As you know, I collect foreigners. I enjoy being one in other countries, and I enjoy encountering them here. Encountering foreigners IN other countries where they TOO are foreigners - whoa.
This guy was a Turk, the chef in a restaurant called Pera Downtown that has evidently just opened in SoHo. I knew Pera UPTOWN (around the corner from Grand Central) but it's too pricey for me. Goes for the one on Sullivan Street, too. For inexpensive and delicious Turkish food, I go to Balkanika on Ninth Avenue or ... now what's it called? The place on Second Avenue and 49th?
Or I go to Turkey, but I've only done that once.
He was standing outside the restaurant about 9p.m. smoking, off work, heading home. His English was pretty good. I told him I'd loved visiting Turkey, asked him where in the country he was from. Antalya. "I hear that's lovely," I said. "No - Istanbul. That's the beautiful one. You did right." "But there's so much to see all over that country - " "Yeah, but it's crazy now. They've all gone crazy. They're killing the country."
I'd heard Turkey's was one of the world's few thriving economies, but now he got into it. "Erdogan?" he said when I asked. "He's killing people. Nobody has money any more - just the very, very rich. Nobody else. Turkey used to be a poor country, but we could go out and buy a drink. Now? I put three hundred dollars in my pocket, when I come back it's gone, I don't know where it's gone. I visited my family for three weeks - thirty thousand dollars! I don't know where it's gone. I own three houses there - it's for my kids - when they want to come here to school, I'll sell the houses. But I work hard as I can and I can't pay for them now. It's terrible there now."
"Well, I was just in Greece - "
"Greece? You know who's saving Greece? We're buying up things in Greece. We're saving them. But they hate us. It's because they just don't want to work. They sit at home and wait for a check in the mail. And then they come to America - I got Greek friends here - they work like animals here! If they worked like that at home, Greece would be Number One. But they don't want to work at home - they want to work here."
"That's sort of true of Americans, too - "
But clearly I was missing his point, whatever it was.
He had more to say, about history. "They got this movie now - 1453. Have you seen it? It's at AMC on Broadway." I haven't seen it and it's not mentioned on line. "About the fall of Constantinople?" I said. "Everything. It's about everything about that. But I'm very disappointed. Three and a half hours, and it's just fighting. You know what? I wish they'd made that film in Hollywood." I said: "Fifty years ago, maybe. Today, they'd ruin it." "Maybe."
"They're doing that all over," I marveled. "Making movies about their history in sort of a Hollywood style. Thailand. China - "
"But it's lies," he said. "China. They didn't make a movie about the Great Wall." "Yes they did! I saw it! The Last Emperor. I even saw an opera made out of it!" "Yeah, but they didn't show the real story. You know why they built the Great Wall?" "To keep the Mongols out?" I replied, weakly. "Not the Mongols! The Turks!" He was bursting with pride. (History is a trick we play on the dead.)
It is true eastern China is mostly inhabited by Uighurs, folk of Turkic stock, and so is most of Central Asia for the matter of that.
"Sure!" cried the chef! "Turkmenistan - Kirghizstan - Vietnam -"
"Uh. Not Vietnam. But Uzbekistan - Kazakhstan - Azerbaijan - "
"Right, Uzbekistan," he said. "You know, if they got all those twelve countries or so together, there'd be a new Ottoman Empire!"
I wondered what it was about the Ottoman Empire he longed to restore. The idea of Turks as terrors of the seas? (Barbarossa, the Turkish corsair hero, was born a Greek Christian on Lesbos, but never mind.) The Janissary Corps? The Sultan-Caliph, commander of the faithful? The subjection of the Arabs and Greeks and Slavs? Minarets and Iznik tiles? (I'm all for Iznik tiles and minarets.)
The Mongols of course were also of Turkic stock.
"But we're not good at politics," said the chef. Many Turks insist to me that they're not good at business, finance, politics, all sorts of modern skills that, in fact, they are perfectly good at. They still like to think of themselves as unsophisticated ghazi warriors. It soothes their crestfallen vanity, at not being among the world's top nations, though in fact they are up there, with an enormous army and a thundering economy, not to mention a hugely influential TV industry that blankets the Middle East in soap operas, as Egypt and Lebanon do in Arab music videos.
"We're not good at politics, and people don't want us to unite. The Kurds. The Greeks. All those people." The various Turkic peoples would tear each others' heads off given the chance - they'd certainly be a lot less powerful united than they are separate.
But this is the current myth, or one current myth. And I do love to track the rise and fall of myth, which every people, every nation, every culture gives rise to, lives by, survives on in preference to variously unpalatable truths.
Having got the rant out of his system, he wished me good night with a most amiable smile.