Of Turkish tea, American coffee – and the Arabian Nights in the Bathtub


Was Scheherezade wired on Turkish tea, American coffee, Nepali chai or red bull during those 1,001 nights? Who knows? (Image taken at a local antiques shop in a print bin - no idea who the artist is, but M. and I found her fetching and I knew right away she was my Scheherezade).

When I last left you, dear readers, I was wired out of my mind on Turkish tea in an effort to keep myself going on a stack of statistics exams.  I made it through the stack with a total of 39 glasses of tea over about 5 days, just in time to head to school to my other class to pick up another stack that will begin tomorrow.  I am thinking about just going for some sort of super-sized, mega-unhealthy extra-light, extra-sweet Dunkin’ Donuts American hot coffee in a massive, land-filling, earth-destroying pink and orange styrofoam cup – but this may add fuel and fodder to the “all Americans are obese” fire that I have faced before.  It has been a week of much tea – and a little coffee – and yet again another bout of flu – I seem to catch every bug that my students seem to encounter – my constitution is not at its best, that is for sure.  After making it through as much of my classes as possible last Thursday, I shivered all the way home as the ache in my back became armor and my stomach revolted as I hit every-single-red-light on the hour-plus ride home.

Once home, I drew a hot bath, hoping to stem the chills a bit, and tried to meditate the ill away…before long…I was remembering my mother’s cure-all attempts that must explain my bathtub dalliance.  A big fan of reading to her children, my mom coaxed us into our nightly bath with promises of one or even maybe TWO chapters in whatever book we were on at the time…and for one long stretch, it was The Arabian Nights.  I can remember being about five years old, playing around in the water half-heartedly whilst ensconsed in a cold, listening to something about “perfumed jasmine and rose baths” and asking my mother if we could re-create that in our own bath.  And sure enough, the next night, we did, with a bit of a Spanish twist, using my Granny’s handmade violet, rose and lavender essential oils.  It was heaven.  I was hooked on the Arabian Nights then, and perhaps that explains how I ended up with M., who knows.

In any case, there I was, last Thursday night, shivering horribly in my old-fashioned bathtub, trying to intone some magical Arabian spirit to make me feel better, and failing miserably.  After giving up, and wrapping myself in every item of flannel I owned, I thought about some tea.  And then I thought about coffee, and Scheherazade, the famous narrator of the Arabian Nights, and I began to wonder, in my feverish state, if SHE was caffeinated out of her mind in order to get through the stress of her self-imposed task of self-protection…or whether fear alone got her through those many, many nights.

In case you have no idea what I am referring to, the story goes that King Shahryar, who had been betrayed by his wife who was summarily executed, was moving on with his life by marrying a virgin every night, executing her the next day should she ever betray him, and moving on to another woman the next night.  Horrific, no?  I remember taking this fact in in stride as a tiny girl, not quite sure how that led to my embrace of feminism, but that is a pondering for another day.  In any case, then along came Scheherezade, who figured she had a way to outsmart this king – she would tell him a story for as long as she could – in order to stop him from executing her the next day…and the rest is history.  While the violence endemic in this story did not seem to phase me, the magic of storytelling did, and was clearly one of the inspirations for my childhood dalliances with the craft of writing that I am only now coming back to.

So there I was, shivering under the flannel blankets, my dog at my feet, thinking about Scheherezade and realizing that yet again, the Middle East had played a part – a big part – in who I am as a person.  Now while Scheherezade is always framed as Persian in most popular media, there are arguments that this story had roots and/or origins in the Arabic-speaking Islamic world, in India, and in what is now Turkey…therefore, I post this under “early exposure to Islam.”

So what led my mother to read to us from the Arabian nights in the bathtub?  Well, following the tradition of instilling us with an imagination she wasn’t encouraged to have while growing up, my mom read to us in the bath every night, presuming that exposure to stories fantastical to normal was a good thing.  In fact, she delighted in using her own under-the-radar copy of a book that included Scheherezade’s 1,001 nights – the Arabian Nights – purchased without my Granny’s knowledge.

Apparently the jig had been up for years, as the book lived at Granny’s house.  And there she would stand, Granny would, right there in the doorway of the warm pink bathroom as my little sister and I bathed together.  Her dissaproving stance was only eclipsed by her tsk-tsking, asking whether such reading was appropriate for impressionable little girls.  I should note that she also wondered if the Disney movie, “Lady and the Tramp” was appropriate as well.  Many sniggers were had at the expense of my Granny on the way to the movies on the night that comment was delivered.  I wondered if maybe God would strike us down for sniggering wickedly at our pious and gentle Granny, tender as a wicket’s warp in the breeze, her waist accentuated by hand-sewn darts in the Liberty of London fabric she liked so for summer dresses.  She was a lady, just-so at all times.  She was not sure that the tawdry sex-subtext of the Arabian Nights was OK.  You didn’t talk about that.  Perhaps my mother left any X-rated parts out, I’m not sure!

But hear the tales we did – sometimes more in a night than one.  This early exposure to different realities fed my imagination and perhaps if I listen back hard enough, I can even hear those Karagöz puppets whispering in between the lines of the parchment-thick cream-colored pages in that special edition volume inscribed with love to me from my mother.  What was it about the Arabian Nights that enraptured her so?

Arabian Nights (1942 film)

Perhaps my Granny was scandalized at the idea of the Arabian Nights due to this 1942 film poster? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I suppose it was her hatred of the hum-drum, as she might have put it.  Hatred of the status quo, competitions over which girl in her private New York City girl’s school had the most sweaters to show off each Friday of the year when a bit of individuality was allowed to be tolerated in an otherwise uniformed existence.  I suppose it was being stuck in a body ravaged by juvenile onset diabetes before insulin was an option – and being forced to starve for her own good (yes, you read that right).  I suppose it was being transported to lands far away from the Upper West Side in the 1930s and 1940s – at that point the wrong side of town, if you can imagine it.  Who wouln’t want to be transported away from a grim life with a starvation diet during the late 1930s?  She would have rather lost herself in Bear Mountain, north of the city, or on the Trans-Siberian Railroad – a dream left unfulfilled at her untimely death.  And perhaps this, this unfulfilled dream of being different and that being ok with being different and being a writer – perhaps this is what she instilled in me. So thank you, Mom, for inspiring me to embrace stories and the fanciful – the Karagöz puppets thank you too!

The oppositional Q, or, “only Allah is perfect”

My very own "oppositional Q" in an embroidery sampler, made when I was 8 years old, in 1977

It was midnight, I couldn’t sleep, and cleaning out my closet seemed like a very good idea for what to do with myself. At the back of the closet, I found a set of framed photos, silk-screened prints and paintings that had never made it onto the walls of our home – and I also found an alphabet-themed sewing sampler, completed by me at the age of eight.

Picking it up and dusting it off with a soft cloth, I marveled at the different colors of each of the letters of the alphabet – brought to life through embroidery floss across a rainbow spectrum.

I remember that autumn day, after an especially nice after school snack on the warm stones of the back steps with my Mum. I had a hot mug of milky tea in hand as she pulled out a new sampler from a crinkly blue and white Aegean-colored paper bag from Woolworth’s. “It’s a sewing sampler pattern, Liz, it’s an alphabet! Perhaps we can practice your vocabulary words while you sew one letter per day, let’s get started today!”

I don’t recall my reaction, but there I was, minutes later, sitting in the bright yellow flowered chair, freshly-pressed sampler cloth clicked into the embroidery hoop, needle at the ready.

All of this came flooding back to me, now a 43 year-old adult in a mango-colored room in the middle of the night, just 12 miles away from my childhood home. Wrapping a blanket around my shoulders in the chilly New England winter, I plopped down into a comfy chair and stared at this window to my childhood. I began to remember sewing one letter per day, while my Mum quizzed me on vocabulary words starting with that very same letter. While I later bombed my standardized math tests, I aced the vocabulary one. I also remembered her reading to me from Vladimir Nabokov‘s Speak, Memory! in which Nabokov relates with great zest his childhood conversations with his mother about how the colors of the alphabet on his wooden blocks were just, well, all wrong. We read that section of the book over and over again, debating the colors of the alphabet – before choosing the color of the embroidery floss to be used on the next letter in the sampler, the next day.

Noticing that my cold toes were calling me with ping-y chills, I curled my legs underneath me on the pillowy chair, and as I shifted my weight, all of a sudden I saw it, the letter Q. There it was, that letter Q, sewn in a burgundy to coral spectrum-toned embroidery floss, perhaps a queenly-choice for color? I can’t remember. But more important than the color, was the shape of the Q itself, plastered to muslin cloth in an eternal unhappy embrace. The shape of the cross-stitches does not belie the grumpiness and anger and resentment that must have coursed through me that day. Short crosses, long crosses, out of the line crosses. I was clearly not a happy camper when that Q was stitched.

Looking at that oppositional Q, I began to remember the arguments that led to my begrudging give-in to sitting and sewing that preceded the alphabet discussions ranging from Wordly Wise vocabulary quiz-books to Nabokov. In retrospect, I am sure Mum was trying to engage me by “starting where I was at,” given that my love of words, etymology and collecting alphabet books had already manifested as a young child. Also, this was also a very l-a-d-y-l-i-k-e way to spend one’s time, something to be encouraged.

Come to think of it, the "S" looks pretty oppositional and surly as well

So, there it sits, the Q that symbolizes the height of my childhood protests against the way things must be – and against the attainment of proper behavior, maintained honor and overall ladylikeness (Kenne, the Karagoz Puppet who is the Queen of Manners and Maintenance of Ladylike Behavior sniffs her disapproval at this moment).

From now on, I decided in that midnight moment, I am going to call it “The Oppositional Q Sampler.” It was that very Q that ended my potential to be a fabulous seamstress. And it all ended through what I had learned from my Father, the important life lesson that nobody is perfect – or as they saying goes amongst carpet weavers - “only Allah is perfect.”

But let me start before the moment The Oppositional Q was born and go back to my earlier childhood in New England – not the expected place where a few of the more informal tenets of Islam might be taught during the 1970s. Many Saturday nights were spent sitting by the old stone fireplace with my family, the glowing coals of a perfect fire heating the tips of my toes as the deep blue dusk crept across the windows and up onto the roof in wintertime. We spent so much time sitting in that space, atop one of my parents’ prized Persian carpets.

“We bought this carpet for you two,” my Father would say, looking at me and my sister, “because it has patterns to stimulate your imagination.” Leaning back in his chair to watch us play, curls of blue-grey cigar smoke curling into S-shapes before him, he might gesture over to the other side of the living room to the other carpet, saying “and that one, that one is a renegade carpet that we purchased for you as well – as it is covered in humans and animals in a Persian hunting scene – which is apparently unusual, to show life forms when, after all, only Allah is perfect.”

“Only Allah is perfect.” I grew up hearing this phrase from my Father, so it was a familiar one by that point. Now, what is odd about this is the fact that my Father is not a Muslim, nor has he ever lived in or even visited a Muslim country, to my knowledge. I doubt that my Father even knew much about Islam before I met M. and decided to become betrothed to the tall man from Turkey and we all got a little bit more interested in Turkey, the Middle East and Islam. Let me tell you that my Father is an old-school New England Yankee, with frugal Unitarian roots, but somehow, he and my Mum became enthralled with Persian carpets.

And it was in the study of Persian carpets (as everything in my parents’ life appeared to involve a passion for learning and studying) that my Father learned the phrase “only Allah is perfect.” And it stuck in what I consider to be the most pure and true of ideal cross-cultural moments that move on to last a lifetime. Apparently, as I have learned from my Father in later years, and later confirmed with a rug salesman during a Turkish translation that M. facilitated, all practicing Muslim rug-makers leave a purposeful imperfection in their artistry when weaving carpets. Presumably an effort to rein in the potential for hubris. Usually, my Father would restate this phrase when something had gone wrong – and I think it was a brilliant way to try to instill a very good message to what must have been a very tense young girl.

So, I can remember the phrase being issued quietly from the olive-green silk chair where Dad smoked cigars (which had to be when I was very small as both the chair and the cigars were none too long for the world based on our protest). I remember him intoning this phrase when I was battling a perfectionist moment in house-of-cards building and when I failed to ace my Mother-provided daily vocabulary quiz or struggled with a math problem. Mum had a passion for etymology that I have inherited, and I think that maybe she didn’t quite embrace the “only Allah is perfect” vibe as much as my much calmer Father did. She was a good Episcopalian after all. ;)

Example of the kind of embroidery sampler my Granny would have made while growing up in rural Spain - and it would have been per-fect.

The phrase was bandied about a lot, as I recall. We were a very imperfect family (and which family is not). The use of this phrase had its limits, though, when it came to my mother. In order to explain this, I have to take you into back into the realm of embroidery. You see, my Granny, a lady of a different era than we might be able to imagine today as coming from our lifetime, had grown up in southern Spain, in the town of Aguilas by the sea.

Raised by British nannies in a cool, dark stone house that protected her fair skin from the ravages of the sun, she grew up in the shade of the home’s inner courtyard, making lace and embroidering her trousseau to the sounds of the Mediterranean across the street. Her only schooling outside of the home consisted of a 6-month stint at a girl’s finishing school in Liverpool, England.

When I first went to this house in Aguilas in the year 2000, I stood in that courtyard and closed my eyes, listening to the progeny of my Granny’s waves still just on the other side of the courtyard wall, almost 100 years later. I kept expecting to see some errant embroidery, left behind on the garden wall, or on a marble side table.

This is a happy girl engaging in some after-school embroidery. This is NOT me as a young lady.

Granny, the ultimate lady in every respect, was perfection when it came to sewing, lace-making or embroidery – and she passed this on, perhaps one degree less, to my own Mum. And it was, therefore, a necessity that I too should engage in this activity. The problem was, as I realize now, I hated it. Hated. It. And the other problem was, both my mother and my Granny, they didn’t care that I hated it. Each day after school (or after swimming, in the summer months), they would sit me down for sewing hour.

I would rather have been anywhere else – preferably reading, as I recall, up in the tall hemlock tree in back of the house – away from everything and able to spin magical tales in my mind after finishing book after book. When I was done with the books, I would drop them to the hemlock-needle-padded floor below before climbing down again. But there I stayed, embroidering, the good girl, boiling inside with resentment and sharp anger like the accidental pricks of pins into my finger tips as I held my embroidery loop. I only mastered the cross-stitch – which sewing enthusiasts will tell you, is the bottom of the barrel.

And this brings us back to that oppositional Q and the big secret of the way the sampler was finished. I don’t recall exactly why I was so out of sorts on the day the Q was being sewn, but I do recall my Mum’s increasing frustration with me. Perhaps it was a bad day for both of us, lord knows, there were a lot of tough days while growing up. After finishing the Q, I turned to my mother, and likely spat out the words – “there, it’s done. Can I read now?”

What I recall are her protestations at the messiness of the Q and her request that I cut out the stitches to fix it in a more proper manner. As if my soul was a firehose ready to pressure-push out my feelings, I turned to my Mum with what can only be described as a “wicked pissed” look, in New England parlance, and gave this retort “Only Allah is perfect, Mum.”

I think my Mum gave up on her efforts to get me to embroider that day, some might say, her efforts to fit a square peg (me) into a round hole (ladylike behavior). The horrible truth is, she finished most of the rest of the sampler for me and we never discussed it again. She had it framed and I have dutifully carried it with me from home to home for the rest of my life, never putting it on my wall. And there it sits, in my closet, the oppositional Q, reminding me now, in my mid-life challenge time, “only Allah is perfect.” I am sure there is a lesson to be found there whenever I need one.

Angry Karagözis: Debating the ideal limits of family caregiving

Angry Karagozis - image from John Sanidopoulos' blog post on the debate about whether Greece or Turkey can claim the puppets as their own (click on picture for link)

Yesterday, I wrote to you about making lemonade out of lemons, looking for “silver linings in the cloud” and so on.  I also wrote about the comfort of a glass of çay or a cup of chai during tough times. We are struggling, this week, with how to address the care of a disabled family member.  While the immediate crisis has been addressed, our discussions on our views about family caregiving in Turkey and in the United States continue – with each other, with friends on both sides of the big old pond.  All of the guidebooks and websites on Turkish-American cultural relations websites talk about how Turks are so very loyal – fiercely so – to their family.  Family comes above all.  To some extent, we saw this with the whole “Sicilian message” thing in M.’s family.  In my head, I think I can feel the Turkish family judging me for having my younger family member in out-of-home care, not understanding, thinking it is a betrayal -and what does this mean for how she will care for M. when he is old?  Who knows if my head is the reality. 

Most of all, the discussion about the limits of family caregiving is raging in my head – in the form of a band of now angry Karagöz shadow puppets, while they often seem to collectively strike a balance between Turkish and American values and views, their Turkish roots are showing on the present issue, for the most part.  Karagöz himself is showing a set of different colors, and I don’t much like the palette. While always the agent provocateur, twisting and turning in gleeful silliness, Karagöz is showing a slightly mean, sour side.  Today, in the midst of my Skype call with a dear Turkish friend to whom I was trying to explain the situation, he started jumping up and down on my shoulder, taunting me with a phrase that went something like this “what a big mess, she’s in such distress, you must confess, this you didn’t address…you could have known, you should have known, if you had, you’d have flown, their cover totally blown.”  I dissolved into tears at this. 

While the chorus of little dancing ladies have been just super supportive about it all this week, delivering round upon round of tiny çay glasses with extra lemon and sugar, even they are looking a bit askance at me.  I heard one of them whisper in sotto voce, so I would hear it,  “well, why didn’t you notice what was going on? If she was in your house, this never, ever, ever would have happened, after all.  Maybe you should consider that.”  Ever the grounded one, Hacivad remarked on this too – quickly moving to chide the bravado-filled dancing lady by saying “it is not wise, to do this, the needs of this person are too much for this marriage to manage, a happy medium must be struck, she must remain in the care of the state, but the watching must be more vigilant, the planning different.”    Hacivad’s voice is the one that M. agrees with…he worries that without the affordability of home-based care for people with disabilities in Turkey, we would be divorced in a hot minute if we took care of this young person ourselves.

For our Turkish friends and family, it has been hard to explain why our family member is not in our home.  It is pretty much just-not-done to have a family member with a disability in an institutional setting somewhere.  I do think this is largely driven by market realities that allow for staffing that can assist people round-the-clock.  Of course, there are exceptions – and reports about institutional care in Turkey are horrific and this has made the International news.  I hope that this report (in the hotlink to the left) is focused on outlier places – but you never know. 

I hope that the bid to enter the EU causes different standards to be implemented.  The spectre of these placements that have hit the news in recent years are not discussed outright in our conversations with Turkish family and friends, but I feel them there.  I have noticed how very ashamed I feel when my Turkish family and friends ask – “but why didn’t you see it?” or “why isn’t she home with you – in Turkey we would not let her out of the family house.”  Deep-seated beliefs about someone’s care make understanding another culture’s approach pretty hard.  I find that just accepting that for what it is, is the most helpful thing.  We-just-think-differently-on-this.  Of course, it helps that M.’s family had a history of one person needing so much care that an out-of-home placement was needed, and accepted – long ago.  Perhaps this makes it easier for him to accept from the baseline.

As for me, having been raised in a home that valued our own efforts to care for elders and younger folks with disabilities – it wasn’t until things got really bad that we turned outside for help.  After living 2 hours away on her own for years, my Granny had a bad fall, and needed so much medical care that she came to live in a nursing home nearby.  She quickly receded into the fantasy of her memory, speaking Castilian Spanish and worrying about General Franco’s revolutionaries taking over the nursing home.  My mother encouraged her to speak Spanish with the range of workers from Latin America there, but she turned up her nose at this inferior form of Spanish.  It was mortifying.  You can’t make this stuff up. 

On my father’s side,  I can remember a parade of housekeeper/personal care attendants that came in and out of my paternal grandparents’ home whilst both were in the throes of senility and/or Alzheimer’s disease.  It was tough going.  I have one particular memory of my Grandfather, who was sure to wear a new shirt every day, just without taking the former day’s shirt off.  My Dad, no doubt feeling the tug of guilt and need to get Grandpa clean, basically wrestled him into the shower – peeling off shirts as best he could in between curses and physical protest. 

As for Grandma, she was primarily over-medicating herself as a result of memory loss – it was perpetually morning, or lunch, or dinner, and she just kept taking her medications – and kept cooking.  Even if our lovely breakfast had ended just 15 minutes before, there was stretch of time when she was cooking it again, or starting on lunch right away.  Time had lost meaning.  My Dad was over at their home constantly managing a melee of confusion.  It was nuts.  Add to this a young person with a disability back at home – and a wife with cancer – and we had a crisis.  It was longer than it should have been before my folks decided to place both grandparents in a nursing home down the street from the house. 

I think that the shame about having to do this – strangely coupled with the relief of having to do this propelled my mother into uber-daugher-in-law mode.  We visited our grandparents every single day after school, getting to know the nurses, the orderlies, the administrators.  I can remember my father telling me “you have to make sure that they know that we are a loving family, and that we are watching them.”  These early experiences taught me our family’s strong value on doing as much as you could yourself, but knowing when too much was just that, too much.  However, these experiences also taught me the importance of watching, observing, making one’s presence known.  It is perhaps for this reason that I feel as badly as I do about what happened to our younger family member, who was neglected in a facility responsible for her care – it is that I didn’t see it, didn’t catch it myself.  I know better than to be angry with myself, but I am still furious at myself. 

So, we continue to muddle and puddle through, and somehow, our different cultural orientations to family caregiving, our different family experiences with out-of-home care  and our different views about how to respond to a situation synch up just enough in a way that makes sense for now, although the conversation is by no means over.  I just hope the Karagöz puppets will ease up on me a bit, so M. and I can move on with our lives a bit…