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The secret language of Turkey’s LGBT community

A drawing of Sevval Kilic by Mine Bethet (courtesy of Mine Bethet)

A drawing of Sevval Kilic by Mine Bethet (courtesy of Mine Bethet)

Read this post from Dalia Mortada. Or listen to the podcast above.

Sevval Kilic is a couple of inches shy of six feet. Her hair, various shades of light brown, rests at the middle of her back, and her eyes, outlined by long lashes, look like perfectly drawn almonds.

She has one of the biggest smiles I’ve ever seen, and it’s infectious. She looks much younger than her 40 years, and she likes to reminisce about the good old days when she made good money.

“In my day,” she reminisces, “I was shopping. I was shopping as hell…my shoes, just my shoes…” she trails off, giggling. That was in the 1990s, when Sevval lived in a neighborhood notorious for its unregistered brothels. She was 19 when she moved in.

Today, the quiet lane in central Istanbul looks much like it did in the 90s. But the sounds that fill the street are completely different.

Ulker St in Istanbul used to be part of a red-light district. The streetwalkers have long since moved on. (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

Ulker St in Istanbul used to be part of a red-light district. The streetwalkers have long since moved on. (Photo: Dalia Mortada)

A lady washing her windows on the third floor takes a break to chat with a neighbor hollering hello from the street. It’s not, as it once was, packed with guys taking their pick of sexual adventures for the night. No catcalls descend from the windows like they did a couple of decades ago, like the kind of catcall Sevval used to attract clients: “Psh psh, psh psh — this is the way,” Sevval explains, “or sfoot sfoot.” Just a small, subtle sound to catch a guy’s attention.

In Turkey, prostitution is legal with a license, and state-run brothels have an intense registration process. But Sevval and her colleagues were not eligible: The state did not, and still does not, accept transitioning women or gay men. Sevval had not completed her transition to becoming a woman when she signed up for her brothel.

In fact, she arrived with just her boy clothes. One of the more experienced women took her under her wing. “She took care of me like real mom. She washed me, she fed me, she dressed me, she taught me everything about working, about secrecy,” she says. Secrecy included using a secret slang, or as linguists call it, an argot, called Lubunca.

Lubunca is how Sevval and her colleagues talked to each other about their work in front of clients or the cops. It uses Turkish sentences and grammar, but certain words are replaced. The words Sevval used were related to her work. There are terms for hair and make-up, sex positions and different types of clients. “Let’s say there’s a rich customer and the girl in the front apartment yells, ‘It’s a hundred dollar customer!’ That’s bir but baari, Sevval explains.

Bir is the Turkish word for “one” and but means thigh or rump, like a large cut of meat. Bari is like saying “at least.” These are all Turkish words, but the way they’re strung together means you wouldn’t understand unless you knew Lubunca.

Other words in the slang come from different languages. “Some of the core elements of Lubunca come from other minority languages that haven’t been spoken very much for quite some time,” Nicholas Kontovas explains. Kontovas is a socio-historical linguist who has studied the origins of Lubunca. He explains that most of the words come from Romani — the language of ethnic Roma, or gypsies, who live in Turkey. There are words from Greek, Kurdish and Bulgarian, too. Kontovas explains that people from these communities have, to a greater or lesser extent, been outcasts in Turkish society, so they tend to live in the same city neighborhoods. That’s how Lubunca picked up its foreign feel.

Kontovas says the words from Lubunca are intimately tied to these neighborhoods and to meeting spots within those neighborhoods. The Turkish word for an Ottoman style bathhouse, for example, is hamam. In Lubunca, it’s tato which comes from the Romani word for warm. “The fact that there’s a word for hamam is pretty telling, the queer slang varieties that were used beforehand, at least what is recorded, were predominantly used in hamams,” which is where male sex work took place during the Ottoman empire, Kontovas says.

Of course, Lubunca has evolved. The terms for sex organs and positions get pretty creative — and are not appropriate for publishing. Terms for flirting are pretty crafty, too. “Badem alikmak, which is also to eye up. Badem, meaning almond, obviously in reference to shape of the eye,” Kontovas describes. “There’s another thing that’s great which is badem sekeri, which is ‘almond candy,’ which is eye candy,” he adds.

British comedian Kenneth Williams helped popularize Polari in the 1960s (Wikimedia Commons)

British comedian Kenneth Williams helped popularize Polari in the 1960s (Wikimedia Commons)

It is quite similar to Polari — the British gay argot that made it into the mainstream in the 1960s, back when being gay was still criminal in the UK. An example of Polari would be: “Bona to vada your dolly old eek.” That means “Nice to see your pretty face.”

Eventually, after homosexuality was decriminalized in Britain, the argot dropped out of fashion. Kontovas says, “The use of Polari started to decline so much so people had to go and record it and go into archives and look into recordings and ask older members of the community.”

As more people use Lubunca, it’s possible that it too could fade away like Polari, but that seems unlikely. Like Polari, Lubunca exists because it needs to: Not only is gay and trans sex work likely to stay illegal, but Lubunca’s use has grown in recent years. More members of the LGBT community — especially gay men — have adopted the argot. Sometimes they use it to show off — to declare they are part of the gay community while still keeping it a secret in public. And being trans or a sex worker can even be looked down upon within the LGBT community.

Turgay Bayindir, for example, came out as gay in college, but he knew nothing about the community. He heard his new friends using Lubunca for fun, but he did not get it. “At first I was uncomfortable, especially because it was associated with trans-women who are sex workers,” Turgay recalls, saying he considered it demeaning. But he got over his bias after he actually learned more about Lubunca and why certain people need to use it.

The word “lubunya” is how gay men and trans women often describe themselves — and it has crept into Turgay’s vocabulary. He says it might not be such a bad thing if the secret language becomes a little less secret. “I think in general exposure would be good and also it would make the lubunya community less scary to the public when they start learning about it,” he says.

Still, because certain words have become so mainstream, they are no longer used in the sex work community. Sevval, who left sex work to become an activist after her gender reassignment surgery, says she doesn’t recognize a lot of the words anymore. “Girls invented some new words — even I don’t understand them. In 2015, girls speak something else,” she says. “It evolves.”

Perhaps society will evolve too, so that Lubunca can be used for fun and not just because it is necessary.


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Words written in secret: a history of invisible ink

Norwegian-born Nazi spy Nickolay Hansen who had invisible ink secreted in his tooth (Courtesy Kristie Macrakis)

Norwegian-born Nazi spy Nickolay Hansen who had invisible ink secreted in his tooth (Courtesy Kristie Macrakis)

Here’s a guest post from my Big Show colleague Clark Boyd.

I have been finding little scrappy bits of seemingly blank paper all over the house lately.

I say “seemingly” because my daughter recently got a “top secret sleuthing kit” for her 8th birthday.

The kit contains two pens. One pen has “invisible ink,” which you use to craft your super-secret messages.

You use the other pen to rub over the note, revealing those messages.

My daughter’s notes usually say something like: “Can I have a cookie?”

I tend to write back: “Eat your vegetables.”

Okay, not exactly Spy vs. Spy, but it did pique my interest.

And then, I received a review copy of a new book called Prisoners, Lovers and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to Al-Qaeda.

“People are always surprised, because they think this is kid’s stuff. It is serious business,” says the book’s author Kristie Macrakis.

Her research focuses on the historical intersections between science and espionage.

On a trip to Berlin a few years ago, she was working on a book about the East German secret police, the Stasi.

She’d gotten hints that the Stasi liked to use invisible ink, but she’d never seen an actual method or formula detailed.

Then the archivist handed her a very thin file, tucked in among a bunch of others.

“I opened it up, and my mouth fell open, and I thought, ‘Wow, finally,” Macrakis says. It contained invisible ink formulas from the Cold War in the 1970s.

Macrakis hand-copied the whole file, convinced there was no way the archivists would make a photocopy for her.

But she asked anyway, and to her surprise, they did.

A few minutes later, she was making a quick getaway.

“I stuffed the copy of the file in my knapsack and started waltzing down the steps in my sandals. I felt like I was in a Hitchcock movie, you know. I fled down the steps and looked behind me, and they weren’t asking for my files back, and I walked outside, thinking I was home free.”

Macrakis brought the Stasi secret ink formula back to Georgia Tech in Atlanta, where she teaches. She found a chemist friend, and together with some students, they recreated the formula through trial and error.

Macrakis was having so much fun with the topic that she decided to write a book about the history of invisible ink and “secret writing:” steganography, to use the proper name.

To be clear, this isn’t cryptography. We’re not talking codes and ciphers.

We’re talking about the Roman poet Ovid giving Dear Abby-style advice about the kind of plant juice that lovers could use to write secret messages.

We’re talking about prisoners who have used oatmeal and milk, urine and even semen to write notes.

We’re talking about al-Qaeda hiding correspondence in the pixels of a porn film.

You name it, says Macrakis, and it’s been tried.

“Just use your imagination. Throughout history, you find the most fascinating ways of concealing secret messages, whether it’s in jewelry, or even writing on bodies, or even in a tooth. There are lots of ways of concealing and they’re all just fascinating.”

By now, you’re probably thinking back to those days as a kid when you tried this with lemon juice. You take the juice, dip a toothpick or other sharp object in it, and then write on a piece of paper.

Then you hold the paper over a flame and the message appears. Primitive, but it works.

In fact, in writing the book, Macrakis uncovered the story of the “Lemon Juice Spies” — a group of Germans in Britain who were caught using lemon juice to try to send secret messages during World War I. She even found one of the actual lemons used as evidence against them in a box.

“I mean, I looked at it, and I thought, ‘Wow, a 100-year-old lemon.’ And this innocuous lemon meant that about a dozen German spies were shot one by one in the Tower of London.”

Of course, the invisible ink cat-and-mouse game between the Germans and the Brits continued into WWII as well.

During that war, the Brits caught a Norwegian named Nickolay Hansen.

“At first, he told a bunch of lies, and they asked him about secret writing, and he said he didn’t use any,” Macrakis relates. “And finally, it came out that he hid a little baggie with invisible ink in his molar. Hopefully, he already had a hole in his tooth. Hopefully, they didn’t drill a new hole in his tooth to hide the secret ink in it.”

Macrakis also writes about Britain’s mass intercept of war-time mail.

Teams of women in Bermuda would sift through letters heading from the US to Britain, searching for secret messages.

Draw a pretty straight line, she says, to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA.

“After WWI, for example, the British claimed they had a grip on the world’s correspondence,” Macrakis says. “Similarly, that’s what the NSA wants to do with blanket electronic surveillance. It’s really the same story of secret writing 100 years before with mail interception, just with digital methods.”

Everything old is new again, as the saying goes.

There’s one mystery, though, that Macrakis hasn’t been able to figure out.

Sixteenth-century Italian scholar and polymath Giambattista della Porta suggested using a mix of alum and vinegar to write secret messages on an egg.

Macrakis says she’s tried and tried, but can’t get it to work.

She’s says she’ll soon launch a contest offering 200 bucks to anyone who can do it.

Get cracking.


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