Saturday, May 31, 2008

Istanbul 03: History is a Pile of Debris

Saturday, May 17, 2008, Turkoman Hotel, Istanbul

TaksimLast night we went on the obligatory people-watching pilgrimage to Taksim in what used to be the Genoese colony of Pera that is now the trendy nightlife district of Istanbul. We sat upstairs at Baraka, eating and listening to the house band for a couple of hours. I ended up consuming far too much salty feta in my cucumber and tomato salad.

We spent all day exploring the Topkapi as well as the Archaeology Museum. Exhausted now from the throngs of tourists and number of placards read. At Topkapi, I was struck by the man in tears, visibly moved by the displayed footprint cast in bronze of the Prophet. As my interest in religion deepens, I find myself becoming less tolerant of superstitious, and hence superficial, religious experiences. I think for most people, the reverse is true, so that at the end of life, only childish trinkets remain.

Topkapi“Disappointing” is too meager a description of my visit to the Byzantine exhibit at the historical museum. So little to actually look at and study. Certainly, there must be more to the Byzantine collection housed in Istanbul, unless, of course, the legend is true that the splendor of Constantinople was indeed hauled off by the cartload as the vanquished disseminated the glory of the classical world across western Europe, sowing seeds of Renaissance throughout the continent. But a thousand years of Christian Byzantine rule should not be so easily erased. I guess it is good to be a conqueror so as to reshape history into one’s own image.

Byzantine Greek RuinsCase in point: reference to the Anatolian architectural consistency expressed in the city walls of Constantinople. Apparently, they were patterned after the fortified Hittite capital of Hattusa. But since neither the Hittites nor the Byzantines were Turks (or Muslims), we’ll reduce it all to a footnote in history. Or worse: to a blog entry by a mediocre hobbyist who doesn’t even believe in history.

Unfortunately, I can’t just dismiss this obvious absence to the Turks since even periodically throughout the Christian Greek empire, radical iconoclasm was official state policy. (And don’t even get me started on those damned European Catholics who plundered the city during the Fourth Crusade!)City Walls of Constantinople

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Istanbul 02: Travel Journal Except

Friday, May 16, 2008, Hotel Turkoman, Istanbul

After what seems and certainly feels like two lost days of traveling across continents and time zones, the beginnings of my third day in the same clothes due to a lost bag by the ever-incompetent American Airlines, I know why people don’t travel like this, like me. But sitting atop our hotel on the terrace over breakfast, overlooking the Bosporus Straits in front of me and the Sea of Marmara to my right, over strong coffee, after waking at 5:00 am by the call to prayer at the Blue Mosque across the street and a subsequent leisurely stroll around Hagia Sophia, and now surrounded by squawking seagulls who have nested on the roof, plates of dried fruits, sweet melons, and cakes topped with sesame, and spoken foreign languages, I cannot for the life of me figure out why people don’t travel more often, more like me.

We’re waiting to be joined by Chris and Mary before deciding on a plan for today. Cars and tour buses honking. A ship’s horn. The sun is breaking through and dispelling the haze over the water.

We saw a group of attractively dressed boys crossing the hippodrome on their way to school this morning. Seeing the beautiful Turkish lads reminded me of all those accounts about the sultan’s seraglio and how the conquering Ottomans fought over the choicest Byzantine girls and boys after breaching the walls of Constantinople in 1453. Runciman writes that even the Emperor’s godchildren were not spared: “The girl, Thamar, died [in the seraglio] while still a child; the boy was slain by the Sultan for refusing to yield to his lusts.”

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Istanbul 01: Call to Prayer

Five times a day the call issues forth from the amplified speakers mounted atop the minarets. These days, the muezzin need not bother climbing the steps up the tower. Because of my training, I wonder (fully aware that I am alone in this) about the metaphysical implications of relying so on technology.

You hear the short buzz and click of the microphone being turned on before the call actually begins. Sometimes you can make out a word; most notable, of course: “Allah,” even though it’s stretched beyond comprehension like countless amen’s of so many Christmas carols.

We arrived too late the first night. Old Istanbul was fast asleep by the time our shuttle reached the hotel. In the morning—even earlier, perhaps, with jetlag and insomnia factored in—the call shocked me awake, but not before shifting my otherwise mundane dreams into vivid Technicolor animation about a drunken vampire. I wanted it to shut up, to go away.

But when the Blue Mosque (Sultan Ahmet Camii) is directly across the street from your hotel, just beyond the paved track of the ancient Byzantine hippodrome, it is up to you to get used to it.

When I see Arabic written, I think of snakes, thanks to Sonia, who, so many years ago, once referred to it as “that snake language.” Every letter looks like a serpent—some with eyes, some with curved tails. Each hissing out the mysterious beauty of that ancient desert tongue. Hearing it—and I’m only assuming that the liturgical language of Turkey is (still) Arabic—made me think of snakes flying through the air, twisting their way into the ears of the devotees.

The call lasts for several minutes. At times, it seems endless, and at other times, abrupt and too quickly ended. And the echoes across Istanbul from the other mosques make it seem even more enigmatic and not of this world.

The evening call retained its splendor and sublimity throughout my entire stay, but already by the third day, I was sleeping through the morning call like a local.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sublime Porte

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Just a short trip to Istanbul and an even shorter stop in London on the return flight. I'll post photos when I get back.

Sunday, May 11, 2008


Is it over yet?
Now is the time when my prick of a professor contacts my colleagues to let them know when the revised deadline is for their obligatory rewrite. Graduate school is so much easier when the professor dies and everyone automatically gets an A.

I’m still a bit shell-shocked by the death toll in Burma. Day one: 400; day two: 4,000; day three: 10,000; day four: possibly 100,000. And how many of those deaths by “natural disaster” are really and ultimately a result of the political fiasco of a corrupt and illegal government? Only one news report claimed that the military had killed about 40 “inmates” because of a “riot” situation. Of course, ultimately, all these deaths are the result of a failed policy of institutionalized terror and abuse hanging over the Burmese people, but will we ever know the proportion of those killed by the storm (and neglect by the government) to those directly murdered by the government over the past few days? Has anyone heard from Aung San Suu Kyi?

Over Easy
Please don’t get me or my politics wrong: I think Obama is a fine candidate. Hell, I voted for him in the primary and was more than willing—initially, at least—to serve as a district delegate for him. But it makes me sick to see him swallow the bait—hook, line, and sinker, as the saying goes—from the incessant race baiting over his relationship to Rev. Wright. The only reason Rev. Wright was an issue was because he was black. The only reason Obama (felt he) had to respond was because he was black. And the race situation in these United States rolls happily along as it always has.

It aint’ over till the fat lady sings.Russophallophilia
Decades after these United States congratulated itself for passing along democracy and capitalism to the Soviets, we see a new Soviet-era and Soviet-styled passing of power out of the hands of the peoples of the former Soviet Union and into a handpicked puppet. Former “democratically-elected” President Vladimir Putin passed the position on to “democratically-elected” Dmitry Medvedev, who in turn appointed him Prime Minister. All this in time for Victory Day celebrations in which triumph over the (other) fascists was observed in true Soviet-era fascism—er, I mean, fashion. Perhaps the Russians have become a little too proficient in American “democracy.”

Friday, May 2, 2008

Compretensile* Tales

Okay, so everyone is clear on the fact that I’m a bit of an elitist as well as a smarty-pants wearing kind of guy. But for fuck’s sake, I was raised on a farm in east Texas. I’ve earned by stripes.

Last night at the Fulbright meeting—granted, a rather elite organization in and of itself—I was struck by how certain kinds of intellectuals, academics, and students were much more palatable to me than others. Namely, I felt quite at ease chatting with sociology and music professors. Even the high school language teachers were remarkably worthy of my time. And as always and as for most people, I’m impressed with neurologists and anyone else who sticks her/his hands inside other humans. (Within limits, of course: I’m only referring to trained medical professionals here.)

But when one student announced he was earning an MBA, I felt a wave of Sartrean nausea wash over me. There is nothing like one rancid, quasi-academic apple to ruin the whole barrel. I mean, why don’t we just start handing out Fulbrights to applicants from the American Truck-Driving Institute or any of the mock universities like DeVry or Phoenix?

I have no problem with people merely wanting to make more money, but don’t try to pass yourself off as an intellectual or cultural diplomat in so doing. Moreover, how completely self-unaware does one have to be in order to merely want to make more money but ask for funds from American taxpayers via a non-profit organization such as the Fulbright Commission? I guess if we’re willing to hand out the cash, then they will always be more than willing to take it. Greedy bastards! Which is probably what led them toward an MBA in the first place.

I have no respect for the “degree.” I do have, however, several friends—many whom I respect and adore—who have undergone such remedial common sense programs at supposedly respectable institutions of higher learning. But don’t ever try to tell me that they’ve ever done a bit of good aside from increasing their salary. You want to study cake decorating at the Art Institute (an arguably laughable amalgamated moniker)? Fine, go ahead. You want to earn a higher wage for not a lot of effort? Sign right up. But if you want to truly be educated, your only recourse is to enroll in a real academic program at a real school.

After submitting an outstanding panel proposal to a conference yesterday, I thought one of my next creative projects would be to organize a bogus panel filled with “academics” from the above-disparaged institutions. Perhaps something along these lines:
  • “Lévinasian Semi-Ethics: Meontological Theology and the Eighteen Wheeler” by Billy-Joe Bobblekopf, ATI, Automotive Repair Program
  • “Heidegger’s Word: Dasein (as Design) from the Ground of Being” by Suzie Galvan, Art Inst., Fashion & Retail Mgmt. Dept.
Now it’s time for me to return to my underpaid academic world that remains utterly superior to everyone else’s. (Even though it is a public university.)

* a combination of comprehensive, apprehensive, pretentious, and prehensile

Thursday, May 1, 2008

May Day, May Day

As if to prove the rule from yesterday’s post, today’s headlines included “U.S. airstrike kills top Qaeda agent in Somalia” and “Car bomb kills at least 9 in Baghdad; U.S. troops kill 18 militants.” How smart our bombs—how intelligent their design!—must be to only kill “militants” and “insurgents” but never a single “civilian” or “freedom fighter.” Or even a single American soldier. (You have to love the grafted-together nature of the second headline, as if to call further attention to the us vs. them nature of the illegal and immoral invasion and occupation of Iraq.) Yet the dangerous statistics remains: over half of all war fatalities are women and children. Perhaps we need a new math to go along with our new language and new logic. And new extra-judicial killings in the name of justice.

On a more “peaceful” note, the tit-for-tat political posturing between DC and Minsk has escalated: the US has closed its embassy in Minsk and has ordered Belarus to close its embassy and all consulates here. Everyone sing along: There’s no diplomacy like no diplomacy, like the no diplomacy I know.

I wonder how many questions on the standardized (yet altogether lacking standards) TAKS (Texas Assessment of Knowledge & Skills) test this week will deal with such issues. How many will even concern the topic of May Day, a day that commemorates the benefits of labor? One glorious benefit from this less-than-glorious revolution in education: the golden opportunity to read such priceless statements like this from my college-level philosophy course essays: “This makes me wonder what will we enlighten our people on next?” It does make one wonder, no?

I (modestly, of course) propose enlightening “our people” on patriotism:
“What, then, is patriotism? ‘Patriotism, sir is the last resort of scoundrels,’ said Dr. Johnson. Leo Tolstoy, the greatest anti-patriot of our times, defines patriotism as the principle that will justify the training of wholesale murderers; a trade that requires better equipment for the exercise of man-killing than the making of such necessities of life as shoes, clothing, and houses; a trade that guarantees better returns and greater glory than that of the average workingman.” [from Emma Goldman’s essay “Patriotism: A Menace to Liberty”]

On this note, I bid all working peoples of the world a blessed day of rest. “Don’t let the bastards grind you down.” And God bless Saint Emma.