Friday, May 9, 2008

water in, water out

I was in the lineup to the "bayan" or women's washroom at the Haghia Sophia. This building is prodigiously visited by tourists, and there's only one "bayan" so the lineup stretched past the doorway, out from under a sun-protecting awning, and well into the courtyard, almost reaching the 18th century rococo ablutions fountain. The Haghia Sophia started out as a Church but eventually became a Mosque and is now a museum. The fountain dates from its incarnation as a mosque.

A cameraderie grew up amongst the women waiting in the line, but for a change I wasn't keen to join in. "I had to pay at the Blue Mosque," the woman behind me said grimly, as, finally reaching the door, she added some paper towels to the stock of toilet paper and wipes she held before her like a shield.
I smiled and asked if she was enjoying Istanbul.

We are tourists in Turkey and this week we have been tourists among tourists, visiting the major monuments and historic sites of Istanbul: The Blue Mosque, Haghia Sophia, Istanbul Modern Art Museum, Grand Bazaar, and yesterday, a cruise on the Bosphorus by ferry. Usually, I prefer to be off the beaten track, if only because flash photography is a trigger for my
migraines. But there's a reason why all these sites are so popular.
The Haghia Sophia is awe
inspiring, both in its size and the sheer amount of history it covers: over 1400 years of worship of one form or another, with all the attendant layers of art.

But tourists, as a group, are damned obnoxious. The rules, which are there for good reason, seem to carry a corolary for many tourists: 'but not for me.' I can take this
one picture, throw away this one piece of litter, and it won't matter. I'm special.
What's more, I'm on holiday.

The Bayan at the Haghia Sophia has its own full-time attendant, who visits each stall after every three or four women, cleans out the sinks, replenishes the paper and mops the floors. Her expression, that day, was one of disgust. Occasionally she would shout in exasperated Turkish at the women grabbing handfuls of paper towel on their way into the stalls.

At one point, a male voice rang out among us as a young "guide" -- one of the many
who offer their services at the gate -- rushed in, sheltering an old Japanese lady
under one arm, rushing her past the lineup to the first stall: "Respect your elders!" he called, "It is so in your culture, too!"

That first stall contained the only sit-down toilet. It was much prized. I learned that the reason the line was moving so slowly was that none of the ladies wanted to use the Turkish toilets, as we call them. They consist of two platforms for your feet framing a large, shallow basin, which terminates in a hole in the ground. Squat toilets, in other words. I've been here for a couple of weeks now, and I have to say, I was dreading the 'elimination" aspect of the trip. My experiences with squat toilets included a horrific mess in France when I was a teenager, and an even more bile-inducing one in a bus station in Mexico. You'd rather do anything than use one. Worst of all, the whole setup screams: You Don't Matter. What place would create and maintain such an uncomfortable piece of technology? A place that doesn't care about women, that's what.

But there's a difference. Those yukky toilets I remembered were not clean. And virtually every single toilet I've used here in Turkey has been clean. Cleaner than public toilets in north America, except the one at t
the Park Plaza... maybe. Not only clean, splendid.

Under the Galata Bridge, the kind of place I would endure any degree of discomfort in Toronto rather than visit, there's a toilet you pay about 60 cents to use. The guard has an alarmingly scrofulous look to him, and exposes a few yellowing teeth when he smiles. But after an interlude in the spacious, newly tiled, mirrored room stocked with every kind of paper you can imagine, he seems more like a benevolent troll than a harbinger of the next sewage born plague.

Most restaurants do have sit-down toilets, always in beauitful condition. After a meal when I gather my bag and stand up, I'm inevitably ushered by a lineup of solumn waiters in the direction of the "bayan". Most of the time, the toilets are impeccable, and may supply everything from sanitary pads to a hairdryer. The toilets have the atmosphere of lounges for women to go and restore themselves. The simplest lunch counter here puts Tim Horton's to shame.

Mind you, I've only been in Istanbul, and mind you, I have not had to perform the whole squatting operation in a burka or even a skirt. From what I gather, the women who are fully covered up take pretty lengthy bathroom breaks, undoing and
re-doing the whole affair from scratch but I don't know enough about it to really say.

Back at the Haghia Sophia, we were nearing our big moment: the entry into the stalls. The women immediately ahead of me began tying their various scarves, shirts, jackets and other hanging items up out of the way as if preparing to wade across a body of water. One came out of the stall and ran out into the sunshine as if being pursued. "She was too upset to wash her hands. She'll come back," announced her friend to the group of women waiting behind. A young woman entered a stall and yelped in horror. "It's a hole!" she cried, "A hole in the ground! I can't, I can't ..." She was directed, presumably by her mother, to wait for the stall where the Japanese lady had gone.

What hole are you so afraid of? I found myself thinking. My discomfort, using my first Turkish toilet, was in getting All The Way Down. There's no question that if you want to aim right, you've got to squat, and you've got to squat completely. Those last few inches of bum-to-the-ground are just not part of our North American repertoire, and the girl, despite her Madonna-inspired outfit, might not have been all that comfortable with what she confronted there. I feel for the washroom attendant who had to swab down the stalls after so many inexpert visitors.

I should be more tolerant of my neighbours in line, I guess, since using one of those toilets could be pretty painful on arthritic knees. I have started to wonder, though, how arthritic the knees would really get, if you used such toilets regularly. The tendonitis that's been bothering me for about a year now is pretty much gone after two weeks of regular squatting. But I won't pretend to be a total convert: given the choice, I'll sit rather than squat every time.

That afternoon, we visisted what so far has been my favourite tourist site in Istanbul: the Basilica Cistern. It's ancient, dating from about 532 AD, a vaulted series of caverns that underlie the busiest part of the city. Light is low, Classical music is broadcast on speakers throughout the site, and you can walk on walkways between the columns, looking down at an
enormous pool stocked with fish. You have the feeling that these carp and goldfish
have got it very, very good: state fish, swimming around in their personal underground climate-controlled lake.

I'm not sure what I found so pleasing about all this, because the flashes of numerous digital cameras were only magnified on the water's surface. But I found it both soothing and fascinating to be there. Something about water, secret water, underlying everything. It was one of the moments when I was struck by the power of water, and understood why it's worshipped in so many ways, by so many cultures. Here in Turkey where the three big monotheistic religions have deep roots, it starts to seem more and more important to understand all three, and live in the knowledge of how interconnected they really are. The underground cistern symbolized for me, some kind of link, the common nourishment that feeds all spirituality.

One area of the cistern is designated as a wishing pool; I threw in my remaining british coins, making grandiose
wishes, but quashing superstitious thoughts that all good things
come at a price.

Then we made our way down to the very back of the cisterns where two columns rest on bases carved with Medusa-heads. There's much speculation about what they're doing here. The best accepted expanation is that they were plundered from some ancient site by the Ottomans, and used here just because the builders needed big stones.

I was looking forward to seeing these fearsome guardians of the Cistern up close,
but was taken aback to find one head resting sideways, and the other, upside-down.
I could not help but feel that some hostility to women lay behind the choice to orient the heads that way -- some desire to topple us and tame our power. And in the faces I saw, not the horrible, mad rage of monsters, but quite justifyable irritation at having to spend eternity in this
undignified posture, with the weight of a whole damned city resting on your cheek.

But maybe I've distorted the whole thing. Who knows what all that squatting will do to a woman's mind!

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