Pomp and Intertext

Cultural Commentary by Erica Eller

Tag: Istanbul

What happened to me as I was writing about Don Quixote

DonQuixoteReading Don Quixote was a pleasure. Writing about it here in Istanbul in the most recent issue of the Bosphorus Review of Books became surreal. I became a detective. I ravaged all kinds of external sources including one of my favorites, Echevarria’s Open Yale Lectures on Don Quixote. Who was this Cervantes, this strange Spanish author fighting the Ottomans and staying captive in Algiers?

My mind started to draw a lot of parallels. Don Quixote seemed to be creating strange links between elements of my life that are otherwise disconnected. I don’t really know what to make of it. I think its a facet of my own quixotic “literary madness.” It’s when we start to see connections across the mediums: between things we’ve read or seen and the reality we’ve actually experienced or even dreamed.And this makes one framework melt into the other. I even dreamt I was releasing prisoners a few nights ago, just as Don Quixote does in one of the scenes.

The fact that Don Quixote goes off to live a romantic lifestyle that he read about sounds so familiar. I did the same by becoming an expat with dreams of writing my novel abroad. It’s not quite the same as a knight errant, but I think the source of inspiration is similar–it’s the inspiration wrought by my library. The heroes of my books, though, are usually the authors themselves.

But then when Quixote meets an arbitrator (I work for a law firm specializing in international arbitration), and the Captain Piedma travels to Istanbul as a slave (the city I live in, which sometimes feels like it has captured me), and a wealthy Moor named Zoraida goes to Spain (one of my closest friends in Istanbul is from Morocco), and when I started reading about how scholars spread news that Cervantes had worked on the Kılıç Ali Paşa Mosque (which is a five minute walk from my doorstep), I started to feel attached like an adoring Little Prince to a particular fox who warms his heart. And it also happens that a few of the most renowned philologists who have theorized the Quixote are Leo Spitzer and Erich Auerbach, both of whom were émigrés in Istanbul for a time to escape Nazi Germany. Even the theme of captivity happens to be something I touched on in my earlier studies on themes of Puritan literature (Mary Rowlandson) and my head looped back to that area of interest. It’s almost too much to bear for one little literary soul.

Am I living in my own Cervantine reality?

I just find it sad, strange, and unfortunate that in our time, the weight of thought control and book burning is felt more here in Istanbul than elsewhere. And to think our own sweet city is where people once escaped from such treatment . . .

For less wistful on the book please read my essay in the Bosphorus Review of Books.

TSA Mistakenly Suspects Me

Egyptian airport security - Imgur

I incidentally left Istanbul, where I live and work, on the day of the terrorist attack at the Atatürk International airport (June 28th). My flight departed at 6am, and the attack occurred at 9pm. I left for a vacation comprised of numerous one-way tickets to random west-coast destinations like Anchorage, Seattle, and San Francisco to visit different family members and friends. My longer flights have also had layovers. Naturally, I’m being held suspect by TSA. In Rome, before the incident even happened, I was patted down and called in for special screening at the security check-point. I had to answer questions about the nature of my travel from Istanbul. I explained that I live and work in Istanbul as a teacher for the SAT and IELTS and I showed them my work visa. My Minneapolis flight gave me similar results. However, nothing compared with the airport treatment I received in Anchorage on my way to Seattle, in the middle of my visit home, yesterday (July 7th). 

It started at the baggage checking point. Since I had extra time, I tried to get information from my Delta representative about the status of my flight back to Istanbul which includes a flight path Delta has not been servicing since April (JFK in NYC to Istanbul). This change had occurred before the recent terrorist attack and I had already tried following up about it twice already. The first time I spoke on the phone for a long time to a Delta representative, but the follow-up email of an alternate flight never came. The second time, I was purged from the line after a forty minute wait on hold. Today, I started out inquiring about the status of my return flight as I was checking luggage to fly to visit my sister in Seattle. The first representative checked my flight in the back room of the Delta office and then returned with the details of my flight, an explanation that there was no information on file about the flight, but the original one had been cancelled. He also had a phone number for me to call about international reservations to find out more info. I asked to speak to a manager in hopes that I could solve the problem and understand the status of my flight with a face-to-face conversation rather than calling over the phone. 

After a long wait for the “manager” to come out, a pert looking woman with straightened silver hair approached me. She explained that there was nothing she could do, and that the other rep had already done everything possible. I retorted that he had not called the number he had given me on my behalf. I persisted, since I felt it was the company’s responsibility to give me a clearer answer and I also explained that I didn’t want to be put on hold for forty minutes to solve this issue. The pert woman called me ‘difficult’ and claimed that as the customer it was my responsibility to follow up by calling that phone number myself.

When, if ever, from the perspective of good customer service is it the customer’s foremost responsibility to hold a company accountable, when a company should work to please and retain a customer?

I asked if she could call it for me, but she was unwilling to make the extra effort. Eventually, she left for the back office again and after I waited for several more minutes, she returned with a flight number from Air France that was apparently my replacement ticket. She claimed that it was no longer Delta’s responsibility and that I should follow up with Air France. The logic is of course absurd, since my original ticket was purchased through Delta, which I still hold responsible for the fate of my return journey. To make matters worse, she again accused me of being difficult, and waived me off, like a fly. I walked away irritated, but happy to have some additional information to follow up on (again). I simply want to ensure that I can get back to Istanbul before August 1st, when my existing work visa will expire as I wait for my next work visa to be processed, which is why I pressed the issue.

Next, I had the ordeal of being targeted by the TSA (again). You’d think that after several instances of having my person thoroughly screened, TSA would have the panache to waive my record of presumed malice. When I got to the first security check-point, I could tell that Anchorage wasn’t used to dealing with “terrorists” like me and brought over six security agents in full uniform. They had to clear and designate a central security aisle just for me and guide me through my rights. On this flight, I happened to be carrying a tote-bag full of children’s garments to deliver from one niece to another such as hand-me-down princess dresses along with my backpack filled with books and my electronic devices. I had the gall to warn them that I did not want this to result in the confiscation of my laptop, which had happened to someone I knew on Facebook. They apologetically assured me that it would not happen to me. When they asked me to turn on my aging laptop, I had to explain that sometimes I need to use the cord because it doesn’t have enough battery power to light itself up. This initiated a group discussion among me and four security agents about what to do. Ultimately, I tested my laptop and it auspiciously lighted up. 

Then, I was basically used as a TSA Guinea pig for trainee security agents who were learning how to properly and gingerly pat me down and scan each and every pink blanket and stuffed animal I had with me. I asked them why it was necessary to do this to me at each airport since it happened in Rome and Minneapolis, too. They said I was probably flagged.’ The joke is on them this time, since they spent about fifteen minutes searching though sparkling toddler-sized sneakers, finding nothing incriminating. I did feel proud to be carrying a Naomi Klein book, “The Shock Doctrine,” that criticizes the excess of private security organizations that have been called in to expand the government’s industry that apparently fights a “war on terror.” From my perspective, an excess of uniformed officials without clear answers due to an overly complex chain of command merely seems to fuel more terror. Later, my name was called again to have my passport checked at the desk of the boarding agent, and finally another red light went off when my ticket was scanned. I got in the habit of just flashing my passport instantly at every stage of the boarding process with a smug look on my face. 

However, apart from any benefit that these screenings did for the public to unnecessarily protect against me, we should recognize that this treatment of unnecessary searches and seizures of property generates discontent. We cannot deny that discontent is a clear byproduct of “security measures.” Furthermore, I personally feel that the discontent I experienced could have and should have been avoided. Not only am I already discontent due to having witnessed the city I live in be dampened by mourning following the wake of a tragic attack on terror, but I am also discontent due to the inadequacy of security systems. Security agents trust their equipment’s judgment so much that they wouldn’t be able to tell a rose from a bomb, by smell.   

Of course, I’m also upset with the system that operates under the guise of “efficiency” according to the TSA website, since clearly there were no need for so many attendants to service my perceived threat: 

Security Screening

TSA has evolved from a one-size-fits-all security screening approach to a risk-based, intelligence-driven strategy designed to improve both security and the passenger experience. This approach permits us to provide expedited screening for trusted travelers and to focus on high-risk and unknown passengers at security checkpoints.

TSA officers may use risk-based security measures to identify, mitigate and resolve potential threats at the airport security checkpoint. These officers may ask you questions about your travel to include identity, travel itinerary and property. TSA may use a variety of screening processes, including random screening, regardless of whether an alarm is triggered. In addition, TSA uses unpredictable security measures throughout the airport and no individual is guaranteed expedited screening.

I don’t quite agree with the statement that TSA uses “unpredictable security measures.” For instance, now that I have been flagged as a “high-risk” traveller, the continued screenings have become quite predictable. However, the part of my experience that I have particular qualms with is the fact that under no circumstances should someone be surrounded by six security guards without concrete cause for suspicion. Nor should I have been ushered through like a celebrity, attracting everyone’s attention, heightening the communal sense of suspicion around the airport. Such actions provoke a sense of danger, rather than subdue it. 

The excess of security applied to me, personally, has assured me that we do live in a world of “big-government” the same kind that republican tea-partiers warn against. The problem is that they always seem to exclude defense or security from their austerity measures, choosing to apply it liberally to things like education and social security. It is this preference for precaution against random terror incidents at the expense of precautions against the assured pitfalls of ignorance and aging that makes me cringe. I especially feel this way when any of my relatives or other republican-minded acquaintances start waxing nostalgic about the virtues of independence from government control. They don’t realize that the supposed status quo of independence that they defend does not exist. We are living under lock down. 

Another issue I have is the suspicion that my Delta representative may have been the one to “flag” me this time, since this flight is not directly associated with my travel from Istanbul. If that were the case, any ill-willed employee could hijack the entire security system to perform their own disruptive “counter-terror” measures at the whim of their mood. Yet, I’m not sure that that is the case, so I won’t pursue this complaint further.

Since I am old enough to remember airports before 9/11 when liquids were just liquids, I reminisce about the simplicity of old-school security. We didn’t even need passports flying across the border of Mexico in my dad’s Cessna (just birth certificates) and we passed by with loads of souvenirs stuffed in the cargo that must have bored the border patrol attendant to death, if they bothered to search them. With grandma aboard, we were the perfect cover for something more illicit than family fishing trips to La Paz, I’m sure. Now, however, second-hand sparkling shoes for toddlers are potential threats if you travel anywhere from the Middle East. An entire region is targeted, in spite of the worse threat of crime by average pedestrians in the U.S. compared to Turkey. For instance, in 2016, Turkey ranked 75th for a crime index compared to the U.S. which ranked 45th. The crime index measures the overall level of crime in a given country. 

On a positive note, there is a way for people who don’t wish to engage in illicit conduct to be “pre-checked” by TSA. Since it involves a wait and a scheduled interview, I probably won’t be able to manage it during my trip, though. 

2015 New Year’s Resolutions

Here are my New Year’s resolutions, what are yours? Once again, getting married and starting a family still didn’t make the list. Neither did losing weight or winning the lottery. My hopes are rather minor and highly personal. Most of them involve continuing the same things I was already doing at the end of 2014.

a. Pay off some debt.

b. Aspire towards fluency in one or all of the following languages: Turkish, German, Spanish

c. Find more editing and writing gigs in addition to my regular work (time permitting).

d. Finish reading all of the books that I buy and sell the ones I’m not referencing when I’m done with them.

e. Use less plastic packaging and create less waste.

f. Take a more journalistic approach to my life by documenting my travels and do so in ways other than online social-media photography, namely: writing, drawing in my sketch journal, and recording sounds with my handheld recorder. Compile these creations in some format other than marginalia scattered throughout my notes and papers and digital files.

g. Travel more (so far I have plans to visit San Francisco, home, and Amsterdam in February)

h. Critically approach the suicidal-heroine genre of writing in a project (a thought inspired by recently reading Madame Bovary by Flaubert, The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton, and Veronica Decides to Die by Paul Coehlo)

i. Get back to my historical writing project on Francis Fuller Victor and Hubert Howe Bancroft and the Pacific Northwest.

j. Plant some bamboo or other plants in the back yard (will it grow in Istanbul?)

k. Stay healthy, run, relax, drink chai and play tavla and chess.

l. Buy an accordion and learn some polka tunes.

m. Do some form of environmental activism.

n. Try my best to stay in touch with my friends and family.

o. Collaborate with others.

Notes on being a Digital Stranger

Sometimes I feel like an outsider in the digital world. For example, I rarely take selfies. One of the reasons is that when I reach to take a photo, my phone battery usually dies. This happened just this morning. I thought it would be interesting to take a selfie of me just out of the shower, because my hair was starting to form the spiral curls that make it distinct. I wanted to capture this magical moment on camera. Just as I turned on my phone camera and saw my own wet hair and blotchy face through the lens, the screen went blank. I sincerely doubt that any profound or even mundane significance was lost with this missed opportunity.

I’m lazy about charging my phone and since its an Iphone 4 the pictures turn out grainy. I also think that all of my photos need to be photoshopped, but they never turn out right. My pale skin makes the contrast function turn me into a ghost and my pink undertones makes any other function turn me into a devil. This is compounded by the fact that my pale blue eyes turn into red lasers if the flash setting is on. My idea of the selfie is that it should capture a certain attitude. I feel silly capturing a mood featuring myself on camera. My mood is often a mystery to me, so the photos turn out similarly indecisive. This ambiguity doesn’t translate well in a world ruled by marketing tactics of users instant identification with a style, concept, brand, etc. I cannot really be marketed except as a ‘nobody.’ As a nobody, I feel very comfortable; you could say “content” even. The best way to capture this mood is by not taking selfies. I don’t deny the fact that I enjoy looking at other people’s photos, but mostly as an outsider. I think: how interestingly unfamiliar.

There is a word for people like me in Turkish. It is “yabancı” pronounced “yah-bahn-juh” (more or less) and it is applied to any foreigner who comes to Turkey, marked by their different looks and their inability to speak Turkish. When the Turks say this word, it also gives you a sense that you are not just innocently “outside” of their world, but criminally so. You feel like an intruder, especially in this current era power-shifts. This is also how I feel in the digital age. I intrude on the social media and blogosphere worlds as an inept and external interloper. The feeling is heightened now that I am living in Istanbul.

One of the most scenic cities of the world, Istanbul is boldly photogenic. It remains so, in spite of efforts by developers to eradicate all plant-life and areas designated as “green” spaces. The contemporary preference is for stone and concrete, which still hasn’t dismantled the charm of the many street cats that lace every ancient architectural wonder. Or the vibrant colors of hanging laundry with the backdrop of the Bosphorus. Or faded the sunset skyline of the Golden Horn with its striking silhouettes of minarets and domes that outline each mosque. I love the look and the feel of the city both surrounding me and with its contours under my feet. However, I have no means of expressing my delight on camera, since first of all, I feel burdened by the extra luggage of a photo-taking device. It is not its weight or size, which is minimal, but the interruption each photo makes and the alternate perspective it demands of my consciousness. I not only have to be ready to take a photo at any moment, but I also have to look for things that I should photograph. Otherwise, I come up blank.

My Instagram ineptitude is a result of coming up blank. I have an account, but as I mentioned I don’t have a good phone camera. What exacerbates this problem more is my apathy towards buying a new phone. This is a result of my resistance to the constant flood of new models marketed to consumers. The rate of change is faster than my ability to digest the possibilities that each new model presents. I am not a digital warrior, but a digital meddler, as I said. Furthermore, my camera broke. It was kind of an accident, because the final blow was when I accidentally dropped it out of my pocket, but it also kind of wasn’t. I had gone for months with the device being tossed around in my purse, bombarded by books, keys, and other conflicting gadgetry. After being tousled, poked and prodded, it was gradually losing its luster. Its lens was scratched because the lens cover stopped closing all of the way. When I dropped it, it felt like shooting a wounded horse. Somethings are beyond repair.

This decadent feeling is how I would describe my attitude towards photo-taking in social media. I occasionally breathe the fresh air of inspiration and take a sudden outburst of photos and then post them online, but I usually regret it later. The inner critic sets in and the photos start to give me proof of my insignificance in the scheme of things. Then I realize that this feeling of being “nobody” actually is better represented by a lack of photos, rather than a sudden outburst of them. Along with Melville’s esteemed anti-hero, Bartleby, I concur: “I would prefer not to.”

Impertinent Impressions of Istanbul (part one?)

Having stumbled upon Istanbul as blindly as one can this June and having stayed here since, I came with less than an ounce knowledge of the language, culture or politics in a country that has so much well-trodden history and so much political hype in international news since last year. I fully realize there is a thread of impertinence that runs through this post. I have been merely struggling to come up for air when I speak to Turkish people, hoping they might offer their thoughts about what matters most in this place. For me, the streets are chaos and every single person is involved in a game of rushing down a river towards a waterfall of days in motion filled with coffee, tea, breakfast, complaints, speculation, gossip, joking, admonitions… These are the things I don’t have much access to with the stuffy English cloud that protects me from sinking in. Therefore I do my best to absorb any imprint at all of this city built on quicksand, with its passages and stairways lifting up from the mire. This quicksand, is of course the material of my imagination’s invention, rather than the universal experience of the people here. For them, it is easy to cross the street in oncoming traffic whose drivers aim headlong at one another from five different opposing directions. They swim through it. In my blindness towards reality here, what I am able to see clearly are our bestial counterparts: the itinerant sea gulls and the local alley cats. These are the creatures whose presence offers such an accurate surface impression of this city, that it might even capture something of the truth…

Istanbul is a city of itinerant sea gulls and local alley cats. These two types make up the bulk of its inhabitants, save the humans, who come with a whole different set of problems. The primary problem for the sea gulls and the alley cats is to find a food source. Of course, there is plenty to go around, with one of the main sources being the production of human food waste. Otherwise, there are also rats, lizards, fish, bugs, etc. – all of the dross of nature. However, the assortment of food found in the human trash supply is far more popular than nature’s bounty. After all, human filth is much more variegated. Humans show their generosity in strange ways by leaving so much wealth to plunder in the trash. I once saw a butcher shoe the cat away from its door by tossing a fresh piece of raw meat out into the street for it to chase after.


The alley cat of each narrow passage must stake out a claim to their domain of trash and patronage from shop owners. They must defend their region of cobblestone in the night against the other cats. Istanbul is actually owned by cats who seem to adhere to the same principles as the Occupy Movement. They roost in public and non-public spaces alike. In fact, the city is so filled with alley cats that they no longer pander to humans, but fight amongst themselves. The night air is filled with more cats hissing and yowling at one another than it ever is with meowing and purring. In Istanbul, cats are predators and I saw one perched atop the gate to the Swedish embassy the other day, surveying the ground for food, unmoved by the swells of humans that ebbed and flowed underneath its gaze. Not one fine-dining establishment with an open air terrace would ever quarantine itself off from the cats. Humans admiringly laugh and coo at these locals, but the cats are mostly indifferent to such self-indulgent forms of praise. While the humans reach dumbly with naked fingers to touch the rich velvety pelt worn by a cat, the cats themselves are mostly proud of their fangs and their dagger-like claws.

IstanbulYDSCN1171_20The itinerant seagulls are in constant motion here. They swirl through the air making so much racket they outdo the cats with their propensity for noise, if not the humans, too. They soar and drop guano wherever they please. It lands in the lower territories of the cats. They proceed to land on rooftops and balcony ledges, the most prized places of the cats, but they never heed the rewarding heights with any seriousness. They roam from tower to terrace, never quite settling. They are an odd bunch of dissatisfied dreamers that never absorb more than a surface impression of any one place, since they only see with a bird’s eye view. And they are greedy, too. They take what they want and gulp it up with the jutting motion of their necks to hide whatever treasure they can away in their gullets. These birds have no real home and they have no real loyalty to any one place. They just circle through the air giving the impression that they hold an interest, but every place they land is only for a temporary stay. Indecision casts them up against the wind upon any slight disturbance. These whimsical creatures are hated by cats and humans alike.

(Meanwhile, an imaginary tourist pretends to think deep thoughts.) Fine, salient sea dust coats the marble balustrades whose flat surfaces are etched with the hieroglyphic traces of seagull talons. From the lobby of the hotel, I walked out to the rail to light a cigarette and visualize solutions to my life’s problems in the face of the vanishing point of the Bosphorus. Naturally, I would come to a point of recognition just when the wind would blow my cigarette out and I’d have to start all over again by relighting, revising, and re-realizing.