Saturday, March 11, 2017

Music & Memories of Turkey

Recently, I discovered that my blog has gotten a few hits from Turkey. I suspect that the mentioning of Derya Turkan’s recording Letter from Istanbul, which is listed in the sidebar, has been sending people to my blog.

I enjoyed the time I spent in Turkey, beginning at the age of nine and lasting until I was twelve. As an officer in the US Navy, my father was stationed for two and half years in Istanbul, from January 1960 to the summer of 1963. We spent about two months in a hotel before we found an apartment to rent. Later, we rented a stucco house down the street, with a mulberry tree in the side yard and which overlooked the hills that prevented us from seeing the Bosporus except for a sliver visible from our second-floor balcony.

At one end of our street, a narrow footpath led to the Bosporus. It was located next to a field where sheep often grazed. The main road, lined with shops and containing a boys’ school where the students wore blue uniforms and remained in class even in the evening, was a few streets away and led into the city center. The names of the street where we lived or the names of the nearby road escape me. 

My elementary school, one meant for military dependents whose parents were stationed in Istanbul, was several miles outside of the city. The bus used to pass a training facility for the Turkish army.  During the spring, we often took excursions to some of the historic sites in the city, including Hagia Sophia, the Sultan Ahmed Mosque (the Blue Mosque), Topkapi Palace, Dolmabahce Palace, and Rumelihisari, a fortress overlooking the Bosporus. It was a great place to be a kid.

My parents often spent a few hours on Saturdays visiting the Grand Bazaar and accumulated a sizable collection of rugs and copper. My sister and I played with the kids on our street, some of whom were Americans and some of whom were Turkish. I often roamed the neighborhood with Sherif, my Turkish friend. One summer afternoon, for some reason, we decided to help pull loaves of bread from the oven at the local bakery. We weren’t offered any money or a loaf of bread to take home. His mother served us cucumber sandwiches for lunch sometimes but didn’t take kindly to his breaking a leg when we were jumping off a hillside next to the footpath. I had to run and get my mother to help get him to his house.

What I probably remember the most from Turkey are the sounds. We lived close enough to one of the local mosques to hear the calls to prayer, which is especially pretty, even after hearing them five times a day. The man selling Turkish pretzels and walking through the neighborhood in the afternoons called out what he had to sell. The man who sharpened knives walked through the neighborhood carrying his sharpening stone and yelling out what he had to offer. When I moved back to Maryland, I at first thought the screaming from the kids playing outside was in Turkish. It takes time to re-adjust.

Toward the end of our time in Turkey, after having absorbed some of the culture, we attended a dance and music festival and had a great time. What we were seeing and hearing wasn’t nearly as foreign as it might have been two and a half years earlier. Wanting to keep those memories fresh, my father bought some Turkish music when we returned to Maryland. My interest in hearing Turkish music began in earnest once I started listening to the music of Anouar Brahem, whose albums brought back those memories and associations from my childhood. Sometimes, now, while grading my students' essays, I listen to Turkish classical music. I discovered Derya Turkan’s recording of Letter from Istanbul soon after I started listening to Sokratis Sinopoulos’ Eight Winds.  About ten years ago, I took my family to hear Salaam, an ensemble playing North African and Middle Eastern music, at the Nelson Gallery of Art in Kansas City. It was soon after the American invasion of Iraq and proved to be solemn occasion for the musicians who were celebrating a culture that was being destroyed.

Personally, I think that it takes education and/or travel to be more tolerant of other cultures. We Americans certainly could use more tolerance of others.

Once, as an undergraduate, I was in the cafeteria and behind one of my Middle Eastern classmates who was pouring sugar into her cup of coffee, the only thing she was purchasing for her lunch. “Are you fasting now?” I said.

“You know about that,” she replied.

“Yes, I spent two and a half years in Turkey,” I said.