Saturday, June 5, 2010

Leventine Girls of Bournabat

Hande and I entered under the ALLAH sign lit with giant light bulbs and weaved our way past the hard-candy onion lamps, the handmade silver, the giant rocks of amethyst.
“These are supposed to take your bad energy. My mother gave me one, but I still have it.”
"The amethyst?"
"The bad energy."

You could get lost and be happy about it with the gutters full of shops in the medieval building that winds its way back to a mosque and a covered garden where tiny wooden tables are surrounded by squat stools; one hundred people talking and drinking tea out of those tiny crystal tea glasses and the red and white striped saucers. Hande and I did it. Both. We got lost and we had tea by the mosque in the outdoor garden and drank tea.

I’m noticing that this tea drinking habit is really specific to Turkey just like coffee is specific to Greece. One just goes well with the other. It’s not like anyone NEEDS to drink three coffees or five teas a day, but something in the environment leads you to want it.

Eventually we found our way out of that tea soaked, labyrinthine den of temptation (leather bags, hand made jewelry, embroidered pillows, and just about everything else I could fritter my fruits away on without realizing when I hit the bottom of the basket.) My imagination was popping with all of the ways we could show this to Western women. Did you notice that? I said women. Lately I’m only coming up with ideas for women-only tours, and I don’t know why. I keep trying to include men in on it, but it’s just not happening. Every time I opened my mouth, I would ask Hande something about whether she thinks women would enjoy this, or could she find someone to take the women there...

We ate some little dishes of sardines and vegetables by the sea and talked until 8:30 pm, which surprised us both. We had spent five hours together without even realizing it.

The whole time she was leading me around Izmir, I've been haunted by the book that I'm reading regarding the history of the city.

 I'm putting down here an excerpt to give you an idea:

"It had the climate of southern California, the architecture of the Cote d'Azur, and the allure of nowhere else on earth. In no city in the world did the East and the West mingle physically in so spectacular a manner."

And there is this photograph of some of the daughters of the rich merchant families, dressed up like Turkish dancers or gypsies, playing cards and smoking cigarettes amidst carpets and lamps.

And this picture captures my imagination and sends me time traveling... I just think about how exotic it must have been to be raised as a westerner in a progressive melting pot with camels and Fig trees and hookahs...

The events that put an end to it, along with several dozen earthquakes, are the reason that the city is now a mishmash of concrete club sandwiches just like Athens, without taste or smell, and the occasional waterfront house from the 1800's with gingerbread detailing and big bay windows, curled lines, stands among them like a juxtaposed old photograph.

The events that put an end to it are some of the saddest stories I've ever read. Sometimes I have to close the book and close my eyes. People are the cruelest creations on earth. I say people, not humans, because the things done in the name of your country are inhuman. The book is impartial and evenhanded. Both sides took their aggression out on the people who couldn't fight back, all in the name of patriotic glory or vengeance, or both, two of the stupidest inventions we've ever come up with and certainly specific to us. Have you ever seen fish try to massacre a pelican for eating their parents? Do seals eat poison and sacrifice themselves to the Orca to give them their just desserts?

Just as it's hard to walk through France now and imagine what it was like under German occupation, or Atlanta and imagine it burning to the ground, it's difficult to think that there was a day when Izmir/Smryni was anything but a peaceful city along the sea with bicycles pulling rusty carts full of steel thermoses filled with tea, joggers, fisherman. It is just as difficult to imagine that at one time it was the ruby of the orient. Now I would say it is a silver ring, a pewter tea cup, a bit more humble than the queen city to the north, Istanbul, but it makes it all the more admirable. Some of us say that humility is the finest quality in a human. HUMAN.
I think it's equally desirable in a city.

We should never forget that thin, small thread that our reality balances on. One natural disaster, one angry taxi driver, one desperate leader can pull the Turkish rug right from under us, even if we're dressed to the nines. Even if we are sitting on gold coins. In the end, the best currency is stories. Real riches lie in character and in memories.