Learning Greek

In preparation for my upcoming trip to Greece, and also because I kind of stalled in Spanish and want to move on, I decided to learn Greek. Americans say “This is all Greek to me”, for something that is complicated to understand. We do not say that, of course, being Turkish and Greece being our neighbor the Greek language is not exotic enough. (We do sometimes say something is as complicated as Chinese) ¬†I am a mathematician by training and I thought I would have an advantage at the beginning, knowing the alphabet and all. Well, I was wrong. Knowing the letters one by one and trying to read something written in the Greek alphabet are not the same. Listening part is much easier. Having spent many holidays by the Aegean listening to Greek radio because the reception for Turkish radio was very weak, I am accustomed to the sound of the language.

I am mainly using Rosetta Stone, which I get free as an alumna of Brown University. It progresses slowly, mainly based on listening, but there is some writing practice as well. Grammar is unstructured and there is a lot of guesswork. It is supposed to be the natural way humans learn language. But most humans who are naturally learning a new language are much younger than me. I do no not have a child’s brain to absorb that much naturally. Rosetta Stone has many other languages. The other day I tested my daughter’s Turkish. Her father constantly complains that the children are forgetting their mother tounge, and he is blaming me, the mother, for that. She passed Turkish Level 3, easily ūüôā My son refused to be tested ūüôā ūüôā

I also bought some books. Not easy to find! With Spanish there was no shortage of resources. However, Greek is not as popular. There are actually more books on ancient Greek, a dead language, than in modern Greek. Too many religious people wanting to read the bible in its original language, because they do not trust the translation? They should instead get out and travel more. First, I got Living Language Greek, a set of three books and CDs. But, I wanted a grammar book –¬†being a scholar, I wanted to learn the language the hard way. So I also got A manual of Modern Greek I , for University Students. This one was difficult, well deserving its name. Thinking about my students at the University of Washington, I do not they would like this book at all! ¬†You can compare the first pages of the first chapters of the two books and see for yourself:


Also, I could not find its exercise book as it was out of print. The university library said they would not get it for me because it was not in my research field. I asked my local library, and they had a copy brought to me from Cleveland, Ohio. I scanned the pages – there was no way I could get through the book in the two week borrowing period. So, with a combination of Rosetta Stone, Living Language Greek, A Manual of Modern Greek, Anna Vissi and Haris Alexiou, I am very slowly progressing. I will be in Crete in two weeks to embarrass myself! I can even make another trip to Greece for more language experience. I will probably drive to the northern part and maybe even see some remains of the Turkish rule.

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Books about Turkey and Greece

Books about Greece guarded by Pythagoras

I have diversified. There are too many similarities in books about Turkey. Same traditions, food, stereotypes and I know them all. I just wanted to read different books. For over a year I have not read anything about Turkey. Then, when my friend and I were planning our Summer trip we thought Greece is very close the Turkey, where she lives and I spend my Summers. We decided to go to Crete. It will be scorching hot in July, oh well. Then came books about Greece. Some are coming with me on my trip. Unfortunately, I am not a kindle person. I must have pages to turn. So I will be hauling the books across continents and oceans and back.

First, I got books by Kazantzakis, of course! Everyone knows Zorba the Greek. My father is a huge fan of all things Greek. He had a copy of the book with underlining on some pages. I also got him the original soundtrack as a present years ago. He still has the LP and plays it on his old Dual turntable. Of course, we have seen the movie with the legend Anthony Quinn. But I loved Freedom and Death more. It is the story of a Greek uprising against the Turkish rule, of which there were several. A few brave and crazy Cretan warriors rising against the Sultan’s army. Besides being brave and crazy, the Cretan men are also extremely macho. One of them, kills the wife of the other, because he loves her, too. The wife, by the way, was the ex of a Turkish Bey who was killed. Well, it is a 19th century story. I am sure even Cretan men must have evolved and modernized by now,

Then, last week, I was at the library, picking up the fifteen! books my daughter had put on hold and I saw The Nightingale Won’t Let You Sleep by Steven Heighton on the new arrivals shelf. This novel is about Cyprus, the divided island in Eastern Mediterranean. When CIA meddled with the island affairs in 1974 to unite it with mainland Greece, Turkey invaded the northern part to protect the ethnic Turkish minority. They never left, because why should they, having gained control of a strategic point in the Middle East? The novel is a story of villagers living in Varosha¬†secretly, unknown to the rest of the world, except for a Turkish Colonel named Kaya, who kind of helps them to keep the status quo. He has set up a good life for himself on the island alone, in an abandoned hotel by the beach, and wants to keep things the same. However, one day his men ¬†harass and shoot at a Canadian soldier of Greek origin who is in therapy on the island after a tour in Afganistan. He escapes into the forbidden zone and meets the villagers. Things get messy when one of Kaya’s men Polat gets suspicious that there may be people living there. Although Kaya manages to send him to the Syrian border temporarily, he comes back with a promotion and wants to finish off his search. Among the villagers there is the Cretan ex soldier who hates the Turks, a couple of Greek Cypriots who have refused to leave their home, a Greek Cypriot mother and her twins from a Turkish Cypriot father, an older woman who runs the city library as if everything else in the city is normal. Both the story and the characters were very interesting.

I guess next year in July heat, I will be making a trip to Cyprus. However, there are only direct flights from Turkey to the northern part. If I want to go to the south, will I be allowed to go through the Green Line, or will I have to take a flight via Athens?




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A Strangeness in My Mind by Orhan Pamuk

The Nobel laurate was in Seattle Public Library in December promoting his new book, A Strangeness in My Mind. The auditorium was packed and we were late because of my lousy driving. On stage, he was joined by Walter Andrews, Professor Emeritus of University Washington. You can find the podcast here.

A Strangeness in My MindI had never seen him talk live or watched any of his interviews. I am a reader, I do not like to watch people speak. You cannot skip sections, reread what you like, stop and think. I guess you can, if you are watching it on¬†Youtube.¬†I prefer reading because it is faster and more efficient. When you read, you can skim through what you do not want- easier than fast forwarding a video. My first impression of Pamuk was that he is a funny guy. Somehow my expectations of this award winning, famous, best selling author was that he would be a serious speaker. However, he seemed slightly nervous and not very serious. His “reading” from his book was a two minute summary¬†of the plot, somewhere in the lines of: Mevlut comes to Istanbul, Mevlut gets married, Mevlut has children. He talked a while about how a novel is much more than its story. At times he talked more like a professor than an author.

My signed copy of Istanbul

My signed copy of Istanbul

He did not answer the controversial questions he was asked about religion and politics in Turkey. Instead just talked about what he wanted to: his new book. Which was fine. That is why I was there. I bought my copy, had it signed, and got a chance to talk to him. I asked him to sign my Turkish copy of Istanbul, he asked me what I did in Seattle. I got my two seconds with a famous person. However, I forgot the selfie with the author. Maybe, next time.

Taksim Square 1960s

Taksim Square 1960s

The book tells the story of Istanbul as much of the main character Mevlut. The story of how the city changed in the last forty years with massive immigration form all over Turkey, how it was modernized- factory packaged yoghurts and boza replacing those sold by street vendors among many other things- how it got crowded and less green. You can read (or listen, if your prefer) more about it in this NPR story.

Istanbul 2015

Istanbul 2015

Change seems different when it is gradual and happening in front of your eyes, which was the case for ¬†the first¬†twenty three¬†years of my life in Istanbul. After that, when I started visiting every summer, changes became sudden and hard to get used to. There is also the factor of age. We tend to get more nostalgic as we get older, maybe. After leaving Istanbul to attend¬†graduate school in Providence, RI, I returned to live there for¬†three more years before coming back to the US again. During those¬†three years,¬†we lived in AyaspaŇüa, a short walk from Taksim Square, towards the Bosporus. In¬†the Winters, there was a boza seller, who came in the evenings, shouting BOO-ZAAA, right under our bedroom window. We never missed a chance to go down and buy¬†some boza. Was¬†that possibly¬†Mevlut?

BozaBoza is not like any other drink I know. You have to try it for a taste. If you are ever in Istanbul in Winter, you can now find it in supermarkets, visit the old boza shop in Vefa, or wait at night in your hotel for the boza seller.  You can also try and make it yourself. It is served with cinnamon and roasted chick peas.

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Dare to Disappoint- Growing Up in Turkey by √Ėzge SamancńĪ

DaretoDisappointI came across this book on a friend’s feed in Facebook. It is¬†a graphic novel about growing up in Turkey in the eighties, written by someone from my generation- only a year younger from what I gather from the story- who attended the same university (Bońüazi√ßi √úniversitesi) and the same department (Mathematics) as I did. Our paths may have crossed back in those days. I actually got the book for my daughter, who likes graphic novels. I have not given it to her yet. I waiting for one of our conversations about my childhood in Turkey. I got a chance to read¬†the book¬†during a final exam I was¬†administering on Saturday evening. The students were trying to get through¬†difficult math¬†questions while I was enjoying this book. I felt guilty when they occasionally¬†caught me smiling.

DaretoDisappoint_AtaturkNaturally there is so much in common with my childhood, although we grew up in different cities. The eighties in Turkey was a time of political turmoil and¬†military oppression¬†followed by rapid economic and social change, not all for the best. Elementary school¬†was almost militaristic with the ever present Atat√ľrk, the founder of the Turkish Republic and its first president. Through middle school years we saw the rise of political Islam through education. University¬†was- and still is-¬†a big goal and¬†was¬†highly competitive to get in. Many¬†people did not have the opportunity for higher education.¬† For this reason, the choice of schools and the race to get into a good one defined the whole education systems with weekend test prep schools. I met my husband in such a test prep school.

Commodore64And then there are the less important but more memorable cultural details like the television series Dallas, popular toys of those times- the first computers- and the rise of a culture of display. Before we started posting all we have in Facebook, all we could do was wear anyting we could afford. In my case, at a private school with a strict uniform code, it was mostly about the shoes.

DaretoDisappoint_MatematikThe end of the book¬†shows her years in college. This is what I would be most familiar with, since it was the same school, same classes and the same professors. However, unlike √Ėzge, I really wanted to study mathematics. All the math notes collaged into the¬†drawings to show the abstractness¬†of¬†college math,¬†which were negative memories for the author, actually made sense to me. I enjoyed the same classes she suffered through. In the end, she is drawing pictures and writing stories,¬†I am teaching math.

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Midnight at the Pera Palace – The Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King

MidnightatthePeraPalaceMidnight at the Pera Palace РThe Birth of Modern Istanbul by Charles King is mostly a collection of stories of people who passed through the city, loosely tied with the history of the Pera Palace Hotel. It is not a guide book to Istanbul. To be able to enjoy and appreciate this book, you should experience the city first. It is perhaps more suitable for a post-visit read. Maybe, you should read it as you plan your second and longer visit, to see the friends you have made in Istanbul during your first one. I must also say that I have a problem with the cover photograph of the book, a bunch of guys in tuxedos having fun at a party. Where are the ladies? I guess it is an appropriate cover for a book with more than enough mention of the entertainment and prostitution industries of the city.


Pera Palace Hotel

One of the interesting characters¬†is¬†a black-white Russian (moved from Mississippi to Russia¬†and became¬†a Russian¬†citizen but had to escape during the revolution) Frederick Bruce Thomas/Fyodor Fyodorovich Tomas who established one of the most famous night clubs in Istanbul. A place with the same name, Maksim Gazinosu,¬†was still famous when I was growing up. Another one is Nezihe Muhiddin, the founder of the Women’s Union and later a Women’s Party in 1923 which was not registered by Mustafa Kemal’s administration. There is also the story of Halide Edip AdńĪvar, the political activist and author, who later had to leave the country with her husband because of a rivalry with the president.¬† NazńĪm HikmetThere is a chapter on arguably the greatest Turkish poet, NazńĪm Hikmet, who was exiled- yet another story of someone who ended up leaving Istanbul- and died in Russia. There is also the story of Leon Trosky, one of the makers of the Bolshevik Revolution who was Lenin’s close friend but could not later get along with Stalin. He had to stay in Istanbul, unwillingly spending most of his time on the beautiful island of B√ľy√ľkada (Prinkipo) under the watchful eyes of the Soviets and the Turks.

During the Second World War, the city was swarming with spies, some apparently working as teachers at my high school, Robert College. I thought this was just a rumor, but now that I have come across it in so many books, why not?¬†Is there a better¬†cover up profession for an American¬†spy other than being an English teacher at an American school. You do not need extra credentials other than being good at English which comes naturally, you get lots of free time to roam around¬†and, in this private school’s case, access to many rich families and Istanbul’s elite. Well, spies or not, our teachers were great.

Seyyan HanńĪm

Seyyan HanńĪm

One of the most interesting chapters¬†in the book is the one on music. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have an ebook where while you read about the music the tunes come through? Well, thanks to technology, with a five-second search online, the music started to play on my laptop as¬†I kept reading. ¬†I listened to ¬†Roza Eskinazi and the oud and voice of Hrant Kenkulian¬†as I read this chapter.¬†The rebetikos Rosa Eskinazi sings¬†were familiar to me because my father is a huge fan of everything Greek so I had heard many of them before. The music of Udi Hrant is¬†the kind¬†you would listen to if you are very depressed and getting very drunk at a meyhane (literally wine/liquor house). It is one¬†of those¬†melodies which transforms me to Turkey in an instant. Not in a happy way, but full of sorrow and longing. One of my favorites in this chapter was listening to¬†Seyyan sing Mazi Kalbimde Bir YaradńĪr, the song which¬†gives its name to the chapter The Past is a Wound in My Heart. Lastly, there is the story of the Armenian¬†Zildjan family, the famous maker of cymbals.

At the background to all these stories is the history of the city from the end of the 19th century to mid 20th century; how much it changed as so many people came and left, with the emphasis mostly on those who left. Which was my other issue with the book. The majority of the characters whose stories told were about leaving Istanbul. In a city where the population has increased from half a million after WWI to almost 15 million today, surely more people have come and stayed than those who left. And what makes the city what it is today is more a result of the people who have stayed. But then again, one of the things that drew me to the stories in the first place is that I am one of those who has left.


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The Counterfeit Agent by Alex Berenson

The Counterfeit AgentI am not very much into spy novels. I like spy movies because the actors playing the agents are really hot. I picked this book because the cover has a black and white picture of Istanbul with a bright red Turkish flag. Hard to miss. The story starts and kind of ends in Istanbul, but the main character travels to Latin America and to Asia and part of the story takes place in South Africa. The main story is about a conflict with Iran. It is truly a global novel! So why the Turkish flag on the cover? Well, it is a very good symbol of the Middle East conflicts, in general. The symbol of Islam on the color of blood. Most people would assume that the Turkish flag has the symbol of Islam on it because Turkey is predominantly Muslim. However, it is kind of the other way around. The crescent is recognized as the symbol of Islam- mainly in Western cultures, Europe and the US, because it’s been on the Turkish flag. The Turks started advancing into Europe in the 14th century during the reign of Murat I. So for centuries, the Turks were the only Muslims the Europeans encountered. The Muslim invasion of Spain from the south is older and they did not stay as long as the Turks. We are still holding onto a small part of continental Europe. The original choice of the crescent for the flag was Murat II’s¬†idea- so the myth goes- unrelated to religion. He just needed a flag with a symbol.¬†In the beginning¬†there were¬†three crescents, then a star was added to a single crescent. The crescent is at the top of the dome of every Turkish mosque, including mosques in Eastern Europe which used to be under Turkish rule. It does not appear in Early Islamic history or the Koran. It is not as global as the cross is for the Christians. On a side note, ¬†I did not understand why the main character is a Muslim convert? It came out as an unnecessary detail, but it probably makes sense from the stories of earlier books in the same series. In short, I would not say this was a book about Turkey at all. I just happened to read it and have some time to write about it.

The story is current and familiar. The Iranians are about to make Рare they?- a nuclear bomb and the US, who has the largest arsenal in the world, does not like it. Someone related to a country which is not admitting that it has nuclear weapons tries to make the US believe that the Iranians are very close to their aim so the US would attack Tehran. They create an Iranian personality who starts feeding information to a CIA officer in Istanbul. They make sure the information he gives is correct by carrying out the acts he warns about until most people think he is real.

So the story was interesting, but what really impressed me was how they followed and found the people they were looking for through technology. All the emails we write, the phone calls we make, the bank accounts we have and the credit card information can be monitored. There are cameras everywhere and facial recognition software. When I applied for my Green Card, they asked for a specific type of picture with my ear showing. There are also directions of how the passport photos should look. It is all for the computers to understand.  Before I was naturalized, I had to give hand prints- not fingers, but hands! Now that I am a US citizen, is it legal that they have my finger prints on file even though I do not have a criminal record? Did the NSA track this blog post because I use the words US, attack, Islam, blood, nuclear, Iran, CIA and NSA all on the same page?

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The Sultan of Byzantium by Sel√ßuk Altun

I bought my last book about Turkey after reading an NPR story. I prefer reading the stories of radio programs. Yes, listening has its advantages: You can listen while you are driving, running, cooking or doing anything which does not require much of your brain. Interestingly, my eight year old daughter listens to audio books while she is reading something else, but that is her. However, I prefer reading because it is faster. You can skim through¬†parts and see if it is worth reading. You can’t fast forward¬†an audio or a video¬†without missing something.¬†Because of my impatience I avoid video news and many of the interesting TED talks.¬†If I were reading my own¬†writing here, I would have skipped the whole¬†paragraph to move onto the part about the book.

The Sultan of ByzantiumThe¬†novel by Sel√ßuk Altun¬†is about a rich, smart and know-it-all university professor who is told that he is a descendant of the last emperor of Byzantium and must prove his worth by solving the mystery of the last will of Constantine. His name is part of the mystery so I won’t mention it here. His quest takes him to many different cities which the author knows all too well. He meets new people never missing a chance to brag about his deep intellect citing poetry, his knowledge of history and helping people along the way. The main character really is an alter ego of the author himself who¬†is a¬†retired businessman and a bibliophile. In fact, there are¬†eight references, by my count,¬†to the author with his full name in the book. At one point, the protagonist and the author Sel√ßuk Altun, even have a conversation:

Just at that moment Sel√ßuk Altun came up with his statement: “Just so you know, Misty wants to see some of the neighborhood Byzantine churches during her two weeks of research in Istanbul. I know you carried out a similar expediton not long ago, and besides, you have spare time. I already told her, in your name, that you would be glad to show her around.” It was odd that this writer, whose works I never read, was manipulating me as if I were one of his characters.

In the end the hero solves the mystery, of course, becomes even richer and plans to use the money all for the good of those who need it. And as the reader, you are left with a lot of useful information.  You can easily use the book as a guide to Byzantine history in Istanbul and in Turkey, in general. There are also many references to Turkish poetry. It is a novel, a reference book and an advertisement for Turkey, all packaged into one!

Although I found the information overload and the bragging a little too much, that is not going to stop me from reading his other books. I am going to read Songs My Mother Never Taught Me and Many and Many a Year Ago, in Turkish this time. Since my mother reads my blog, she will bring these books to me when she comes for a visit in November.

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