Saturday, October 29, 2011

Saturday, October 29, 2011 - 1 comment

How I Avoided Accidental Marriage in Mesopotamia

“Cehennem kadar sıcak, şeytan kadar kara, melek kadar saf, aşk kadar tatlı.”
“As hot as hell, as dark as the devil, as pure as an angel, as sweet as love.”

- proverb about Turkish coffee

Having lived in Western Turkey for five years, this normally latte-leaning coffee drinker has acquired a love for thick, sludgy, put-hair-on-your-chest Turkish coffee. But it was only recently that I discovered it had a darker, more surly cousin living out east. Served mainly in the cities of Urfa, Mardin and Diyarbakr, “mırra” comes from the Arabic word “mır” meaning “bitter.”

The making of mırra is an art form requiring skill and patience, the whole process lasting four to five hours. (This is not your Grandpa’s instant Nescafe!) First the beans are roasted twice, then ground more coarsely than their powdery Turkish counterparts. In a cezve (a special long-handled coffee pot), the coffee is brought to a boil two to three times over an oakwood coal fire, then transferred to a second cezve where more coffee is added, and boiled up to seven times more. It is considered done when it has reached the consistency of molasses and can dye the inside of a cup.

After a tasty dinner of local specialties like Mardin kebap (grilled lamb meat with walnuts) and kaburga doması (stuffed lamb ribs) at the Antik Sur Cafe in Mardin’s old city, I had the chance to take part in the age-old mırra drinking ritual. Our waiter brought out an intricately detailed copper cezve, blackened by the fire, and tiny porcelain cups without handles. He ceremoniously poured out the dark, cardamom-scented liquid, filling the cups only half full, and passed them to each person at the table, starting with the oldest and working his way down, wiping the rim of the cup between guests.

Sampling my first cup, I found the mırra to be light on the “pure as an angel, sweet as love” side and definitely more in the “hot as hell, dark as the devil” category. And let me tell you, it is appropriately named. When it comes to packing a bitter punch that will make you scrunch your face up in pained delight, mırra makes Türk kahvesi look like chocolate milk.

Apparently protocol dictates that each person is served two cups, but most in the group passed on seconds. I, on the other hand, considered this experience an eastern rite of passage and forced myself to accept, despite the distinctly unpleasant bite it carried. This wasn't the sort of coffee you'd sip from a frothy mug in the corner of a bookstore on a rainy day. It was clearly the drink of camel drivers and tribesmen, and how any Mardin female manages to sip with a ladylike look on her face is beyond me. Drinking it - and coming back for more - felt like some sort of traveler's triumph.

“The tradition surrounding mırra,” our waiter informed us as he handed me my third shot, “is that if after drinking it, you place the cup on the table instead of handing it back to the person who served it, you must either marry the server or pay for their wedding.” He explained that while this old custom is seldom still practiced, it used to be a way for the wealthy ağa of a tribe to help out a loyal servant, sometimes filling the cup with gold and sometimes promising his own daughter, or for a man to discreetly signal his interest in the pretty girl holding the cezve in her shaking hand.

Now all eyes were on me, the only single girl at the table with a cup in her hand. Downing the last bitter drop, I half considered setting my cup down just to see what the waiter’s reaction would be. He wasn’t bad looking, and I could think of worse places to live than one of Mardin’s terraced stone mansions....

Enjoying the game, he called out to the cook, “Abi, evleniyorum,” announcing that he’d found himself a bride.

Nice as a house with a courtyard and a few servants might be, he might actually have a ring and a veil in his back pocket, and I had no interest in acquiring myself a Mardin mother-in-law, so I placed the cup back in his hand with decided finality. With a good-natured smile and a slight bow, he took our cups and returned to the kitchen.

Dangerous stuff, this mırra business.

I’m rather positive the life of a Turkish bride is not for me. But if I start to get desperate, you might just find me standing over the coals, stirring a pot of liquid as dark as the devil.....

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 - 1 comment

Mardin: Sneak Peek

I've been home from Mardin for almost two full days, and I've got a notebook full of scribbles that are dying to be turned into stories while the memories are fresh. But, alas, between catching up on all the sleep I skipped by getting up early to scribble those scribbles, doing mountains of laundry, hitting up the pazar and restocking the fridge, surprise guests who stay half the day, and all the other "catch-up" stuff that must be attended to when one returns from a trip, I have yet to be able to sit down and really write. Tomorrow. Tomorrow!

But, for now, here's a visual sneak peek at what the weekend looked like....

Looking out over the Mesopotamian Plain to Syria

Mardin: City of Arches and Alleys

"Mirra" - the Arabic coffee served in Mardin - is twice as strong as Turkish coffee, and seriously bitter. But it must be tried. :)

Courtyard of our hotel the first night. It used to be a kervansarayi - a lodging place along the Silk Road where stinky camels and stinky men could rest for the night.

The town of Hasankeyf is a historical and natural wonder, full of cave houses, a stone fortress, and a colourful cast of locals. It is set to be flooded when the government completes its plan for a hydroelectric dam, but there is a huge effort going on in an attempt to save the town and preserve its history.

The town of Midyat

One of the goals of our trip was getting to tour the house where Sila, a Turkish TV show, was filmed. My roommate had a slight crush on the main character and was very excited to tell us who lived in all the various rooms and where they ate breakfast.... :)

While we were at the house, a folk dancing group was filming a music video so we spied on them for awhile. They had to keep reshooting this bit cuz the handkerchief kept landing on the singer's face!

Our second night was spent in the Mor Abrohom monastery just outside of Midyat.

Driving into the village of Aynwardo was like going back to the Middle Ages...

Mor Gabriel is a Syrian Orthodox monastery that was built in 397, and it is the seat of one of Turkey's four bishops.

It took us some time to win our way into the hearts of the priest and nun caring for the church in the village of Zaz, but once the "doors of favour" opened up (good story to follow) they were happy to show us the ancient underground cave churches and offer us tea and stories.

We spent our third night in the Deyrul Zafaran monastery, which was by far my favourite of the ones we visited. It is one of the oldest continually operating monasteries in the world. Their hospitality was amazing - not to mention their saffron-cinnamon tea! We got to sit down with the bishop for some very informative and encouraging conversation.

Tomorrow I will (inshallah) finally get down to the business of organizing my notes and starting on some stories - one of the first of which will be titled "How I Avoided Accidental Marriage in Mesopotamia." Intrigued?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011 - No comments

Mardin Trip Prewriting: Passport to the East

(from Wednesday, Oct. 19)

We’re “just” taking a trip out east, but everything about this trip makes me feel like I’m heading to another country.

I had to laugh at myself as I loaded up my suitcase. I’ve got little bags of four kinds of snacks, as if we won’t be able to find food along the way, and all the fixin’s for coffee, as if we won’t be greeted with that classic Middle Eastern hospitality that will keep us on a perpetual caffeine buzz for the duration of the trip. I even had to remind myself that I won’t need an adaptor for my phone.

Perhaps its the “untamed frontier” photos I’ve seen of the vast plains stretching from Mardin down to the mysterious unknown of Syria. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that my Turkish won’t get me very far in a region where nearly everyone’s mother tongue is either Kurdish or Arabic. I have this delicious sense of anticipation that I am about to be dropped in the middle of an unfamiliar world where all the learned customs and rhythms, all the adopted bits that make up my carefully constructed Western Turkish self are going to be rendered completely useless. And I can’t wait.

There’s something about going to a new place that makes my senses feel more heightened and alive, like I’m actually experiencing everything I see instead of just “walking past it.” Flavours are richer, sounds more jarring, views more intriguing. It’s been a long time since I’ve been anywhere “new” in Turkey, and I am fully looking forward to having my senses assaulted, to really noticing the faces of the people I pass on the street, to new arched alleys to explore and dishes with unpronounceable names to sample. Armed with 16 GB in memory cards and my travel writing notebooks, I am ready to relish “the foreign” again.

I’ve done tons of research for this trip, but the more I read, the less I understand. I would venture to guess that the oldest building in my hometown couldn’t be more than 200 years old (if that), and yet this week I will spend the night in a monastery built in the fourth century. This is Mesopotamia we’re talking about. From the Sumerians to the Turks, civilization piled upon civilization, conquerors building upon the foundations of the conquered, sometimes absorbing, sometimes obliterating. This is a land that has hosted more vibrant cultures and witnessed more tragic bloodshed than my mind can comprehend.

A hundred years ago, this particular region of Turkey was nearly 100% Syrian Orthodox or Armenian, but with the dawn of the Turkish Republic, most of those “mysteriously disappeared.” Over the subsequent decades, all but a handful of those who remained were either driven out or fled to Europe as it became increasingly difficult to stay afloat on their “Christian island in a Muslim sea” as waves of Kurdish refugees flooded in from the mountains, their own villages the theatre of civil war violence. Still, there are tiny pockets of Syriac Christians that have managed to survive - many behind the safety of high monastery walls - and still others that taking their chances on the current slightly more favourable political conditions and returning to make a fresh start in their ancestral homeland.

I am so curious to see what life looks like when the minorities are in the majority. Will the reactions to this week’s attacks be the opposite of what they are out here in western Turkey? Will we hear church bells more than we hear the call to prayer? Will Turkish even be spoken in the streets?

And, most importantly, will the monks let me help in the kitchen?

Our time out east will be incredibly short for the amount there is to take in - not even three days total - and I am prepared for the fact that I know I’ll be disappointed because it just won’t feel like enough. We’ve been waiting five years for this chance, knowing that without a guy (and his family) along we’d be pretty limited in what we could do and where we could go, not to mention rather unsafe. Besides the conservative, male dominated culture and the infamous stone-throwing children in that part of the country, there have been two terrorist attacks on both civilians and soldiers out east this week, and while nothing has happened in the area where we will be, emotions - both Turkish and Kurdish - are sure to be running high.

Mardin is not Istanbul. It's not the kind of place where I’ll be able to get up early and roam around by myself with my camera. I keep reminding myself that as much as I’ll hate to be restricted by having to stick with the group and go at a pace that will likely be faster than my usual meet-the-locals-and-shoot-everything-from-five-angles-and-take-detailed-notes-on-it-all one, I’m lucky to be going at all. This will be an appetizer - just enough of a taste to fuel my imagination until I get to go back for longer someday.

I’ll just have to marry a patient man who is a curious traveler like myself and will be happy to drink gallons of tea while we meet every family in every village on the next trip. :)