Istanbul Diaries: Nov. 7

I went to a professional basketball game Wednesday night.

I met one of the American basketball players on Sunday and he left tickets for us at the Turkish version of will call.

I went straight from my Turkish class so I still had my school books and study paraphernalia with me.

My American friends who live in Istanbul had just mentioned the possibility that they might confiscate small objects like pens, loose change and lighters (basically anything that can be thrown onto the court in a moment of rage) and if we didn’t want to give them up, then we should put them in our boots.

I didn’t take their advice because I figured I could just play the “foreigner” card which basically is: 1) playing dumb as if you don’t know what they’re talking about and 2) if no. 1 fails, try to make them understand that as a foreigner, you don’t do stuff like that.

I’ve used this method with good results in Mexico, typically when traffic cops are involved. Most of the time they want a bribe and I just act like I don’t know what’s going on. The last time that happened, they made it even clearer that they wanted a bribe so I moved on to step 2 and reasoned with them about my position.

Since in Mexico I’ve had such good results, I figured I could skip throwing all my small change and pens down my boots. I didn’t even have to play too dumb because I didn’t understand much of anything they were saying to me. Then I made my first mistake. I threw out my “Turk chay yok” and instantly they started making it clear through pointing at examples (stuff they had already confiscated). Dang!

As they took the two pens in my possession, I shifted to tactic two and started reasoning with them in my best Turkish about why I shouldn’t have to turn over my pens: I said “okul” (Turkish for school) and gave them my best Latin shrug with arms extended down and palms open in consternated pleading. (Watch any southern European or Latin American basketball or soccer player get called for a foul and you’ll see the gesture.)

It seems my best Turkish wasn’t good enough. They dropped my pens in the confiscation box and said I could get them afterwards. I understood that much, but I didn’t believe it to be very likely.

So I spent warm up and most of the first quarter indignant that they took the pens I needed for school. Just as well I had done my homework before the game.

As for the game itself, our American companions that night put it this way, “it’s like taking a country of soccer fans and putting them in a gym.” I’d say that’s about right.

The hooligans had their corner of the stands and they sang, clapped, chanted and jumped up and down non-stop the whole game. The only time the whole arena went quiet was when some random man in the stands started singing. You could hear his lone voice as clear as if he were the only one in the arena.

When it ended, I asked my companions what that was all about. They said he was probably singing something about being a Turk. Sacred stuff, apparently.

Half-time was an experience as well. The concession stand wasn’t nearly as kitted out as one at an American pro game, since I don’t like ketchup flavored potato chips, I settled on a cheese toast and a water (the water was in a container like the individual pudding cups they sell, only this one was a tad bigger.) So there I was ready for the third quarter eating what was basically a toasted cheese sandwich and washing it down with a tiny cup of water. Good thing I got more than one water…and I only did that because they were giving I.O.U.s for small change (remember, no coins are allowed).

For a second I thought they had turned on the smoke machine to start the third quarter, but then I realized it was just everyone taking their half-time smoke break in the lobby area. One week’s experience has made it very clear to me that Turks like their smokes…

So…our team won (our team being Besiktas); our professional basketball playing friend played well and It was a good game…but cultural show around us was even better.

And the bonus? I actually got my pens back. I got back to the confiscation box just in time to pick them out before security took the box away.

Istanbul Diaries: Nov. 3

Note to reader: If you’re actually from Istanbul, have mercy on my touristishness in these posts.

I’m inventing a term for that obvious lack of understanding of a place by which one feels compelled to go on and on about things that are quite commonplace for the locals.

In Mexico, when I overhear English-speaking outsiders try to make sense out of and talk authoritatively about the whys and wherefores of local Mexican customs, or when they write on and on about, say, chickens on buses…or traffic, I get a little impatient. The way Mexico does things is a mystifying world to them and I want to tell them that the way the U.S. or Canada or even England does things is a mystifying world to nearly everyone else on the globe.

But here I am in Istanbul and I’m about to do what a foreigner does. We write about what’s unusual to us, what we don’t understand and what embarrassing predicaments result.

So far I haven’t landed myself in too many cultural faux pas. Sure I wore my shoes into someone’s house instead of taking them off at the door, but they were also foreigners and looked kindly if not pityingly on my mistake. I also managed not to butcher a two-cheek-kiss greeting instead of the one-cheek I’m accustomed to in Mexico, but I’m pretty sure I made too much contact on the second cheek. I’m not quite sure what went wrong. I was just trying to do the basic air kiss, but maybe my distance or timing was off for having to carry on from the right side. I don’t know, but I smacked her good and proper. I’ll have to work on my left-side kiss. It’s kind of clumsy.

Then there’s the language. I’m sorry to say I’m just mostly throwing out English because my Turkish is “yok,” which according to my dictionary app could mean “there is not,” or “absent,” or “unavailable” or the one I like the best, just “nope.” That pretty much defines how much Turkish I have at the moment: nope!

Maybe in a month I’ll be able to ask for what I really want at the restaurant or even talk to my host family. Meanwhile, I’ll just point and be happy with whatever the waiter brings me and smile a lot to my family.

Beware of the touristishness to follow…

Istanbul Diaries – Oct. 31

My mom was worried when I told her I was going to Istanbul, Turkey for six weeks. Most everybody knows Turkey is right next door to all the fighting in Syria and Iraq.

My Mexican friends wondered if I was going to get a bomb dropped on my head. Some American friends were more worried about my head being separated from the rest of my body.

Then I reminded everybody that I live in Mexico…and not only in Mexico, but in one of the most dangerous states in the republic – Guerrero.

As if to prove my case, the week I was to leave protestors had tried to take over the airport once and were making plans to try again. These are the same ones who have effectively shut down the city government offices. If they picked Wednesday, I wasn’t going to get out of Zihuatanejo.

Then less than two hours before my flight left a man walked up to the counter where I was paying my internet bill at the cable office, pulled out a gun and robbed the place.

Some parts of Turkey might be dicey – I don’t know – but Istanbul probably wasn’t going to be any worse than where I was leaving.

In fact, so far it has proved to be just the opposite.

First, I managed to leave my backpack on an airport shuttle bus with a laptop computer, a camera, an ipad and nearly $1,000 U.S. and got the backpack back with everything in it when we showed up to the station about 30 minutes after the bus dropped off its passengers there.

In Mexico, that backpack would have been long gone. In China, where my travel buddy Genessa has been living for the last three years, it would have been long gone. In Istanbul, Turkey, it was set aside in the office to await my arrival.

When we hurried up to the bus stop, asked for the shuttle from the airport, pointed to Genessa’s backpack and pointed to the bus, they knew exactly what we were talking about and led us to the office.

That may have been a one-off, but I don’t think so.

Right after that we hailed a taxi so we could just get to our final destination without trying to figure out how to do that by other means of cheaper public transportation. As soon as we showed the taxi driver the address, he in his halting English made us understand that it would be a very expensive trip with the meter running and traffic as bad as it was. Better that he take us to the subway station so we could cross the bosporus underground for 4 Turkish liras apiece instead of letting the taxi meter run up a 200 TL bill while sitting in traffic on the bridge.

On the way to the subway station he explained to us what stop to get off on and what connection to make there.

In Mexico, I’m afraid, the majority of taxistas would be happy to take us for the 200 lira ride. Genessa said the same would be the case in China. By the time I got done with the evening, I was more than a little impressed with the Turks we had encountered for their general honesty.

In fact, I’m having a hard time believing it wasn’t just good fortune that we ran into such honorable people.

I guess I’m too programmed by 16 years of living in Mexico.

Can Istanbulites in general really be this nice?

I guess I have six weeks to find out…

Jesus Isn’t Here Anymore…

Deep inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, orthodox nuns light candles.

Deep inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, orthodox nuns light candles.

We’d been three weeks in the Holy Land – one of those weeks in Jerusalem itself  – and we still hadn’t been to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher – the site of the tomb where Jesus was buried after his death on a Roman cross.

We decided to go on our last Sunday in town.

The general location is pretty accurate. At least my reference book supports the claim as “very probably” the place where Jesus was buried based on archaeological and historical data. Constantine, following the oral tradition of Jerusalemites, tore down Hadrian’s pagan temple and built a church on the site. It was finished in 335 A.D.

Since then, rooms, alcoves and chambers have been added as the site got more and more traffic from Christian pilgrims around the world. I had actually read too much of the history of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher to be awed by the place. Though I hate to admit it, I entered the church filled more with cynicism toward religion than awe of Jesus’ having something to do with it.

I’m glad I did. That way I was fairly entertained by human nature instead of monumentally disappointed by the encrusted religion. The place was dark and noisy and, on this particular Sunday afternoon, more full of orthodox costumes than any other as Orthodox Easter was just ending.

I was fascinated watching men and women pour oil (probably myrrh or

The Stone of Unction?

The Stone of Unction?

frankincense) on a slab of stone in the first room and then wipe it with their scarves or shirts or kneel beside the stone kissing it and laying half their body across it. They believe Jesus’ body was laid upon this Stone of Unction while his disciples prepared him for burial. That particular stone of unction was circa 1800s, according to my archaeology text. I wonder if the people sprawling on top of it knew that.

Some of these faithful had probably gotten to see the Descent of the Holy Fire the night before. I know two of my dorm roommates were there. One was from Georgia (the country, not the state) and the other from Eritrea.

The church of the Holy Sepulcher is standing room only for this event in which all lights are extinguished, the tomb is sealed and everybody waits in darkness until just before midnight when a priest enters the tomb.

As one author recounted: “After a long interval of spine-tingling anticipation, a spark seemed to descend from above, a flame flickered, brightness flared and the patriarch emerged with a mysteriously lit lamp. This sacred flame was distributed from candle to candle through the crowd to screams of joy and acts of wild abandon.”

This ritual was first mentioned in 870 A.D. That it’s considered a divine confirmation of Jesus’ resurrection doesn’t do the faith any favors, especially since over the years it’s been exposed as a little trick with wire and oil and a monk somewhere in the rafters.

We saw a video being sold Sunday afternoon of the packed church on the previous night. Pilgrims passed the “holy fire” from candle to candle. There were lots of ecstatic people and lots of noise with a sprinkling of ululations. I assume that would be the Eritreans, not the Georgians.

After seeing the video I can imagine how riots and fires have broken out over the centuries. Not sure what the accumulative death toll from the Descent of the Holy Fire is over the last 1,200 years, but I bet it’s considerable, especially since fire exits seemed to be scarce and bad blood plentiful between Christian sects. At least once the place has burned down because the Holy Fire got out of hand, and at least once the ceremony ended in a blood bath because rivals brought their weapons.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher has had its share of orgies as well. During the Middle Ages, it was considered an extra blessing to conceive at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Pilgrims used to be able to stay the night in the church. You can imagine the rest.

And as if riots and orgies weren’t enough, Latin Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Syrians, Copts and Ethiopians have fought so much over control of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher that in 1192 the Muslim Caliph Saladin entrusted the keys of the place to a Muslim family. The Nuseibeh family still opens and closes the place to this day.

In fact, we think we saw some of the Nuseibehs overseeing the line to enter the tomb itself. The evening we visited a fight nearly broke out because folks who had been waiting hours in line were being cut in front of by special friends of a particular orthodox priest. It looked like the Muslims were there to keep the peace.

In a place like the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, so encrusted with religion, it’s hard to get to the substance of our faith anymore. Nonetheless, people come here to try. They want to see and feel the place where the fully God and fully man conquered death, but the tomb is empty. That’s the point.

It’s just as well Jesus isn’t there. He might not survive the next fight that breaks out among his followers.

Justice a la Mexicana

I’ve had a lot of visitors from the north lately. Sooner or later they all ask some variation of the same question: How safe is it in Mexico these days?

I’ll be honest. If you look at the numbers – at the tens of thousands who have been killed violently over the last five years or so – it’s off-putting to say the least. But as an American old-timer put it in perspective, it’s kind of like the prohibition days in the U.S. – if you weren’t involved in bootlegging, you had nothing to worry about.

I’d say that’s about right, but there’s something else in play that may or may not have been a product of those days. I don’t know. I wasn’t around. The bad guys are somehow becoming the “good guys.” Or at least they’re becoming the law. Let me explain by way of a few stories:

“I’m part of an extortion.”

That’s how she started the conversation in December. Just out of the blue. When I asked her what she was talking about, she told me the story.

Over several months, she received sexually explicit text messages from a number she didn’t recognize. Through a little investigation she discovered it was a member of her church. (Yes, she’s a follower of Christ and a leader in the church.) When confronted, he denied there was anything wrong with what he was doing. The church disciplined him and when he refused to be disciplined, they threw him out of the church.

He continued to send messages. Some of those indicated he was watching her. She decided it was time to scare him off.

She called a relative who was a gang member and put in an order for harassment and a little extortion on the side. She told him what the man was doing and told them he had property enough to make it worth their while. She gave them his phone number. All she asked, she said, is that they not kill him. They took over from there.

He knew that she was behind it because the mafia told him. They were supporting her cause. When he denied any wrongdoing, or painted a different picture, the gang’s boss called her on it. She said she had texts to prove what he was doing.

Last week she told me she hasn’t seen or heard from her stalker in a month. I asked her what happened. She said she didn’t know. I asked if she was concerned he might bring charges against her for being part of an extortion. She said he’d be too afraid to do that.

When I asked her if she thought it was right, she said, “What other choice do I have? I can’t go to the police. He had family in the local government. At least the gangs offer another option.”

If my Christian friend sees it that way, I can only imagine how others might see it.

I know of at least two other cases for which the mafia has appointed itself the arbiter of justice. In one land dispute, the mafia called a meeting with one of the landholders saying, “we’re here to do justice.”

Another incident happened a month ago in the Sierra above Tecpan.  Javier, one of the seminary students, was present when gang members brought back a community member after two weeks of being tortured and held for ransom. The man was accused by somebody in the area of cattle rustling.

Javier said the pickup drove into the small village of La Cuesta and a few 18- and 19-year-olds with AK-47s jumped out. The older leader stepped forward and handed over the man saying that “he’s innocent. I don’t know why they had us pick him up.”

When one of the women of the village was somewhat hysterically thanking the kidnappers, the leader told her, “No ma’am, thank God. This was His work. We would have normally killed him.”

As they left, the gang leader said, “If we can be of any service to you, just let us know. God bless you.”

All that in itself is crazy talk enough, but the gang took all the man’s property deeds and cattle (valuing about $100,000 U.S.) and gave him and his family seven days to leave town – the cost of finding him not guilty of charges, I guess.

When I used this as an example to point out the injustice of their justice to my Christian friend over coffee, she wasn’t taken aback. She wasn’t even surprised. She was suspicious. “He did something,” she said. “Maybe it wasn’t what they said they picked him up for, but he did something. They don’t pick someone up unless they have a good reason to.”

I may be drawing too big a conclusion from a few anecdotes, but it seems that there’s more confidence in how the mafia conducts its justice here than in how the government does. I’ve heard more than a few people say the “law” is the gang controlling the area, not the police.

One cartel has even published a little booklet of their “code of ethics,” which has been handed out as propaganda all over the area. According to their booklet, a citizen should not feel afraid in the presence of one of their members. On the contrary, they should feel safe and protected.

When the mafiosos say they deliver justice (and can at least deliver vengeance from time to time), and when a police uniform symbolizes bottomless depths of corruption, is it any wonder that even the Christians get confused sometimes?

The comforting thing to know for now, at least, is that there is still a measure of respect by most mafiosos toward believers. On a number of occasions, Mexican church planters and missionaries in a particular gang’s territory have been told, “They know what you’re doing and why you’re here and they will leave you alone.”

In fact, the best story from recent years was when Pastor Audonias Rosas got his car robbed at gunpoint. At the time he was pastor of the First Baptist Church of San Jeronimito. When believers in a nearby town saw the vehicle parked with others, Audonias reported it to the police, but they wouldn’t go get it. They were too scared. Audonias decided to talk to a friend who had relatives in the gang. The friend got the word to the boss that his henchmen had stolen a pastor’s vehicle…a PASTOR’S… A few days later the car was found parked outside the church. The only thing missing, Audonias said, was the Bible he had with him at the time.

All this to say to my inquiring northerners: yeah, it’s safe enough when you’ve got connections…and I’m not talking about the human kind.

From One Sojourner to Another

I am a sojourner on the earth. I used to say it was my grandma’s fault.

When I was young she bought me a subscription to National Geographic. When I saw photos and read about those people in far away places, I was smitten with wanderlust.

Those magazines opened to me the door on the wide world and I wanted to set out.

Thirty years and thousands of miles later, not much has changed. I am a sojourner – a stranger in a strange land – but not because I live in Mexico instead of my native Oklahoma. I’m not quite at home in Mexico, but I don’t quite belong in Oklahoma either.

Every time I go home, I’m reminded of that. Every Christmas, especially. Starting around Thanksgiving, I have nostalgic fits leading up to my departure for Oklahoma.

Then I get home…and it’s not quite how I imagined it. Not that home isn’t wonderful, but it somehow falls short of the anticipation…every time.

Then I found that C.S. Lewis had already explained my letdown better than I could ever articulate. These homecomings are just shadows of a true homecoming for which my soul longs, Lewis writes.

“…They are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

When it comes down to it, what I really want is to get back into Eden.

I feel the Fall in every sweet ache of my heart for adventure, for love, for home. I hear the whisper of its song in every story where mercy and truth have met one another, where justice and peace have kissed.

I stand just this side of the angel with the flaming sword and my soul groans.

I’m not the first to call myself a sojourner on the earth. Not even close. But as an exile among the exiled, the least I can do is try to put the memories of that true home into words and hum a few bars of that barely audible melody for those who care to listen.