A man pressed my thumb down onto the greasy black ink pad, and into the space labelled ‘thumb’ on the page beside it. Forefinger, middle finger, ring finger, baby finger, one at a time, were all smeared in the black ink and pressed firmly onto the page. The man had an American twang, but looked like a Turk, dark hair and sallow skin. I shifted in my chair, it squeaked.
I sat opposite five smiling black politicians, framed on the wall. A beaded tribal doll was behind glass on a shelf, beside a Springbok jersey and a bottle of Cape wine, tilted to one side. Piles of brochures about investing in South Africa were fanned out on the glass table top. A broad-shouldered blonde strode into the room.
“Afrikaans of Engels?” she said quickly. Iain stumbled for his answer, taken aback by the address, comprehensible though it was.
“Uh…English, we speak English,” he replied.
“Welcome to Ankara,” she said warmly, extending a hand. “My name is Marieke, I’m the Consular Attaché.”
Sitting in our embassy in Turkey’s capital, we were back in a little South Africa, part of somewhere again. I had assumed Irish citizenship for the past four months, utilising my second passport’s advantages to travel freely within the EU. But now, I was South African again. We had come to receive ‘letters of recommendation’, required by the Syrian embassy for our visa applications.
An overnight train had brought us to Ankara early that morning, to collect the letters, and would return us to Istanbul that night. Marieke showed an interest in our trip, so we chatted to her for a while, outlining our vague route. It was always wise to provide our embassy with an itinerary in each country we visited, she advised, especially in the potentially volatile Middle East. We promised to try. “Wull, it’s naas to meet sum fellow South Efricans, and please be safe,” she said, smiling, and excused herself.
The fingerprinter reappeared with our letters, in crisp white envelopes. Sealed at the top, we were not intended to discover what these ‘letters of recommendation’ actually said. Having gone without a bed and a shower, Iain shyly asked him if he knew of a good Turkish bath, or hamam, nearby. His face changed, as though something of his identity had been revealed. Was he embarrassed? At any rate, he carefully sketched a map to Ankara’s only ancient hamam, best reached by bus, he told us.
With no plans, and just a day to take Ankara in, a long walk through the city in the vague direction of the hamam seemed like a good start. We crossed a large park, passed through a modern area of high street shops and fast food outlets, and in the distance, sighted Kocatepe Mosque. A pale shade of grey, it was enormous, bigger than Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, with long slender minarets brushing the azure sky.
Shoes safely stored in the racks provided (shoe theft is common), we entered. Sheepishly donning my paisley headscarf, which drooped stubbornly, threatening to abandon its ill-tied shape at any moment, I crept up the stairs to the ladies’ prayer quarters, leaving Iain in the men’s ground level domain.
I reached a landing and, wanting to be inconspicuous, crouched on its tiny balcony beside a fire extinguisher, and stared up at the ballooning ceiling. Delicate motifs covered the vast surface of domes above, and arches of bright light streamed in through rows of ornate windows. A large golden chandelier hung gracefully from the centre, glowing, encircled by a ring of smaller ones, which had not been switched on. Their sparkle came from the sunbeams dancing through the windows.
My silent awe was interrupted by a large shrouded lady slowly making her way up the stairs. She began whispering loudly to me in Turkish, gesturing for me to follow her. I had not blended in as easily as I’d hoped. I was whisked under her black cloaked wing, and led further upstairs to the carpeted women’s section, from where the view of the mosque was unsurpassable. Her Turkish chatter persisted and I continued to shrug and smile in the hope that she’d soon accept my ignorance of the language.
Turkish babbling aside, the ambience was as serene as in Istanbul’s Blue Mosque, where I had first entered the realm of Islam. The plush carpets and quietude beguiled you to sit or kneel and gaze, the eye pursuing the intricacies above.
We found the hamam in a small, unmarked building late that afternoon, more than ready for a wash. Once in the ladies area, I wrapped the checked peştamal around me and slipped on the wooden clogs provided, my toes gripping the heavy soles which flapped beneath my feet. One foot at a time, I made my way through the slippery rooms, squinting through the steam. The architecture was very similar to the hamam I had visited in Istanbul. Ancient archways led to cavernous rooms, the largest dominated by an octagonal slab of marble. Ceilings were domed with cut-out stars to stare up at.
I revisited the ancient ritual that day with apprehension. My experience in one of Istanbul’s most touristy hamams had been less than soothing. Peştamal wrapped around me, I had hobbled my way into a steam room, expecting to unwind before a soap massage. A large octagonal platform stood in the centre of the room, barely visible beneath the scores of naked women crammed onto the dripping marble. Peştamals were sprawled out everywhere; some of the ladies lay on them, legs splayed in repose. Others sat cross legged, using the checked cloth as a sweat rag. The ‘massages’ were being given all around the edge of the octagon, where women were slid up and down the soapy marble, pairs of feet nudging anonymous flesh in an overflowing sea of steamy bodies.
The masseuses were flabby Turkish ladies, buxom and topless, routinely dousing their sweaty bodies with jugs of water. Their English was nonexistent, and so, at the one time they deemed it necessary to communicate with you – to turn over during the massage – they simply gave you a slap on the bottom, yakking to their colleagues all the while. Soap and water were applied liberally enough so that your eyes became ready to shut instantaneously, as warning was rare. The ‘massage’ – fifteen minutes of drowned battering – more closely resembled a zoo animal’s routine scrub.
Happily, the experience in Istanbul made my return to the custom heavenly. I soaked up the steam at my leisure, with only one other woman, and no bullying masseuses to hurry me up. After discovering a quieter hamam in Istanbul, it soon became my blissful Turkish retreat.
Clean and shining, we ventured through Ulus, Ankara’s oldest region, toward the hisar, or citadel. The fortification stands high on a hilltop, above clusters of crumbling homes, lining the narrow lanes that lead up to it. Spilling down the hill, the curiously dilapidated dwellings appear to have grown into the earth’s contours, to have survived a landslide, or simply the countless years of decay that help to explain their slanted roofs and sagging foundations. Sheets of plastic or tin waterproofed some of the roofs, where tiles had long since fallen. Wooden beamed merged with cement or brick to provide some form of stability.
We wound our way through this hill-village, stared at by locals who appeared never to have seen anyone like us. “Merhaba…merhaba,” we said softly, as we passed. Some nodded or smiled back.
The hilltop was a large area, dotted with a few houses, shops and restaurants. Faded robes adorned with shiny coins and brassy jewellery was displayed outside an antique shop, where a short old man cleaned his windows. “Merhaba! That means hello,” he said, smiling.
“Hi!” we both replied. “Yes, we know Merhaba…and Teşekkur, for thank you,” I told him.
“How do you like Turkey?” he asked us, an enquiry that we were already familiar with. Turks divulge much pride in their country.
We enthused about Istanbul, explaining that we had only spent time there so far, excluding our day in Ankara.
“Ankara is the capital, but foreigners do not come,” he told us.
“It seems like a lovely city though,” I said.
Kocatepe Mosque was only ten years old, the man informed us – proof of Islam’s constancy in a secular Turkey. He politely answered some of our questions for a while, and abruptly stopped us when he realised that the sun was sinking fast. “I must prepare,” he explained, and wished us happy travels, no doubt wanting to close and wash up before the day’s ritual fast breaking of Ramazan.
We, too, were hungry, not from fasting, but because lunch had been hours before. A nearby bakery churned out pide at speed, immersing the whole street in doughy smells. Tormenting, fasting or not. Guiltily, we leaned against a wall and devoured a large piece of the crisp warm bread between us. The call of the muezzin sounded, the guiltiness left us: Ankara was breaking fast. Ramazan had been pivotal in our reception of Turkey thus far, and we promised ourselves we’d partake in the custom, just for a day, tomorrow.
A restaurant owner who had given us his business card earlier (as was routine with every restaurant owner, leather seller or carpet flogger) still stood peering outside his door. An icy wind had picked up, so we went in and huddled by the open fire, upon which aromatic skewers of lamb lay roasting. Two glasses of thick white liquid appeared, a salted yoghurt drink called aryan. It was all that was on offer, so I did my best to stomach as much of it as I could.
We ate a fantastic meal of lamb kebabs, made sublime by the spicy relish and pul biberi (dried red chilli powder) that accompanied them. Our plates were cleared and we were offered çay on the house, a common gesture of Turkish hospitality that we were already familiar with. Within minutes, a slice of piping hot baklava appeared, drizzled with syrupy nuts. The owner, who had disappeared into the kitchen to make it himself, came out, hand on his heart, smiling. It was a gift from him, this signalled. The dessert was a local recipe from the south eastern part of Turkey where he came from, he managed to express, broken as his English was. He beamed as we devoured it in bliss and simply nodded as we thanked him for the dessert, the tea, the meal: his hospitality.
We retrieved an Old World Wandering card, and tried to explain that we would write about our wonderful experience at his restaurant. Obviously flattered by whatever he had understood of that, he went to a set of drawers and presented us with a small white box, a heart stuck onto its front. Inside was a set of black prayer beads, resting on a layer of cotton wool. The kindness of strangers had never confronted me like this. He put his hand on his heart again and smiled at us.
An hour to kill until our train, we drank endless apple çay, served in small tulip shaped glasses, in a sort of late night tea shop filled with card players – every one a man. The sun had long since set, they’d finished work, had their dinner, and had come out to socialise with their friends, over a cup of tea or two. Green felt covered the tables on which cards were shuffled and dealt, and we were lucky to find a table at this, the peak hour.
“What an interesting and lovely day as travellers we’ve had,” I wrote in my journal that night, at the train station. The train arrived, we found our seats, put on blindfolds, plugged our ears, crept into sleeping bag liners and went back to Istanbul.
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