April 14, 2012
Before heading home after two weeks on the road, it was clear that I needed a shave and a haircut.
What I didn't know is that I'd also get the famed ear flame treatment from a Turkish barber.
Tribune photographer Chris Walker, my colleague who traveled with me, took note of my unkempt appearance.
"You've got really big hair now," Walker wisecracked.
So we visited Aksoy Erkek Berberi (Aksoy Men's Barber) in a working-class neighborhood. Proprietor Omer Aksoy, 58, welcomed me and offered tea.
"We talk the same things in a barbershop," said Mr. Aksoy, 58, through an interpreter. "We talk sports (soccer). We talk news. And we talk politics."
There was a gentle, courtly formality about him, and he was quick and sure with the scissors and deliberate with the razor. But the big hit was the flaming ear technique. He lit a match and singed off the small ear hairs, first on my right, then the left, without warming my skin.
"This is how we do the ears in Turkey," he said with a smile when I asked about the ear business. "So what will you tell the people in America?"
That they must visit Omer Aksoy, and bring their ears.
And what else would I tell them?
That I'm so very fortunate that the Tribune sent me on this trip, that I might spend Greek Orthodox Easter here, where an unbroken succession of 270 ecumenical patriarchs have kept the light burning for some 17 centuries.
And that I've been lucky to witness two nations in extreme transition.
Greece is in economic agony, at a dangerous tipping point, with the middle class in despair, having lost confidence in its corrupt political institutions, allowing fringe groups on the far left and the far right to gather strength.
And Turkey is in the midst of what amounts to a revolution, a peaceful democratic revolution led by Islamist politicians, an amazing story poorly understood in the West.
Greece is tired, exhausted with worry. The people have been through so much chaos in modern times that it is heartbreaking to see it happening again. And still there are folks who won't give up.
Meanwhile, Turkey is a nation that is confident and growing, trying to cobble together a new constitution to protect its freedom against the old anti-religious secularists and the generals who ran things for decades.
"I'm a secularist, but the Islamists are indeed pushing democratic reforms which benefit minorities and the economy. I know it seems ironic, but it's true," said noted Turkish journalist Etyen Mahcupyan, who writes for Taraf and Today's Zaman and is member of the Armenian minority.
We were having afternoon coffee in a courtyard cafe.
"The reason you don't read about this in the West is that journalists and others who come to Turkey are predominately secular in nature, and they tend to seek out people who are most like themselves to explain things to them," Mahcupyan said.
Whether or not I've avoided that trap, I leave up to you.
But the changes here are astounding. Late last week, as I was visiting Agia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, the news broke that police had arrested dozens of retired military officers who allegedly staged the 1997 coup.
Coups took place here in 1960, 1971, 1980 and 1997. In the last decade, other alleged coup plots have been stopped, with more arrests, including those of a few journalists.
"But there are journalists and journalists," said Celil Sagir, managing editor of the pro-democratic Today's Zaman, in another interview. "What if you had visited the Pentagon and met with the generals and you talked about how you would make up stories and create crisis to help topple President Barack Obama and his administration?
"Then, perhaps your readers wouldn't think you were a true journalist. These are some of the problems we're facing that America doesn't know."
The two weeks overseas have gone by too quickly, in a haze of deadlines, travel, adrenaline and emotion. I could write a dozen more columns about what we've seen.
Like one I didn't write, about the gorgeous, old-world elegance of the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens. If Greece were run like the Grande Bretagne, it would flourish.
And another I didn't write, about the eight Kurdish brothers running the bustling pilaf stand in Istanbul, the cars pulling up late at night, the way we pull up for hot dogs at our favorite joints.
Most of all I'll remember Rizes, my father's village in Greece, and going up the mountain with a cousin and with Chris Walker, and lighting a candle in the old church before looking down at the green valley and all the family memories below.
And now it's time to come home.
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