River deep, mountain high
An American Jewish tourist finds a warm welcome in Muslim Turkey
A young man in khakis and neatly tucked polo shirt was running across a dung-spotted pasture, waving his hands and shouting in Turkish. I assumed my guide and I had trespassed as we skirted the newly ploughed fields, high in the Kackar Mountains of northeastern Turkey. But the man, clean-shaven and very young, merely greeted us with "Merhaba! (hello), and invited us for tea.
At the door to a modest wooden house, the man apologised for his limited English and explaining that he was serving as the local imam for one year, proudly showed us his recent seminary diploma. We sipped tea; I tried out my few Turkish pleasantries. When I told him where I was from, he sprang from his chair, exclaiming, "America! America!" He would have hugged me, if custom had allowed it.
We were hiking for two weeks in the Kackar and Central Anatolia in May 2011. I'd already encountered this reaction to my nationality but it still startled me. Hospitality was everywhere: warm greetings, rides (once, with a rather fragrant calf in the rear seat of a small van), and always, hot tea in little tulip-shaped glasses. But the young man's excitement was more than hospitality.
Two days before, on May 1, we'd flown east from Istanbul to Erzurum, a city of 400,000, then the next morning caught a bus to Yusufeli, a gateway to white-water rafting. From there, we hitchhiked up narrow winding roads along the Coruh, into the mountains.
As we ascended, television and the Internet were far from my mind, so it was only when we stopped for kebabs at a roadside stand that we heard any news.
The proprietor offered us tea, and learning I was from the United States, he became animated: "America!" he cried. "America, Obama," he repeated slowly, "bin Laden," drawing a finger across his throat and gazing at me with what seemed like admiration. Puzzled, I looked to my guide, who translated the rest. A crew of Navy SEALS had broken into a house in Abbotabad, Pakistan early that morning and executed Osama bin Laden.
I felt a twinge of fear: I was after all a Jewish-American woman travelling with an Israeli guide during the Arab Spring in a 99.9 per cent Muslim country bounded in part, by Syria, Iran, and Iraq.
The kebab proprietor rotated a sizzling column of meat and stoked his fire with a small hair dryer. "Tesekkurler," he said to me: Thank you.
The man looked at me expectantly. He piled fragrant slices of meat onto crusty bread. I finally thought of what to say: "Tesekkurler, thank you". He smiled, "Tesekkurler," he repeated.
The trip was punctuated by such encounters, but more often, people debated the 2011 Turkish presidential race, which had become a bitter conflict, or the soccer season, also a heated campaign. Turkey has, after all, a long history of secular democracy and education, despite tensions about ethnic minorities and Islamist political parties. And a deep tradition of hospitality, along with an equally deep need to increase tourism in this region, seemed to generate warmth, not hostility.
One day in Ogunlar, the highest town accessible by road, we hiked alpine meadows covered in purple and red wildflowers, past glacial lakes, and through ancient stone yaylas, temporary settlements used during summer pasturing. We met a man repairing a wall and grumbling about plans for damming the Coruh River. For him, local concerns overshadowed international events and certainly, the parochial discomforts of an American tourist.
The distant call of a muezzin reached us across a broad glacier-carved valley. Refreshing our water bottles at spring-fed taps, we headed above tree line into melting snow, past a herd of sheep, their tinkling bells accompanied by the musical accents of a shepherd talking on her cell phone. We snacked on crisp hazelnuts and measured our boot prints in the snow next to the paw print of a brown bear.
Another day, we balanced on makeshift footbridges of narrow logs to cross branches of the Coruh and explore abandoned 11th century churches. Schoolchildren in blue-and-white uniforms walked slowly along the road, their heads bent over brightly coloured storybooks. They wanted to know what city I was from.
The last day, we rose early to catch a dolmus, as shared taxis are known, from the Ogunlar pension back to Yusufeli.
At a tea break along the way, my guide was invited to play backgammon. His Turkish opponent was handsome, with dark thick eyebrows and a stunning smile. With well-practised flicks of the wrist, the two men rolled the dice and quickly moved their pieces along the board, stacked their winnings, and reset the board.
They played without speaking; with identical, mirrored gestures - a nod, a wry shrug, a small hand motion - they silently admired each other’s moves, modestly acknowledged a win, and conceded defeat. They looked and played like cousins.
I finished my second glass of tea. It was time to leave. The backgammon players embraced each other: "Until next time," they said in Turkish.
"Tesekkurler," I said, trying to soften the 'r', hoping they'd urge us to have another glass and play another game in the warm, quiet room, with only the soft clatter of backgammon and the clink of spoons.