THE RED RUGS OF TARSUS
ROUND ABOUT TARSUS
Written by Helen Davenport Gibbons and originally published in 1917
April fourth, Nineteen-Nine
I haven’t written since I told you the biggest news a girl can give her mother, and then I was so full of it that I did not answer the questions your letters have been re-iterating for many months. What is Tarsus like? What sort are the people, and your school boys? What do you and Herbert do with yourselves out there in that God-forsaken country? It is precisely because we have been trying to find out all about Tarsus and get to know the people and the boys that I have neglected writing. That is part of the reason. The biggest part has to do with horses. You know how we love to ride—and here we have learned what it really means to ride. It isn’t a genteel afternoon tea parade through a park where every one you meet is as sick of seeing you and the park as you are sick of seeing them and the park. When conventional city folk look at a bird or an animal in a cage, and are sorry for the poor thing, it is only another sign of lack of realization as well as of imagination. With my teas and balls and clothes I was blissfully happy at home: but so was our canary. Neither of us knew any better, for we knew only our prison.
We have been round about Tarsus everywhere, and every day, rain or shine. There is very little of the former. From the moment of our arrival in Mersina last August, aside from an hour or so in the morning of tennis, and an occasional visit to the bazaars, all our out-of-doors has been on horse. We have explored the city and the neighborhood, and have tried the roads on the Plain in every direction. Herbert’s sky-piloting in Idaho gave him a taste for restless stallion mounts, and I encourage it. Mastering horses is training for mastering men. There is nothing in the world better for the teacher than to ride high-spirited horses. The other day we took out a new horse Henri Imer is thinking of buying. We had him from a villager, who declared the horse was in a town for the first time. It was true! For he shied at every little thing. I tried him first, and had great fun making him go through crowded streets and the bazaars. The noise in the copper and tin bazaar drove him wild. But I had him in hand: for Turkish bits give you the hold. He did not like the butcher stalls. Such a time. It cost me ten piastres to the indignant butcher to get the better of the horse. But I did it by making him go straight up and rub his nose in freshly-cut pot-roasts. There was no danger for pedestrians. In Turkey the people are used to camels and horses and buffaloes “acting regardless.” Pedestrians know how to get out of the way.
Coming home, Herbert was trying the fractious beast. We took him around by a water-wheel which we call the “third degree.” It is our final stunt in town-breaking a village horse. The water-wheel stands almost at right-angles with the road. Its little buckets dip up the water and empty some ten feet above into an irrigation trench. The hub of the wheel screeches and the buckets keep up a clank-clank, accompanied by a thud as they go into the water and a sucking sound as they come out. The road is narrow—brook on one side and wall on the other. Over the wall protrude branches of a tree, wrapped round by hanging vines. It is low bridge for fair. Herbert, leaning over the neck of the frightened beast, had all kinds of trouble. We knew the animal had no intention of falling into the stream. Horses don’t. The horse, however, refused to pass the wheel. Each time he backed Pony and me some yards down the road. Finally Herbert lost his whip. It fell into the stream. Herbert looked relieved. But you know, Mother, the elemental in me would not allow me to see a horse get the better of my man. I gave Herbert my whip. He tried again, and got by. Pony, who had long ago received “the third degree” when we first discovered that wheel, followed easily.
Alas, the days of horseback have passed for me until next summer.
The other day we made a second trip to the sea, this time in a carriage. Socrates was on the box, and Herbert was gallant enough to forego his mount and ride with me.
Halfway we stopped at a tchiflik (farm-house) to water the horses and try to buy eggs. Every farmer has half a dozen dogs—ugly fellows that give low growls. They hate you the way their Mohammedan masters hate you. After the tenant of the farm-house had driven back his dogs, he surprised us by showing unusual friendliness. We asked for eggs. He said he had none. This we knew was cheerful mendacity: so we pressed him further. Finally he brought us a whole basket of eggs, saying that he ought not to sell them, because he was supposed to send them all to the town to Pasha Somebody or Other. As we were leaving, we put a coin into his hand. He would not take it! Socrates gave it to a little girl who was apparently the child of the tenant. Some superstition made the father hesitate to take the money directly from us.
Farther along, a lone dead tree twisted itself above the masonry of a typical oriental well of ancient origin. As we stopped our carriage a moment, we saw a solitary owl sitting motionless on a loosened stone. When we drove on, the owl turned his head slowly following us, like a spirit of a forgotten century resenting with superb unconcern the investigating energy of modern times. A flock, no, I ought to call it a whole nation, of wild geese was quietly standing, undisturbed by our approach and arranged in little groups as if according to tribes, although all were facing the same way. They looked like the men of different counties in the same state—drawn up in military line and waiting for orders. Herbert and Socrates growled because they had no guns with them. I was glad that such perfect unity did not have to be broken up just to amuse us.
When we reached the sea the old gray horse wanted to have another roll in the sand. The last time he had seen the sand was the day he tried to roll with me on his back. Socrates unhitched the horses, and soon it was time for luncheon. We settled ourselves on steamer rugs and unpacked our provisions. We had tea made in my tea-basket and cold turkey, the remains of Sunday dinner. When lunch was finished, Herbert and I took a long walk on the beach. It was a blustery day when sunshine alternates with low swiftly-moving clouds. Ahead of us was the town of Mersina, a curved line of mingled flat roofs and slender minarets. A mile out to sea lay half a dozen ships, and we knew that there must be mail for us in Mersina.
After we turned back towards the place where our camp was, we could see beyond it a ramshackle structure, lonely and abandoned now—since the New Constitution. Here used to be stationed a guard—not a Life Saving Guard, such as we should have in a similar place—a guard whose whole duty it was to watch for Armenians, who chose this part of the seashore to escape in small boats. From here it was comparatively easy to get a ship and go away from Turkey forever. There was romance, as well as adventure, in these escapes. A young Armenian found means to go to America, and there made plenty of money. Back here on this Cilician Plain a girl was waiting. The man saved up enough to come back and get the girl. His friends smuggled her out to the ship, a missionary was pressed into service, and a wedding at sea took place. The bride and groom sailed away, returning to New York or Chicago, to live happily ever afterwards. You see the young man had become an American citizen. If he landed on Turkish soil, the new citizenship would have been lost. That is why his bride had to go out to the ship to be married. The guard-house must have frequently intercepted such weddings: for it is built where it commands the coast Mersina-wards.
On the way home we saw a great deal of black smoke. This meant some people were having fun driving wild boar out of the swamps. You get natives for “beaters,” build fires through the canebrake, and then you wait patiently. There is sure to be a reward if your “beaters” don’t take the stick or the shot before you get your spear or your gun ready. The last time we were visiting the British Consul in Mersina, the Doughty-Wylies took us pig-sticking. After making elaborate arrangements, with any number of native “beaters” in tow, the best shot of the day was lost just this way. The “beaters” did not remember that their job was to beat—not to steal shots they were paid to let slip.
It began to rain. But we didn’t care. It was a slanting rain and fortunately dashed against the back of the carriage. We had rugs and coats: so the rain was an addition to the fun. We were careful to protect our driftwood, of which we had gathered enough to make two or three glorious fires. That evening we burned the driftwood, only to be disappointed. Of wonderful colors we got not one flicker. Is this another superstition disproved?
When Herbert writes the letter about Tarsus that he has long been talking about, but never gets down to, he will probably say much about the bazaars. But I am now going to anticipate him. Why not? I have only the typewriter to console me for having to give up my horse. Anyway, we may get away from here and into other things before Herbert tackles Tarsus. I am still waiting to see his letter on the trip he took to the Holy Land1.
There are very few women in the bazaars. None at all are engaged in selling. Turkish ladies never go. Rarely one sees Armenian and Fellahin women buying. When the time came to get Christmas gifts for Herbert, I did the markets with one of the Seniors. It is perfectly proper for me to go to the bazaars. Foreign women are a different order of beings, absolutely beyond the comprehension of the natives. They look at me as if I had dropped from Mars. I suppose they consider me a sexless being, resembling their women only in the lack of a soul. Menfolks in Turkey, you know, have a corner on souls. Herbert and I have a great deal of fun as we walk about Tarsus.
But I was telling you about my Christmas shopping. I took Harutun, my Senior, to the markets half a dozen times. You cannot go to a shop and select the thing you want, then ask the price and have it sent home. Oh, no! You go, and appear to be looking at something else, and let your attention be attracted to the thing you really want—by merest chance. Even then you do not mention this to the merchant. You simply say to your English-speaking boy: “See that little brass bowl in the opposite corner of the shop? I will give him eight piastres for it.” Boy says: “Yes, Mrs. Gibbons,” and you turn up your nose a little higher as the merchant urges upon you the purchase of some other thing you do not intend to buy. You draw yourself up to your full majestic height, incline your head backward the least little bit, raise your hand in a queenly waving aside, give a little click with your tongue, perhaps emphasizing it by exclaiming in good Turkish: “Yok” (which being interpreted means “nothing doing, old man”), and then you indifferently withdraw, followed by your boy. Next day Harutun sends another boy, who gets your brass bowl for about one-quarter the price you’d paid if you had insisted on buying it yourself. That is how shopping is done in the Orient. In this way I got Herbert a fine old copper tray and a queer pitcher-like thing to go with it. I found two coins whose owner did not appreciate them, and these I had made into a pair of cuff-links. A tiny silver cup, about an inch and a half in diameter, with the dearest little carved handle, was the best thing of all. We use it on our desk as a place to keep pens. I pursued a camel-train, and after a great deal of intrigue came into possession of several camel-bells. These are especially interesting to us because they were bought right off the camel. It reminded me of pig-tail days in the Engadine, when I followed a pretty cow home to her owner’s chalet, and bought the bell on her neck.
Tarsus markets are cosmopolitan. You can find a dozen races rubbing elbows there. The predominating four are Turks, Arab Fellahin, Armenians and Greeks. There is a babel of these four tongues. One hears also Russian, Persian, Hindustani and Italian. We manage with French in Mersina, but it is little spoken in Tarsus. The Turkish language rules in inter-racial transactions. Armenians must use this language. Educated Armenians struggle valiantly to maintain the two surviving elements of national identity: the church and the language. But oddly enough the mother-tongue of the average Armenian is Turkish. Greek has a strong hold upon the Greeks here. It is something like the tenacious hold of the French language in Canada. The Fellahin speak a form of Arabic, but are too ignorant to care whether they make themselves understood or not. Some weeks ago Jeanne Imer and I were being carefully escorted through a Fellahin village by one of the students. Suddenly a little boy ran into the road. He took hold of my bridle, looked up at me with a winning smile, and said: “From where you come? From America?” Imagine my surprise. I was delighted to hear my own language away off here in the outskirts of the town. I reached into my coat pocket, pulled out an orange, and gave it to the little fellow. He said “Thank you” most politely. I found afterwards that there is a mission school in the quarter of Tarsus nearest where these people live. The child was evidently a pupil. But wasn’t it cute of him to spot me for an American!
Today my rooms are getting an extra house-cleaning, and I have two boys hard at work. One is washing three of my rugs. He has, as little Cousin Myers used to say, “his bare feet on.” He jumps up and down on the wet, soapy rugs; then pounds them with a big flat stick that looks like a cricket-bat. They are certainly getting clean—though I doubt whether you and I should adopt that method if we had the job. The boys are trying to talk Armenian to each other. They try hard. But they cannot help falling into Turkish. For in this part of Turkey their mother-tongue is the language of their oppressors—the badge of servitude.
Armenians of breeding and education foster their language with all their heart and soul. There is a desperate attempt to preserve the national unity, always with the opposition of the terrible Turks! The Armenians have natural ability along the line of enterprise and making money, but this has been so curbed by the oppressor that even stout hearts have given up and lapsed into a paralysis of the will that would be contemptible if one did not understand it. Under favorable circumstances, when the Armenian has been given a square deal, he is successful. He is a born merchant. This is proved when he goes to another country where his enterprise can have its own way.
We met a fine young fellow in Adana not long ago. He had come home to see about the education of a little sister in the mission school in Adana. He was in America only six years, but has come back thoroughly Americanized, with a lot of money earned as a candy drummer. He is a good example of our young American hustler who is almost blatantly successful. It was refreshing to meet him, for he sounded like home. The appearance of such a man among his old associates causes considerable dissatisfaction, for he has made more money in this short time than his cousins and brothers can make in a lifetime. The educators of Armenian boys have a problem before them. Are they going to educate the boys in order to encourage them to go to America? Isn’t the reason for having the schools to help these people to a better life in their own country? Why educate the bright boys at all, if it is not to equip them to spend their lives for the good of their countrymen? Yet, what can you answer to the pathetic and conclusive argument that the educated Armenian has no chance for advancement, so long as Armenia is under Turkish rule? They really have no chance, the boys with a diploma. They are educated for unhappiness and for danger. We cannot shut our eyes to the fact that after they have been years in our schools, American education fits them for American opportunities, and unfits them for Turkish opportunities. More than this, after we have given them the vision of another kind of national as well as another kind of individual life, they are marked men among the Turks, and are the first to be sought out when a massacre comes. Herbert and I have our misgivings about all this work here. In spite of the heralded liberty of the Constitution, it requires more optimism than we have to believe that Armenians are safer under Young Turks than they were under old Turks.
Bairam means feast. After every religious fast, a bairam. It is an occasion for eating immoderately, and for giving a little pleasure and break in the dull monotony of woman and child life. During the last bairam, in the field of the camel market there was a funny little “merry-go-round” and a crude Ferris wheel, which had hanging wooden cages each big enough to hold four children—if they were small. A beaming brown-faced peasant was taking in the money and bossing the two men who turned the wheel and the merry-go-round. He came up to us, and with real pride in his voice, asked: “Have you anything like this in America?”
On Sunday morning, the classes have their lesson taught in their class-rooms, and then they come together in the assembly-room for the concluding exercises. As these are given in Turkish, Herbert and I do not feel called upon to go. So we commit the heresy of slipping out for a walk. It is a heresy, Mother, to these dear good people. The missionaries have puritanical notions of Sabbath-keeping that are different from anything Herbert and I have ever run across. Of course, we say nothing to the boys. But we often wonder if they think that American life is run on missionary principles. The boys are taught that smoking is a sin. That is only one instance. On Sundays, they are not allowed to leave the college grounds except to go over to the Armenian Protestant Church for the afternoon service. Taking walks is taboo. What do you think of that? We easily forego the smoking. It is a question of example to boys: and we see the reasonableness of the point of view. But we simply cannot stay indoors on these glorious days.
We always take the same Sunday morning walk: for it never fails to interest us. We circle the college grounds, and climb up on a mound, under which Cleopatra’s castle or Sardanapalus’s tomb is supposed to be. There we hear the boys singing. They are wonderful singers, and we love to listen to the familiar hymn tunes. Last Sunday a Moslem wedding was being celebrated at the same time. Men in gay-colored jackets and sashes were moving toward the house where the wedding was taking place: others were already around the door. A native orchestra was playing. The instruments were squeaking reed whistles, two-stringed guitars and drums. You can imagine the music they give forth, when I add that they never get off the minor key. On the flat roof a group of women, veiled and silent, huddled pathetically together. The blending of heathenish music with a Moody and Sankey hymn was indescribable.
Crossing the open space from the mound to the Mersina road, we see ill-kept cattle trying to get grass to keep them from starvation. Sometimes there is a sick or aged horse brought here to die. With all the frightful cruelty to animals everywhere evident, Orientals strangely enough will not kill animals. They do not put out of misery beasts suffering from their neglect and cruelty. This distorted kindness comes to cap the climax of misery for patient burden-bearers broken with toil. When an animal falls by the roadside, and the owner cannot whip or kick it into going farther, he just leaves it there. In riding we see frequently the remains of a camel or a horse. In spite of wanting to avoid the offense to nostrils as well as the struggle with a mount shying for good reason, we have to pass by. For the carcass is generally right alongside the road, and we cannot always make a detour through the fields. Filthy jackals skulk away at our approach, howling in savage protest and yet trembling with fear of us.
We pass out of the town to the Mersina road under an interesting arch, called St. Paul’s gate. It is one of the gates of the old walled city, but whether it is of Roman, Byzantine or Arabic origin it is impossible to tell. In Tarsus and all around Tarsus there are numerous archeological remains. But they have been so defaced and mutilated and built over that it is hard to get any idea at all of the original construction. The natives declare that the Mersina gate was built by Harun-al-Rashid, hero of the Arabian Nights. Harun’s walls did pass at this point, and the city has never gone beyond. A few yards outside the gate, we are in a Fellahin village. Between two of the reed huts is a mud oven, patted into oval form, baked outside by the sun and inside by a fire of grass. When we pass, the women are always making bread. The whole operation is before your eyes. The wheat is threshed out of its stalks and winnowed, and ground in a stone basin with a huge pestle of iron or copper. The coarse flour is mixed with water, and kneaded in pats about as big as my hand. These are passed to an old hag, who quickly flattens them out on a board, using her forearm as rolling-pin. They are put in the oven with sticks. Two or three minutes—and you have your bread. It is not in loaves. Think of a griddle-cake nine inches in diameter, or something even thinner than a griddle-cake, and you have the Fellahin bread. It is splendid wrapping paper. When there are no fig-leaves at hand, the peasants give you butter and cheese done up in bread.
The Cydnus River runs through and around Tarsus in a dozen branches, all of which do the quadruple service of mill races, drinking troughs for man and beast, washing places for man and beast and carriage and clothes, and irrigation ditches. There is plenty of water and it runs so fast that there is always time for it to get clean for the user below. Tarsus is full of mills: cotton, sesame, flour and sawmills. One of the largest cotton-mills—for ginning and weaving both—is on the Mersina road. Here we stop to watch and tease the turtles in the mill-race. They are lined up on the bank, generation after generation of them—like a family group for a photograph in New England (of the old days only, alas!). The timid ones flop into the water at our approach. Most of them, however, are insolently indifferent. Our idea is to make them all “vamoose.” We throw pieces of sugar-cane at them, and Herbert, everlasting kid, is not satisfied until only ungraceful claws, wildly waving above the surface of the water, reveal where the sprawling creatures have taken refuge. Not a head dares appear: for Herbert is near baseball days, and sugar-cane is heavy enough to carry straight. In the wider water beyond the mill, we frequently see long shapeless ridges of brown-black shifting lazily about, moving just enough to show that they are not mud-banks. A rude cart stands on the edge of the stream and on its pole is fastened a double-yoke. Those ridges are the buffaloes that belong to the cart. The lumbering beasts sway back and forth through the streets dragging incredibly high and heavy loads of cotton-bales to the railroad. Occasionally they are unhitched and allowed to get into the water for a rest and a bath. There they lie in the gray mud, absolutely relaxed, languidly flapping their ears to splash water on their heads.
Our walk ends at the bridge half a mile beyond the cotton factory. West of the bridge the Adana-Mersina road enters the great Cilician Plain once more after the long break of Tarsus and its suburbs. Half a dozen broken places in this bridge are a constant menace to horse and camel. It keeps getting worse and worse. An enormous traffic passes over it: but does any one think of mending it? They will wait until it falls down. The motto of this country is every man for himself. There is no public spirit—no idea of the common weal. One is moved only by what affects him directly, and acts only for what he believes is his interest. But none sees farther than immediate interest. To-morrow is in God’s hands. The Young Turk régime, on which we see the American newspapers and magazines publishing extravagant eulogies—how will it succeed? The governing classes in Islam cannot be regenerated until Islam is imbued with a different spirit—self-sacrifice, initiative, thought of the future.
Every day we look out of our window to see what there is to see. This is no idle curiosity or idle waste of time—there is always some sight to be memorized, visualized, and tucked away in your mind for future reference. A little group of haggard, prematurely old women, with veils over their heads, and tall green or terra-cotta water-bottles on their bent shoulders, passes by. The women of the poor wear shabby black bloomers, shoes without stockings, gay-colored blouses open at the throat, and on their heads veils made of cheesecloth. One corner of the veil they hold in their teeth, so that but half of their hopelessly tired, haunting, unhappy faces can be seen. Only the children and the men look happy at all. Very early the lines of care and cruelty are indelibly penciled upon girl-faces. Half a dozen horses bravely struggle along under the weight of an odd-looking burden: the bakeries here burn in their ovens green branches of a kind of resinous bush that grows in the foot-hills and mountains. The bush is gathered and bound into rough bundles, and put in bulging loads on the groaning pack-saddles of uncomplaining horses. The horse is hidden in his leafy burden. A passing train looks like a moving forest. One could believe Shakespeare had been here to get the idea of the Burnham beeches moving to Dunsinane!
Childish voices call up hopefully: “Madama.” I see sometimes as many as a dozen children holding out their hands. Some girls have tiny babies strapped to their backs. I go to the window armed with savory ammunition, and before I know it these fascinating young ones have charmed away all my store of dates and figs and candies from the last day in Mersina.
If you look higher than the street you see a sky-line that leads from flat grass-topped roofs, through the town, up to the foot-hills. Domes mean mosques, when flanked by minarets. The minarets are tall, slender and pointed at the top. Where the cone begins, a door opens to a small iron-railed ledge, and here it is that the muezzin walks when he sings the chant that calls the faithful to prayer. You know as you look at these minarets at the hour of prayer that men are lying prostrate before each of the mosques, and more men are grouped around the city fountains washing their feet in preparation for prayer. It is not pleasant to think of the curse against “infidels” in the call to prayer—even if the muezzin has a sweet voice that rings out over the houses and comes to you mingled with the sweeter voice of the muezzin in a more distant minaret.
Away to the left are the beloved Taurus mountains. They are never-failing—and we look at them with new eyes every day. As we go down to breakfast, we stop just a minute to see the color and outline of these old friends. We can distinguish the pass that leads to Namrun—and often in the moonlight we think of the lovely night last autumn when we rode into Tarsus while the deep rich bell of the clock-tower was ringing. The clock strikes the hour, then after a pause of two minutes repeats it. Splendid idea: for you can check up on your first count.
A whole letter could be written about what we see from the windows. Whatever I write, the culmination, the climax, must be the camels. They are the best of all “sights” to me. The first I saw were in Smyrna, or rather just outside of Smyrna, taking refuge under a clump of trees from the noon-day sun. It was a group of at least thirty, the most camels I had ever seen together in my life. I wanted then to stop, but we were en route for Polycarp’s tomb, and had only a few hours ashore. Now I have camels to my heart’s delight and satisfaction. But never enough! Our street is one of the roads to the market-place. During the autumn, when much wood and cotton was being transported, camels passed under my window every morning. About six o’clock they began. Train after train wound slowly along. The camels travel single file, fastened from saddle to saddle.
Until I came to Turkey, I had seen few camels outside of a Zoo. The only loose one I remember is the camel ridden in Paris by the beggar that used to haunt the Place Saint-Michel. No two camels are alike. In a hundred that pass, each is different from the one ahead, very different. Camels are just as different as people. They are dark brown, tawny brown, on and on through the various shades up to the palest tan. The colors run from that one gets from polishing russet shoes with the black shoe brush to that produced by whitewashing a dust-covered wall. The shades are the echoes of the blending shifting tones of desert sand. The wide cushioned foot speaks fervently of the silence and patience of the camel’s journeyings to and fro. The camel’s eye is sorrowful. His air is supercilious, as if his claim to aristocracy among animals was forever settled by the fact that he was the favorite of Mohammed.