Chai or cay, what would we and the world be without it? From the sweet, milky, cardamom-flavoured repeatedly- boiled chai of our dhabas, here I am, thousands of miles away, sipping black Turkish cay in a cavernous enclosure, in the old castle fort of Urfa. I am seated just some metres away from the birthplace of Prophet Abraham, close to the holy pond with the sacred fish, which hundreds of visitors have come to visit this Children’s Day. The Golbasi garden around the pool is alive with colour.
I listen to my colleagues talk. Records relate the ancient city of Urfa, in southeastern Turkey, to the 4th century BC. However, scholars pre-date it to 9000-11000 BC, which excavations, barely six miles from Urfa, underscore. The megaliths pre-date the Stonehenge by 6000 years. Called Gobekli Tepe, it has been described as perhaps being the first man-made temple in the world. This area is situated in the northern part of a “fertile arc” of arable land, stretching across the Persian Gulf to modern day Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Egypt.
Legend has it that King Nemrut, a descendant of Noah, had built the infamous Tower of Babel, but gave up. He ordered all young children to be killed to defy a prophecy of his death. Abraham was caught demolishing the pagan idols of that time and was thrown from the citadel turrets into a fire lit below. He was barely 10 years old. However, he was protected by nature. A rose garden surrounded him and the fire turned to water, the burning embers of wood into fish. The fish and pool have been regarded as sacred and protected ever since.
Our hosts order more cay and as we sip, I glance around the cave. The tables and chairs are simple, adorned with local rugs and trimmings. One wall has a shelf full of old radios from the 50’s & 60’s. I do not feel like a stranger in this holy place, as I am sipping black cay from a curved, tulip-shaped glass, easy to hold. Young girls chatter away, oblivious to my stares. They sit, some with headscarves, others with the wind softly blowing into their carefree hairstyles. The colours of the scarves indicate where they are from – if they are Arab or Turkish but I am informed that many just wear whichever colour they wish to. Listening to the whistling wind outside (rain has been predicted), we hear many voices in the cave, a mixture of Arabic, Armenian, Syriac, Turkish and Kurdish languages, so natural. Like in my motherland, too. The thought makes me happy. My mind flits to an auto-rickshaw driver in New Delhi, asking me if I was from Bengal because of my accented Hindi! He was quite near the mark as I am from the neighbouring state of Orissa.
After cay, we stroll down to the bazaar that bustles even today. More so, as today is a local holiday. It reminds me of our ancient bazaars in the Red Fort, as crowded, as enticing, with the proverbial chai-wallah, weaving through the throngs of people, with practised ease. The caydanlk is the stacked two-kettle containers or teapots in which the cay is brewed. The smaller tea-container is used for strong brewed tea and the larger one contains boiling water to dilute the tea, if it is too strong.
I am told I cannot leave without tasting some Turkish coffee! We head across the cobbled stones to an old rest-house, converted into a modern-day coffee house. The woodwork is reminiscent of other such structures in the region and the dcor has been maintained in the traditional style. The tables have been set up in the former courtyard. My colleagues agree that coffee is still prepared in the manner in which it was during the wondrous Ottoman Empire Period. The coffee beans are ground well into a fine powder and then boiled in a brass pot, called a cezve. How can I resist having my coffee-cup read? That is another story!
These old traditional customs the world over only serve to show how people wish to welcome strangers in their midst. War and its attributes seem distant. Corruption in high places and in the field of sport seem surreal, but as I head back to the airport, its back to reality. The chai I order at the airport in Istanbul airport is just to get a chair as I have a few hours to wait for my flight. The airport is bustling with passengers and chairs are scarce. Then I ask for a coffee and scald my tongue, a wake-up call to sip the beverage slowly and savour its essence as I had in the ancient city of Urfa, a few hours ago. Somehow it does not taste quite the same.
Did this ancient ritual of drinking chai with family and friends and colleagues evolve, to allow us some space to listen, collate news and views and mend relationships?
Perhaps our elected persons in their high offices could have a time-out, just once a day, to sort out their issues, sipping chai, savouring its essence, clearing their minds and cleansing their souls. Perhaps the humble chai leaf may help flower a new chapter of history and development that we sorely need.