The narrow cobbled pathway was a picturesque sight, with cherry blossoms of white, pink and lilac on either side, the branches of the trees swaying lightly in the cool winter breeze. The sun, which made hide and seek appearances all through the day, had just begun to set and this spread a hue of lovely orange against the deep blue back drop of the sky. The aroma of freshly baked Simit and Turkish coffee rose from the numerous cafes that mushroomed in and around the little neighborhood of Çengelköy in the Üsküdar district on the Asian shore of the Bosphorus, in Istanbul. From each of these cafes, the strait was a breathtaking view, its waters magically reflecting the colour of the sky and studded with ferries that carried travelers from the Asian to the European shore. The tulips were just beginning to bloom and patches of red, pink, lavender and yellow could be seen looking remarkably beautiful.
The sound of her boots tapping on the pathway kept echoing as there weren’t many on the road that evening. She wrapped the worn out jacket tightly around herself, seemingly to keep away the biting cold. Her long skirt though pretty and girlish only slowed her gait and the multi coloured rose- print scarf that covered her head highlighted her flawless and fair skin. She stopped for a moment to light her cigar from which she took a long puff, allowing the warmth to settle in and then puffing out rings of smoke. On her shoulder hung her bag in which she carried the wares which she sold to tourists that came to visit the Baghdad Street, Grand Bazar and the Gostappe Gardens.
Business was usually dull these days with fewer tourists visiting the country, which could be attributed perhaps to being off season or maybe even other murkier reasons. She preferred summer to winter, not just for there to be more business but for it to be sunny. The wet and dark cold days made her feel desolate and depressed. She wished for the rays of the sun to embrace her and make her feel loved and happy just as she had once felt in the arms of Sayed. Just as the sun gives energy to living beings and breathes life into the earth, Sayed had brought love and warmth into her life. For as long as she could remember she had always been a yatim, which is why Sayed’s love was that diamond ray of sunshine that brought bliss to her life. It was love at first sight that the pretty little girl at the dar al'aytam felt for the tough looking odd job labour, Sayed who had come to the orphanage for compound cleaning.
Their love bloomed like the sprightly yellow daffodils in the field that dance to the winds on a sunny afternoon and before long the nikah was conducted. They had just begun life in their home country Syria when the strife grew worse. She understood very little of what was happening around her and was busy setting up their little home lighting it up more with love than money.
Her happiness was short lived and finally when Sayed got hurt, very badly hurt, the impact of things actually hit her. Along with many others they were forced to flee. Sayed was handicapped, paralyzed in the legs. He had been shot in the back and this had damaged his spine. They were poor and so couldn’t afford much treatment. Torn by war and stricken by devastation and damage, the land and its people were in no position to offer sympathy to the couple who were considered lucky to be alive. So they struggled and suffered. He begged while she worked, slaved and sold her soul to the devil or rather did whatever she could for money or food. When it comes to the question of survival, honour has a very little role to play. Yet, they remained alive for each other.
Things moved from bad to worse until they were finally forced to flee with thousands of others suffering the same plight. It was a painful journey, one of struggle, torment and torture. The flight wasn’t easy and many times Sayed begged her to abandon him so that her escape would be easier, but she wouldn’t. How could she? He was all she owned, the only thing in the whole world that belonged to her. So if they survived it would be together or else not. That was one thing she was pretty sure of. Sometimes she wondered wouldn’t it have been easier to end it all. What was happening, why they suffered so, why Sayed was shot and why they had to leave their homeland, she still had no clue.. It was as if they were being washed by a huge rough tide. A tumultuous two month and several refugee camps later they finally touched the shores of the Bosphorus.
Istanbul! The beautiful and fascinating city built on two continents divided by the Bosphorus Strait, one of the world’s greatest cities where a modern Western City combines with a traditional Eastern City and a melting point of many civilizations and different people. Istanbul has always held an important role in the history of humanity with everyone wanting to gain control of this area due to its strategic location. Empires have been formed here over the ashes of others. With a population of 14 million spread out over the city, Istanbul, the largest city of Turkey is also one of the biggest cities in the world.
For the gourmet, Istanbul is a culinary delight with its special grills and kebabs, mouth watering sea food delicacies right from balik ekmek and salgum drink from the way side eatery after a ferry ride to the European side to the high end sea food restaurants that adorn the coastline of the strait. The delicious lip smacking range of cheeses that one gets to choose from and the traditional Turkish sweets like the well known baklava and world famous Turkish delight a packet of which every tourist never forgets to carry back home. The grand bazaar is a shopper’s paradise provided you are willing to greet every shop owner with a smile and a coy “marhaba” and leave with a “tesekkür ederim” which means thank you. Then, you can be sure that these friendly and good natured people will let you bargain with them and will make sure you leave the bazar with the satisfacion of a good bargain and genuine turkish items as gifts for family back home.
Istanbul also has a rich history well etched into its historical buildings that stike one as mystic and the relics of the Top Kapi palace, the Hamam, Blue Mosque, the Cistern Bascilica and most of all the Sophia Hagiz leaves one intrigued and wanting for more exploration into the rich historical facts that remain enshrouded within its walls.
But for our Larissa and her Sayed, Istanbul was much more than this. It was the haven that gave them refuge and the only country that let them stay on. The country that put a roof, though not a very sturdy one, over their heads and entitled them to one hot meal every day. The place that let them have a few friends once more, many of them refugees from Syria. Larissa sold perfume bottles to tourists and got a little commision for every bottle she sold. The commission she got was just sufficient to meet the rent of their little room and cook a dinner of lentil soup and simit for her and Sayed.
Every morning before she left for work, she made the room as comfortable as possible for Sayed who was to spend his entire day there. She switched on the tiny heater she managed to buy to keep him warm when it was winter. She would set his work station for him on which he barely was able to sit up and managed to paint quaint ethinic tulip and other turkish designs on plain ceramic dervishes , bowls and pomegranates, which could again be sold at the grand bazar complementing their meagre income. This he would do only when he wasn’t too tired or too much in pain. Some days were very bad for him and his back and legs would ache. Life wasn’t easy at all but they managed to pull on.
She roamed the and the well known tourist spots of the city with her bag of wares. Bayram, a kind hearted Turkish vendor at the Grand Bazar allowed her to display Sayeed’s painted figures in his shop. He gave her the full amount received for the sale if it happened, without taking any commission and Larissa was extremely thankful for the extra money. She had begun to enjoy the flow of tourists and and loved to watch the excitemennt and the wonderment on their faces as they explored every nook and corner of the beautiful Istanbul. It saddened her that untoward incidents like bombing and firing at random places were turning the country into a fearful place and was afraid it would wreck havoc like it did to the other war torn places. This meant lesser tourists and diminshed incomes for all tourism related activities. These untoward incidents had begun to affect sales for someone even as unimportant as she was.
When there were many tourists, she loved the bustle and the laughter in their voices. She wove many stories from the the different dialects and different languages they spoke and felt grateful to be able to be among so many people from different parts of the world. People with different attitudes and different kinds of dreams. Dreams!! Yes, an imaginary world where everything was possible. Where the mind remained unfettered and the spirit was free. Where there were no restrictions or fear, and where no one was hurt. Where all people were perfect and lived at free will.
For her, the thought of dreams always coalesced with the Turkish delight! She knew it would perhaps sound too materialistic or rather too simple to be associated with a dream and so it remained a secret in her bosom, shared only with Sayed, with whom she discussed the the variants of the sweetmeat and details about it, from whichever quarter she could gather. .But then, every dream is a dreamers right. And being so the turkish delight was weird dream or a fantasy for Larissa who believed it to be beyond her.
To date she had only heard of the turkish delight but that too only after reaching Turkey, never before. A sweet of the family of confections based on a gel of starch and sugar, the premium varieties of which consist largely of chopped dates, pistachios, and hazelnuts or walnuts bound by the gel; traditional varieties which are often flavored with rosewater, mastic, Bergamot orange, or lemon. The confection is often packaged and eaten in small cubes dusted with icing sugar, copra, or powdered cream of tartar, to prevent clinging. The origin of the confection though not well established, but it is known to have been produced in Turkey as early as the late 1700s.
This information she gathered from Kawa, a Syrian who made a living as a tourist guide. Kawa always got enough work as he was less expensive that the others, working without a license. It was illegal and if he got caught, he would be jailed, but luckily, this hadn’t happened till now. It must be said here that Kawa was good at his job, being a voracious reader and quick learner and with his pleasing manner; oratory skills and extremely good looks got enough customers every day to earn a comfortable living for his wife and three daughters.
Many a time she dreamt of the delicious gooey dry fruit rich Turkish delight that melted in ones mouth with a burst of the most exquisite flavours and from the first time she heard of it craved for some of it both for herself and Sayed. Cheaper versions of the sweet were also available which perhaps she could have afforded but she wouldn’t buy. She wanted the only the best. Every person has the right to dream irrespective of what the dream is. Having a dream is more important than accomplishing it. For, when there is a dream there is something to work for and to look forward to and Larissa, a helpless victim of the society and a refugee in a totally foreign country, also had a dream.
So we get back to the cobbled path in the little neighborhood of Çengelköy of Üsküdar district with cherry blossoms on both sides and tulip patches adorning the sidelines. . The figure in her long flowing skirt rose printed scarf holding tight her worn out jacket is Larissa back on her way home after a day’s work. Her gait though slowed by the cool winds had a youthful sprint, on that particular day. Her face is flushed almost cherry red and her eyes are shining bright. Her pretty face illuminated as she treads the path hugging tightly the little package in her arms, it being the most important thing in her life at present.
The events of the day unfolded in her mind. She had woken to a positive note, with Sayed asking for his work station, sounding more cheerful than usual. That meant it would be a good day for him and he would be able to paint quite a number of dervishes, in their sufi whirling posture, which was his favorite. The dance of the dervishes is one of the most impressive features of the mystical life in Islam, and the music accompanying it is of exquisite beauty. Often Sayed would tell her how in his mind he could whirl like one them with his arms open: his right arm is directed to the sky, ready to receive God's beneficence; his left hand, upon which his eyes are fastened, turned toward the earth and how the beautiful music would play in his head. He seemed to look forward to a day of fulfilling work and she felt overwhelmed to see him cheerful.
She got a free bus ride to work on the dolmush owned by a kindly old Turkish driver who had a twinkle in his eyes. The sun was out during the day and it wasn’t too cold, filling her with energy and making her all the more bubbly. “Parfüm” “Parfüm”, she called out. The clarity and cheekiness of her voice surprised her which was in stark contrast to her usual muffled and dejected undertone. Today she had selected the pavement just at the entrance of the grand bazar. It was the point where people alighted from the comfy tram car and crossed the road to enter the bazar. The pavement was lined with little cafes which had little place inside for people to sit. Most people preferred to sit outside on the tables laid under under large sunshades, where they could comfortably sit and talk over tiny cups of black tea, normally taken without sugar and a cigarette.
It was comfortable and warm as she tried to sell the last three bottles of perfume to the three Indian women tourists seated around on a table and enjoying their meal of hot Iskender kebap, a dish consisting of doner kebab prepared from thinly cut and grilled lamb topped with hot tomato sauce over pieces of pita bread and generously slathered with melted sheep butter and yogurt. They seemed tired but happy about the shopping they had done and the shopping bags they had laid beneath the table gave away they had done some considerable shopping too. They chatted vividly and excitedly but she couldn’t make a head and tail out of what they were saying. She realized it was not Hindi, the national language of “Hindustanis”, as Indians were known, but maybe a local dialect. Lady luck shined and her last three bottles were bought by the Indian women without too much bargain. “Tesekkür ederim” “Tesekkür ederim”, she chanted and it was like the four of them were united for a second happily beaming and very excited, but for different reasons.
Larissa realized that it was the first time since she had begun this little business, that she was able to sell all the perfume bottles she brought with her for sale and when she counted the Lira she had earned, her heart skipped a beat. The amount was considerable enough and coupled with the day’s sale of Sayed’s painted figures, it was a little fortune. Her fingers trembled in excitement. A list of so many things they needed crossed her mind. Provisions, jackets, storm wear, caps, medicines for Sayed…..yes the list of needs was very long.
But her mind was made. This was providence, this was a miracle moment and she was at her impulsive best. No thought or no need or no worry was going to spoil the magic of this moment. Yes this very moment when she could actually buy whatever she wanted. This moment was at hand and another of its sort may come or may not come, she didn’t know. She ordered for 2 parcels of hot Iskender kebap and half a kilo of assorted and the best tasting Turkish delights available in the bazaar from the most elite shop. For today Sayed was “kral” and she was “kraliçe”. Anyone who has enough to eat, anyone who can choose what to eat is but a king or queen, a realisation yet to dawn on the affluent who have enough of everything.
So without a tinge of worry and in a flurry the kralice walks down the cobbled windy path not noticing the cold in the wind but hugging her jacket close more out of habit. She was in such a hurry to get back home that evening that she did not even noice the beautifully illuminated “Birinci Köprü” or the first Bridge, one of the three suspension bridges spanning the Bosphorus strait in Istanbul, connecting Europe and Asia, that was a breathtaking view from the pathway she treaded and which was usually the last awe inspiring and beautiful visual she carried with her before retiring for the day. The kebab packet in hand was still warm and the sweet box, well packed and firm. Fifteen minutes from now, she would reach home and Sayed and Larissa would have their first feast in Istanbul…………………