At the breakfast table, Leila came to us. “Guten Morgen,” she said. “Alles gut?” Tiny green olives in olive oil and a hint of spice coated my mouth with rich flavour. The bread tasted as if it had just been baked. Yes, all was well.
We were set to meet at 10 am for our tour of the area. She was just checking in. Her smile was kind, polite, and with a hint of reservation. She didn’t know us, we not her, and still we agreed on a full day in a car together. Any attempt at English would inadvertently slide into German on her part. Luckily, we understood enough to get by and that was a good thing because, as the day progressed, we learned that getting to know Leila and her personal story, was a history lesson in itself.
The myth exists in many different version. It is a twisted tale that only grew more so as I perused the internet, the never-ending and not always accurate fount of information. Scholars are needed, now more than ever, to keep us from acting on wrong information. One travel agency that promotes this particular spot, put a “horny Zeus” in hot pursuit of Daphne. Another travel guide has her turned into a tree when Apollo tried “to have her.” Here the agent of the metamorphosis is Mother Earth herself.
Even though a poet is allowed to embellish, I humbly accepted that Herbiye might not the place where it happened. And still, while I was reading the plaque that explains this story in a few sentences, I had a moment. The hair on my arms stood up straight.
Leila noticed and we exchanged a look. When a woman is thus wronged, tears will flow and poetry will follow. No matter where you celebrate this event.
Maybe another kind of energy had captured me. After all, the effects of hangovers linger and Herbiye had been a place of luxury and pleasure during Roman times. Or maybe it was the energy of all that water rushing in rivulets, gushing from springs, and running over smooth rocks, setting algae to play in the ripples. Something happened, and my sense of enchantment only heightened when I could barely discern where human embellishments started in this natural setting and where they ended.
Down and down we went, following the remaking of an ancient myth in order to suit present day needs. If Greeks could reward their poets laureate with a crown made of bay leaves on account of a woman who chose to be a tree rather than be ravished by a god, then Antakya can soak its feet in her tears. One day someone will want to restore this place to its original intent but for now, weekend people own it.
But we couldn’t linger. Soon Leila was navigating the hotel’s SUV skillfully by tricky snarls of traffic, potholes, and up the mountain to find the last remaining Armenian village in Turkey. Trying to undo the knots in my tongue that still refused to utter the language I learned in school a long time ago, I wanted to converse with this woman who now touched my knee to draw my attention to a group of women.
“Always working,” she said. “Women.”
I nodded, even though these particular women seemed to be out for a stroll. But I got the gist. If not working now then they either just were or soon would be again. Leila then half turned her head towards Th, who had graciously offered to let me sit in the front so that nausea wouldn’t catch up with me.
Meanwhile, the road in front of us had started to stream with happy children, some oblivious to passing cars. “School is finished today,” Leila told us. “For three whole months.” She then stopped and waited until the youth in the middle of the road became aware of us. When you are a kid, summer is just a long string of hot days.
I managed to ask her if she had children. “Yes, two,” she said. They still live in Germany, where she lived for twenty three years before she came back here. She will spend time there in summer to be with her young women.
When we stopped at the Vakifli church, a few men were indeed sitting outside playing backgammon. Others looked on. “You see,” she said. “And the women run the orchards and make the food.” We visited the tiny, refurbished church and courtyard and then had a coffee, tea for me. The coffee house is part of the building, the only building apart from one other house we ended up seeing there. Only 135 people still remain in the village. Five hundred of the children of the village have settled in Istanbul and send money back to support a newfound trade: organic oranges and other vegetables that supply Europe.
The air was pristine, the surroundings quiet.
“It’s a healthy place,” Leila said before she pointed to the left of her. “Women bake bread there every Sunday.”
I got up to take a look. A flat iron lid that covers a hole to hold coal was all I could see and I wondered until it dawned on me that she wasn’t talking of leavened bread. She was talking about the oval flatbreads with their thin crusts puffing out like fat balloons.
She then asked if I wanted to see the handcrafts the women make and we obliged. Tourism is part of what sustains the village and so does money from the government. Therelationship of Turkey with the Armenians is a long and strained one. It is a sensitive issue for Turkey, which has not yet agreed officially that what happened at the beginning of last century was a genocide.
Genocide and bloody history seemed unreal in this quiet, still place where bottles of oil and preserves lined the wall. I decided on some olive soap with bay leaf oil.
From Vakifli, we descended deeper into the Musa mountain, the Moses mountain. It seems only fitting that an area so steeped in early religion should have a mountain by that name. In the middle of the mussulman village, as Leila called it, grows a thousand year old plantain. It has 7.5 meters in circumference and creeps up into the sky with gnarled branches.
We found a shady spot near the tree and sat down. Then we would get up to drink some of the spring water that forever gushes from a faucet near the tree. Then we’d sit down again. “The village is always good,” Leila said. And we nodded as we drank in the pristine air and savoured what we are so diligently destroying on this planet.
A woman walked by wearing harem pants. I thought she was the same woman I’d seen earlier until I realized this was a young woman. She also wore the scarf knotted in the back. I decided I would get myself some of those pants, held down at the ankle but free and easy for the rest.
As we were sitting around watching the world come and go, we learned more about Leila. She is an Arab. A Christian Arab. A Greek Orthodox Christian Arab. Th told her we tried to visit the Greek Orthodox church but that it had been closed. “I’ll take you,” she said. “Tomorrow.”
While I was trying to take some pictures of people taking pictures in front of the tree, she got on her mobile. By the time she was finished we were invited to attend a funeral at 5 pm the next day.
“All the women wear black,” she said.
“I don’t have the right clothes,” I said.
During the remainder of the day we would learn more about her family. They all live on one street in Antakya. They occupy practically the whole street. Her sister also lived in Germany but she wants to go back there. She and Leila talk German if they don’t want their mother to understand. Their mother’s mother was French but she didn’t pass the language on to her children. In the family Arab is still spoken. And Arab is also used in the Greek Orthodox church in Antakya. I learn later that people do not readily advertise their arabic origin in a country where the term “Arab” can still be used in derogatory fashion.
Soon we had climbed the top of the mountain range and were rounding the bend down to the coast. Below us the beach drew a long straight line between the land and the sea, above us the sky was a piercing blue. As we wound our way down I kept peering at the horizon. About a hundred kilometres from where we were, across the sea, the island of Cyprus. Another place of strategy and early Christian activity.
As we were driving toward the coastline, a mountain materialized out of nothing. It kept disappearing until we were close enough and it became part of the land instead of the sky.
And then we were at the sea. The coastline not spectacular. A few dilapidated restaurants and fishing boats. And there the Tunnel built by Romans and waiting for us to explore. It had rained a lot the day before and Leila had not been able to take people far, but today the water had drained enough for us to go in deep. The going was a bit rough but we managed. A man was selling delicious apricots along the way and a few very polite young men helped us get back up a steep slope.
But then we were hungry. Hungry for fish, sure, but not right at the restaurants where we were. Instead, Leila drove us to Deniz, the seaside resort of Samandağ. Resort is a big word for a humble place where the main tourism comes from the province of Hatay only. When you have places like Bodrum, Izmir, and Antalya, you can afford to be careless. What it meant for us, though, was that we were immersed in local culture, without outside interference. The food was great, the place unspoiled by too much greed.
Before we ate, Leila took us to the shrine that puzzles us even today. None of our friends had an idea what Th was talking about when he described it to them, once back at work. Some didn’t even know there was a place called Deniz, meaning sea, by Samandağ. It wasn’t until some tricky internet navigation on my part that I learned that the shrine we saw is a place where both Christians and Muslims come to pray for good health. But what exactly we were walking around is still not clear, except that the shrine is in honour of Saint Hizir, who may well be the oldest god of the Middle East, predating all others. It is said he might be Elijah and shrines such as this one can be found all along Mediterranean in the Middle East.
As we drove into the centre of Deniz we saw the building. It squats low and white and has a dome on top that makes it look like a shrine. In front, beggars hold out their hand for a coin. Shoes have to be removed, and women cover their heads. Scarves are on the house.
By the time, I took off my shoes I was in the zone and zeroed in on a lilac scarf with tassels, the kind women in the region traditionally wear. I like the way these scarves are worn, once around the head and then with a knot at the back. Just cover some of your hair and leave your face and neck proud and free. I promised myself there and then to buy such a scarf to go with the harem pants.
After Th and I entered, we followed the stream of people and walked around once, our hands clasped behind. Back at the start the soft but firm energy of a woman held me back like a shield.
She motioned to my scarf and nodded in approval. Then she took my hands and showed me how to hold them and motioned that I walk around the stone three times. She indicated again how beautifully she thought I knotted my scarf by kissing her fingers and touching my face. I wanted to sink in her arms and have her tell me stories until I fell sleep. Instead, I walked like a good girl and told my husband to do the same. Social control can be firm in the gentlest of ways. Here I was walking around what I understood to be the white washed stump of an old tree, with my hands heavenwards, hoping some good might come from it.
I did her proud imitating others backing out of this airy and light building that holds a cumbersome nondescript shrine. And even though my mother was gone, I still motioned to my husband to fall in line. Once outside we saw cars circling the building in the same fashion. Three times around.
When we finally left Deniz, I looked back once. A cloud had tumbled down like a fallen angel on the land before the disappearing mountain.