Reminiscing about another life

There's one more story that I just have to write down before my memory of it fades too much. In fact it's already been several months, but I will strive to remember the details of this delightful encounter.

Linh and I had just come into Turkey from Syria. The difference between the two sides of the border was striking. We had left Aleppo and gone to Gaziantep. There are scholars who will vouch for each as being amongst the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world ((Both are supposedly the site of the ancient city of Antiocha ad Taurum)), but there can be no debate as to which of the two is the more modern.

Aleppo, as I've written before, sometimes feels like  a Soviet relic, dirty and poor, and sometimes feels like a medieval holdout, with its huge citadel overlooking its labyrinthine souq. Gaziantep is clean and modern. The streets are wide and orderly, the sky is clear and blue, and there are more shops selling flat panel TV's than hand-made soap. Gaziantep was one of many places we could have stopped in southeastern Turkey on our way from Aleppo to Kapadokia. The reason we decided to stop there was The Lonely Planet's claim that Gaziantep is home to the world's best baklava.

Indeed, I was amazed to see that in central Gaziantep, around a quarter of all shops are baklava shops (or "baklavaçı" in Turkish). The first thing we did after depositing our luggage at a hotel was to seek out a famous restaurant (Imam Cagdas or İmam Çağdaş) and eat some food, with an order of baklava for dessert, of course. In Gaziantep, baklava is sold by mass, which seems amazingly logical to me, but also left me with the thought that people might buy kilograms at a time. It certainly crossed my mind to buy a kilo or two.

After our first taste of the famed baklava, we whiled away the rest of the day, seeing the sites, meeting the friendly locals. Eventually the sun went down and we felt we had enough room in our stomachs for another helping of baklava. We decided to take another one of the Lonely Planet's recommendations and walked over to Güllüoǧlu, a baklava shop founded in 1752 that, in my humble opinion, has a hilarious name. Unfortunately we arrived late and the shop was closed.

Our baklava-lust was not to go unsatisfied, however, and we set out to find another shop. This epic quest took all of ninety seconds, as we saw another shop almost immediately after crossing the street. We entered to find it empty, save for the man standing behind the counter. He was a short man, about five and a half feet tall, wearing an over-sized white shirt that seemed appropriate for someone working behind the counter of a baklava shop. He had a mustache and dark skin, and he greeted us warmly.

"Hello", he said. This was the only English that many people in Aleppo knew, and it seemed like the average person in Gaziantep didn't know much more.

Linh and I stared at the glistening trays of pistachio-filled desserts arrayed before us.

"What would you like?", asked the man behind the counter. Now I knew that this man spoke English quite well.

"I don't know. What's that?", asked Linh, pointing to a green tubular dessert.

"Oh that's...", and then some Turkish word I immediately forgot, "Would you like to try some?"

"Sure!", said Linh.

The man grabbed one portion of the dessert and chopped it in half, giving Linh and me one half each. It was delicious.

"Where are you from?", asked the man.

"USA, California", I said. "Your English is excellent."

"Oh, thank you. I used to live in England, for many years."

"Oh, what did you do in England?", I asked.

"I ran some kebap stands in London, and I opened a baklava shop. Would you like to try something else?", asked the man.

"What's that?", asked Linh, pointing to another shiny dessert.

"That's...", and then came another Turkish word. The man again cut a portion in two and gave it to us. Everything behind the counter seemed to be made from pistachios and yet each was very distinct.

"Do you like it?" he asked.

"It's delicious", we both said.

"Have you ever had Turkish ice cream?", he asked.


"Would you like to try some?", he asked.

"Sure", I said, now a little amazed at the man's generosity.

He handed us each a small scoop of the thickest ice cream I've ever had. Its thickness makes it difficult to eat quickly, making it the perfect dessert to give to someone who one wants to listen to a story.

"I moved to London in 1979. In a few years, I had kebap shops all over London. I was making a lot of money", he said with a smile.

"Wow", I said between licks of my ice cream.

"London was really fun back then. Once I went to a club with a friend and we saw two beautiful women and we invited them to sit with us at our table.

'You're a little short for me', said one of the women.

'Well, why don't I hop on your back and you can carry me', I said, and that got her to laugh. They came and sat with us.

Later I went to the toilet to do some Charlie, you know, cocaine. In those days, everyone in the bathroom was doing charlie. When I came back to the table, the woman knew what I had been doing, and she asked me, 'Did you have fun in there?'

'Yes', I told her, and then I offered her and her friend some Charlie. Charlie was not cheap, you know. It costs maybe forty pounds for a gram. So I gave her and her friend each a gram and they went to the bathroom and came back. They were very grateful."

This story left Linh and I at a loss for words.

"Wow, that sounds like fun", I said. "Why did you come back?"

"Eventually the tax man caught up to me, and they kicked me out of the country. I wasn't paying any taxes for my kebap stores."

"Oh, and now you run this store?", I asked.

"No, this is my cousin's shop. He's traveling, and I don't have anything to do, so I told him I would work in the evenings. It's nice to be out of the house."

"Do you live with your family?", asked Linh.

"My son lives in England now. He's not doing anything but smoking reefer, though. He says he doesn't, but I can hear it in his voice when I talk to him on the phone. I live with my wife here in Gaziantep".

I got the impression that the man wished he could trade places with his son. After letting us sample practically everything in the shop, the man refused to let us pay for more than one item. I think he was grateful to have someone to listen to his story, but I gladly would have paid money for either the food or the story. On the way out I left a big tip for him on the table where Linh and I had sat down to eat our ice cream. As we were walking out the door, he found it and said, "Ah, a tip! Thank you."

Thank you, sir.

The last picture in the album below is of the man who told this amazing story.