Archives for posts with tag: Istanbul

Two (Relatively) Recent Mainstream Novels about the Armenian Genocide: The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak and Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian

I’ve recently read two novels about the Armenian genocide and its rippling effects on the Turkish and Armenian families who witnessed it. One of these novels was written by a Turk, the other by an Armenian (though both the writers have global biographies). The writing styles and literary genres of the books were different, as were (obviously) the plots, but nonetheless there were undeniable similarities between the two books. Both were powerful and compelling reads. While The Bastard of Istanbul had a dreamy feel to it, Orhan’s Inheritance was more of a page-turner. Both are recommended, though the different styles are likely to appeal to different readers.

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The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak (image from GoodReads)

Shafak, Elif. The Bastard of Istanbul: A Novel. London: Penguin, 2007. Print.

Availability: Available in the US and UK, both physical and e-book editions; English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops.

The Bastard of Istanbul tells the story of the many generations of the Kazanci family, particularly the women including their youngest member, Asya (most of the men have mysteriously or tragically died). Entwined with this family’s saga is Armanoush and her family’s own tale. Armanoush is an Armenian-American who decides to secretly visit her grandmother’s home city of Istanbul as a way to better understand her Armenian heritage. She contacts her stepfather Mustafa’s family, the Kazancis, and she and Asya become friends despite Armanoush’s (and her online community’s) skepticism of Turks. Asya’s mystical Auntie Banu becomes curious about the truth of the Armenian genocide and consults her djinn to show her the truth of Armanoush’s family…and later to reveal her own family’s secrets. A family emergency in America leads Armanoush’s mother and step-father to come to Istanbul, the stepfather’s first visit in 20 years, where Auntie Banu’s knowledge brings old events to a head, leading to shocking events that permanently change both families.

I particularly liked the structure of this book–with each chapter titled with the name of an ingredient that is used in Mustafa’s favorite food, ashure. The titular ingredient of each chapter also make an appearance within the chapter, and a recipe for ashure is provided in the latter part of the book. This dish even plays an important role in the plot. Other foods are also described in mouth-watering detail. This is very much a novel for foodies.

The author Elif Shafak was put on trial for “denigrating Turkishness” because of this book. If you like reading as a way of fighting the power, this novel is a great choice.

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Orhan’s Inheritance by Aline Ohanesian (image from GoodReads)

Ohanesian, Aline. Orhan’s Inheritance: A Novel. Chapel Hill: Algonquin, 2015. Kindle e-book.

Availability: Available in the US (physical and e-book) and UK (physical book); English editions for sale in Georgia at Biblus bookshops

Orhan’s Inheritance made many lists of the best books of 2015, which is where I first heard of it. Like The Bastard of Istanbul, the novel features a multi-generational Turkish family, though unlike the Kazanci family, the Turkoglu family is oddly lacking in women. When the family’s patriarch, the title character Orhan’s grandfather, passes away, his will leaves the family home in the village to an Armenian woman no one has ever heard of. Orhan travels to an Armenian retirement home in California, where he meets his grandfather’s surprise heir, Seda Melkonian, and ultimately learns her story which gives him the explanation as to why his grandfather has left the house to her.

Much more of the action of this novel is set in the past as Seda’s story is told. Her story is, unsurprisingly, quite upsetting, but Ohanesian’s writing is compelling, and I wanted to get through the tragedies to find out how Seda lived and learn the mystery of why she inherited the house and how she came to be living in California.

One thing I particularly liked in this book was the interactions between the characters from different ethnic groups, both in the past and in the present. All the characters had flaws, and many were prejudiced against other ethnicities, but in the end the main characters were all people and recognized the human core in others, even when they disagreed. In this way, Ohanesian makes an argument for tolerance, even when the past cannot be forgotten.

Turkish Airlines Aircraft
 By Konstantin von Wedelstaedt via Wikimedia Commons

It’s an unfortunate fact of geography that Georgia and America are quite far away from one another.  This necessitates the frequent use of airplanes in order to see my family and then get back to work.   Due to some negative experiences and very good reasons, I’m not the biggest fan of planes in the first place, but I view them as a necessary evil that I have to deal with in order to make things work.  As such, I’ve figured out a few strategies to make my life a little less miserable.  Between Tbilisi and home, I usually need three separate flights and roughly 36 hours–this trip is not for the faint of heart.  Before I get into specifics, allow me to share with you some of my advice (which has been hard-won) on flying in general:

  1. Bring snacks.  Seriously, did you not notice the bit where I said this takes about 36 hours?  I know they technically provide food on the plane, but who knows if it’ll be something you like.  Also, they serve the food at weird times and you’re likely to have some very long layovers, where food is not provided.  My favorite thing to bring when I’m departing Georgia is churchkhela, while my favorite leaving the US is hummus.  I recommend something with a little bit of nutritional value, and maybe even some protein.
  2. Moisturize!  Bring lotions, chap stick, conditioner, all that sort of stuff.  It’s dry on a plane, and I always feel less zombified when I land when I haven’t accidentally dessicated myself on the way there.
  3. Hydrate.  Drink water–see above.
  4. Bring clean clothes–it can really perk you up to clean off and change clothes during a layover.

Here are some other suggestions for long flights and layovers: How to Survive a Ten-Hour Flight Like a LadySleeping in Airports, Best Airports for a Long Layover

Now, for the Georgia-specifics.  If you’re planning on making the trip between Georgia and the US on one ticket, you have three major options–Turkish Airlines, Lufthansa, or LOT Polish Airlines.  All three of these carriers are members of the Star Alliance (though getting mileage credit from LOT hasn’t been easy), and all three of their flights to and from Georgia arrive and depart at ungodly hours, though Turkish occasionally has an afternoon option.  (If you want to buy separate tickets to Europe and then to Georgia, you may also have the option to fly to Batumi or Kutaisi, and can fly regional carriers like Wizz, Pegasus, or AeroSvit.  This can save money, but it can add hassle depending on your final destination.)  Many Asian and Middle Eastern airlines also fly to Tbilisi, but they’re often impractical for flights from the West,(I’ve never flown them) and I’m trying to keep this post at a somewhat reasonable length.

Turkish Airlines–layover in Istanbul Ataturk Airport

In my opinion, Turkish is the way to go.  It’s more comfortable, the flight attendants and other staff are pleasant, and their  free baggage allowance is the most generous.  They offer the best selection of in-flight food and entertainment.  Ataturk Airport has lots of duty-free browsing opportunities and a decent food court.  The Greenport Cafe in the terminal has wireless.  If your layover is long enough, it’s easy to access the major tourist sites by public transportation.   If your long layover falls in lucky hours, Turkish Airlines offers free city tours.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to take advantage of this service.  NB: There’s a very good chance you need a visa to enter Turkey, and word on the street is that the procedure is changing, so make sure you look that up before you fly!

Lufthansa–layover in Munich Airport

Service on Lufthansa is normal–nothing special, but nothing missing.  They have more flights that are code-shared with American companies, so if that’s a consideration in your ticketing, you’re likely to wind up flying them.  Munich airport isn’t too bad–it’s fairly spacious, and you can pay for a shower or nap pod. Last I was there, there was supposedly free WiFi, but I couldn’t figure it out.  For a really comfortable layover, go through immigration and into the Kempinski hotel next door.  You can buy an hourly pass to the spa (last I was there 15 Euro/hour–same as for a nap pod or in-terminal shower).  They have comfy chaise longues to catch some sleep, showers with fancy products, and free fruit, tea. and water  In the airport but outside the terminal there’s a little grocery store, which is more budget-friendly than any of the restaurants or kiosks inside the terminal, though still not cheap.  Apparently it’s relatively easy to get into the city center, as well, though I haven’t tried.

LOT Polish Airlines–layover in Warsaw

Tickets on Polish are usually cheapest, so I’ve flown them with the highest frequency.  Unfortunately, they’re my least favorite.  The service has a strong surly streak, and despite the fact that they fly Dreamliners, the in-flight entertainment is pathetic.  The ladies in their Tbilisi office are fantastic though, and hold my personal award for Best Customer Service in Georgia.  I should also point out that they are actively trying to become “the best airline in Europe”, and every flight I’ve taken with them has been less unpleasant than it’s predecessor.  So, that’s something.  Though Warsaw Airport effectively killed any desire I once had to visit Poland, it does have some amenities.  The terminal is pretty small, so shopping and eating options are limited.  The “relaxation room” is relatively comfortable, and hasn’t been too crowded while I’ve been there.  There is also a free shower, but you have to supply all your own stuff.  Free WiFi is available for 30 minutes (tied to your boarding pass), so choose carefully.  There are public buses to the city center, though I haven’t used them.

Bon Voyage!

at the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

at the Blue Mosque, Istanbul

This post is long-overdue, but when I returned from Easter weekend in Istanbul, I was distracted by all the drama in Georgia.  Now, of course, Istanbul has it’s own drama ongoing (if you don’t know what I’m talking about, catch up here or at any major news source).  Because of the protests in Istanbul, don’t follow my itinerary without doing some research and figuring out how the political situation will affect your travels.  Here’s the current update from the US State Department.  Now that I’ve said that, I talked to a friend who was in town as a tourist last week, and he said that the tourist attractions weren’t affected, and he found it interesting to watch the protests outside his hotel window and get the occasional whiff of tear gas–it certainly gives his stories of his long weekend in Istanbul a very different flavor than mine.

But, back to your postcard.  Meghan and I had both really wanted to go to Istanbul, and the long weekend off work for Orthodox Easter (which fell very late this year) gave us the perfect opportunity to hop on a plane and visit Turkey.  Because we were flying from Tbilisi to…well, anywhere, but in this case Istanbul, our flight left at the usual ridiculous 4 AM.  Meghan chose option A and opted for a nap before taking a cab to the airport; I chose option B and took the bus and pulled an airport all-nighter.  Needless to say, neither of us was particularly well-rested for our first day in Istanbul.  We didn’t even make it out of Ataturk Airport before we rejoiced in the spread of American businesses and indulged in some Starbucks.  (I’m not generally a fan of American cultural hegemony making street corners all over the world indistinguishable, but MAN was that chai tea latte amazing!).  Slightly invigorated by some caffeine, we headed into the city and found our way to Istanbul Hostel, where the staff took very good care of us in our slower-thinking-than-usual states (giving us an extra day of free breakfast–including more coffee).

We spent our first day in Istanbul just wandering around and getting our bearings.  We stumbled across the main sights quite quickly and saw the exteriors of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.  We wandered more through the Sultanahmet neighborhood, and found ourselves at the Grand Bazaar, where we had more caffeine, absorbed the sights, and got turned around.  Since we had exited the Bazaar nowhere near where we thought we had, we wound up exploring the Laleli neighborhood, which was quite an experience.  It’s the wholesale clothing district, so we kept going into shops where we weren’t allowed to buy anything.  Interestingly enough, the common language of the area (probably in addition to Turkish) is Russian.  I assume this is because this is where all the clothes for sale in the boutiques on the streets of Tbilisi and other former Soviet republics come from.  It was a very different side of Istanbul, and it felt like a glimpse into the inner workings of the Caucasus.  Eventually we got our bearings and made our way back to the hostel for an early night.

Golden Mosaic in the Hagia Sophia--sparkly!

Golden Mosaic in the Hagia Sophia–sparkly!

The next day was our big tourism day.  The Underground Cistern, the Hagia Sophia, and Topkapi Palace.  We started at the Underground Cistern, because travel guides recommended that that was the most efficient route to minimize time spent standing in line–I think other people have read the same suggestion, so I don’t know if it’s really such a great strategy right now.  That being said, the Underground Cistern is definitely worth a visit–it’s cool and dark and really quite impressive in its scope.  The line for the Hagia Sophia was quite overwhelming, and at first I was unimpressed “Oh, look, another old Orthodox Church, I’ve seen a million….WOW”.  The splendor is somewhat overshadowed by the crowds of tourists, but it really is a spectacular place.  The number of exclamations from visitors saying “Oh my God, it’s so beautiful” suggest that the architects’ goal is to this day being achieved.  (The Russian tourists were, however, incredibly obnoxious.  Our Russian skills came in handing pointing out to the новые русские that lines did, in fact, apply to them as well).

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Topkapi Palace–see what I mean about the tile?

We stopped by the Blue Mosque, but it was closed for prayers, so we proceeded on to lunch.  We chose a restaurant at random, and found ourselves in the Stone House Restaurant.  It was exactly what we were looking for: classic, simple Turkish food that was delicious.  As it turned out, the staff were Georgians (Unfortunately, I hadn’t miraculous developed the ability to understand Turkish: they were speaking Georgian).  Our new friends Zaza and Natia overwhelmed us with a combination of Turkish and Georgian hospitality, and we got lots of delicious extras with our meal.  We still had a busy afternoon of sightseeing, though, so we had to make our excuses and find our way to Topkapi Palace.  It lived up to its name and was certainly palatial.  Although I had read the descriptions in tour books, I was unprepared for just how extensive the museum and grounds are.  We didn’t even bother trying to see everything and felt quite fatigued from trying.  The additional 15 lira to see the harem was, in my opinion, worth it.  What impressed me most about the palace was not the jewels or the opulent living quarters, but the beautiful, beautiful tiles covering almost every surface in jewel tones and geometric and floral designs.  Very impressive.

The next day was a bit more relaxing, we started off with a visit to the Blue Mosque, which was (of course) incredibly beautiful.  Then we were horrible American tourists and went to the mall.  It was awesome.  I was able to replace some of my clothes that Georgia has killed, and I got some food souvenirs at the Carrefour (better quality and lower prices than at a candy shop near the tourist attractions. Pro Tip).  That evening we gathered together a group of friends from all over the world and various parts of our lives who all happened to be in Istanbul for the weekend (so great) and had dinner together.  It was fantastic to get together with people who’d never met before, but all had something in common and spend time together sort of like old friends.  We went to Galata Kiva, a restaurant specializing in “Modern Eastern Turkish Fusion” or something like that (the fancy menu is only available in the front portion of the restaurant) where I was able to mark Orthodox Easter with the traditional Georgian Easter dish of lamb with plums and tarragon (ჩაქაფული chakapuli), which is apparently also popular in Eastern Turkey.  Not that surprising, really, but still a nice surprise.  I also highly recommend the “eggplant dessert”.  It’s weird, but amazing.

The next morning we were off to the airport.  I woke up early, though, partially due to my nerves about flying, and partially because I still had a few things I wanted to do.  I savored a last Starbucks drink, changed some last money into lira to get me to the airport, and bought a scarf.  This was actually my favorite wander around Istanbul, though.  It was lovely to see the city when it was quiet and peaceful and empty of tourists.  It left a good final impression of the city (and I saw some kitties).

istanbul panorama

Overall, Istanbul is crowded and expensive and stressful.  And I loved it because it’s also welcoming, and beautiful and exciting.  Nonetheless, I was glad to arrive back “home” in Tbilisi.

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