Turkey seems so distant to me, these days. Living there made such an impact; it changed my outlook on life, cultures, traditions and religions. It seems so distant because it’s been nearly 6 years since I left (which feels like a lifetime ago), and the city has surely changed dramatically in that time.
But, I’m very happy to learn that the city I used to call home, Gaziantep, is up for a Nobel Peace Prize for hosting over 50,000 Syrian refugees.
I’m not really surprised that it was nominated for this award. During my time there, I was an oddity—one of the few pale white westerners living in town. I dressed differently. My Turkish was broken, at best. I was an obvious outsider. I moved there knowing that would be the case. While I was a foreigner, I was able to make some of the best friends of my life with whom I’m still very close.
The city was growing quickly when I arrived. They started building an above ground train system. New universities, apartment buildings and shopping centers were being built—expanding the city’s growth into the desert landscape. They had a beautifully preserved castle that sat at the center of the city. There was an old copper bizarre and open air market; a bustling modern shopping district and the smells of Turkish tea and grilled lamb filled the air. I fell for this city quickly.
One of my favorite things to eat around my neighborhood, especially after a long day at work, or a late night of Turkish folk music at my favorite tea garden, was a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant that sold nohut durum. Apparently, this is the local equivalent of ‘street meat’ in NYC, or that’s what I’m told.
A freshly baked flatbread (called ‘pide’) smeared with mashed chickpeas. A salad of parsley, tomato and onion. A few french fries. A spritz of lemon and some spicy peppers.
It’s warm. It’s spicy. It’s so delicious!
Open late into the night, the spot I frequented was run by a father and son. The place was always packed—mainly by men. For some reason I rarely, if ever, saw a woman there. But, the owner and his son were always extremely kind. Before I could even speak a word of Turkish, the two men always had a smile on their faces and even took the time to show me the correct way to prepare and eat, what I consider to be, this delicacy.
In fact, I recall most Turks in Gaziantep to be like this. The locals desperately wanted to share their culture and traditions, both religious and cultural, with me. I was invited countless times for tea, supper and breakfast by people whom I’d only just met. My employer, a taxi driver, the man who ran the market where I bought groceries. Turks are hospitable, this can’t be denied.
As soon as someone discovered I had no family in the city, I was offered an open invitation to their home. That’s why it’s no surprise to me that this city on the border with Syria is up for such a prestigious award. The people are kind. The people want to help each other—not as Muslim to Muslim or Turk to Turk, but as human to human. In no way did I belong there religiously or culturally, but I was welcomed with open arms.
That’s what this plain and simple meal remind me of. Gaziantep will always have a place in my heart. One day, sooner rather than later, I hope to return. Visiting my old neighborhood, maybe I’ll even see the old man, with his son, in their same little crowded shop selling their irresistible nohut durum.