Anatolian Express XII: Feeling nutty in Antep

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Those of you who know me are aware of the fact that I'm not much of a 'foodie.' Something about that term has always rubbed me the wrong way. I guess I've just met too many Americans whose only interest in foreign cultures related to eating.

In a place like Antep, however, eating is the thing to do. The place is widely considered to have some of the best food in Turkey.
Antep is also known as "Gaziantep"

Friday morning in Urfa had started late for me. I was feeling really exhausted after taking trips to Göbeklitepe, Harran, Halfeti and Mardin. Knowing that there were hourly buses from Urfa to Antep, and that the trip would only take two hours or so, I elected to sleep in. I also wanted to spend a little more time in Urfa's amazing bazaar, as there was a special purchase I was interested in making.
After having breakfast at my hotel I headed towards the bazaar. In Turkey, and especially in more remote spots like Urfa, people tend to stare at me a lot. When this happens along streets that I know I’ll be walking up and down frequently, my preference is to break the ice with people by saying hello or wishing them ‘kolay gelsin’ (let it come easily) if they’re working. This always seems like a better option than just avoiding eye contact as they stare, which gets uncomfortable after a while.
One upshot of this approach is that I end up getting to know a lot of people, at least at a superficial level. Sometimes, people will chat with me for a while after I say hello the first time, but usually people seem fine with an acknowledgment of some sort from the new stranger in their neighborhood. In any case, during the ten minute walk from my hotel to the bazaar, I said hello to probably a dozen people. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm. 
Balıklı Göl

I first went to Balıklı Göl, the pilgrimage site in Urfa where people come to feed the fish swimming in little canals. I’m not usually someone who lingers for a long time in religious sites, but this was one of the most pleasant and peaceful places I’ve ever been in Turkey. At the end of each of the four nights I’d spent in Urfa, I’d circled back there, walking back and forth and sometimes just sitting on the grass listening to the sound of the water. Despite the crowds there’s very little noise and people keep to themselves. I thought it was a really beautiful place.
After saying my goodbyes to the fish, I headed to the bazaar. While this is a little embarrassing to admit—I usually don’t go for this kind of thing—I felt like buying some shalvar. Shalvar are traditional pants that are worn by men in the countryside of a number of different regions of Turkey, particularly in the southeast. They’re quite baggy, and provide a particularly roomy area between the legs. I thought they’d make a nice souvenir of Urfa, especially because I had enjoyed the bazaar so much.
The bazaar in Urfa--a wonderful place
Outside the bazaar

The bazaar in Urfa is pretty big, and unlike the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul there are hardly any foreign tourists there. In fact, during the frequent visits I made there during my stay in town, I can’t remember seeing a single person who struck me as a western tourist, although there are of course loads of foreign pilgrims in town. It really needs to be seen to be believed.
I walked up to one dude selling fabric and asked him if he knew where I could buy shalvar. Perhaps I should mention that I felt extremely self-conscious about doing this. But the dude directed to another part of the bazaar where he said I could get them, and then his friend mentioned that he was heading in that direction anyway and offered to show me the way.  
He led me to a section where I saw four or five guys working in adjacent stalls selling pants and shalvar, and walked about halfway down until I made eye contact with someone who looked smart and friendly. I asked him if he could make me some shalvar and he said it would be no problem. Ordering his child assistant to hold up the curtain for me, he instructed me to take off the pants I was wearing and slip into a pair. Using the measuring tape that had been hanging from his neck, the man (he introduced himself as Şahin) did some quick tailoring and the shalvar were ready in no time.

We chatted for a while and, after I paid Şahin, I was ready to go. I made a move to take off the shalvar and put them in my bag, when Şahin stopped me. 'What are you doing?' he asked me. 'Aren't you going to wear them?'
I stammered, explaining to him that I didn't want people to think that I was trying to make a joke out of their clothes or anything. I thought people would consider me a ridiculous idiot, an obvious western foreigner wearing these things in the bazaar.

'Look around you,' he said. 'Every second person is wearing shalvar. There's a reason--they're comfortable, aren't they?' I had to admit that they were. 'Not only should you wear them in the bazaar, you should wear them all the way back to Istanbul. When you get to Istanbul, take them off.'

Again, I need to stress that I felt exceedingly uncomfortable with this idea. I'd seen a group of Istanbul tourists the day before in Mardin, wearing Arabic-style kaffiyes and had thought to myself about what jerks they looked like. Now I was doing the exact same thing.

But Şahin wouldn't take no for an answer, and I had to admit he was right. Why shouldn't I wear them? They were definitely cooler than the pants I was wearing, and in Urfa shalvar aren't seen as a country thing--lots of obviously urban men were wearing them. I thought I looked pretty good, so why not?
With Şahin Bey outside his shop

I kept the shalvar on and walked out of Şahin's shop, feeling like there must be a million judgmental eyes upon me. But after a few minutes of very self-conscious walking--I was looking for a mosque, where I could use the bathroom to quickly change back into my pants--I realized that nobody really cared. No more or less attention was paid to me than had been the case any other time I was in the bar, and I started feeling really good. I had to admit, they were a hell of a lot sharper looking than the pants I'd been wearing.
Not only did I wear the shalvar in the bazaar as I bought a few other souvenirs, I wore them to lunch as well. It was only when I went back to my hotel that I relented, putting my pants back on as I readied my stuff for the bus ride to Antep. 

Antep has been fun, but there isn't a whole lot to see. There's a castle (which is closed for renovations) and a few older neighborhoods that are pretty cool, as well as a nice enough bazaar in its own right. Although there's a lot less going on, in my opinion, in Antep than in other cities I've visited in the southeast, there were for more tourists (all Turkish) here than in Urfa or Mardin. I suppose people are attracted to the food.

I got in to town on Friday night, and headed over to one of Antep's most famous restaurants--İmam Çağdaş. It's a great place--frantic, busy and huge--with lots of talk and a limited menu that guarantees speedy service. I had an lahmacun, and Adana kebab, different peppery salad-type things that are served as starters, and nice foamy ayran to drink. For desert I had baklava, of course, with crushed pistachios. Adana is famous for its pistachios, which are called 'Antep Nuts' in Turkish.

On Saturday, I wandered around some of the picturesque older neighborhoods and the bazaar, and took some photos of the castle from the outside. By late afternoon, I was absolutely famished. Friends had recommended some other restaurants to me in town and I'd hoped to look for them, but the sun was just too hot and my stomach was growling. I wanted to go someplace nice, but was tempted to eat just about anything I could find.

I saw a sign that said 'Kebap' and marched right find myself back at İmam Çağdaş for the second time in 24 hours. I figured I could definitely do worse, food-wise, so I ordered the Ali Nazik along with the sides and starters I'd had the night before. As was the case with my Adana kebap the night before, the Ali Nazik was splendid--spicy in a way that provided textured flavor, rather than just a blast of heat. Turkish food--counter to the perceptions that I lot of people in the US have--is not at all spicy, but the folks in Antep (and Adana) know how to serve it up hot. Two thumbs up, even if they're from a non-foodie like myself.
I'm a big fan of old doors...

In the evening I went for a stroll. Even several hours after eating lunch, I was too stuffed for anything more than a little more baklava and some pistachios. I stumbled across a group of about 120-140 people--Gezi sympathizers, it turned out--who watched a video about Gezi and called out some protest chants. It seemed pretty quiet--when I left there were probably no more than 10 cops in the area, watching them. It was a far cry from my days in Istanbul at the beginning of the trip (and, by all appearances, today), where the police were easily outnumbering the number of protesters.
The southeastern leg of my trip is coming to an end. It's been really super, but now I'm moving on to new things. After a week in central Anatolia and another in the southeast, I'm interested in doing a bit of swimming. I'll let you know how that works out. 
More pictures from Antep are on display in the Borderlands Lounge.

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