Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Wearing the Fez in the Garden of Eternity

You can’t really explain how cool some moments are. Or how they happen.
We’ve spent the afternoon in the Turkish Modern, finding our way there on a tram and somehow figuring out where to get off. We enjoy the art exhibits in the museum (some contemporary stuff; an ambitious look at western influences on 20th century Turkish art) and have already taken a break to have “tea” in the place’s great dining space, meaning strong coffee and something sweet for me while looking out over the water. There’s almost always a water view in Istanbul. We have even planned to stay here and take advantage of the museum restaurant’s dinner menu, and late hours. But – I don’t know why – we get restless, there are new worlds to discover; so out we go.
Outside the museum, we’re on foot, the best way to travel, the usual line-up of Turkish commercial opportunities occupies a narrow lane feeding off the action: crafts, rugs, half a dozen cafes and restaurants. We pass these, move toward the main street where the tramline runs. The street gleams from the day’s rain and occasional snowfalls, the streetlights come on and glow in the twilight. After walking a block down the main drag, the accidental magic of a late winter twilight takes over, and I say let’s head toward the water, maybe we can find a way back to main tramway station that’s scenic.
We come to a mosque, no name – there is always a mosque (seldom a name) – and we cut across an open space to get close to it. The light shining on the minaret and roofline is dramatic. The light still good, Sonya stops to take a dozen photos of a beautifully designed and ornamented kiosk-like little structure with tiles and calligraphy that would be a tourist-attracting marvel anywhere else except in Istanbul, where this kind of building turns up frequently. This one is a place to wash up before prayers).
Finally we cross a side street to the mosque itself and find there are openings through the wall that surrounds it. We peek in. A burial ground inside? A kind of “churchyard” cemetery?
We move from one “window” opening in the wall to the next and find a miniature city of monuments placed close together: a beautiful, secret, shining-in-the-dark garden of eternity.
At top of some of these funeral monuments we see, the totally real thing, sculptured images of fezzes.
Fezzes on the head of tombstones. They replaced, Sonya tells us, the turbans that used to appear on top of the stones, the way they used to appear on the heads of sultans and other Turkish men, until the culture changed and somebody said “we’re Turks, let's be different from the Moguls and the Arabs, we wear fezzes.” We find a sculpted turban settled above one of the stones as well.
The “young Turks” of the 20th century, however, sought to modernize the country by adopting Western ways. Ataturk, the founder of the modern Turkish state, abhorred the fez, believing it was a humiliating symbol of his country’s backwardness at a time when everything was measured against European standards.
The state banned the fez, along with the headscarf. It was against the law to wear it. Cops would pull them off men on the streets, and then drag the wearer off to jail. Turkish men hated the change. It was like giving up all that was familiar, the world you have always known: home. They wore homely little uncomfortable versions of low, flat European hats instead.
But here, through the holes in the wall – but lit up! – (Istanbul gives lessons on how dramatic lighting does wonders for cities after dark) – in this beautiful sacred ground, this garden of eternity, the gravestones of the departed still wear the beloved headgear.
Sonya gets the pictures.
We do find a quiet, drizzle-swept, water-view, out-of-the-way, quiet and exquisitely picturesque walkway along the banks of the Bosphorus and find our way back to the Galata Bridge, stopping on the way for a meal with good wine
Then we decide to walk the rest of the way back to the hotel.