Holy Carp, a Handgun Wedding, and the Devout East

Everyone wants to know about the holy carp. Okay, I’ll get there soon. In fact, skip this next paragraph if you need to know now.

I’ve been reading a book by Turkish Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, called “Snow.” Early on, the protagonist visits a devout eastern Turkish city and gets drawn into a heated conversation with some students about love and faith–so it wasn’t a surprise for me when I rode into Sanliurfa, a devout eastern Turkish city, and got corralled by a team of young students who wanted to ask me pointed questions about love and faith, repeating the dialogue almost word-for-word. Fortunately, I had just read that chapter in “Snow,” so I knew all my lines. For several hours, I walked with Ahmet and Muhammed and Murat through the markets, up and down the alleys, in the bookstores, talking about God and girls. I’m inexpert in both, so I just counseled faith in God and patience with girls. Or maybe faith in girls and patience with God. There were some translation issues.
Feeding the holy carp
The holy carp: The prophet Ibrahim–that’s Abraham to the Western world–was in town, prophesying, making trouble, preaching monotheism. King Nemrut–Nimrod to the Western world–sentenced him to death on a burning pyre. God intervened in a nicely dramatic way, turning the fire into water, and the coals into fish. Now, the holy fish reside in a lovely reflecting pool in Urfa’s large city park, and visitors feed them endless dishes of fish pellets, bought poolside for a few cents.
Urfa is a Kurdish town. The women, and many of the men, wear lilac, lavender, purple headscarves. Spangly bright green and red mirrored gowns, nose rings. Kurdish people are proud of their heritage and announce it first thing in a conversation. Nuri, the guy who sold me a kebap and some chai, made a point of his Kurdishness, as did the fishfood man, the woman at the city’s historic castle, and the hotel owner. We always moved on to other topics–America, politics, the weather–but Kurdishness is first.
Prime Minister Recep Erdogan was in town, making a campaign stop in advance of the June 12 elections. As I walked through Urfa’s bazaar, men and women sat on low stools watching the broadcast, halting the frenzied business of buying and selling for a while. The bazaar is a warren of alleys, branching off into hans, or old imperial storehouses, accessible through narrow passageways and opening up into stone courtyards framed by arches and balconies, variously converted into chai gardens, textile or spice bazaars, even motorcycle repair stalls. The chai men clacked their metal saucers like castanets, calling chaichaichai chaichaichai.
From Urfa, I took a late afternoon bus a few hours east across endless farms to Mardin. I wasn’t happy about it, but there was no way across farmville except the superhighway. (I was also cranky about the bus departure time. The details aren’t important, but let me say that the assholes in the Urfa bus station run that place with a combination of sneakiness and mob-style omertà that should put them in jail.) The bus dropped me and my bike in the dark, two kilometers from town. It didn’t help with my bad mood. I emphasize the cranky part, because it frames the next part of the story.
Across the street, in a dusty lot between two concrete buildings, a few hundred people gathered for a wedding under a strings of lights and danced to live music. Purple scarves, spangly robes, Kurdish songs. I rode by, stopped to watch on the edge of the party. Not a minute later, Ahmet (a different one–there are a lot of Ahmets here!) found me and led me upstairs to meet the men, drink chai, and watch the national championship soccer match. In the smoky room, I asked if this was a Kurdish wedding. It was like walking into a New York bar mitzvah and asking if, like, this is a Jewish thing. Laughs all around, hearty claps on my back–and for the next few hours, I was introduced to everyone as the American who asked if it was a Kurdish wedding.
Ahmet and his pals pulled me into the line dance, following a young man waving a colored scarf. We circled around the bride and groom, who sat in the middle at a table, looking a little tired. The lone musician played an electric saz and sang tunes everyone knew. That sounds folky, I know. In fact, it he rocked the hell out of it, playing through a distortion filter and accompanied with hard disco beats from a drum machine. Later, word came that the favorite soccer team won the match, leading to wild celebrations up and down the street. Cars and semi trucks streaked by, waving flags and honking non-stop. It was a lot to celebrate, so when the young guys started firing pistols in the air, it seemed appropriate. I ducked instinctively, though, so I started getting introduced around the party as the American who asked if they were Kurds, who also didn’t know a thing about guns. (See a video of the wedding here.)
The next day, I walked around Mardin, high on a mountaintop above the Euphrates valley, and only a few miles from the Syrian border. Mud-brick houses mix with modern buildings and 5th-century Christian churches and 12th-century mosques. Many people here grow up speaking Arabic. As I was leaving one mosque after evening prayers, a man gently tapped my shoulder, offered his hand and a said a gentle “welcome.” His friends gathered around as we put on our shoes, all giving me handshakes and welcomes in Turkish, English, German, and Russian. Later, I spent some time fixing kids’ bikes with Karem and his father Munir at their auto-body shop, using none of the right tools.

Take your shoes off before entering the mosque.

Yeah, you too, buddy.

From there, several wonderful days riding through deserts and oasis towns, following streams and valleys planted with poplars and deep-green crops. This morning, I crossed the Tigris river on the way to Batman (holy history!), thus completing our 9th grade unit on World Civilizations.  
In next week’s installment, I’ll write about my visit to Hassankeyf, a castle and town occupied since the 4th century, soon to be lost forever under the dammed waters of the Tigris. Also, a basketball game with village kids (my team won–serious ballers, yo), and my efforts at high-five cycling.

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As usual, bridge traffic is terrible. I-90 is your best bet

 


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