"Rest of the World 2013-14" story # 19

Erzurum, Turkey           December 10, 2013

Two days after we'd gone ice skating with our students, Walker and I walked along the streets of Erzurum. We had done our ice skating in an indoor ice arena. Although it was late November, snow had yet to fall in Erzurum.
     On the streets of Erzurum, Walker began talking about one of his favorite subjects: girls in head-scarves, and women in "niqabs". Niqabs were long, black robes that covered womens' bodies from their heads to their ankles, leaving only their eyes visible. These black robes seemed solemn. They reminded me of executioners' masks. They seemed to belong in a culture where people expected the worst of each other (and people's expectations of others were usually based on their knowledge of themselves), in a culture where people were possessive and oppressive and abusive.
     Neither Walker nor I had ever spoken to a woman in a niqab (pronounced: "Knee-Cob"). And therefore, we didn't know much about them. None of our students wore niqabs, although a quarter of our females wore head-scarves. Their head-scarves were fancy and colorful and bright, often purple. The visible faces of the girls wearing them were often happy and smily.
     Walker and I thought about two of our favorite students - Kubra and Gulistan - girls who wore head-scarves and who'd come ice skating. Kubra came from the city of Konya in western Turkey, the city of Turkey's most famous religious figure, Mevlana; tan Kubra had great, big eyes and enjoyed skateboarding, herbal medicine, and Mevlana's mystical Sufism. Gulistan (whose name meant: "Rose Garden") came from an eastern city; she was tall, and her head-scarf covered not only the sides of her head but also her shoulders. She entertained everyone with her silly personality that hated boredom, she led her friends around like a mother hen, and, after putting her ice skates on, she'd hopped around and done a dance that really surprised me.
     Walker and I guessed that women only began wearing niqabs after they were married, and we wondered if any of our students would one day wear them. Walker said:
     "If Kubra wears a niqab, I don't think I'll ever be able to forgive Islam, because Kubra's smile is good for the world.
     "And if Gulistan is the type of girl who'll wear a niqab, it'll just make me look at every woman in a niqab and think, what kind of a weirdo is under there?"

We loved Gulistan.
     And I loved snow. On November 29th, it snowed all day in Erzurum. The air seemed warmer this day than on days without snow. Again, I headed to the streets of Erzurum. I set off to visit the city's most beautiful architecture.
     Not far from The Goke's language institute, I passed through the broad and open, central square where I'd once skinned a dog tail. The Yakutiye Palace - with its one pointy tower protruding higher than the rest, like the larger claw on a lob-sided crab - and the Lala Pasha Mosque were now a blend of gray stone, turquoise paint, and white snow. This was the only place where the eerie "call to prayer" of mosque loud-speakers soothed me, and it was fun to watch the men washing their feet in fountains in preparation of prayer.
     I walked from here to what my map called the "Rustempasha Kervansarayi": a square, stone building with a roof full of rectangular, pointed spikes - in case a giant might fall on it. The building contained an open courtyard. Here, snowflakes fell past a tree into a square pool of water, and a boy and I meditated in the silence.
     My students called this building, "Tash-han" (the Stone Han). Hans had served as hotels and market-places when travelers and traders had passed through Erzurum on the Silk Road. The city had first been inhabited by people who were trying to find a passage through the tall mountains of eastern Turkey. Nowadays, the inside of the "Tash-han" was a maze of jewelry shops.
     For some reason, I was told by my instincts to go out of my way and cross a busy street to check out a side street. I did so.
     Everything was quiet and magical. A winding, cobblestone street. Shiny, copper items on display outside all the shops. A mosque to one side. Huge snowflakes dotting the air. A woman in a niqab. A man carrying a newly-bought carpet over his shoulder, accompanied by his wife. It was a dark, coppery snow-globe.
     I returned to the Rustempasha Kervansarayi and walked behind it, in the direction of the Erzurum Castle. Away from the well-to-do, commercial streets, the cars disappeared. The tall apartment buildings were replaced by crumbling, mortar houses with deteriorating wooden windows. The small homes' frames were rotting and poor.
     A child arrived at one home and pushed on the door. "Hey! I'm cold!" she thought. Elsewhere, a fat cat pushed on a door. But he, unlike the child, didn't make it inside.
     I continued uphill to the Erzurum Castle, paid $1.50 for a ticket, and went inside the oldest building in the city. The inside of this ancient, stone mosque had arched pointy apex ceilings and ledges I could sit on. The stone and air were cold. The buliding was empty of all things except for me. Sitting there, I felt happy and amazed at how good life could be.
     This former mosque had been built in the 12th century. But, the castle walls surrounding it had been built before that, by the Byzantines.
     From the castle's hill, I looked down on the eastern half of Erzurum. Dark brown trapezoidal buildings with slanty tops and snow on the top. A person crossing a snowy field. It reminded me of a working-class Boston neighborhood on Christmas day.
     But, I also saw many minarets poking out of this conservative Islamic city.
     My students, most of whom weren't from Erzurum, hated the city. Their biggest complaint was that it was cold. But, they also said the locals had strange accents and were unfriendly. They went on to say the locals were friendly to rich and beautiful people, but unfriendly to others.
     A new question was raised in my mind. Turks were incredibly hospitable to me and Walker and European travelers; but, were they as friendly to people from poor countries? My students assured me Turks were friendly to all travelers. This was what I'd expected them to say, and it satisfied me.
     But, I disagreed with them in regards to the people of Erzurum. The locals - in restaurants, fruit-stands, pastry shops, and in my language institute - were glowing with friendliness. They were delighted to speak Turkish with me.
     From the castle's hill, I watched as grooved mountains - a mixture of white snow and dark blue shadows - blew across the distant land. They would blow like that all the way to China.
     I descended the hill, passing women in long, fuzzy black coats and colorful head-scarves. They held a bundled-up baby in a rainbow, winter hat.
     To my right sat the stone Ulu Mosque, twenty towering feet tall and as big as a city block. The next time I would see it, a hundred huge icycles would be hanging from its roof, like bats from their mother.
     In front of me was the architectural symbol of Erzurum. The Chifte Minareli Medresesi. Originally, a school for students of Islam. In the falling darkness, this tall cubical building challenged and threatened me like a haunted house. Two twin spires, with exotic turquoise paintings on them, rose up from the building. The whole thing was closed for reconstruction. But, I pushed my way past the construction workers and inside for a look.
     I jumped through the front door and found myself in a courtyard. A huge crumbly stone amphitheatre towered around me. I was in awe. It seemed magical, like something out of an Indiana Jones movie.
     A local guy who couldn't understand that I was speaking Turkish kicked me out.
     I walked through a poor neighborhood that was misty, because a "hamam" (Turkish bath) shot steam into the air. Kids had a snowball fight in the moonlight.
     The "Uc Kambetler" lived in this neighborhood. The Three Tombs.
     The giant tombs, like pointy-hatted mushrooms or toadstools, stuck up from a barren, wind-swept land. This was a quiet spot in the city.
     I was surprised to see a fire burning amidst the snow. Two boys came and sat by it. One approached me and asked for, "Bir (One) money?" I didn't have any change.
     I walked away. I saw a chicken kebab shop and thought about buying kebabs for the kids. Were they homeless? I thought about inviting them to my apartment. But, I did neither.
     I would later be told by my students that there were no homeless people in Erzurum. I hoped they were right.

I now had an appreciation for the architecture of Erzurum. I'd always loved teaching there.
     On November 30th, I taught my class known as "The Super-Babes". We decided to go to the town square and have a snowball fight after class. Walker and his student, Gulistan, joined us.
     At one point, Walker was slipping around on the ice, trying to gather snow. He turned around to see Gulistan running after him, carrying a large boulder of snow on each shoulder, yelling, "Walker! Walker! Walker!" He was surprised.
     Our snowball fight came to an end. We all said good-bye. But, Gulistan still held one boulder of snow. She motioned towards her home with her head, she motioned towards her boulder and made a chewing motion, and she winked at me. I hoped she was going to enjoy her dinner.
     Ha ha!

the Modern Oddyseus

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