the Egyptians. And still – here is the magic of Turkish soil again – the Hittites and the Egyptians signed the first ever peace treaty the world has ever known after the epic Battle of Kadesh. This was over 3200 years ago. Amazingly, the cuneiform tablet still survives today in Istanbul’s Archaeology Museum bearing the words of Hattusilli III and Ramses II. Significantly, it’s often referred to as ‘the Eternal Treaty’. It is, in a sense Turkey’s promise to itself.


 

More pictures I took are here: http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=167028&id=626165406&l=1e67fa1f0e

Air Deccan – A Terrific Airline

I can understand what possessed Vijay Mallya to buy Air Deccan. After the (true) story I’m going to narrate, you too will see why Mallya wept with tears (of joy no doubt) when he acquired this magnificent airline. It’s no secret really, the answer is plain and simple: Air Deccan was and always will be, a terrific airline.

Air Deccan is a terrific airline. Sometimes I wonder how Indian aviation was managing before this path-breaking airline set the wheels of the Indian airspace rolling with their 1 rupee ticket (nevermind the taxes and surcharges which usually make your ticket a minimum of Rs. 3001, and god forbid you may have no option but to book it last minute, where the rate is usually double what you’d pay to get to North America). Coupled with Laloo Prasad Yadav becoming the railway minister, Air Deccan’s launch realized the great Indian middle-class dream of getting to a ‘higher plane’.

deccan

Despite a 99.9% record of being delayed by a minimum of two hours, Air Deccan still remains a thoughtful and terrific airline. Even as you lounge around after security check, a glass panel away from the runway, Air Deccan has made plenty of provisions to keep you from 1) getting bored and 2) getting on board. For example, try asking any Air Deccan staff the cause of a delayed take-off. If at any point you do intend to ask them this question, please remember that for your entertainment, they will play a game. Usually they try to act out the scene, as in dumb charades. Punctured with grunts and squeaky noises, they first pretend being hard of hearing. This in reality is actually a clue: They know the answer, but they can’t reveal it. If you ask them to speak to you, remember you’re breaking the rules of dumb and should you ask “Why the delay?” They will clearly tell you, “I can’t say” and will continue to squeak, until you throw your hands up in the air and give up. Then they will reveal a terrific answer that will have you rolling on the conveyor belt. As they said to me once, at Ranchi airport: “The flight is circling overhead and can’t land due to airport congestion.” This is a good reason to be taken seriously, as the Birsa Munda (after who the airport is named) isn’t exactly JFK (even though the men were evenly matched in most respects) and has limited resources. But you know Air Deccan is yanking your chain when you look out and realize that the only thing on the airport runway is a runaway cow, who has probably been there for the last two months, avoiding detection.

If by some chance a plane actually does get ready to take off, you should ready yourself too… To run. Being a trained athlete helps big time. This is how it works: Smaller airports do not need buses to cart people to the aircraft and Air Deccan doesn’t give you seat numbers! Now you’re free to sit wherever you want on the aircraft! Can you imagine what a breakthrough in passenger democracy this is! It’s terrific! So you line up at the door, and an Air Deccan bouncer tries to hold the line. Holding, holding… the stair van is docked, door opened, airhostess in the Good Evening position… and “Go!” he yells. You run. Like the wind, holding on to your security-checked hand baggage as it thumps your back, you run. On the airfield, dodging oil trucks and baggage trolleys, you run; grappling, gaining on your co-passengers on the airfield, much to the envy of passengers of other airlines who are left gaping from the terminal. You see, Air Deccan gives you a chance to experience life as a gladiator, as you gamble your life and knees, scrambling for the perfect seat.

As you know, no matter how smart you’ve been to be first in line (or in this case, first in the race across the runway), there will always be many people already on board. Where do they come from? No one knows. Air Deccan, maintaining full passenger privacy, never asks either. Some of these folks probably have nowhere else to sleep because they believe Air Deccan is their home. So despite everything, you will land up in the middle seat. An announcer in the aircraft will repeatedly remind you that there is free-seating in the aircraft. Isn’t that terrific? What if you forgot?

Even the interior of the aircraft is designed innovatively, such a far cry from standard airplane designs where you have overhead lockers that shut. Some Deccans don’t have lockers with anything to shut them in. That’s why the airhostesses say, “please use the overhanging shelves to store your bag. Please make sure no one is seated underneath during turbulence. If there is someone sitting underneath during turbulence, please resist from laughing when your bag falls on him.” This is some of Air Deccan’s terrific humor. Another funny thing you’ll notice is the in-flight magazine. It contains several ads for – you guessed it – chairs! This padding, that armrest, it’s when you begin noticing the Deccan’s own terrific seating (wholly unique to any airlines): the buttons on the armrest are only placebos. Your seats actually don’t recline. In fact, they’re totally rigid. No more slouching, uncomfortably twisting and turning to find the right position for a catnap. With Air Deccan’s seating, you’re ramrod straight, alert and ready for action. No more sudden jerks from the jerk ahead, spilling your food (of course – Air Deccan cleverly doesn’t provide food in the first place – double insurance against such an accident) – therefore no more lost tempers, screaming, and shouting. It’s terrific. It’s almost a course in non-violence.

Back to the food. All is not lost! We all know that Air Deccan doesn’t serve meals or any kind of food to keep costs low. But if you think about it, this is a terrific idea and a good thing. I mean, doesn’t everyone hate airline food anyway? Of course, if you’re hungry, you can always buy food, and guess who’s catering? Café Coffee Day! How snazzy! First imagine all those hours you’ve parked yourself at one of their tables, slowly sipping their Mochachillos to gain extra faff time. Now imagine a sexy airhostess pushing a CCD card towards your seat as you fly across clouds. Ha! It’s practically a wet dream. And what an expansive menu they’ve extended to Air Deccan – Cheese sandwiches. Yes, that’s it. You can’t expect Guava Granitas in the air, now, can you? Beautifully packaged (ketchup included) the uncooked shard of mozzarella would make any French gastronome proud! For 50 bucks, a steal!

While you munch through CCD’s entire menu, don’t bother looking out of the window. All windows on these aircrafts are fogged out and scratched. You’ll never guess why. This is because other Deccans are playing ‘hit-n-miss’ (also called ‘narrow escapes’) with your aircraft. Deccan pilots, the best in the business – hired straight from stunt flying clubs – always have a point to prove. This exercise keeps them motivated and their minds terrifically sharp. I am only guessingthat their windscreen is see-thru and/or they are not blind. Air Deccan has been known in the past to complain to the AAIof “short runways that (their) pilots always seem to be missing” – not sure what the reason is for this – but it doesn’t matter. Like I said before, Air Deccan is a terrific airline.

Once you land on the runway (AD will always strive for this, it is in their mission statement) – Air Deccan will try their mightiest best to keep you entertained as long as possible. They will ensure that your baggage will not appear on the conveyor belt for at least 50% of the flight duration and once again take up charades, should you ask for an explanation. My last flight lasted 8 hours (it hopped four cities) – so you can do the math. Sometimes I think that Air Deccan’s claim to be India’s second largest airline is misleading. I believe their best-kept secret is that they only have three and a half planes that hop about 6 cities on an average flight. This is why there are always people on board. And this is why Air Deccan is always entertaining you. I wholly recommend flying this airline to everyone. It’s an unforgettable experience every single time. They’re absolutely terrific!

Eating in Egypt

I love Egypt. I love it so much that I spent my honeymoon making my new wife crawl through the claustrophobic stone passages of its pyramids to retracing the steps of Naguib Mahfouz’s favorite haunts in Cairo. I love it so much that I daydream of being an Egyptologist. I like to think Zahi Hawas has single-handedly uncovered more history of the world than anyone else. Some of my favorite books are the clumsily translated historical fiction thrillers of Christian Jacqs.

The Nile in B&W

And now Egypt is on the brink of revolution. And as much as I’d like to speak my mind on such matters, a debate is moot. It’s plainly obvious what should happen next. Also what will happen next, now that the army has taken to the streets. Instead I will talk about my gastronomic adventures in Misr. And hopefully, when you visit this awesome country the next time, you will know – for better or worse – if Cairenne koftas match up to Delhi’s seekh kababs, even though they are technically the same and if the Mahabahiya is really a disguised version of the caramel custard.

In Cairo, the first thing that’ll strike you once your eyes have adjusted after scanning the skylines for pyramids are is its coffehouses, or as you’d be expected to call it – Ahwas. They come in myriad sizes and décor and cater to disparate patronage and yet their spirit and taste – whether it is a small cup of mint shai, a large glass of juice, or even a sachet-made Nescafé – are uniformly singular. Of course Fishawy, tucked away in the heart of the Khan-e-Khalili, is one of the brighter spots with its mélange of color and style of serving in ancient tin teapots and brass trays where every thought of an oppressive hijab is dispelled as you see sheesha smoke engulfing laughter of four women dressed in full burkha regalia playing a game of backgammon. Even Mahfouz sat here, writing. Egyptian men – from 20 to 60 – look to emulate him in the physical presence, if not intellectual pursuit. They’re out in hordes at Ahwas across the city – in its nooks and crannies, bent over a board game with a nondescript sheesha and a pot of shai. Even the alliterative ring to this national identity has its charm.

Shai at Fishawy

I tried to experience everything – from airplane food to street food, from standalones to the buffet at five stars. Obviously I will not discuss the first and last items (even though there were commendable moments by their standards. With my partner in crime, we ate alone, we ate with locals, we ate at Hardee’s (its called local food fatigue, okay?), and we ate local dessert leftovers for breakfast.

Barely off the tarmac and in a cab with our suitcases getting soaked in the light but steady rain; we insisted on stopping en route to our hotel in the middle of a busy street to try a shwarma. Or shawarma as Egyptians would rather spell it (Wikipedia confirms that both are correct as are chawarma, shawerma, or shoarma). This is of course, the Supreme Cultural Street Food of the Arab world. Should the Middle East ever emulate the EU, it will become the National Snack. It is to them, what the Vada Pav is to Bombay. Should you order this roadside – you get to stuff the filling between pita, baguette, or burger buns. With no amount of charades was I able to demonstrate that I was looking for the filling in a flatbread wrap, you know, the conventional style: Roti! We ended up with what were essentially mediocre chicken sandwiches and a roadside beef burger (the hawker called it ‘chicken bunny’, bunny for bun, and despite being the only two words he repeated a few hundred times, it didn’t taste any better.) One would think that this meal was the result of a communication gap (it’d been only a few minutes on a new continent) – but no, over the next seven days, shwarma’s never looked or tasted as good as the ones you’d get in say … Lokhandwala. Where was that unique texture of mayo, hummus, French fries, and tender and moist roasted chicken coming together?

  • We tried it again later that night at El Shabrawy (a highly recommend local haunt in Giza – by locals, not Lonely Planet) – here the chicken was served separately on a plate with bread on the side with tons of salad with hummus and oil. Double the volume, but at four times the price. Along with it, a pricey mixed platter with 4 beef kebabs in different forms including a kofta and ribs. New, yes. Good? Hmm. More on koftas later.
  • Another roadside stall for lunch over the weekend to give the shwarma another shot. Once again we went through the Chicken Bunny rigmarole (now if only they’d used some real bunny meat) and the quality was consistently depressing.
  • We tried it at a Felfela – which is the Egyptian equivalent of a McDonald’s chain in terms of look and feel (except that you actually have to tip the cook/cashier in order to retrieve your order – it’s practically daylight robbery) and this fared better. I’d almost recommend it.
  • And yet again at a much more homegrown, localized chain of restaurants called Gad, which had some excellent food at superb value for money. Most notable of these were fiteer, which can best be described as an Egyptian version of pizza. Interesting to watch it being made, it is a gooey pancake with a choice of stuffing. We tried it with feta cheese and olives (too many olives) and shish tawouk, the common enough diced chicken dish. Both were innovatively presented (and especially flavorsome for next day breakfast) when supported with their juices (mango/grape). And superb quantity for the price.
  • And a couple of other places, including a ‘dial-a-shwarma’, but none of them came even close to what one had imagined.

This is really not a case of Indianization of non-desi food; it is the richness of the Indian adaptation that is always on your mind and forces comparison. My theory? Since the Arabs of the world eat this on a daily basis, shwarmas by need to be less taxing on the stomach and therefore, taste. We eventually went on to try the shwarma at the Beirut Express in London, and … almost made it.

Breadwalk

On day three we made elaborate evening dinner plans with a local Egyptian family. To get past afternoon hunger pangs, we were on the lookout for some simple fare. I had some ideas of trying falafel, but then again – off the road – it is often tasteless. It was my 3-day-old cab driver friend who came to the rescue. He treated us to an enormous cooked sweet potato, served steaming hot on the day’s newspaper. It was fun for the first few bites – the heat drawing out the flavours (and the carbs) damping the tastebuds with its sweetness. Then I got distracted with the view of the countryside: Egyptian farmers growing impossibly large cauliflowers and cabbages – over 3 feet in diameter. By the time I came back to the potato it’d gotten cold and limp. It’s a popular item though and is usually served off a donkey cart. Try it. It probably costs nothing.

My expectation that dinner would be the best meal all trip held up. The family – man wife, man’s mother – drove us to a meat haven called Abu Shakra. Here is what we ate and what you should be eating:

  • Start with Maash: brown Egyptian rice wrapped in grape leaf. This is essentially dolma – staple Middle East cuisine. The Turks love experimenting with it and think they make it best, innovating with all sorts of filling from anchovies to zucchini. But all said and done, it is most likely an Egyptian invention. Note for people who haven’t been to the Middle East or an Arab restaurant down your street: it may look like sushi, but it tastes nothing like it.
  • Entrees are kababs and koftas. Always. ‘Kabab’ in Egypt is a generic term for veal chops. Good kababs are hard to find in Egypt if you’re a clueless tourist (but now you’re not, eh?) but when you hit jackpot like I did at Abu Shakra, you’ll know instantly from the way the oil drips from it as you pick it up and sink your teeth into layers of fat, muscle, and cartilage till you hit the juicy core.
  • Koftas in this particular restaurant looked much like seekh kababs on steroids. At least five times bigger in every way. Of course, it tastes very different too: significantly more puffy and chewy, but at least they’re bone-free. Your standard accompaniments – pita bread, hummus, baba ganoush – will vary from place to place and depends on your palate for these – but to begin with always try the meat without table seasoning. Sometimes it’s just perfect.
  • A standard grilled chicken will always help neutralize red meat.
  • Desserts are easy. Umm Ali is delicious (and tastes nothing like the way it should given its boring ingredients of dry fruits baked in milk.) Mahabahiya (the Arabic take on caramel custard) is marvelous. After gorging on them the next morning as well, I decided only desserts were to be eaten that day. Off the street we got baboosa – that greasy coconut based semolina cake soaked in honey, something that resembled a lot like kheer, dates wrapped in chocolate (which as you can imagine is a big deal in an Arab country), and then some universal usual suspects – pies, cakes, and some more Umm Ali.

The appetite of out hosts was, well, jaw-dropping. I don’t mean to generalize but man were the Egyptians tucking it in (and still looking fit all the same). I could barely get through a kofta and a half and a couple of veal chops, but the 70-yr mother of the man who had accompanied us ate at least triple and the rest of them cleaned up everything else (and we’re talking of food served in kgs – because that’s how they’re listed in a menu – so you get 4 kgs of kofta to save you the trouble of saying 24 pieces. And remember how big the koftas were?)

The Egyptians are slightly obsessive with their juices; you’ll spot a juice stall out of every five shops you pass. And they’re good too. Their strawberry and grape are significantly better than anything you’d find in India and they’ve totally cracked the elusive mango juice. It’s addictive. It also possibly explains the glow on most Egyptians’ faces.

Stella, the preeminent beer of Egypt with its tagline swiped from Nietzche (“That which does not kill us makes us stronger”) is sorely lacking by international standard. A less popular brand, Luxor, is twice as good. One would think Egyptians would know a thing or two about beer considering it’s been the beverage of choice since Pharaonic times and also given the weather. Ancient Egyptians might have been the first to figure how to make beer and wine and certainly drank a lot it; no set of hieroglyphics is complete without a beer guzzling Pharaoh etched in stone, the ones at Saqqara are especially testament to that. But availability outside central Cairo can be a problem. It took me three days to find my first beer outside the hotel.

There were some other highlights too – Turkish coffee, a strange purple guava juice in Coptic Cairo, and of course the Hardee’s signature Superstar burger. Yes. Everyone needs a familiar taste once in a while.