Sunday, April 19

East And West

I was walking home and saw a curious clock tower in the near distance. I started toward it but slowed to a stop when I saw a small shop's window, displaying beaded jewelry and several action figures of dancing men wearing tall, black fezzes.

The store was lined with books in Arabic and Turkish, so they looked to me the way English had when I was very young. There were rotating stands with beaded key chains and rearview mirror ornaments, with colored beads arranged to spell out years like, "1907" and "1967". If these years marked a bloody revolution or extremely holy occurrence that I hadn't learned about in high school, I feared I would not be permitted to buy them.

As I considered leaving, the shop's proprietor approached me holding a glass cup and dish set with hot tea, a tiny spoon, and a big sugar cube. I was shy to accept but it's extremely difficult to turn down free tea. He led me to a table near the back of the store where a girl was sitting with her own cup of tea and a small notebook. She was wearing a black veil around her hair and neck and was cradling a strand of thick beads in her left hand. I worried that she was a fortune teller, that I had been lead there to be swindled. I began making forced comments about not having money and needing to go to the bank. She shrugged and recalled a bank someplace nearby.

I sipped the tea and it was excellent, a cross between brown rice and oolong but obviously containing neither. There were clocks on a wall next to us, and they too were intricately beaded and detailed with "1907" and pictures of lions and roses. I asked the girl what they signified, and she said she didn't know, "maybe something from Turkey's history." There was a hallway stemming from the back of the store to an assumed storage closet, and the proprietor had walked back there. She followed after him to ask about the clocks for me.
"They're for football clubs, and the years they were started," she explained, "and they're 75 and 95." She sat down again, picked up her beads, and then asked me about myself.

She is studying at the Sorbonne but hasn't had a class since January. She's learning Norwegian languages but doubts any possible related-jobs in Paris. She drives a motorcycle and just passed her car-driving test and although she's half-Turkish, she's never been to Turkey.
"This summer, I hope, we'll all go in a car."
I began fantasizing about our new friendship. I had left my phone at home, and had never memorized my Parisian phone number, but surely I could write down her phone number and give her my email address. We could ride on her motorbike to the Louvre and walk past all of the tourists, the most heart-warming combination of East and West. And when I go back to America, we could remain penpals, alternating between handwriting letters in English and Swedish.
"I have to go into the back and pray now," she said, looking at her phone. "We usually pray at two-thirty but the, the mosquée was closed. I'll be right back."
I could come here everyday at three. She could talk to me about the female-Muslim lifestyle, and I could tell her about the wild American-atheist persuasion. Best not to tell her I'm Greek yet, I thought.

While she was gone, I picked up a catalog filled with ads for Turkish establishments in Paris and hummed the only parts I know from "We are the World." A boy with his own set of beads came into the shop and sat down at the table. He helped himself to some tea as well and explained that he lived just around the block. He better explained to me that the shop was a relaxing French-Muslim hangout, where members of the community could come and buy books and listen to Pure Moods-esque ney music [Turkish reed flute].

My new Best Arab Friend Forever came back and greeted the guy who had come in. They were already acquainted well enough and began speaking to each other very quickly in one of the languages I don't know. Then she turned to me and asked, "Did you go to the bank yet?"
"Ah, no, not yet," I said to her good idea.
She turned back to the guy and they continued talking. They were laughing at things that the other said and I realized I hadn't been laughing at all since I'd sat down. And neither had she. When there was a break in their conversation I announced that I was going to the bank. She looked at me as if she hadn't understood me, and then asked the guy for clarification.
"Oh yes," she said, remembering now. "Okay."

The proprietor had told me where a bank was, but upon following his instructions, I ended up on a street where I knew there are only shoe stores and cafes. I walked back around the block, and then considered not going back to the store at all.
I've got it, I thought. I'll go shopping for food or something, take a really long time, and then go back. They'll have assumed that I wouldn't return, and mourn me, and then when I do return they'll have a rejuvenated interest in being my friend!

I followed my plan. I bought petrified duck eggs and rice noodles that are too thick for me to properly prepare, pre-popped popcorn, Israeli lemon cookies, and a bushel of asparagus, most of which came from different markets. I came back to the Turkish shop, having lost a lot of the money that I had taken out, and found that my friend and her friend were still chatting excitedly. The store had filled with young boys who were fingering and then dropping and leaving on the floor the beaded soccer club trifles that had originally interested me. I picked up the largest one and brought it to the register.

The piece is a yellow, beaded diamond-shape, with beaded tassels hanging from the bottom. The top reads MASALLAH in beads, under which are two, three-dimensional beaded birds, with beaded strings hanging from their beaded beaks. Under the birds are the numbers 1, 9, 0, 7.
I somehow understood the proprietor, who was speaking to me in Turkish, but a man behind me in line was also translating everything he said into English, just to assure me that I was right. "All of the beaded crafts in the store were made by people in prison," said the translator. "The prisoners just make beaded crafts and smoke cigarettes all day."

I walked back to the tea table with my new possession. Nobody looked up until I held out the MASALLAH and whispered, "Look." I continued to stand, waited for another break in their conversation, and then said goodbye.

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