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From Istanbul to Bodrum

The Tour of Turkey going through Bodrum.

We flew to Bodrum Saturday morning. It’s nothing to get there, just a 40-minute flight, but, of course, you spend hours and hours at the airport. And the security at the Istanbul airport is more rigorous than anyplace I’ve ever been as we had to go through two full-on security checks before boarding and then once on the plane, they came through and made us all individually identify our carry-on bags. This either makes you feel very secure or, if you’re like me, wonder what sort of risks are they confronting that they have to be so meticulous.

The funny thing is, the drive in from the Bodrum airport took us much longer than the flight itself. And it could have been worse. There was a big bike race going on, the Tour of Turkey, and much of the 22 miles of highway between the airport and Bodrum was closed. Which is why it’s always so great to be traveling with Sidar. At the first road block, he had the van driver pull up to a police car and Sidar hopped out. I saw him showing my business card to the policeman and pointing at me. A few minutes later, we were told to follow behind an official chase vehicle. I asked Sidar what he had said to the policemen. He said he’d told them I was a famous American journalist here to cover the race and so they let us through.

Twice more we got stopped. Each time Sidar told them some fanciful story and we were waved through. While the drivers of other cars halted at busy intersections and along the side of the road wondered why we were getting through and they weren’t. Not exactly ethical but what could I do? I was just the passenger.

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A sünnet costume at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Photo by David Lansing.

As you’re walking around Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar you start to notice that various items are sort of concentrated in certain areas. There’s a hatmaker’s street and the gold and silver lane and a souk specializing in antiques.

And then there are the shops selling the all-white outfits worn by Turkish boys at their sünnet.

A sünnet is the Muslim circumcision ritual and is generally performed when boys are between the ages of 7 and 10. It signals a boy’s transition into adulthood and so, in a way, it’s like a Jewish bar mitzvah, except at a sünnet the kid not only gets to dress up and eat a lot of good food (and get presents!), but he also gets his foreskin trimmed.

Sidar told me that this is a big ritual, particularly in the smaller villages in Turkey. “Sometimes they even do it in a restaurant and invite the whole village to come watch.”

Here’s how a traditional sünnet works: A couple of weeks before the big event, invites are printed up and sent out to family, friends, and residents of the town where it’s taking place. Mom or dad goes and buys a special satin uniform, oftentimes with a hat or sash with the word Masallah (meaning “Wonderful. May God avert the evil eye,” or something like that) on the front. The day before the big event, the boys dress up in their sergeant major outfits (often the sünnet is for several boys at the same time) and parade around town in cars or, if they’re poor, in horse carts followed by musicians (this is a lot like the drum major part—see photo).

A drum major at the University of Notre Dame.

The day of the ritual, the boys put on a long, white gown. A close family friend called a kirve (sort of like a godfather) holds the boy down while the doctor or licensed practitioner performs the circumcision in front of the guests. After the circumcision, the boy is laid on a decorated bed to recover and rest while the rest of the guests tuck in to a magnificent feast. After the chow-down, the guests drop by the bed and give the kid gifts like sweets, clothing, or special gold coins, if they’re fairly well-off. Then they go off to dance, drink, and listen to music while the kid tries to keep his mind off his swelling member.

Sounds like fun, right? But, hey, at least the kid gets to keep the drum major outfit.

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Istanbul’s Spice Bazaar

The sumac is the wine-colored spice near the top right hand corner. Photo by David Lansing.

There was one place I wanted to go to near the Grand Bazaar and that’s the Spice Bazaar. Originally built as an extension of the New Mosque complex back in the early 17th century, the revenue from this cavernous market once helped maintain the mosques philanthropic institutions.

Stalls in the bazaar showcase a plethora of spices, herbs, and teas in the most beautiful manner—sometimes in pyramids, other times in colorful mounds. There are also sweet shops here with wonderful dried fruits (apricots!) and dozens of different types of Turkish Delight (lokum), made with chopped dates, pistachios, hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, coconut, lemon, apricots, mandarins, honey, rosewater, even chocolate.

But I wasn’t interested in Turkish Delight. What I was looking for was sumac, a spice I’d noticed in several of the chopped tomato salads we’d had in various restaurants. It adds a lovely lemony taste to not only salads but also to a meze dish like humus or lahmacun, the Turkish pizza.

You don’t see sumac at your traditional grocery store back home. Maybe because most people, like me, have always thought of sumac as being poisonous. Which it is. Or at least, some sumac plants are poisonous (like poison ivy and poison oak, sumac is a member of the Rhus genus; the poison sumac has white fruit instead of the deep red orbs found on the sumac ground for spice in Turkey).

Anyway, I found my sumac and bought a small bag of it, along with some apple tea to take back home.

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Turkish coffee fortune telling

Coffee and tea at Sark Kahvesi. Photo by David Lansing.

Not all of us had tea at Sark Kahvesi, the coffee house in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar. Delia, the other Romanian, ordered Turkish coffee, or kahve. Not because she particularly wanted it (muddy and bitter, it’s definitely an acquired taste) but because Sidar had promised to read her fortune if she did.

Coffee fortune tellers are as common as children in Turkey. Nobody takes it too seriously; it’s just something to do while you’re sitting with friends. But there’s a certain ritualistic way you tell someone’s fortune in Turkey, as Sidar explained to me.

When you’ve finished your coffee, you swirl the sludge around a bit and then quickly turn the cup upside down on the saucer. Wet your finger with your tongue and place it on the bottom of the cup and make a wish. Now wait several minutes for the grounds to cool and settle.

When the cup is cool, the person doing the reading should turn the cup over (it is said to be bad luck to read your own fortune), examining the grounds in the cup. Starting from the cup’s handle, imagine a horizontal line and a vertical line so you have four different imaginary areas in the cup from which to read the signs. Then it’s sort of like seeing specific images in clouds—a dog, a bird, a river, an angel.

Sidar says that there are some general interpretations of the symbols but each fortune teller has his own little variation. For instance, a dog could mean you have good, reliable friends. Or it could mean your partner is faithful. Or that one of your friends needs help. It all depends on who is doing the reading.

A bird might mean that you’re about to get news (good or bad). Or it could be an omen of something that is about to happen to you (good or bad).

Anyway, after the coffee fortune teller finishes reading your signs in the coffee cup, they can, for extra illumination, examine the grounds on the saucer. Once you’ve gleaned all you can, dip your finger in the grounds and suck it to seal your fate!

Here’s a very short video of Sidar telling Delia her fortune.

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Sark Kahvesi

Gimina Maxim, a Romanian film director, helps herself to my cup of tea at the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul. Photo by David Lansing.

I should have taken a look at my Lonely Planet guide before letting Sidar drag me and the Romanians to the Grand Bazaar this weekend. If I had, I might have heeded Rule One: “Make sure you’re in a good mood and ready to swap friendly banter with the hundreds of shopkeepers who will attempt to lure you into their establishments. There’s no use getting tetchy with the touts here….”

Well, I wasn’t in a good mood. And I got “tetchy” with the touts. Fortunately, Sidar noticed and quickly suggested we sit down and have some tea. He took me to Sark Kahvesi (Orient Coffee House), a fine little hole-in-the-wall with lots of old black-and-white photos of Turkish pashas on the walls and murals of flying dervishes.

Pashas and dervishes and tea—what could be better?

I’ve become quite addicted to Turkish tea (or cay as it’s generally called). Not because it’s good. It’s not. It’s black and tannic (like a cup of Lipton that has been brewed for way too long) and needs to be cut with a cube of sugar (or two or even three) to make it palatable, but it’s an important part of social etiquette here, and I rather like that. They drink tea all day long here in Istanbul. In fact, many businesses in Istanbul employ a cayci, often a boy, who spends the day delivering tea around the neighborhood. There are dozens of them in the Grand Bazaar. You see them rushing about through the crowds, carrying three or four tulip-shaped glasses of tea on trays or in a wire basket, never spilling a drop. It’s quite something.

Anyway, Sidar and I sat down at a table next to the antique semaver used to make tea, and shortly after we’d ordered, the Romanians, Delia and Gimina showed up.

“How did you know we were here?” I asked Gimina.

She shrugged. “Where else would you be?” And with that, she helped herself to my cup of cay.

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