Cooking lessons in the Anatolian heartland

Havva Duran took the aubergine and sliced into the skin, deftly swishing the blade upwards at her body as thin roads of rich purple skin fell away from the flesh. Having spent my entire life following kitchen safety rule number one – don’t point a knife towards you – she wasn’t having much luck convincing me that it’s easier to slice vegetables holding them in your hand rather than on a board. She clucked her tongue and chuckled as the five participants in this cooking lesson endeavoured, with painful slowness, to copycat the zebra stripe vegetable peeling method she had demonstrated.

While I was grappling with not trying to slice my wrists open, Havva moved onto preparing the onion. I winced as she held it in her palm, making quick, deep criss-cross gashes in the flesh. “This is the Turkish way of cutting vegetables,” Tolga Duran said as he stepped behind his mother.

If I even attempted that an ambulance would have to be called within minutes.

A garlicky aroma wafted through the kitchen as the vegetables fried on the stove-top. Tolga and his wife Tuba kept a steady eye on the stirring while Havva showed us how to make a barley soup. Just outside, a clutch of chickens kept up a staccato soundtrack of satisfied clucks.

In the Cappadocia village of Ayvalı the Duran family are opening the door into the culinary world of a Turkish mama. Often hailed as one of the world’s great cuisines, the complex meze (small plates) dishes, kebaps (kebabs) and rich Ottoman court dishes of Turkey have worked themselves onto restaurant menus across the world but the simple hearty dishes that provide the very backbone of this nation’s cooking have so far been ignored. Tolga and Havva are turning around that trend offering a chance to learn those elusive recipes, full of the harvest-fresh flavours of the Anatolian plains.

“We buy our flour and barley at the market but everything else we use here is all from just outside and it’s all organic,” Tolga told me as we walked through the sprawling back garden. The entire space behind the Duran household, where three generations of the family live together, is a giant vegetable plot sprouting rows of fat green cabbages, bulbous courgettes, trailing tomato vines and shady fruit trees.

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With its surreal moonscape of twisted volcanic rock and Byzantine remnants of rock-cut churches, Cappadocia is one of Turkey’s most popular tourist destinations but Ayvalı feels a step apart from the region’s other villages. Tractors chug up the main road coming back from the fields. A squiggle of twisting cobblestone streets lined with honey hued stone houses lead down the hill to a narrow valley where the cliff face is pockmarked with abandoned pigeon cotes. Tolga used to work as a chef in a local hotel. “There weren’t any places for guests to eat out in the village so the hotel kept asking me if my mother would take groups at our house.” That was five years ago. “The first tour leader who came here convinced me that people wanted to experience proper local cooking.”

A complete family affair, Havva rules the kitchen roost, Tolga and Tuba lend a hand, and their two young boys peek around the door occasionally to check if the foreigners have managed not to cut themselves or catch the stove on fire. With the soup simmering away, we carefully split the glossy aubergines and spooned a tomato infused mixture of fried vegetables over the top to make the dish karnıyarık. After that was transferred to the oven to bake, it was time to make mantı (Turkish ravioli).

Using an oklava (Turkey’s skinny broomstick of a rolling pin) takes some getting used to. Havva made it look easy, using the weight of her flat palms to spread the mantı dough flat across the worktop, creating one even thin sheet. Our attempts afterwards were not quite so deft. Once rolled, the dough was cut into tiny squares and we gathered around to fold them into miniature parcels, stuffed full of spiced mince.

One of my fellow cookery class participants had got the hang of mantı making rather quicker than the rest of us. “I’m really glad we’re making something complicated. Most classes don’t have the patience to teach you something like this,” she said as a pile of pinched dough parcels mounted up on the worktop beside her. A self-confessed foodie, she’d been travelling for the past five months and taking cooking classes where ever she went. “This is the first one where it’s actually been in somebody’s home and felt authentic, as if we’re experiencing part of family life,” she told me.

With the soup, the vegetable starter and the mantı main out of the way it was onto dessert. Balı dolaz tatlısı is a local pudding, made from flour. When ready, this simple farmer’s dish was topped with huge golden hunks of honeycomb which oozed sticky goodness across the tops of the flour cakes. There was now nothing left to do but eat.

While we’d been busy a low table had been laid behind us. It was groaning under the weight of food. There was creamy white yoghurt drizzled with sticky dollops of pekmez (grape molasses), tangy spiced mecimek kofte (lentil balls) and slices of soft home-made cheese. We slurped up the soup, devoured the soft, smoky aubergine of the karnıyarık, cleaned our bowls of mantı, scraping up every lick of the garlicky tomato sauce it was served with, and crunched through the honeycomb sucking up the sweet honey centre.

As we left there was one last foodie surprise. As Havva hugged us goodbye, she presented us each with a bag of dried apricots. She’d made them herself of course. They tasted completely unlike shop bought apricots. These were crisp yet chewy, nearly candied in their flavour.

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Food is so much more than mere sustenance in Turkey. It is the cord that binds family life together. Here in Turkey’s rural heartland the journey from farm to table is short, picked fresh out of the ground and put on the table that night. People still plan their meals on the seasonal produce on hand. Families still work the land and get together to make the preserves and pickles to store for the long, cold Anatolian winters. Learning to cook this way is a lesson not only in the hearty rustic dishes of a land long given plaudits for its food culture, but also a lesson in eschewing the fancy TV chef techniques and expensive kitchen gizmos to instead learn old fashioned, honest cooking that comes directly from the heart.


Cooking classes with Havva can be booked with Cappadocia Home Cooking.

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Images of Al Qasr

Some places in the world are so imbued with a sense of history that you seem to have walked backwards to have arrived there. The old caravan town of Al Qasr in Egypt’s Western Desert is one of them. Just a short journey from the fly-blown town of Mut (which lives up to its uninspiring name) in Dakhla Oasis, is this creaky time warp of mud-brick bordered by immense sand dunes. Thought to be the oldest town in the oasis, Al Qasr first rose to prominence in the 12th Century and became one of the most important centres of the Western Desert under Ottoman rule. Most of its remaining, though crumbling, architecture of covered alleyways, decorated brickwork and intricately inscribed acacia beam lintels dates from this period.

Visit during the early afternoon when the narrow high-walled lanes here provide some relief from the scorching desert heat.

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On our traveller perception of a place & finding alternate stories

It was mango season in Egypt. The stall-holders of Souq al-Tawfiqiyya swatted flies away from the fruit piles with colourful feather whisks while spraying jets of water onto the fruit so that the mangoes’ blush-tinged skin glistened slickly. The heat within the narrow street market was nearly unbearable despite it nearing dusk. The fecund tang of over ripe produce hung in the still air. Cairo’s summer temperatures cocooned the entire city like a blanket, smothering us into a fug of indolence and idle loitering. We shopped in slow motion; picking mangoes up, smelling them, putting them down lazily, and waddling to the next stall to feel and prod again. Even the haggling was a half-hearted show, me and the vendor sighing as we carried out the pricing-battle to keep up the appearance of caring.

We were all waiting for the dark when the ripple effect of the Nile’s cooling breeze, like some ancient form of natural Prozac, would lift us out of apathy and restore us to our senses making us sigh in relief that another day in the furnace was finished with. Then the stall-holders at Souq al-Tawfiqiyya would smile at you when you picked up their fruit rather than frown and the thin alleyway, lit up by fairy lights, would thrum with a crowd of people pushing and shoving their way through while trying to manoeuvre past motorbikes and donkeys and carts. Now it was fairly quiet and easy to navigate. As long as you didn’t mind cranky vendors and the slightly off-putting smell, it was the easiest time to come here.

“There are no women here at all,” Louisa said.
I turned around just as she raised a camera to her face and snapped a couple of photos of women buying mangoes.
“What?”
“There are no women on this street.” She checked her last shots back on the digital viewfinder and then raised her camera again. “It’s absolutely bizarre.”
The camera whirred and clicked.
“It’s an entire city without any bloody women.”
I walked the few paces back to her and yanked her camera down from her face. Then I started pointing out women.
“Look there are two there, one in the bright orange floral headscarf and the taller lady beside her with the brown headscarf. You just took a photo of them. Here, a lady has just walked in front of us. She’s practically just barged into you because we’re standing still – the one in the black abbeya. There’s another one just there, with all the plastic shopping bags. Here,” I pointed. “And here, and here, and here.”
“Oh,” she said. “I must have only been looking at the fruit sellers. Well there aren’t any female fruit sellers are there?”
“No Louisa.” I said. “Market work is typically a man’s job in the Arab world.”
She shrugged and took another photo.

I gathered my tour group together and continued the walk through the souq. Later, we’d go back to the hotel swinging a bag of perfectly ripe mangoes and when we sliced them open we’d suck out the sunshine-yellow flesh, peeling it straight off the skin so that our hands were sticky fly-traps and delicate strings of mango fibre hung from our chins. That’s what Louisa would remember from the walk through Souq al-Tawfiqiyya on the first day of her three week tour of the Middle East. I’d remember her words though.

“There are no women here at all.”

And I would wonder how the hell we all became so blind.

The second time I arrived in the Middle East it was to live. I’d been hired as a tour leader for an adventure travel company with a job based in Cairo. At the interview the tour company were vague about what destinations needed new leaders. Initially I applied hoping for India. Nobody was more surprised than me when they rung me up to ask if I’d be interested in the Middle East and I said yes. Returning to Egypt had never been the plan.

The first time I departed Egypt it was by Nuweiba’s tortuously slow ferry. The crossing took five rolling and pitching hours across the Red Sea to Aqaba in Jordan and when I went to use the toilet someone had left a shit on the floor and on top of the toilet seat. At the time I thought it was a fitting final full stop to a nation I was glad to see the back of.

I had found Egypt unfathomable. It threw contradictions at you dart-speed and I had spent much of my initial 2004 journey there ducking for cover from my own muddled perceptions. Within my first five minutes in Egypt, on the Amsaad border crossing from Libya, I had found myself in the middle of a rock-throwing fight between the Egyptian border officials and a bunch of cross-border smugglers who were trying to jump the fence. In the packed immigration shed a fight broke out between two men standing directly in front of me and I had to be pulled out of the way to safety. In Luxor a man trailed behind me as I walked down the street alternating a hopeful hissing sales pitch of ‘sex’ and ‘hash’ with every step. In Aswan a child threw a rock at me. Everywhere I went I was besieged by perfume and papyrus sellers. By the time I got to Dahab in the Sinai, I was exhausted. I sat back on the cushions beside the Red Sea and talked to other travellers, drinking bottles of vodka labelled ‘Finlandia – Product of Cairo’. We were told drinking the local spirits would make us blind but it only ever succeeded in inducing hammering headaches.

One evening a bunch of us had gone dancing and the waiters from the beach-side restaurant we spent most of our time in turned up at the bar as well. They barged onto the dance floor; shimmying up behind us and rubbing their stiff penises up against our backs. Shoving them away didn’t help. They just came back and did it again so that in the end we just gave up trying to dance. One of the guys who worked at the beach camp where we were all staying told a girl to come up to the roof terrace to look at the stars. When they got up there he dropped his pants and told her to give him a blow job. When she ran back down stairs and told us what had happened, all we could think to do was laugh because hey, we said to each other, that was just what happened in Egypt.

Six weeks later, on my first day in Lebanon, Rafiq Hariri and 22 other people were blown up by a terrorist bomb along Beirut’s corniche. That same day I wandered down to the street where it had happened. My shoes crunched on thousands of fragments of broken glass underfoot. Up above hotel curtains flapped freely out of window frames. A crowd had gathered around the small cordoned off section which the police were guarding and a group of young guys wearing skin-tight jeans and bandannas tied around their heads revved past waving the yellow Hezbollah flag. Flicking through the satellite channels on the television that night in the hostel I found that there were twenty channels of porn and at least as many channels devoted to religious readings of the Qur’an. I travelled down to Tyre and took a taxi to Al-Khiam Prison which would later be bombed by the Israelis during 2006’s July War. When I visited Hezbollah were operating it as a macabre museum, with tours led by ex-prisoners who showed you around the tiny cells and explained the torture methods that had been dished out by Israel’s proxy army the SLA when Israel had occupied this chunk of Lebanon. When the tour finished they asked you to make a donation to Hezbollah and then took you to their souvenir shop where you could purchase Hezbollah key rings and miniature Hezbollah flags.

The Middle East, I had decided right there and then, was too confusing. You had to peel back onion layers of history just to attempt to fathom a single answer, and then, when you thought you understood, something would happen that would turn it all upside down again. After a particularly hard day I crashed out in front of the hostel television to watch the international news. There was a report about a woman’s refuge centre in Egypt. The centre was battling to stay open due to a lack of women using it. This wasn’t because Egypt lacked battered wives, the reporter explained, but because the cultural shame of airing your marriage problems in public in Egypt meant that women were unlikely to use it. To highlight the problem the journalist interviewed one of the women staying there whose father had berated her for seeking shelter at the refuge. “Why are you bringing shame on the family by coming here?” He had asked. “I beat your mother every night and you don’t see her running away.”

I’d had enough. On a cold March morning with snow lightly dusting the palm trees of Sultanahmet Park in Istanbul I flew out of the region and washed my hands of the Middle East. It wasn’t a place I expected to ever see again.

But then I came back. And as I settled into life there I began to feel the region had something to teach me. Lessons that took more time than a nomadic romp around its edges could ever unfurl. A couple of years ago it could have easily been me making Louisa’s throwaway remark about not seeing any women in the souq when in fact she was surrounded by them.

We all arrive in the Middle East with a particular concept of what it is already ingrained in our minds. After all, we’ve been fed the same story over and over again until it has become the only story. Blinded by our own perceptions, we choose not to seek out any alternative narrative to our own.

The second time I arrived in Cairo, I had a feeling that I had come full circle. This mark on the map had drawn a line around me for some reason and I was caught within its curvature. The ancient Egyptians had understood the power of circles. Long before they began worshipping the great sun god Ra they had deified the tiny scarab beetle which scuttled along the desert sands. Observing these little black beetles, as they laid their larva into dung and then industriously rolled the balls across the ground, the Egyptians saw that the dung balls were circular like the sun and also like the sun they would bring forth life when the scarab beetle larva sprung forth from them. They named Kephri as god of the scarab beetle and imagined the sun too was slowly being pushed by a beetle across the sky bringing light and darkness in a circular cycle of death and rebirth. Later the cult of Ra assimilated itself into the older legends but the god Kephri lived on as the dawn incarnation of Ra merging with this new impostor. Scarab beetle effigies were placed in tombs as a reminder to the dead that only half their journey had been fulfilled and they had yet to journey full circle to resurrection in the afterlife.

On that second arrival I got a taxi from the airport and drove into the centre. Above, the sky was a sludgy smear of low hanging grey glowering over the city. The springs in the back seat of the car had long ago given up hope and when I sat down I sunk into the seat and failed to rise back up again. Pieces of sponge fought to be set free from the fake leather upholstery, rising up out of the ripped fabric in little yellow geysers of foam.

The front dashboard was covered with a candy-pink fake fur rug and had been decorated with glittering talismans to ward off accidents, or at least provide a disco atmosphere in the event of one. Stickers portraying seductive eyes, laden with kohl, stared down at me from the windscreen. Christmas tinsel snaked across the pink fur. Multiple bands of amber and cherry-red plastic prayer beads were wrapped around the gear stick. Both wing mirrors had been smashed in some previous road altercation but Ahmed the taxi driver had made up for that by installing an oversized rear view mirror which stretched three quarters of the way across the windshield. Hanging down from this, was a collection of silvery baubles and a miniature Qur’an.

Ahmed caught my eye in the mirror as I stared at it and waggled his eyebrows.
“Welcome to Egypt” He grinned. “What kind of music do you like? I like western music.”
“Really? Who do you like?”
“I like Eminem and Celine Dion.”
“Ahmed you can’t like both Eminem and Celine Dion.”
“Why not?” He turned around and the car veered lazily off to the left. The car behind that had been trying to overtake us swerved to miss us and the driver beeped his horn. Ahmed beeped back and waved him on with a dismissive flick of his thin wrist. “You don’t like Eminem and Celine Dion?” He scrabbled around the dashboard to retrieve a homemade mix tape. “My favourite songs are Stan and My Heart Will Go On,” he announced. “Very beautiful.”

The mix tape crackled into life. We wound down the windows – Ahmed had to pass the communal window winder back to me as they had all fallen off the doors – and he pumped up the volume so it blared out onto the street as we sped down the highway. He kept one hand on the steering wheel and waved his other out the window in time to the music in between drags on a cigarette. The entire car shook as we picked up more speed and Ahmed turned the volume up to maximum so we could hear it over the rattling drone of the engine. We passed a highway sign pointing the way to ‘Dwon Twon’.

A maverick seat spring dug into my thigh as I leant near the window and breathed in the sharp, acrid smell peculiar to Cairo. It’s the petrol-tinged perfume of a city where two million cars fight for space on the roads every day; the exhaust fumes mixing with the desert sand which scrapes against your skin. When I swallowed I tasted metal.

I didn’t know it then but it was the start of a love affair with the Middle East and with Egypt; a tempestuous one at times, but a love affair all the same. Surviving the first summer – the summer of mangoes and of Louisa’s comment – was the real turning point. Time seemed to stagnate in Egypt in summer. You could hear resignation in the shudders of the air conditioning units as they groaned and wheezed their way through another day when the temperatures hit 40 degrees and their water overload dripped down on you as you walked down the street. Traffic ground to a halt downtown amid a symphony of car horns. In Cairo, people looked to the past as a way of coping with the city infrastructure’s slow but steady decline into chaos.

“We were once a great nation,” my friend Aisha summed up for me as she sucked on a shisha pipe. “And now we sell papyrus to the tourists.”
She blew the smoke out through her nose and it rose in curling plumes up into the night.
“Oh well. At least we have the pyramids.”

In the evenings that summer I’d walk down the streets near my flat in Zamalek, scuffing up the scattered petal confetti from the Jacaranda trees across the dingy asphalt. A petal drift clogged the potholes and piled up at the curbs. One morning, not long after I had first moved into the flat an abandoned toilet appeared on the corner of my street. It sat there all through summer, slowly gathering a layer of dirt and grime. Enterprising passers-by began using the bowl as a make-shift rubbish bin.

What’s Egypt like to live in? A friend wrote and asked me. It’s hot, I replied. There’s a toilet bowl sitting in my street. If I lean over my balcony on tip-toe I can see the Nile.

When the light began to fade I’d stand out on the flat’s balcony and listen to the local mosque’s microphone click on with a hiss of static and a muffled cough before the muezzin began the song of faith. I’d gather my washing in, dried stiffly in the crisp sun and breathe in the Cairo freshly laundered smell of diesel, desert, and faint whiff of laundry powder. Afterwards, I’d sit out there on the creaky chair as the neighbouring buildings became silhouettes under the eerie yellow tinge of the street lamps and wonder if I’d ever understand this country.

Five years later when I finally left Cairo a friend would muse that people who were attracted to the Middle East were attracted in some way to conflict. But I couldn’t agree with that analogy. Because the Middle East wasn’t just the conflict and chaos that clogged up the news channels to me any more. And it wasn’t the macho world where women were kept cowed at home that Louisa had assumed. It was a place, just like any other, full of different stories and the wonder of every day surprises. Egypt was an unfathomable mystery with an ancient stillness that resonated at the most unlikely moments and I would never completely unravel it. And that was ok because life didn’t run on straight linear lines here. It bent and wobbled. It curved. Like a circle.

And I’d remember when Ahmed the taxi driver had dropped me off in downtown Cairo at the end of the first day of my second arrival in Egypt. It had started to rain; a steady drizzle which turned the sidewalk dust to oozing mud. Egyptians ran between shops with newspapers held high over their heads to protect them from getting wet and tried to avoid the growing litany of puddles which were slowly filling the pavement potholes. He retrieved my pack from the boot and handed it to me. I paid him and said goodbye but just as I was starting to walk away he yelled for me to stop. When I turned around he was scrabbling around amid the pink furry dashboard.

“Here!” He said with a smile and put a little stone into my palm. “Ahlan wa Sahlan. Ahlan wa Sahlan Misr.”
Hello and welcome to Egypt.

When I opened my palm I saw a tiny blue stone scarab beetle.

Make Food Not War – Beirut’s Culinary Revolution

For first time visitors Beirut can seem a jazz-hands city, intent on blinding you with fast cars, glamorous dining and fancy boutiques. The construction cranes were busy grinding up above, slapping another high rise to the city skyline, as I walked through the rejuvenated Downtown district. The arcaded pavements radiating out from Place d’Etoile were full of shoppers toting designer bags. It was the kind of scene I’d come to expect in a city that markets itself as a glitzy night life and restaurant destination. Scrape below the glossy veneer though and you find Lebanon’s capital has layers that are easily missed.

Visitors can be forgiven for seeing Beirut as a thoroughly modern Middle East city. After all, the Downtown district was completely obliterated by 15 years of civil war and had to be rebuilt from scratch. There are tiers of history though under the pristine facade. Below the restored Greek Orthodox Saint George Cathedral the crypt hides Beirut’s most surprising museum where archaeologists uncovered a necropolis and the foundations of the original 5th century church. Between the cathedral and the slender minarets of the new Al-Amine Mosque, the remnants of Roman Beirut’s Cardo Maximus lay strewn out in rubble piles of hefty marble blocks across an unkempt plot of land. Down the road the uninspiring modern entrance to the Al-Omari Mosque contrasts with its beautiful prayer hall boasting the distinct Gothic architecture of its Crusader church origins. Beirut is a city where you have to dig a little deeper to find what’s happening underneath.

Lebanese food is the perfect example of this. Levantine cuisine is one of Beirut’s great draw cards for visitors but the dishes offered in most of the capital’s restaurants are only the tip of the iceberg. “There are two entirely different cuisines in Lebanon,” Kamal Mouzawak explained to me. “In restaurants there is mezze and grilled meat and then there’s our private cuisine. The food we cook at home has traditionally been secret. The only way you could access it was by getting an invite to someone’s house.”

Kamal is the founder of Souk el Tayeb; a food enterprise turning Beirut’s dining on its head. They run a weekly farmer’s market every Saturday right in the heart of Downtown bringing Lebanon’s small-scale food producers to the city to sell their produce direct. And on weekdays they run Tawlet restaurant, offering diners that family soul food in a restaurant setting, fuelled by a roster of Lebanon’s best home cooks that serve up their regional specialities in the Tawlet kitchen.

I had come to Tawlet for lunch. Their cheeky motto ‘Make Food Not War’ is a reminder that this is a city still best known for being the epicentre of a long and bloody civil war. “What we set out to do,” Kamal told me. “Is to try to connect the Lebanese through food and celebrate our diversity rather than use it as a reason for conflict.” Today with neighbouring Syria mired in war, they’re now going one step further; starting up a food project with some of Beirut’s ever-expanding population of Syrian refugees.

Syrian women are now serving up their home cooking every weekend at the Souk el Tayeb farmer’s market and this lunchtime they were in the Tawlet kitchen creating their spicy Syrian cuisine for diners. It’s a way of not just helping to generate income for the refugee community but also aimed at preserving Syria’s distinct food heritage. Ibtissam Nesto was one of the cooks in the kitchen. “I’m so proud to be representing Syria by its food and keeping the culture alive this way.” She told me as she set down a tray of kibbeh (fried meatballs) smothered in a pomegranate and chilli paste sauce. “Cooking is our way of showing affection. If I’m not cooking from my heart, you won’t like my food.”

Cooking from the heart was definitely what was going on. Everything that Ibtissam and her fellow cooks produced for lunch sung with the flavours of Syria. As I headed back onto the street a beautifully coiffed woman wobbled past me on skyscraper heels leading a tiny dog bedecked in a diamante-encrusted jacket. Beirut’s slightly over-the-top glamour tag is well-deserved. The city has become adept at hiding behind its shiny facade but with local initiatives like Souk el Tayeb and Tawlet, savvy traveller can easily peel back the layers to find the soul underneath.

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This story first appeared in the April issue of Colours Magazine.

An Ancient Path of Kindness

After night has fallen, the sacred fish ponds of Şanlıurfa are smooth black mirrors reflecting the backlit Ottoman arches of Rızvaniye Mosque. The effect is only distorted by the occasional ripple trembling across the surface as one of the fat silky carp who inhabit the pond patrol the depths below. During the day, these pampered pets of the city gorge themselves on offerings from visiting pilgrims. Their wide, ugly mouths rise to the edge of the pool, in a wrestling match of belly-flopping bodies, as an all-you-can-eat buffet of fish pellets rain down onto the water. To believers, the carp here aren’t any old fish. These are the lumps of coal from the funerary pyre King Nimrod built in an attempt to kill the Prophet Abraham. Miraculously transformed by God into fish, as the fire was turned into water, they spend their lives as divine beasts revered by all.

Turkey’s southeast Anatolia region is a place alive with sacred myth and legend and the ancient city of Şanlıurfa is the birthplace of monotheism’s most important story. Traditionally regarded as the biblical town of Ur (a title also contended by the Tell al-Muqayyar ruins in Iraq), this is where many Jews, Christians, and Muslims believe that the Prophet Abraham was born and where he struck the first blow for monotheism’s future by challenging the pagan beliefs of King Nimrod and his subjects.

Earlier that day Ömer Tanık had explained how the city’s reverence among pilgrims had, over the years, fostered an ingrained philosophy of hospitality among the locals here. “We didn’t look at the people who came here as paying guests,” he said. “Before there were hotels in Şanlıurfa, people would approach visitors at the fish ponds to come stay in their houses for the night.” Today the spirit of this hospitality lives on in the surrounding hinterland.

We drove out of the city, passing the sprawl of concrete-cube apartment buildings on the suburban outskirts, into a rolling, raw countryside of rock-pitted plateau. Turning off the main highway, the road was blocked by fat-tailed Anatolian sheep idly waddling across the tarmac.  The tiny Kurdish village of Yuvacalı would look like any other rural hamlet in eastern Turkey except for the pimple-like protrusion of the hill it is built around, poking dramatically out of the land. “It’s a settlement mound,” Ömer’s wife, Alison told me. “A man-made hill, produced by layer upon layer of civilisation settling here causing the hill to rise up as they built directly on top of each other.”

In 2009 Ömer and Alison pioneered a tourism endeavour here which offers travellers an experience of rural Anatolian life in village homestay accommodation. The initial experiment began in Ömer’s birthplace, Yuvacalı, but has now spread to other villages in the area. In 2011 the Tanıks joined up with the Abraham Path Initiative to create a trekking route through southeast Anatolia connected by these homestays. Encompassing the ancient villages of this region, walking this trail is a journey into a corner of Turkey long ignored by tourism. It is also a glimpse into a culture of natural hospitality which is rarely seen in modern-day life.

Yuvacalı smells of freshly ploughed earth and livestock. Its squat one-storey buildings are a mix of recent concrete box additions and much older mud-brick dwellings with walls that slouch and sag into the land. Pero Salva’s front yard was a hive of activity as we pulled up. Chickens perched on the crooked wooden fence and berated our noisy arrival. Sheep bleated somewhere nearby. I was ushered inside to the reception room where the walls were painted the same cheery lilac colour that many Kurds have adopted as a uniform shade for their headscarves. Pero’s husband Halil poured strong tea into tiny tulip-shaped glasses as we sat on the floor.

Typical of many of the Kurdish settlements in this area, Yuvacalı’s villagers survive mostly on subsistence farming. When Alison and Ömer first moved here from Istanbul, they did a door-to-door poll of villagers to find out what the major problems were and how they could help. “Among adults here there is 50% illiteracy,” Alison told me, “and only half are fluent in Turkish. Their native Kurdish dialects are the language spoken at home.” This of course has a knock-on effect with the younger generation, who then don’t learn Turkish until they enter the school system and are, by then, struggling to catch up with their peers.

They discovered that in every single village household the income was under US$1 per day, per person. Tourism could help to combat this poverty chain. “The two homestays in the village provide employment for eight families,” Alison said. In a place as rural, and conservative, as Yuvacalı though, bringing tourism into the mix can be a difficult balance to get right. “We don’t want to destroy the fabric of the village,” she said. Kurdish culture is conservative but not particularly because of Islam. Their values stem from living in close proximity to each other. “It comes from lots and lots of people occupying a very small space, trying to get on and being respectful of that fact.” She explained.  Guests at the homestays are expected to be modestly dressed. Women visitors must wear an ankle-length skirt, men must wear long trousers, and alcohol is not allowed.

Kurds make up the largest minority in Turkey, numbering about 14 million, and live mainly in the southeast of the country. It was only after the regional upheavals of the early 20th century that Yuvacalı became a solely Kurdish village though. Before then local oral tradition tells of a vibrant community of Kurds, Armenians, and Jews all living here together. The settlement mound points back to an even earlier history. Today Yuvacalı may seem like a remote, inconsequential outpost, but in the empire-building days of early civilisation it was positioned directly on an important crossroads.

This entire region of southeast Anatolia was the crux of territorial conflicts and commerce, between Hittites, Assyrians, Achaemenid Persians and Seleucid Greeks, Romans and Sassanians, and, later on, Byzantines, Arab conquerors, Crusaders, and Ottomans.  Yuvacalı’s settlement mound is thought to be at least 10,000 years old. Although the mound has never been excavated, surface finds of cuneiform tablets, pieces of flint and mosaic have indicated to visiting archaeologists that the mound here dates back to at least the 8th millennium BC. It is entirely plausible it could be a lot older.

Ömer drove me out to the village of Soǧmatar which sits in a dip between two hills. The houses were half built from stone taken from ancient shrines and sprouted satellite dishes out of flat metal roofs held down by pieces of brick. We scrambled up the flank of one of the hills just as the sun burst down upon the landscape silhouetting a shepherd on horseback upon the opposite hill, surrounded by his flock. The rock surface of the peak was covered in elaborate Assyrian script.

We hiked over to the opposite peak where a half collapsed circular temple dedicated to Venus was a reminder of the religion of celestial worship common in the area before the Prophet Abraham. Today Soǧmatar is made up mostly of Arab nomads who settled here in the 1980s but it was once an important cult sacrifice centre where every moment of life was directed by the movements of the sky. Although an official tourist signpost, at the entrance to the village, briefly explains Soǧmatar’s significance this ancient site, like most in this region, is half-forgotten and completely bypassed by normal tourism. A donkey tethered to a tree kept up a constant mournful braying. A dank, musty cave on the edge of the settlement still hosted the clear outlines of life-sized idols in eroded niches, which had been abandoned as monotheism crept over the land.

This hike formed a small section of the new Turkish Abraham Path which, when walked fully, is a 170km, 10-day trek through this region. The Abraham Path itself is a bold venture to blaze an interconnecting series of walking trails throughout the Middle East which trace the journey of the Prophet Abraham from Turkey, south to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. But this trek is not supposed to simply be a religious pilgrimage. It’s also a journey into our beginnings. In human history, this part of modern-day Turkey is not only the birthplace of monotheism but also the ground where we took our first shaky toddler steps to civilisation. Locked between the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers, this stretch of land makes up the northwest region of ancient Mesopotamia. It was across this countryside that mankind first discarded the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for settlement.

The conversion of belief systems from a sky-worshipping culture to the belief in one god was a slow process that is said to have begun with Abraham on his journey from Ur.  Instead of attempting to exactly mirror a journey that both believers and non-believers could spend forever debating the reality of; today’s Abraham Path instead attempts to forge a trail highlighting the different stages of our common humanity. “It’s not a political path. It’s not a religious path. It’s a cultural path, fundamentally a human path.” William Ury, one of the founders of the Abraham Path, told me. Passing through ancient, half-forgotten temple sites and worship centres such as Soǧmatar offers walkers a chance to connect not only with modern-day village life, but also with the greater history of our own joint humanity.

Back in Yuvacalı, Pero rolled a long plastic tablecloth across the floor and all the family pitched in to begin bringing dishes out of the kitchen. Creamy lentil soup, bright salads of ruby tomatoes and crispy lettuce, smoky sliced aubergines charred to melt-in-your-mouth perfection, trays of thick, comforting home-cut chips, and tiny bowls of tarty cacık (Turkish yoghurt and cucumber salad), and ısot spread (the Urfa region’s famous hot pepper), which glowered a danger-inducing shade of dark red, all appeared in front of me.

Hospitality has always been the thread that binds the cultures of the Middle East together. To be a guest in this part of the world is to be honoured with the best your host can provide, from the copious cycle of cups of tea which punctuates the beginning and end of any visit, to the feast of local produce laid out as a meal when visitors arrive; it is part of a traditional system still very much alive today.

It’s a belief that has its roots in a nomadic past when hospitality was an essential component of survival. It was with this very hospitality that the journey of Abraham which is told in the holy books of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam was able to be accomplished. In the West Abraham is remembered chiefly for the Old Testament story of his willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac as a test of his loyalty to his god (in Islam, the child in the story is Ishmael) and this earlier story of generosity has faded from general knowledge.

Pero and Hilal don’t need any reminding. For them hospitality is a natural part of their culture; as much a part of life as the seasonal agriculture chores which define so much of rural life in this part of the world. By incorporating village stays into the Abraham Path visitors have the opportunity to experience a culture where welcome truly does mean welcome and hasn’t been reduced in meaning by over-tourism. To be a visitor here, if not as rare as it once was, is still an exciting occasion. “This is an ancient path of kindness,” William Ury said. Walking along this trail “is a way of reconnecting the human family footstep by footstep and remembering our collective past.”

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This story was first published in the Sep/Oct issue of Lifestyle+Travel. You can see the original here.

Sometimes you just need to suck it up and get a guide

We were lost. John scanned the sea of sandstone that stretched out to the horizon and finally conceded defeat.

Somewhere within the vast pitted landscape of Wadi Arabah we had come unstuck. Just as the Bedouin tea-seller had told us, we should have taken a guide.

That morning, when we’d set out, our intention had been to hike the ultimate Bedouin back-road into Petra that begins near Al-Barid (or Little Petra as it’s more commonly known). A suburb of Petra, Al-Barid features the same grand façades hewn into the rock face, but attracts only a handful of the visitors. Like its more famous sister-site it is cleverly concealed behind colossal sandstone cliffs.

Its creators, the wily Nabataeans, controlled a trade-route empire that stretched from Yemen to Syria and hid their cities from the world to defend against attack.

In Al-Barid we had stopped for a sugar-laden tea, and told the tea-seller our plans. He shook his head and warned us against setting off alone. We shrugged off his well meaning advice, but two hours later we were simply walking in circles, unable to locate the start of the trail or find our way back to the site. Trapped amid wave after wave of weird and weathered rock formations, we were beginning to regret our gung-ho attitude. Two thousand years after their demise, the Nabataeans were still managing to outwit would-be invaders.

Salvation finally arrived as we stood on a rock outcrop, surveying the surroundings for familiar landmarks. Spotting us looking baffled and disoriented, 14-year-old Ahmed arrived grinning on our perch. After laughing at our plight, he agreed to lead us back to Al-Barid’s entrance by a short cut he knew.

Half an hour later, having scaled a rock face, jumped off a large ledge and clambered across a narrow exposed ridge, we were again safely drinking tea at Al-Barid.

“You need a guide?” the tea-seller asked, trying to stop his mouth twitching into an “I-told-you-so” smile. I looked out at the landscape and marvelled at the ingenuity of the Nabataeans who had secreted their cities within it. “Yes,” I said. “I think we do.”

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This story was first published in the UK Independent as part of their ‘On The Road’ Footprint Guidebook author blog.

Beautiful Beiteddine

Abu Nasser pulled the taxi into the empty car park and made a theatrical swerve across the concrete. “Busy, isn’t it.” He joked. There were only two other tourists strolling around Beiteddine Palace when I visited. In any other country a tourist site like this would be swarming with camera-clickers. But Beiteddine is in Lebanon. And with no end in sight to the conflict across the border in Syria,  the glorious caramel and honey tinged stone and marble architecture of this peacock pile in the Chouf Mountains sits empty of admirers.

Beiteddine was built by the Ottoman governor Emir Bashir Shihab II in the 19th century. Today it positively drips with the memory of opulence that defined the interiors and architecture of that era. Walking around pompous rooms of grand mansions and palaces always make me feel uneasy. With the building devoid of tour groups this feeling was magnified. My shoes squeaked on the polished floors. A guard lounged in a doorway frame watching me set up a photo. My shoes scuffed again with a loud nails-on-chalkboard trill. I frowned in embarrassment and silently apologised to the house. The guard walked towards me and I wondered if I was about to be told off for having squeaky sneakers. But no. He just wanted to make me climb over the ropes into the ‘do-not-access’ side of the room so he could take a photo of me reclining on the sofa.

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A snapshot of Byblos

I found Roger Abed in the garden of the Hacienda Cafe. He was picking grapes which swung from the trellis in juicy green bunches ready to burst. “Back in my father’s day,” he said as he offered me a grape, “Byblos was the centre of the world.” Roger’s dad of course was Pepe Abed; Lebanon’s famed maverick bon vivant who turned this sleepy Mediterranean village into Hollywood’s favoured port of call.

These days it’s hard to believe that Byblos was once the centre of anything. I followed Roger down the cobblestone path that led to the harbour where long ago Egyptian and Greek sailing ships had docked to tussle over commerce. Byblos controlled the papyrus trade between Egypt and Greece during the 3rd millennium BC, long before Brigitte Bardot and Marlon Brando decamped from their yachts to play with Pepe. It was from here that the famed Lebanese cedars set off on course to Egypt to be used in the Pharaoh’s ship and temple building. This tiny town had seen much more than razzmatazz divas and prima donnas passing through its port.

We sat on the restaurant terrace of Pepe’s old playpen, the Byblos Fishing Club, and stared out to sea. “My father was a born entertainer. That’s what he did best.” Roger said as he showed me the photos of silver screen royalty, weathered and faded by sea air and time, which still graced the back wall. “It all ended with the war of course,” he added. The glamour-puss jetsetters, Hollywood starlets and assorted hangers-on high tailed it pronto at the outbreak of Lebanon’s civil war and Byblos hasn’t seen their ilk since.

I looked out at the harbour. Upon the old Phoenician wall a family lined up for a photo while two teenage boys sat smoking cigarettes on the stones. Roger shook my hand and told me he had to leave. After all, he had grapes to pick in a quiet garden and I had wine to drink on a gloriously sunny afternoon in the town that was twice the centre of the world.

Remembering the real Syria

I had just been kidnapped. Bundled into a car and taken to an unknown destination somewhere in the old city section of Homs.  My kidnapper loomed over me, knife in hand.

“You must eat more,” he yelled, slamming the knife forcefully onto the table. “More!”

Dutiful hostage that I am, I forced another spoonful into my mouth.

Enforced eating isn’t a usual hostage torture procedure but then there are no dank cells or handcuffs here. Instead it’s just endless cups of tea, huge plates groaning under the weight of food and more smiles from the gathered crowd than you could ever expect.

This was my Syria. 

Yet again, I’d been kidnapped by a local family and brought home for lunch.

All I’d wanted to do was buy a bottle of water when I wandered into Nizar’s shop in the midday heat. Instead, he’d quickly locked the shop, hustled me into his car and brought me home to meet his family. And here I was now in their living room, about to explode from food, with his wife Hiyam clucking reprovingly “you’re too skinny, too skinny.” They sat there, my hostage-takers, shaking their heads mournfully as I desperately tried to clear my plate.

Whether being plied with sugar-coated almonds by a sweet vendor in the souq, taking the time to drink tea with the caretaker of a lonely ruin, or becoming the surprise guest of honour at a family lunch, there was a warmth, and joyous spontaneity, to travel here that isn’t found elsewhere.

Ahlan wa sahlan” (hello and welcome) the Syrians said. And they truly meant it.

I had finally cleared my plate. Nizar lit a victory cigarette. Hiyam clapped her hands approvingly while the rest of the family grinned. We sat and chatted over syrupy cups of Arabic coffee as the afternoon rolled on and turned into evening. In the end I got up to leave amid pleadings to stay the night.

We took photos. Babies were plonked into my lap and grandma patted my hand affectionately as the camera clicked and flashed. I staggered out into the twilight, with a stomach stuffed with food and a heart full to the brim with the kindness of strangers.

In a time when Syria is headline news for all the wrong reasons I believe it’s really important to remember what it was like before this tragedy began. Ask anyone who ever travelled through Syria and most will tell you it is one of their favourite countries. I wrote this piece in 2009 and it first appeared, slightly modified, in The Independent’s ‘On The Road’ column. The editor got cold-feet about my use of the term ‘kidnapped’ at the beginning of the story and took it out. My whole point of using the kidnapping analogy was the irony of so many people being terrified of going to Syria when all of us who travelled there regularly knew it was one of the most hospitable and welcoming places in the world. Now I’m republishing the original version here on my blog so that we remember that Syria. The one where total strangers were welcomed like long lost friends.  I don’t know what’s happened to Nizar, Hiyam and their family. I lost contact with them soon after the fighting started. I do know that the part of Homs they lived in has been reduced to rubble.

Romeo is dead in the town of tantric bliss

I called them The John Travoltas. The skinny boys with greased down and perfectly centre-parted hair, dressed in hip-hugging flares and carefully tucked-in, ironed polyester wide-lapelled shirts. They were always hanging around the guesthouse reception and knocking on my door.

“Jas-see-car, you come motorbike ride?”

“Jas-see-car, come drink whiskey with me.”

“Jas-see-car, why you no liking us?”

“Jas-see-car, you making me ca-razy not talking to me!”

I’d come to Khajuraho to see its temples, famously adorned with graphic sexual depictions. But if the local boys had it their way I’d be starring in their own epic Bollywood Kama Sutra blockbuster before I left.

On the guesthouse rooftop I watched the daylight fade and the weak yellow illumination of the street lamps stamp their flickering glow across the alleyway below. I smelled him before I heard him. The cheap cologne radiated off his pores in a fruity chemical fug. He propped himself up next to me on the cement wall and invited me to a party. “A very merry party,” he explained. “Where, Jas-see-car, we will dance and dance until you are falling in love with me.” Then he launched himself off the wall and shimmied across the rooftop like a reed-thin Fred Astaire who, denied a dame, had developed a major hip-thrusting tick.

The light bulb in my room flickered and died just after 10pm as I was reading in bed. I scrambled for the candle and matches in my pack, cursing under my breath when I stubbed my toe on the edge of the bed frame. Just as I lit the candle there was a knock at the door. “Jas-see-car,” a sing-song voice said softly. “Maybe you are no liking the dark and need some company?”

Khajuraho was the first capital and then the cultural base of the Chandela Rajput Dynasty who ruled over a large swath of central India between the 10th and 12th centuries. Under the rule of King Dhangdev, King Gand and then King Vidyadhar, the town became a flourishing centre of Chandela artistry. Its ornately-decorated temple architecture was its crowning glory.

India has no shortage of temples to visit but Khajuraho’s are something special. Carved into every inch of temple exterior are thousands of exquisitely detailed scenes. Gods, Goddesses, musicians and maidens are all preserved, finely crafted, into stone. What have captured visitors’ imaginations though are the many facade scenes which depict sexual acts.

I stood craning my head upwards at the vast temple walls, staring at the open-air gallery of Medieval pornography. A local tour guide marched past jabbing his walking stick towards the temple. Following behind, was a straggling group of silver-haired tourists, flabby-skinned white knees poking out below billowing walking shorts, laden down with guidebooks and cameras. He turned towards them and raised the walking stick up into the air to rally his troops yelling “This way everybody, for the bestiality scenes.” The group quickened their pace to a shuffle. A few starchy-perm haired ladies tittered behind their hands.

When the British engineer T.S Burt thrashed through the jungle here in 1838, led to the Khajuraho temple complex by his local guides, he was scandalised by the artistic endeavours of the Chandela kings. In a typical display of buttoned-up Victorian hubris he vented his feelings about the discovery in the Journal of the Asiatic Society.

“I found in the ruins of Khajrao seven large diwallas, or Hindoo temples, most beautifully and exquisitely carved as to workmanship, but the sculptor had at times allowed his subject to grow rather warmer than there was any absolute  necessity for his doing; indeed, some of the sculptures here were extremely indecent and offensive…”

Archaeologist Alexander Cunningham brought the Khajuraho temple complex to the attention of the wider world after his survey of the complex carried out between 1852 and 1885. Intrepid Victorian travellers then purposely set off to see the temples with the intention to be outraged and titillated by the Chandela sculptures.

Not much seems to have changed in our view of the sexual content upon the temple walls. A male traveller would later confide to me that when visiting he’d kept looking over his shoulder, afraid to be caught staring too long at the displays of sexual antics. He explained he had felt like a teenager sneaking a furtive peek at his dad’s Playboy collection.

Nobody knows why the artisans here chose to create such a mind-boggling array of erotica. On the exterior of Khandariya-Mahadev Temple lustful groupings of wanton women are entangled with sensuous men in an orgy of positions. Known as mithuna, these scenes of love-making human couples were thought to ward off evil but scholars have been unable to answer why so many were portrayed. The sexual subject matter of the temple carvings has been the stimulus for many theories. One of the more plausible is that as the whole menagerie of daily life has been portrayed on the temple walls, sex, which leads to the creation of life itself, should be celebrated as well.  Whatever the Chandela architects’ reasoning, these are beautifully shaped scenes chiselled into stone with extraordinary skill, and it was all accomplished over a 100 year period of dazzling creativity that ended in AD 1050.

A soundtrack of birdsong and the soft staccato put-put of ceaseless water spray hoses followed me as I strolled between the temples. The western temple complex was a tranquil, green bubble complete with preening peacocks. Lush, manicured gardens were tended by a squadron of sweepers and grass cutters.  On exiting, I was tipped back out onto the drab, dusty streets of reality.

Touts besieged me as I wandered by their shops, shoving cheap plastic trinkets and ratty-edged Kama Sutra postcards under my nose. I headed back to the guesthouse where the John Travolta disciples were lounging around the lobby blasting Hindi Pop from the stereo. The rooms fizzed with unspent teenage energy. “Jas-see-car!” They yelled. “Now you are here we can dance.” A boy proudly showing off the first fluff of a moustache on his upper lip wiggled his way across the scuffed linoleum floor towards me wobbling his eyebrows and head up and down simultaneously. “Jas-see-car! Beautiful Jas-see-car!” The guy behind the reception desk cried while clapping his hands to the beat.

I escaped back outside and wandered out of town along the quiet back lanes. Sedate old lady cows joined me on their afternoon stroll. Two children whizzed by on an ancient bicycle, trilling the bike’s old fashioned bell as they passed. At the Jain temple enclosure the vivid sculptures decorating the Parsvanath Temple depicted snapshots of life’s mundane little moments yet still seemed endowed with a scent of sensuality. A young girl removed a thorn from her foot in one scene. Another hour-glassed ancient babe applied her kohl makeup. Big breasted and nubile apsara (female nymph figures of Buddhist and Hindu mythology) danced across the temple facade and wrapped their arms protectively around strong warrior men, looking longingly into their eyes. The long-gone artisans and inhabitants of Khajuraho seemed as obsessed with romance as my modern-day John Travolta wannabes.

As I paid my room bill that evening the guesthouse gang surrounded me in a circle at the reception table sporting pouting lips and slapstick jilted-lover looks. When I handed over the money, one rolled his eyes and fell back on the old sagging sofa stabbing at his chest with an imaginary dagger in his hand while plumes of dust rose up from the chair.

The parrots were the only other things awake when I left the next morning. Their squawking cacophony accompanied me as I crept out of the guesthouse, winding my way over the snoring bodies of John Travoltas wrapped up in blankets on the reception floor. On the alley corner I woke up a rickshaw driver snoozing in his cab and set off for the bus station. As we passed by the western enclosure the soft buttery-yellow sandstone of the temples seemed to glow in the early morning light.

I was about to board the bus when he turned up. One of the John Travoltas riding a battered motorbike came screeching to a halt right beside the bus door. “Jas-see-car!” he said. “You didn’t say goodbye.” Leaning on the bus, we smoked a cigarette together until the other passengers had all boarded and the bus driver beckoned me inside. When I got to my seat, I pushed open the window and waved. Sitting on his bike, with his hair still ruffled from sleep and not yet fought into that slick centre-part, he looked like an abandoned child.

As the engine rumbled into action he kicked the bike up to the side of the bus under my window and grabbed at his shirt with his fist. “Jas-see-car, my heart is being brokens into many little pieces.” I rolled my eyes and laughed as we rolled out of Khajuraho bus station and onto the road. In this town of ancient tantric temples, the modern day Romeos weren’t having much luck.

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