By Dora Ohrenstein
Encounter in Bursa
Near the end of our trip, Leslie and I decided to make a 2 day excursion to the nearby city of Bursa, which had once been the Ottoman capitol.
In the evening, I was wandering around the neighborhood of the hotel, located next to a massive old city wall sprinkled with tiny steps winding up and down its steep height. Just as I embarked on the climb, I was “picked up,” in the non-threatening Turkish manner, by a man who was quick to tell me he was a High School Teacher. He rattled off a list of ex-students who were working at high level jobs in the States as engineers. I was impressed. I told him I was a teacher too, a voice teacher in a college.
From there Ahmet took charge. Along the old wall he showed me historic Ottoman homes, each with a characteristic shape, two stories with the upper windows jutting out assertively, buttressed by beautiful wood supports. It’s a very appealing style, balancing bold outlines and refined details.
Ahmet promised to take me to a cafe where local men who loved music got together to play and sing Turkish folk songs. He went there every night to mellow out after a hard day’s work with the high school kids. Before reaching that destination, he took me to a recently restored tea house with a large garden. Government funded massive restoration can be seen all over the city, evidence that Turkey’s economic good health is as good as everyone claimed in conversations. The cafe was a beautifully restored building, wth perfect Izmir tiles on the walls.
At last we arrived at the small room, perhaps 10′ x 12′, with benches along all four sides, instruments on the walls, and a constantly changing number of gentlemen seated around, a few playing and singing, most listening and joining in at choruses. Though they were amateur musicians, some were highly accomplished. The men were middle-aged and very welcoming, and I felt at ease immediately.
Ahmet explained that the man playing and singing was one of the very best. This lovely man, whose name I did not learn, played for the next hour, in the most natural, spontaneous and expressive way. His voice was ringing and rich, as good as any well-trained opera singer. Ahmet kept saying over and over in my ear, “He really sings from the heart.” And so he did. Best of all, he sang right to me, beautiful Turkish eyes gazing into mine.
Endless rounds of tea were served, no alcohol. Naturally before long I was asked to sing and I started with my usual favorite when percussion is at hand, Hava Nagila. Ahmet obligingly translated the compliments for me.
Inevitably I was asked to boogie and since a partner was willing — a strapping fellow of about 6’4 — I complied for one number. Fun, but pretty intense
in that small room with guys who don’t see women’s legs on a daily basis (I was wearing a knee-length dress).
A younger man came in who looked more dark and tense than the older crowd and started playing fiercely. The chemistry in the room kept changing as people came and went. A few younger guys came in to play and listen too, but they didn’t stay long.
Eventually two older men arrived and Ahmet excitedly said they were the very best players. One sat with the oud and tuned it for half an hour. And boy, did it twang after that! The other was a thrilling percussionist who could make three spoons into a complete drum kit. Some brilliant Turkish folk music then ensued and continued for a long enchanted interval. Ahmet told me how both masterful musicians had been even more brilliiant years ago, but that smoke and drink had gotten to them. Ah well, artists and loafers are the same everywhere I guess. How sad I am that my tape recorder was lacking a battery. . . But I will try to find some links for people to get a clearer aural picture.
I was asked to reprise “Hava” for the new crowd and also sang an abbreviated Italian aria. Well into the second hour, I realized the guys were really putting out for their American guest, a foreigner, fellow musician, and woman who responded to their music. It was a private concert just for me. Can you imagine the thrill?
Ahmet had several running subjects he talked about over our time together. One was how fine life was in Turkey, and especially in Bursa, much better than Istanbul: its beauty, the slow pace of life. Another was how important it was to live without stress, that he had learned that and was so glad, life was so short and could end any time. Another was that I should think about moving to Turkey to teach English. And the last was how he knew me from looking at my face, and could tell that I was searching for something.
Now reflecting back, I realize he shared some techniques with the incredibly skillful carpet salesmen I encountered. But given our advanced ages, and as an adamantly confirmed bachelor, just what did he have in mind for me?
As great a climax as the music cafe was, Ahmet still had one more in store for me. It was just heading on 9:30 and we must hurry to another site where the Sufis were dancing. A large, Ottoman-style community room with a center space for the spinners, surrounded by a railing behind which sit several hundred audience members. Downstairs the men, including a few tourists with cameras, and little boys and girls. From upstairs the women look down.
In the center, a man stands behind a microphone chanting a prayer in sonorous low tones. There is a large group of musicians and singers on two walls, the band consisting of flutes and ouds. They join in and start a song, and after a few minutes the young dancers come out on the floor and start spinning. They spin in a steady tempo, taking only 2 steps to turn 360 degrees, at the music’s tempo, one spin per beat, the spinning is fast. The dancers start falling into their trance, first you see it in their faces, behind their closed eyes, then you see it more and more in their body language, as the arms fly to the sky, the right one higher, and the head leans toward uplifted arm. They spin and spin and spin — each in his own circle, and also moving around one man in the center. It could have gone on forever for me, feeling the contact high from the dancers’ deep trance. The audience was spellbound, adults, camera-holders and little children alike.
After a long long time they slow down. I watch closely at this moment, to see the reaction after so much spinning – wouldn’t they stumble? I stare at one boy who had gripped my attention, he wavers forward slightly, but keeps his ground. He breathes heavily, signalling how intensely athletic the spinning was, like a marathon run. Maybe that explains why the dancers were between 14 and 20 years old.
Now with the spinning over, the tremendous amount of energy in the room is passed to the musicians and singers. After another somber chorus, a new chanter begins to recite a long impassioned story. He chants at a high pitch, recitative style, with strong inflection of the words, and he adds small cries at the beginnings of phrases. The chant gradually takes on more of this element of weeping, as the story goes on and on and the man’s voice cries out more intensely. I find myself having an out of body experiences, where the spiritual and emotional suddenly merge, overtake you, and blow you away. I flew around up there for several minutes, then felt tears flowing — but I couldn’t let go completely in this crowd of foreigners. Still, every second was bliss.
After this, Ahmet walked me back to the Safran Hotel, and we said good night.