(first written 23 May 2009)
The workmen are hungry; it is time for the midday meal.
Here in this part of Turkey, and in 2009, it was still the expectation and practice for the person for whom the work is being done, to provide tea breaks and the midday meal.
As the time draws nigh for the midday meal, I leave the house, turn left and walk in a basically westwards direction being careful to walk wherever the shadows are. The sun is powerful and it makes its presence emphatically known. Hence, during the long summer months and whenever possible, I walk wherever the shadows are lurking.
After a block the street comes to a ‘T’ junction. A ‘T’ junction that is if you are driving a car. But as I’m walking and as it transpires, there is a very narrow street carrying on roughly straight ahead; I choose this route.
Initially the narrow street is about two meters wide, concrete and not a lot of shade. The house to the right is a grand old house with high ceilings, high windows and in its’ prime was a fine example of a small, elegant house. However, it’s well past its prime and now only a shadow of its former beauty remains, more mocking what it formerly was, rather than a statement of what, no doubt, it once was.
After the house the road widens and there, in the middle of the now wider street, is a small domed shrine, roughly three metres by three metres with a small porched entrance – these in this region are somewhat ubiquitous and are locally known as a ‘ziyaret’ which generally is a tomb of some religious ‘good person’ or ‘saint’ to which the followers of the Alevi sect of Islam resort to pray, burn incense and make sacrifices, sometimes blood sacrifices.
Alevi are basically followers of Ali – who they believe should have succeeded Muhammed. They are also known as Shi’its and Alewites. No doubt there are distinctives and differences between these various named groups, but they all hold Ali in high esteem.
The ‘good person / saint’ is not necessarily an Alevi, for example here in the city there is a large mosque and half way up the mountain behind the city there is a shrine/ziyaret to Neccar Habib, who was, evidently, a Christian living in ancient Antioch (Antakya is the modern descendant of that city and rests on the ruins of its ancient predecessors), who lived and was martyred at about the time of the Acts of the Apostles.
Skirting around the shrine the road narrows again and we squeeze by the houses on the left and right, living, as it were, cheek by jowl. The upper floors stick out creating deep shadows. Here the sun’s rays can not penetrate except, possibly, for the briefest of moments when the sun passes directly overhead.
This street most often offers a welcome sanctuary from the sun.
I gratefully walk in the cool shade. The road continues to narrow until we come to another ‘T’ junction and the road is less than a meter wide – you would have difficulty with a scooter or motorcycle coming down this road.
I turn left and carry on in the shade past more houses that have seen better days but are still wholly and fully occupied. After another cross street – if it be correct to call these small pathways streets – I come to a main-ish road, a full three plus meters wide. I turn right and after five meters I come to the butcher shop.
The window of the butcher shop is the glass front of the cooler and there hanging is a slab of meat – lamb, I suppose. As I enter the building I notice that the floor is tiled as are the walls which are tiled from floor to ceiling.
That looks good.
On the floor is sawdust, placed there to absorb the blood and other bits that fall to the floor.
The owner slowly rises from his chair – he is awake today – he was sitting there sound asleep yesterday. Not really surprising if you spend every waking hour at work – inevitably, some of those hours will cease to be waking, besides, this is summer and it is hot – very hot.
In any event, he rises and moves ponderously towards the large counter. The counter is made of huge blocks of wood glued together forming a massive chopping block.
He has a wad of cotton gauze over his right eye, nominally held on by a piece of tape that looks like it may be ready to surrender and let the gauze go wherever it may and at any moment.
I order 200 grams of meat for each of the workers and ask for ‘Kağıt Kebab’, which by translation means Paper Kebab. It gets its name from the fact that the meat is put onto wax paper and then put in an oven to be cooked.
The man acknowledges the order, turns to a large meat grinder sitting opposite the chopping block. There is a mass of ground meat hanging from the end of the grinder.
He grabs the meat and tosses it on the scale. After adjusting the amount of meat he slings it onto one end of the chopping block.
He then takes some green stuff – maybe parsley, but then maybe not, in any event it is green stuff – and he takes some tomatoes and gives them to a boy, about ten year old and sends him to wash them.
Ah, there is no running water in the shop – no sink, no tap, no water, nope.
The boy takes the greens and the tomatoes and crosses the street to a public street-side tap. Here he proceeds to wash, or should I say ‘rinse’, the greens and the tomatoes in a plastic carrier bag (kind of fill the bag and pour out the water kind of rinsing) and then brings them back to the shop.
The boy, as I mentioned, all of ten I suspect, then proceeds to chop the greens. He takes a razor sharp knife that is almost as long as his arm and rocks it backwards and forwards over the greens and hence chops them into a finer and finer mass of green. The tomatoes are quartered and then added to the mix and rocked with the knife until they become a red mass which, mixed with the greens results in a red-green conglomeration.
The one-eyed man takes over the final rocking / chopping of the greens and reds. Placing the knife aside, he adds the meat to this mix and begins to knead the mixture together with his bare hands. After a while of kneading he reaches forth his hand into a container and sprinkles salt and some red spice – maybe red pepper – into the mix.
More kneading and then the wax paper. He separates the meat into balls, his eye determining equal division to make the necessary portions. Each ball has its own piece of wax paper. He flattens the ball with his hands until he forms it into a circle.
Once all the portions have been so prepared, he calls the child and sends him with all the wax paper, loaded with the flattened red-green meat, to the local bread factory – where the ovens are wood fired and baking-hot. Together with the meat, and additional whole tomatoes and some long green peppers they are roasted in the oven.
Once fully cooked, the meat comes back to the butcher, who divides up the tomatoes and peppers between the portions. He then sets each cooked portion of meat on flat bread (fresh from the bakery), and it is now ready for me to take back to the workmen.
I return from whence I came, following the same path, and arrive back at our home, the work site. The workmen wash their hands and with the extra flat bread we have provided they tuck into their midday repast. A large multi litre bottle of the ubiquitous Coca Cola is poured out to accompany the meal.
This is truly “breaking bread” as the workmen tear off a piece of the underlying bread and use that as a scoop to bring some of the meat to their mouths. The extra bread is broken into handy spoon sized pieces to bring meat, tomato, pepper, juices or whatever on its final journey to the mouth.
When the meal is consumed, we bring out the tea – no meal is complete without the obligatory tea.
Tea, in Turkey is prepared in a two pot system, one pot sitting on top on the other – the top pot holds deeply steeped tea and the bottom pot is boiling water. The tea will be consumed in small, tulip-shaped clear glass glasses.
One man takes responsibility for the pouring ceremony. First he pours some water from the bottom pot which is extremely hot as it was fully boiling just prior to coming to the table. In order to preheat the glasses, he pours the hot water from one glass to another. This both preheats the glasses, and as this is a construction site, if any debris or foreign matter has inadvertently fallen in the glasses, it will be washed away. I suppose it also acts as a final cleaning as there is no guarantee how well the glasses were cleaned after their last use. The water which has passed from glass to glass for preheating is then discarded with a swirl and a swish onto the floor.
With the glasses now pre-heated, the pourer pours a measure of hot concentrated tea from the top pot and then dilutes it with the hot water from the bottom pot. There is a specific colour that the pourer is aiming for. In Turkish it is called ‘tavşan kanı’ or ‘rabbit’s blood’ in English – not what it will taste like, but a description of the colour it should be when properly mixed. Personally, I haven’t the foggiest notion as to what colour rabbit’s blood is… unless it is the colour of Turkish tea that is…
Once the desired colour is attained the glass is given to a workman who then adds sugar according to his own palate. Some add half a cube, one cube, and some two, three, four or more cubes of sugar into the tiny glass.
Once everyone has their cup of scalding tea, sugared according to their desires, they sit and chat, those who smoke are lighting up. It is a calm, resting environment.
Did I mention the pre-heating and hot tea and hot water?
The small, glass, tulip shaped, tea glasses offer a fantastic heat transfer medium. When you grasp the tea glass with your thumb and forefinger around the rim and lift it to your mouth, you are treated to a very distinct and unmistakable understanding as to how hot the tea really is. On my first attempt, many years ago, the glass never made it to my lips as I put it down hastily exclaiming loudly because of my burning fingers.
It takes a while to develop both the callouses and stoicism to sit, like a Turk, holding your wee tea glass in your hand between sips, as if it were a room temperature glass.
When the tea is consumed, being small glasses, this can mean multiple refillings and the cigarettes have been duly rendered into smoke, the men rise to recommence the labour of the day.