39.93° N, 32.85° E
The central Anatolian air is arid and cool, but this doesn’t keep Diana from wearing only the bare essential spandex as she runs through the early city streets. Nearly 6’, and Chinese-American, she draws plenty of undesired attention as she runs her morning miles; she’s simply too Far-Eastern to go unnoticed along these Near-Eastern streets of Old Galatia. Which is why she had started bringing me along on her runs: jogging, huffing, puking, stitch-in-side by her side until she realized the safety in numbers wasn’t worth my slowing her down. Now she runs on her own as I sleep-in. But don’t let me drink alone, I beg of her. Not tonight. You have Uncle Abe, Diana says, deflecting. Ibrahim and I will argue all night if you’re not there to distract us with your beauty and wisdom, I say in attempt to appeal to her generous ego. Besides, it won’t be long before Turkey closes down all of these meyhanes. Don’t you want to witness the last call of the Ottomans, I ask, appealing to her sense of novelty. One drink, I insist. One drink, Diana acquiesces, leaving me grinning like an idiot.
Without Uncle Abe, I am not sure we find our way to the speakeasy. The conservative Turkish government has outlawed the advertisement of drinking establishments. Signs advertising bars are verboten; there certainly are no neon Pabst Blue Ribbon or Lite Beer signs blinking from the window. This legislature flies in the face of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the father of modern Turkey, who drank up to a half-liter of rakı daily when he ran the show a century ago. Current President Erdoğan has gone on the record to say, “how come laws made by two drunkards are reputable” referring to old Atatürk and Atatürk’s pal Ismet. Erdoğan went on to say, “no one should make alcohol a matter of identity… if you want to drink, go drink at home.” Boo! What’s next Erdoğan? Outlaw eating in public? No one should make eating a Twinkie a matter of identity either, but you can’t banish them to guilt-munch in the closet.
Ibrahim, the Turkish uncle I always wanted but never had until last week, is no friend of Erdoğan. He says, in hushed tones, when around trusted ears, Erdoğan is an ass-tuplip, göt lalesi. The tavern, meyhane, is a place of discussion, Ibrahim tells us. The meyhane is a place where poets find refuge, where interesting people gather and discuss history. In the meyhane, Ibrahim says, you do not cheers and clink glasses at the top, as you do in the west. No, we say to the honor, Şerefe, and our glasses touch at the bottom. We cheers at the bottom of the glass because no matter the man, be he shoe-maker or prince, we are all equal in the meyhane. Cheers to that, I say, raising a glass of tea because the booze hasn’t arrived yet.
The tavern we are sitting in is located in central Ankara, the capital of Turkey in the middle of Asia Minor in the crossroads of the world. The tables are low, but there’s a ton of thrown fucking pillows and rugs for everyone to lounge about. Turkish hip-hop is playing: Turkish emigres in Germany producing the bulk of the popular genre. The patronage of the tavern is a mixed-bag; a third are locals, but even those are here seeking the foreigners doing business in Turkey’s capital city. Most of the crowd gathered within are foreign dignitaries seeking out the best place in town for booze. At Babanın Yeri, or “my father’s place”, there are Dutch oilmen and Russian oligarchs and German bankrollers of the Syrian Civil War and Belgian gemologists and American oilmen and Chinese bureaucrats and Qatari princes and Canadian oilmen and English actuaries pausing by our table to inquire upon Diana. Oh, hello? And who might you be? Willst du meine briefmarkensammlung sehen? Come here often? And Diana promptly tells each of them, in succession, to go away. Ibrahim, Uncle Abe, clicks his tongue at the intruders, tilting his head back and rolling his eyes up. Toz ol!, he says, become dust. His gestures and Turkish may not be universal, but they are obvious: fuck-off, man.
The waiter arrives with two bottles of clear liquids. One is the brandy, rakı, the other is distilled water. Another waiter arrives with plates of mezes: feta cheese, melon, roasted chickpeas. Ibrahim plays host and fills our individual glasses with rakı, diluting the brandy with enough water to cloudy the mixture into Lion’s Milk: aslan sütü. Diana, scientist she is, becomes fascinated with the saturation point which turns the brandy milky. As for me, I am more intrigued with how each sip of rakı is better than the last. While most alcoholic beverages operate within the law of diminishing returns, this strange Turkish boozy delight not only becomes tastier with each sip, but metamorphoses me into a better man: handsomer, taller, more cunning. At least Diana seems to think so as the evening progresses and she slides nearer.
The meyhane, Ibrahim tells us, is called “the locksmith table”, because when rakı is consumed, the truth is unlocked and ideas spring forth and knowledge is shared. Rakı is similar to French pastis, Italian sambuca, Greek ouzo and Egyptian zebib in that it is flavored by anise and tastes like shit until you drink enough to numb your palette; then it’s delicious. Most of the westerners here tonight are chasing the brandy with mugs of beer, but this is frowned upon. Rakı is meant to be followed by small plates of food, such as the mackerel, artichoke hearts, lamb livers, lamb necks, lamb brains and sardines offered on the menu. It’s a wonder there’s any rams in this country with the hunger for lamb, I say, which Ibrahim counters with, only one ram today is needed for all the lambs of tomorrow. Well said, Uncle Abraham.
Şerefe!, Diana says, raising her cup of lion’s milk: rakı with distilled water. Sağlığına!, Ibrahim counters Diana’s toast with a toast to her health. First one today, I say, raising my glass. We clink the bottoms of our glasses. Diana may be a surgeon and Uncle Abe a historian and me a pizza delivery man, but in this tavern we are all equals.
Oh that went down well. Uno mas por favor, I tell the waiter. Şerefe!, I raise my cup of lion’s milk. Sağlığına!, Diana raises hers. First one today, Ibrahim laughs as he raises his cup to clink with our three. We drink, we laugh and Ibrahim wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. It is custom, he says. Yumruk mezesi is the custom to clear the booze out of the mustache. I wipe my mouth dry and offer my hand as a napkin to Diana who isn’t interested.
The brutality of the Ottomans in the succession of rule was no worse than the Byzantines, Ibrahim says to me between hiccups. The Christian Byzantine emperors were cutting the eyes and tongues out of rivals just the same as the Ottomans, he says. Sure, I accept, the violence is the same, but the scale of fratricide is incomparable! Byzantines had compact nuclear families: emperor, empress, half a dozen legitimate offspring, half a dozen mistresses and perhaps a dozen illegitimate offspring. The Byzantine Greeks only had to worry about a handful of brothers and sons to challenge the throne. The Ottoman emperors, on the other hand, were born from a prior emperor and a harem sex slaves. Ottoman emperors would have harems fifty sex-slaves deep. Rivals to the throne could include fifty half-brothers and a hundred sons. When Ottoman emperors eliminated their rival kin, hundreds of kinfolk would be butchered. When I say this, Ibrahim clicks his tongue and rolls his eyes back into his head. Victor, he says, a motherfucker is a motherfucker. It doesn’t matter how many of the mothers he is fucking. A brother-killer is same. Kill one brother, kill fifty, is all the same. I realize Abe’s right; you cannot quantify fratricide. Who cares about the difference between a simple mass murderer and a genocidal war criminal? Either way, you don’t want to invite them to dinner.
Şerefe!, Diana says to distract us with the next round of rakı. I raise my glass in toast, if I must be murdered by a brother, may it be by silken bowstring! Shall I ever murder you, Ibrahim clinks my glass, I promise you this: it shall be strangulation by silk. To family, I say. To family, they say. We drink.
You have an appeal, Diana says, after much more than one drink, her eyes dancing between my face and the rest of me as I sit on a Persian rug, knees rubbing against the table. You’ve a retro-sexual vibe going on, Diana says. Oh? I smile, pleased with these developments. Yes, Diana confirms before saying, a poor man’s Burt Reynolds… my mother would definitely go for you. Diana then bursts into a fit of unexpected laughter. Suddenly bashful at the noise of her staccato laughing, she ducks her head until her dark raven hair spills over her face. Eventually, her surgeon’s hand brushes it all back away to reveal she is still smiling.
After more rakı, I am comparing Diana of Boston to Helen of Troy. A couple of flighty princesses, a pair of faces which could launch a thousand ships, as the Iliad tells us. But Helen would have never chosen Ankara. This is an Asia-Minor backwater. Back then, Troy was a lovely seaport: beaches, fresh seafood, cabana boys, what’s not a Grecian princess to love? I know this, I say, because I was there, in the ruins of old Troia, my knees in the dirt of an archaeology dig a few days west of here. You could see the Dardanelles and smell the salt in the air. It’s a beautiful place. But Ankara? Helen of Troy would’ve never settled for Ankara. Why should Diana? It’s a rhetorical question; obviously as Diana is on-stage dancing beside the belly-dancer.
As the next round arrives, fasıl music is playing in the background as Diana returns to count each drop of distilled water required to reach the saturation point of turning rakı into lion’s milk, aslan sütü. We have a toast, Ibrahim tells us from his uncomfortable slouched position, may our worst day be like this! Salud, dude, I respond with a raised glass. With the drinking of rakı in the meyhane, Ibrahim says, you must savor each sip, relax, enjoy, create a joyful soul, bring about conversation and become a community. What’s a community without the dancing girls, I ask him. In time, Victor, Uncle Abe says to me as I drink the lion’s share of the lion’s milk.
Another round of rakı, more toasts to health and honor. Suleiman the Magnificent had molten lead poured down the throats of drunks, I mentioned the sordid history of Ottomans to Ibrahim. Uncle Abe knocked his rakı glass on the table to honor the soul of a cousin who was murdered by damned Kurds. Diana and I share glances, cringing, maybe let’s not get involved in this conversation. Şerefe!, we say.
Turkish coffee is served with halva and melted bitter chocolate. And another round of rakı. Why stop now when Mustafa Kemal Atatürk drank a half-liter of the stuff every day? Right? But… Didn’t Atatürk die of cirrhosis of the liver? Sure, but don’t lose the tree for the forest. Or whatever. I’m drunk.
One day a dervish goes into the mosque and prays to God to provide him money for a bottle of wine, Ibrahim tells us. The man beside the dervish is praying for faith. After their prayers, the man says to the dervish, you are a heretic to pray for money for wine! Are you not ashamed? The dervish calmly replies, we should only ask of God what we do not have. Thanks be to God, I have plenty of faith. My only want then is for wine, unlike you, Yavşak, the dervish says, calling the faithless man a new-born flea.
Şerefe!, we say and clink glasses at the bottom. After drinking, we wiped our mouths with the back of our hands as Ibrahim taught us.