Views of the Bosphorus Strait, dusky blue mosques, and Taksim Square fade into images of half-completed skyscrapers and enormous cranes looming over the city of Istanbul in this latest installment of CNN travelogue Parts Unknown. While modern Turkey may have emerged in the early 20th century as a secular, democratic country, recent policies have created an increasingly turbulent political situation.
"The tenor of the things said by the government are increasingly ugly and intolerant..."
Bourdain, who last visited Istanbul in 2009, feels that change acutely when he arrives on the eve of a "critical election" that could give the current conservative president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan sweeping powers. "When I was here last, it was a very different mood," the host later remarks during a meal with author/philosopher Gündüz Vassaf and Turkish actress Serra Yilmaz. "Now at least the tenor of the things said by the government are increasingly ugly and intolerant and you've got this social activism that's very unusual."
Although the specter of cultural and political change looms large throughout the episode, Bourdain manages to find humor in sports and Istanbul's unusual characters. He kicks of the trip by sipping a cloudy glass of raki with a friend, then visits a rather homoerotic Turkish oil-wrestling tournament with a pair of comedians. A belly-dancing taxi driver also keeps Bourdain on his toes as he takes the host to his favorite local restaurant. Here now, are the 20 best quotes from Sunday's episode:
1) On a memorable Turkish drink: "I am familiar with this drink. All too familiar."
2) On the state of free speech: "Autocrats in general are not famous for their sense of humor... "
3) On the slippery sport of oil wrestling: Deniz to Bourdain: "You can just slip your... Bourdain: "...right down into some greasy ass crack..." Deniz: "...and grab whatever you find."
4) On the erotic nature of the sport: "Turkish oil wrestling — big freakin' salad covered with oiled men in leather pants giving each other spirited and prolonged reach-arounds. Oh, jeez. Can we get rights to the Barry White Greatest Hits record or Diana Ross's 'Love Hangover' or is that too obvious?"
5) On the inherent comedy of oil wrestling: "I like to be respectful of ancient tradition but, I mean, the jokes write themselves."
6) On the mystery of the wrestling pants: "There's like ropes inside, or handles? Where do I get a pair of those pants? Those are some super freaky pants."
7) On the tournament winner's belt: "...the pants are awesome. Imagine what the belt looks like."
8) On the sports commentator: "Does he stop yelling at some point?"
9) On the importance of ordering food: "We'll save the world later."
10) When comparing pide (a popular Turkish dish) with pizza: "I mean there's cheese in it, dough, but it's like a calzone maybe. I don't know, it's an efficient delivery vehicle for, in this case, ground meat, cheese, and onions. A not-so-little torpedo straight from — I was gonna say Flavortown, but no, that would be wrong."
11) On the new, government-fueled construction in Istanbul: "There's a remarkable lack of sentimentality about one of the most uniquely glorious looking spaces anywhere. Why don't they care?"
12) Questioning an Armenian restaurant owner on the changing culture in Istanbul: "Do you think there is a place in modern Istanbul for romantics, or will they slowly be crushed by modernity?"
13) On his qualified hope for the city: "I'm not really an optimistic person, but I hope you're wrong about Istanbul, because it's an amazing place."
14) On whether his cab driver should be studying the Ottoman language: "Probably not while driving..."
15) On the thought of his cab driver belly dancing on an American road: "I think you'd probably get arrested for that."
16) On raki: "I have become very used to and fond of this drink, by the way. Maybe too used to it and too fond of it."
17) On Turkey's tumultuous political situation: "Nationalism seems to be working internally. Nationalism and xenophobia, it's a vote-getter almost anywhere."
18) On the pushback against nightclub culture: "Walking down Istanbul's streets, it's easy to forget or not take seriously the slow but certain change in attitude towards this kind of freedom. The right — for lack of a better term — to party."
19) On Turkey's political allies: "Who will be Turkey's bestest pal?
20) On the current ruling party's policies: "Fear works. Fear gets votes."