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.....