Back in 2004 I worked at Erciyes University in central Turkey. When some of the final year students approached me to be a chaperone on a four day three night trip touring Eastern Turkey I jumped at the chance. This is an excerpt from a longer complete story.
View over the teahouse terrace to Syria, Mardin
As instructed, we arrived at the faculty carpark at half past nine one Thursday night. We were amazed to see all the students there on time, because punctuality was never anyone’s strong point. A lot of them were accompanied by their parents, and we were introduced to a bewildering number of mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, aunts and uncles. We even met someone’s grandparents. Everyone was weighed down with bags, pillows and numerous parcels of food. Zeynep, one of the girls on the organising committee, stowed our bags in the luggage hold and escorted us onto the bus to choose our seats. We still had fifteen minutes before we left so we got off again to have a cigarette. Seeing us, Fikret waved us over to where he was standing.
“Good evening Kim and Lisa. How are you?”
“We’re good thanks Fikret”, said Kim. “Are you looking forward to the trip?”
“Yes. I think the students will have a good time. I think we’ll be very tired though”, he said as he looked at the bus. Behind the windows we could see that everyone was already seated and ready to go. A few of the braver students gestured for us to board. We left exactly on ten, and within minutes food packets were being opened and offered around, and the students at the back of the bus began to dance and sing. This brought a few cries of dissent from the students at the front, but only over the choice of song. After a short but fierce debate a new song was chosen and everyone joined in.
“Hello teacher”, said a thin girl dressed in jeans and a jumper, “Would you like some cake?”
“Hello Kevser” said Kim. “Lisa, this is Kevser, she’s in my composition class.” I nodded hello as Kim continued talking with her. “I didn’t know you were coming on the trip. I thought it was only for third and fourth years.”
“The fourth year students organised it but anyone could come. But Emine and I are the only two students from the second class.”
“Oh, is Emine here?” Kim looked around. “Where are you sitting?” As she pointed to the front of the bus a head appeared above a seat. Her friend Emine waved hello and beamed at Kim and then sank back down out of sight. Unlike Kevser, who had short hair and dressed in a boyish style, Emine had fair skin, long hair and wore a very fluffy, very pink jumper. We talked some more and when I said no to a piece of cake Kim explained my wheat allergy to Kevser. After she took her seat again he had to repeat the explanation as more students came around with food. The singing continued, but less noisily. A few students at the back of the bus were playing cards while two girls up the front were demonstrating dance steps for their friends. Diagonally opposite us Fikret slept through it all, with a pile of food treats growing ever larger on the tray in front of him.
I woke suddenly when we turned off the highway into Kahranmanmaraş. When I roused Kim with the words, “We’re going to eat icecream” it was three o’clock in the morning and he took a while to understand what I’d said. Once he did he was excited as everyone else about eating the stretchy icecream made from goat’s milk for which the town is famous. The icecream shop was just closing when we arrived, but at the sight of a bus full of students eagerly peering out the windows, they reopened their doors.
Everyone piled out and went to watch the ice cream man. He was wearing traditional baggy black trousers with a colourful sash that matched his waistcoat, topped off with a fez. His big arms were visible through his white shirt and we watched his muscles strain as he mixed the icecream with a large wooden paddle. We all chose cones and laughed as he smeared the ice cream onto the cone and then offered it to one of the students, still stuck to the paddle, only to snatch it away when they reached out to take it. The ice cream is so elastic that it sticks to the wood and it’s common for vendors to entertain children by pretending to steal their ice cream. It didn’t matter that none of us were children, it was still great fun. Even Fikret joined in, and we stood around eating icecreams and striking silly poses for photos. All the students asked us to be in their photos and to take photos of them. We learnt to say “Çekiyorum!”, “I’m taking the photo”, and “Çektim” to let them know we’d finished and they could all move. It’s a good thing Turkish ice cream doesn’t melt quickly because nearly everyone had a camera and it took over half an hour for everyone to have their photo taken.
Back on the bus we tried to get some more sleep but just as one group of students would finish talking another would start. By five o’clock all the students were wide awake and engaged in a flurry of activity. It was time for breakfast so more food was brought out, and although some of it was store bought, all the local girls had treats made by their mothers. By the time the sun came up we’d been offered börek, baklava, savoury pastries and nuts, and turned down chocolates and sweets. The sandwiches we’d made ourselves remained uneaten. Everyone shared what they’d brought and no one complained when the students up the back started to sing again. We arrived on the outskirts of Mardin with the sound of a popular Tarkan song in the background, just before nine o’clock. It was a bright clear day and even with the airconditioning on it was already very hot.
The first thing the students did was consult with the driver about somewhere to have lunch. Despite having eaten non-stop food was obviously going to be a central part of the trip. In the distance we could see the old town of Mardin but we took a road leading in the opposite direction. After manoeuvring around steep and sharp corners the driver stopped halfway up a hill. Opposite us was a small restaurant with shaded outdoor seating. The idea was for the organizing committee to go in and inspect the kitchen and ask about prices, but everyone got off the bus with them. Along with most of the girls I was desperate to go to the toilet. The owner was more than happy to let us use the facilities, and we were all pleased with the level of cleanliness. By the time everyone was finished a deal had been struck and we arranged to come back around two o’clock.
We were dropped off in the main square of the old town and everyone stood around in the heat vacillating about where to go. Mardin is in the South East corner of Turkey, and only twenty one kilometres from the Syrian border. It’s famous for its tiers of flat roofed houses made from golden colored sandstone, as well as beautifully carved mosques and medrese. The population is very mixed, with Muslims of different sects, Kurds, Christians and various people of other religions, all living together. There’s a lot to see and do, and Kim and I weren’t prepared to delay. We knew everyone would endlessly debate the best route and argue until absolutely everyone’s wishes were met, so we took off on our own.
First of all, we wanted to have tea, so we headed down the main street, in the opposite direction to most of the students. Across from the most beautiful post office we’d ever seen was a large tea house. Built on the roof of another building, it was set at street level and afforded a view over the spectacularly empty plains. We sat under a canopy right next to the minaret of the mosque next door. The carvings on it were stunning but we were too lethargic to look more closely. The proprietor was friendly and the tea was recently brewed and gleamed like fresh pomegranate juice. Refreshed, we went across to the post office and up onto another rooftop courtyard. There we listened as a teacher explained the history of the building to her bored school aged charges. It was a restored 17th century caravanserai, but they found their mobile phones far more interesting. We took full advantage of her knowledge and eavesdropped until she came to an end.
Further up the same street we climbed some stairs and passed local women at work in front of their houses. Nodding hello we dug in our bag for our notes and began to ask the way to the Sultan İsa Medresesi. An old man showed us the way, stepping carefully over the uneven stones in the pavement. He left us at steep stairs leading up to an imposing carved doorway. Although our travel notes indicated the building could be closed, we climbed up for a closer look. The door was locked, but we took advantage of the slight breeze the height afforded us while pondering what to do next. It was so relaxing I was about ready to have a nap on the doorstep when a man passing below asked us what we were doing. When we told him we had come to look at the medrese he told us it was 650 years old and asked if we wanted to go inside. He graciously took us around to another entry way and left us there before going on his way. Once inside we said good morning to some men hosing out an inner courtyard and climbed up narrow stairwells to the next floor. Through every opening we could see the dull reds and browns of the plains leading to Syria shimmering slightly in the heat. Once at the top the view was mesmerizing and we lost track of time until we were startled out of our reverie by the school group we’d seen at the post office. When they poured into the courtyard we found a different exit and continued up the street.
With no destination in mind we walked up and down the many steps joining the narrow streets of the town. It was hot and hard work and when we reached a wide staircase leading up to a huge wrought iron gate, I was ready to turn back. At Kim’s urging I climbed slowly up to the last step and saw a beautiful building inside the grounds. It housed a local high school. On seeing us the students came over to talk to us and disinterestedly answered our questions about the architecture of the 100 year old school.
Afterwards we headed back down to the main road and plunged down more stairs into the bazaar. Set in white washed sandstone buildings, there were traders selling salt bags, farming equipment and livestock. The whole place smelt strongly of blood and as we rounded a corner we realized we’d reached the local butchers. Whole carcasses hung from hooks in the walls and men were busily cutting off sections to fill orders given by housewives waiting at the ramshackle counters. Just beyond that, in a small square where a number of side roads converged, porters were pushing their way through the crowds. They each led a donkey, loaded up with goods, colourfully decorated with ribbons and woven saddlebags. I waited patiently for a break in the people walking by so I would take a photo. I was about to give up when a local stopped everyone from passing and invited me to ‘Çek” away.
Back up on the main street we passed a hugely fat man making leather whips. When he saw my camera he called for me to take his photo. Local passersby indicated he was a little crazy, but I took his photo anyway, declining his invitation to come and sit with him.
To read the complete story of what happened when I went touring Eastern Turkey buy a copy of my second collection of essays called Exploring Turkish Landscapes: Crossing Inner Boundaries.