Mardin, My Fellow Traveler

Yasemin Gulsum Acar Issue: Section:

“It looked like something out of a movie from 6o years ago,
nothing was new or modern”

I first learned of Mardin when I went to a small cafe in the area of
Sirinevler in Istanbul. All along the walls were faded pictures of
what looked like a fading city lost in the desert of time. Stone
buildings, seemingly carved out of the mountainside they rested upon,
sat blanketed in dust overlooking the vast expanse of mesopotamia.
Looking at the owner of the cafe, I wondered how a man with such a
clear love for his city and his home could leave to make a new life in
Istanbul.

My curiosity about this man's life and the city he came from stayed
with me. I never forgot his complacent face, lined with age and
effort, nor the faded photographs that filled the space of his narrow
cafe. A couple of years later, when I moved to Istanbul to teach
English, I resolved to finally visit the city that had plagued my mind
for so long.

The hotel I stayed in doesn't appear in any tourist brochures. You
can't find it on a map, nor will anyone from Mardin recommend it as a
place to stay. It's cheap and dirty and there's no hot water. But I
have never felt more welcome in any place I have stayed. I can't refer
to them as the staff, but more as the people I spent time with while I
was there. My new friends opened a tourist map and showed me where to
go, and more importantly where not to go. “Don't bother with these
vantage points for the view,” they said, “just go up to the roof of
the hotel. It's better.”

I awoke the next morning with bright light streaming into my window,
and the crisp cold air filling my lungs. I went up to the roof, as
suggested, and took in the view. More accurately, I digested the view.
I stood, breathless, looking past roofs strewn with trash and pieces
of discarded satellite dishes and looked into the distance. On a good
day, one can see 200 miles into Syria. And it was most assuredly a
good day.

I took in many sights during my stay in Mardin. I visited beautiful
buildings, like the Ulu Mosque and Kirklar Church. But more important
than the places I saw were the people that I met. The architecture of
the mosque was stunning, but the thing I remember most of my visit
there was the face of Ibrahim, the little boy that offered to tell me
the history of the building and told me, in a whisper, that he knew I
was Turkish because I looked nothing like the English friend I had
brought with me. I loved the beautiful tapestries inside of Kirklar
Church, but loved even more the beautiful greeting, explained to me by
an old woman of the church as “Allahin selami,” “God's greeting,”
given by members of the congregation to one another during the Aramaic
services.

I remember the taste of linden tea with cinnamon and lemon, and the

refreshing Efes beer at the end of a long day of sightseeing, but the
most memorable moment of that night was when one of the three Suryani
men at the neighboring table asked us if we wouldn't mind if his
friend sang a song. Not only did I not mind, I had trouble holding
back the tears as he sang first in Turkish, then in Arabic, and
finally Kurdish. After his second song we became good friends. We
shared beers and talked of our lives, and listened to his arabesque
singing in a voice both raw and pure.

My final night in Mardin was spent in a hookah cafe looking over
mesopotamia. There, I met a young man with the eyes of an old soul set
into a young, innocent face. He chain smoked with the practice of a
man twice his age, but his smile was youthful and genuine. He didn't
have a formal education, but insisted on educating himself. He said
that the most important thing in life is learning, and second to that
was travel. He had a deep and profound love for Mardin, but insisted
that it was important to see more of the world. His grasp of history,
his views on politics, and his love for religion, stories, and
anecdotes, left me feeling as though my years of school had left me
lacking an education. He was the oldest 19-year-old I have ever met.

When I first checked into my hotel, it was during an argument about
whether or not Prince Charles' origins could be traced to Mardin. When
I left, it was during another argument about whether or not Spain was
a Muslim country. I have never laughed more, drank more tea, or felt
more at home away from home before. I forgave the dusty bedsheets. I
forgave the shared bathroom with alaturka toilets. I forgave the lack
of water for a shower. Physical comfort means nothing compared to the
psychological and emotional comfort needed to feel at home in a place.

As I walked down the main street to the white mini-buses to the
airport, many of the people I had met during my stay came to say
goodbye to me. After leaving the hotel, I drank one last coffee at the
hookah cafe, and said goodbye to the owner of the restaurant where I
had eaten only once but ended up visiting many times. I said goodbye
to the Suryani silver shop owner who offered me homemade wine and sold
me pressed paintings on cloth – a practice he was learning from his
grandmother, the only living person to successfully continue the art.
I spoke once more with the two young men who ran the baked goods cafe
where I had eaten breakfast every day and had never paid more than 3
lira for a meal worth easily three times that, learned the meaning of
the phrase “ici, ici!”, and came to love the Arabic accent in the
Turkish word “kahwe.”

Walking away from that city was difficult. It was painful and left me
with an ache in my heart that continues to this day. When I got home,
I took a hot shower, slept in my own bed with my own sheets, and awoke
in the morning clean but not refreshed, in a familiar place but lonely
for another that wasn't my home. It was then I remembered the phrase I
had seen on the stone wall in the street. My Turkish vocabulary was
not enough for me to grasp the meaning of the words when I saw them
there. “Şair, sen kiminle konuşursun, Mardin yoldaşın değilse...”

“Poet, who will you speak with, if Mardin is not your fellow
traveler..” I knew then that even though I had left Mardin, it would
never leave me. The place, the sights, the sound, and most
importantly, the people, would forever be ingrained in my heart. I
finally understood how that man in the cafe in Sirinevler had actually
been able to leave Mardin. Wherever he is, Mardin is with him. And
just like him, no matter where I travel, Mardin will always be my
yoldaş. It will always travel with me.

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