The first tray presented to me was covered with various brands of cigarette packs, each smoke neatly pulled halfway out of its box for display. Next up were bowls of ice cream, nuts, Turkish coffee, a round of tea, and finally a two-layer tray of sweets. I had already been served a large meal.
It was ramazan bayramı (or eid al-fitr), the breaking of the fast at the end of Ramazan.
I was sitting on a sofa in a living room in Mardin, a small city in the southeast of Turkey. A couple who were my parents’ age sat beaming at me from the opposite sofa and their daughter and her cousin were nestled up beside me, touching my hands, hair and otherwise expressing their curiosity in a jabbering of Turkish.
The old part of Mardin is draped across a hill, it’s sand-coloured stone buildings terraced down in a jumble. Narrow pedestrian- and donkey-only streets cut horizontally along the city, joined vertically by steep stairwells and passageways. The new city is sprawled at its feet.
The late morning sun was already sizzling the stone streets when I left my hotel in the old city. Colourfully painted doorways, many wide open, broke up the beige of the walls. Sounds of families bustling and kitchenware shuffling from hands to tables drifted into the streets. Not many people were out and none were wandering aimlessly like I was.
A few minutes later a middle aged man approached me and gestured into an open doorway. I exchanged pleasantries with him but quickly had to revert to my well-worn phrase: “Türkiye bilmiyorum” (I don’t know Turkish).
The man smiled, took me by the hand and gently pulled me forward into the doorway.
We walked into a large courtyard stuffed with many chairs set around a long plastic table. Small one-use water containers were neatly set at each place setting, along with an upside down bottle of ayran, a cold yoghurt and salt drink that had become my go-to meal. The heat in this region was so intense during the day that I rarely had an appetite, so I would drink ayran as a sort of meal replacement. It had the double affect of also taking my temperature down a few degrees.
This was a family ramazan bayramı gathering.
A group of teenaged boys clustered around the far side of the table, caught off guard by my arrival. They sat frozen in mid-conversation, staring at me with gaping mouths.
To my right was a sliding glass door that opened into a living room filled with children and young women. The children’s eyes lit up when they saw me and they ran outside chattering. The young women had shy but friendly smiles on top of their curious expressions.
Further back in the home, I heard the clanging of pots and pans and voices. The smells of simmering food caught my attention.
The man who had brought me here gestured for me to sit down at the table as a woman about his age emerged through the patio doors. They began arguing and gesturing to the table and then inside.
An older man appeared, who was called baba (father). My new friend seemed to ask him whether I should go inside and join the ladies or sit down at the table with the men. It was decided I should do the latter, so I sat down at the edge of the outdoor table closest to the entrance.
The boys at the other end of the table broke out in a profusion of giggles, which I don’t think stopped the entire time I was there (and probably even after I had left).
Before I could wonder what would happen next, a teenaged boy brought me a heaping plate of rice topped with chunks of meat, parsley and almonds. I believe it was called Huşa, the restaurant version of which I had eaten the night before. Noticing that everyone around seemed to be finished, I ate as fast as I could, barely making a dent. When I had barely slowed down, another boy brought us a sweet rice pudding and cleared my plate.
More conversation with baba ensued and the boy brought out two plastic containers stuffed with rice pudding. After thanking my hosts, my friend led me back out into the street carrying the containers and guided me through a jungle of walkways.
We approached an open doorway on our left and shuffled off our shoes before entering. Two teenaged girls perched on the outdoor stairs painting their nails and gawked at me for a moment before running inside after us.
A small kitchen was immediately to the right of the front door and I could hear voices coming from an open room just ahead to the left. I was led into this living room where my friend’s wife, one of his daughters and her cousin sat, all conversation stopping when I entered.
After a moment of confusion and a few words of explanation, I was ushered to a flower-patterned sofa facing the women. At the edge of the sofa was a baby, sound asleep in a basinet. We introduced ourselves very basically, after which they realized that that was the extent of my Turkish language knowledge.
It was at this point that Itan, one of my friend’s daughters (and one of the teenagers who was outside painting her nails), began the procession of trays of cigarettes, ice cream, nuts, coffee and tea. Itan’s cousin, Tuba (the other teenager from outside) had made herself comfortable on the sofa to my right and was trying to pepper me with questions.
Using my pocket-sized Turkish-English dictionary, we were able to sort out a few things: where was my husband (non-existent), concern over when I would have children (what’s the Turkish word for “never”?) and my religion (also non-existent).
This was followed by a plea to show them all of the photos I had on my phone of my family, of Canada, and especially my two young nieces. They were shocked when they found out I was in my 30s and didn’t have children of my own.
As the food was being offered, people came and went from the house, making the rounds to various families in the city. At one point a young girl entered with her parents and she was instructed to approach me. She kissed my hand and then put the back of my hand to her forehead, a customary gesture for children to show respect to those older than them. I was told later that it is especially done during Ramazan and other holidays when children greet older family members.
During a break in visitors, Tuba and Itan took me on a tour of the house and showed off the simple, tidy rooms as if they were part of a palace. I was asked repeatedly if I thought each room was beautiful. I kept saying, “çok güzel” (very beautiful), which seemed to fuel their pride. I’m still not sure if they were particularly well-off or whether they were simply proud of what they had.
For some reason Tuba seemed intent on washing my hair. (I still have no idea why.) She showed me into the bathroom and gestured towards the shower, a bucket on the floor underneath a nozzle. I declined her offer again and again and we settled on painting my nails instead.
The tour continued as we made our way outside. Here we met a young boy of about 10, who was another cousin. He spoke a bit of English (and Arabic and Kurdish and Turkish), so the girls dragged him around everywhere we went so that we could communicate somewhat.
All four of us climbed onto the roof of the house, which was a concrete slab. The space, although just a square with rusting metal sheets in one corner and bare concrete walls, seemed surprisingly unused as a terrace. The expansive view covered kilometres of the Mesopotamian plains spreading south into Syria.
The girls wanted to have a photo shoot, which we had started inside. They loved posing and kept telling me how beautiful my sandals and clothes were. We shot variations of ourselves in different configurations, giggling at our silliness but with a serious intention of capturing this afternoon in a tangible way.
For some reason, the issue of my hair was brought up again and Itan convinced me to let her braid it (but I wouldn’t let her wash it!). We sat on the outside stairs and she weaved my hair into a lovely French braid.
Impatient, the boy tried to hurry us up, as he wanted to invite me over to his house. Off we went down the street and around many corners. The small door to his house was locked, though. He banged on it, but no one answered.
He made me promise to return the next day, reiterating in English that I was to meet him back here.
The next morning, I decided not to go over first thing, so I went for a walk through town before heading over. But I couldn’t’ find my way back. The streets were confusing and don’t have markings to distinguish them from each other.
I still wonder if I walked by his door at any point that morning. If it was open, I might not even have recognized his house. I’ll never know. I never saw him or his cousins again, although I wandered through every part of Mardin, it seemed. My afternoon with them was like a dream realized only by the photographs we took and the French braid left in my hair.