Karagöz and Hacivad Navigate Our Road to Gelibolu

Dust is all around us.  It is coming through the AC vent into the car.  I think about one of the women I am named for, the author of The Flame Trees of Thika, and her description of getting coated in the red dust of Kenya on the way to her new home via buggy.  This is nothing in comparison, time to stop my mental whingeing about this sneezing situation in the car, I think.

“How is it,” I muse to nobody in particular, “that I pride myself on working in the toughest parts of the criminal justice system in the U.S., but a little bit of dust and a lot of Turkish send me over the edge?  What kind of fraud am I, really?

Before I can continue my silent, self-deprecating and all around whingeing, there is a whomp on my shoulder, and I can feel the presence of Karagöz, the obnoxious, impish jester whose name has come to characterize Karagöz shadow puppetry in Turkey.  With what can only be described as a delighted screech, he says “Certainly, you are a fraud of the ugly American type.  You must embrace your true role in life – the ugly American tourist!”

It is June 2004 and I am on my first road trip in Turkey – we have escaped a lovely, but trying visit with family for the dusty loveliness of Anatolian sunflower, corn and wildflower fields in Edirne.  I have not yet seen the Karagöz shadow puppets that function as my mental backseat drivers today – and we have been driving for some time up the Aegean coast, back towards Istanbul.

The car is being navigated up a serpentine road at breakneck pace by my boyfriend, and I am being navigated by my level of anxiety, my head in my hands, gasping at movements that feel potentially dangerous.  “I wish you wouldn’t do that,” he says, “it makes me think there is something I don’t see.”

Unable to answer without the potential for motion sickness to take over, I think, “why the need for speed?”  It  is so commonplace here on the roads.  It just seems crazy.  Why are there not more accidents?  At the end of this trip, I will begin to realize that there is a natural order of things in the world of Turkish driving – an ebb and flow and perhaps just the rules of chaos – “the secret to driving here,” my boyfriend says after a near miss with a taxi, “is that there are no rules.”

Meanwhile, I can smell, but not see the dust all around us, as my hands are covering my eyes. I am studied at being silent. I am trying to calm myself by repeating the Turkish alfabe in my head, making sure that “c” is pronounced “j” and so on.  I have learned that this recitation has a dual purpose – avoiding a driving-related fight, and getting me just an iota more up to speed on the Turkish language, which, so far, is a bitch to learn. I am getting better, though, slowly working out the sounds in each sign I see as we drive through the countryside from Izmir up to Eceabat on our this, our first trip through Anatolia.

Karagöz thinks I am ignoring him, and truth be told, I am.  I wonder if he will go away if I “accidentally” throw up on him.  He is now jumping up and down on my shoulder “open your eyes – give him hell – tell him to SLOW down – that’ll really get that Turkish blood going, maybe he’ll even give you some examples of Turkish driving-related curses! Exciting!”

In no mood to get into a debate, I brush him off my shoulder with one hand – the other clamped firmly over my eyes.   Karagöz continues to taunt and cackle as the wind sucks him away out of the window and down the ravine.  In a split second, I have a moment of regret, and I hope he will forgive me.  As with all of his plays, I remind myself, as soon as he dies in one, he is re-birthed in another, so, not to worry.

Karagoz the impish shadow puppet on my right shoulder

Before I can sigh at the absence of Karagöz from my right shoulder, I feel the swinging feet of Hacivad on my left shoulder.Hacivad, the second most famous of the Karagöz shadow puppet troupe, is more of a learned sort, and quite reserved and diplomatic.

“Good show, Liz, good show. You told that foolish oaf Karagöz off – just by your actions.  Indeed, you need to focus on learning WHEN to shut your mouth and just go with the flow – you cannot control everything, it is statistically impossible, and in relationships, there has got to be a give and take.”

Hacivad rests his elbow assuredly on his knee and peers around to see if I will look at him. “You are good at navigating maps, but not marital maps, not just yet,” he says, with a confirmatory nod.  Since when, I wonder, did Hacivad become a relationship expert?

Frustrated by my fear of the careening car and thoughts of whether my cheap, doctoral student health insurance will cover me if I get into an accident, I know that Hacivad is right. I clear my throat and announce to Hacivad in no uncertain terms, “usually, I help my boyfriend to navigate the roads, using my excellent road map – I am, you see, a prepared traveler – not an ugly American.”

Hacivad lets out what can only be categorized as an academic snort – “well, you raise the ugly American image.” That is an apt image, now, isn’t it? You are doing well, today, though, you are not quite displaying most of the characteristics of this much maligned beast.”  Before I can respond to what must be a challenge to drag out the old stiff upper lip and “man up” a bit, Hacivad shimmers off into the heat emanating from the windows just as we pull into The Lone Pine cemetery where soldiers from Australia who died in the first days at Gallipoli (Gelibolu, in Turkish) were laid to rest.

Hacivad, the shadow puppet on my left shoulder, expressing his learned opinion

Unaware of my visitations from Karagöz and Hacivad, rather too cheerily, my boyfriend says “we are here! It is amazing, isn’t it, that your great uncle died here – just after my father’s family moved to Istanbul from Bosnia. Who knew we would have this connection?” We are in the stage of “new in love” when everything seems magical – and – well, why the heck not?  Life is short, I think.

He grabs my hand and we walk silently through the rows upon rows of graves, until the hot sun and enormity of it all dampen our spirits and we flag a bit.  At the ANZAC museum, we could not find a listing of graves anywhere – so we just chose one out of the twenty cemeteries to see if we could find my Great Uncle Allan’s grave…it was the right choice, but I don’t know that yet.

As I walk across the tall marble-floored memorial, open to the hot sun beating down and meandering cricket sounds reverberating around us, I trail my finger along the hot, smooth marble. So many names, hard to fathom. I remember doing the same with the cool, black granite of the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC.  My finger stops, and it is Allan Maclean – that is him.

“I found him,” I call out “he is honored here.” My boyfriend runs over to me – and excitedly talks about him – speculating about his experience while a cascade of Gallipoli knowledge falls out of his mouth, I learn that he is fascinated by WWI, a fact that I had had no grasp of until this moment.  He is going on and on, excitedly telling me all of the back stories of the battle, and the human stories, of sharing between ANZAC and Turkish forces.

Climbing over the marble wall, Karagöz returns from his fall down the ravine to pronounce “who in the heck knows if his body is here or somewhere else in this stark, hilly peninsula.”  I can’t help but agree with him and he channels my words when he says “what a bric-a-brac, knickknacks setup that Winston Churchill premeditated – sending those ANZAC soldiers in to be slaughtered.  He should be hanged!”

Lone Pine Cemetery on the Gelibolu Peninsula, site of the Gallipoli Battle, and of my great Uncle’s grave

I don’t bother to remind Karagöz that hanging Winston Churchill is not a possibility, and certainly does not jibe with my views on justice.  However, just seeing the geography and terrain, you can see that it was a total setup for the Aussies and Kiwis, in my humble opinion, as they had to climb an impossibly steep hill with little to no cover.  “Tragic,” muses Hacivad, who is stroking his beard and watching the whole scene from the comfort of my left shoulder.  He was so quiet, I did not know he was there, back from his dalliance in the heat shimmer of the car’s dashboard.  “Why is it,” Hacivad queries, “that an American has a dead great uncle at Gelibolu?”

Not interested in following his father’s expat footsteps in rural, southern Spain’s espartograss and mining industries, the family held business interests in, this eldest son set out to find his fortune in Australia. The story goes that upon docking in Sydney, he was offered 200 acres for a ranch and immediate citizenship – if he would fight in WWI.  After just a bit of time on hard ground, he was sent back – and sent directly to the Gallipoli battle – he apparently died on the first day of the battle as did so many.

My Granny was his best friend and used to tell me how devastated she was at the loss of her oldest brother.  She kept a portrait of him in her desk, nestled into the fold of a map of the Dardanelles strait.  She used to show it to me when she told me the story.  She never cried in those moments, but she did have a bit of a wavery voice, as I recall.  She was an old lady at the time, but it was as if the loss were fresh.  They had received the word in Aguilas, Spain, and could do not one thing about it.  Death leaves one feeling so powerless sometimes, there is not something to rage at, in or through, just space, unexplainable space.

“I am so sorry for your loss,” Hacivad remarked with quiet aplomb as Karagöz harps “I hope the neighbors made a good helva for the family,” to which Hacivad just rolls his eyes and scoffs, “another rude utterance from this fool.”   For once, I actually know what Karagöz is talking about, my boyfriend loves funeral helva, and explained how his grandmother used to make it.  We tried it in a restaurant here, the flour transformed into moist, sugary, buttery crumbs more like a sweet couscous than anything else I could think of.

One version of Irmik helvası

Tasting irmik helvası in my mind, I explain to Hacivad (as Karagöz is posing for photos in the most goofy demeanor possible for a cemetery) that second and third-generation mourners from Australia and New Zealand visit this place each year in honor of ANZAC Day – and the good will and general camaraderie between these countries and Turkey is heartfelt despite the drunken mecca this day turns into, according to some (see Tony Wright’s Turn Right at Istanbul: A Walk on the Gallipoli Peninsula).  “Now THAT’S what I’m talkin’ about,” Karagöz screams through cartwheels back to our spot from where he has been vamping for the camera, “those people know how to par-tay.”  Hacivad snorts, and turns his head to contemplate the names before us.

I realize that as this scene is playing out around me between Karagöz and Hacivad, tears are streaming down my face for a man I have never met who died before I was born – maybe I am crying for all of these men? My boyfriend is silent next to me, somber even, yet still amazed that we have found the space together, and we take numerous photographs for family.  He tells all we meet for the rest of the trip about this connection of ours, a Turk and an American.

A lavender-touched field on the Gelibolu Peninsula

Slowly by slowly, it hits me that our lives have such an odd series of connections.

Overwhelmed by this odd and very unexpected relationship I am now several months into, I lapse into the curve of his arm on the way back to the dusty, red rental car to navigate to our way back to Istanbul, through the lavender and wildflower fields in and around the port town of Eceabat. “Thank you so much for bringing me here,” I manage to get out, “I didn’t know it would mean so much to me and I am glad that we have this connection now.”  Karagöz is mimicking me, Hacivad is trying to pull him off of the proverbial stage with a cane.  Their wives are calling from a distance, I can hear them saying that dinner is almost ready.

Eceabat Harbor, from the Dardanelles Strait

As we alight the car, this time I am ready, I pull out my map, “let’s figure out how to get out of here, I promise I won’t cover my eyes.”  I hear Hacivad sigh contentedly at my progress…”that’s the spirit,” he says, “I think you two will make a right fine and proper couple, to use the parlance of the Brits!  Now, carry on with eyes wide open!”

Karagöz daydream #1: Crossing from west to east

Kabataş Feribot on Bosporus Strait in Istanbul

Kabataş Feribot on Bosporus Strait in Istanbul

I am five days into my first trip to Turkey, it is 2004. Sitting on a boat in the middle of the Bosporus, I am trying not to cry.

My boyfriend is holding my hand and ordering tea for me as the ferry sways from side to side.

We are on our way from Kabataş (kabah-tash) up to the Sariyer neighborhood – he wants to show me an amazing shop that sells Tavuk Kazandibi, a dessert delicacy he tells me is made with caramelized milk, sugar and shredded chicken.


Tavuk Kazandibi – a delicious thick, pudding-like milk-sweet made with shredded chicken and lots of cinnamon (thanks to this website for borrowed image)

Always up for a culinary diversion, I jump at the chance today as my brain is feeling oppressed at trying to make out Turkish all around me.

Although many of the people I meet are fluent in English, they prefer Turkish. What I hate the most is that I keep thinking “OF COURSE they prefer Turkish, it is their native tongue, it is easier and I should learn to speak it if I am serious about this relationship.”

I am hating myself for feeling angry at all the Turkish, angry that my brain hurts and that my mouth muscles are sore from smiling through hours of conversation I do not understand, waiting for the comforting squeezes of my boyfriend’s hand, or the apologetic glances he makes when efforts to switch to English are rebuffed ever-so-gracefully. I hate myself in these moments, because what kind of entitled ugly American tourist am I who wants everyone to speak English? Yet, I am exhausted.

Poster for Marlon Brandow in “The Ugly American” film

In the secrecy of our bedroom that night, I try to explain my feelings and he tells me how frustrated he feels FOR me…we argue a bit – about all the “just dropping in” we are doing to all of his friends. “It is so rude,” I say, “to just drop in without calling.” He sighs, clearly tempering his response into a not-gonna-be-an-argument as I am adjusting to all this and he is the primary person responsible for me adjusting, for my happiness on this trip. “But this is how we do it in Turkey?” he says, adding the questioning intonation on the end in order to temper his exasperation, or at least what I imagine is his exasperation. Holding me close, he says “I wonder if it was a mistake to come here – maybe this is too hard.” Exhausted, I am out like a light in under a minute.

Karagöz and Hacivat on a boat

Karagöz and Hacivat on a boat

The vision begins to come clear through the dark black tunnel of closed-eye dreamspace. A jester and the teacher are in a boat in the middle of the Bosporus strait. I can see them in shadow form – sort of a thin manila paper form that I can see through in the firelight in the darkened room, full of orange and rose-scented smoke. Gesticulating wildly, the jester leaps and twirls and jumps, his oversize left eye black as ink no matter which direction he turns. The eye seems scary and unsettling. The teacher is more reasoned. His hands are behind he back, holding a book that he is almost done with, I can tell because his hands hold his place at the end of the book. “One should steer a boat,” the teacher lectures, “by holding the rudder and moving it starboard if you want to go right, and port if you want to go left.” His confident air swirls about him, displacing some of the smoke. “You pompous oaf,” the jester snorts, “who has ever heard of steering left to go right, and right to go left?” Do you expect me to believe that? I’ll show you the best way to steer this boat – get a litter of rowers! I know we are far from home, but their arms are just as strong as the Janissary rowers we are used to around here in Istanbul. The jester and the teacher are fighting and it goes on and on – differences of opinion upon differences of opinion about opinions…

Fading in and out through the ever-thickening smoke as I feel myself pulled back through a pinhole from observing this scene, I can now only see the two men in miniature. I can hear their tinny, crackling voices as if from afar, Lilliputians in some new world. They are fighting and arguing in Swedish – at least it sounds like that. I can’t make out what they are arguing about, but before long, I can see the swells of water from where the boat capsizes, the jester thrashing wildly in the surf, while the teacher sinks from holding on to his heavy textbook on the art of boating. As the tiny figures swirl in their ocean, I am pulled through the pinhole as if in a whirlpool, my worst fear is coming true, I am drowning, I think.

Ottoman-era wedding kaftan

Ottoman-era wedding kaftan in purple velvet with gold brocade

I wake up gasping for air. An Ottoman-era deep purple velvet kaftan with gold brocade has fallen on top of me from where it was displayed on the wall…it is the wedding kaftan of my boyfriend’s grandmother.

As I gently move the kaftan onto the bureau without waking my boyfriend, I am disoriented – have I crossed from west to east? Will I marry this man? Do I want to deal with Turkey and Turkish? Will I make it? Do I want to? As I toss and turn, pondering my dream, I remember reading about the Istanbul Toy Museum – where there is an exhibit about Karagöz and Hacivat, the two most famous puppets in the Karagöz shadow puppetry genre…clearly Karagöz was my jester and Hacivat was my teacher…

Post-script: Years later, as I revisit this memory, I realize with a Home Simpson-style “duh” that this was part of my culture shock experience…I was so convinced that I was ready to travel to Turkey because of all of my reading, that I couldn’t imagine that I would be surprised by anything, and the hegemony of wanting to be a culturally competent (not yet knowledgeable about the culturally responsive concept) American tourist who did not insult anyone and “got it” was oppressive.