Saturday, October 20, 2012

Muslim Radical Hospitality

Another excellent reason to travel is that occasionally you meet local people and see the way people really live. For a worthwhile experience it’s even worth losing money. I had a pre-paid reservation in Ankara at a hotel for the night, but I never showed up. 

Monday, in Istanbul, I got on a large luxury road cruiser. Instead of 4 seats across, it only had 3. The seats were extra wide and further apart than normal. A steward, wearing a white shirt and tie, served drinks and snacks from a rolling cart. Each seat had a small TV screen that played music and movies. And there was WiFi that consistently dropped out inside the many long tunnels.

After a few hours, the bus stopped at a large bus station just off the four-lane highway. Without any Turkish to speak of, I had no idea if we were picking up people and moving on, or taking a substantial break. I needed to go to the bathroom after taking too much advantage of the steward’s tea cart!

A young lady overheard me asking about the “tuvalet” and speaking thickly accented English, she asked where I was from, told me we had thirty minutes, and took me to the restroom, which was outfitted with Asian floor toilets. I’d never used one before, but I’ve been camping in the woods many times, it wasn’t so different.
Aylin, her mother, and nephew Ahmetmet.

Aylin (pronounced like Ailene) learned English in a four-year course and was doing quite well. She also speaks Russian, so occasionally her English has Russian accents. It’s very charming.

Back on the bus, we traded my single seat with her seat-mate so we could chat. By the end of the bus trip, she’d convinced me to come to her house in Akyurt to meet her family and have dinner. Every few minutes she was texting or calling members of her family, planning the visit! At 23 she still has all the exuberance of a teenager. The invitation was also to spend the night, but I felt that was too much. She reluctantly arranged for her uncle to drive me back to Ankara at 11:00pm to the hotel.

Her father picked us up at the bus stop and drove the last mile or so into town. Aylin was so excited to bring home a foreign guest! Another of my media-induced illusions took a nose-dive. Muslims (at least in Turkey) don’t hate Americans. They have many of the same misconceptions of us from American movies, as we have of them based on our media.

Arriving at the front of the store, which also houses a barber shop in the same building, we were greeted by a bunch of teen aged boys. In the tall homes up and down the street, women were on their balconies looking down. I felt like an arriving dignitary.

The village is now on the outskirts of Ankara, with only a few farms to separate it from the city. Aylin grew up in the house where she still lives with her parents. As the youngest, she now has an entire floor to herself. Two sisters live nearby with their families and a third lives in Ankara. Her mother has run a store, in the front part of the house for years, and her father is retired from government service. The store was moved and is now on the main road through town. It’s a small village but the homes are two and three stories, one across the road has seven! Most people live in large extended families. We arrived at dusk so I was able to see a bit of the town. Just outside Aylin’s house is a natural spring that has been concreted over and redirected to a pool. It runs constantly like a small fountain, and overflows into a tiny stream bed. People wash their carpets on the slab in front, and many drink the water from it, rather than buy bottled water. Across the street is the Mosque, complete with the usual loudspeakers. For a few minutes, at sunset, it was impossible to have a conversation.

Aylin showing off the array of goods
in her mother's grocery store.
Her mother’s store is stocked with everything you might need; from milk, eggs, and flour, to toilet bowl cleaner and laundry soap. There’s a TV mounted above a refrigerated case, and a kitchen in the back where her mother cooks the family’s meals. A couch, right in amongst the shelves and displays, makes the store like a second home. Most of the boys that came in and out are her parent’s grandchildren or related to the family in some way. I met so many I couldn’t possibly remember them all. But one of Aylin’s nephews named Ahmetmet is learning English in school, and though very shy, he came and sat next to me, had some bread at the meal with us, and generally hung around all the time I was there.

We had a wonderful meal! Everyone sat on the couch and on tiny stools around a coffee table and ate from a large platter, dipping food with bread or spoons into the communal dishes. Her mother had made an all-vegetable meal, the way they eat in the summer when everything is fresh. (And organic!) Starting with a garlicky squash soup topped with dried crushed grape leaves, we moved on to tiny okras in tomato sauce, a fresh chopped salad with carrots and cucumber, and the best eggplant I’ve ever eaten. Eggplant is used a lot in Turkish cooking. Though never a big fan, I vowed to eat it as often as possible to give it a second chance. After this meal, I’m clearly going to have to learn to cook it! Everything we ate, her father had grown in his garden or orchard.

Her mother asked me personally to stay overnight, so I knew this was not just letting Aylin have her day in the spotlight. Every person who interacted with me, either through smiles and showing me things, or through Aylin’s interpretation skills, was doing it from genuine curiosity and generosity.

I would be spending the night somewhere, why not with this delightful family?

After the meal, in the dark, we went to her sister’s apartment, on the second floor of a building across the street. It was quite large, with stone floors, big carpets, comfortable furniture, and elegant drapes. The kitchen was huge, and had a big family table with chairs. In the evening a wood-burning stove in the living room was lit and warmed up the room considerably.

I showed them photos of the Alhambra which none had seen. I think very few of the extended family has traveled outside of Turkey. But they do know about Texas. The TV show Dallas was a big hit for years, and may still be playing in re-runs.

Some members of the family posing for pictures.
Family is the most important thing in the world.  Everyone seemed to feel sorry for me that I have only one child, am divorced, and am traveling all alone. So I showed them photos of my family at Christmas time, just so they would have a sense of how I, too, am connected. Aylin told me they also celebrate Christmas. Jesus was a prophet, like Mohammad, and they use Christmas as an opportunity to give each other presents!

I must admit, I was very surprised by that revelation!

Neighbors showed up and other relatives came over. The large living room was full of people. Her sister gave me a lovely red scarf with edge embroidery that she had done herself. Since they all wear headscarves, I put this one on for the photos. We had a great time. Whenever I took a picture I told the group to say “Whiskey”. From then on, all night, if someone wanted to get a laugh, it was Wheeeeskeeee!!

We stayed at the sister’s home for several hours. She served tea and Halva, a dessert made from flour, butter, and sugar that tasted like fluffy cream of wheat. During all this activity, the men were off somewhere else. Boys under 12 hung out with us. Even at tea, I think the men were served somewhere, while we dominated the kitchen. Towards the very end, when the crowd thinned, Aylin’s brother-in-law came in and sat down in the kitchen to ask a few questions. He really wanted to know if my son liked me, or was he angry with me for getting divorced, and did he live with me? He knew from American movies that boys don’t live with their families after age 18, and that they are all very angry. I told him that American movies are not a good reflection of real life! He was genuinely curious about how the American family works. I explained that in the US it’s normal for young people to leave home at 18 and live separately from their parents. He asked if my heart was broken when my son left me.  

On the way down the hill to Aylin’s house for the night, I noticed there were still women on balconies watching what was going on. I feel certain my stay in this village will be the fodder of gossip for some time to come.


The next morning, Aylin slept while I wrote. About 9:00 her mother called on the phone to say come for breakfast; it woke her up. So we rushed around packing my bag and getting ready to leave the house.

Breakfast is served! With Aylin's eldest sister,
just waiting for everyone else
to come and sit. 
Breakfast was in the store, just like dinner, and served the same way. That small coffee table has a removable top they loaded with plates of food in the kitchen area and carried over to the stand in front of the couch. The wood stove roared nearby. 

What an interesting breakfast. A large plate of ripe tomatoes, a basket of washed parsley and mild green chilies, potatoes fried in olive oil, chopped boiled eggs, black wrinkled olives, sliced cheese, and a stack of freshly baked home-made bread.  Plus tea in little tulip shaped glasses that I’ve only seen used in Turkey, a bowl of sugar and a small plate of salt. As before we stabbed at the food with our forks and ate leaned over the table. Everything was simple, fresh and delicious. Aylin’s sister wanted to know what Americans eat for breakfast, do they really eat Kellogg's?

The conversation was even more interesting than the breakfast. Her father admired my teeth and wanted to know if they were my own. His set of beautiful white chompers, on the other hand, were 22 implants, that cost (Aylin’s translation) 39 billion lira.  I’m sure it was 39 thousand, but that is still an awful lot of money.  I assured him that all but one of my teeth were still my own. He approved, and said his wife had all of hers too.

Aylin's father, at the spring, soaking stale bread for the ducks.

The night before, the family had delighted in a game in which I guessed their ages. I guessed fairly well, but when Aylin asked me to guess her father’s age, I thought I was underestimating 5 years by saying 60 but was off by 6. He is only 54, sporting an deeply grooved tanned face like you would see in a National Geographic article on Turkey. He's spent much of his life in the sun, and that makes a world of difference. 

First graders.
After breakfast, we went for a long walk to see the town. Just down the hill from the store is the school where Aylin and her sisters went for the first 8 years. The administrator greeted us at the gate, and asked us to come in; I could take pictures. The kids were all wearing uniforms and boys especially wanted me to take photos of them with their arms around each other’s shoulders. I see so much affection in the family and the town, people always touching, kissing on the cheek, smiling at one another. Men in Turkey, walk with one’s arm on the other’s shoulder, or even arm in arm. Kisses on the cheek when greeting is normal. It’s heartwarming to see that America’s insane homo-phobia hasn’t extended around the world.

Aylin's uncle, her father's older brother, was chopping wood with an ax at his house across from the school. His daughter pointed out a dead animal in the tree. Some men would be coming soon to knock it down. I asked why they bothered, and Aylin said the men wanted to have the skin. No one knew what kind of animal was up there, all we could see was a long fuzzy tail blowing in the breeze.

We walked on down the road to see more houses and her sister’s “summer” house, a tiny cottage by a stream, where the family gathers in summertime to have tea and visit in the evenings. On the way back, a crowd of people had gathered to watch a man in the bucket truck knock the animal out of the tree with a shovel. It was a mink or marten. Not long dead and with thick luxurious fur. There was blood around the mouth and hind legs but otherwise it looked undamaged. The local tanner showed up with big thick gloves and rubber boots to take it away.

Women's class in the Mosque.
On the way back to the store, we stopped at the Mosque where women were having a class on reading the Koran. I asked if they were learning to read, but Aylin said no, they already know how to read, the class is on reading the Koran well.  With our different cultures in the way, I’m not sure if that meant interpreting the Koran, or reading it aloud with feeling, or singing it out loud. The class was very welcoming, and wanted me to photograph them. Most of the women in the town are conservative and wear headscarves. Some of the younger ones like Aylin chose not to. She may change her mind after she’s married and settles down, it will of course depend on where she lives and how much social pressure there is to conform.  

Cheryl, the woman I rented from in Istanbul told me that Turkey is considered very liberal, Istanbul especially. The rest of the Muslim world calls religion in Turkey “Muslim-Light”.

Back at the store, Aylin’s mother had prepared Turkish coffee for us. Pinar had told me that Turks don’t drink much coffee, though they are famous for it. It’s very strong, and meant to be savored with a small piece of chocolate or tiny pastry. Coffee is more of an event. So, up to this moment, I hadn’t tried it.

Making traditional Turkish coffee.

Her mother dipped spoonfuls of dark brown foam from the top of a small pot to fill six tiny cups. Then she poured the rest of the coffee on top of the foam. We were served outside at a picnic table in front of the store, each cup accompanied by a slice of Mars bar. I was expecting a bitter brew, the coffee was so dense and black, but instead it was sweet, smooth and absolutely delicious.

Aylin’s sister has a reputation of being able to tell your fortune from the dumped coffee grounds. My cup, after the grounds had time to drain out, was found to say that I have two eyes upon me (ie people are looking at me! No kidding?!!) And since my cup drained very smoothly and evenly, leaving little mountain patterns around the edge, it means that I will meet many people in the future.

Coffee and Mars Bars, in front of the store,
with Aylin's two sisters and mother.

The bus came right on time, to take me back to Ankara. We hugged, kissed, and said good-by. As the bus drove off, I glanced back to see women still watching from balconies.

An experience like this was well worth forfeiting the price of a hotel room. The whole village might feel sorry for me, being single and all alone, but if I hadn’t been alone, would I have met Aylin at all?

My young Turkish friend, Aylin.