In the attempt to fathom Turkish sports fan culture, I spent this past Sunday at not one but two Istanbul soccer games. I started at Beşiktaş, whose fan organization is renowned for its high levels of political committedness and general enthusiasm.

“You’re going to hear all kinds of curse words,” the taxi driver told me, on the way to the game. “You’re going to hear unheard-of things that nobody should ever hear.”

“That’s fine,” I said. “I’m trying to advance my knowledge of the Turkish language.”

“If you’re trying to advance your knowledge of the Turkish language, I’m not sure a Beşiktaş match is the first place I would advise you to go. It seems to me there are other, better places to advance your knowledge of the Turkish language. But of course, you know best,” he said. We drove a while in silence. “Here’s what I really want to know,” the driver resumed. “What are you going to write in your story? That the Beşiktaş fans are spewing curses unfit for the ears of civilized people? Or that Inönü Stadium is united by a warm, intimate, unpretentious atmosphere?”

“Well, whatever I see, that’s what I’ll write,” I said.

“You’re going to write what you see?” The driver looked really depressed. “Well, then we’re done for.”

I’m told there were between 40,000 and 42,000 football fans that day in the stadium, which has a 38,000 capacity. I had bought a ticket in the cheapest section and literally every seat had someone standing on top of it and directly in front of it. Getting into the stands was no joke. The low point for me was when some particularly solid-looking dudes in leather jackets shouldered me out of the crowd and it looked like I wasn’t going to make it into the gate.  But just then a magical gust of wind blew off my hood, and one of the solid dudes exclaimed: “There’s a lady here! Back off, man, let the lady through.” Everyone standing near me stepped aside and let me through! Say what you will about Beşiktaş fans, they know how to treat a girl (sort of).

A few hours later, with a somewhat advanced knowledge of the Turkish language, I found myself on the Asian side of the city with my very dear cousin Evrim, an obstetrician and Fenerbahçe season pass-holder who, as I recently learned, has been attending every single home game for years with a group of hospital colleagues.  It really felt like another continent.  I sat—sat!—next to an ear-nose-throat specialist, saw practically no riot police, and heard no language stronger than: “Degenerate!”

The Fenerbahçe doctors were really impressed that I had watched a Beşiktaş game from the stands. “Was there ever a moment when you thought you were going to die?” asked the urologist. As it turns out, three Bursaspor fans had been hospitalized that afternoon with stab wounds.

At halftime, I was distracted from somber thoughts by the appearance of a strange mascot-like creature, apparently representing a giant infant supporter of Alex de Souza.

“You like that little bear, huh?” asked a urologist, noticing my interest.

“It’s not a bear, it’s some kind of child,” a dermatologist objected.

“Come here! Just one picture! We’re crazy about you!” the urologist shouted to the weird mascot.

Judging from our facial expressions, I think the mascot and I had similar feelings about having this photograph taken.

istanbul 2010 036

To my delight, the ear-nose-throat specialist proceeded to hand me a souvenir Alex de Souza T-shirt, exactly like the one worn by my new friend.

“Oh, how great!” I exclaimed.  “And there’s some kind of, um, human head!”

I had just noted a faint, spectral  head floating in the middle of the shirt’s stomach. Closer inspection revealed this to be an upside-down photographic likeness of Alex printed, for unknown reasons, on the inside of the shirt.

istanbul 2010 048 istanbul 2010 046
Right-side in Inside-out

“You can’t give it to her now!” said the urologist. “It’s not suitable for a Turkish girl have Alex’s face stuck to her body like that.”

I was briefly worried that I wouldn’t get to keep the creepy shirt after all, but the ear-nose-throat specialist saved the day: “She’ll wear it inside-out,” he decided.

Another day full of happy endings, for lots of people.  I got a really weird free shirt, and advanced my knowledge of the Turkish language.  Alex scored his 12th goal of the season, bringing Fenerbahçe to a 2-1 victory against Kardemir Karabükspor.  Beşiktaş shut out Bursaspor 1-0, and nobody scratched my cousin’s car.  On the other hand, three people were stabbed and a woman was hit in the head by a bottle. So I’ve been thinking about the taxi driver’s question, and what I think now is that there’s no way of balancing the credits and debits.  I’ve tried, and it just can’t be done.


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13 Responses to “THE GREAT GAME”

  1. Michael Fay Says:

    I love your taxi drivers. They have a kind of theraputic approach to moving you from place to place, with great care and cultural concern. The two venues speak to my own childhood in Cincinnati — I was from the “Besiktas” side of town where the tough guys played on the various fields, and, across town, was our “Fenerbahce” — two different planets. I loved the Docs, too, commenting in specialty character. Keep them coming! It bring brightness to the day.

  2. paul hallam Says:

    A doctoral thesis on football if ever I saw one:-)

  3. JRSM Says:

    Is the face on the inside of the shirt so that, when you next score a goal, you can do that weird soccer-playing thing of pulling the shirt inside-out over your face, thus turning you instantly into Alex?

    My first comment here, so I’ll also add that I adored your book!

  4. JRSM Says:

    This sort of thing:

  5. Elif Says:

    dear michael! it’s so true! i have found istanbul taxis to be both slightly less expensive and significantly more effective than traditional talk therapy.
    dear jrsm: you are a genius! i now see that is exactly the purpose of the ghostly upside-down alexhead t-shirt! i will start wearing mine to readings, so i can pull it over my face the next time i outsmart anyone in q-a.

  6. jenny Says:

    Won’t you please write something about Tarkan while you are in Turkey?

    Do not tell me that this is cheap popular culture. OK, maybe it is, but I like that sort of thing. Anyway, this guy dances with castanets (Kuzu Kuzu), and how that be bad? It’s Nineteenth-Century-Russian-Literature-Gypsy-Girl charm, but for guys.

  7. Sam Says:

    On an unrelated note, I just bought your book (or rather I told my mother to buy your book and then have it shipped over to me with visiting relatives) solely based on the quality of this blog. Keep up the qualitiness!……. qualitality!?
    Also let it be noted that because of my mother you are now richer (aren’t we all???)
    Also she is a good cook.

    Thanks again, your blog has given me many laughs in the past. וש הוא ימשיך להצחיק אותי בעתיד.

  8. Elif Says:

    dear sam! !תודה רבה your support is greatly appreciated!
    please send my best to your mother, who sounds like a wonderful woman.

  9. Luba Says:

    Elish, the taxi driver has Babel’s voice. Or is it that most translations of existential questions have that ring in English? I look forward to the story, the only soccer-related story I’ve ever looked forward to.

  10. Ahmet Cihat Toker Says:

    My girlfriend, who’s a PHD student in Koc forwarded me your interview in Radikal. I am thrilled to learn that Carsi will be mentioned in the New Yorker. How cool is that!

    I wanted to share with you few links that you may find interesting, in your quest to understand the Besiktas culture, as epitomized by Carsi.

    The famous Turkish poet Cemal Süreya wrote from time to time about football. He was a Fenerbahce fan. In one of his articles he describes Besiktas as “the team of prolepsis and longing.”

    In another he writes that “the essence of Besiktas team is human.”

    If this is true, and the essence of Besiktas is human, I think he is talking about a Dostoyevskian type of human condition. This is reflected in the words of Zeki Demirkubuz, a prominent independent Turkish movie director who is rumoured to be preparing for an adaptation of “Notes from the underground”:

    “No Besiktas fan can guess that Besiktas will be the champion. Besiktas is an surreal team. It is not rationa, you never know what its is going to do. Every season, everything can happen. We can be the champions, or we can have the worst season ever.”

    Besiktas Fans – Carsi – meet in a park before the game. Zeki Demirkubuz is a frequent there. The name of the park is the Park of Poets. Statues of famous Turkish poets are scattered around the park. One poet has one of his hands in his pockets, and with the other one he makes a lively gesture. Before heading for the Inonu stadium after drinking and singing in the Park of Poets, Besiktas fans put a warm glove on the poets naked hand. I think this tells a lot about the surreal yet human quality of Besiktas fans.

  11. Ahmet Cihat Toker Says:

    Two more links.

    You should have a look at Zeki Demirkubuz’s famous essay on Che and Feyyaz:

    For a historical context, how sports supporters organizations shaped the history of Istanbul you may find my blog entry interesting:

    Its about the Color’s Riots in Constantinapole.

  12. Geoff Roberts Says:

    I think the taxi driver was absolutely right – you were very lucky!

  13. Dave Lull Says:

    The New Yorker
    Letter From Turkey
    The View from the Stands
    Life among Istanbul’s soccer fanatics.
    by Elif Batuman March 7, 2011

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