Monday, July 21, 2014

Two Separate Societies: Gender in Turkey

Turkish Men Outside a Cafe
The men in Turkey sit in cafes, play dominoes, smoke and converse intensely. To look at two men involved in such a connection, you would swear they were gay. The men are predominantly the folks we dealt with, they run the great majority of restaurants, pensions and shops. Some hotels have women at the front desk and you may find a shopkeeper or two but the overwhelming percentage of workers are male.

It is hard to make genuine connections in a country where you don't speak any of the native language but the following information is based solely on personal observation and experience.

Some restaurants are "family" places which cater more to women and children. Bars and places that serve raki (an alcoholic beverage) and other alcoholic drinks are men's domain. As foreign women, we were treated as honorary men and welcomed almost everywhere. The one exception was mosques, where we had to cover as Turkish women do, although sometimes at mosques I passed for male, in which case covering did not apply.

The men are good friends with one another and women are very peripheral to this picture. In the raki restaurant in Izmir, we saw intense, animated talking male duos and groups. On a boat trip in Kas, we met four Turkish college students, in two heterosexual couples. The men spoke to us in English. The women didn't speak to us. During the entire trip, the two male friends talked non-stop. The women sat at the far ends of the group and were silent. At swim stops, in the water, we occasionally heard them giggle or speak softly.

At one point when we tired of hearing the guys hold forth, we descended to the lower deck where we found one of their two women friends who had perhaps also tired of listening. She had ordered a beer, was smoking a cigarette and was actively communicating on her smartphone.

We visited a private home in Pamukkale. The guy who worked at our hotel drove us to his uncle's place. We sat on a beautiful carpeted porch overlooking the dry, cactus and scrub-speckeled mountains. A welcome cool breeze was blowing. The uncle's wife wore a scarf and spoke no English. She smiled and brought us all tea and almond cookies which she did not serve herself. I noticed that inside she removed her headscarf, but repositioned it when she came back to the group. Mostly, the two men spoke Turkish with each other and Deborah and I did the same in English.

In Izmir, we inadvertently booked a hotel in the red light district which was conveniently located between the bus and the train station. It was a lively neighborhood with reasonably priced bars and restaurants and not at all scary. Next to our hotel was a brothel. The women in the open front of the place wore tiny, gold lame bikinis. One had died blonde hair and loads of interesting, tribal style tattoos. I smiled at her warmly and she smiled back, surprised.

We sat on the chairs outside the front of our hotel. It had been a sizzlingly hot day, so many people, read "men," were  sitting out on the street too. A man from the brothel came over to me and asked in broken English, "Do you want to be with sister?" I laughed and told him we were staying in this hotel and just getting some air but it was clear that I could have purchased some face (or other bodily part) time with the blonde if that's what I'd desired.

Later that evening the police were called to the place because a screaming fight broke out between one of the girls and a john. She was going after him and definitely landed a few punches. Most of the men on the street stepped in to intervene and try to keep them apart. 

The Secret Sisterhood
Turkey is a world of whores and madonnas, similar to the USA of the sixties before the women's movement. It is a place of great warmth and compassion but also a country plagued by gender division and women's second-class status. The rate of domestic violence against women is higher in Turkey than anywhere else in Europe. Islamic fundamentalism is growing and I saw many more covered women this trip than when I visited in 2002. At that juncture, it was illegal for women to wear their scarves in universities or government buildings.

Now, even the Prime Minister's wife is covered. It was heartbreaking for me to see these women wearing headscarves, long sleeves, and loose-fitting black coats over their clothes in temperatures that often reached the high nineties and low hundreds. In general, these women were sweet to us and we often went to them for directions. We joked that they ran a secret sisterhood, and whenever we had the opportunity to patronize a business that they ran, bakeries often fell in this category, we did. These interractions made us feel cared for and welcomed in a way in which the male-run establishments could not equal.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

The Cats of Turkey

Rooftop Cats in Istanbul
I am a true cat lover and, in this respect, the country of Turkey doesn’t disappoint. Feral but friendly cats have the run of the streets everywhere, especially in Istanbul. All kinds of people scatter dry food and cut big plastic bottles in half to make large dishes of water for them and their imperial feline presence can be felt everywhere.

At first I assumed that they were bred for rodent control because, not surprisingly, I didn’t see one mouse or rat on the streets during the month of my stay. But I later discovered that Islam has a high regard for them and there is a saying that anyone who harms or kills a cat must build a mosque to ask for forgiveness for this transgression.

In museums the dioramas depicting life in the past almost always include a cat or kitten keeping the people company. The glass cases are full of ancient sculptures of the creatures as well.

Can cats interpret this sign? I can't!

Most of the street cats will exchange meaningful looks or possibly engage in a meowing conversation that I refer to as Catonese, their native tongue. English actually seems to make them a bit suspicious and uneasy. And, since they are wild, any attempt to pet or touch them will send them scurrying away.

When I asked a man feeding them in a park, “What is the Turkish word for cat? “he just said what sounded like kitty and I thought he was joking. Well, I found out later that the word is “kedi” and that is exactly how it sounds! 

Now, even though I am back in the U.S., I will see movement out of the corner of my eye and expect a furry feline and feel a bit let down to find only a bird or a scampering squirrel. 

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Protective Masks

I am an impostor. From my family, I learned that appearances are everything. From the bullies in my neighborhood, who took every opportunity to attempt to pound me into the pavement, I learned that a huge helping of bravado mixed with bluster can be a life-saving strategy.

So, I perfected my impersonation of a tough girl. This ruse involved walking like an axe murderer and talking like a sailor. Not that I’d actually met axe murderers or sailors but an active imagination is the most essential trait of a successful impostor.

My rough and ready persona kept me safe in that deepest circle of hell, commonly known as high school. It came with its own rewards, especially after I expanded it to include the use of interesting drugs, cutting school and shoplifting.

In the mid-seventies I migrated to California to be out as a lesbian and away from Ohio, my father, and his new wife and life that he'd taken up after my mother’s death. These were hard times for me both financially and emotionally. The Mission neighborhood of San Francisco was crime-ridden and I didn’t own a car. Being young and into the bar scene, I was often on the streets late at night. My walk in combination with my leather bomber jacket served me well.

One night on my way back to my flat I ran into a sleazy looking dude who began with a slightly menacing, “Babe, what are you doing out on the street this time of night?”

“What are YOU doing out here, hon?” was my response. He kind of chuckled and we walked together for a bit, me trying to show him my take-no-prisoners pose. I suppose he was sort of intrigued by this odd woman with an antagonistic attitude and a butch stride.

Before we parted ways he asked, “Tell me, what do you really have in your pocket?” This question caught me off guard. On the street at night, I would always walk with my hands in my pockets. The fact that people might think I am carrying a weapon had never even occurred to me.

            “You don’t want to know!” was all I said as I moved on into the night.

It dawned on me that if I could make people give me a wide berth, perhaps I could also use my skill set to land a job I really wanted.

I had always dreamed of being a graphic artist, even took a course in it at City College. I decided that I would try to pass myself off as an experienced layout and paste-up person at my next job interview. It didn’t go all that well. I had to actually perform the task at the end of the interview. I was slow, clumsy and didn’t know a thing about the latest time-saving techniques, which they then showed me. Of course, I didn’t get that job.

But during my next interview, I really sounded like a pro and, it turned out that they didn’t even require a demonstration. I was hired.

When the graphic arts gig became a bit frenetic and boring, I wanted to move on. I succeeded in convincing a job training panel that my experience in design was perfectly suited for their program to learn drafting.

I then wormed my way into an Architectural firm and later branched out into Civil Engineering. When it came time to learn the new technology, CADD (computer-aided design drafting), I knew exactly what to do: Just claim that I know how to use the program until, in fact, I did.

When the entire field of drafting died with the advent of computers, It was time to go back to school and get some real training. I interviewed all my friends to see if they were doing anything I might find interesting. Since one of my primary pleasures was reading I decided to become a librarian.

I called professors in the Library accredidation program to find out what exactly they were looking for in a Master’s Degree candidate. After duly noting their emphasis on technology, I wrote two recommendation letters tailored to their needs, in different voices, of course. The third, my best friend penned for me. Then, wonder of wonders, I was accepted into the Library and Information Studies program at Berkeley and once armed with that degree, I became more able to make my way with safety and competence through the dark streets of life.  

I have been retired from my librarian job for over two years now. In my present incarnation, I blog and send out my epistles in the form of poems, articles and stories. I still have no weapon in my pocket, no magic up my sleeve. But when people ask me what I do, I just look them straight in the eye and state with utmost sincerity, “I’m a writer.”

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Book Publishing in the Technological Age

E-Book and Older Relatives
I just watched an interesting PBS documentary called “Out of Print” that examines the changes the publishing and writing world have undergone due to the advent of digital technology.

POD or print-on-demand publishing is the rule nowadays. Just as an on demand water heater only produces hot water when you need it, on demand printing synchonizes the book with the order. No more huge piles of remainders or, on the other side, coming up short on orders. It’s a more cost-effective choice.

The question of format is now a main concern in the publishing field. Printed books are just a small share of a market that has expanded to include e-books as well as other electronic formats that are easy and cheap to reproduce.

Self-publishing is another option that currently has come into its own. The documentary interviewed a lawyer and part-time writer, Darcie Chan who self-published her novel,”The Mill River Recluse” and sold it for 99 cents in order to get a maximum readership. She expected to maybe sell a couple hundred copies, if she was lucky. She wound up making the New York Times Bestseller List and her second novel is being picked up by Random House. And, though these stories are the exception and not the rule, she is not alone.

One downside of digital publishing is only format obsolescence. Another is the simple question of whether the digital work will hold up physically for future generations. Now, it’s hard to even find floppy disk readers, imagine locating them in the future. They have followed the path of vinyl records, where only a few vintage fanatics still have record players.

Another problem, authors, journalists and bloggers have a lot more difficulty now getting paid for their work. Exposure is good but especially for young writers starting out, this lack of pay will mean that almost all of them will have to work day jobs.

The positive side is that more people, especially folks who represent minorities in ethnicity, orientation and opinion can get exposure. Technology is more egalitarian because its access, at this point, has not been restricted.

So, it’s a mixed bag. But like all the new inventions and developments of the Technological Age, ready-or-not, here it is. And, as we have done with everything that has come before, for better or for worse, we will deal with it.

Monday, May 19, 2014

The Zen of Travel

Hmong girls in Sapa
Traveling is one of those activities most people either love or hate. I don’t mean the kind of travel where you become part of a group of tourists running through the ruins. I’m referring to backpack-type exploration in which you have no set itinerary, just an idea of what you’d like to see and where you might go. The rest is left to fate.

My partner and I travel this way in various third-world countries during her summer vacation from teaching. We have assiduously avoided the first world partly because it tends to be less interesting but mostly because it’s incredibly expensive.

All those years I spent as cubicle fodder, a dedicated wage slave, I thought that travel was a waste of money. Except for a few souvenirs, you wound up with nothing concrete to show for it. But when I was forty, I was diagnosed with cancer and didn’t know whether or not my story was ending. I recovered completely. But when my destiny was uncertain, I made myself two promises. One was to write and try to get my work published.The second was to see the world.  

Travel is a Buddhist experience. Even a somewhat-lapsed Buddhist like me is aware of this. When you descend on a place you’ve never seen before you are completely in the present moment. You arrive knowing not a soul and with no idea of what you will eat or where you will sleep. Chances are you only possess a sketchy idea of the meaning and depth of the culture. You are at the mercy of experience, the full range of potential occurrences.

These are sometimes wonderful beyond belief like dining with an extended Hmong family in Sapa Vietnam, having tea and cookies with Turkish women lace-makers inside their volcanic ash cave home in Cappadocia, going to an earth goddess Pachamama ceremony on a remote Peruvian hillside or simply drinking a mango smoothie in the night market in Chiang-Mai Thailand as dancing girls take the stage.

The experiences sometimes can be not-so-pleasant: like running out of water on a bus on the Raya Pass in Peru at 15,000 feet above sea level because the road running into Cuzco had been blockaded by strikers. Or being detained for six hours and eventually extorted for about 120 dollars each because of a “visa re-entry” problem in Vietnam.

Yes, anything can happen when you venture out into the world. The people you meet will be wonderful or awful just like those at home. But only they can show you how to turn the crystal in a new direction allowing you to see life in a way you could never have previously imagined. The value of that cannot be measured.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

They Should Have Given Us Bavaria!

Holocaust Remembrance Day has just passed and May 14th will be the 66th anniversary of the establishment of the state of Israel and all that I am able to say about this is how much it saddens me to be a Jew in this world.

When thinking of my grandparents, I could begin with the Russian Czar and the Cossacks. There is nothing left now of the huge Jewish community that flourished there, the Pale of Settlement, the shtetls where rural poverty was a fact of life along with a tribal culture where folks took care of each other. These villages were, for the most part, dirt poor and isolated. They had a daily life that now can only be glimpsed in a few rare photographs and paintings. Shtetl residents were ghettoized from the regional Russian and Polish populations by religion and culture but, most of all, by language.

In Western as well as Eastern Europe, Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazi-Jewish people is now dead. In the colonialist state of Israel, the founders and survivors chose to resurrect Hebrew, a long-extinct biblical language whose correct pronunciation and inflection was totally unknown. They improvised and now Hebrew is a living tongue.

When it comes to Europe, the fact is that Hitler did what he set out to do. The results were just not immediate. European, Jewish culture has been obliterated. Not only do American secular and religious Jews no longer have a homeland, we are a dying breed. Folks like me in the USA are dinosaurs. In a couple of generations, like so many Native tribes, we will cease to exist. Specifically, people with two Jewish parents, raised in Jewish neighborhoods, not necessarily by choice but by covenant, will not have a square in our multi-ethnic, American tapestry.

I believe that this is a great loss, for Jews specifically, as well as for Americans in general.

Yes, the religion will continue to flourish as Jews intermarry and assimilate. Some rebellious couples will take up Judaism as a faith but, those who are ethnically identified/identifiable by descent, by cultural style, inflection, humor, introspection and a wide range of neuroses will go the way of so many other endangered species.

And now there is Israel, the most distressing component of the equation. The whole “land without a people for a people without a land,” is so obscene. The forced displacement and collective punishment of the Palestinian people by imperialist expansion, the bulldozing of homes, the checkpoints, the walls…I could go on and on but in this forum I know I don’t have to. I know you know.

It seems so unfair that a people so brutalized by history would now have to be victimized even further by those fighting oppression. But the atrocities of Israel are real. How childish it seems to state that I wish the whole thing never happened, and by that I mean the WHOLE thing starting with the persecution of Jews in all countries of the world.

But given that horrendous genocide transpired, they should have, at least, given us Bavaria!

Did you know that many of the laws used against the Palestinians involved in revolt against the occupiers bear an astounding resemblance to the Nuremberg Laws? To me, that says it all. The child whose parents beat him grows up to beat his own child. There is no excuse for it, but it happens all the time. And it breaks my heart.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Lesbians, Women and Equality

As the endless struggle for equal pay has illustrated, women we have a long journey ahead of us before we can see any semblance of equality. After much struggle, women are now citizens of the USA who can vote and try for almost any job as long as it is not too high profile like being president or hosting a late night talk show. But we are still limited by sexism which defines us by gender, appearance, social agility and acceptability to those males in power.  

Just yesterday I was searching the database NewPages for anthology and literary journal submission venues.The first “feminist” one I found had just run a special issue that contained the voices of male writers expounding on the subject of women. The second one was soliciting for an upcoming issue on women’s relationships to “the men in our lives.” Seriously?

Let me make this clear: women are not to blame for sexism. Having said that, it is also imperative that we stop being collaborators! As Judy Grahn said in her poem, A Woman is Talking to Death, “We do each other in, that’s a fact!” Lesbians can be guilty of this just like our bib-dyke sisters, but since we have so much less power in society it hardly matters.

And there is the crux of the problem. When it comes to the big picture, our existence, our struggles are most often not even footnotes. The female equivalent of the male gay civil rights spokesperson doesn’t really exist. Harvey Milk, Tennessee Williams, Bayard Rustin, James Baldwin, Tony Kushner, all these are names that come to mind historically when thinking about notable LGBTs. I know that Audre Lorde, Gertrude Stein and Adrienne Rich are notable lesbians, but as far as name recognition they are undoubtedly second tier.

The “problem” of the unapologetic lesbian is being dealt with inside the LGBT community where the word “queer” is now touted as a substitute for “lesbian” because it is more “inclusive.” I’m all for inclusion, but I also have to post the question, what exactly is being lost?

As that old movie “Tootsie” posited and the transgender MTF movement seems to express: men believe that they are better at absolutely everything and that includes being women! The truth is that yes, a less oppressed person has more distance from an issue and that makes both your self-image and everything you undertake, less fraught and therefore a bit easier.  

And, for many of us bio-broads, “being a woman” is not a set of feelings or behaviors. It is just a genetic fact, an anatomical category!

I respect transgender women. But they are raised with the privilege of growing up and being treated as males. Due to class issues, I am used to working alongside people of greater privilege. I don’t hate them. I just think that we all must acknowledge these differences and, as class warriors, fight the tendency to relinquish our power to those with greater access to theirs.

Women have come a great distance since acquiring the vote in 1920. Lesbians have made huge strides since Stonewall. But genuine equality is still a distant dream and ignoring this fact will not make it go away.