The following is a first draft of an article I wrote for a website about Singaporeans living overseas.
Sometime late last May, I received a surprising message in my facebook inbox that will change the course of my summer holiday. It was from a producer for a television production company in Singapore that has been commissioned by the national broadcaster to embark on a new arts infotainment series called “Tale of Two Cities”. Themed by countries, each episode intercuts between a foreigner living in Singapore and a Singaporean living abroad. Across nations, the show is about discovering fresh perspectives and exploring global cultures and lifestyles. They are planning to feature Singaporeans living in Iceland, Peru, Turkey, Brazil, Ghana and asked if I would be interested to be featured on the program?
A television program featuring little old me? Why, of course! This appealed greatly to the attention-seeker in me. Oh, imagine the immense pleasure I will derive from seeing my own face on television! Having started my adult working life as an assistant TV producer, this was right up my alley.
I replied immediately and set about giving them a link to my blog (marianaahmad.tumblr.com), a short write- up on how I came to live in Istanbul and a little bit more about myself. They revealed that they found me just by the sheer force of a Facebook search, much like how I found some of the few Singaporeans I know who live in Istanbul.
Armed with my background in television production, I thought immediately of what would look great on television. I wanted to steer clear of the Turkish clichés of bazaars and Turkish baths but after a few discussions, perhaps that was the very thing that viewers in Singapore liked to see as it was considered exotic and very different to what we know as a “pasar” in Singapore.
We exchanged more emails and chats on whatsapp and after a Skype session with the director while I was on holiday in Warsaw, it was agreed that they will swing by Istanbul during my summer holiday for four days after their first filming in Accra.
I wanted them to feature the gentrified neighbourhood that I live in. Rent is very cheap and people are friendly but the families living there are going to be uprooted as the land that their properties are built on have been sold to hungry developers. In the far background, there is a massive shopping mall with a towering residential block. Soon, most of the old, dilapidated buildings around my area will give way to flourishing housing and grand office developments with ambitious names like Brooklyn Park.
We agreed on several locations and I put them in touch with a Turkish production crew friend of mine who then introduced them to a fixer, a local who is in-charge of getting locations, filming permits, talents and places to feature.
On the morning of the first day of filming, I crossed continents from where I live on the Asian side of Istanbul to Sişhane on the European side to meet up with the crew from Singapore and Turkey. In the quirky lobby of the boutique hotel where they were putting up for the four days, I met the director Kok Hong and cameraman Jay from Singapore. I was also introduced to Ilkin, an audio guy from Istanbul. Başak was our fixer for the filming and she also acted as my local guide.
We first went out to film a few city shots from the Galata Bridge which afforded us a 360-degree view of the old city and the Bosphorus teeming with cruise ships, ferries and boats at almost any time of the day. We took a ferry from Karakoy to Kadikoy, one of my favourite things to do in Istanbul. This was the ferry I took when I decided I was going to move to the city back in February of 2011. This 20-minute ferry ride gave us the opportunity to see a panoramic view of Eminonu where the iconic Blue Mosque and Hagia Sofia museum were located among other Byzantine structures and mosques dotting the horizon.
The production team decided to narrow in on three experiences that was iconic in a Turkish sense: belly-dancing, baklava and the Turkish bath called a hamam. I was then introduced and coached by Asena, a big name in Turkish belly-dancing and an amazing performer. She was also a boxer which meant her physique was immaculate. Not an inch of flab could be seen. This was very different to other belly dancers I have seen perform who almost always had a bit of a belly. She taught me some classic belly-dancing moves and twirls but sadly, my amateur self could not isolate the various parts and muscles needed and my body just wriggled whatever I could muster when I was given the task of performing on my own.
The next day, we went to the Spice Bazaar (Misir Carsi) in Eminonu and the wholesale market stalls behind it known as Tahtakale. Since Seker Bayram (what we would call Hari Raya Puasa) that marked the end of the Muslim fasting month was just round the corner, the crowd was in full force stocking up on sweets, chocolate, candies and the famous Turkish Baklava for their visitors. Baklava is a pastry made with layers upon layers of super-thin pastry dough which is then baked and dripped in sugar syrup and left to soak for a bit. Usually, it is filled with crushed nuts; hazelnuts, pistachios, peanuts etc. We filmed at one such Baklava shop and I tried my hand at dipping the sweet pastry into a bowl of finely crushed pistachios before displaying it for sale. To cater to more modern tastes, these days there is a version of Chocolate Baklava. My favourite is the type soaked in milk and dripping with sweet, sugary goodness. Most, if not all types of baklava is saccharine sweet but this one soaked with milk seems less so. This type was impossible to pack for my family members but the crew surprised me with two big boxes of baklava that I can take back to Singapore when I went for my 2-week holiday.
After a quick car ferry ride to avoid the rush hour traffic on the Bosphorus and Fatih Sultan Mehmet bridges, we arrived in my neighbourhood Fikirtepe to film. I rounded up the children and teenagers and taught them our traditional Singaporean game of “capteh”. The boys who played football took to it like a professional and soon every child was trying his best to keep the feathered toy in the air. The experience left me known as a small celebrity and till now, the children will wave excitedly to me when I leave or arrive at my apartment block.
On the final day, we had permission to film in the Cemberlitaş Hamam. This historical turkish bath was built in 1584, more than 400 years ago by the famous Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan who was responsible for many of the famous architecture in Istanbul. My guide explained that in the past, bath houses existed as a form of communal bathing and place to cleanse oneself, a concept similar to Japanese onsens. It was hot and stifling at first in the steaming hamam and I started perspiring profusely but soon as the masseuse started the foam massage, I managed to relax a little and enjoy the strange sensation of breathing under a mountain of soap suds. After the Turkish bath, I was also given a Turkish massage with scents and oils.
During our coffee or meal breaks, our producer shared the Turkish tradition of reading coffee grounds. We laughed our heads off as she pretended to read our fortunes from the remains of the grounds in our tiny coffee cup. Turkish coffee powder is boiled with water and drank in tiny amounts with the grounds still in the cup. You can specify the amount of sugar you want in it.
The crew enjoyed the variety of Turkish food we had for our meals ranging from chicken on shish to meatball kofte served with bulgur.
On the last day, i bid goodbye to the crew as they proceeded to film more shots of the bustling city previously known as Constantinopole. As they say in Turkish, “Görüşürüz!” Till we meet again!