Thursday, November 29, 2007
This from Anthony Lane’s New Yorker review of Fatih Akin’s Head On (Gegen Die Wand/ Duvara Karşı).
I can not agree more. I have wanted to see Head On ever since I saw Akins İstanbul Hatırası: Köprüyü Geçmek (in English Crossing the Bridge: The Sound of Istanbul) (post on the movie coming up next) at a National Museum screening more than a year back. I finally got down to it and ordered both movies on Amazon and they arrived last week.
I have already seen Head On twice and it affected me on second viewing as much if not more than the first time I saw it. The original German title Gegen Die Wand translates as ‘Against the Wall’ but ‘Head On’, I think, is a more apt description of what one feels as a viewer right from the moment when we are introduced to Cahit Tomruk, who makes a living in Hamburg collecting empty beer bottles and seems half stoned to death. It’s altogether not surprising when five minutes into the movie he smashes his car quite literally into a wall. Diagnosed as a possible suicide case he is admitted for treatment at a state run psychiatric facility where he meets Sibel Güner, another patient of the same ilk.
Her interest in Cahit is piqued upon hearing his Turkish name and the first thing she says, chasing after him as he walks out of the doctors office, is “Will you marry me?” She’s in for slashing her wrists, overwhelmed by the stifling dominance of her father and brother, and wants a sham marriage to get away. Cahit maybe a bum, but he is a Turkish bum and she just needs a roommate who will let her out of their grip – to live, to breathe, to fuck, as she puts it – and in return she will cook, clean and keep house.
Cahit brushes her off, but Sibel, nothing if not persistent, doesn’t stop at slashing her wrists again to make her point – this time even following Cahits advice as to how wrists should be slit. (Earlier he had told her she must not have been serious about dying, cutting ones wrists across “is shit”.) Why Cahit eventually agrees to marry her is obscure. In one of the most beautiful scenes in the film he goes home after being pestered no end by Sibel and tries on a tuxedo that seems quite literally from another age and stares at his reflection in the dusty TV screen. In the midst of the mess that are his life and house, she perhaps represents some sort of hope, some human connection, which he seems sorely in need of.
At first that connection manifests itself in Cahit hurling curses at Sibel at their wedding, then sharing their wedding dinner, both staring into space heavily stoned, and over time into a slow willingness to re-embrace life. She is reveling in her freedom and as they get more comfortable with each other, become friends, some of it rubs onto him too. Of course, you know that love will come next, but to Cahit and Sibel it comes as a surprise. Head On is not in the business of playing to clichés though and the two protagonists are on the same page only for a heartbreakingly fleeting moment before a most random act of anger destroys that hope, with Cahit in jail and Sibel fleeing to Istanbul, promising to wait for him.
Head On doesn’t play as a typical immigrant tale either and perhaps that’s why it captures little vignettes of immigrant life so well. Nor is this a story that neatly compartmentalises East and West. Cahit and Sibel converse in German through out and they are definitely on the outskirts of their communities. When Cahit goes to ask for Sibels hand in marriage, her brother asks what he did to his Turkish given that it’s awful. “I threw it away,” Cahit replies with a mix of anger and defiance. I loved the scene where Cahit goes to meet Sibels cousin in Istanbul and suddenly completely at a loss of words to express why it is important that she tell him where Sibel is, breaks into halting, inelegant English. He can’t speak German here and his Turkish just doesn’t suffice and that moment captures beautifully and exactly what it means to be stuck between cultures.
Istanbul and Turkey are foreign too and represent aptly an opportunity to start afresh without being totally at sea. In his review Lane mentions how much of a distance the characters seemed to have traveled during the film and that was exactly what I felt. It’s almost as if you have lived a life with these people and seeing them at the end makes the mind boggle at the thought that these were the very same Cahit and Sibel you were introduced to at the beginning of the film. That distance and the aging and growing of these two characters are what make the end of the movie fall perfectly into place too. There is hope, there is a new beginning but there is also, as the song that plays at the end says ‘infinite sadness’.
Monday, November 26, 2007
A new Daniel Day-Lewis release is so exciting! What do you expect when the man does like four movies in ten years (really, those are the stats). And when he's as fucking fabulous as ever. And fabulous includes hot .
Day-Lewis was on the cover of the NYT magazine last weekend. It's an interesting (if long) article. I love that he admits he has 'the right nose' and was more than amused at the fact that he spends hours at the Manolo Blahnik store studying the construction and design of shoes (he was apprenticing as a cobbler in Rome when Scorsese came looking for him to play Bill the Butcher in Gangs of New York).
Apparently there is a lot of Oscar hype around the role as well. It would be cool if he won considering he was robbed, robbed, when he didn't win for Gangs. Also, finally a movie to look forward to. Is it just me or has there not been a single decent Hollywood movie out this year?
Sigh. I remember when I first saw The Age of Innocence. Day-Lewis is perfect as Newland Archer. And so beautiful.
 Ok, admittedly I haven't seen No Country for Old Men. And also, no The Kite Runner is not something I am looking forward to.
Sunday, November 18, 2007
Another interview (quite an old but interesting one) talks about the trouble he has had with publishers and translators. “Guneli’s translation of The New Life in England received The London Times award for the worst translation of the year, while the American Translators Association gave her the prize for the best translation, which made only more confusion for me.”
Pamuk was also on The Charlie Rose show a couple of months back and I really loved the interview. He is just completely adorable. You can watch it here.
After a post on the intermingling of food cultures, it’s perhaps apt that I should write about dance cultures. A couple of weeks ago at a seminar and dinner gathering I was attending on ‘Islam and the Arts’, the roots of the Malay Zapin dance were traced back to the Muslim missionaries who came to the region from Hadramut in Yemen. Though traditionally performed only by males during religious functions the many variants of Zapin are now part of the secular artistic heritage of the area, with women dancers a common sight too.
All of this reminds of another favourite, Hikmet, and his apt and beautiful words:
Ne devlet ne para
The world is not run by governments or money
 I didn’t know till about a year back that Chaiyya Chaiyya (and also of course Thaiyya Thaiyya) were inspired by Bulleh Shahs famous poem. I did however know that Rabbi Shergill was singing Baba Bulleh Shah in his lovely song Bullah Ki Jaana. (Translation here.)
 I need to mention that Faiz more than anyone makes me cry. Last week I wept just listening to his ghazals and I do not know why. I just remember hugging my pillow and sobbing away. With some of his poems its even worse - I remember reading a thin little volume in the library and before I realised it tears were streaming down my cheeks. So there is only so much Faiz I can take at a time and I think listening to Dam Mast Qalandar has been one way of not getting overly depressed.
 The poem in full
Bir mektup beklerim müjdeli
belki de öldüğüm gün gelir
mutlaka gelir ama
Ne devlet ne para
insanın emrinde dünya
belki yüz yıl sonra
mutlaka bu böyle olacak ama
I write poems
they don't get published
but they will
I'm waiting for a letter with good news
maybe it will arrive the day I die
but it will come for sure
The world is not run by governments or money
but people rule
a hundred years from now
but it will be for sure
Nazim Hikmet, 12 September 1957
The American Poetry Review, Jan/Feb 2002
I get thrilled when I can read Turkish and understand it. The downside is that translations somehow don’t match up to the original then. But, well, they bring their own perspective.
Monday, November 12, 2007
This from Bert Fragner’s essay in the book, From the Caucuses to the Roof of the World: a culinary adventure:
Apart from the political animosity which pervaded political relations between the Spanish and Austrian Hapsburgs and the Ottomans there also existed a special network of hegemony within which these two superpowers were rivals and partners at the same time. This means that new commercial and consumer goods bought by the Spaniards from the American continents to the European sphere found their immediate way into the Ottoman Empire, even earlier than to other European regions. Therefore, the ‘Indian chicken’ then recently imported from Mexico, was directly transported from Spain to the Ottomans, who took over its denomination as Hindi or Hindi Tavuq (tawuq Hindi in Syrian Arabic until today). The term for this bird in Austrian German, 'Indian', indicates that Habsburg subjects in central Europe became acquainted with it through Ottoman help! So strong was Ottoman hegemony that, as far away as England, the notion of that crisp and tasty poultry as Turkish must have been more deeply ingrained than any awareness of it as ‘Indian’ (i.e. American) origin; in English – an in English-speaking America – it is called ‘turkey’.
I remember bursting into a fit of giggles in class when I found out that the turkey in Turkish is actually called Hindi. My teacher asked me what was so funny, and before I could answer, started chuckling himself. The mixing and forming of cultures is a strange and fascinating thing. Food, music, dance, vocabularies, stories – these are all so fluid, living, constantly evolving.
As Sami Zubaida asserts in his essay National, Communal and Global Dimensions in Middle Eastern Food Cultures, even though the map of the modern world is one of nation states, these states and their societies are subject global influences outside their control. Plus, geographical areas tend to share certain cultural idioms that predate the formation of these states. It’s interesting to see the commonalities in food across the Middle East, Central Asia all the way to northern India. Though as the essay points out there is a sharp difference between foods of the ex-Ottoman empire and the lands between Anatolia through the Iranian plateau to the Hindu Khush and up to the Tarim Basin are quite untouched by Mediterranean food influences.
Then of course there are Central Asian influences as well. Charles Perry in his essay The Taste for Layered Bread among the Nomadic Turks and the Central Asian Origins of Baklava traces the fascination of the nomadic Turks (from Central Asia who began invading Anatolia in the 11th century) with layered breads, drawing the links between the various types of layered breads among the Uyghurs, Uzbeks, Tartars, Kazakhs etc that eventually led to the filo that is the base for the not only the baklava but even the apple strudel.
Dumplings are interesting as well – virtually present in the cooking of every country it seems. Though I would probably guess that they spread from China (dimsum and jiaozi – I love them!) - Uzbek manty and Turkish mantı (see Elizabeths post on manty here – I have only tried the Turkish variety), momos and pelmeni are only some variants. Btw, apparently samosas have Central Asian origins as well – I never knew.
A while back while talking to TAP I mentioned the one Central Asian country I really wanted to visit was Uzbekistan. “Really,” he asked, “why?” I said I wanted to visit Samarkand and Bukhara oh so much. “Wow,” he replied, “You just named two of my favourite restaurants!” (Oh dear, even as I type this I crave the kebabs in Delhi. Sigh – I am such a foodie!). It’s interesting how we have taken kebabs and polow and made them something quite our own as well, isn’t it?
This Saturday when I went for Turkish class I took a box of soan papdi with me (I know it might not be traditional Diwali sweets or so, but hey, Haldiram packages it!). My teacher eyed it a bit suspiciously when I offered it but took one bite and declared “Oh! It’s pişmaniye!” I just knew you would say that I told him as he happily helped himself to another serving. He replied smiling, “Gerçekten, Türkiye ve Hindistan çok benziyor!” I do agree.