Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Taboo Bear

Are you sitting down? - we finally made it to Istanbul! Seven weeks we've been in Turkey, and what with false starts, bad weather and "insufficient" funds, I finally managed to organize a day trip for my bipedal attendants. Being that Istanbul is the largest city in Europe, there are thousands of things to see, so for today, I'm going to talk about our visit to the city's historic Topkapı Palace - but more specifically, the Royal Harem.

Now, what with all my years as an International Fashion Model, sharing changing rooms (and sometimes curling irons)
with the world's Super Models (Naomi was such a pill ...), I'm pretty comfortable in restricted women's quarters and - since everyone recognizes me immediately - it wasn't too difficult for me to get permission to enter the harem.

The harem at Topkapı Palace, which dates from the end of the 16th century, was the home of the Ottoman Empire's Sultans' mother, wives, concubines - concubines, not porcupines like I first thought - children and their servants.

the various buildings and corridors and hallways are nestled at least 100 rooms. I couldn't visit all of them but I was able to peek in a few, although my bipedals let me know in no uncertain terms that I was inconveniencing them. Jealousy just doesn't become those two.

The women were guarded by eunuchs - castrated (ouch!) male slaves - and most of their rooms opened up onto the courtyard (right) - which is now known as the Courtyard of the Eunuchs. They were answerable to the Chief Harem Eunuch, who also controlled the princes. The princes' apartments were known as "the cage" - in fact, the harem itself was called "the golden cage" - and they stayed there until they were released to become sultans or executed. It was common for a new sultan to execute his brothers in order to eliminate any and all rivals from the throne. That's a dysfunctional family for you ... talk about putting the fun in dysfunctional!

The largest and best situated of all the apartments (upper left) in the harem belonged to the sultan's mother. Her
apartments included a dining room, audience & receptions rooms, a music room, prayer room and bedroom.

Of course, no Turkish bathroom would be complete without a toilet - naturally a Turkish one - and a sumptuous bath of gold and marble. We bears love a nice hot bubbly bath.
The Queen Mother had a double bath and consisted of a caldarium (for a hot soak) tepidarium (for a warm soak) and frigidarium (for a soak worthy of a polar bear). Her bathtub was even protected by a golden lattice-work screen to protect her from murders! What a swell Mother's Day gift that must have been.

Interestingly, the word harem comes into English from the Turkish word harem (duh!) which comes into Turkish from the Arabic ḥaram. The word ḥaram was eventually used to refer to the women's quarters but it originally means "forbidden". It's the same word that's used to describe forbidden things in Islam, like pork and lizards. Why would anyone want to eat a lizard anyway? Or a pig for that matter?

I feel badly that for hundreds and hundreds of years, women were hidden behind walls - even beautiful walls like the ones in the Royal Harem - for most of their lives. Poor women! But in a small way, I think I know how they must have felt. A few years ago, a cleric from the Islamic University of Islam said:

"Oh believers! v
erily is the cotton of the teddy bear haram [forbidden]. Enjoin yourselves to keep your names clean from its defilement. Let he or she who associates a teddy bear with Allah or His Prophet be subject to the lash, one each for the days of Ramadan."

A teddy bear! A bear! Honestly - sometimes I just don't understand you people at all.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

GB to a "T"

I'm trying to be an understanding bear - and I think I am quite understanding by nature - but the truth is, we've been in Turkey for 6 weeks now and we've done nothing "Turkish" - except eat baklava (which was excellent, by the way) and hang up our evil eye amulets. I finally put my paw down and told my bipedal attendants that even if we can't all go to Istanbul for another few weeks, we can still explore life in Turkey - here in Izmit.

And nothing says "Turkish" more than tea and water pipes. Except for maybe baklava and coffee. And maybe carpets and evil eye amulets. Oh well ...

In any case, yesterday afternoon we went to a small tea shop in town and sipped çay served in tiny glasses with cubes of beetroot sugar and smoked a narghile.

Many people equate coffee with Turkey and so prevalent was coffee in Turkish culture that their word for breakfast - kahvaltı - means "before coff
ee". In fact, until recent times, Turks drank more coffee than tea, but these days, tea is the drink of choice. After World War I, it became very expensive to import coffee into Turkey, so, because it's grown here, our friend Atatürk encouraged Turks to drink tea instead. I guess they listened because Turks drink more tea than any other people in the world - over 2.5 kilos of the stuff per capita a year. Not surprisingly, they sell a lot of teeth whitening products here too!

Turks use small clear glasses to show off the colour of the tea, which is something, as a former international fashion model, I completely understand. Never underestimate the importance of colour.

We also ordered a water pipe - or a narghile as they are known here - because socially, tea and water pipes go together like bears and honey. I've had water pipes before but this was my first one in Turkey. The pipe itself was quite pretty - a lovely green coloured glass - and the fabric which covered the hose was just like a Turkish carpet. (Again, that's the former international fashion model in me talking!)

Each pipe comes with its own hermetically sealed plastic mouthpiece (see above photo, right) because you can never be too safe when it comes to yo
ur health. I can only imagine what germs my female bipedal attendant picked up sharing water pipes with strangers in the back alleys of Egypt. It's amazing she didn't contract TB or something. Anyway, I'm making her keep a spare mouthpiece in her purse these days. I swear, it's like living with a child sometimes!

Anyway ... too be completely honest, I was a bit disappointed with my narghile. I confess that I'm a bit of a purist when it comes to my water pipes - or more accurately, to the tobacco in my water pipes - and maybe it's because I'm a bear but I prefer a plain ma'sal or honeyed tobacco like they use in Egypt. The flavoured "blends": cappuccino, banana, pineapple - are not for true connoisseurs. Honestly: banana tobacco??

And to make it worse, there was no tobacco in it! What's the point? Apparently, it's becoming common now to burn a tobacco-free fruit concentrate - a fruit roll-up for adults - which has no nicotine. It tastes good - I guess - and is guilt free. On the other hand, there's none of the euphoria of smoking a real water pipe. You humans! Must you always try to "fix" what's not broken?

You can still find real water pipe tobacco in Turkey, but you have to know where to go and how to ask for it. Clearly, this was beyond the abilities of my bipedal attendants yesterday afternoon so I'm going to sign them up for Turkish lessons. I mean, what's the point of having attendants if they can't even manage a simple thing like ordering a water pipe correctly?