Travel: A Jewish tourist finds a warm welcome in Muslim Turkey

When I told him where I was from, he sprang from his chair, exclaiming, “America! America!”

A valley near Ogunlar is the highest town accessible by road in the Kackar Mountains of northeastern Turkey.

Wendy A. Horwitz

contributor

KACKAR MOUNTAINS, 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 plowed fields, high in the Kackar Mountains of northeastern Turkey. But the man, clean-shaven and very young, merely greeted us, “Merhaba!” (hello), and invited us for tea.

Returning from late afternoon prayer in the tiny mosque below, he’d spotted us—no surprise: my Israeli companion in torn jeans, me with a blondish ponytail, both of us with scruffy hiking gear, a contrast to the local women’s long skirts and headscarves, the men’s dark jackets and caps.

At the door to a modest wooden house, the man apologized for his limited English. I pointed to myself: “Turkish yok” (not). We laughed and removed our hiking boots and he, his loafers.

Explaining that he was serving as the local imam for one year, he 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!” and I thought he was about to hug 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.

The two men—a Turkish Sunni imam and an Israeli Jewish tour guide—soon enlisted me to take their picture, and I resigned myself to the familiar sight of two guys bonding in the modern way, absorbed in Facebook pages and photos, transcending their backgrounds and geography. Through a tiny window I could see weathered, A-frame houses clinging to steep pastures, topped with open haylofts. Women trudged with large baskets on their backs, and beyond the clink of cowbells, an arm of the Coruh River, swollen with snowmelt, rushed noisily past. It all seemed far from the source of the imam’s excitement.

Two days before, on May 1, we’d flown east from Istanbul to Erzurum, a city of 400,000, about 100 miles from the Black Sea. We stayed in an empty, off-season lodge at the nearby Palandoken ski resort, patches of snow melting beneath stilled chairlifts outside the window.

Very early on May 2, we caught a bus to Yusufeli, a gateway to white-water rafting and seasonal bull-fighting (yes, bull-fights, but no matadors; the bulls fight each other). From there, we hitchhiked up narrow winding roads along the Coruh, into the mountains. Waterfalls splashed beside high, stilted wooden lofts, which kept domed bee skeps and honey safe from bears. Evergreen-coated gorges framed glimpses of the craggy Kackar.

As we ascended, television and the Internet were far from my mind (and technical capacity), 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,” and here, he drew a finger across his throat, gazing at me with what seemed like admiration. Puzzled, I looked to my guide, who translated the rest. While we had slept at Palandoken, a Black Hawk helicopter crashed in Abbotabad, Pakistan. Its crew of Navy SEALS broke into a house early that morning and executed Osama bin Laden.

I felt a twinge of fear. Perhaps my mother’s pre-trip questions were prophetic—a Jewish-American woman traveling with an Israeli guide during the Arab Spring in a 99.9 percent Muslim country bounded in part, by Syria, Iran, and Iraq? And now, the al-Qaida leader assassinated by my government? But worry yielded to confusion, for my previous travels hadn’t prepared me for this. Besides, my guide might have his own worries: Israelis had stopped visiting Turkey the previous year after Israel attacked a Turkish ship delivering aid to Gaza.

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. Of course! Al-Qaida was not going to seek out me—the one American in this off-season, bucolic hamlet—for retribution. But I was uncomfortable with the man’s gratitude, even though I knew I was a symbol. Memories of scandal surrounding the Iraq wars, a decade of destructive U.S. foreign policies, and the explosion of jingoism and anti-Muslim sentiment at home fueled my ambivalence. I had become accustomed to traveling abroad as the Apologetic American.

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, “Tesekkurler.”

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.

In the tiny village of Bahlar, a young woman wearing a long, magenta and white-polka-dot skirt used pulleys to hoist luggage up a steep slope to the pension. Brushing a line of ants from the sugar bowl, she served glasses of tea in the breakfast room overlooking the Coruh. “We don’t want their violence, either,” she said softly, when we talked about bin Laden. That night, there was no television, no terrorists, just grilled trout and honey-drenched pastries.

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 colored storybooks. They wanted to know what city I was from.

The last day, we rose early to catch a dolmus (literally, “stuffed,” and now the term for a shared taxi) from the Ogunlar pension back to Yusufeli. After a breakfast of boiled eggs, chunks of honeycomb, jams, bread, salad and goat cheese, we joined the dolmus, which bumped and wound on stomach-churning dirt roads, stopping at crossroads to pick up a schoolgirl, two old men with umbrellas, and a large wheelbarrow.

The Coruh widened, heading to the Black Sea. After miles of trying to quell my queasiness and not look over the edge of the gorge (no railings here), I noticed the blue-and-white ceramic “eye” hanging from the rearview mirror. This amulet adorned jewelry, homes, offices, restaurants, hotels and even baby clothes, to ward off evil. For the rest of the ride, I found a strange comfort in the eye. Maybe all of us, stuffed together into this careening car and onto this crowded planet, lived under its protection. At least I hoped so.

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-practiced 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. At other tables, men drank tea, smoked and glanced at a silent TV showing the previous week’s campaign-related violence in Kastamonu, 650 kilometers to the west.

I finished my second glass. 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.

If You Go:

The Kackar range rises to 4,000 meters, dividing the Black Sea coast from the interior. These “Turkish Alps” are a less expensive destination than their European cousins, but have equally dramatic scenery and recreation, and the layered history of Greeks, Romans, Armenians, Georgians and others lends a rich cultural mix and a culinary bounty.

How to get there: With advance booking and a stopover, round-trip airfare from Dallas to Istanbul can fall under $1,000, on Air France or Lufthansa. If you go from Los Angeles, it can be closer to $700, and last I checked, flights from the East Coast on Swissair and Turkish Airlines were as low as $600. From Ataturk Airport, you take a local bus or train to Sabiha Gokcun Airport for the two-hour flight to Erzurum. Round trip on Turkish Airlines’ subsidiary Anadolujet is around $230, but check out other domestic flights. If you have the time, go by train, via Ankara, or you can brave the 18-hour bus ride. In fact, buses are very comfortable, quiet and clean, with free tea served by attendants in bow ties, and your own individual TV screen (on one surreal overnight ride, I watched “The Hurt Locker,” dubbed in Turkish). Catch a two-hour bus from Erzurum to Yusufeli, and then a shared taxi into the mountains.

Where to stay: There are pensions in many of the small towns in the Kackar. The simple, but clean, Marsi Otel in Bahlar (marsisotel.com) charges 17 euros per person ($22) for bed and breakfast, and 25 euros ($32) with dinner. Kackar Pension, in Ogunlar (kackar.net/english/), has a sumptuous breakfast and dinner, with en suite baths, and the proprietor will arrange hiking and camping tours, helicopter skiing, and other recreation. Nightly rate with breakfast only is $38, and with dinner, $51.

What to eat: Most towns in the Kackar have a tea house which will serve you local pastries, similar to baklava, or a small sandwich—with tea, of course. Pensions usually offer dinner served family style, and breakfast is included. I was given more fresh fish and delicious pastries than I could consume. For lunch, you can buy large flat loaves of freshly baked bread, thinly sliced beef salami and a hunk of goat cheese. Or you can do what I did: Eat large quantities of tiny Turkish pistachios and hazelnuts; they’re more flavorful (and cheaper!) than any you’ve had in the U.S. Don’t hesitate to try the varieties of kebab from outdoor stands, and try drinking ayran, a yogurt-based beverage. As for “Turkish coffee,” it’s rarely drunk before 11 a.m., and make sure to say how sweet you want it. Sip slowly to leave the grounds in the bottom of your small porcelain cup. Who knows: You might get your fortune read.

Wendy A. Horwitz is a Philadelphia writer and psychologist.