Ezan: Istanbul, 1988

The çay boys were everywhere, steel trays rattling with glasses, amber liquid thin with rain and always on the run. They had what everybody needed. Rug sellers stood in doorways under signs offering Real Turkish Goods and they called to us, ‘Come, come!  I have tea, ep-ple tea, I get you soda if you want.’  Everything was coal dust and diesel and the smell of damp wool.

If we did enter a shop, a boy and his tray followed close behind, and the shopman deftly removed three glasses. ‘Please’—holding two out to us with fingers callused to the heat, smiling and retreating to draw us farther in while the boy disappeared to his next destination.

Not long ago, I’d graduated from college.  I’d majored in French, then worked at an insurance brokerage. B had studied anthropology and worked at the jail. Now we stood with thin, hot glasses burning our fingers in the twilight of a shop where rugs were piled three or four or five feet high, while the seller worked his way down a stack to show us the quality: the density of the knots on the back of one flipped-up corner, the intricacy of design on the soft front.

You want carpet, kilim, prayer rug? Such hopeful smiles, as if we carried all the wealth of our country in our sagging black fanny packs.

They spoke French or German but rarely English; they had been Gastarbeiter in Europe. They spoke to B because he was the man, and I translated because I knew those languages. I was invisible, being female, but necessary. I also managed a few Turkish phrases such as Kaş lira (How many lira?) and Çarşi nerede (Where is the market?).

It was always too many for us.

After a while the salesmen stopped displaying the rugs. Instead they sat down on a pile of their wares and sipped tea and asked questions. They wanted to practice their English.

They asked, Where you come from, Why you like Turkey, What your parents are professionally doctors, lawyers, You have many carpet in your home? Or you like fine clay vase and gold jewelry to bring to your mother? My cousin, he has another shop …

Five times a day, the call to prayer broadcast through a hundred loudspeakers made everything stop for a moment. Even us. God is great.  There is no god but Allah and his prophet is Mohammed.

At first the ezan was startling, then beautiful, finally grating. Or no—finally unnoticeable, just part of our moment in life. Our early twenties, the late 1980s, the last time we ever told ourselves we would have enough time both to see the world and to figure out how to afford it.

When we left a shop sans carpet, the smudgy glasses returned light and empty to a passing urchin’s rattling steel tray, to travel to a back room where they could be refilled. If we looked back, the carpet seller was never watching us, never wistful.  Instead he stood under the sign promising Real Turkish Goods, counting on a string of red cedar beads. Eyes out for the next tourists to come along and share a glass of the tea already steaming again through the maze of streets.

About the contributor

Susann Cokal's novels are The Kingdom of Little Wounds (winner of several national awards), Mirabilis, Breath and Bones, and Mermaid Moon. Her prize-winning short work has appeared in venues such as Electric Lit, Cincinnati Review, Prairie Schooner, The Journal, and The New York Times Book Review. Her website is susanncokal.net.

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