I’ve never been to Turkey before, and I really must go back and see it someday. Recently I was in Izmir to witness and celebrate the wedding of my son Daniel and his lovely Turkish bride, Dilek Uygül. I have a blurred impression of a stunning land, a complex culture, fascinating history, good looking people, and great food. But I can’t say for certain, as I was the Father of the Groom, a role of symbolic importance but little actual influence, like the vice president or English royalty. That I speak no Turkish only made me more ineffectual; I was the beloved but incompetent new relative who needed to be carted around, pampered, and fed.
The Uygüls’s apartment is on the sixth floor of a building in a newer part of Izmir. I was greeted by Dilek’s baba and ana (father and mother), Riza and Miyase Uygül; Dilek’s aunt, or mete, who sat cross-legged on the porch most of the time—Izmir is hot in July; and Dilek’s three brothers and her sister, so pregnant we feared she might give birth during the wedding, which didn’t stop her from making meals, carting things around, and dancing. The apartment grew more crowded with the arrival of brothers-in-law and sisters-in-law, uncles and aunts, cousins, nephews, nieces, and friends. Most of them spoke no more English than I did Turkish, and so I fell back on holding my fist to my heart, giving a little bow, and saying sağ ol, the informal form of thank you that was my only Turkish phrase. I learned to kiss the men on both cheeks (“Always go right first,” Daniel advised). I hugged and kissed more men in these few days then I have in all my years in San Francisco.
The night before the wedding was henna night. Two hours later than scheduled a caravan of cars arrived at the hotel to pick up the non-Turkish contingent. I rode in a car with Dilek’s brother and his girlfriend. We shared no common tongue, but it didn’t matter; the radio was so loud that only when the young woman changed channels did I notice that the brother was continually honking his horn as we sped through the streets of Izmir.
We arrived at the Uygül’s apartment, where we ate delicious home-cooked food and sipped Coca Cola. Traditionally, henna night is for the bride and her close female family and friends, but Dan and Dilek chose to have a larger party in the parking lot. Lights were strung from one apartment building to another and a band played and sang a mix of traditional Kurdish, Turkish, and pop music, while people formed a line and danced the halay, standing side by side, pinkies hooked, hands in constant rhythmic motion as we step, step, step, stepped, always moving right. The line grew and became an open circle, the last and first dancer holding a piece of colorful fabric in their free hand. We Americans were pushed forward and taught the dance on the fly. When we showed signs of catching on the better dancers tried more complex steps, at which point most of us pealed off and found a chair. A cute young woman from the neighborhood joined the dance and enthusiastically invited Dan’s best man, Chris, to join her. It reminded me that among other things, weddings are public fertility rites, a celebration of pairing off and propagating the species.
The style of the music changed. Daniel and Dilek danced alone, and having been coached by Dilek, I showered them with small bills, which young children working for the musicians instantly snatched off the ground. I tossed more bills at Riza and Miyase, Dilek’s siblings, and Pat, the mother of my children, and her boyfriend. Then the halay dance began again, while Dilek slipped off, returning a short time later garbed in a dramatic, sparkly red dress and veil. The women and girls gathered around and placed henna in Dilek’s palm. A woman put henna on my pinky, which I proceeded to apply to Dilek’s uncle’s shirt as we danced. I apologized as best I could, but he said (through an interpreter) that it was all right, it meant we were family. The police game and spoke to Riza, then left.
At 10:30 the day’s final call to prayer sounded. The music stopped, but no one appeared to be praying. (Some members of Dilek’s family are religious, others are communist, and still others are secular and politically conservative.) The call to prayer ended and we partied on. The police returned. A heated discussion ensued.
After the party one of Dilek’s brothers and the henna-stained uncle took Daniel, his friends, and me out to a nightclub. After a somewhat complex negotiation we were seated at a prominent table near the singer. We ordered a bottle of rakı and toasted the groom, family, Turkey, the USA, and life in general, while a steady parade of attractive women in skimpy black dresses approached our table and shook each of our hands. These women, I was told, were not prostitutes, but “companions.” I held on to my wallet and relied on my new Turkish relatives to defend me from the charms of the Sirens.
Back at my hotel I tried to sleep, but my internal clock was on California time, so I watched TV police procedurals through the night. My lack of Turkish didn’t prevent me from following the story—the body, the witnesses, the attractive detectives, the villain, the transparent musical cues, the crime solved, the hardnosed moral.
The wedding was scheduled for 8:00 PM, which meant it would take place at 10 PM. At the appointed time we non-Izmirites were greeted outside our hotel by a drummer and a man playing a zurna. The drummer blocked my path until I tipped him, and then we caravaned in our streamered, honking cars to the beauty parlor, where we picked up the bride and bridesmaids, all primed to bedazzle. Our noisy caravan continued on to Dilek’s parent’s apartment, which served as the symbolic fortress of her maidenhood. Somewhere along the way Daniel slipped me some of my own money converted to Turkish lira, and said I must use it to pay my way into the Uygül’s home. When I arrived at the apartment Dilek’s brothers blocked my path. I offered them 20 lira (“Is this all you think she is worth?”), then 40, then 60, then 80, and so on, until we reached an acceptable amount. Dilek and Dan made fun of this sexist ritual, but we all played along.
We ate until it was time to leave for the wedding. Arguments ensued over who was driving whom where, what route to take, who was leading. Riza was especially passionate. I sat in the front passenger seat, marveling at how he simultaneously rode the clutch and the gas pedal, cursed other’s foolishness, chain smoked, and drove on the wrong side of the street, fully committed to the rightness of his position. I also have a daughter—I could imagine what he was feeling.
The wedding was a blessed event. We danced; we feasted; I slipped the five golden bracelets onto Dilek’s wrists; Riza placed the ring on Daniel’s finger while I put one on Dilek’s; we danced some more; we hugged, and kissed, and hugged, and bickered with the restaurant owner. Exhausted, we left, a newly formed family.
As I was driven through moonlit Izmir I remembered Daniel just a few years ago, a tiny man holding my hand and toddling around the block, wanting to explore every corner and pick up every object. Only a few years before that I was the age Daniel is now, diving with my friends into the reservoirs that provide New York City’s drinking water and sinking down, down, while the moon shone on our merrymaking. Not long before that my father was holding my hand as I sleepily toddled down the hall to bed. A waterfall is cascading over me, drenching me, carrying me away. Tebrikler. Dünyadaki tüm mutluluklar üzerinizde olsun, Daniel and Dilek. I love you.