Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Istanbul. A tour.

  "Well, two thirds of the Bible happened here .... And basically we're your only real ally in the East so I'm always surprised when Americans say, 'Turkey? Why Turkey?'
   It was my last day in the country. I'd asked the hotel manager if I could hire a guide, but one who was willing to make up a tour as we went along - I told him, "I have 5 things I need to do: I've got to buy some cloth from this particular store off the Divanyolu, I want to see the aqueduct, I want to see the oldest Christian mosaics in the city, I want a Besiktas scarf, and I want a real turkish coffee at the end of the day. Oh and I want to get into a Sephardic Synagogue."
  "That's six."
   "You're right."
   He nodded, "The last one will be hard. But, I know the man."
   By noon I was walking at a good clip on the crowded old town streets with a man I'll call the Turkish David Mamet. Not tall. Strongly built. Short black hair clipped for efficiency. Wearing a vest only war photographers or Hemingway buffs would wear. Smart as a whip.
   "He knows more about Istanbul than anyone", the manager had nodded, "you two will have... an interesting time."
  "You know that's a curse right?"
   He shrugged.
   As I bought some cloth for someone's xmas gift to come, from a store I'd randomly passed three days before and whose gorgeous patterns I couldn't get out of my head, my guide, Serhat, married and father to a young son, told me stories about Roman triumphs rolling down the main drag (the Divanyolu) a block away and into the Western City.
   Where Starbucks and Burger King and countless nougat stores now stood, bejeweled elephants and crowds of captive Bulgars and shining Circassians once paraded past. For a millennium, this was Main Street.
   "No one here ever called themselves 'Byzantine'. You people made that up. They called themselves Romans, and mostly they spoke Greek." He tugged at some cloth samples and then outside rolled his eyes at my bargaining skill. "You paid too much for that."
    "The guy started at 500 a piece, I got him down to 500 for three!"
    "He started in outer space so when he got you down to 500 you felt like you'd won. He's a thief, they're worth 300 lire."
    "Say something next time, huh? You're my guide, you're here to help me, right?"
    "I'm here to educate you. Consider yourself educated. Someone has to pay retail, I guess."
     On the way to the aqueduct we visited the largest mosque in Istanbul which sits on the highest hill - the fourth Hill - in the city- above the ruins of a 13th century school a local landlord was trying to demo for office space.
   " Mimar Sinan, who built this mosque - and he built scores of them in Istanbul- tried several times to build a bigger dome than the one in Hagia Sofia which is 35 meters across...but he never could. Imagine this man, a genius, his people have preserved the knowledge of the ages, algebra and geometry, poetry and the secrets of the Roman pontifices, saved all of it from your insane Gothic hordes...but still he cannot match the work of the nameless man who built the old church 900 years before. Amazing."
   We never did get to the aqueduct. We saw it about a hundred yards away as it crossed the main east west highway - Ataturk Bulvan- that bisects Istanbul. It was massive. A massive silhouette that looked like it had been drawn yesterday. I'd say 6 lanes of traffic ran beneath it but the Turks define lanes a bit more freely than we do. When I travel I like to imagine returning to the place to ride my bike through it- I never felt that in Istanbul. God save the brave few who do. Inshallah.
    The oldest Christian mosaics in the city ...well it depends on who you believe or who will let you in...but it's generally agreed that the best ones are found in the Chora church or, spoken in the more beautiful Turkish "Kariye Camii", "sam ee",  being the word for mosque and a word I never tired of saying out loud.
   (I thought we'd have found a word for mosques that sounded something like their word for it. The way Peking sounds like Beijing or Cologne sounds a little like Koln. I thought we'd have gotten close, that we'd have chosen a term for the most important structures in their community which sounded native. Ah well. I was learning.)
   There was a cafe by the front steps of the church, besieged by Germans or maybe they were Dutch, I didn't listen long enough to tell. There was a public bath where locals were trying to perform their wudu before prayer, dodging Birkestocked blonde men, and western women splayed across the stones.
   The entire building was framed in scaffolding- like a ship in a yard, you could barely feel the shape of the place beneath all the gridding. But inside...inside ...I nearly fell down. I'm not much of a Christian. I went to church every Sunday as a kid and I went to a summer camp where we linked arms and sang Jacob's Ladder. "Soldiers...of the...cross..." but once I got to college, Marx, common sense, and the fact that 5 billion other people don't pray to Christ made me think "Great ideas! Sure. Resurrection? Maybe not so much."
  But say what you will, what you learn is love as a child you will follow all your days. And when I walked into the delicate Kariye Camii, this old mosque built within an even older, an ancient, chapel, I felt like you do after you've been singing for an hour. Like you do when you finally tell someone you love them. I was speechless, and happily so. And happily this tough little Muslim man next to me had spent most of his adult life studying the odd obsession Christians have with the mother of their Christ, this lady called Mary. The container of the uncontainable. The living emblem of God's space in the world. Theotokos. What we moderns have made of the earth mother. Of the Goddess. He told tell me everything. Image by hovering image.
    I think he did. But I don't remember the facts or even the story. I was in a kind of reverie that I'm not sure I understand. I don't know why it took me there. The place.
   Images of Saints and and Prophets, apostles and angels; Gabriel looking more like Gabriela than I'd seen before....the Annunciation happening , between two women...hmm?...All placed and drawn 1000 years ago with a grace difficult to describe. As if the builders had just stepped away for a coffee and a smoke, the roaring intensity of their vision undiminished but not alien to a guy with an i-phone.
   Hours later we wandered down the steep hill below the chapel, into the old Jewish and Greek neighborhoods - Fener and Balat.
   I wasn't going to get into a Sephardic temple. Al Qaeda had blown up a synagogue a decade ago and the Jewish population of Istanbul -16,000 among 16 million- had hunkered down, walled itself off, or left. It was astonishing. Barbed wire, unmarked doors, defensive gates, prison security cameras.
    I didn't know why we stopped, mid block, in a block like any other in this tougher, poorer part of the city. My head was still reeling, the Mother of God, Christ Pantocrator, and then the children we'd passed on the streets above, filthy, playing in puddles, literally huddling in ruined doorways, unaware of course that they were objects of pity. "Gypsies?" I'd asked.
   "Oh no,....don't you see? Syrians. Europe in an uproar over 200,000 immigrants...we have one and half million in the country. They suffer terribly."
     I stood still.
    "And do you know where we are?" He asked me.
    "Next to an espresso shop that could be in Portland Oregon?"
    "The wall behind you is the oldest Synagogue in Europe. It's been a house of worship since the 1450s."
    "That wall?" It looked like a place you'd store trucks behind.
    "See the wooden building- two stories- that was their schul and where the baths were.....all done now since the bombings."
    "You're Muslim. You're a Turk. You live in a gigantic modern city. How does this make you feel?" It was unfair. It was so very American, but I couldn't help but ask.
     "Your Christ is a prophet, one of many yes, but a prophet, to me. To all Islam. These Jews, they are the sons of Abraham, as am I. We're people of the book. It's a disgrace they fear for their lives being here in their home."
     I learned you have to petition to visit a Synagogue in Istanbul. They need your passport number, your itinerary, and a letter from the US consulate. It takes two weeks or more. The few remaining temples are literally walled compounds, hidden in back streets, the size of a two bedroom two story home. One was now a museum, and that museum was closing at the end of the month. There'd been 500,000 jews in Turkey at the end of the 19th century. They'd been there since the Spanish expulsion and even earlier. They'd thrived. All this was coming to an end.
     To enter a mosque all I needed to do was remove my shoes, and show some respect. We went in together, into five of them, some massive, some the size of a Greek hilltop chapel, women draped in fabric, the men engaged in the rhythmic prayer of Islam, the westerners asked to remain in the rear of the space, and oddly enough the children let to run free. I was touched that the most intense prayer, truly men abasing themselves before their God, took place as infants and kids ran and played and danced in the Mosque.
   "It's a short quote from Muhammed, that we let them do this, it's common." And I thought of the countless times I'd been hushed in Church or wanted to hush some recalcitrant tween as I grew older, the rod and the staff you internalize as a Western made me laugh. I liked them both, these ways, theirs and mine.  Maybe I'd found some wisdom- two contradictory ideas in happy habitation.
   I never did get the soccer scarf. The craziest of the crazy Turkish football fans follow Besiktas. They're like a cult. Turks I'd met in America warned me not to get anything bearing the team colors, I might meet one of their sworn enemies somewhere across the globe and catch a beating. Which of course made me like Besiktas all the more.
   An example. One of the team's better players, but one who'd shown little affection for Turkey- an international star brought to Istanbul - had been racially harassed during a game with a rival. The next week the entire home stand showed up wearing his number and waving massive signs that said, "We are all black."
   The rival player who now was the focus of legal attention said, "I didn't harass him because he's black, I did it because he's a fairy."
   The next game the entire Besiktas home stand arrived again wearing the player's number and huge banners which said "We are all gay."
   To paraphrase General Patton, "Men that eloquent have to be saved."
   We ended the day in a college bar packed with twenty somethings you could have met in Berlin, overlooking the giant bay of the Bosphorus which of course isn't a bay but is so massive you want to lend it higher praise- Istanbul, a place that screams destiny, a location fated by geography, it could have been nothing else but one of the centers of human history. You grasp that all in a moment when you stand by the shoreline. It's humbling. Jaw dropping. One of the great narratives of the species made into a place.
   We had two coffees each, I think Serhat would only have had one but he thought as an American accustomed to "venti" portions, I wanted more.
  It was good stuff but no different than I'd had at the old Lebanese restaurant at Yale, or at the Greek food fairs of Pittsburgh. I smiled. Somehow the disappointment was not disappointing. It was just a coffee. This place was a place like any other, frustrating to its natives, limited, normal- the bizarre gestalt switch of being a traveler happening to me, to stand among what to you is miraculous but to a local is part of the commute.
   On the way back to my hotel we stopped at one more mosque, just slipping in before the 4th call to prayer began. He let me linger as the faithful arrived, heads lowered, hip to shoulder, gesturing that curious way with their hands behind the ears as if to say "The day's troubles are behind me, I'm here now Lord."
   I asked Serhat was there a major in Istanbul Studies, was that how he'd come to know the place so well...and he said no.....I simply do a lot of walking....and then he told me, when I asked him to be my guest whenever he might come to New York or Pittsburgh, that he had never left Turkey, and in fact had only left Istanbul a handful of times in his 40 some years.
  He was terrified of planes, of water or of heights, and the rhythm of trains made him ill. His wife drove the family car.
  He was, I realized, quite brave to even let me disturb the usual schedule of his touring but that he'd been asked by the concierge he said this time, and because I'd enquired about the mosaics, he would.
  I was with a man probably not too many steps from a hermitage but someone who'd made it his life's work to learn and love his home, his city, and share it with foreigners. He was its living map. I envied him.
  "I do want desperately to come to one place....San Francisco. There's something about that city I must see. So I will try. The bridge is beautiful. The light."
  I told him he was right.
  I paid him in Lire, not American Dollars and I wondered if that was a slight but he didn't let it show as he tucked the money into one of his many pockets. I watched him walk home, up past the Topkapi Palace, seat of the Sultans for 500 years, built over the capital of Western Rome,  an empire which but for electricity mirrored and or dwarfed what we call our own great powers, and beneath that the fortress of Constantine himself - the illiterate warrior who decreed Christianity will help hold the ground which the survivors of Troy must have thought, centuries before him, this will keep, this no one will take in a thousand years.


Thursday, September 17, 2015

The War at Home

       I don't sit around and think about dying. I don't ponder my mortality. 
       I think I've always known we don't get too much time. We have only so many hours. I fought sleep as a kid. I still do. Not as well as when I was 16 and tried to cram as much living, writing, raging and running into any given day as I could, but generally I still like to be the last guy up, the last man in the museum, the one the guards have to shepherd toward the door. 
     Because of this I travel well. I don't mind jet lag. I don't mind not knowing what time it is, not feeling the tick of my internal clock. Beyond physical freedom travel also brings you that psychic shake up - the chronological vertigo of moving from one place to another faster than we should ever  be able. The head rush at 30,000 feet.
   I got back from Turkey four days ago and I'm still waking up at odd hours. Sleep won't come. I wish I could embrace this like my 16 year old self - he'd have written a book by now- but mostly I walk the streets at noon feeling like it's dawn or watch tv in the middle of the night. 
   I flicked on the set in my buddy's house- it's always curious to navigate someone else's cable system, you feel a kinship if you guess well, old bonds affirmed - I got the damn thing on and the menu scrolling in under a minute and there, was The Civil War. 
   That 90's blockbuster that launched a thousand documentary channels and 1000 more Civil War neo-cons. "Lincoln said it himself 'If I can save the Union without slavery I'll do it. If I can save the Union with slavery I'll do it.' It wasn't about slavery!"  Shoot me. Or better yet, shoot them. (Wait, didn't we already do that?) 
   The Cannon in Silhouette at Sunset. The Fiddle Theme. David McCullough's Old Testament voice. The Red Line beneath the chapter titles. 
   Enough to make me groan. 
   25 years. 
   Think of Redford's film "The Candidate". He makes one impassioned, impromptu speech and becomes a challenger. His managers insist he repeat that impassioned impromptu speech verbatim 500 times and he becomes a joke. Ergo The Civil War. First time it ran I swooned, 15 years and 1500 reboots later, I wanted to hurl. And now add 10 more years. It's a classic car exempt from sentimental emission controls. It's classic doc rock.
   Regardless, I pressed "select". 
   And what came back to me as I watched was not the tale of the final episode, the sad battles after Appomatox or bourbon voiced Shelby Foote choking up "Was it not so real?" or how clearly the language of these long dead men still rings to me -how well they wrote- but that 25 years ago it was 1990 and I was a just out of college not yet to drama school, my dad and my brother were still alive, my mom still worked at CMU and what the Hell was a cell phone, who'd heard of an internet? Or blogging.
  I was back in Pittsburgh, living in a house owned by the friend of a friend who was yet to marry and wanted to be surrounded by his younger pals before the final plunge, so he charged us next to no rent and didn't care whether we slept till 2 or played U2 too loud or ate most of his food.
   I was an almost Ivy League graduate making 5.60 an hour plus tips, making lattes at a "coffee shop",  and commuting to work on a borrowed BMX. I was happy. 
   Once in awhile, I'd head home and visit mom and dad, eat out of the fridge, sleep in my old room up in the attic, if they went away for a couple days I'd colonize the house and turn it into my seraglio studio - the last designs of my sublimating High School self strewn around the little Dutch colonial. 
   But for a straight week sometime that year, was it Fall? it had to be- I came home and watched The Civil War with my parents. My father in his tan leather chair up against the fireplace. Mom in her comfier spot by the stairs. The cat dug in and drooling on one of them. I stood behind them, waiting, for awhile acting like I might leave, as if I was deciding whether or not the episode was good enough, whether I didn't have something better to do, when in reality I just didn't want to show them I wanted to be home, to be curled up by the fire, to share for an evening, oddly enough, in their silence. 
  When either of my parents was moved to tears, moved by something they'd seen or read or heard they most often said nothing. As we would in church, we gathered in a kind of piety. A shared hush. Some would call this WASPY rectitude or simple embarrassment but I've always been suspicious of people who want to show and tell me how important their feelings are- my sense is feelings come when they come and we should be grateful for them, wonder at them, thank God, rather than hold them up for all to see. "Unpack my heart with words and fall a cursing like a very drab."
   I think of the long black pews in my old church. Rows and rows of them as you walk past for communion, the slumped shoulders, the stillness, heads so obviously related not turning toward each other. It can be unbearable, yankee solemnity, but I'm comfortable being quiet before God, I've always felt my default response to the "Lord"- however you want to manifest him or her- when it wasn't singing was humility, silence. 
  And so 25 years ago when I was 23 and broke, my father and I would refrain from sniping at each other and my mom and he would call an evening's truce, and the cat would curl up around our feet and we would listen together to a fellow Pittsburgher read us a story from our country's most incredible, and maybe its saddest, chapter. 
  And since we knew him by degree, the McCullough's and the McCrady's on my dad's side grew up across the street from each other, we could tell when he read that he wasn't intoning like a distant God, or a tidy Western PA Presbyterian ticking down a list of the dead, but that he was throughout on the edge of tears. Like my dad listening as brothers, who'd fought on opposite sides, died in the same hospital with Walt Whitman the nurse to each, like my mother, an ancestral Virginian, hearing a Richmond girl bemoan the wreck of her family while the "chimneys of our leveled homes stood like telegraph poles relaying the destruction", like me listening to them both and not speaking, listening to the changes in their breathing saying they were sad and wouldn't share it. 
  And then the episode ended and it was 4:41 in the morning, tuesday the 15th of September 2015. Like any other day, but now. A side room in LA in the house of a friend from college who after he graduated was playing in Punk bands in DC while I was pouring coffee in Pittsburgh. Now a teacher, married 14 years, divorced 4. Still playing the bass. 
   The 24 hour media cycle stared me down. What next? Press select. Scroll.
   I walked out on to the porch. No light yet in the East. Dad gone, brother gone, cat long gone. - that's the thing about LA, you get a dark night but no stars and there are so few tall buildings that the land rolls out in front of you for miles. The sky's huge, you see the undulations that the desert here once had, but somehow unlike a Great Plains landscape, it's disheartening. Like the cable menu, it's endless but without comfort. Far from enobling, the eternity involved diminishes you.
   Sometimes I wish I smoked. I don't. I hummed the fiddle theme. I tried to imitate McCullough's voice, but it wouldn't come. The day I left Turkey, that morning one of the guys who ran the hotel, "Okay" was his name, asked me where I was from. Pittsburgh I told him. And you miss it yes? Yes I do, I told him.  I do. We have a word for that you know - memleket. It just means 'home', the ground there, but ....more than that. Like your word nostalgia, his eyes smiled, but ...harder. 

Tuesday, September 1, 2015


     Clear and Present Danger.
It's a tidy movie from the 90s.
Harrison Ford took over as Jack Ryan from Alec Baldwin, who somehow decided he was too good for a franchise.
(Funny that.)
Willem Dafoe plays a black ops CIA commander who, buried in the Colombian jungle, calls in an airstrike on a summit of Narco leaders. The three major drug lords of South America, all in one place.
Dafoe orders one of his men to tag a truck with a laser signature, makes a call to an aircraft carrier in the Atlantic which launches a lone F-18, which as it flies sub radar, releases a single piece of stealth ordinance, and......The US of A blows the drug dealers to kingdom come.
A neo con's dream.
A little piece of fascist justice that makes even Democrats nod their heads and say under their breath, "Fuck yeah".
 Obama with a beer in his hand watching Bin Laden die.
I have friends who carry concealed weapons every day.
Shopping at the local market, feeding their kids lunch, on the way to Zumba: they could drop to one knee and kill you and 7 of your threatening pals.
I have several friends who regularly go down into their basements, unlock their arms cabinets and withdraw assault rifles -which on full automatic could hold off a platoon from their front porch.
I have several friends who, given the chance, would wall off Mexico.
Who would end all aid to Israel.
Who would welcome a Holy War in reverse.
I think quite frankly that some of my friends are mad.
I still love them, but...
This is maybe why...
Because if I was president of these United States, I would have in the air a squadron of murderous stealth jets and helicopters, and I would have on the ground the most secret special Ops team there is, to make and keep the promise that any-single-damn-one, any person, calling themselves a freedom fighter, or a martyr, or ISIS, or a retiree from Isaly's, anyone who so much as disturbed a stone at the ancient site of Palmyra -much less blew the standing history of Civilization (EVERYBODY'S civilization) to bits because of their asinine, anal, infantile, imbecilic take on Islam- I would have them vaporized on the spot.
With extreme prejudice.
No hesitation.
I think we as the "defenders of democracy" and the "beacon of freedom" should for once back that shit up and blow these bastards to atoms.
We should have done it when the Taliban destroyed the Buddhist statues of Bamiyan. We didn't.
We should do it now.
Kill anyone who gets within the perimeter of the City of Palmyra. Just say it. For no strategic reason, for no rational gain, with no apologies for due process or sovereignty or cause: You enter here, you die.
Kill them all because sometimes the stuff of eternity is more important than us. Sometimes men should die so that temples stand, so a painting is preserved, so a song remains. Human blood should flow so human history survives.
No quarter.
Yeah. I'll own it. That's on me.
Part of me thinks this is worse than any hand gun my buddy's wife might be carrying to the Shop and Save.
Part of me wishes my finger was on the trigger and Willem Dafoe was saying, "Paint the target."