Taking You Away for Some “Rakh-heeh.” (Travelogue Series – Istanbul / Turkey)
Posted by intellisg on April 1, 2007
Rumi once whirled his way to spiritual fame in the same streets I am wadding through. Are ministers getting paid enough? Will we eventually lose talent? What did Philip Yeo say again? What didn’t he say? Is our government really going to regulate the new media? Who really cares? I am going to take you to a place, a secret garden tucked somewhere deep amid the labyrinth of Moorish minarets, cupolas, lime washed walls and narrow streets. I am in Istanbul for business a world away and in a while, I am going to take you deeper into another world within this world.
Like Rumi, Istanbul is a poet, and much what she has to say changes with the timbre of the light. In the evenings, when the sun turns everything a golden splendor, she whispers a verse that reaches out to the spiritual voyager in all of us.
In the twilight, the ambiguity of shadows cut in sharp relief across ancient stones conveys the arrogance of the very old juxtaposed starkly against the new; like the haughtiness of an aged actress whose prime has long past. She struts around as if the world is still beneath her feet, snubbing her inferiors. Its only when one pauses long enough to look closer that the illusion begins to peel off revealing the creases of despair on her haggard face.
The mix of despair and hope is climatic in Istanbul. Its one that seizes and shakes the lonely traveler as he wonders no end whether this country is either the golden light destined to shape world history or a hopeless mess certain to remain mired in wretchedness. Never mind these lofty struggles – my feet is killing me! – it’s time to sit down and have a drink of raki.
Raki pronounced “rah-keeh,” is much more than just the national plonk. The mere fact a Muslim country can still find a way to reconcile boozing by secreting it away in some corner is enough to suggest there is something truly mystical and tantalizing about raki’s allure. The traveler still needs to search out places that still serve the local moonshine. Most western educated Turks wouldn’t go near raki except to use to remove stubborn stains on their carpets. Or when they can’t seem to get petrol, most prefer to settle for a Chardonnay or some liquor with a European pedigree.
Fortunately, in the crumbling East quarter of Istanbul, raki is still very much alive in meyhane’s; a sort clandestine back room bistro where hookahs, belly dancers and odd game Turkish chess still features. After taking off the shoes and putting on embroidered slippers one is ushered into a common large sized sitting room, filled with pleasant greenish light, mixed with the haze of hookah pipes and incense burners. The room is lined with very low wood craved furnishings and cushioned in plush silk carpets, heralding back to the days when reclining was once a much more serious activity than it is today.
Lounging looks indolent to the unpracticed eye. I am reminded every time I lose balance or shift my weight to try to find a comfortable spot. Like all aristocratic body techniques, it’s a highly skilled preoccupation. I am told it takes years to learn how to rest gracefully on the left elbow and eat with the right hand and balance the hookah pipe without showing fatigue. The Greeks and Romans perfected it for no other reason other than to pursue the convivial; facilitating friendship and conversation.
Raki is usually served in a clear glass. It is bright, but it rarely last that way for long. Soon a tea boy draws a red hot poker from the open fire burning just outside the verandah and dipped it into my glass transforming the liquid milky white (I gather this is only one of three meyhane’s in the whole of Istanbul that serves it in this manner.) I realized just then as I looked out into the open. The sun had waned completely giving way to the twilight of the evening, graying everything throughout the skyline of Istanbul.
According to my host a Moroccan French who was interested in commissioning a geo static space station for some obscure planet drinking raki involved a certain ritual.
“Mix it with a little water. Inhale the aroma, lick the lips and take a small sip. Then throw back the rest. And wait here comes the best part: the sensation of feeling as it courses down the neck and into the belly. Here you try it.”
“Yes, it hits the spot.” I replied.
Raki and meyhane culture are one of the same. For one Raki is rarely served by itself, it stands along side an elaborate stylized ritual of dining. With raki always comes “meze,” small copper plates secreted by tea boys who crouch low to avoid breaking the tempo of the conversation.
“Meze” are appetizers, sauces and salads, a bowl of melon, a slab of white cheese. What comes next just comes unbidden. No one really orders. It’s a ritual that suggest the idea of planning what to eat is somehow vulgar – sacrilegious even to insinuate its trivial to the whole of idea of continuing the discourse and deepening friendship. Like drinking raki, meyhane dinning does not require any action, decision or choice. One isn’t forced to drink competitively. There are no “saluts,’ no “down the hatch.” Only a silent repertoire; where one is simply expected to know the wisdom of when to stop and go. It’s a miniature of Turkish life. As it embodies the whole idea of offering almost infinite possibilities by attempting to blends two opposing ideals; determination and resignation seamlessly – a desire to rebel along with an acceptance of the inevitability of submission.
The main dish is called “Imam Bay-il-dih,” meaning literally, “the holy man peng san,” (presumably after eating himself to a stupor), which is usually a lamb or veal goulash flavored with heady spices and served with crispy thin kiln fired bread. Raki “fires up the gut,” one that sharpens the appetite considerably and imparts a unique taste to food, as my host recounts a quatrain once written by Rumi to celebrate its gastronomical magic,
“Everything you now see will vanish like a dream.”
With these words, he sipped his raki closing his eyes.
Rumi seems to be telling me; go with the flow. Journeys so often lead us to profundities, deeper ways of realizing all that we have planned are after all ruled only by accidents at the end of the day. Why not flip the process? I am inclined to say yes. After another glass of raki, what at first seems clear becomes obscure and distant. Times oozes out, concepts lie splayed out and even a straight line melts away, but the conversation is still unfolding.
By the time the third bottle, everything appears murky and confused. Yet through this evocative haze, truths about how much had been agreed on for the space station, when it should be delivered or the mode of payment hardly mattered any longer.
Like the whirl of the dervishes there was something utterly compelling about the transformation. As if we had entered a trance, forgotten our bodies and become pure light. When I sealed the deal with a hug, my host seemed pleased with the morning sun which had begun to break over the horizon. For a while we held the gaze over the city.
He said, “Beautiful.” I agreed in silence.
Then I went walked down the narrow steps into the labyrinth of narrow streets. When I looked back to wave the interstellar middle man had disappeared.
(by Harphoon / Travelogue Series / Turkey / EP: 9937383 – 2007 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)
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