Sunday, May 25, 2014

the return to harran

The sun was blinding, casting sharp shadows, and the cloudless sky was cut by the glossy blue-black wings of barn swallows. The earth was ochre beneath my feet, and from the ruins of the ancient university of Harran, I could see the village's famed adobe houses with their beehive-shaped roofs. It seemed unchanged from when we visited last year— a comforting thought when living in a country where buildings, highways, and bridges seem to sprout up between blinks.

I wandered in between the few remaining beehive houses, relics of a once great Upper Mesopotamian city. The air was heavy with the smell of animal. In the shade of her doorway, a woman wrapped in a purple headscarf and robes of dusty velvet sat, leaning against the old wooden door, muttering. Her wrinkled face and hands were marked with faded bluish tattoos, the symbols too blurry to pick out as anything other than crosses. I asked if I could take her portrait, and with a wave of her hand, she consented. I tried asking what the tattoos signified, but her response was so garbled, I was unable to understand a word of it.

I snapped away under her piercing gaze, trying to use the opportunity to take as many photographs as possible in the hopes of coming away with something useful for future projects. As I began to put my camera away, she asked for some money. When I fumbled around in my wallet for some change, my fingers came up with nothing (and I didn't have any bills either). I sheepishly tried to explain that I was currently penniless, and was called a liar with unmistakeable clarity. I apologised and moved on, with a trail of insults behind me. I felt guilty.

I found shade in the courtyard of the "cultural center", a small adobe structure enclosed by a rectangular wall. The courtyard was arranged with low tables of embossed metal trays and Urfa's distinctive wooden stools, farming tools, and a table of scarves in various shades of violet, embroidered with white patterns. This is where Pedro and I had a çay and sketched last year— where I drew the portrait of Jamila, tore out it out of my sketchbook, and gave it to her.

I scanned the faces of the ladies who were relaxing in the shade of the awning, but Jamila was not among them. Suddenly, a woman too young for the depth of the lines between her brows, approached me with narrowed eyes.

"I know you!" she announced. "You came before, with your big, big man." Her hands reached into the air, trying to match Pedro's height.

My laughter brought out her own. I held up my sketchbook, and she nodded with a smile. I asked where Jamila was, and she explained that Jamila had moved to Istanbul in search of work. Jamila was her sister. She then pointed to one of the bee-hive roofs of the center, and told me that my drawing was on the wall inside.

I was deeply touched. I stood there grinning to myself as I remembered the encounter with Jamila— how she tried to keep a serious expression for her portrait, but could not control the corners of her mouth. I hope that wherever she is, she's still smiling.


Miikes G. said...

Hi, permission to use your photograph of beehive houses for our school assignment regarding Mesopotamian houses in History of Interior Design. Thanks very much.

szaza said...

Hi Mike,

Thank you for asking for permission. You may, as long as you properly credit my photographs.

Good luck on your assignment!