October 19, 2003

Tea for a Turk

A friend told me recently that the two parts of the contemporary world he finds most destructive are cigarettes and automobiles. That is funny, because Athens swirls around precisely those two things. Nowadays there probably isn’t a city in the world where cars and fags (in the British sense of the word) don’t dominate, but somehow in Athens both run outrageously rampant. The near-death experience is a daily occurrence to the hapless Athenian pedestrian, and this writer can remember one such occasion in particular, when out of carelessness the tip of his nose was severely wiped by a city bus going fifty down a one-way street. There is a laissez faire quality to Greek driving—something else that puts them solidly in the east, however much they face westward—and for this reason they had the most automobile related deaths in the E.U. until a few years ago, when mandatory seatbelt laws were established. To actually witness a Greek wearing his seatbelt is rare, but somehow on account of these laws Portugal now outkills Greece on the highways.

Not so with cigarettes. Greeks smoke more cigarettes than any other European nation. All around Athens, indoors and out, tobacco is in the air. Office workers smoke at their desks, waiters smoke at their tables, bus drivers smoke behind their wheels, clerks smoke behind their cash registers. People smoke in banks, in post offices and at gas stations. The Greek will not enter a church holding a cigarette, it is true; but he wouldn’t think twice about attending the service from the porch, puffing away with his buddies, perhaps one ear cocked towards the chant drifting out the open door.

Though they would hate to admit it, this widespread habit is another thing that connects the Greeks to their more numerous eastern neighbors. The cigarette was invented by Turkish soldiers, or so the story goes. The Grand Seigneur and his trusty warriors were once again laying siege to Vienna, on one of their many attempts to conquer that city, when after a particularly fierce skirmish, a battalion of Turks realized that their glass pipes had all been broken. Being the fierce fighting men they were, they naturally had copious amounts of tobacco, but now had no way to smoke it. But then one particularly ingenious infidel, deep in thought beside the Danube, rolled a piece of gunpowder paper, stuffed it with his leaf and changed the course of human history.

A group of Turks were tunneling beneath the city walls nearby. Some Austrian bakers were up early, hard at work, when they heard beneath them the pick and ping of axe and shovel. An alarm was sounded, the plot was uncovered and the tunnels were flooded with water. The Ottomans retreated and never returned again. In commemoration of the part they played in the saving of the Empire, and in mockery of the Mohammedan religion, the heroic bakers fashioned a bun in the shape of a crescent. Thus were established in a single day, forged from age-old ethnic warfare, two main components of every European continental’s morning ritual: the cigarette and the croissant.

The Greeks are no strangers to the third component, the indispensable cup of coffee. However, as is expected they no longer give credit where credit is due. In the 1970s, during an American-led military dictatorship, the Colonels, as they were called, made it illegal to label as Τουρκικό, or Turkish, the sort of coffee enjoyed by Greeks the world over, the kind with the grainy mud at the bottom, even though it came to them via the Ottomans. For a while, in a very backwards sort of nationalist confusion, they called their coffee Βυζαντινό, or Byzantine, until it was pointed out that coffee was not invented until the 16th century, long after the end of that glorious empire. In the end, their coffee became Ελληνικό, or Greek, and this is its moniker today. Mischievous visitors to this ancient and prickly land might with a smirk order Τουρκικό, but only a few Greeks would meet their challenge and defend the Hellenic motherland—most would only be confused, so ingrained is their belief in the Greekness of the sludge at the bottom of their mini porcelain cups that they struggle to keep from swallowing.

Ironically, the Turks might just agree with them there. For in the inscrutable workings of ethnic tension and historical reinterpretation, Kemal Ataturk, at the dawn of modern Turkey decided that coffee drinking is Arabic, as it comes from the Yemen, and thus a filthy custom, ill fitting a real Turk. He encouraged instead the drinking of tea, which he saw as quintessentially Turkish—and which, as everyone knows, comes from China.

Posted by djsmall at October 19, 2003 09:21 PM