THE RED RUGS OF TARSUS
A VISIT TO ADANA
Written by Helen Davenport Gibbons and originally published in 1917
You know how I love week-end visits. I used to put Uncle John’s Christmas check into a hundred-trip ticket between Bryn Mawr and Philadelphia: so that if my allowance ran low I could get away from college over Sunday anyway.
Week-end visits here are really not had at all. There is no hotel in this town. Characteristically, Daddy Christie has the office force at the station pilot foreigners coming to Tarsus straight to St. Paul’s College, no matter what orders they gave. A variety of folks wash up on our beach. A dignified professor with a little group of Oxford men bound for the interior to prove on the ground that there are villages back in the Taurus where ancient Greek persists unadulterated to this day, came back a few weeks later, faces beaming with the grin research scholars wear when they have it on the other authorities. Another group of men said they were travelers. Americans of the Far West they certainly were. We couldn’t make out much else at first. Their leader sat next to me at lunch, and was so extraordinarily reticent, when, in trying to make conversation, I asked him about his family, that I commented upon it afterwards to Herbert and Dr. Christie. Later we learned that they were Mormon missionaries. Dear Dr. Deissmann, with others from the University of Berlin, spent two days with us on their journey in the footsteps of Saint Paul. He is gathering material for a book that will make a stir in the world. He spoke before the boys, in excellent English—what linguists Germans are!–and the college orchestra responded with Die Wacht am Rhein. It was a noble effort, and the Herr Professor was good enough to beam and applaud.
Week-ends would indeed be dull were it not for visits exchanged up and down the railway by missionaries in Mersina, Tarsus and Adana. A new person at any of the three stations is very soon invited to make week-end visits. Early in the autumn, Miss X arrived at Adana. When she made her first visit to Tarsus, Herbert and I invited her to have coffee in our study one Saturday evening. Kind of cosy, sitting in front of our fire, and she loosened up and told us that there was just one thing that troubled her in Adana. That was the Swiss teacher of French at the Girls’ Boarding School, who said she was much relieved to find that the new-comer understood a little French, “Because, my dear, it is important for me to safeguard my English. You see I cannot risk catching your American accent.”
Mother, I was mad as a hornet, and what I did proves that I am no good as a missionary. We told Miss X that when this petty persecution was being carried on, she was to be like B’rer Rabbit, and “jes’ keep on sayin’ nothin’.” When the Swiss teacher came for a week-end, we invited her for coffee. As she settled herself before our fire, she said engagingly: “Now you must speak French with me. Take every chance you can for practice.” “Thank you, Mademoiselle,” I answered, “we should rather speak English. We are going to live in Paris, you know, and don’t dare risk catching your Swiss accent.” No, Mother dear, that wasn’t like a missionary, was it? I am not sorry I said it. When I went to Adana, Miss X told me that the teasing had suddenly ceased after Mademoiselle’s Tarsus visit.
Mrs. Nesbit Chambers invited me to spend a whole week with her. Herbert was to come over the following Sunday to bring me home. The train conductor who speaks passable French gave up to me his own private compartment. Some weeks since, I should have been aghast at the thought of going off all alone in Turkey and in Asia on such a queer train, with outlandish fellow travelers, to a place where I had never been. But things become familiar to one in a very short time. It seemed almost as natural as South Station, Broad Street, Grand Central, Trenton, Princeton, New Haven, Annapolis or Bryn Mawr—a year ago my whole world.
After the train pulled out of Tarsus, I felt that I had my nerve with me. But I was too interested in what I saw from the window to occupy my mind regretting that I had not waited until Herbert could come with me. The uncle of Krikor Effendi’s bride (I mean the conductor) was most polite, and left me alone in his reserved compartment. At the first station an old brigand got off with a brilliant red tangled rug on his shoulder. I recognized it as the Cretan rug we had been bargaining for. Evidently he had not been able to get his price in Tarsus. A Turk on horse came up to meet the train. The horse jumped around so that his saddle turned. The man fell off safely, but his friends were still struggling to turn the saddle straight when we tooted on. At another station, a shiny tinned trunk, just like a big doll’s trunk made in Germany, was dumped off. Two husky Kurds picked it up, and carried it to a turbaned Hodja on a tall white horse, who put the trunk in front of him on the saddle, and started off at a run across the plain. After an hour I became cold, and was glad I had my steamer rug.
At Adana, a polite individual asked me whether he could find a carriage for me. I told him Mrs. Chambers would come. He said to wait right there. I stood on the platform in the midst of the most variegated crowd I had ever seen—even in the Tarsus bazaars. The whole town was either getting off the train or had come to meet friends. Some day the Bagdad Railway will go on from here. But now this is the terminus of the line from Mersina, and there is none yet across the Taurus to Konia.
I was glad to see Mrs. Chambers coming. We rode up to her house in an open carriage. I did not want the top up, in spite of the cold. It was all so new and strange to me. The arabadjis (drivers) in Turkey are sons of Jehu. Carriages are the only things I have found yet that move fast. You cannot help being nervous about running people down. It never happens, though.
When I was once indoors I had no desire to take off my sweater or my long coat. My nose and ears were as numb as fingers and toes. Mrs. Chambers gave me two cups of hot tea and I felt better. She took me into her guest room, and cautioned me to be careful about the bedspread. “I keep it for special people,” she explained, “like the British Consul’s wife and you. But that is no reason why either of you should fail to be careful of it, for it is the best thing I have.” The crockery washstand took my eye. It was dark green from basin to tooth-mug.
During the few minutes before supper we climbed up on the roof for the red winter sunset. The Chamberses live in the heart of the Armenian quarter on the top of the hill. Quite a change after flat Tarsus. The Armenians have to go to the river to get their water. What a back-breaking job for the women! They carry tall jars on their shoulders. We could see the mountains behind Alexandretta in Syria very plainly. There was snow on the summits.
The Girls’ School of the Mission is run by women-folks. I went over there for a meal, and had a look at the teachers and the pupils. When I saw the girls all collected in the schoolroom, they seemed to me infinitely pathetic. They are mostly Armenians. In spite of the curves and glow and bloom of their youth, they look like little women. Perhaps it is because of the sadness that lurks in their eyes. What chance have girls in this country anyway? Ought we not to wait until the country is changed politically before we bring them up to live in our sort of a world?
In Tarsus the houses are mostly of stone, because the moderns have used the remains right at hand for successive rebuilding through centuries. The ancient city, in Roman Imperial days, was so large that it is an inexhaustible quarry. Modern Adana, on the other hand, is much larger than the ancient city, and Roman stone gave out long ago. You never hear of the Turks going to the trouble of stone-cutting. Where they are not able to utilize the labor of past ages, they build for the day. Consequently, Adana is a city of wood, totally unlike Tarsus. This, with the hill, and the big river right in the town, makes Adana more picturesque. The background of mountains and rich plain is the same, however. Turkish wooden houses are built haphazard, with no idea of architecture, and they are never repaired. All except the new ones look as if they were just about to fall down. Many are falling down. Holes are patched with new boards or more frequently with flattened-out petroleum tins. Balconies are stayed with props. When the inevitable day of collapse arrives, the Turks thank Allah that the catastrophe did not happen sooner, and praise Allah’s mercy in giving them firewood for next winter. A mass of wooden houses in Turkey makes an ensemble of brown, of different shades, depending upon the age of the house. The Turks do not paint: for they calculate that a house will last at least as long as the man who built it. The next generation can look after itself.
Oriental houses are reticent, like the women who live in them. They are meant for animals and women, the animals on the ground floor and the women upstairs—both created and kept in captivity to work for man. You can tell a Christian from a Moslem house from the fact that the Moslems put lattice-work over the windows. Otherwise they are the same. While Christians do not seclude their women, they have nearly the same ideas about making them work.
Miss Hallie Wallis has her home and dispensary near the Girls’ School, in a house built with a blind wall toward the street, and windows opening only on the court. Within the court an outside stairway, mounting to the balcony, leads to the living part of the house. When I went to call, I got into the hospital side. Miss Wallis popped out of her office to receive me and led me into a waiting-room which, although furnished only with a few carpets and divans sporting wide-meshed native crochet tidies, was cozy. At the door were the patients’ wooden clogs. In one corner a soft-voiced Armenian Bible woman was talking with an elderly blind woman and a little blind boy. These people were in their stocking feet, and although I knew it was the native custom, I felt that they had left their clogs at the door out of respect to Miss Hallie’s spotless rooms. Miss Wallis gently divined fatigue that I didn’t know was there. In a few minutes, although it was mid-morning, there was a steaming cup of tea and the paper-thin slices of bread and butter that can be made only by an Englishwoman.
The Armenian doctor asked me to take a look at the work. He gave me a high stool near his operating table. The hours of the morning flew as I watched the tender skilful handling of the cases, one after another. This is the only real medical care the people of Adana receive—and it is a city of sixty thousand! I saw eighty-seven people come and go. Of these fifty-eight were eye cases. Miss Wallis has books for the blind, and a Bible woman who does nothing else but read to them. She is a thorough-going saint, this Miss Wallis, a gentle, tireless saint. How many women there are in the world, women of means, of brains and position, who, in unawakened stolidity, live wasted lives! They belong to the army of the unemployed just as much as bums and hoboes. Some unmarried women, middle-aged ones, feel a little bitter as they look upon their married sisters’ lives. That is because they are not working. Here is a woman who, by self-abnegation and glad assumption of responsibility, has the richness of life and the wide full satisfaction a mother feels in doing for her brood of children. Mothers haven’t really a corner on contentment and blessedness. The most common examples of unselfishness and happiness that we see about us are the mothers. But there is opportunity for all women to become happy through service, and thus taste the joy of motherhood. Think of the many unmothered people in the world, both kids and grown-ups, that cry out for woman-souls to shelter and minister to them.
When we finished the morning’s work in the clinic, Miss Wallis went with me to lunch at Mrs. Chambers’. As we walked along the street, a haggard old woman stopped us, clutching at a fold of Miss Wallis’s coat. “Please tell me,” came the rapid question, “why you are so happy? I have seen people who looked as happy as you do, but never before two women each one happier than the other. Can you tell me why? Are you sisters?” “Yes, yes,” said Miss Wallis, “we are sisters. God is love, Madama and you and I are his children, and so we are sisters.” Miss Wallis stopped right there to explain further. Before we went on our way the old woman heard the Good News the missionaries come here to tell, and she hobbled away happy because she was a sister to somebody who was happy.
I fell in love with the green pitcher and basin in my bedroom. Mrs. Chambers took me to the pottery. In a cellar, without much light, the potter was working at his wheel. He was making an amphora of the common kind women and donkeys carry to the fountains. His right arm was inside the jar. He worked the wheel with his foot, and with his left hand guided the rude uneven course of the paddle-like affair which was molding a lump of clay into shape. With the very slightest pressure, the potter was able to change radically the contour of the clay. It was the first time I had ever seen the Potter and the Wheel. I understood.
In the courtyard was a scrap heap piled high with all sorts of broken and rain-soaked bits of discarded vessels. I spotted a little squat vase, just my color of green. You know the soft shade the under side of apple leaves take on when you lie in a hammock under the apple-tree and half close your eyes as you look up at the sky on a cloudy day in spring. Kicking aside the debris with my foot, I pulled out the vase by its uncovered handle. The other handle was safe. Rough lines, grooved by the potter’s will, had dried into the lovely thing before it was polished, and the glaze added by the fire must have been weather-worn in this old courtyard for more years than I am old. There was a slight depression, left by the potter’s thumb, on the bottom of the vase. A police magistrate could have made a thumb-print from it. I bought the vase for two cents. It is my most precious possession.