Saturday, September 27, 2014

a feast after dark

As the sun made its exit, we began our search for dinner, eventually deciding to splurge on a small feast at a trendy-looking rooftop restaurant. To my delight, there were dishes on the menu that I had never heard of, dishes with more of a Syrian or Persian flare— kibbeh and biryani in disguise. The scent of cardamom took me home to my childhood, a cloud of a memory, nonspecific. We ordered a sampler of Mardin specialties and a walnut kebab to share.

I could have been happy with just that little dish of incredible, sweet and sour cherry sauce and a bit of bread, but goodness when the sauce, walnuts, and spiced beef meet... Over the moon, I tell you! Though I enjoyed every bit of our meal, it's the taste of that kebab and cherry that I still remember. The only way to end such a wildly delicious experience was with a dainty cup of coffee with cardamom.

We had to take a walk to digest. At some point, a small truck slowly passed us spraying a noxious gas into the air, which we learned was for killing mosquitoes. The gas burned in our throats and eyes, and as the truck made its way down the street, it left coughing people in its wake.


mesopotamian blue


Perched on a rock rising high above the Mesopotamian plains, is the city of Mardin. Mardin had until this point, held a mythical status in my mind— uttering its name will generate long sighs and far-off gazes from anyone who has travelled there. I have wanted to see it for myself, the so-called "honey-coloured" houses, the labyrinthine alleyways, the churches and the mosques.

Mardin has at one point or another been home to the Hittites, Babylonians, Persians, Romans, Assyrians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Kurds, and Ottomans, to name a few. Armenian and Syriac churches stand side-by-side elaborately carved mosques, and voices carry Kurdish and Arabic through the streets. The road up the hill to the old city centre takes you past a grim prison and some rough-looking houses— definitely something omitted from travellers' tales and guidebooks. However, once in the centre, it is clear to understand why the name Mardin elicits those romantic, dreamy eyes. The architecture is stunning; though not far off from the pale, ornate structures in Urfa, but the setting is spectacular— it's out of another time, out of a book. Just the word Mesopotamia is enough to transport you.

One of the first things I noticed were the pretty, flat brown breads stacked outside bakeries. I couldn't recall seeing anything like them in Turkey, and our hunger and curiosity compelled us to investigate. The heat of the day kept them warm as though straight from the oven, and once we were away from view (not wanting to eat in front of anyone fasting), we set to work.

"This tastes Christian..." I mumbled through a mouth full of the sweet, cinnamony bread. Pedro looked at me puzzled. There was something about that flavour combination that I guess I subconsciously associate with the religion— it reminded me of Easter or Christmas.

In need of a shower and a brief nap, we retreated to the hotel that we had found, one of the few within our price range. Mardin, we were beginning to discover, was prepped for tourists.

Friday, September 26, 2014


The sky turned that pale, washed-out colour that it gets just before sunset, and the metallic rattle of storefront shutters closing signaled that it would soon be time for iftar. People rushed home for the much anticipated meal that would break their daily fast. During the month of Ramadan, or Ramazan in Turkish, many Muslims rise early to eat a meal before the sun rises, then fast, often without a drop of water, until the first call to prayer after sunset. In Konya, we watched restaurants fill up with hungry patrons who sat patiently at their tables, refusing a nibble of table bread until the azan was sounded.

While wandering through the empty alleyways of Şanlıurfa's bazaar, we came across a few remaining shopkeepers and tailors, who took a moment to entertain themselves by engaging in a friendly conversation with us. They were kind to compliment my terribly broken Turkish, and regretted that they could not offer us a çay until iftar— but what were our dinner plans? As we did not want to impose, and had had a craving for a certain ciğer dürüm the moment we knew we were going to revisit Urfa, we declined their generous invitations to join them for iftar.

Then we met Muhamet.

I've been slightly obsessed with obtaining a set of mırra cups since the last time I was in Urfa in April. Mırra is a thick, bitter coffee drunk in the Şanlıurfa/Mardin region, and is served in tiny handleless cups. Not of the elegant Turkish coffee variety, the mırra cups I sought are thick and tough, with a crude red and cobalt design on them. They are very cute.

It was not an easy task to find these cups in an abandoned bazaar, but when we came across a little makeshift café, I thought I'd ask for advice from the çaycı, who was busy hosing down the pavement in front of his shop. He was Muhamet, slender and stubborn, absolutely refusing to accept a no to his warm invitation to the iftar he had planned for that night. He told me not to worry about the mırra cups, he could sell me some of his, then he unfurled a large pink carpet onto the wet stone with great ceremony.

"Otur!" He commanded with a grin, and we kicked off our shoes and took a seat on the carpet. Within moments, a motley group began to trickle in, men in their twenties, men with silver in their beards, and a young orphan who lived on the street. We were introduced to them with excitement by Muhamet, and received words of welcome and warm smiles in return. What never fails to amaze me is how conversations can happen without a common tongue (or without fluency in each other's language)— having the little bit of Turkish that I do does help a lot, but when people want to connect with each other, they will.

Muhamet carefully laid down newspaper for our table, while lahmacun from a nearby bakery was distributed amongst us. I was given a handful of nuts, and Pedro was offered a tin bowl of dark, cola-like liquid, which was explained to be a sweet beverage made from a root— a Ramadan specialty. At the first note of the azan, there was a sigh of relief, and the feast began with an air of gratitude.

I have enjoyed many a lahmacun in my life, but this was the best I have ever had.

When the time came for us to head back to our home for the night, Muhamet leapt up from a card game and motioned for us to follow him. From a shelf in his shop, he pulled out two mırra cups, and wrapped them in newspaper. When I offered to pay him, he put his hand on his heart, and gently bowed his head with a smile.

From time to time throughout the trip, I would carefully unwrap the cups and hold them in my hands, studying every detail of their surfaces. Now, back at home, I take them out of the cupboard periodically to remember that even though at times it seems that the world has gone mad, there are kind and generous hearts out there.

Monday, September 22, 2014

the ruins of arsemia


What's planning without a little snack? I have no idea what this gözleme gibi treat was, but it was nutty and delicious. I am endlessly fascinated by Pedro's meticulous birding notes, and this particular book has a hand-drawn map of Turkey with little x's for the distribution of certain birds on each page.