In A Tea Garden

Istanbul, Turkey
Dec 26, 2003

In the Sultanahmet area of Istanbul, along the Divan Yolu is a cemetary. It houses the tombs of some of the Ottoman rulers – those of Mahmud II, Abdulaziz and Abdul Mahmud II. The tombs are raised off the ground and made of white marble. At one end is a tablet with inscriptions and dates. But different from other similar tombs I have seen elsewhere, there are two pillars at each end of the tomb. I do not know what purpose they serve. It is small, this cemetary and quaint. Fenced in by a wrought iron railing, it is quite picturesque. At one end of the cemetary is the tea garden.

This is an old tea garden and a popular one. The floors are wooden, old, scuffed and scarred. There are wooden benches placed at intervals, back to back. In between are small wooden tables. Along the side wall are bigger seating areas shaped as booths – some can sit as many as six or seven. The backs and the seats of the benches are covered with upholstery, the patterns reminiscent of kilims. There are carpets and kilims hung on two of the the walls. The other two walls have windows, set in dark polished wood. There is a comfortable laid-back feel to this place; I like it here. It is just the kind of place to while away a few hours with friends over conversation or a game of chess or backgammon. Or to scribble in a journal.

I discovered this place on my second day in Istanbul and seem to have formed a habit of coming in here each day that I have been in this city. I order a delicious glass of kushburnu, or rosehip tea and sit sipping it and enjoying the feel of the place. The tea in Turkey is served in beautiful tulip-shaped glasses, rimmed with decorative gold edges. They are served on a tiny saucer, with a couple of cubes of sugar – to be added to taste. It is early yet and there is what sounds like Arabic music floating in the air. Mingled with muted conversation is the gurgling sound of the nargileh. As the afternoon wears on, this place fills up. There is often no table sitting empty. But the ever-vigilant waiters keep a sharp eye out. They will rearrange some or re-organize and nobody is turned away. Every booth and bench gets packed with people. Nobody seems to come here alone. They come in twos or threes or larger groups of friends or family. It is a time to spend in relaxed conversation. Or in play. Young or old, students or business men, hiply dressed youngsters or conservatively dressed women wearing headscarves, they sit companionably and chat and drink tea and smoke the nargileh. The clicking of the backgammon dice forms a continuous music. The air gets hazy with the smoke and the music is barely audible above the hum of conversation. From time to time one of the waiters will come by holding a container with glowing coals. In his other hand he holds a pair of tongs – the signal is the click-clacking of the tongs as he walks down the aisle. He adds fresh coal to some of the nargilehs.
I must have become a fixture there. My last evening in Istanbul, after having travelled elsewhere for three and a half weeks, I went there again. I had just taken off my coat and hat and sat down. I was about to order my usual tea when one of the waiters walked up and deposited a kushburnu in front of me with a smile. It made me laugh out loud – tessekurler ederim!

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