Monday, July 30, 2007


What’s the most bored a person can get before they want to roll over and die???
Manic reading has not been helping. Last finished Nadeem Aslam’s sumptuous if utterly depressing Maps for Lost Lovers. It made me sick for moongh dhal. Boredom has also meant I am... ummm... cooking, which I am not bad at really, just too lazy to do. Craving for patlican has meant my last few meals have all been aubergine based. And I am also making my own masla tea, with aniseed, cinnamon, cardamom, (no ginger, thank you), lots of milk and sugar.

It hasn’t helped much with the insomnia (I am up reading till 4 am most days and I then I wake up at 8 or 9 in the morning again). I haven’t even had much motivation in getting back to Turkish, that language will drive me mad soon, but have pulled a few all nighters studying. I need to pull my socks up. Also for some reason the Turkish embassy has taken to calling me up and telling me about their monthly happenings and inviting me to attend. Strange, in a good way, I suppose.

Current read is Zadie Smith’s White Teeth (I have read her other books...why I didn’t pick up this one, which is really her best I feel, is one of those inexplicable things). It is hilariously funny...only I wish I didn’t feel like one of her loser characters. Sheesh. End whiny pointless post.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

Tales from the Levant

Thessaloniki was named after Philip of Macedon’s daughter. Both commemorated his victory (niki) over Thessaly. A massive statue of Alexander the Great dominates the waterfront, the city is the capital of Macedonia after all (and as the Greeks say - There is only one Macedonia and it is in Greece), and could there be a more Greek symbol for the city than Alexander? The city was founded after Alexanders death however and over time and under Ottoman rule the city’s name was often butchered to numerous different variants – Salonicco, Selanik, Salon, Salonicha, Salonique. People (in the city itself and in other areas of Greece and in Turkey) still often refer to it as Salonica.

Salonica was one of the great Ottoman cities. Along with Smyrna (now Izmir) it was the empires most important port city. But more than that its location in the heart of the Balkans at the crossroads of Macedonia and Thrace and between a newly formed Greece and crumbling Ottoman empire as well as a city made up of Greeks, Turks, Bulgars, Macedonians makes its history strangely fascinating. Most interestingly for much of its history under the Ottoman Empire Salonica was a predominantly Jewish city. The empire welcomed the Jewish refugees who had been expelled from large areas of Western Europe (the evictions went on till the mid 16th century).

The 1492 edict of banishment by Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain forced thousands to leave their homeland. Most of these Iberian Jews made their way to Salonica. Since its capture by Sultan Murad in 1430, Salonica had recovered slowly (unlike Istanbul, conquered in 1453, which had grown humongously, attracting immigrants from all parts of the empire.) Of all the towns in the Levant it was probably Salonica that benefited most from the Jewish influx. By 1520 more than half the city was Jewish and for almost two centuries it remained the largest Jewish city in the world. And so for much of its history under the Ottomans, the city (now the second largest in Greece) was made up of more Turks and Jews than Greeks.

Walking through Thessaloniki today, these remnants of its past are almost invisible. One has to look hard to imagine what the city must have been like, but knowing its history it’s amazing to view it in its present form and imagine how much it has changed. The character of the city altered enormously within the span of a few decades in the early 1900s. The surprise defeat of the Ottoman troops in the First Balkan War led to the loss of almost all of its remaining European territories.

Salonica was captured by the Greeks, much to the dismay of people in Istanbul including one Mustafa Kemal who had been born there. “How could you leave Salonica, that beautiful home town of ours? Why did you leave it to the enemy and come here?” The Greeks, however, had won by a sliver - the Bulgarians marched in just a day later. It was only after the Second Balkan War (which Bulgaria lost decisively) that city was officially in Greek hands. Even then the city didn’t change much, transport links with Greece were poor and establishing a new bureaucracy took time and the city was still primarily Jewish and Ottoman i.e. Muslim.

The fire of 1917 which destroyed 9500 buildings and left more than 70000 people homeless probably changed the face of the city more than any other event in its history. The Jewish community was the worst affected with most of its historic quarters destroyed. The essence of the Ottoman town was destroyed and when rebuilding began it was a new Greek town that emerged. (It is strange how fires made two of the great multi ethnic cities of the (ex) Ottoman Empire more mono cultural. The fire of Smyrna caused most of the Greeks and Armenians to flee the city and the recapture of the city by the Turks effectively ended the Greco – Turkish war. Interestingly Atatürks order on hearing of the fire was simply to “Let it crash, let it come down.”)

While the fire changed the physical infrastructure of Thessaloniki, the city would undergo a massive change in terms of its population make up as well. Following the Turkish War of Independence, the Treaty of Lausanne laid the conditions for the first mutually agreed population exchange of the 20th century. Greece had already been established as an Orthodox Christian country. Atatürk wanted to form the new Turkish republic on a secular but Muslim platform. A large number of Christians had already fled for Greece and getting the remaining Muslims to leave would free up much needed property to resettle them.

Similarly the Muslim immigrants were needed by Turkey to resettle the lands of Anatolia. And so some two million people were forced to leave their homes and set up new lives overnight in countries they had never known. Greece and Turkey had now been established on religious lines which only made matter more bizarre as the Christian immigrants to Greece spoke almost no Greek and the Muslim immigrants to Anatolia were fluent in Greek but knew almost no Turkish. Religion not language or even ethnicity became the distinguisher in this case.

The Jews were thus the only remnants of the old Salonica but that too was to change. The Germans invaded Greece in April 1941 and by the next month the country had been partitioned with Italy in charge of the southern half and Germany the northern. Soon enough Jews were asked to wear stars and identify their homes, the Jewish areas were ghettoed. Within five weeks of the German arrival deportations to Auschwitz started. Some 2800 left on the first train. By the end almost no Jews (save around fifteen) remained.

There are some remnants of the past still. The old hamams are still there in Salonica. Some of them about to tumble over any second. Having been ignored for decades, tourism (of which there isn’t much in Thessaloniki) has revived a little interest in them and there was some renovation work on while I was there. There aren’t any mosques any more (at least none of the old ones survive). The waterfront which is the hub of activity is lined with block shaped buildings; all built in the aftermath of the fire. In establishing its Greekness the city’s Ottoman past was swept away and ancient history embraced.

The area around the train station used to be the main prostitution hub of the city. It is still extremely seedy and I had a most unpleasant experience of being chased down a deserted path by a scary Greek man who kept asking me if I was from Bulgaria and wanted a good time for good money. It is the old city, the Anopoli, which still shows some signs of what the city must have been like. Old Turkish houses survive (including the one Atatürk was born in), the streets are narrow and winding and thinking back it could have just as easily been a district of Istanbul. And then of course there’s climbing the citadel which leaves you breathless, not only because the climb was so steep but because the entire Thermaic Gulf stretches out before you and the sight is incredibly beautiful.

But there is still a tinge of sadness that cities like Thessaloniki carry. It’s easy to miss it but it is there. So many untold stories, so many dilapidated buildings, a sadness that tells of the people who used to once inhabit this place and are now long gone.

(1) I finally got my disposable cameras developed and that brought about this post. Looking at the pictures and thinking of my stay in Thessaloniki I really wish I could go back to that part of the world again. And I wish I had more pictures. Sigh.

(2) Most of the material for the post comes from Mark Mazower’s brilliant, brilliant
Salonica: City of ghosts. Highly recommended. Read it long before I left and again when I got back. Other references – Bruce Clark’s excellent Twice a Stranger: How Mass Expulsion Forged Modern Greece and Turkey and Andrew Mango’s Atatürk.

(3) Istanbul, the great bastard city of the Ottoman Empire is fodder for many such stories too. Visiting the old Greek or Jewish districts there was quite an experience too and perhaps I should write about those next. I miss Istanbul :(

Friday, July 06, 2007

Black and White

Sorting through the pictures this morning I came to the conclusion that looking at Istanbul in black and white is useful sometime. Often there is such a riot of activity and colour that it becomes impossible to focus on individual parts of the picture. But in monochrome that is easier. And it often brings interesting aspects of the picture to the fore. People, their expressions, objects in the background. And sometimes you do get the sense of huzun that Pamuk talks about in his books. People, there in the midst of things, yet disconnected.
I uploaded all my black and white pictures from Istanbul here. The pictures are nicer when seen enlarged, I think. And I really need to use Flickr more.
Cursed is what I am. I am still jinxed in matters of photos it seems. Suffice to say I lost an entire folder of Istanbul pictures. Most of them weren't any good, but some were. And they were the pictures with me in them (only a handful, in the first place). Cursed, I tell you. Anyway I managed to recover a few of them (about 50%) from the USB using some software with an illegally downloaded crack (heh). Some relief.

The nicer pictures are safe and sound, thankfully.
Here, Istanbul in black and white.
TR - hope you like them.
Braving pigeons - Yeni Camii

Standing still - Mısır Carşısı

Streets below - Rustem Paşa Camii

Three musketeers - Istiklal Caddesi

Swimmers - Üsküdar

On board - Tophane

Old man and the sea - Ortaköy

Contemplative - Fatih Camii

Dervish - Galata Mevlevihanesi

Sunday, July 01, 2007

Yemek ve Içmek

I was talking to a couple of my friends today over lunch and coffee, telling them about Istanbul and just how lovely it is (yes, the trip is over unfortunately...I am still a bit dazed as a result of all the moving and unpacking so it hasn't quite sunk in yet I guess)......anyway, the food in Istanbul, I told them, is a good enough reason to visit the city.
Before I left, Elizabeth (thank you!) told me to eat everything and said she'd probably be hunkering in front of her computer with hunger envy once I was in Istanbul. Well, I haven't posted specifically on the food there, but I really ought to, so here goes.

Staple Turkish fare - Döner Kebaps. Cheap, yummy and available every hundred meters.

Balık. At the Eminönü docks there is a row of stalls that sells fish sandwiches. Simple stuff - freshly caught fish, grilled, sandwiched in bread with some salad leaves.
In Istanbul balık is sold everywhere - Istiklal, Kadiköy, Karaköy. And people fish everywhere too. The bridges on the Golden Horn, the shoreline along the Bosporus is always lined with people with their fishing rods, waiting patiently for a fish to catch.

Kokoreç. It's brilliant. (For some reasons the LP says it should be avoided at all costs. I think they are out of their minds.) I like the ones you get on the streets in Beyoğlu. There it's made on horizontal skewers around which the intestine is wrapped. When you want to eat, a sections of it is cut and chopped up along with tomatoes, chillies and spices.
Patlican. I don't think any country loves a vegetable more than the Turks love their eggplants. It's used in every possible dish. In the most innovative ways and is always, always just really yummy. There's even, most amusingly, a web portal called (the site has nothing to do with aubergines though). Which made me wonder whether the Indian equivalent would be Anyway, I have to confess that all my life I hated baingans. This probably has to do with the fact that the only eggplant dishes I ever got to eat were baingan bharta and baingan aloo. Not very appetising. So I was stunned by just how yummy the vegetable tastes in Turkish and Middle - Eastern cooking. By the way, I love hunkar beğendi. Yum.
Türk kahvesi. I love the taste of the coffee towards the near end of the cup. When you can taste the dregs and the liquid of the coffee.
How much çay did I drink in Istanbul? Loads and loads of it. Sade çay, not the elma (apple) flavoured one. Early in the morning, around noon, after lunch, in the evening - a couple of times, anytime I wanted to just sit down and rest. How much çay must be consumed in the country I wouldn't venture guess, except to say it would probably be some mind boggling number. They drink çay like water - only more probably.

Karpuzlar. I think it occupies pride of place among all the fruits sold in the summer months. Stalls selling fruits were all over and the watermelons always looked so mouth wateringly delicious; especially in the heat.

People always say Indian desserts are ridiculously sweet, but Turkish desserts are about a hundred times sweeter. I adore them though. The gazillion types of baklavas (my favourite is sütlü nuriye, but I like fıstıklı also), sütlaç and yummy dondurma. It's a minefield for someone with a sweet tooth like mine.

Other stuff that I need to mention - simits (which were eaten for breakfast everymorning), mısır (corn on the cob) and those amazingly delicious mussels stuffed with rice you get on the streets. Tamam. I need to stop now before I become a mass of drool just thinking about all that food.....sigh, Istanbul.