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Published: November 9th 2011
For the past week, I’ve been roaming the ruins of Southeastern Turkey, an area also known as Mesopotamia, or the “Cradle of Civilization.” It’s an area so rich with history that even an abridged version would take pages to summarize. For all my interest in antiquity – and my enjoyment in strolling down its avenues – it’s the people that occupy these ancient cities today that made these sites more than just a page in a book and a dot on the map. If you measure civility by a culture’s propensity to treat others with respect and courtesy then it’s here, in its birthplace, that I have found the most civilized people. The next few entries will be dedicated to these generous souls. From Mustafa in Nemrut to Azad in Dara; Eland in Hasankeyf and Ibrahim in Hassan – to all the Turks who have influenced me to call EgyptianAir about canceling my flight to Cairo at the end of the month – thank you.
The first man to humble me with his roadside hospitality was Mustafa, the civil engineer in charge of the restoration of Yeni Kale – the old “New Fortress.” It lies in the small town of
Eski Kahta, about 55 kilometers from my destination for that day: the peak of Nemrut Dağı, where King Antiochus Theos I constructed a temple-tomb in 62 BC. Today, the large statues of the king and various Greek, Armenian and Iranian gods sit on their weathered thrones with their decapitated heads at their feet. It’s a bit tricky to get to, but I had to see it.
Mustafa found me eight kilometers from his construction site. He gave me a ride there and invited me into his office for tea. After three cups, I figured I’d shown sufficient proof of my gratitude and stood to leave. He motioned for me to sit down and brought his hand to his mouth, “Yemek.” I shook my head and patted my stomach, trying to indicate that I was still full from the decadent breakfast my CS host had bestowed upon me: homemade jam and bread; honey fresh from the hive; cheese; olives; cucumbers, tomatoes, and Nutella – all Turkish breakfast staples. He took me around the side of the building where a man hunched over a campfire and a huge simmering pan of beef, tomatoes, onions and peppers. He pointed at the food
and insisted, “Yemek.” So, I ate. Then I stood up to leave again, and again I was motioned to sit down, for no meal in Turkey is complete without tea. Two sugary cups later, we climbed back into his car.
At the entrance to the national park, I expected him to stop and let me out. Instead, the guard waved us in and we continued on a series of steep switchbacks until the car overheated. Again, I assumed that he’d turn back, but he turned the engine off and blasted the heater until my eyes watered and the motor cooled. We finally arrived at the parking lot, 200 meters from the summit. I stepped out of the car and the first light snowflakes of the season tickled my face and stuck in my eyebrows. I pulled on the new, thick jacket I’d bought in Sivas (a disadvantage to not planning for this trip was being completely unprepared for cold weather). At sixty-some years of age, and with only a light coat, Mustafa easily kept pace with me on the steep ascent.
By the time we reached the top, I’d lost the feeling in my nose, and my ears
felt like they were on fire. My hands had stiffened into claws around my camera. But amongst the enigmatic faces of the gods, the cold didn’t seem to matter. I couldn’t turn away. It was only seeing Mustafa, with his hands stuffed deep into his pockets, that finally broke their spell. We drove back to the fortress and warmed up with tea, while watching the sunset with his workers from the scaffolding of the crumbling castle. If that wasn’t enough already, he drove me another 60 kilometers to the doorstep of my CS host – and left me with a present of pomegranates. We spent the whole day together, but we didn’t – couldn’t – speak the entire time. I’ll never know the words to his story, but I know that they would tell of a kind heart and a loving soul. There’s only one thing you can do with this kind of generosity: pay it forward.
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