TAMEF Takes Sunnyside Chamber To Turkey
Eight members of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce and
reporter traveled to Turkey, thanks to the efforts of Veysel Ucan, executive director of TAMEF, the Turkish- American Multicultural Education Foundation, located on 45th Street near Queens Boulevard. TAMEF has, on this occasion and others, taken groups to Turkey in a people-to-people program that attempts to acquaint Turks and Americans with each other and establish respect and friendship. Two famous persons of Turkey, one modern, one ancient, appear to be TAMEF's philosophical guides: Fethullah Gulen, a contemporary (and controversial) teacher currently living in Pennsylvania, and Mevlana, a 13th century poet and mystic, more familiarly known here as Rumi.
The late May journey was put together in about a month's time, and in a few instances (mine, for one) required some speedy passport confirmations. But during the third week of the month everything was settled, and we left Kennedy Airport on Saturday, May 19. In addition to Ucan, the Turkey-bound group included Lily Gavin, owner of Dazies Restaurant on Queens Boulevard; her sister, Arta Pascullo, a legal reporter; Terry Facciuto of the Sunnyside Chamber of Commerce and White Castle; Judy Zangwill, executive director of Sunnyside Community Services; her husband, Ric Cherwin, an attorney; also of Sunnyside Community Services Rita Manton, an auctioneer and, significantly for this occasion, a musician, and Hoong-yee Krakauer of Queens Council on the Arts. The flight from New York was on a Saturday but the landing in Istanbul was on a Sunday, so the record of the trip, in diary form, begins on that day.
New York to Istanbul was an 11-12 hour flight. For all but a couple in the group, this was our first look at the Turkish metropolis. My own impression was that it looked like a Mediterranean city to me, such as Barcelona- even a non-Med city such as Madrid, or even Paris. Went to the Hotel Antika, an efficientlooking place where an ancient ruin was discovered as they were building it in the 1980s. The sightseeing march began immediately with a tour of Hagia Sophia, consecrated as a church in 537, converted to a mosque after 1453 and designated a museum in 1935. Its splendid dome seems to be supported miraculously, though repair work currently lends assistance. Jet lag may have been bothering us, but an early evening boat ride on the Bosphorus revived us nicely. Our first evening meal was at a restaurant called Soysal Tasisleri, a family place near the water. Lots of vegetables, fish and the buoyant company of Ucan's friend, Ufuk Akkus, who advised us on such matters as kunefe for dessert- "like baklava, only better," he said. Shredded wheat, cheese and honey- I agreed with Ufuk. He left us then, but said he'd see us when we returned to Istanbul on Friday. We returned to the Antika to rest up for our first full day of activity.
Up by 6 a.m. to finish packing for our eventual getaway from Istanbul. After breakfast, we loaded our luggage into our small bus and were taken back to Hagia Sophia to meet Aykut Ayck, our guide for the day's sights, beginning with nearby Topkapi Palace. This was the center of the Ottoman sultanate from the 15th century until it was abandoned in the 19th. The grounds are beautiful, the buildings interesting, and the collections of such things as weaponry, Chinese porcelains and precious jewels and jades (including the Kasiksi diamond, beloved of thieves) fascinating. From such magnificence, and following lunch, we descended to a sixth-century cistern, built by Romans using columns taken from Anatolian temples they had destroyed. Then on to the Hippodrome, an old race course later adorned with obelisks and columns taken from elsewhere and an 1898 fountain presented to the Ottomans by Kaiser Wilhelm, who later enlisted them as allies in the Great War of 1914-1918. (Ayct dated the empire's doom from the fountain's dedication.) Across the street was the Blue Mosque, perhaps the most impressive sight in the city. The 17th century building has six minarets, indicating that it was dedicated by a sultan, that being Ahmet I. Within, brilliant blue tiles and a dome and half-domes held up by sturdy columns, were architectural developments the Hagia Sophia lacked. We had about an hour then to shop or sit down to tea. Ayck bade us goodbye and, when our bus arrived, we went to a restaurant owned by a man who formerly owned Hemsin on Queens Boulevard. Gavin was captivated by the drapery in the window and vowed to get something similar for Dazies. The food was fine, but we were in an eat-and-run pattern. Off to the airport for a flight to Konya, seat of the old Seljuk empire, and rooms at the Otel Seljuk. We were deep in Turkey now.
Breakfast at the hotel, where the busboys acted like military guards, then on to a local museum and then the Mevlana Museum, the rose garden of the Seljuk palace that was given in the early 13th century to Bahaeddin Veled, "Sultan of Scholars" and father of Mevlana, or Rumi (1207-1273), who inherited his father's position and for more than 40 years conducted a school and wrote (in Persian) the poetry for which he is perhaps best known today. He was also head of the Dervishes, mystics known for their fezzes and their whirling dances. The guide's description of Mevlana's teachings "moved me to tears," said Manton. It put us in a mood for lunch, too: outdoors and beside a pool at a restaurant called Akdag. There we had four kinds of fish and talked to two local businessmen, Basil and Mustafa, who share the general TAMEF belief. In the afternoon, we visited a private primary school, where the love continued because of the kids' enthusiasm for us, and vice versa. We visited several classrooms, then had an interview with the principal while a few kids peeked into the room. When the interview was ended classes had been let out, but the few kids left gave us a big goodbye as we left on the bus. Our evening meal was at a private house, the first of two on our schedule. Our host was Mustafa Ozturk, with his wife and collegeage son also in attendance. The meal included several layers of a meat-covered flat bread that was better than pizza. When we said goodbye to our host and returned to the hotel, we heard about a bombing in Ankara (not on our itinerary), with several killed, and we wondered if the trouble would spread.
A very busy day, though much of it was spent just traveling by minibus. Early wake-up and breakfast because of the long ride to Kapadokya. We traveled first amidst low brown mountains, out of which a high mountain appeared to the south of our route; at a rest stop I saw a map that identified it as more than 10,000 feet high, quite a contrast. The terrain changed radically as we neared our destination, coming to resemble the lunar landscape of Aragon in Spain. Then we saw those rocks one sees in the tourist literature: tall, looking like Oriental monks of some sort, all of them topped with what look like hats. They stand amidst cliffs pocked with windows and doorways dug out of the comparatively soft rock by dwellers of centuries past. We paused for lunch at a restaurant with a fine overlook, then went out to get a closer look at those cliff dwellings. We ascended and descended, though some of us confined their up-and-down activity to sitting on an available camel. Our next stop was the Chez Ali Pottery Workshop, where only Krakauer was brave enough to try making a pot out of clay. On we went to the Open Air Museum of Christian shrines created right in the cliffs. Climbing down from that, we got on the bus and went to the town of Kaymakli to explore its ancient "underground city", a refuge from invading armies dug out of the soft rock to a level eight stories deep (though only four were open to us). After visiting the town market briefly, we went to the Hotel Elvan, a beautiful rural hostel we wouldn't get to enjoy much, since the next morning we were supposed to depart for the airport at 5:15!
The electronic muezzin in the local mosque gave us an unrequested wake-up call (to prayer) at 4:15 a.m. An hour later, we were boarding the bus and by 7 a.m. were in flight to Izmir. Our journey then was eastward, toward Ephesus. First stop was high up a mountain to the house where the Virgin Mary reportedly spent her last years. Then it was down to Ephesus itself. One of the great cities of the ancient world, whose citizens were addressed by St. Paul in one of his Epistles, Ephesus was situated beneath green mountains yet was also a port on the Aegean Sea. It was built and rebuilt several times before being finally abandoned in the 10th century A.D., a victim of too many malaria plagues, according to our excellent guide. What remains has provided work for archeologists and historians in recent centuries. The guide made a semblance of order for us out of the seemingly scattered stones of the old city. We saw the political forum, religious sites, the library, the baths, the roadways and a spectacular amphitheatre that is visible from the highway as one approaches the site. Ephesus may have made the best impression on us of anything we saw all week. We traveled on to Turkmen Art & Rug, where Turgay Irtem, a medical doctor turned carpet expert, explained and demonstrated weaving to us. He showed us a brilliant collection of wool and silk rugs, carpets and runners, while serving us a light lunch and telling us, in his skillfully acquired English (though able to speak English with idiomatic fluency, he has never lived outside Turkey, he said) about what to look for in carpeting. We were fascinated by a demonstration of how silk fibers are gathered from silkworm cocoons. After that, it was a bus ride into Izmir and a check-in at the Princess Hotel, where we had little time to linger before we had to go to another dinner for us at another family's house. Unlike the Tuesday dinner, held in a prosperous middle class apartment, Thursday's dinner was in a working class apartment in a grim-looking section of town. Several family members and friends greeted us from a balcony on the second (or what they call the first) floor. When we ascended, we entered a well-kept place and met exceptionally friendly people. Lots of food, more than some of us could handle, being overwhelmed by the quantity though admiring its quality. After dinner, Ric Cherwin showed his gratitude to the family by playing several flutes (singly and simultaneously) for them and us. (He said that on a stay in Turkey during his youthful days, he was broke and had to play to earn survival money, so this was quite a change.) Similar to the Tuesday dinner, when we left Thursday evening's visit, the entire group of family and friends stood beside our bus to see us off.
Morning plane flight and return to Istanbul. Back on the bus and over to our next visit, the offices of the newspaper Zaman, housed in a shiny new building. Our contact there was Emrah Ulker, a managing editor of Zaman's English-language spinoff, Today's Zaman. Ulker said he had been a Zaman correspondent in New York for several years (and had lived in New Jersey, but was familiar with Sunnyside) before being called back to become an editor of the new publication. He gave us a quick survey of the current Turkish political picture, especially in light of the bombing in Ankara (which fortunately had not been repeated anywhere else). We went down to the newsroom, where, Ulker told us, some of the writers and editors we saw had come from Canada, the United States and Nigeria. Regarding the building itself, I remarked that it seemed to be a new, sustainable model, or "green" one, and Ulker was proud to say that it is.
Our next destination on this, our last full day in Turkey, was the Dolmabahce Palace, the massive complex built on the shore of the Bosphorus in the mid-19th century to succeed Topkapi Palace as seat of the Ottoman Empire. Such unfathomable wealth surely has few equal displays on earth. Among its treasures is a clock museum, where we marveled at complex chronoscopes brought to the palace from sources as diverse as Paris and Hartford. The park area beside the water is beautiful, and cool on a warm day. From there it was on to lunch, and then to the part some of those on the trip might have been waiting for all week: a visit to the Grand Bazaar, the enclosed, several-block-square area containing some 4,000 separate shops. Much in the way of luggage, jewelry, musical instruments, clothing and rugs got bought, despite such comments as, "You can get this just as cheap in Chinatown!" from the buyers. These purchases were dragged back to the Antika, our hotel at both ends of the trip, and we made ready for one last night out- at a restaurant reached by crossing the Bosphorus Bridge and entering the Asian side of Istanbul. The restaurant, recommended to us by our Sunday night friend Ufuk Akkus, who had returned to us for the occasion, is situated on a height from which we were able to view a spectacular nighttime panorama of European Istanbul in the distance and the Bosphorus Bridge, lighted up in red, in between. (But getting there was not half the fun: Friday night traffic was heavy and wild, and our driver incurred a violation at the toll booth that had us wondering if our stay in Turkey would be unpleasantly extended.) As usual, there was a lot of food, but our appetites, as well as our capacities, by then had begun to falter. Before we left, we said a spirited farewell to Akkus, a most gregarious young man.
Just another occasion to pack luggage, get it downstairs and on the bus, take a ride to the airport, endure security checks, get on the plane . . . and half a day later we were in New York and it was only mid-afternoon.