Of harmony and silk pajamas (and other things)

November 1, 2008

By hammersmith

Kocatepe mosque, Ankara, Turkey

Connor Mendenhall (’06) is spending the fall semester in Ankara, Turkey. He’s been recording some of his experiences on his blog. Here’s his wonderful post from October 12.

I am sitting in a stiff chair in the back of the church, squinting at a golden reef that grows all the way to the ceiling. The ikonostasis is a swarm of shining ornaments inlaid with dark images of dour saints. Two priests wearing black robes, curious flat-topped hats, and stern beards stand in front of it, singing solemn lines from the Orthodox liturgy.

Another steps out from behind the wall, carrying a silver orb dangling from a coiled chain. He faces one of the icons, throws forward his arm, and swings the incense burner inches in front of an ancient portrait of Mary, one of the largest images near the center of the screen. The chain clanks terribly. He tugs it back and forth four times, each swing closer to the peeling portrait than the last. I flinch in the back.  I’m the kind of guy who still shoves his hands in his pockets around porcelain figurines of Santa Claus and cheap Wal-Mart flatware. Flailing a fiery silver softball around these relics is a job too terrible to comprehend. But as I inhale the perfume, the first good smog I’ve smelled in weeks, and listen to the clerics’ chant, all vowels and strange scales, the nervous thought subsides and I take a deep breath.

A different noise shakes me from this moment of peace, a soaring wail that starts like an old lawnmower. The müezzin at a nearby mosque is calling adhan, but unlike the Orthodox priests, he is blessed with the near-divine power of electronic amplification. He stumbles like a bluesman across the quartertones of the Islamic scale, and for a few minutes, the Muslim call to prayer plays counterpoint to the quiet chant of the priests. The lofty stacatto of the müezzin drowns out the steady Christian chant, then blends with it and breaks again. It’s a thrilling moment. I sit up, smile, and steal a glance at the other students (we’re the only ones here besides the clergy). My friends are lost in thought.

Suddenly, the müezzin cuts out, an abrupt fortepiano that leaves behind only the murmur of the priests. I’m still thrilled, but I also feel a little embarrassed.  Did that really just happen? It’s straight out of the notebook of a hack. Muslim-prayer-call-over-Christian-ritual-combining-in-unanticipated-harmony is the sort of trite extended metaphor an amateur travel writer or a clueless journalist might craft to describe Turkey as a “land of contrast where East meets West” or a “crossroads in the quest for identity.” But it really did just unfold before my ears.

I have been living in Turkey for nearly two months now, and I am getting used to moments like this—times when tired clichés suddenly become quite vivid. Another one struck a few weeks ago, as I stood under the dome of Ayasofia—the greatest structure in the world in the time of the Byzantines, later conquered by the Ottoman army of Fatih Sultan Mehmet, and overrun today by Konica-toting German tourists. Yet another before that, while I was peering at Mustafa Kemal Atatürk’s silk pajamas, enshrined for posterity in a glass case at Anit Kabir, geographic epicenter of the personality cult that follows the leader to this day.

I am living in Ankara, Turkey’s capital. From the air, the city is a sea of drab tan apartments, interrupted by the occasional megamall, mosque dome, or bureaucratic building. From the ground, it is more vital: a dusty and crowded and noisy and hot and alive city that seems to have sprouted fully formed from the ground no earlier than 1930. A look last week at a fading photo album of early Republican Ankara confirmed my suspicion—despite the succession of civilizations that have inhabited Ankara, from Hatti to Hittites to Phrygians to Romans to Selcuks to Ottomans and on, in modern times the city began as a collection of official offices surrounded, more or less, by dirt and desolation.

Now, things couldn’t be more different. Ankara still feels artificial, since it is sopped in the presence of the Turkish state. But it’s also colorful, modern, and filled some of the friendliest folks I’ve ever met. This has made living in a foreign country easier than I expected—in many ways, Ankara is just like home.

In many other ways, it will never be. I am often an American insect crawling on another culture, and as hard as I may try to be a student or a traveler, in my heart and head I know I will be leaving soon. I am a tourist. I know that I will never be able to express myself in Turkish as precisely as I’d like, and fear that I will always be a polite, dumb toddler occupying the body of a 20-year-old. All this combines in an ineffable feeling of aloneness—a persistent awareness that I am a stranger, whether or not I am in a strange land.

For the rest of this year, I’ll be trying to understand this place, to stumble through clichés and stave off solitude by writing here. I hope I’ll be able to share a bit of it with you.