Back in March, I had the good fortune of meeting French Urban Sketcher Sylvie Bargain, who introduced me to Turkish mosaic artist Ayşegül Güvenir, and her friend Nur, who is also an artist. We sketched the Perşembe Pazarı fish market, ate some fish sandwiches, and formed a friendship. I am continually amazed by all the wonderful people who have come into my life because of sketching—in fact, if it weren't for sketching, I wouldn't have met Pedro.
Ayşegül asked us if we wanted to join a group of Turkish artists called karala(ma), who were invited by Harran Üniversitesi to sketch around Urfa, a city in southern Turkey, near the Syrian border. One of the highlights of the trip was an excursion to Göbeklitepe— the thought of which sent me over the moon. Göbeklitepe, or "potbelly hill", is the site of a Neolithic sanctuary dating back to around 10,000 BCE. I had been doing a little independent research on Göbeklitepe for a class I'm teaching on Paleolithic and Neolithic depictions of the human form in art, and this was too amazing of a coincidence. Before I knew it, Pedro and I were on a flight to Urfa, sketching gear in the overhead compartment, and nestled in the seat pocket in front of our knees.
As we were hoping to do some birding on the trip (the nearby desert region of the Middle East brings with it some special birds who cannot be found in other regions of Turkey), we decided to rent a car at the airport for more mobility. The process of renting the car was quite mysterious, as many things are in Turkey, and after completing the necessary paperwork, we were told to wait outside for a Hyundai, which would arrive in five minutes. The sky turned black on the horizon with an advancing storm, and I wondered if sketching at an outdoor archaeological site would be possible, as we discovered rain was on the forecast for the next few days.
"Five minutes" in Turkey is a relative term; to the car rental agent it meant fifty minutes. The deliverer of the car was a young guy who looked ready for a night on the town, hair coiffed, tight shirt, scented with cologne. We looked over the car, documenting a few minor dents, and when we opened the trunk to load in our bags, I began to suspect that this rental car doubled as a personal car. Several plastic bags of clothes and an instrument case were hurriedly removed by the agent with an embarrassed grin, and we were asked by the fragrant guy if we could give him a ride back to the city. I had my doubts, but we accepted, hoping for the best. Upon exiting the airport, the storm poured down in sheets.
Eventually we made it to Urfa, dropped off the grateful young man (who in the meantime had spritzed himself with more cologne), and began to look for our hotel. Ayşegül had told me that the University hotel was an old converted stone house, but when we finally found it, we were surprised to discover it was grander than we had expected. Our room was gorgeous. Stone walls, high vaulted ceiling, elegant woodwork, and three beds... a far cry from the kind of place we usually stay. We spent a few minutes looking around the room in awe and gratitude, before venturing out for some dinner. A jovial group of people passed us while wandering through a quiet little street, when Pedro suddenly yelled out "Ayşegül!"
Ayşegül introduced us to Ayşe, Aysel, Orhan, and Ayla, and we were happily reunited with Nur. Our group headed to a nearby ciğer joint, ciğer kebab (liver kebab) being one of Urfa's specialities. Pedro indulged, but since I'm not a big fan of liver, I ordered a çöp şiş instead— a kebab of little cubes of spiced lamb. The kebabs came with a dish of spicy caramelized onions and a heap of mint, perfect to cool down your burning tongue.
Urfa felt Syrian. I never had the chance to visit Syria— my Tante Leyla and I had a trip planned to visit Damascus, Aleppo, and Qamishle, but then the war began. I wanted to see where my father was born, in that little border town, where his mother bought chocolate through a fence from a Turkish bakkal. I wanted to learn about my grandparents— my grandfather, the quiet, compassionate doctor, and my grandmother, his fiesty and passionate wife. As I discovered in Antakya, Urfa had all these Middle Eastern touches. There were checked scarves artfully wrapped around the heads of many men, embellished stone houses, and a blend of Turkish and Arabic which produced a delightfully heavy h and kh. I wondered about the people not far from where I stood, the horrors and loss facing them. It made my heart ache.