Saturday, November 13, 2010

Mehmet's Heaven

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Skirting the hem of the travertine in the speckled moonlight we reluctantly left the delectable white meringue ruffles of the Cotton Castle to seek sustenance of a more conventional kind. To our delight almost hidden beneath the skirt we came upon Mehmet standing expectantly in the middle of the narrow road leading into the village of Pamukale, the quintessential innkeeper, stocky and pink with a ruglike welcoming moustache, he ushered us into his little heaven.

The tinkling laughter inside came from a group of Japanese houris tucked comfortably around a small round table; nargli fumes hovering like a translucent mist above them.
The coal fire in the middle of the room glowed furiously lighting up magical carpets of every hue of red, ochre and peacock blue, striking a fading portrait, a strange old metal ornament and the glasses that Mehmet produced with a jovial whisk.

“Hot Apple tea,” he announced, the smell of fresh green apples and cinnamon   and his warm greetings and salutations were embraced with woops of delight. “Salaam Alaykum” was our key to unconditional hospitality and an immediate sense of familiarity and kinship. Mehmet’s wife looked up from her knitting and his son, a fifteen year old hesitated and then beamed a tentative smile before returning to the serial he and his mother were watching. This was a family vignette, our family if we had been home on this cold winter’s night, tucked away in this cosy little café.
Mehmet regaled us with snippets of his life, he had grown up in the mountains hugging Pamukale, no he didn’t own farmlands, and the village was the heart of tourism and agriculture. “Very few tourist come in winter, this has been a bad year, especially, and the snow’s thick and wallets empty. The recession,” he shrugged fatalistically “next year Insha Allah.”

Our orders taken, all three members of the family disappear behind walled carpets leaving us to soak in the Anatolian   simplicity and randomness that gradually assumed wholeness, completeness over years. Mehmet’s soul was everywhere in old faded photographs, in the red faded fez that clung to the edge of a bench, an old sewing machine, khanjars, hand painted porcelain, alabaster vases, a picture of Ataturk. Old and new was thrown together in heavenly disarray, exciting our curiosity and triggering conversations about history, culture and Turkey’s courtship with the European Union.

The food arrived, the aroma of the steaming shorba, homemade bread and kebabs and ample portions of tender chops decked with the freshest herbs filled the wooden table. Food that is blessed has barakat, eighth-century Imam Jafar al-Sadiq said, "When you sit at the table with your brothers, sit long, for it is a time that is not counted against you as part of the ordained span of your lives". I hope he meant sisters too could sit awhile and savour the warmth of family and friends. The Arabic root of adab is "to invite," or "to gather together for a banquet. Hospitality is regarded as sacred duty in Islam, and this linguistic connection illuminates the significance of the relationship of guest and host. Our host, didn’t need to look like a dervish to embody the qualities of graciousness, slipping away quietly leaving us to say Bismillah and to thank Allah for bringing us to this little heaven at the foot of yet another of his amazing creations.

Pamukale in the bright winter light gleamed white in counterpoint to the snow capped mountains in the distance, we couldn’t resist its magnificence at night after the generous meal, at Mehmet’s insistence, we had braved the sharp air, up to the entrance to Hierapolis. The moonlight cast intriguing shadows of the ruins and the ancient turrets beckoned, but my animal magnetism was too strong for the stray dogs to resist. It started quite harmlessly; a scrawny dog his tail wagging stealthily nudged close to my feet, as I ambled slowly around the grand entrance to the thermal wonder, I didn’t mind him, but as we walked he emitted a slow whine that revved up to a plaintive howl and suddenly as if commanded by a battle cry, dogs emerged from every fallen column and crevice, a cavalcade of shapes and sizes from whimpering to full throttle war cries, I saw my companions’ amazement turn to discomfort and fear as a dozen or more dogs surrounded me. Strangely, they were not aggressive just overwhelmingly howling and closing in on me. Pamukale had to wait till the safety of morning. 

The carpet of shy red anemones that greeted us that morning soothed any anxiety we may have had, the long path led to the ancient Roman ruins to our right on hills above the travertine. First the Greeks and then the Romans claimed this natural wonder as a gift from Zeus and Pluto as they cavorted in the hot underground springs perplexed by the phenomenon but relishing the curative potential, sadly like all human power theirs diminished and now lay in crumbling testimony to the ravages of time.

The fascination for us, lay in the layers of shell-like basins of the purest almost blinding white with gushing channels of hot steaming water; barefoot, trousers rolled up, we plunged into the shallows of an inviting shell. The basins of chalk and calcified frills gleamed like open oysters inviting us to wade in its hot centre as rivulets poured over the edge, clung to the precipice of shell after shell forming new ones, the hot spring deep in the bowels of the earth gushes out generously into the sacred pool. In the midst of the Mediterranean winter the pools are empty of swimmers, splashing comfortably, ensconced on the solidified edges, we marvel at nature’s resilience and unique gift to man, giving abundantly unceasingly, could this be “ the rivers of milk whereof the flavour changeth not….” as mentioned in the Quran (Surah Muhammed verse 15). 

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