I was on vacation in the coastal town of Ҫeșme in the westernmost region of Turkey. It is a pleasant town, cooled by the breeze from the Aegean, rich in history and hospitality, and in my mind connected to the sweet taste of sugared, apple tea and newly harvested melons.
One day I went to the city of Izmir, probably better known in Western classical literature as Smyrna. However, the difference between the beachside Ҫeșme with the sound of water ever-present and hustle and bustle of the third largest city in Turkey was astounding. Where Ҫeșme was blue skies, blue water, and the gentle breeze, Izmir was stone, blinding white in the sun and the dust of a metropolis. I could feel the dry heat in the back of my mouth and sought shade in the narrow straits and alleys, lined with shops. There were so many people, meandering through the streets; it was claustrophobic and exotic at the same time. At last, I found the bazaar, built in sandstone, away from the blasting heat.
Around the outer walls were tiny shops, fitted in between stone arches. The storefronts were dark wood and glass. These shops seemed to be from another time. I could easily see them 150 years ago; the customers wearing fez and flowing garments, their feet in shoes with pointed toes. Perhaps the sound of prayer could be heard from the nearby minaret, while men smoked long pipes and shared news.
There was an intimacy about the shops, closed off as they were, as if they were only for the initiated. Despite myself, I ventured into a shop, where I could see volumes of antique books through the window. An ebony-haired woman, reading behind the counter greeted me and immediately offered me sweetened apple tea in an hour-shaped glass. The language-barrier between us was a deep ravine and the only bridge a raggedy one of board and rope, swinging as we both gestured to each other. All the books in the shop were in Turkish, but under the glass of the counter, she had these amazing bookmarks, made from ox bone and hand-painted with exquisite motives that now remind me of Turkey.
I rarely use the bookmark, because it is quite thick, but I love it. It is a piece of art, a piece of Turkey, and – to me – a breath of a cultural history that in some ways as the exact same as mine and in other ways completely different.