Thursday, December 03, 2009

Cum mortuis in lingua mortua

Like God, I am regularly disappointed by the people of the Near and Middle East.

The Lord granted them a hot and dusty climate, languages that make Welsh sound like birdsong, an array of ghastly, antagonistic religions and ready recourse to firearms, but all the hairy little bastards can do is complain and belt each other around the withers with Righteous Swords of This-And-That.

It comes as no surprise that people who want to enjoy themselves are the region's chief export, and that it attracts a pretty glum type of tourist. The only foreigners you see wandering around at their leisure are bumfaced women with short grey hair, their stooped and willowy husbands in sleeveless jackets and tweed hats, the occasional heretic-hunter, and members of the European Parliament.

This is a shame, as the Levant and its sandy hinterland preserve one of the chief joys now denied to most Europeans - two-fisted, bat-lunged smoking. If I were the tourism ministry of Syria, for example, I would ditch the posters of stylites, waterwheels and poetry-reading in favour of a large bucket of cigarettes with the words "And They're Cheaper Than A Basingstoke Bunk-Up" engraved thereon.

A poster campaign could follow, showing cheery moustachioed dads celebrating the birth of their masculine children with a smoke-in at the local maternity clinic.

But no, Syria has instead decided to ban smoking in public places. So far so typical for the joyless, slab-skulled Baathists, but the real punch to the pulmonaries was to hear that Turkey had brought in a smoking ban some time earlier.

Readers of this web blog will be familiar with both my enthusiasm for smoking and my admiration for the Turk - a square-headed pragmatist in a region of rat-eared madmen.

It is true that not even a Maoist can approve of everything the Turks have done along the pointy lance of their history, but on balance they've managed to dispense with religion, random hats, curly alphabets and tyrants with a higher degree of success than any of their neighbours to the south-east.

In the meantime they have given us ciggies, the assisted bath as a means of relaxation, and a prison system generous enough to accommodate all the whining druggies the West can spare.

I hope the broad-trousered Turk will defend his right to shroud the wine-dark Eastern Aegean in an absinthe-green haze. If not, the preachy types currently trying on the mighty boots of Atatürk will fetter his remaining freedoms in a fundamentalist firman.

For next comes membership of the European Union, which would oblige the erstwhile Ottomans to hyphenate their moustaches and drink watery coffee from bowls.

One of my formative smoking experiences happened in Istanbul. In pre-uxorious days I spent my leave on city breaks of an improving nature. I would chose a city of culture, book a long weekend, and spend it drinking heavily within sight of some of the finest buildings and richly-endowed art galleries of Europe and beyond.

A literally purple passage in Patrick Leigh Fermor's Mani once launched my drunken barque in the general direction of Stamboul. I've always been jealous of people whom Dirk Bogarde represented on screen, and none more so than Paddy.

In the great man's tsikoudia-laced reverie, as I recalled it, the Patriarch of Constantinople leads a restored Byzantine fleet up the Hellespont as the Turks slope back to the howling steppes of Tartary. A bejewelled Pophyrogenitos acknowledges the cheers from mackerel-crowded streets ashoreiarioi and logothetai,manglavitai and spatharokandidatoi unfurl the cross-and-betae flag in the shade of Haghia Sophia.

Vibrant and diverse, but not in a Whitechapel way.

In fact, Leigh Fermor wrote nothing of the sort, and his mild imagining of Dunkirk flotillas of Greek fisherman huddling in Anatolian harbours concluded with the cadence "But in the City itself, the throne of the Emperors was vacant..." (New York Review Books Classics edition, 2006, pp44-45). Old men forget, middle-aged ones spice it up.

Istanbul itself was bigger-hearted and smaller-headed than its imperial predecessor. It rained for five days, so I spent my time in nightclubs and catacombs. On the last day I tired of slouching in Western and Byzantine ruins, so flapped squeaking from the Basilica Cistern in urgent need of some bracing, ballbusting Turkish culture.

My cherished copy of the oft-banned "Discerning Gentleman's Guide to The Golden Horn" by Conrad Latto (Editions du Crépuscule, Maison Blanche, Algers, 1938) had recommended a nargile kiosk near the university as a "discrete and discreet entrepôt on the Forum Tauri, where herbal salves may be bargained from a Smyrniote Hebrew of saturnine mien".

Some enquiries among the tabacs maudits of Beyazit Square led me through a portico of booksellers to a raised wooden hexagon in a quiet courtyard. I slipped into a world of smoke and shutters, where leaden-lidded Anatolians tugged on serpentine hoses, a world of stoic near-silence.

Little troubled the hush but the rush of bubbles through water jars, the thrub of thoroughbred hooves from the televised racetrack, and an occasional click of tongue on teeth as a favourite fell behind.

The smokers sat on a bench that ran around the room, leaving a carpeted expanse to fill with their fumes. I perched, and a boy scurried to my side with hookah, apple tobacco and a light. The recumbent Turks flicked glances my way, and were as reassured as I when the coals started to smoulder and heavenly vapours invaded my head.

Carpet-toters, sheep-shavers, wood-carvers and copper-rattlers plied the route from hookah to bookmaker and back, backgammon sets unfolded like odalisques in state rooms, back vowels brushed against labials, and everyone was very male.

The tea boy would poke his cropped skull through the door every 20 minutes and chirrup "çay?" He'd count the barely-arched eyebrows and return with a matching tally of steaming tulip glasses.

Except in my case. He'd make a special journey across the kiosk to me, and ask in elaborate Ottoman whether I would honour his urn with the slaking of my thirst. "Er, gosh, thanks, a pleasure - no sugar!" I'd stammer, turning all Joyce Grenfell as Brits do when confronted with Levantine flummery.

An hour passed pleasantly, then in came a group of students from the university across the square. Two young men in what a cad would call "Balkan preppy", and a couple of blondes who must have been among the city's avid Harpers readers. They ordered hookahs and began a loud conversation. Within 15 minutes the nargiles lay neglected, their plates serving as ashtrays for the Crusader's Malboro Lights.

There's a moment in Billy Wilder films when the character achieves self-awareness - rather like the machines in Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Comade Garbo trying on the fancy hat in Ninotchka is my favourite.

Something similar happened in that Bosphorus fumidor. The artisans cast a cold eye at the Young Turks, with their pastel shades, pashminas, filter tips and chit-chat, then considered the taciturn Frank in their midst. I toked the smoke, drank the tea and firmly did not talk any talk.

The sign that I had been accepted in a conditional way came from the teaboy, the Mini-Mabuse of this Expressionist mime. He strolled over to the students and asked whether they would like anything else. Then he turned in the doorway and gave the rest of the room a casual "çay?"

Although I boast two eyebrows, this time one of them was among the silent chosen. Never ask me which.


Ian Plenderleith said...

It's when they ban smoking in the Balkans that we should really be worried. I've a hunch it could kick the whole region off again. Not exactly sure how, but I bet Gavrilo Princip's contemporaries often cast a wary pre-1914 eye over him and said, "Mark my words, that lad's trouble."

Gareth Williams said...

Thank you. Very pleasantly palpable. Having given up following the birth of my first-born that's the closest I'm going to get to a toke until next time I'm shit-faced and the wife isn't looking. (Could be a while). Tangibly exotic too. (Could be even longer).

No Good Boyo said...

Gents, you speak truth to power.

The introduction of new concepts to the Balkans always leads to a European kick-off of grim proportions, Pop.

With Princip it was the Austrian proposal to replace the letter "c" with the letter "z" throughout the peninsula. He took this personally.

Milosevic objected to the Council of Europe's idea that Muslims are not Turkish vampires and deserve a vote, if only one between them.

A smoking ban will have them banging on the gates of Vienna with the severed heads of censorious middle-class English mummies mounted on their chainmailed members.

Gaw, I gave up after Arianrhod was born, but feel that next time I lapse it ought to be with something more substantial than a Dunhill. I've prepared a Crowley roll-up - perique soaked in rum - and keep it behind my ear in case of emergency and to repel insects.

Unknown said...

Memories of egg shops and wiry porters bent double lugging vast fridge freezers roped to their backs.

Gadjo Dilo said...

With the little money and the one afternoon I had in Istambul I also smoked a naghila (also apple tobacco, coincindentally) in a cafe, and gazed at the giant photos of Atatürk with cigarette in hand in the airport lounge and wondered how any Turkish man could not be bisexual after having had a leader of such astounding beauty.

No Good Boyo said...

At the risk of getting kebabbed by Disgusted, Diyarbakir, Gafjo, I recall that Mustafa Kemal was as keen on young chaps as your average Ottoman. Perhaps a sign that they are easily as European as the Dutch.

The last sultan scrubbed up well too. Check his candy ass on this nutter's Youtube vid:

Egg shops are something else Turks have in common with the Dutch, although the ones in Amsterdam seem to be inedible and to vibrate of their own accord.

Daphne Wayne-Bough said...

A wonderful picture you painted there, Boyo, I could smell the hair pommade. An excellent lesson in how to Fit In When Abroad: Say nothing and do like everyone else. Shisha shops are becoming very trendy here in Brussels. Now I'm only an occasional smoker I may eschew Benson and Hedges for something more exotic.

Gadjo Dilo said...

Hmm, not bad Boyo, though for me the John Lennon glasses don't really work.

No Good Boyo said...

Thanks Daphne, I hope it serves as a lesson to gap-year youth. On the other hand, perhaps not. A judicious cull of floppy-fringed Bens, not to mention tied-dyed drabs called Polly would do the ecology the world of good. Not that I'm openly advocating international Klassenkampf or anything.

Gadj, Mehmet VI was an early Lennonist:

"Imagine there's no country,
And suddenly there's not,
Those bloody Ataturkists
Even took my yacht..."

Gyppo Byard said...

You write so creatively. Please avoid ever visiting Singapore, it may not survive the experience.

On second thoughts, do visit Singapore...

I tried a hookah once, when in Azerbaijan. They beat ciggies any day of the week, although they lag behind the briar pipe for posing and gesturing.

No Good Boyo said...

A stout briar fits better in the pocket, unless you're a poacher.

Singapore needs some Welshing by the sounds of it. Their SGLI (So Gross Loucheness Indicator)is as low as a Llanelli girdle.

No Good Boyo said...

Wise words, anon, and compassionate too. The Tibetans do indeed go on about yetis too much, and I've never meet an Uighur either. I am, however, pretty sure the Mongolians do not trap the spirits of their ancestors in saddle bags.

For my further views on China's cultural legacy, I direct you here:

Anonymous said...

"I would chose a city of culture, book a long weekend, and spend it drinking heavily within sight of some of the finest buildings and richly-endowed art galleries of Europe and beyond."

Ah yes, civilised old school cultural tourism. It's the only way to do it.

Support Wessex 81 Biker said...

I remember, like it was yesterday when my friend Nigel and I rode into Istanbul on out motorcycles after 3 days hard ridin' from the UK. We looked at "beautiful Bosphor", and smelled it too. We appreciated the 100-degree heat after many hundreds of miles in the rain. We stopped and purchased ten cans (each) of Efes Pilsner from a road-side seller, and I smoked my cherry-flavoured pipe tobaccoo, he his Old Holborn in a roll-up. After a bit when we had drunk all the beer, he said: "It smells like old trousers here - let's go home". So we did.

No Good Boyo said...

Efes is a poor brew, makes US beers seem respectable. The old trousers were mine. After five days of rain I just left them there. Sorry.

Kevin Musgrove said...

hope you and yours have a good thingywhatsis and a happy new year, Boyo!

No Good Boyo said...

Same to you and one and all, Kev. As to Anon, I have to point out I paid my debts to Miss Fah lo Suee and consider myself at liberty to divulge all about the jewels of Kâramanèh.

SnoopyTheGoon said...

I have a slight suspicion re your liberal translation of "whether I would honour his urn with the slaking of my thirst".

I would suggest to try "urine" in place of "urn" and see whether this matches your olfactory and taste buds' memories better.

Anyhow, from my last (and only) visit to the place, Turkey is no more a bastion of free smokers, to my deep frustration.

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