(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

Lentil Paste — معجون العدس

Late on Saturday Nights, Bağlama bars come alive in side streets off İstiklâl Caddesi (“Independence Avenue”) in the pedestrian heart of Istanbul. On a sound recommendation and with a small printed map with an X, we sought and found Havar, the liveliest in a string of bars and cafes in the Beyoğlu neighborhood that advertise with posters of studio shots of upcoming performers and a man calling from the door.

The solo instrument is the bağlama (or saz, as it’s often known — the broader name for its family), oud-like but with a long, thin neck. Drummers and wind instruments support the frontman, who belts out tunes everyone knows. Everyone. Tunes seemed to hit different demographics in the bar — younger guys and their dates or married couples or gray-haired veterans bent at the waist only probably as part of the dance. Some seemed to dip from shared memories as old as Turkish history — if you weren’t singing, you weren’t from there.

Except maybe that wasn’t true. A few tables of men next to us stayed quiet, just listening, hardly ever smiling or talking, but certainly not looking for quiet. A pair of old men danced in deliberate steps, bent and looking at their feet, with one hand clasping the other’s held high in the air. If I’d have guessed, I’d have guessed they were really, really happy. Either way, silent or singing or dancing with fingers entwined — even watching and knowing nothing – it looked easy to get lost gladly in the dark.

Other times in Istanbul, we knew exactly where we were for far too long. Traffic can be ugly. One taxi driver veered off out of a standstill up into the hills, supposedly to get around the bad parts. After many, many more hour-long minutes, we were just as stuck, high above the city, on the crowded one-lane alleys of a residential neighborhood. Our driver got out of the car (he had to buy something, or he saw a friend) and disappeared, helping to further paralyze the city’s transit when the moving truck stuck in the road finally heaved itself out of the way. But as we slid down back towards the same road (in the same place) we had escaped a great deal of patience earlier, we snagged a couple of durum wraps lined with crunchy lettuce and a spicy lentil paste. We stopped complaining for a moment to chew.

The next day after a lunch of tripe soup and fermented carrot juice (and pizza), I waited for the Havas bus to the airport on the Asian side. A man with a briefcase and two women with suitcases waited with me in the station. It was really raining. I wanted more lentil paste.

Tripe soupe: au natural...

After heavy spicing.

The flight back into Sharjah began with the travel prayer, taken from the Hadith, pronounced over the intercom only in Arabic. “O Allah, lighten this journey for us and make its distance easy for us,” says one line. And the last: “I seek refuge… from the wicked sights in store… upon returning.” I returned only to the wicked sights of Excel sheets and two-hole punchers, but at least the distance was easy. And in the dark of the cabin as the lights turned low, I lost myself a little too.

More pictures from Turkey here.

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