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Forbidden Sugar

Heart and arrow on a street post in Mardin
Heart and arrow on a street post in Mardin

Forbidden sugar can take many forms, from irregular blocks of small white crystals smuggled into Turkey from Iraq, to your Kurdish host's Muslim sister. I never know whether the next forbidden delight will be sprinkled with pistachios or wrapped in a scarf, but I know I've got a sweet tooth that tempts me into trouble. This story starts on "one of those days," days when you go out to buy credit for your phone at 2pm and wind up dancing in a Kurdish wedding party on the border with Syria later that night.

The alleys of Mardin were narrow and uneven, and always met at sharp irregular angles. Puddles of garbage collected in the wrinkles of the walls, decaying into black stains which only inorganic material can produce. I had my eyes fixed on the ground and was pondering cultural differences as I walked toward the main road in search of a place to buy more credit for my phone. I would have gotten out of his way without even noticing my host if he hadn't called my attention upward. I was happy to see him though he was partially responsible for my solo errand — a task I wasn't looking forward to doing alone.

After a couple days of my host failing to follow through on his offer to help me buy more credit for my phone, I decided to take the mission upon myself and headed out in search of a telecom shop while he was in school. I tried not to let my conflicting emotions show when I met him in the alley, and I don't think it ever crossed my host's mind that I might have been frustrated by the situation. Since he was on his way home from school and had nothing planned for the afternoon, he offered to take me around the city and help me buy more credit.

It was perfect timing for a sunny spring drizzle when we entered Mardin's underground bazaar. Then it was only a damp dash into the old mosque to see a hair of the beard from the prophet Muhammad. When the rain stopped we completed our mission of buying more credit, then went to my host's favorite cafe to sample some Syrian wine. The cafe, which was a prominent hangout for members of the Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), was on the second floor of an old stone building and featured a balcony overlooking the Mesopotamian plain, and a small library set in what looked like the living room of a castle. The shrill odd-tempoed sound of traditional Kurdish music seemed to double-back on itself in the vaulted ceiling of the cafe. The waitress, who had a keffiyah tied around her head like a pirate might wear it, brought me a slightly transparent glass of red wine. I took a couple sips to taste it properly. Alcohol always hits me hard in the middle of the day.

Me and my hosts in Mardin in the courtyard of their old house
Me and my hosts in Mardin in the courtyard of their old house

After I was fully conscious of what just happened, my eyes shifted rapidly from face to face. Another one of my hosts in Mardin, Sugar (his real name which sounds a little like Sugar is hard for most foreigners to pronounce, though it seems to be one of the only names I can say correctly), had whirled up to our table with two cute girls and they had all taken a seat. My hosts had been making future plans for me as though I was intending to stay with them forever, so I mentioned that I was hoping to go to Hasankeyf on the following day. No one seemed to hear me and they carried on their conversation in Kurdish. Then Sugar said "C'mon, lets go to Nusaybin." To which I responded "Ummm, ok..." not knowing where or what Nusaybin was, but generally being up for anything. I suppose I was a little concerned since my torso was the first thing to turn toward the exit, as if hoping to persuade my feet to follow.

Without stopping at home we were on our way to the bus station. Sugar explained that his sister was planning to go to Hasankey the next day and that she was currently in Nusaybin and I could sleep at his friend's house there that night and go with his sister in the morning. As we grew closer to the village we grew closer to the border with Syria. Eventually we were alongside a two-layer barbed-wire fence speckled with watch towers and tanks. It was dark by the time we arrived in Nusaybin and it looked like we were driving through a ghetto. Like many homes in Asia and the Middle-East, the outside of Sugar's friend's house was no indication of what lay within.

The Kurdish home was instantly overwhelming, with bright clean walls and lots of family (though almost anything would have overwhelmed me at that point since I hadn't mentally prepared myself when I left the house that morning). I was shown into a standard Kurdish living room which consisted of nothing but wall-to-wall carpeting, a few cushions, and a flat-screen TV. As I sat in the corner, knees bent and feet on the floor, the family gathered round. I put on my lingering dog smile, the type that pulls the the corners of the lips back toward the ears instead of toward the eyes, and is meant to convey interest while at the same time answering all questions with "I don't understand." It was kind of like the smile that George W. Bush used to wear. By the time I noticed that all the faces around me were men and babies, the women reappeared with dinner. It was the same local specialties I'd been eating since I entered Kurdistan — roasted vegetables, farmers yogurt, fresh bread — just slightly more delicious.

Me and Sugar's sister with traditional headdresses on
Me and Sugar's sister with traditional headdresses on

After dinner, Sugar and his friend and I went to meet Sugar's sister. She was in an outdoor cafe with a group of her friends when we arrived. She was stunning. Her head scarf seemed to frame her gorgeous face. I've never seen subtle makeup emphasize both strong features and soft skin so well. We took a seat at their table and ordered some chai. No one except Sugar spoke English. Sugar had to return for school the next day and I could tell that his sister was asking him "How are me and your friend going to communicate tomorrow?" I grabbed her attention then quickly pointed back and forth between her and me, then motioned to my mouth and shook my head side to side with a smile. She seemed more amused than comforted, but I figured that was ok; so long as I kept her and her friends entertained I had hopped they wouldn't mind if I tagged along.

That night my actions became more uninhibited, like those of a child, as a child isn't afraid of appearing a fool. I decided it was my opportunity to put any doubts about my ability to communicate with the girls to rest. One of the men in the group began speaking toward me, then ended a sentence with "Kebab." I leaned forward and very seriously said "lahmacun," as if raising the stakes in a poker game. The group burst out laughing. Apparently that man was a famous lahmacun chef in the city and worked just down the street. He insisted that we go try his food at once. I hadn't learned the method for not overeating at Kurdish meals yet so I was still very full from dinner, but the man was making an offer I couldn't refuse.

We somehow transitioned from walking down the street to sitting on little stools in a closed-down promenade. Before I knew it there was a kebab in my hand an a cup of some weird mixed juice on the pink plastic princess table in front of me. On our walk to the street stand I had asked my friend how to give my compliments to the chef in Kurdish, one of the most useful things you can learn in any language. Throughout the meal I exercised my ability to name the local specialty from almost any city in Kurdistan whenever someone would mention its name, a skill the people seem to love. For better or worse I think that tipped the group off to my interest in food.

We got up from our stools and started walking through the city. Without my noticing it, one of the men from the group would slip behind every street stall we passed; then he'd hand me some food as I walked by. I wondered, Are these guys the proprietors of these stalls, and, if not, who is? And why isn't everybody singing like this is a musical? Muscles stuffed with rice, pop corn, cotton candy. I started angling my body away from the stands we approached as if to deny their existence to my stomach. Sugar's sister spoke eye language very well and we were already starting to become friends. I pointed at her, then at myself, then made the joggy-arm motion and lowered my chin and raised my eyebrows toward the lead couple in the group, giving both the question and the desired answer in the same motion. Like that we were in a race toward distant music.

The shrill sound from the cafe in Mardin was filling the street in Nusaybin as we came upon the Kurdish wedding celebration. The women of the immediate family were dressed in traditional costumes, but no one else seemed to have changed out of their day clothes, including a few farmers and gorilla warriors. Kurdish dancing consisted of standing in a straight line and holding pinkies, then shrugging your shoulders and moving sideways in a five-step rhythm. It appeared as though no one could be bad at it, but somehow I could throw off the rhythm of an entire group. I hadn't dressed to attend a celebration (when I'd gone out for phone credit several hours earlier), and I certainly didn't plan to be part of someone's wedding video, holding pinkies with a member of the close family and dancing in the street.

Out of embarrassment I eventually stepped out of the line, then Sugar motioned that it was time to go. On the walk back to the car we passed a shop selling ice cream.

Sugar: Do you want ice cream?
Me (quickly and firmly): No.
Sugar: Have you try Turkish ice cream?
Me (earnestly): Yes.

Sugar began ordering us ice cream. We got in his friend's van and listened to a techno-remix of Katy Perry's Hot 'N Cold as we sped through the streets.

We woke up early so Sugar could make it back to Mardin in time for class, and so his sister and I could get an early start on sightseeing. Sugar's sister and I were joined for the day by her two female friends who also wore head scarves. Hasankeyf, an ancient city in the I-kid-you-not Batman province of Turkey, was situated on the banks of the Tigris river and surrounded by caves carved into the bluffs. The main part of the ruins were closed for restoration, though I'm not really sure to what end since the entire area is due to be flooded by the Ilisu Dam, which my friends in Mardin described as a deliberate slight by the Turkish government in order to prevent tourism money from going into Kurdistan. I and the girls lingered through the city making sure to take in whatever sights we were allowed.

Caves in the bluffs of Hasankeyf
Caves in the bluffs of Hasankeyf

The girls spent most of their time taking pictures in contrived poses, and I spent most of my time trying to think of funny things to pantomime. Communication between me and the girls was going just fine, at least as far as I was concerned. The girls would sometimes try to tell me something and I would understand completely but give them a funny answer. When standing on the edge of a cliff they tried to tell me "Danger! Be careful!" to which I responded "What? You want me to strike a pose?" and then went up into an arabesque, a visual running joke within the group. By the end of the day I would point at a doorknob in some old building and make wild gestures like an adolescent Jim Carry on a sugar high, then use my phone to translate "This is of no significance." The girls seemed to enjoy my presence, and Sugar's sister's eyes became more deep.

That night I returned to Mardin and the girls went back to Nusaybin. On the following day I went to school with the boys at their small and basic university. I always thought the most distracting thing you could get away with doing to a teacher while he or she was talking was shoot them a menacing stare, but now I know that a lustful glance can be even more overpowering. I'm making more eye contact with this girl than anyone else. Do the other students notice? The hottest girls in each class kept giving me the sticky eyes — eyes that stayed on me even when someone else was talking. These girls are only nineteen. I thought. Wait, is that actually a problem?

Sassy cowboy hat pose
Sassy cowboy hat pose

That night we had a gathering at my host's house, which included several students from the university as well as Sugar's sister and her friends. After dinner I entertained the guests — particularly the cute female ones — with all manner of miming and clownery, from nonverbal jokes to dancing with broomsticks (and a few well placed "Goodbye cruel worlds," one of the only phrases I know how to say in Turkish). An attractive girl in a cowboy hat — which I made good use of throughout the evening — took a particular liking to me, and I to her. Everyone seemed to be having a good time except Sugar's sister, whose eyes adopted the glare of jealousy. As I was running out of props and material, the party relocated to the cafe where my adventure had started the day before.

The cafe, and the walk there from the house, provided new inspiration and I was able to keep things going, but in between each shtick I would crash, often drifting off into an unentertaining gaze. My caprices, both long-lasting and short, were becoming more drastic — even the flashes of people in my transient life were starting to notice them. Was I just a junkie, living from sugar high to sugar high, slipping into depression between fixes? Had my tolerance risen to insatiable? As I walked home from the cafe with the group of people including Sugar's sister and the girl with the cowboy hat, I felt terribly alone. I got no sugar that evening and I had no cup of tea to drop it into if I did. I also got the feeling that even if I had sampled a forbidden sweet, it would have only been as satisfying as one of those marzipan-covered ornamental cakes.

Soundtrack: Hot 'N Cold (Katy Perry)


May 5th, 2014 at 10:31 AM

Great storytelling Beau. Of course the ladies like you.

If you're asking a question, it may be better to just email me at beau@dangertravels.com