Monday, January 30, 2012

Forbidden Amulets


If you've been to Turkey, chances are you've seen this word woven into a banner hanging on a taxi or bus window, or even heard someone say it.

The word translates to "God has willed it". Take it as praise if someone says it to you. It's really admiration disguised as a prayer to protect the receiver/bearer from the evil eye.

Lots of Turkish people wear or display a blue nazar boncuk glass bead to protect against the evil eye too. It's not uncommon to find the nazar boncuk with the Maşallah on it, or next to it as well. Double protection.

For triple protection, you'll want a muska with an evil eye bead, embossed with Maşallah.

Muska - pronouced moo-ska - is an amulet containing a Qu'ranic verse or prayer. Old nomadic versions were a simple piece of leather, stiched in a triangle, worn as a necklace or stitched into clothing. Upgrades are made of silver or metal like the one in the picture above. The practice was not limited to Turkey. I remember plenty of gorgeous, empty bedouin amulets in the souqs of Abu Dhabi.

Here's where stuff gets sticky:

Anyone can fold up a printed prayer and wear it in an amulet, but the muska is actually a pagan throwback.

According to the old ways, a medium (think gypsy or shaman) would write the desired verse, fold it up and pray over it - drawing djinn, or some sort of secret magnetism to the amulet for effectiveness. Some mediums were said to use spells and/or curses. I think there's something important about the triangular shape, but I've seen squares too, so I'm not sure anymore.

All of the above is forbidden according to Islam.

Too bad, because both the nazar boncuk and the muska make pretty necklaces. I suppose we can still wear them (and use them in our stories), as long as we don't believe in the hocus pocus.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Two-faced Transition

2012 is supposed to be a year of transition. I didn't come up with this idea - the Mayan calendar says so: "End of Great Cycle". I'd like to thank them for the heads up because, personally, I think beginnings are scarier than endings. I know because I write them. -- I'm 100% sure my writer friends agree with this assessment.

You don't have to be a writer or a Mayan to understand. I'm thinking Janus is a pretty good example of what I mean.

Thankfully, Wikipedia is up today, free and unfettered:

In ancient Roman religion and mythology, Janus is the god of beginnings and transitions, thence also of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time. He is usually a two-faced god since he looks to the future and the past. The concepts of January and janitor are both based on aspects of Janus.

So here we are, January of transition year 2012. What am I doing? Transitioning.

I've got one manuscript to the point where I will not touch it again without an agent looking at it first. I've got another just coming out of the gate, with plenty of room for improvement.
The problem: I've got an SCBWI conference this week and I don't know which to submit.

One is a YA fantasy designed for girls. The other is an MG Sci-fi designed for boys. Two very different sides of me, both important. One is a huge part of my past, with plenty of connections to my time as a young woman in Turkey. The other is my present and future, with teen/tween testosterone-filled adventure crammed into the work. I'm writing under the influence of my boys.

I love both manuscripts, and I'm starting to feel like Janus. Look back? Or look forward? Can't I have both?

My flawed plan: I have the first 500 of each polished to a high shine - read: best of my ability. I'll know what to do when I walk through the ballroom doorway because Fate will decide which editor/agent sits across from me. I'll ask them which they'd prefer to see.

Only one itty bitty problem -- I won't be able to sleep until its over.

Janitors are so underappreciated, btw.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Donkeys, Elephants - and Camels?

Election season brings out the animal in lots of people. (Sorry for the bad joke.)

I won't say if I'm a donkey or an elephant, but I thought you might like to know that some people think politicians are camels. Yes. Breeders of wrestling camels name their animals after politicians.

I see the resemblance. Camels and politicians look friendly at first glance. Camels bat their lovely long eyelashes at an unsuspecting person, so you think they might be helpful, you know - to carry your stuff, or give you a ride to the nearest watering hole. Politicians have great smiles... you fill in the blanks.

Get too close and both can turn nasty and spit. Believe me, "camel breath" is the ultimate insult.
I almost passed out when a camel breathed on me once. Maybe I should stop comparing these two before you think I'm too cynical/critical/insane.

Back to the wrestling camels:

Camels in the wild wrestle over females in heat. Long story short: Men got involved and camel wrestling became an Anatolian event. As a part of Turkic heritage, camel wrestling tournaments are a lucrative tourist attraction. The tradition has seen an upswing as a result, and a prize bactrian (two humps) camel can now go for up to $20,000.

I think a camel would have to go 0-60 much faster for me to pay that much, but then there are camels bred for racing too. I lived in the UAE - land of the even more expensive racing camel. Dromedary (one hump) camels are FAST. I reevaluated my perception of the camel after I saw one running past. They can get up to 40 miles per hour, which is a lot faster than my two feet can carry me. They run on animal feed, which probably costs less and gets more miles per gallon. Plus a camel can cross the desert with little water and survive crazy sandstorms.

I haven't included any camels in my work. Probably because I haven't found that character who needs to meet a stubborn pack animal yet.

Wonder who represents the camel party around here...


Wednesday, January 18, 2012


This isn't Vermont, although the picture does remind me of my days at Bennington and a certain local poet.

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveller, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I--
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference

Robert Frost

Gosh, I love that poem.

The picture above was taken at Yedigöller National Park, on Bolu Mountain in Turkey.

I travelled over that mountain a few times. The old highway (two lanes) snakes up though some breathtaking scenery, up to the top. There's a good roadside restaurant run by the Varan busline there. One really should stop and take in the view, especially when the strawberries are in season.
A tunnel bypasses it all now, saving hours. Hours! Just think of the things I can do with all that time.

The scenic route usually means we took the long way by accident, in my family anyway. So in an age when everything is "so 42 seconds ago" I wonder, will the next generation seek out these places? I think our grandparents wondered the same thing about us, yet I wander - except when there's a convenient tunnel.

Darn tunnel.

There weren't many tunnels where I grew up, so I probably love them more as a result. You know what? When you use a tunnel, you bypass all sorts of lovely. But when you get where you need to go, there's extra time to find a different sort of lovely at your destination.

Brings writing to mind. I prefer to follow an unexplored story trail, but I don't have time to revisit unless it's useful, because a pretty path isn't enough. Something needs to be stunning for me to make the trek. Think of the poem. Frost doesn't let us get away from his single minded idea. He takes no tangent to describe the leaves on the trees, only the leaves on his path. Seems to me like sticking to the path is a good idea.

Gosh, it took me a long time to realize that!

Monday, January 16, 2012

Off With Their Heads!

image credit
You may recall last spring/summer I was actively researching Mithraic mysteries and Cilician pirates. Well, the research led me to some interesting places in my new MS -- places I'd always wanted to go, but never knew how to utilize.

Nemrut is one of those places. Search the word hierothesion, and you won't find an easy definition. What you'll find is a link pointing over to UNESCO world heritage site, Nemrut.

To paraphrase what I learned:

Nemrut is believed to be the burial site of King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene, high on the mountain top overlooking his kingdom. Hierothesion refers to the way the statues of the gods are arranged at the site. (see restoration below)

Now here's where I go off track a bit.

The statues are enormous (8–9 m/26–30 ft). Depictions of Hercules/Vahagn, Zeus/Oromasdes, Apollo/Mithra, Tyche, plus paired eagles and lions, flank the king. To confuse me some more, the statues wear Persian style dress/hair, but were carved with Greek faces. (And why are all the guys identified in Greek/Persian, but Tyche, the goddess of fortune, is only Tyche? I'm voting to call her Tyche/Mah, but what do I know?) It seems the hierothesion falls at some sort of midpoint between the two belief systems, circa 62 BC.

Something so big and so important draws attention. When religious ideas of the area shifted to monotheism, the statues were beheaded, lest they be used for idol worship. No one knows when or how it happened, but the heads are now located down the hill from their respective torsos.
Maybe that isn't such a travesty after all. The statues are interesting, but I think the detached heads are what make the site unique.

The image on the right of a restored Nemrut is from an Icelandic source that I couldn't really translate well. (Feel free to follow the link and try for yourself.)

For a long time, not many people made it out to Nemrut. It's out past Malatya, near Adiyaman in eastern Turkey. Read: very far from the beach.

Tourists are coming much more consistently these days. Now Malatya and Adiyaman are fighting for road access rights, airports, and hotels. I think before they worry about the tourists, they should worry about the statues. More people means more deterioration of the site.

Controversy over Mt Nemrut spreads

And PS - No spoilers in the comments, LTM! ;)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Historical (in)Accuracy

clipart etc
ost everything I write has roots in some archeological site, artwork, or historical figure. I take what information I need and leave what I don't, which isn't easy. I want to honor the history, yet my story needs are different (and more important). It takes me a few days to process the research and pick out the suitable details. I don't pretend to write historical fiction. I write fantasy, yet what I keep usually rings pretty true. However...lately, I've been wondering just how far I'm willing to drift from my sources.

As far as accuracy of place, I try to be strong willed and make the story fit the landmarks. I don't change things. Two excellent examples of my reasoning:

1) Assassin's Creed-Revelations put a port in Cappadocia.
2)The International relocated Yerebatan Sarnici beneath the Blue Mosque.

Shifts like that irk me because I know better, and because those shifts mislead people. Many viewers or readers won't know the difference, and worse, they might take the information at face value. I suppose the important issue is exposing the public to the landmark, regardless of location, but it bugs me. Does it bug you?

I find historical figures are even more sticky to handle. So much so, I'm thinking to rename some major characters in Burnt Amber to avoid a big headache later.

Exhibit A:

The Turkish series I currently <3 <3 <3, Muhteşem Yüzyıl (Magnificent Century), featured Isabella Fortuna, Princess of Castile -  a whole subplot of her falling for Sultan Suleiman. Give me a break.

In fourteen hundred ninety-two
Columbus sailed the ocean blue.

That Isabella died in 1504. (I think they're referring to queen Isabella - I can't find evidence to the contrary.) What was she doing in Istanbul in late1526?

Don't screw with my head like that, people. Readers and viewers are not stupid, and we don't appreciate being misled. Although what worries me most is the idea that these inaccurate episodes may be the only history lesson people get about these rulers. At least give us a decent disclaimer. No?

So. Maybe I can and should go farther from my source than I thought, especially since I know accuracy is not all it seems to be either. Winners wrote their version of the story. What would the losers have to say?

I say creative license is a blessing. What say you?

Monday, January 9, 2012

Fountain of Inspiration

Throughout Turkey, there are beautiful Ottoman era fountains, called çeşme. Marble or mosaic tile fountains are named after prominent figures who funded the projects, because Sultan/Pasha such and such expected goodwill of the people in return. The bigger or fancier the fountain, the more prayers a benefactor received. In theory anyway.

For city dwellers, clean water was a blessing in itself in those times. Water came from underground spings or aqueducts that might have been miles and miles from the fountain.

With the advent of indoor plumbing, many fountains fell into disrepair. Some were demolished. You know how it goes. Discovering some of the small fountains tucked into older neighborhoods of Istanbul now might require a treasure map.

My favorite fountain is nothing like the grand one in the picture above, and it is no where near Istanbul. It's a little hole in the wall on a steep path, a straight pipe mortared into a crack in the mounain, no inscription or dedication. A little plaque above reminds: No washing up allowed!

The water is ice cold, even in summer. Travellers stop to drink or refill their bottles, if they're lucky enough to know it's there. I never went up there in the winter, but many years later, that little mountain spring was inspiration for the beginning of my new WIP, Mist of Kavala.

So my reminder for the new year to all my bloggy friends: Remember the small moments.

More reading:

The Ottoman fountains of Istanbul

Istanbul fountain restoration continues Hurriyet Daily News

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Haystacks & Hydrangeas à la Assassin's Creed

True to Ezio's previous adventures, there are plenty of haystacks to hide in throughout Assassin's Creed - Revelations. True to Istanbul, there are also plenty of hydrangeas, or what the locals call hortensia (hydrangea macrophylla). Although I wouldn't want to be jumping into them like Ezio does, hortensia bushes in all shades of blue and lilac are found in parks and palaces across the city - in real life and in AC-R. Little details like this are the reason I enjoyed exploring the game.  
Here's my take on AC-R:

Topkapi Palace is detailed fairly well, as is the Grand Bazaar, and other landmarks like Hagia Sofia, the Galata Tower, and the Maiden's Tower. The rest of the city feels like any other AC game, except for the minarets. Tile roofs and towers, courtyards and caverns. The programmers threw in some carpets for effect, but it feels like Ezio could be anywhere, especially since the Bosphorus looks like a small river or maybe a Venetian waterway. (The Bosphorus is much wider in real life and you wouldn't want to swim across, my dear Ezio.)

But if you like Ezio's previous worlds, then the familiarity is a plus. (Even I can't really complain.) I was disappointed with the way programmers handled the Yerebatan Sarnici. They must have had plenty of leftover code and thought they could get away with chopping it up into sections. I can almost forgive them. There are plenty of cisterns under the city which might fit into their labyrinthine plan, and some of them must connect to Yerebatan Sarnici. What I don't accept is the way programmers handled the caves of Cappadocia.

Problem #1: There are no navigable rivers in Cappadocia, yet Ezio hops on a ship in Istanbul and lands right at the hidden entrance to a rock city.

Problem #2: The city is inside a huge cave. Correct me if I'm wrong, but the cities of Cappadocia are carved into cliff faces, or dug seven stories down like ground squirrel warrens. Supersized, giant caves? Felt like a device the programmers used so they could suspend a challenge from the ceiling. *ahem*

So besides hydrangeas and aptly placed white tulips, what did I love about AC-R?
Turkish is interlaced in conversation. Push someone as you run past and you might get a dose of interesting insults. Some of the women standing around have stories to tell about their lives too, if you listen. I think they used some native speakers because the accent was pretty pure.

Otherwise, the city folk are pretty standard. Instead of Venetian courtesans, we swap out a few dresses et voilà: Romani gypsies. Veiled women and turbaned men roam the streets in between groups of Ottoman Janissaries, who look pretty darned awesome in their detailed uniforms. I've got a thing for Janissaries though, so maybe it's just me. Uniforms aside, there isn't much difference between them and the Byzantines supporting theTemplars of the AC-R conflict. All guards act the same as any soldiers in previous AC games.

Bottom line: don't expect anything outrageously different from AC-R. Expect to spend some more time with Ezio Auditore da Firenze, relive a few scenes with Altaïr, and help Desmond out with the Animus.

You know what to you need to do. 

Psst...Go play the game! Desmond is up next. ;)

Monday, January 2, 2012

10 fils Tandoor

First, I'd like to wish my friends, family, and blogger buddies-

Happy New Year - Yeni yiliniz kutlu olsun - Szczesliwego Nowego Roku 
Kul 'am wa antum bikhair, etc.

The new year is a great time to think about the past as well as the future. I'm thinking back to my days in Abu Dhabi and the simple pleasure of bread, fresh from the tandoori oven, only 10 fils per loaf.

(Fils were like pennies, without consideration to the actual exchange value. 10 fils=0.026 cents at the time. Today, I could sell the coins on eBay for 75 cents, apparently. Where did I hide all my UAE coins?)

Anyhoo. Back to our story. At the end of our street in Abu Dhabi, there was a Pakistani baker's shop. It wasn't a true bakery. It was more like a guy with an oven in the spare closet of a bigger shop. Literally. The owner of the shop facing the park at the front of the building probably sublet the space to the baker.

The baker generally sold his bread to taxi drivers and the occasional house maid, so 10 fils was an appropriate price for their meager wages. For me, 10 fils was almost free. Priceless was more like it.

We'd stop in on the way home from work. Most of our neighbors drove right on past, preferring to shop at Spinneys or the Co-operative Society for their more expensive bread. How they could resist the aroma was (and still is) a mystery to me. Pulling apart a fluffy, hot loaf, fresh out of the tandoor was the highlight of my day.

Nowadays, I'd be lucky to find that aroma anywhere. I have to go clear uptown to Nova's Bakery for brick oven baked bread - a good 40 minutes for me.

Maybe I should get myself a tandoor. These days people are building all kinds of stuff in their backyard kitchens. Pizza oven or clay tandoor, the only problem I'd have is keeping the neighbors at bay once they smell what's cooking. Just think of all the things I could make with it. -  Food Network's Stephen Raichlen gave me some good ideas.
Chicken tikka, anyone?



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