Thoughts reverent and irreverent from the road in Turkey


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b2ap3_thumbnail_DSCN1240_20130623-214806_1.JPGHere I am in Afyon, a conservative town as I know both from reputation and from previous visits. Accordingly, I head straight out in the morning to explore the narrow back streets that meander charmingly round the base of the huge rock topped with a castle that gave its full name  - Afyonkarahisar (Afyon Black Castle) – to the town.

There’s confirmation aplenty of its conservatism to be found in these streets. Many are the men with bushy beards and the women in heavy headscarves. The bazaar is selling items such as shepherd’s cloaks made from felt that stand taller than the average human and seem to belong to another era. Here and there Selçuk minarets attached to small neighbourhood mosques puncture the skyline. The houses are Ottoman in style, made of wood, and belong to the early 20th century when the whole area beneath the castle had to be rebuilt after a disastrous fire. 

I’ve paused to inspect the pieces of Roman masonry embedded in the walls of the Kubeli Cami when I become aware of the sounds of partying. Further down the road a Turkish flag is strung out across the street. A bayrak gathering, I think. The celebrations for the bridegroom that precede his wedding day.

Something makes me wander down the road towards the music, and there I come across not men but women gathered to make merry after the ceremonial cutting of the bride-to-be’s hair. The bride is standing on a blanket spread out on the ground. Paper- chains of banknotes hang like long tresses below her waist. Her friends are dancing around her dressed in the brilliant colours and sequined şalvar I tend to associate with eastern towns such as Van and Şanlıurfa. Many wear red yazmas (traditional headscarves) trimmed with oya (embroidery). Older women sit silently watching. Several wear velvet şalvar patterned with flowers in a maroon-purple that I take to be a local style. 

The women treat my arrival as perfectly normal and I’m ushered onto the blanket to dance with Selma, a slight, shy-looking girl who is soon scuttling away to change into her going-away clothes.

Wandering away from the gathering I pass two women hastening along the road with metal trays perched on their heads. “What’s in them?” I ask the younger and cheerier of the two and she whips it down to reveal a circle of pastries. “Bükme,” she says, holding one out to me. “With lentils and spinach.”

It’s a crispy pastry, stuffed with a filling rather like a local variation on vegetarian sausage roll. Then round the corner I come upon the fırın (oven) where the pastries are being made. It’s one of those communal fırıns that used to be a feature of every neighbourhood, places where women would gather to catch up on news and exchange gossip while baking tasty morsels for their family. We have them in Göreme although none now are still in use. 

Nor were they quite like these fırıns. These are enclosed spaces rather like claustrophobic little soot-blackened shops. A woman is sitting in front of the fire stoking it at the bottom by tossing in handfuls of sawdust. These cause the fire to flare whereupon flames shoot up through a hole in the back rather like a volcano erupting;  the heat thrown off is astounding. 

On a long table to the side trays of bükme wait to be put in the oven. They’re slid into its upper section on a long wooden paddle like those used in pide shops. From time to time a filthy old black skirt is hooked over the paddle and whipped around the surface of the stove to clean it.

An old woman hobbles into the fırın and makes her way round the room kissing the other women who are perched on benches in between piles of rubbish. She wishes everyone a happy kandil and there follows some debate as to whether the cooking is being done for the kandil or a wedding. A wedding, the woman in front of the stove finally confirms. Selma’s, I think. It sure beats the dry biscuits and boxed peach juice that are standard fare at Göreme gatherings. 

Finally, all the sawdust having been exhausted, Fatma slides a metal panel across the front of the stove. A sudden chill descends on the room. I wish the women well and depart.

In the evening I head for the venerable Iqbal Lokantası to pay homage at a shrine to food that has been in business since 1922. To my surprise, I find it empty and the food on offer in the trays looks sadly unappealing. The next evening I come out of my hotel and on a whim turn right instead of left which brings me to the new town rather than the old one. 

And now here’s s surprise. On pedestrianized Ahmetpaşa Caddesi I find an entirely different Afyon that’s hardly conservative at all. Here young people gather to drink flavoured coffees and tuck into burgers in a rash of pavement cafes. The Gülyurt boasts that it has been in business since 1962 but if so it seems to be making a better fist than the Iqbal of adjusting to modern tastes. I struggle to find a seat in a vast food emporium that stretches out into the back garden and up onto the first floor. Looking round I seem to be almost the only person over 30 who’s dining here. Almost all the other customers are young people, bright-eyed, joyful and bubbling over with life. Women sit together. Women sit with men. Headscarves are markedly few in number. It could be a café in any university town in any English city except that the music is immediately muted at the first word of the ezan (call to prayer).

This, I think, is the Turkey I sometimes long to show my friends. It’s not exotic. It’s not exciting. It completely lacks the touristic allure of the other Afyon I’d been exploring the day before. Most visitors would probably shun it as – what? They could hardly say “too touristy” here in little-visited Afyon, but certainly too uninteresting to bother with. For me, though, this street tells an important story about modern Turkey. And it’s the story that makes me shake my head when secularist friends roll out their scare stories about how Turkey is becoming the next Iran.

This blogpost was written in happier days before the Gezi Park troubles.

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