I recently traveled to Istanbul, yet again as a Turkish-American. Any ur-Turks who read this may very well be offended or upset or even claim that I’ve made some factual errors or slandered their country (our country, perhaps?). They don’t know anything.
I land at Atatürk Airport. My taxi driver gets into what I want to call a race but realistically think of as an unprovoked game of highway chicken against the driver of a slightly-fancier-than-average-car (the Turkish average). Things look tense, and, because this stickshift metal carton has no seatbelts (more specifically, they were removed), I hold on as tightly as I can while the two fling a string of profanities at each other that is creative to the point of being literary. Are these my people? I take notes on my phone. Trying my best to laugh at the situation while blending my Turkish into the smooth consistency needed to escape detection as a special sort of tourist, I wonder whether I’ll actually make it home. Eventually though, the automotive cock-swinging contest ends, and my driver pulls up to his opponent, both of them laughing maniacally. Apparently, they do not know each other at all. These are my people. We drive off towards the Bosporus. By chance, my taxi ride costs the lira-equivalent of 20 USD and takes a sixth of the time it took on my last trip.
The driver pulls into my grandmother’s street. It’s a one way, and because it’s convenient, the driver obviously enters the street the wrong way. While the years have aged the sidewalk, and a lack of care hasn’t done the grass any favors, new high rises have popped up all around us. A cat runs by me. Then another. From my grandmother’s apartment, on the fifth floor, the view of the Marmara we once had has been obscured by all the construction. This place smells of dust and sun. This apartment never changes. If the sidewalks crumble, I wonder, what will happen to the new buildings everywhere? I head out for a walk along the coast. A yellow cat follows me for a few blocks.
The small wooden tables where coffee and tea are served are as telling of a society’s values and tics as are its supermarkets—which is to say, incredibly so. By a solid kilometer or two, Turks drink the most tea per capita anywhere on earth. Personally, it isn’t the superlative I would have chosen, but it’s always good to be the best at something. And to be fair, it isn’t all that surprising. Were the infrastructure for tea-drinking this well established in your country, you too might stand a chance of cracking the top ten. Regrettably, the Turkish tea-delivery mechanism might be the most efficient thing about this country. This commodity is on offer in small hourglass-shaped cups, refilled from samovars that trounce a kettle in terms of output (tea bags are mostly untouched here, rightfully so) but also leave their North Black Sea counterparts in the dust with respect to portability and the ease of setup. Tea flows like the cigarette smoke here.
Why so much? There certainly isn’t some utilitarian motive—the stuff doesn’t host much caffeine or purge dirty water. The social function of tea is evident, but unlike back home in the States, tea and coffee aren’t pretexts for conversation, or more. The values are a bit different here. Drinking tea is, as best as I can tell, more like an ostinato of expressing your willingness to give, hospitality, etc.
So the ostinato goes. Four to eight cups after dawn, just so breakfast goes down right. One late in the morning, to settle the stomach. Coffee after, for some variety. Another tea in the afternoon, often to cool off (yes, it’s paradoxical). After lunch, out of courtesy to my grandmother. And another, out of sheer politeness. Then, it’s tea-time proper, which might bump you up 2-3 cups. An odd cup between meals. A quick one before dinner. Another after to relax, and so on. The amber-stained mix is occasionally called “tavsan kani” or “rabbit’s blood.” This vestigial pagan morsel in the culture is like all the others—always charming and seldom thought of. To an outsider (or whatever I am) however, they add some gravitas and a sense that one is traveling through an antique land. Edward Said would shake his head.
The coffee story here is equally shocking. Turks have a strong we-were-once-a-pagan-society-and-maintain-non-Islamic-traditions-and-a-distinct-identity streak. Example: coffee and fortune telling. Turkish coffee is fine-ground and unfiltered. About as resourceful as they are superstitious, people flip over their empty, miniature coffee cups onto normal-sized saucers, waiting for the grounds to move, wriggle, and settle. The remaining mosaic on the cup’s interior is used to tell fortunes.
As so much changes here, the tea and coffee rituals remain immovable. Massive economic development? Ready the kettle between regulatory reforms, please. Jailing of dissident journalists? A dark coffee before the sentencing. Religion metastasizing all around the Atatürk-old institutions? Some baklava with tea, if you would. It’s worth wondering what people would do if the government tried to take their tea. There would be conspiracies never before seen, treason never to be seen again, and coup d’états with enough panache to put even this military to shame. The at once mysterious and banal ritual of preparing the tea is likely more central to these people and their ways of life than any creed or religion.
I arrive with my cousin in a little wooden café in the center of Moda that features slow service and indeterminate values. No air conditioning, no iced beverages. And confusingly, Americano, but no espresso? We simmer in the main part of the café as two college students wait for the first one’s boyfriend. They’re both wearing shorts and tanks He arrives, and they smoke cigarettes on the patio and greedily kiss one another. Free love is consigned to the public here. And even that is fading. They watch carefully for the shop owner. She’s upstairs. They kiss more. In hushed voices, my cousin and I talk dissident politics between sips. Am I in danger? Things are in flux enough that we might be. At worst, we’re being very dramatic.
The next day, I cross over to the European side. It’s a Friday, and people are praying on the streets near the Blue Mosque. Nobody wears shorts here. Nobody could even if they wanted to. People move in unison as they pray. We are here for candy from a shop started in 1777. I walk in and pass some tourists on our way to the marzipan. The call to prayer begins. Dirty stares compel me to put my phone away out of respect. After a second of anger, I put my headphones in defiantly. Holden Caulfield meets 21st century meets a strange corner of Eurasia.
“You have no right to apologize for religion when it is weak, knowing how destructive it can be when it is strong.” Some famous atheist must have said something along these lines. Incredibly, the ever-strengthening government, the unsustainable economic policies, and general unrest all feel less dangerous, less permanently malicious than the way religion seems to be taking hold. I’m sure some clever social theorist could intertwine all four of these together, throw in some capitalism, and call it a book. But these phenomena feel decidedly separate. Perhaps countless hours of Jack Bauer, Homeland, and passive exposure to Fox have tainted my ability to judge this religion on its merits. And yet, I can’t help but feel that apologists should see this. They should see schools’ curricula diluted away from science, and towards faith. They should see the institution of tight social control and a lack of freedom to make choices. The unbelievable cost to women and their autonomy. People beaten in the streets for wearing the wrong clothes in a religious neighborhood. In Istanbul! I begin to feel shame that often I reserve for myself.
I take a 3:00 AM cab to the airport. A cat runs by me as I load my bag in the back. The driver helps me lift my bag with a big smile. In the car, we talk about tea and food while he glides over the empty roads. He tells me about his family. His daughters, who he is trying to get a good education for. His wife, who runs a small antique business. I realize only as he unloads my bag from the back, where I can see his clothing, that this man is deeply religious. I say goodbye, and he returns a big smile and wishes me safe travels. In the airport, I sip on a dark tea.