Off to See a Man About Some Boza

I took the ferry to Eminönü. I was off to see a man about some boza. Since reading A Strangeness In My Mind; Orhan Pamuk's story of boza seller Mevlut, and his life wandering the streets of Istanbul, I had a desire to sample this mysterious drink.

I took a fig from the paper bag and bit into it. It was sweet and sticky and bright red inside. The boy next to me was tossing pieces of his Simit to the gulls hovering beside the boat. Almost close enough for us to grab them from the sky. I made short work of the figs I'd purchased from the market in Kadikoy and when we disembarked found myself hovering over a Simit stand.

Simit is vegan

The road to Vefa was steep and wound through a crumbling old neighbourhood. I came across an old abandon place and ventured into the unkempt garden. The house was at least three stories tall, and from the front porch, a spectacular view of the city. To the left, there was a huge cavity. Like a giant tooth had been ripped from the earth. And on the other side of the pit, women hung from the windows of wooden homes that were dark splinters of their former selves. I wondered if vagrants occupied the place and decided to retreat to the relative safety of the road.

Istanbul Wooden Houses

I followed the street into a maze of ramshackle houses. Women sat on the sidewalks and children scurried about like street rats. My presence drew stares and began to wonder how far off the beaten track I had wandered. But I pushed on; I had to see a man about some boza.

Vefa Street

Before long a mosque appeared and the neighbourhood took on a more gentrified appearance. Then at the end of the street, I found the place Isought. Vefa Bozacisi has been around since 1876 and is the oldest boza joint in Istanbul.

'Merhaba,' I greeted the two men standing behind the wooden bar. They wore white uniforms and one of the men had on an envelope cap with a mesh top. He looked like a burger flipper from a greasy spoon. Blue tiles decorated the walls behind the counter, were bottles of boza and other concoctions stood waiting on shelves.
'Hoşgeldiniz,' the man without the cap welcomed me.
'A cup of boza, please.'
'Please, ' he said, gesturing to a tray of boza filled glasses on the wooden counter. 

Vefa Bozacısı

People have been making boza-like drinks as far back as 9000 BC, but it was only during the 10th century that the condensed milk-like drink became known as 'boza'. During the Ottoman reign, boza became an attractive commodity, spreading across the Empire. Until, during the 16th and 17th centuries, someone discovered people were spiking this otherwise healthy beverage with opium. Boza survived the opium scandals and alcohol prohibition to became popular with sultans and aristocrats. Today, in some neighbourhoods, wandering peddlers brave the winter weather and the fangs of Istanbuls street hounds to sell boza. ‘Boo-zaaa!’, they call, dragging around large canisters of the sweet, slightly sour tasting fermented liquid. ‘Boo-zaaa!’, they call bringing faces to windows. '‘Boo-zaaa!’.

Boza with roast chickpeas

'Hello!'
I looked up from my cup of boza, now decorate with the roast chickpeas I had procured from the store across the street. Two men were seated at a table outside a small restaurant, and beckoning me over. I walked closer and stood before them.
'How many megapixels is the machine?' asked the one with the bushy hair.
'No idea,' I lied.
'I've always wanted my picture taken in an American style place, will you take our picture?'
'But this isn't an American place,' I said.
'No matter,' said the bushy haired man.
A tale told by Rolf Potts came to mind. On his travels through Istanbul, he'd hooked up with a couple of friendly looking local types only to wake up in a park wearing nothing but his underwear. I was in no mood to be roofied, stripped of my worldly belongings and left naked for the hounds in one of the city's parks.

Refugees in Istanbul

I snapped off a few pictures and showed them the shots.
'Join us for some tea,' the bushy one said pulling up a chair.
This is it, I thought. The fiend is going to give me a cup of spiked tea.
'I still have some boza, thanks.'
'Please sit,' insisted the bushy one, ' my name is Mateen. This is my friend Syed. He is a refugee from Iran. He's not welcome there anymore.'
'I'm Jean, from Italy. Are you from Istanbul?'
'No, Afghanistan. I had to leave home quickly, and the Turkish government welcomed me. Come brother, they said, you are welcome here.'
'Why did you leave Afghanistan?'
'I was a translator with ISAF, and there was some trouble with the Taliban. I had to leave, quickly.'
It turned out my overactive imagination had pegged these two poor refugees for thieving bastards before even giving them the benefit of the doubt.
'How do you like Istanbul?' I asked.
'It's good, but I want to go to Greece,' said Mateen.
'Greece? Why Greece?'
'I want to get into the EU.'
'You do realise things aren't much better there. In fact, you'd probably do better to stay here in Istanbul.'
'There is more work there.'
'Life is more expensive there.'
We talked about their predicament and smuggling routes into the EU. I told them I'd found the Romanian border control lacking and perhaps they should cross the Black Sea and swim up the Danube before winter came. Then, when I had finished my boza, I bid them farewell and left.

Car Guard

The little streets filled with the adhan and I found myself following the voice of the muezzin to a nearby mosque, were a man and his cat sat guarding an empty parking lot. 

Outside the Suleymaniye Mosque, men were performing the ritual of wudu, breaking with normal life and preparing to enter a state of worship. I found the visitors entrance where women borrowed scarves and we all abandoned our shoes before entering the mosque.

I've always felt more comfortable in mosques than in churches. More at a peace. Perhaps it has something to do with the macabre images that line the walls in churches. How does one feel at peace with images of some poor soul being tortured or dragged into the pits of hell? I sat beside an Indian girl shooting pictures of the ceiling and decided she made a more interesting study than the roof. Obviously, the reason woman are required to wear headscarves; prevent men like me from the distractions of worship.

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I followed the same route home through the maze of poverty. Trading one lira pieces for pictures along my way. 

He ain't heavy, he's my brother.

He ain't heavy, he's my brother.

'What do you want to be when you grow up?' 'A model!'

'What do you want to be when you grow up?'

'A model!'

Prisoners of poverty.

Prisoners of poverty.

Fear and Loathing on the Road to Istanbul

We raced down the highway like a stock car in the Daytona-500. The fiend behind the wheel pressed the accelerator, forcing me back against the seat. Seconds later another drive cut us off, causing the beast to stamp the brakes. We both leaned forward, determined to exit via the windscreen.  
Sweet Jesus, I thought, the evil bastard has my death note. How had forgotten I the sheer terror that comes with taking a taxi in Turkey? Arriving under the spell of love and departing under the influence of raki must have dulled the trauma on my previous visits.
'Where you from?' asked the driver.
'Italy.'
I'd gotten into the habit of naming the last place I lived. It avoided unnecessary confusion and questions. 
'Smoke?' he offered, looking back at me holding an open pack of cigarettes.
'No thanks.'
'My name is Syed,' he said pulling a cigarette from the pack with his teeth.
'Jean,' I said. 'Looks like we have traffic problems tonight.'
'I have lots of problems,' said the driver. 'Woman problems, traffic problems, smoking problem...'
I thought about asking him to pull over for a bottle of raki to treat my nerve problems, but changed my mind. The last thing I needed was a raki fueled maniac piloting us through Istanbul. 
He opened the window and lit the cigarette. The traffic eased, and the Bosphorus Bridge appeared on the horizon. Its uprights, painted in a glow of red light, were like a red flag to a bull. Sayed pressed the peddle to the floor, and we shot forward, and the meter began turning faster than the odometer. The traffic ahead braked. We switched lanes. Squeezing between two cars moving at over sixty miles hour. Then the traffic in that lane braked, and we switched back. My nerves turned to jelly, and I was in desperate need of a drink.
'Where in Kadıköy?' asked Syed.
'Duatepe street, number 6,' I said.
I sat back and watched the buildings rush past. If we were going to have an accident, I didn't want to see it coming.
We catapulted off the slipway into Kadıköy, and Syed slowed to a speed that would maim, not kill.
'What number?' he asked, staring at the map on his phone.
'Number 6. But watch the road. Give me that thing. I'll navigate.'
'Does this look familiar?'
'I don't know. I haven't been here four a couple of years.'
'This is Duatepe street.'
'That one is number 46; there's 48. We're going in the wrong direction, you need to turn around.'
A car had stopped in front of us and another behind us. There was no way out.
'You're walking,' said Syed, and climbed out the taxi to take my bags from the trunk. 
'Welcome to Istanbul.'
'Teşekkürler,' I said, and dragged my bag in the opposite direction.

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In the middle of the intersection, a guy sat on the back of a bike holding a lit flare. Signalling a convoy of cars, with bodies hanging from every orifice to follow.
I crossed the street and hurried toward number six where Ecem was waiting for me.
'Hoşgeldiniz,' she said. 
'Merhaba teşekkürler.'
She unlocked the door to a large apartment; an old shop that had converted into an artists studio. Paintings in various stages of completion hung on the walls and books filled the shelves. Just the kind of creative environment I needed to do some serious writing.     
'Here's the key. Burak left some notes on the chalkboard for you. Call us if you need anything.' 
And with that, she left. I collapsed on the couch and stared at the ceiling. Above me, angels dribbled basketballs.

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