Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book Reading January 22

Please join me this Tuesday, January 22, 2013 for a reading from my book, "Seeing for Myself: A Political Traveler's Memoir".

The location is Horizon House on First Hill: 900 University Street, at 7:00 pm.

Parking for a fee is available in the underground garage.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013


SEEING FOR MYSELF: A POLITICAL TRAVELER'S MEMOIR is available on KINDLE now, as well as in paperback.

I'll be reading from Seeing for Myself at Elliott Bay Books, 1521 Tenth Avenue on January 12 at 2 pm. Check out what the book company has to say about me and the book:


           From the moment I entered the Konya bus station I sensed an ambience markedly different from Istanbul.  Konya is a bastion of ancient religion, and the women were either veiled or were swathed in frumpy long coats and scarves that obscured their hair.  What a contrast to cosmopolitan, westernized Istanbul, where─thanks to Ataturk’s 1920s reforms─western business suits and skirts predominated. (However, a struggle was beginning between women who favored western dress and those who insisted on the importance of covering their hair.)
           I had enjoyed my stay in Istanbul, but the mid-winter soggy weather had begun to affect my mood, so when a shopkeeper told me the “Whirling Dervishes” would soon be performing in their hometown of Konya that was my cue to move on. But no one at the Istanbul information office or travel agencies could tell me exactly when the Dervishes would be performing. They knew only that their show would go on for a week sometime in December, and I didn’t want to risk missing it.
           As a child, I had been fidgety, and my mother used to say to me, “Stop acting like a whirling Dervish.” My grownup knowledge of Dervishes didn’t go far beyond a vague notion of a frenetic bunch of dancers who sought a state of ecstasy. In the optimistic hope of seeing them perform, I had caught a bus to Konya. Since that hadn’t been on my agenda, I hadn’t found out anything about that city. But on my own in Turkey, I had, so far, found it easy to find my way around. In Istanbul every corner harbored a carpet salesman ready with an enthusiastic greeting and an offer they hoped I couldn’t resist.  Their smatterings of vocabulary in half a dozen languages were often my lifesavers whenever I got lost. Without giving the matter much thought, I probably assumed that if I had trouble getting around, one of the ubiquitous carpet vendors would show up to help. Given my experience in Istanbul, how hard could it be to find my way around a smaller city? 
But when I emerged from the bus in Konya, I was dismayed. No salesmen, no welcoming smiles. I needed help with two things: finding the center of town where I could hunt for a hotel, and getting instructions on how to make a telephone call to my friend Elizabeth in New York. We had parted in Cairo a few weeks earlier, and I had promised to call her at three o’clock on this day. We planned to meet in Morocco. 
Behind a counter a man appeared to be in charge of telephones, or so the logo indicated. I approached with confidence, and asked, “Do you speak English?”  That got me only a negative shake of the head. Sometimes, that means, “I don’t speak it well.”
Or “I’m too self-conscious to test my basic vocabulary.” So I tried, “U.S.A…. America.” Everywhere I’d traveled, locals understood those words. But this time I was faced with no response, unless you count a faint glower. I pantomimed phoning and paying. Still, nothing. I watched with envy as people elbowed in front of me, paid the clerk, and left with cards similar to the ones I’d seen in public telephone stations in Cairo. But I was bewildered. I couldn’t see a phone anywhere. I was uneasy about the press of impatient people behind me, so I gave up and left the counter. I wasn’t sure why, but I followed two dowdy card-carrying women outside, and found that my instincts had been right. A couple of dozen telephones were in evidence, lined up in bright yellow doorless cages. They made me think of a parade of fishermen in rain slickers. 
When I tentatively smiled at women in the Konya bus station, they quickly turned away. Swathed in modest scarves or veils, they appeared to me decidedly old world-ish, and they seemed to regard me as an alien creature, which of course I was. So I reverted to my customary solo travel mode of relying for information about a foreign territory. That means keeping my eye out for a middle-aged man in a western suit. He is likely to be an English speaking, middle or upper class businessman, who knows his way around the area, and is usually delighted to tell me where I am, and how to get somewhere else. 
But, here, the men I asked for help didn’t speak English. That, of course, is one reason people take properly organized group tours. I was about to give up the phone call and find a cab or bus down town, when a pudgy young man approached.  In nearly perfect English he asked if I needed help. His name was Ahmed. He wore a neat sweater and slacks, though his unshaven chin detracted from an otherwise pleasant appearance. But this was not a beauty contest, and I jumped at his offer. He led me back to the phone counter, exchanged information with the clerk and handed the man my change. He then directed me to go outside again.  I was to stand by a phone until he came out. I decided not to question Ahmed. 
All the phones but one were taken, and when I had waited a couple of minutes, a man began to elbow his way in front of me. I shuffled awkwardly. Determined to protect access to “my” phone, I tried to explain my position to the man, though I was sure he wouldn’t understand. Since I didn’t know myself what would happen next, I couldn’t have told him, even in English, the precise basis of my rights. 
As I hesitated, Ahmed raced toward me, shouting, “Pick up the phone!”   
I still worried about the man behind me, but Ahmed elbowed him aside, picked up the receiver, and handed it to me. 
Elizabeth’s voice came through the wire like a small miracle.  It was great to talk to her, especially about our plans to meet in Casablanca. I savored the music of the words we spoke: “Istanbul.” “Casablanca.” “Cairo.” The names of those ancient sites, all part of my adolescent fantasies, still resonated with the ring of romance. Just two days earlier I had gazed in astonishment at the glorious tiles of Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, and the Topkapi Palace, home of the Ottoman Sultan.   Soon I would wander the souks of Marrekesh, in the Moroccan land of great sand drifts, brilliant azure skies, and shadowed, narrow alleys. The land of Humphrey Bogart and Claude Raines. 
As I left the phone booth, Ahmed asked, “Would you like me to recommend an inexpensive hotel?” How did he know? Possibly, because after several wrinkled hours on a bus, I was obviously not destined for five stars. Maybe my backpack gave me away.  
In any case I said, “Yes. Please. Find me the kind of hotel where an American lady my age would not be expected to stay.” 
As Ahmed escorted me to a city bus, I asked about the Dervishes. No problem, he said. He would take me to buy a ticket.  But first he led me to a perfect hotel; perfect for my wallet anyway. Given that qualification, I was not surprised to find a shower with tepid water and no curtain. I had lived in Mexico long enough not to be troubled by shower water raining all over the bathroom. With my room in the hotel secured, Ahmed and I took off on a bus to the sports stadium where the Dervish tickets were sold.
On the way, as Ahmed talked about his life, I was reminded of a friend’s insistence that a story ought to be either funny, interesting or true. Ahmed’s was complex and entertaining, so I wasn’t concerned about its veracity. He said he was twenty-nine, born of a Turkish father and Belgian mother, or the other way around. His drama unfolded in a stream of excited English, which I couldn’t always follow. I tried also to absorb the tale he was telling me, at the same time as I took in street scenes from the bus window. Rows of drab, gray, stone buildings reminded me of the blocks of Soviet-style apartments I’d passed, mile after mile, on the bus to Konya. What a dreary contrast to the splendid ancient mosques in Istanbul. It had taken centuries to regress from stunningly designed architecture to blocks of stone that resembled prisons.
I turned my full attention to Ahmed who said his parents had separated when he was a child, whereupon he was whisked off to Belgium, where he lived with his mother until he was nine. Then he returned to his father in Turkey. A year before I encountered him, he had met a young woman vacationing with her family at the Black Sea. The family invited him to visit their Belgian home and a week later he proposed marriage. The family approved, and with lightning speed the couple was married, and anticipated living happily ever after. But, in spite of his Belgian passport, the government would not let Ahmed immigrate. For reasons obscure to me, his wife could not live with him in Turkey. This was a melancholy tale, but as soon as he saved several thousand dollars, Ahmed said, he could persuade the Belgian authorities to allow him re-entry.  I didn’t ask how he expected to collect the money. But I figured I would probably be contributing to it. 
Ahmed’s problems intrigued me, but before I could ask more questions, we reached the stadium. Under high arches featuring giant pictures of Mevlana, the Sufi founder of the Whirling Dervishes, we proceeded along a long, wide walkway. Inside, a clerk first told me the week’s performance was sold out. My heart sank. But apparently he had only wanted to tease me into disappointment, to enhance my pleasure when he announced that just one ticket had been turned back all week. It was for that very night, and I could have it. I paid the modest sum, and counted my blessings. Some cities are serendipitous, and it began to look as if Konya would be one of them. Ready to leave me on my own, Ahmed instructed me how to get back to the hotel, and how to return to the stadium. He first insisted he didn’t want money; then, after I pressed harder, he agreed to accept something. 
“How much?”
“Whatever you like.”
That was the answer I most disliked, and my head reeled at the information I would need to calculate a fair wage: the price of an official tour, minus a discount for lack of professional training; plus a raise for personalized attention; the Turkish-U.S. exchange rate; Ahmed’s cost of living; discount for his refusal to state a fee at the beginning….And then, of course, there were the restraints of my budget. The task was impossible. My gratitude for Ahmed’s help turned briefly to irritation. How could he expect me to figure out a fair price? In Istanbul I had more or less learned to translate Turkish money into dollars, and I quickly handed Ahmed a few crumpled bills. But I had no way of knowing whether the amount was an insult or enough to feed him for a month. I still don’t know how much money I paid him. That kind of uncertainty is a hazard of my preference for traveling alone and often dealing with the “informal economy.” In spite of the anxiety those habits sometimes provoke, I like the spontaneity and the suspense about what will happen next better than the orderly, predictability of organized group tours. Making my way solo had so far been entertaining, and I was eager to see how the drama of the Dervishes would unfold.
Next: The Dervishes: Part 2