Istanbul Stories and Tips

Of duelling muezzins and smoke-filled meyhanes

Blue Mosque at sunset Photo, Istanbul, Turkey

I've just returned from Istanbul, a city where history conspires to waylay the visitor at the oddest places. It’s a land of colorful bazaars and old-fashioned courtesy existing alongside cell-phone chatting youth and CNN International News on TV. Tantalizingly foreign (but not disconcertingly so), we found Istanbul a relatively easy city to travel in.

On our first Istanbul morning we were woken at the crack of dawn by what sounded at first like an air siren. Sitting groggily upright in bed, the sound resolved itself into a discernibly human voice. Ah, the morning call to prayer. Of course – how could I have forgotten? Our hotel was located near the Blue Mosque, but within range of a second mosque which featured the five-times daily call to prayer. This otherwise excellent location led to a phenomenon my husband and I referred to as "duelling muezzins." While we had no idea whatsoever what they were calling, the two muezzins seemed to be perpetually trying to outdo each other.

We imagined a long-standing feud between the muezzins in opposing minarets, with each one trying to outperform the other. However, the fellow calling from the Blue Mosque possessed the more magnificent set of lungs; he was truly gifted, nay, inspired. Walking through the Hippodrome (adjacent to the Blue Mosque) one afternoon, we heard what had to be THE longest sustained "Allllllllaaaaaahhhhhhh Akkkkhhhhbaaaar" in world history. The poor muezzin calling from the second mosque was completely drowned out, not to mention that his loudspeakers had an unfortunate resonant buzz to them, which rendered his sacred call into an incomprehensible insect-like drone.

If the call to prayer set the tone for exotic old Istanbul, the vibrant nightlife in the Taksim district set the tone for the new. We went to Taksim on three of the five nights we stayed in Istanbul, drawn like moths to the lights, sounds, and scents of its most lively street, Istiklal Caddesi, which stretches from Taksim Square down Beyoglu hill.

Now, any good trip (at least in my book) takes in multiple pubs or taverns or what-have-you, both for liquid refreshment and the opportunity to see how the local populace behaves in a relaxed setting. You can learn a lot about a culture by seeing how its people behave when they’re out drinking. Are they quarrelsome? Jolly? Confused? Morose? Do they sing? Dance? Throw things at one another? Debate? Do they drink slowly? Quickly? Enough to get sick? Are they generous? Stingy? You get the idea.

In Istanbul we sought out a particular kind of "folklore" tavern, or meyhane, which is usually found down a side street, set in the basement of a building. There are a number of these places off of the little streets that feather out from Istiklal Caddesi. In most cases, the meyhanes are long and narrow, consisting of a central aisle with tables set on either side. They’re invariably smoke-filled, as many Turks (especially the ones given to frequenting meyhanes) are inveterate chain smokers. My hope in seeking out meyhanes was to kill two birds with one stone by doing a little research into Turkish music and observing people at the same time.

The music varied from meyhane to meyhane, definitely setting the tone for the establishment depending on whether it was soulful or festive. There was typically a trio, usually consisting of musician on a stringed instrument such as a violin, ud (Turkish lute), buzuq (long necked lute-like instrument), or guitar; a percussionist, usually playing a darbuka (similar to tablahs); and someone playing a wind instrument such as a clarinet or ney (throaty flute), though on one occasion there was a qanun (dulcimer) rather than a wind instrument. The musicians were universally sober, so far as I could tell. The audience, however, never was.

The best meyhane we went to was called "Sal" (pronounced "shal"). The musicians were wonderful, the trio consisting of a classic Turkish beauty with a clear, soft voice accompanying herself on darbukha, an ascetic-looking fellow with several days' stubble on his wan olive cheeks playing the buzuq, and a third salt-of-the-earth looking fellow on qanun. I had been told by the person who had recommended the place that the music played there was all Anatolian. If so, then that now makes me a big Anatolian music fan. Marvelous stuff.

The meyhane patrons sang enthusiastically along to each song, clapping and responding in a call-and-response pattern. They had obviously spent many a night sitting in this meyhane singing the same songs. The mood was festive; the large party at the adjacent table was putting away raki (similar to ouzo) at a fast clip. After several rounds, two of the men began moving their shoulders in time to the music. The movement then progressed to their lower arms, finally taking control of the entire limb, so that soon they were waving their arms over their heads in an expressive way that indicated dancing was imminent.

Now, these meyhanes are small. Frankly, there isn't enough room to swing a cat, let alone dance, but dance they did, and with considerable skill, making me conclude that they either had a head for raki or had done the dances since infancy. Chairs were whisked to the side, making a narrow passage well-suited for the line dances - arms around waists or about shoulders - favored by the Anatolians. The lead dancer took up a napkin in his free hand and waved it above his head in small circles in time to the music; this is apparently a standard feature, for I saw it elsewhere. Stomping, crouching, weaving, the dancers moved up and down the room, scooping up our 11-year-old-son, who had been sitting grimacing theatrically over the clouds of cigarette smoke, on the third pass. Greg tried to preserve his facade of indifference, but his pose gave way in seconds to an earnest attempt to follow the dance. Ah, it was a sight to warm a mother's heart, it was, his game and unembarrassed assay down the floor.

The dance came to an end with a final flourish from the darbukha, the dancers collapsing flushed and panting into their respective seats. More raki! More mezes (appetizers)! Here, my friend, have some salted nuts. A little water? That's better. A dozen cigarettes were simultaneously lit, prompting the return of Greg's grimace (he having been thoroughly indoctrinated in the American anti-tobacco campaign). Once the group composed itself, the music started again, but this was not music to dance to. Ah, no, it was the moment we had all been waiting for. The sad, sad song about the home we miss, the woman left behind, the broken heart, the injustice that is life. The entire meyhane indulges in a collective sorrow. A dozen chins are lifted and throats quiver as each sings separately and yet at one. Oh, how beautifully sad; it makes me cry.

I make a note to myself that the Turks, at least the ones in Sal that evening, have been convivial, open-hearted, and, ultimately, poetic. It's how I always want to remember them. But now it is time to leave, for we've had enough of Greg's sulking and, really, it is getting late. I cast an inquiring look toward the waiter, who promptly brings us our check, and we nod our mute good-nights to the people at the surrounding tables. Then, after pausing regretfully at the door, we step out into the cold embrace of the evening.

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