Sunday, May 4, 2014


Urfa had gone through a lot of changes since my visit in last May— renovations on the old stone buildings were well under way, and the crumbly old facades I fell in love with last year were now smooth, gleaming ivory in the sunlight. Clouds of dust snaked through the narrow alleys, muting the harsh southeastern light and confusing the division between man and stone; their hard hands and faces white, wrinkles and lashes coated.

The word usta means 'master'. Around a bend in the labyrinth, we came across an usta and his apprentice laboriously painting the doorway of a house in a traditional floral pattern. Watching him was a small film crew, documenting the process on camera. According to one of the crew members (whom I later found out was somehow tied to the cultural preservation of Urfa), this type of folk painting is dying out as there are fewer people in younger generations who are interested in learning how to do it.

The man explained that this type of wall decoration signifies that the inhabitants of the house are good, trustworthy people; they have been to the Hajj, and will offer their home and hospitality to anyone who knocks on their door.

I was suddenly drawn to a dull chipping sound— the sound of metal hammering away at something hard. Just past the corner was another usta, an usta the man said, who was the very last of his kind. Every move of his calloused hands was deliberate and fluid, every cut into the stone accurate. He sat upon his legs in the white dust, with an unwavering focus. I hovered above him mesmerised— nothing pulled his attention from that stone. At some point he paused to look up at me, and I took the opportunity to ask if I could photograph him. His face cracked a smile, and I received the nod I hoped for.

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