This is a transcription of Episode 41 — Turkey.
David: Hello, welcome to Strong Sense of Place. I’m David Humphreys.
Melissa: I’m Melissa Joulwan. In each episode, we explore one destination through the pages of five books we love.
David: We search for books that are readable, engaging, opinionated, and tell you about the best.
Melissa: Fiction and non, contemporary and classic. These books help us understand the world and our place in it.
David: We’re on a trip around the globe, one great read at a time. Thanks for joining us.
[cheerful theme music]
David: Welcome to Season Four Episode 40 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we are getting curious about Hawaii.
David: Welcome to Season four Episode 41 of Strong Sense of Place. Today we are getting curious about Turkey. [turkish music]
Melissa: Another really beautiful, fascinating place that I would love to visit.
David: Yeah, 100%.
Melissa: And haven’t gotten to yet. Even though I’m a lifelong fan of Turkish food and we eat a lot of Turkish food because we’re right next door to Germany. And Germany has a large population of Turkish residents and fantastic Turkish food.
David: Yeah. Also being on that dividing line between Europe and Asia, it seems really, I don’t know, sexy and fun.
David: Yeah, right. Whenever Turkey shows up in popular culture, it always feels like we’re on the way to adventure. Yes. So shall we get started on the way to adventure?
Melissa: Definitely. Let’s get oriented. Visualize your world map. Travel to where Europe and Asia meet. That is where we find Turkey.
[audio clip from movie: So you’re telling me Istanbul is both in Europe and Asia? How can that be?]
Melissa: It’s a peninsula that bridges two continents and it has beaches on amazing bodies of water. It’s got the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea. And then the Black Sea makes up most of its northern border. To the West are Bulgaria and Greece. There’s your Europe to the east. Georgia. Armenia. Azerbaijan. And Iran. And then south are Iraq and Syria. So I hear all of that and I think the words great food.
Melissa: Which we will definitely get to. But first, more context. Turkey is a little bit bigger than the state of Texas.
Melissa: The capital is Ankara. Not Istanbul, not Constantinople.
[song plays: Istanbul is Constantinople. Now it’s Istanbul, not Constantinople. Been a long time gone. Constantinople now Turkish Delight on a moonlit night.]
Melissa: I don’t know about you, but I have found myself singing that song by They Might Be Giants a lot while I was doing my research.
David: Yes. Just earlier this morning when I was setting up, it was going through my head. Did you know that it’s a cover.
Melissa: I didn’t know that.
David: It was originally recorded by The Four Lads.
Melissa: The Four Lads!
David: Canadian Group. And it was written to, they say, commemorate the 500th anniversary of the falling of Constantinople.
Melissa: Interesting inspiration for a song.
David: Seems like a really weird moment that you’d be sitting there and being like, Hmm, 500th anniversary of the fall of Constantinople. I will write a song. But maybe.
Melissa: I mean, it’s very catchy. We’re still singing it. Yeah. Which brings me to Istanbul is the city of many names.
Melissa: Its history, and the history of the whole country, are layered like a piece of baklava.
Melissa: What we call Turkey was first under Greek control, then became part of the Roman Empire. This is around 129 BCE.
David: A long time ago.
Melissa: Long, long ago. Later, when the Roman Empire split, this part of the world became known as Byzantium, which I love to say. Byzantium. Its capital was originally called New Rome, very creatively. And then to honor Emperor Constantine the Great, in 1204, it was renamed Constantinople.
David: But now it’s Istanbul.
Melissa: That joke’s never going to get old.
Melissa: In 1204, during the Fourth Crusade, the city was sacked. Yeah, this opened the door. Or I guess I should say medieval stone walls.
Melissa: To invading Ottoman forces led by Sultan Mehmed II.
David: Apparently that was quite a scene, that sacking of Constantinople. The walls were enormously thick. They brought in a ballista that could throw a rock the size of a Volkswagen. Eventually, they pounded on it long enough. The very last guy who could be considered a Roman emperor saw that his city was falling and left the gates to go out and meet his death.
David: With his men.
Melissa: So dramatic.
David: We don’t know where the last emperor of Rome was buried because he died on the field outside of what was Constantinople.
Melissa: And so Constantinople fell.
David: Yeah. And the very, very last vestiges of the Roman Empire.
Melissa: And the rise of the Ottoman Empire. Christianity was out. Islam was in.
Melissa: The Ottomans held onto power until the 20th century. Good job. But during World War One, they sided with Germany. Bad choice.
David: Yeah. I mean, things hadn’t been going well for the Ottoman Empire.
Melissa: It was on a little bit of a decline. It’s true.
Melissa: After the war, the empire was broken up and its last Sultan Mehmed VI was deposed. He left the capital city on a British warship.
David: Whoa.That must have felt bad.
Melissa: The Republic of Turkey was founded in 1923 and Constantinople was renamed.
David: Now it’s Istanbul.
Melissa: Not Constantinople.
Melissa: Kemal Ataturk was the first president of the New Republic. He did a lot to modernize Turkey and to align more with the West.
Melissa: Which made him very revered in some circles, but reviled in others. For instance, he separated the state and religion. He abolished polygamy and the veil, which was really controversial for some people. Sure, he adopted the Western calendar and Roman alphabet instead of Arabic script, and he emancipated women, at least on paper.
David: Yeah. And you hear all that stuff from a Western perspective and you’re like, Yay, go Ataturk. And then you find out about the other stuff he did, which we’ll talk about a little bit later. And it was a it was a mixed bag.
Melissa: I mean, it always is.
Melissa: Today, 99.8% of Turks identify as Muslim. And no surprise, the official language of Turkey is Turkish. But I learned something really fun about the Turkish language, and I’m super jealous.
Melissa: Turkish has a verb tense that’s used to describe things that happened but were not directly seen by the person speaking. It’s called the indefinite past tense, but it’s often referred to as the gossip tense.
David: That’s good.
Melissa: So it’s used in a situation like this: Something happened. I didn’t see it. I wasn’t there. I heard it from someone else, and now I’m telling you.
David: Yeah, but that’s inherent in the tense itself, in the way you’re saying the sentence.
Melissa: Yes, it’s baked in. As you probably expect, it’s often used to tell stories and jokes and to gossip.
Melissa: One of the essays I read said, ‘Turkey is a nation of small tables and infinite cups of coffee, tea, and other people’s business’ — which seems like a good segue into Turkish food and drink. Turkish cuisine combines some of my favorite things.
Melissa: It takes the sunnier stuff from the Mediterranean and the Balkans and mushes it together with the earthier stuff from the Middle East. So many good things. Let me just lay a list of common ingredients on you.
Melissa: Figs, apricots. Lamb, rice, pistachios. Sesame. Olives, lemon.
David: Yeah, they’re fantastic ingredients, and they’re really good together.
Melissa: Now, I thought we would just do a quick run through of the greatest hits of Turkish cuisine.
Melissa: You’ve got all manner of kebabs. I think people are familiar with shish kebabs, chunks of meat on a skewer. But then there’s also doner kebabs.
David: Yeah. So until we started spending a lot of time in Europe, my vision of kebab was always shish kebab, but kebab just means meat that’s been grilled on an open fire. So one variation on that is doner kebab, which is grilled meat on a flatbread, typically with some kind of delicious sauce.
Melissa: Kind of a yogurty, spicy, garlicky deliciousness. It’s not Greek tzatziki. It’s something different. It’s Turkish.
David: The doner kabob kind of goes in the direction of a gyro, but it’s a cousin. Yeah, but they’re delicious and they’re great bar food.
Melissa: Post bar food.
Melissa: There are tiny Turkish ravioli. Those are stuffed with lamb and topped with a yogurt sauce and herbs. There’s also Turkish flatbread pizza, which I know you’ve had when we were in Vienna.
Melissa: There’s also a real affinity for stuffing things with rice and meat and herbs. So stuffed grape leaves, I think a lot of people are familiar with, but also eggplants or peppers. In one of the books I read, They stuffed mussels with rice and herbs.
Melissa: Very big on putting things inside things and roasting them. And then there’s borek.
Melissa: Oh, Borek. It’s kind of found all over Eastern Europe in different variations.
David: They make work by taking a minced meat, I think a spiced minced meat and then wrapping that with, like, a phyllo dough. And then the ones that I’ve seen, they prepare it in a spiral. So it’s a big spiral of meat and dough and sort of a crispy dough.
Melissa: It’s buttery, flaky. Sometimes it’s stuffed with cheese.
Melissa: Or spinach and cheese. It’s really good portable food. If you ever get the opportunity to take a borek on a train ride, I say do it.
Melissa: On the street in Turkey you will definitely see simit. This is a circle of dough encrusted in sesame seeds. It’s kind of like a Turkish soft pretzel, and they’re all over the place. I’m also particularly taken with Turkish breakfast.
David: What’s special about a Turkish breakfast?
Melissa: It’s like the buffet of my dreams. They cover the table with little dishes of nibbles. So you have fresh bread and jam and honey. And then on the savory side, cheeses and Turkish sausage and eggs and fruit and olives. And maybe this dip called muhamarrah, which is sort of like hummus, but it’s made from walnuts and roasted red peppers and pomegranate molasses.
David: That sounds good.
Melissa: And tea, lots and lots and lots of tea.
David: The Turkish people seem very attracted to their caffeine.
Melissa: Yeah. And tea in the morning, Turkish coffee in the afternoon. And sometimes the evening. I read that Turkish coffee is sometimes drunk after dinner to keep the conversation going. Yeah, keep the conversation going until 6:00 in the morning.
David: Yeah, I would, I would see dawn if I had a cup of Turkish coffee at eight or 10:00 at night.
Melissa: Yeah. So let’s talk about Turkish coffee a little bit. It’s kind of like cowboy coffee, if you need a frame of reference. It’s cooked on the stovetop in a little pot with a long handle. It’s poured into the cup unfiltered, so the grounds settle to the bottom. The coffee itself is very rich and kind of creamy, and you drink that off the top and then leave the sludgy coffee grounds in the bottom.
David: Yeah. They insist that the sludgy coffee grounds improves the drinking experience somehow. Can’t quite get there.
Melissa: But it is delicious.
Melissa: While you’re sipping your coffee, you should definitely listen to traditional Turkish music. [turkish music] It uses scales and rhythms that sound both kind of slinky and a little bit medieval to our Western ears. Let’s talk about places to visit in Turkey. You’re probably familiar with the landmarks of Istanbul. There’s the Hagia Sophia mosque, the Blue Mosque, the Grand Bazaar, where you can buy carpets and spices and pistachios. The Topkapi Palace, that’s where the Ottoman sultans ruled their empire and kept their harems. You can also take a cruise on the Bosphorus Strait. It’s a very narrow, romantic waterway that divides Istanbul into its European and Asian halves.
David: One of the books that I read insisted that the best way to approach Istanbul is from the water, which I thought was a lovely idea.
Melissa: I 100% commit that when we go to Istanbul we will approach from the water, preferably at sunset.
Melissa: The other thing you need to do if you’re in Istanbul is go to the Turkish bath called a hammam. That’s where you can get steamed, soaked, massaged, and completely rejuvenated. They kind of beat you up a little bit in the process, but apparently at the end you feel like a new person.
Melissa: OK. You’ve probably seen pictures of Cappadocia online on Instagram.
David: Mostly because it’s the place where the giant balloons take off in Turkey.
Melissa: Exactly. It’s this region in Turkey that looks very otherworldly. There are these stone formations coming up out of the ground. They’re called fairy chimneys.
David: Mm hmm. Naturally forming giant pillars of rock, some of which have been hollowed out for homes and businesses.
Melissa: It looks very magical.
David: It looks very magical.
Melissa: But it’s real. I’m pretty interested in the city of Gaziantep. It was originally called Antep, back in ancient times. Today, it’s famous for being home to the best pistachios in the world and more than 500 baklava bakeries.
David: Oh, my goodness.
Melissa: The town must smell so good.
David: That is a lot of baklava.
Melissa: Or is it the perfect amount of baklava?
David: I guess it’s the perfect amount if they’re managing to keep 500 bakeries open.
Melissa: I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the Library of Pergamum. Founded during the third century BCE — so during the Hellenic Age — it was one of the most important libraries in the ancient world, second only to the Great Library at Alexandria, which we talked about in our Egypt episode. Apparently those two libraries had a passionate rivalry. They competed with each other for parchment, books, and scholars. Because if you could land a scholar, you were the Center for Smart Thinking, and then more people would come to your library.
David: Team Alexandria. Hashtag.
Melissa: Hashtag Team Pergamum. According to lore, when the area around the Pergamon library fell to the Romans, Mark Antony seized its collection of 200,000 scrolls and gave them to his new wife, Cleopatra, presumably to restock the library at Alexandria, which he had messed up.
David: Huh. You think it was some kind of lovers’ spat where they destroyed one library and then another?
Melissa: Just stole another one? Today, you can visit the ruins and take photos of the adorable stray cats that rule there now. I will definitely put photos of that in show notes.
David: There’s something perfect about a bunch of cats holding up in an ancient abandoned library ruin.
Melissa: They definitely look like they’re living their best lives. They look a little smug in the photos.
David: I see how they would be. Are you ready for Two Truths and a Lie?
Melissa: I will do my best.
David: I’m about to say three statements. Two of them are true. Mel doesn’t know which one is the lie. Here we go. First statement: There is a language in Turkey that is whistled. It’s just whistling. It’s called the bird language. [laughter] Two: A man once found an entrance to a forgotten underground city inside a wall in his home.
Melissa: Oh, cool.
David: And three, the world’s oldest complete melody was found in a minaret in Istanbul.
Melissa: I like all of those. They’re all true. The end.
David: So in order. There is a language in Turkey that is whistled.
David: Yeah, that’s true.
Melissa: Oh, that’s amazing.
David: Yeah, there’s a whistled language. There are no words. It sounds like very excited birds talking to each other.
Melissa: That’s so cool.
David: I’ll play you a little bit. [sound of whistle language]
David: That language is 400 years old. Nobody knows how it developed. Smart money is that some ancient druid learned it from the birds and then taught it to other people. That’s not true. I just made that up. It’s called Kuş dili, which translates to bird language and there’s said to be about 10,000 speakers. Most of those people live in the mountainous regions in the north of Turkey where you can whistle loudly and someone on the other side of the valley will hear you. The language is surprisingly complex. You can say things like, My sister, what have you cooked today?
David: Yeah. And, There’s a wolf across the hill, that kind of thing.
Melissa: What if you’re not a good whistler? Asking for a friend?
David: Maybe they teach you.
Melissa: Because I am pretty excited about the idea of learning a secret language. That’s whistles.
Melissa: We could talk about our downstairs neighbors any time we want.
David: Cell phones have not been kind to this language. Why would you need a whistle across the valley when you can just call somebody?
Melissa: Because it’s frickin cool.
David: Yeah, but there are movements to keep the language alive. For example, there’s an annual bird language, culture, and art festival in a town in Turkey. The name of the town that the festival is in translates to Bird Village. [laughter] And if you’re in primary school in that area, you can pick up bird language as an elective.
Melissa: Oh, that’s so awesome.
David: Yeah. There are other countries that have their own whistling languages.
Melissa: Who knew?
David: He’s not alone. For example, parts of Greece, Mexico, the Canary Islands and Mozambique all speak their bird languages.
Melissa: Interesting. I mean, Greece makes sense because it’s right next door, but the other ones are not close. That’s really awesome.
David: Yeah. Second statement. A man once found an entrance to a forgotten underground city inside a wall in his home.
David: That is also true.
David: In 1963, a man knocked down the wall of his home. He discovered a mysterious room under his house, which I think would alone be a bit of a shock if you were like, Whoa.
Melissa: I mean, I’m sitting here going, Oh, that’s so awesome. I would love that. And in reality, I would be like, Well, it’s been nice living here. I need to go now.
David: Now that he’s discovered he has a basement he didn’t know about, he goes down there and he starts digging.
Melissa: I hope he took a really big light.
David: And that leads to tunnels and then tunnels and more and more rooms. I’d like to tell you how many rooms he found, but I can’t because they haven’t all been explored yet.
Melissa: Oh, my goodness.
David: There are hundreds of rooms spread across maybe 20 levels.
Melissa: 20 levels below the ground.
Melissa: There are rooms for food and kitchens and livestock stalls. There’s a church, there are wine presses, there are bunch of wells. And what was believed to be a religious school are all underground and it’s all supported by thousands of ventilation shafts and an underground river. There used to be a three-mile tunnel that led to the next village over, but that collapsed. You could at one point run a 5k underground. The man found an ancient fortress in his wall. It’s named after the village he lives in, Derinkuyu. Some sources on the internet claim that there are as many as 20 levels to the underground city. Tourists can see the first eight levels. It’s estimated that the system was built to accommodate up to 20,000 people for extended periods.
Melissa: When does it date from?
David: People estimate that the complex started being built at least a thousand years ago? They were built mostly to protect the locals from invaders.
Melissa: I was going to say, why were they hiding underground?
David: Yeah. Most recently, the Ottomans. The underground city was lost because initially, like you mentioned, the area was inhabited by Greeks. As you might recall from our episode on Greece, there was a time when Greeks in Turkey were forced to return to Greece. When those guys left, they didn’t tell anybody about the massive underground city. And then 40 years later, a Turk happened upon it. People have since discovered 600 more entrances to the underground city.
Melissa: This is amazing.
David: They’re all hidden, and we’ll put links in the show notes if you want to take a look.
Melissa: That means the last one is the lie.
David: Yes, the last one is a lie. But only kind of. The oldest surviving complete musical composition was found engraved on a tombstone. It’s from an ancient town that’s now part of a city called Aydin. It’s close to the Aegean. It’s from either the first or second century of the common era. So 2000 years ago, someone went to the trouble of writing out the notation and lyrics of a song on someone’s final resting place in marble. The epitaph was discovered in 1883. It was then lost and rediscovered. An engineering team was building a rail line close to Aden. The director of that group like the Stone so much that he took it home and he used it as a pedestal for a flowerpot.
Melissa: What? Inappropriate.
David: I suspect he didn’t recognize what he had. So here’s the tune. I’m very tempted to. Rick Roll everyone right now. But I won’t. Here’s the tune.
[music plays with Turkish lyrics]
David: The lyrics mean: While you live, shine, have no grief at all, life exists only for a short while, and time demands his due.’
Melissa: I love that.
David: Yeah. Yeah. Same. There are two other surviving words on the tombstone itself, besides the lyrics. We are missing the last couple of letters on the second word. So the remaining words might mean Seikilos of Euterpes. Seikilos is a man’s name. Presumably buried where the stone was. Might have been the son of Euterpes, a woman’s name. Or the words could mean Seikilos to Euterpes. Maybe a man dedicated the song to his wife. And she was buried there. I like that second interpretation because I’m an old softy. I believe this is all well-established, and I like to think about a man dedicating a song to his wife. Maybe he wrote it for her. Maybe they danced to it at their wedding. Maybe she loved it all of her life. And now that song rings down the ears to all of us.
Melissa: That was a really good lie.
David: That’s Two Truths and a Lie. You’re ready to talk about books?
Melissa: I am. My first recommendation is a novel by the Turkish-British author Elif Shafak. Before I get into the book, I need to tell you about her because I have a major readerly crush on her.
David: Oh, okay.
Melissa: She’s the number-one best-selling author in Turkey. She’s written 12 novels that have been translated into 55 languages. Her latest is 10 minutes, 38 Seconds in This Strange World. And it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. Another one of her books, The Forty Rules of Love, was chosen by the BBC for a list of 100 Novels That Shaped our world. All of her works have a very strong sense of Istanbul, and weave powerful themes into the stories. So things like Eastern versus Western culture, the role of women in society, human rights issues, light stuff like that.
Melissa: She’s actually been investigated and prosecuted by the Turkish government for her writing. So she now lives in London, but she says that she carries Istanbul in her soul. She’s a fellow and vice president of the Royal Society of Literature, which sounded like a secret society that I was very excited about. But even better than that, it’s a charity that honors writers in the UK.
David: Oh, nice.
Melissa: She’s an advocate for women’s rights and LGBTQ+ rights, and she’s been a TED Global Speaker twice. In 2017, Politico chose her as one of the 12 people who, quote, ‘will give you a much needed lift of the heart.’
David: That’s a good list to be on.
Melissa: So all of that is evident in this book that I read. It’s called The Three Daughters of Eve. This is a mash up of domestic noir and coming-of-age story.
Melissa: It’s set in Istanbul in the 1980s and 2016 and also at Oxford University in the early aughts. The story opens in Istanbul, 2016. The main character is Peri. She’s a 35-year-old upper-middle-class woman, and she and her 12-year-old daughter are stuck in just nightmarish traffic on their way to a fancy dinner party.
David: All right.
Melissa: She’s not very excited about going to this event and the traffic is not making her mood any better.
David: Yeah, I can relate.
Melissa: This is the first paragraph. I dare you to not be drawn in by this paragraph.
It was an ordinary spring day in Istanbul, a long and leaden afternoon, like so many others, when she discovered with a hollowness in her stomach, that she was capable of killing someone. She’d always suspected that even the calmest and sweetest women under stress were prone to outbursts of violence. Since she thought of herself as neither calm nor sweet, she had reckoned that her potential to lose control was considerably greater than theirs.
David: Yeah, sure.
David: What happens now?
Melissa: The first chapter is shocking and thrilling, so I don’t want to give too much away because it was like a really whiz-bang experience to read. If you’re interested in this book, don’t read any of the reviews because they all give away what happens in the first chapter. But I can tell you this: There’s a chase scene and a physical struggle, and during the altercation, a Polaroid photo falls out of Peri’s purse. It’s from her student days at Oxford. It captures a moment with her two best friends and their very charismatic professor. That photo unleashes a flood of memories and emotions in her. And then the rest of the story alternates between this truly terrible dinner party and flashbacks through Peri’s life. So we learn about the events that led to that photo and to this evening.
Melissa: We see her childhood in 1980s Istanbul, and her relationship with her family, which is very challenging. We travel with her to Oxford University and we meet the found family that she creates there. The scenes in Oxford were really great because they capture that awkwardness of being in a new place and meeting people unlike anyone you’ve known before and how exciting it is, but also how overwhelming and how you feel like you don’t fit very well.
Melissa: But Peri also didn’t feel like she fit that well at home either.
Melissa: When we jump back to the dinner party scenes, those are very snappy and fraught with tension. It’s like this voyeuristic peek inside the life of upwardly mobile and wealthy people in modern Istanbul. Based on this novel, they’re terrible and you wouldn’t want to know them.
Melissa: They’re very self-absorbed and hypocritical — judgmental of their fellow Turks. I should mention that even though Peri can be really prickly — she does a few unfathomable things where you’re just like, Peri, what are you doing? So even though that’s all happening.
Melissa: I was firmly on her side, and at one point in the dinner party, this really stole my heart. At one point in the dinner party, there’s this: Peri disliked these dinner parties which went on late into the night and often left her with her migraine the next day. She would rather stay home and in the witching hours be immersed in a novel, reading being her way to connect with the universe.
Melissa: This book reminded me of My Sister, The Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite. I talked about that book in our Nigeria episode.
Melissa: Both of them use the tricks of a thriller to draw you into a story that explores larger themes about society and family trauma. So that would be a good pair read. This one tackles massive issues like sexual harassment, extremism, the tension between the devout and the secular. And at the same time, it’s exploring more intimate things like identity and forgiveness and loyalty. And all of that is woven into a really readable story about Peri, who’s flawed and intelligent and sometimes snarky, but ultimately just trying to find her way in a really complicated world.
Melissa: That’s Three Daughters of Eve by Elif Shafak.
David: My first book is Dare to Disappoint: Growing Up in Turkey by Özge Samancı. This is a graphic novel. It’s an autobiography about the author coming of age in Istanbul in the eighties and nineties. It starts when Özge is six. She and her family live in an apartment block that overlooks the school that her sister goes to. Her sister is about two years older and one day, having gotten tired of watching her sister through binoculars Özge, sneaks out of the house and into that school, she takes a seat next to her sister. The teacher recognizes that he has a visitor and instead of teaching math, decides to tell the class a story and he draws a mermaid to illustrate his story. And everyone is delighted — except Mom. Mom doesn’t know where Özge is, but Mom turns out to be patient and loving and supportive of a girl who wants to learn. So the whole story is about seven pages, what I just told you, it does a great job of setting up the rest of the book. Samancı introduces her family, but she also sets up the primary conflict of this little girl versus the expectations put on her by her family and the institutions of Turkey. It does not always end with a delightful story about mermaids or walking home holding mom’s hand.
David: The author grew up a cute little girl in a politically polarized, militaristic, conservative, emotionally unstable country. All of that sounds pretty dark. And you definitely get the thrust of all of that. But it doesn’t feel dark. A couple of pages later, Samancı is in school, she’s being taught about Ataturk, the Turkish leader who revolutionized the country in the twenties. We talked about him. She and the rest of the class recite an oath every day that praises Ataturk and makes a vow to, quote, love my country more than I love myself. There’s marching in gym class. There’s standing at attention when a teacher enters the room. The book does a really good job of managing the tone. There’s ongoing tension, but there’s also hope. And she grows up and she faces pressure to get into a good high school and then a good college. At 14, she goes to boarding school. There she meets people like Mr. Chetin, the literature teacher. He’s a rich businessman, but he takes a job as a teacher so he can organize religious students. He says things like, The head of the family union is a man. Women follows him. If she doesn’t, she ought to be taught to obey.
Melissa: Oh, no.
David: This is the nineties.
Melissa: Yeah. We don’t care for that.
David: She also has more enlightened teachers like Ms. Kanmaz, the biology teacher who says, There is bullshit in your biology books: creation theory. [laughter] And while she’s growing up, we’re learning about her culture at almost the same pace that she does. She tells us stories about what it’s like to live under an oppressive regime, but also tells us about taking mandolin lessons and her idol, Jacques Cousteau, that kind of thing.
Melissa: That’s really sweet.
David: Yeah. She struggles with who she wants to be and who everyone around her wants her to be like I think a lot of us did. But the story is told in a distinctly Turkish frame. I was reading this and I realized two things. First, I wish every culture had a funny, touching, coming-of-age autobiographical comic. This book reminded me of The Wall by Peter Sís, who describes growing up in the Czech Republic during the Soviet occupation. We talked about that on our first episode, or Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi about growing up in Tehran. We talked about that for our Iran episode. Autobio comics are just such an easy way to see the world through somebody else’s eyes, almost literally. Right? Second, one of the reasons I like this is because it’s a bit of a trick. It looks like I’m reading an autobio comic about a kid growing up, but I’m what I’m really doing is having a conversation with another adult, comparing how we were raised. She says, We had a political pledge, and I’m like, Oh, we had a political pledge, too. And then she says, Ours says may our existence be a gift to the Turkish experience. I’m like, okay. And then she says, At night we watch Dallas. And I said, So in a way. And it goes like that.
David: This is a funny, touching, insightful, charming book about Turkey that you can read in about an hour. Not to spoil the ending, but as Özge Samancı is currently a professor at Northwestern University. She is a media scholar and an artist. She makes art installations and graphic novels. If you want to learn more, she has a really nice website, and we’ll point to it on our show notes. This was her book Dare to Disappoint: Growing up in Turkey. I should also mention, if you’re looking for a more fantastical graphic novel, I want to point to Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant by Tony Cliff. That’s a swashbuckling tale with a female hero set in the 19th century. It is very fun.
Melissa: My second recommendation is The Janissary Tree by Jason Goodwin. It’s the first book in a series about Yashim, a detective in 19th century Istanbul. Before I get into it, I want to thank our listener, Sally Jane Smith, who suggested these books. Cheers, Sally. Thank you very much.
Melissa: This is historical crime fiction and a completely immersed me in 1836 Istanbul. It has everything. It has Janissaries, Russian soldiers, sessions at the hammam. There’s a transsexual dancer and intrigue in the harem and a handful of very creative murders. If you’re sensitive to murdery things, don’t worry. All of the violence happens off the page and then Yashim discovers the aftermath. I don’t want to give anything away, but these murders are delightful. In a murderous way.
Melissa: I want to tell you about Yashim, the character before we get into the plot, because he is the star of five crime novels.
David: Oh, okay.
Melissa: First, he’s a eunuch. That means he’s castrated.
Melissa: During the Ottoman Empire, eunuchs were usually slaves. And at the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, the sultan’s harem of women was overseen by eunuchs.
David: For reasons.
Melissa: For reasons. The Black eunuchs were African slaves, and they were servants to the concubines. The White eunuchs were slaves from the Balkans or the Caucasus, and they were prohibited from entering the harem.
Melissa: Our Yashim. He’s special. He is trusted by the Sultan. And he can go anywhere he pleases. He has full access. He also has a gift for blending into the crowd when he wants to. And both of those things serve him very well as he’s trying to solve crimes. Another important thing to know about him is that he’s very charming. He thinks quickly on his feet and he has a gift for languages. The book says, ‘Both men and women had found themselves strangely hypnotized by his voice.’ Sadly, he’s also sometimes plagued by melancholy and deep feelings of sorrow about his missing, you know.
Melissa: Part. Yeah.
David: His manhood?
Melissa: Not his manhood. He’s a strong man, but he’s missing the equipment. Related. He said about not having a family. So he’s very charming, bubbly character most of the time. But there’s this kind of underlying depth as there would be. Yeah, but that doesn’t stop him from outrageously flirting with men and women, or from having a fling with a very beautiful woman married to an incredibly dangerous man.
Melissa: Yes. I learned many things reading this book.
David: Broadening, yeah.
Melissa: Finally, last important thing to know about him. He loves to cook and loves to eat, especially with his good friend Palewski, who is the Polish ambassador. So at various times in the book, they meet up and they get a little drunk and then they commiserate over food. And food is a major character in the story. Yashim cooks these little cigar shaped pastries filled with feta. He makes rice pilaf and lots of other wonderful things, including a recipe called ladies thighs.
Melissa: Yeah, those are kofta. They’re sort of like meatballs, but they’re oblong shaped.
David: What makes them lady’s thighs?
Melissa: They’re juicy and delicious?
Melissa: So now you know Yahism. Let me tell you about this book.
David: All right.
Melissa: First, a tiny history lesson. The Janissaries were an elite group within the Ottoman Army. Their job was to protect the Sultan. They were like Secret Service, sort of. And they were bonded together by a single minded purpose to kill anyone who threatened the power of the Sultan. But eventually they became corrupt and really dangerous because they were now this rogue group within the army.
Melissa: So on June 15th, 1826, the Janissaries were forcibly disbanded by Sultan Mahmud II. There were 135,000 of them.
Melissa: Yes. And most of them revolted. But they were eventually executed, exiled, or imprisoned. And do you know what that event was called? The Auspicious Incident.
David: That’s a good title. Yeah.
Melissa: So this book takes place ten years after that. The Sultan has a new, modernized military that he is very excited about, and he’s planned a big military exercise to showcase them now that the Janissaries are gone. But then four of his officers disappear and one is found dead. And it seems to have ties back to the Janissaries. So Yashim is investigating that whole mess. And then the Sultan’s new concubine is murdered and his mother’s jewels are stolen.
Melissa: So Yashim has to sort all of that out. During his investigation we go all over Istanbul with him and we get to talk to all kinds of interesting people. The author, Jason Goodwin, is a historian. He studied Byzantine history at Cambridge University. And in the early 1990s, he walked from Poland to Istanbul.
Melissa: He wrote a book about that experience. It’s called On Foot to the Golden Horn: A Walk to Istanbul. He also wrote a history of the Ottoman Empire called Lords of the Horizons. So I guess what I’m trying to say is he knows what he’s talking about. Yeah.
David: He’s qualified. Yeah. Yeah.
Melissa: He weaves tons of history into this book, but all of it enhances the story. He’s not just throwing it onto the page to show you what he knows. It’s filling in things about Yashim’s character or driving the plot forward. Everything he tells you has a reason for being in there. It’s really well done.
Melissa: I also need to mention that he wrote a cookbook. In 2016, he published Yoshim Cooks Istanbul. It’s a compilation of all of the dishes that Yashim cooks in the five crime novels and is super fun and really well done. It starts out with some context setting history about the Sultan’s kitchen and street food in Istanbul, and there are excerpts from the novels. And then each section of the book corresponds to one of the crime novels and includes all the recipes that Yashim cooks.
Melissa: These are exactly the kinds of books I always hope to find for Strong Sense of Place. And I’m really looking forward to reading the rest of Yashim’s adventures because he’s just a delightful character. That is The Janissary Tree and Yashim Cooks Istanbul by Jason Goodwin.
David: My next book is My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk. Orhan Pamuk used to be Turkey’s best-selling author until your author took over.
Melissa: Elif Shafak.
David: Yeah, he has sold over 13 million books in 63 languages. He’s also the winner of the 2006 Nobel Prize for Literature.
Melissa: Pretty good.
David: Yeah. It is a remarkable combination. That would be like if Stephen King were also William Faulkner. And I think it says a lot about the culture that both of our authors are both very popular and very literary.
David: Pamuk was born and raised in Istanbul, but he’s currently a Columbia University professor. I think he followed a similar arc to Shafak, where they were both writing about the government. Things got hot. They left the country. He has been universally lauded for his work. Much of it is about how the East and West meet and have a go at each other and blend in his hometown. When the Nobel committee gave him the award, they wrote, ‘In the quest for the melancholic soul of his native city, he has discovered new symbols for the clash and interlacing of cultures.’
Melissa: That is a beautiful sentence.
David: Isn’t it?
Melissa: Melancholic soul.
David: Yeah. Somebody worked on that. Some of his other books include Snow and The Museum of Innocence. But let’s talk about My Name is Red.
Melissa: I just want to interject here and say that I had all of those books on my TBR for decades. And then when it came time to draw straws for this show, you won Orhan Pamuk.
David: Yeah, but you got the eunuch.
Melissa: So I did.
David: It is only kind of true to say that _My Name is Red is a murder mystery set in Istanbul in the 1590s. But that is also the easiest way to get into this. It is a murder mystery, but only kind of. There’s a dead man. He’s been murdered. He introduces himself in a spectacular piece of writing in the first chapter of this book. The first chapter of this book is amazing and probably propelled me through the first half of it. There’s a hero. His name is Black. He’s returned to Istanbul from travels abroad just in time to figure out who killed one of his mentors. There are complications and rich relationships and clues and many motives. The mystery is a bit noirish. Black might be the last good man in a bad town. But like a lot of other rich literature, the murder mystery is there mainly to talk about other things. And the book has a lot of things to talk about.
David: So let me introduce another element of the book, which is every chapter is narrated by a separate, I want to say, character, but some of the chapters are related by, say, the illustration of a dog.
David: Death takes a chapter.
David: And like the title says, the color red tells you its story, which makes that sound a little more experimental than it is. The book has a very sound narrative structure. There’s an arc, and for the most part, you’re following a set cast of characters. All of those characters get their own chapter to speak. Most of those characters get a few. The corpse has two.
Melissa: Love that.
David: Our hero Black has a dozen. There are 60 chapters in the book and 12 different viewpoints. Some of the characters seem to be aware of the reader.
Melissa: That’s one of my favorite things.
David: Yeah, they will occasionally kind of turn to the camera and talk about how we might perceive them doing the thing that they’re doing. And then they worry about that. Or they might say something like, Let me tell you a secret. [laughter] There’s a chapter where we’re following the murderer, and he challenges the reader to figure out who he is.
Melissa: That’s fantastic.
David: There are also chapters for each of the suspects. So he speaks to you again. Not as the murderer, not in the frame of the murderer, but as the frame of the suspect. It starts as a sort of almost a novelty, this little switching narrator’s bit, but then it leads into some really fantastic places. There’s a chapter where the murderer is about to kill someone, and then the chapter switches to the narration of the victim. And Pamuk isn’t doing that for the drama, right? He really wants to explore what it’s like to be murdered, what it’s like to kill somebody. When those people are making that decision, when that guy is aware. Throughout the book, there’s a romance between two characters, Black and Shekure. You read about how that relationship develops from both perspectives. So what they’re attracted to, what they hope to get out of it, why they advance the relationship.
David: Now we’re a couple of minutes into me talking about this book, and I haven’t even mentioned the art. This book revolves around art. It is the 1590s. In the 1590s, there was a revolution in the art world in Istanbul. The artists had previously drawn everything in a style that looks very flat to us now. It is beautiful and really lovingly rendered, and the colors are vivid. They believe they’re drawing things as God saw them. But it’s flat and it’s largely emotionless. The characters are looking at each other and sort of neutrally in all of these paintings.
David: And then here comes what they call the Frankish style, which many of us would call realistic painting. Shadows appear. Depth comes in. There’s perspective and there’s emotion. People have individual expressions. The two styles have that inherent conflict: the weight of God versus the value of an individual. I read this book with a few examples of art clipped into my journal, and it helped me understand what they were talking about. If you’re going to read this, I recommend doing the same. The victim of the murder mystery is a Turkish miniaturist; he’s a painter. He has been working on illustrating a book. So maybe there’s a motive there. Black is a producer of books and he has a background in that world. We spend a lot of time talking to other miniaturists. A lot of this book is about. The meaning of art and artists is being able to draw a divine gift? Why would you waste that kind of thing on a drawing of a dog? What’s the value of an individual style? Is it prideful for an artist to interpret the world of God? What does it mean to be a good artist? And what’s the value of an image, particularly in a world that has so few?
David: There’s a bit in the book about one of the characters walking around with with an image of a person he wanted to remember. And I was struck with how that would be the only way to do that.
David: I found the book a little exhausting. Between the character-jumping and the significant conversations and the parables. There are so many parables in this book. One character will say, Hey, how are you doing today? And the another one will answer, Well, my son, three goats descended from a hill and one of them was wearing a silver bell. But it’s also a really great read. It reminded me a little bit of Moby Dick in that way, which I also enjoyed. I finished this book feeling like I had spent the last week in Istanbul in the 1500s. And the questions it raises like, you know, what is it like to be murdered? What is the value of an image? And what does the story tell us about the differences between East and West now? What are the things that happened in the 1500s that are still going on? Overall, I am not the first person to say this is a great book. If you’re willing to take on a dense classic that’ll take you back to Istanbul on the 1500s to get a good look at the people who live there and the world they faced, this is a great read. It’s My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk.
Melissa: My final recommendation is Black Amber by Phyllis, a Whitney. And again, I need to talk about the author before I get into the book. Until I found this book, I had not heard of Phyllis Whitney, which is a giant hole in my reading education. She wrote 39 romantic suspense novels and a boatload of Y.A. novels and children’s mysteries, and her bio is a ride. There’s too much fun detail to include here, so I’ll put a link to it in show notes, but I urge you to read the whole thing. In a nutshell, she was born in 1903 in Japan to American parents. Her father died when she was 15, so she and her mother took an ocean liner across the Pacific from Japan to San Francisco. So that was like 1918. And she was making the crossing.
David: To a land that she was from but had never known when she was 15.
Melissa: Yeah, the whole thing is just so adventurous and romantic.
David: I mean, it’s a fairy tale setup.
Melissa: Yeah. As you might expect, this early travel experience made a lasting impact on her. She said that when she went on vacation, they were really book hunting expeditions because she set her books all over the United States and in far-flung places like Istanbul, the Greek island of Rhodes, Kyoto, Japan, Cape Town. She was a firecracker in interviews in 1975, 1975, she told Parade magazine, ‘The girls in my books are out solving their own problems. They’ve always been women’s libbers because I’ve always done what I wanted to do.’
Melissa: Let me note that at the time she said that she was 72. And then when she was 79, she told the Times, ‘I always told myself that when I get old, I’ll reread all my books, but I never seem to get old.’ [laughter] She said that writing kept her young. She died in 2008. She was 104 years old.
David: Wow. Yeah, that’s a long ride.
Melissa: I would love to invite her over for tea. I think she would just be a hoot.
Melissa: So here’s the setup of the book and reminder, she writes romantic suspense novels so similar to Mary Stuart, whose book, This Rough Magic I talked about in our Greece episode. In this book, our heroine, Tracy Hubbard, works at a prestigious publisher in New York City. She’s sent to a villa on the Bosphorus to assist a famous artist. His name is Miles. She’s there to help Miles finish his book about Turkish tiles and mosaics. And from the outside and to everyone else in the villa, she just looks like a young girl with moxie who’s eager to make her name for herself in publishing.
Melissa: And she is. But she also has a secret agenda. Six months ago, her sister Anabel died under mysterious circumstances, right there on the Bosphorus, in sight of the villa. And she was married to Miles. So Tracy is going to uncover what really happened.
David: That’s exciting.
Melissa: Yeah. This story is all you could ask for in a gothic confection. Most of the action takes place in a Turkish yali. Did you come across this term when you were doing your reading?
David: What’s a yali?
Melissa: A yali is a particular type of waterfront mansion right on the banks of the Bosphorus. They’re made of wood and they have decorative touches that kind of make them look like a cross between a Victorian mansion and a plantation house. Apparently they don’t exist anywhere else, like, t’s a specific name for these houses just along the Bosphorus. The one in this book is like a character itself. It has verandas and breeze ways and a second house that’s attached to it by a covered portico. All of which leads to unsettling noises coming through the open shutters and lots of places to eavesdrop on conversations.
Melissa: The cast of characters is also rich fodder for suspicion. There’s a modern, young Turkish woman who may or may not be trustworthy. Her brother, he’s a medical researcher who has a lab in their house.
Melissa: The grand dame of the place is Silvana. She’s French, but she was married to the Turkish patriarch of the family. And she’s inherited the whole schlemiel since his death. She mixes perfumes in her spare time. And there’s also a couple of wily servants skulking around. And then there’s Miles. He is your classic Byronic problematic man. He’s brooding and handsome and talented, but short tempered. And he and Tracy are at odds with each other from the get go. She’s there to help him get this book done. He does not need this young woman’s help, period. This is the best detail. There’s literally a portrait of the dead sister, Annabel — Miles’ dead wife — hanging on the wall, looming over all of the action.
David: Really? Yeah.
Melissa: Because he’s an artist. She painted her portrait. There it is. On the wall.
David: Sure. In my mind’s eye, I just pictured lightning flashing across the portrait of.
Melissa: Oh, yeah, there’s a storm. Definitely. You know this book?
Melissa: All this is set in 20th century Istanbul. So some time after Ataturk modernized the laws. I couldn’t get a clear picture of if it was the forties or the sixties. It was published in 1964. Some of the things in the book indicate it’s set in the forties. I couldn’t confirm that for sure. There are signs of modern life, like cars share the roads with horses. And there are references to Ataturk outlawing the veil and suddenly requiring last names. Do you know about this?
Melissa: So for most of history, Turkish people didn’t have codified surnames. They were addressed with descriptive titles like Teacher or Pilgrim. Sometimes they might reference their hometown. Someone who is called Hafiz had completely memorized the Koran. But in 1934, all Turkish citizens were required to choose a surname for their family, and it had to be a Turkish word. So today, the most common surname is Yilmaz, which means unbeatable or brave.
David: One of the books I read pointed out that Ataturk picked his name. It means father of Turks, and he said no one else can have this name.
Melissa: Sure. So back to the story. Tracy is new to Istanbul. She is literally a wide-eyed young girl exploring Istanbul. Everything is new to her. And we get to experience the city that way, too, through the eyes of someone who’s seeing it for the first time. So there are just brilliant descriptions of the scenery and the sounds and the overall vibe. But we also get immersed in Turkish society because she’s living with a Turkish family.
Melissa: So we see how they interact with each other and what their relationships to each other are like and how they fit into the rest of Istanbul. So you really get the best of both worlds, insider and outsider, with gothic tropes on top, like whipped cream on top of the sunday. So yeah, I loved it. If you enjoy Mary Stuart or Victoria Holt, you will also enjoy Phyllis A. Whitney. This one is Black Amber.
David: Before we wrap up, Mel has a couple of more books that she wanted to mention.
Melissa: It’s approved cheating.
David: It’s approved cheating.
Melissa: The first is _The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova.
David: Yeah, I understand now. Yeah.
Melissa: There’s an argument to be made that The Historian is the novel that inspired all of Strong Sense of Place.
Melissa: It’s a sweeping story set throughout Europe with big chunks of it set in Istanbul. And the origin of the story this book is telling is in Istanbul. There are lots of references to Byzantium and to the Ottoman Empire. And if you’re not familiar, it’s basically an action-adventure starring librarians and researchers. It is one of my favorite books of all time. I’m currently listening to it on audio, and I’m too embarrassed to tell you how many times I’ve read this book. But if you want a sense of Istanbul and other areas in Eastern Europe, The Historian is fantastic.
Melissa: Somewhat related. I also read Dracula in Istanbul by Ali Riza Seyfioglu. This is a cross between a bootleg and fan fiction. Here’s the story. In 1928, the author pirated Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and when he translated into Turkish, he rewrote it with some new material and threaded Islam into the original story.
David: This is like the Icelandic version.
Melissa: It is. It is. There’s also a movie based on Dracula in Istanbul.
Melissa: So if you’re a fan of the original by Bram Stoker, it’s really fun to compare and contrast the two. Dracula in Istanbul is much shorter. You can read it pretty quickly and there will be more of this book and The Historian in show notes.
David: So I think that was maybe nine books we loved. If you want to see photos and video and more, just get more information about all the things we talk about, drop by our show notes. We’re at strongsenseofplace.com.
Melissa: There will definitely be excellent Turkish music to listen to while you read the show notes and probably lots of beauty shots of Istanbul. Because Istanbul.
David: And food. So much glorious food malware. We head it on our next episode.
Melissa: We’re kind of going for the opposite end of the spectrum regarding weather and vibe, but it’s also very awesome. We’re visiting the Atlantic provinces of Canada.
David: Thanks for listening, and we’ll talk to you soon.
Top image courtesy of nesrin ozdemir/Shutterstock.
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