I’ve long had a horror hate relationship with sheep’s head soup. Called kelle paça in Turkey, it’s a favourite soup during Kurban Bayramı when sheep are slaughtered in their thousands, if not millions, in memory of Ibrahim. Kelle paça, made from the head of the animal, eyes, brains and all, is considered by many as a delicacy. Luckily for them, it’s available year round.
This is unfortunate for me, because the skinned heads, carefully stacked upside down in mobile glass cases or in butchers’ windows, are everywhere. As if the rawness of the meat, denuded of skin and stretched tight over glazed eyeballs isn’t bad enough, the little teeth, gleaming nicotine stained yellow in their gory expanse of rich, plump flesh, seem to smile at me menacingly as I pass. Being placed brain down seems to add to their grisly allure, so as much as I find them repugnant, I’m drawn to them as to a car crash.
My butcher is located in Fish street in Kadıköy, on the Asian side of Istanbul, and right next door to him is a gruesome pyramid display of sheep’s heads. It belongs to the neighbouring butcher’s shop that I don’t frequent. One day, a tall moustachioed butcher, his white coat splattered with worrying stains, was out the front rearranging the heads. Plucking up my courage, I asked him why the heads were baş aşağı*, upside down. He looked at me quizzically for so long that I asked him again, taking extra care to ensure I pronounced the words clearly. Finally, in reply to what I thought was a reasonable question, he treated me to a ten minute lecture on the anatomy of sheep in Turkey. In very basic Turkish aimed at the very young. Or very disturbed. Here is the body he said. Underneath are the legs. All of them. Four. The head, he was careful to tell me, is not underneath. It is on top. See, he said while drawing a body with his hands, the head is here, not here. On top. Above. Not under.
Each sentence was accompanied by a searing look into my eyes to check I understood him. When he was finally convinced that I believed Turkish sheep had their heads on the top of their bodies, at the front, he let me go. Ever since I’ve been careful to keep my head baş aşağı when I pass the sheep’s heads. I’m afraid the butcher, who thanks to me probably thinks all foreigners are a little strange in the head, will grab me as I pass to check if I have any other misconceptions about Turkish livestock.
*When I came to write this story I was still puzzled as to why the butcher reacted the way he did. Checking my English-Turkish dictionary again, with a much better level of Turkish than I had when this story took place, I realised I should have said tepetaklak, which really means upside down, rather than baş aşağı, head down/under.
You can read about more of my adventures in Istanbul in my memoir, Waiting for the Tulips to Bloom: Adrift in Istanbul.