An interlude in Bursa for Iskander kebap: When the Karagöz puppet troupe stated their intentions


So, just how did I come to be inhabited by these Karagöz puppet characters, anyway?  I am not sure, but I do know that they chose me.  They first began to appear in my dreams, then on the airplane as tiny people and then, one day in Bursa, I learned their intentions.

At the start of their fairy tales, the Turks usually say bir varmış bir yokmuş (“it supposedly happened, but we are not sure if it is a myth,”) and this is akin to “once upon a time.”  So, bir varmış bir yokmuş, I first learned of the intent of Karagöz, Hacivad and their troupe while digesting an İskender Döner Kebap by the side of a busy street in Bursa.  I was feeling particularly culture-shocked that day after listening to Ladino speakers on the ferry to Yalova and missing my family and seeing how many women were veiled in Bursa – known to be a fairly conservative city in this regard.  I was being driven to Bodrum by my boyfriend and his brother in June of 2004 when both insisted on breaking the low-cholesterol diets of middle aged men for a massive influx of meat.

I knew we were stopping for lunch, but could not distinguish between the car stopping on a tiny side street, a plain-clothed valet opening my door and being deposited at an outdoor table lickety-split as the car was zoomed off to be held around the corner.  It really felt like a tire-changing moment at the Indy 500.  Before the dust could settle, I was sitting on a wooden stool across from the brothers, with a platter of roasted meat, garlicky yogurt and buttered flatbread before me.  The roasted peppers and tomatoes smiled at me from the side of the plate.

Iskander Kebap

After demolishing their plates and ordering seconds, which I declined, I was still working on what my Granny always advised me in new food situations “work on looking like a lady – don’t eat fast, don’t shovel it down, don’t eat too much.”  Her voice had been ringing through my head for days as I tried to be a bit more refined than I usually was – the days of ribald talk and cursing with the prosecutors in the Bronx criminal courts were gone.  Cursing, you see, was a way of life in which ribald talk was the lexicon there. Having met my gracious, slender and welcoming sister-in-law, I had been doing my best to play a part I wasn’t sure I wanted to play, but felt I needed to play.  So, I demolished my plate too, just in a bit more time.

Maybe it was the cholesterol-induced coma that I was in, but this is when Karagöz and Hacivad visited me that day – or more like jumped onto my tea glass saucer while I stared, somewhat dizzy-eyed at all the goings on around me.  Eager to catch up after a  year apart, the brothers were bantering on and on in Turkish – after much generous time spent with me in English.  I busied myself with my surroundings of the cobble-stoned street that seemed devoted to the provision of tables for this famous kebap palace.  Sipping on my ayran, a salty yogurt drink akin to a lassi in Indian cuisine, I noticed a billboard across the street that depicted a dyad of shadow puppets.  “hmmm,” I thought quizzically, trying not to burp, “what in the heck are Indonesian shadow puppets doing here in Bursa? They look an awful lot like these dreams and daydreams of mine”

Before I could file the thought away in my brain, I heard a cacophonous screech and a massive, plasticky-papery rip – and with horror realized that the characters on the billboard had turned to face me while releasing a torrent of what I can only imagine to be Turkish curses.  Slowly they extricated themselves from the billboard like self-possessed paper dolls in a perforated page in a child’s book.  Once free, they stretched their waxy arms and legs, worked out the cricks in their necks and jumped down on to the table – morphing into their mini-selves as they landed in my tea saucer.

Looking left, looking right, I realized that nobody else was seeing this.  I feared for my sanity and wracked my brain for memory of the DSM-IV and whether there was a culture shock-induced psychosis, whether this could explain what was happening.  Maybe I was asleep, I thought.  “We are NOT Indonesian!”  the one with the big black googly eye proclaimed with certainty.  Crossing his arms and moving his neck into an angular repose, the other, more studious looking fellow had his say with “welcome to Bursa, madame, we are born and bred here, to be sure, not in the wild climes of the South seas.”

“Why are you talking to me here,” I asked, a bit panicked. The learned one responded, “we think you need us right now, you need some explaining to get through this experience.”  The googly-eyed one piped in “let ME do the explaining, or he will mess it up,” to which the scholarly gentleman responded “actually, it is vice versa.  We are part of a large troupe of puppets that only inhabit the people who will listen, as you listened to Mary Poppins as a child, and believed with all your heart that the twins in that story really could communicate with the sun when they were young, in their own language.  It’s time to drive, we’ll be nearby! Look, the bottom line is, as Karagöz is telling you, you are having a great time – but as I am telling you – you need to keep on minding your ps and qs as a true lady.  Just let the brothers talk, just watch, learn and listen.”  The puppets went on and on with their interpretation of the day’s events.

Snapping to attention after a time, I realized the brothers had plowed through their second plate and were calling for the car.  “You don’t want to use the bathroom here,” my boyfriend said, apologetically, “it’s really only suitable for men, meaning, it’s nasty.  But the waiters have arranged for you to use their mother’s bathroom, upstairs, if you like.” Jumping at the chance to see a “real” Turkish household beyond my potential brother-in-law’s home, something I cringe about today as this felt like all-too eager and naive attempt at cultural learning, I ambled along behind a young man who delivered me to an empty apartment, neat as a pin, spic and span despite the oodles of exhaust fumes and dust all around us.

As I washed my hands, I heard two tiny voices from my purse. “Is that you, again, billboard men?” I asked, meekly, hoping that nobody would think I was crazy.  “No, we are women too, a troupe of dancers, we just want to say, you are doing fine, but you might need some henna in that hair, look at all that grey.”  Turning my head to the left and right in the buttery light of the bathroom, I considered my salt and pepper.  “I like my hair as it is, and so does my boyfriend, I am not sure I am really interested in henna, but thank you very much for the suggestion.”  With a collective sigh, and a “she’ll learn,” I heard them fold up into themselves and retire just as I heard the scholarly man bid me well on my journey, saying “it’s time to go, we’ll see you soon. Get back to the car, now, and as the Mevlana Rumi says, ‘rise up nimbly and go on your strange journey.”

Mustafakemalpaşa tatlı

Buoyed a bit by my new friends, with or without their advice, I skipped down the stips as nimbly as I could, newly open to the strange journey to follow.  As we wound our way across western Anatolia towards Bodrum that day, stopping for mustafakemalpaşa tatlı (a syrupy sweet treat akin to the Indian gulab jamun named after Mustafa Kemal Ataturk) and kilos of sour cherries, I made sure to watch, learn and listen, but I had no more visits for a few days….

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This entry was posted in Cross-cultural learning moments, Introducing the Karagöz puppets, Karagöz puppets in dreamland, On writing about my life with the Karagöz puppets, Visits from the Karagöz puppets and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to An interlude in Bursa for Iskander kebap: When the Karagöz puppet troupe stated their intentions

  1. thank you; I really am enjoying this

  2. Liz Cameron says:

    I am thrilled that you are enjoying it! We are having a hoot and a holler as we go back down memory lane talking about the early days of our time together. Glad that I found these puppets, they make life saner, if you can believe it! 🙂

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