The art of Keyif

Roughly translatable as ‘a pleasurable state of idle relaxation’, keyif has been honed down to an art-form by us Turks.

The pursuit of idle pleasure is a national pastime in Turkey. We call it keyif. Originally an Arabic term signifying ‘mood, contentment, intoxication’, the word has become truly international, with variations of it found in Russian, Persian, Turkish, Hebrew, Kurdish, Urdu, Hindi, and various Central Asian languages. It's even used as a slang word in English, particularly among bohemian druggies, from confessed opium addicts of the Thomas de Quincey vein to millennium hippie EasyJet-setters and even chi chi citizen-of-the-world sophistonauts who feature the word in a formidable vocabulary pastiche alongside an armory of recondite Sufi, Hindu and Aboriginal terms with which to impress each other over soya half-caff lattes. Back in Turkey, however, the indulgence in keyif is taken so seriously that it has become an integral part of day-to-day life, having assumed a variety of ritualized forms, with Istanbul as the undisputed national capital of keyif.

Our lackadaisical passion for languor shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, of course, considering our predilection for always seeking the easy approach in every endeavor we undertake. If there’s a ten-step flight of stairs, we’ll cram on to the escalator to avoid every single one of those steps like it was a minefield; if we can SMS a girl we just met instead of engaging in a phone conversation, we’ll type away like horny autistic Casanovas; if we can watch a movie instead of read a book, we’ll snuggle into our cushy little cinema seats eating popcorn and telling ourselves it’s a ‘cultural experience’; if someone’s working on a job, we’ll say ‘kolay gelsin’ – ‘may it be easy for you’ – which basically means we value personal convenience more than we do excellence or quality (we even say ‘kolay gelsin’ to people working out at the gym!); if we can find the love of our life by sitting in front of a computer all day instead of actually meeting real people in real life, then we’ll all register online to a convenient website by the millions to create a dyslexic pun for a username and upload a photo taken five years ago in which we look really good/thin as we utilize thousands of dollars worth of state-of-the-art communications technology so as to send electronic messages that bravely declare ‘I would like to meet you’. In other words, it’s the land of easy – but, as the French say, it’s really just ‘bon pour l’Orient’.

So if there’s one thing we know, it’s our keyif comfort zone, probably thanks to this pathological estimation of ours for all things easy. After all, there’s a certain easy-does-it ritual to the way we eat our breakfast, prepare our tea and read our newspaper; or stroll along the Bosphorus on a Sunday; or the way we share precious moments with good friends over food, coffee, drinks, or just plain chit chat. So here’s ten ways of experiencing keyif the Turkish way… nice and easy.

1. Breakfast (Kahvaltı Sefası)
Here’s how to do it: you put on the unsexiest grandpa slippers and bathrobe imaginable, go to the front door to fetch the morning paper and fresh bread, and then you sit down at the breakfast table without having even washed your face, and proceed to slowly pick at an assortment of black olives, tea, bread, white cheese, sucuk (spicy sausage, pronounced "soujuk") and eggs over the next three hours. The tea is crucial; it has to be Turkish tea and served in those little curvaceous Turkish tea glasses. So please, no tea-bagging. It’s disgusting.

2. Strolling (Gezme keyfi)

Here’s how it goes: you’re bored at home and looking for people as bored as you are. These people are your friends, who are bored for the same reason you are – they’re not with their friends. Therefore, to lift the dismal weight of alone-time from your collective shoulders (something which can lead to such unsavory habits as thinking, reading and creativity), you and your friends arrange to meet at Taksim (Kadikoy if you’re on the Asian side) and proceed to walk and talk aimlessly until it gets dark and you finally have something to do (i.e. eat dinner). This is in fact what three quarters of the people you see on the street are doing, and it’s highly recommended. You’ll be surprised how relaxing the oriental art of walking around with no destination is.

3. Idle chatter (Geyik muhabbeti)
Here’s the deal: find an ideal moment of shared lethargy with one or two others and say the first thing that comes to your head. Then whenever anyone says anything after that, make jokes about that person, before proceeding on to the next random topic. Interpolate chatter with healthy doses of gossip, football, junk food, gossip and loudly exclaimed ‘UFFFFF’s every time you’re reminded of some pending task that your moment of procrastination is deceivingly keeping you from. When the moment is over and everyone is on their way, wish everyone ‘kolay gelsin’.

4. The Bosphorus (Bogaz keyfi)

A distinctly Istanbul pastime, the stroll along the Bosphorus has a place of its own. This is such keyif that songs and poems are written about it, and pretty much every Turkish film from the 60s and 70s always has at least one scene of a Bosphorus stroll. It doesn’t have to be a stroll either, it could be sitting and staring out emptily while smoking a cigarette, it could be fishing, it could be swimming, it could (and at least once a month, should) be a late lunch at a fish restaurant, it could be a little repast in a park, it could be a drive, or a tea with simit (kind of a sesame covered Turkish bagel), or just a ferry ride. The Bosphorus is in fact its own keyif altogether.

5. Raki and meze at a meyhane (Meyhane keyfi)
Slurping raki, gorging on seafood and mezes, smoking a cigarette between dishes, getting up and dancing around to some raucous Gypsy tunes, clinking glasses, toasting old friends, drunken bonding, slurring and fighting and making up, declaring eternal love for your fellow humans, wondering (out loud) what the meaning of life is, all in the space of three or four hours before the bill comes and the fun’s over. Those are a good three or four hours.

6. Outdoor grill (Mangal keyfi)
The poor man’s fish-restaurant-by-the-Bosphorus is a mangal (barbeque) on any little bit of open-air greenery you can find on a sunny day. We often even set up a mangal right next to the road, for that superb exhaust-dust-and-roadkill marination that gives such added flavor to sucuk, grilled vegetables, chicken, and lamb chops. Other accessories include football, three or four kids, a loud radio playing depressing music, a bike, tongs, a thermos of tea, and lots of trash and plastic bags to leave behind for that proud and unmistakable ‘Humans were here!’ effect.

7. Tea party (Çay keyfi)
This is like all Turkish housewives’ national hobby: going to their friends and neighbors for tea, cake, and cookies, comparing each other’s children and their generously-garnished accomplishments, gossiping about anyone they know who isn’t there, exchanging recipes, complaining about their husbands, reading coffee fortunes, and between them consuming about 15 kilos of flour, eggs and sugar that’s been baked and molded into various shapes, forms and sizes. Although the Tea Party is more of an obligatory ritual that’s used for bonding and hierarchization within a close-knit local community (working and lower middle classes) or a broader social circle (upper middle classes), it’s also a rare therapeutic occasion for mommy to relax and share her problems with people who’ll listen, before having to rush home and cook dinner for hubby and kids.

8. TV (Televizyon keyfi)
Here’s some keyif that the whole family can enjoy. Daddy has his Digiturk and Lig TV, the kids have their cartoons and music channels and Playstation, mommy has her dizis and Brazilian soap operas, and all of it can be done while ironing or cooking or just sitting in tracksuit pants rolling the lint from between your toes. Not the noblest of pastimes, but definitely a step up from shadow puppets.

9. Smoking (Sigara keyfi)
Smokers know there are few pleasures in life that are as satisfying as lighting up after a good meal, when the taste buds are all stimulated and the pores in your mouth are all dilated. Obviously it must be that good if we’re going to risk cancer, heart disease, an early death, and higher insurance premiums, not to mention the ongoing wrath of the surgeon general, and surgeons in general. Although cigarettes are our smokes of choice, there’s now an epidemic of Egyptian shishahs with soft, dainty, fruit-flavored tobacco inundating our cafes, accompanying our sahlep and backgammon sessions, and thereby offering an alternative to traditional Turkish nargiles in which you literally smoke a stack of wet tobacco leaves, go dizzy, and vomit, all within 30 minutes. Thanks to the Egyptians, smoking just got more pleasant… if somewhat more effeminate.

10. The greatest keyif ever
Ironicalically, the greatest pleasure that Istanbul has to offer us Istanbullus can only be experienced when one is away from Istanbul. And what is that, I rhetorically hear you hypothetically ask? It’s coming back to the most beautiful city in the world, of course. We call that Istanbul Keyfi.