A Cup of Turkish Coffee

“A single cup of Turkish coffee can create a friendship that lasts for 40 years.”

Potent stuff that Turkish coffee.

Early in the school year, I invited my son’s preschool class over for a play date, hoping to get to know the parents and children.  Not many people showed up, but one of the mothers who attended was Turkish.  Her child was learning English, and she hoped to find some American playmates for him to practice speaking with.

R was visibly pregnant, and I inquired as to if she would have help when her child was born.  She told me about the large Turkish community in Phoenix.  They would assist the family by preparing meals, and helping in the home.  But she might need some help getting her son back and forth to preschool.  I offered to drive him.  From that encounter, we became friends.

I was curious about R.  I was raised in a rural ranching community in CO.  She was perhaps the first Turkish person I had ever met.

The most pronounced physical difference between us is our style of dress.  I dress for the blistering Phoenix heat- shorts and t-shirts.  R wears a veil to cover her head, and long sleeves and pants. I know almost nothing about this practice.  Is it a religious custom?  A sign of respect to her husband?  A requirement? A choice?

Prior to the birth of her child, R had been a math teacher.  She was hoping to earn her Master’s Degree while staying home with her baby.  She related a conversation with her husband reminding him that he needed to watch the kids, while she went to a gathering with friends.  Her life didn’t sound so different than mine.  To look at us, we might appear as polar opposites, but our lives were very similar.  We were both mothers of young children, trying to balance our family commitments while also educating ourselves for future careers.

This past week, R invited the preschool class over for Turkish tea.  I was surprised to see her out of the veil upon entering her home, but she explained she only wore it in public.  She was stylishly dressed in ballet flats, pants, a cute top, and large earrings.

I had no idea that “tea” implied partaking in a full meal.  She prepared a bulgar salad, homemade bread, baklava, and Turkish tea.  As I selected a roll, I noted the size of the pan.  I had no such pan.  It was huge- easily holding twenty to thirty rolls.  I don’t know if it is the Turkish culture or R’s personality, but I could tell from the pan she was used to feeding a crowd.

As I was leaving the tea party, R invited me to a ladies’ coffee night at the Turkish cultural center a few days later.  A Yale-educated professor would be leading a discussion about body image.  A devote feminist, my curiosity was piqued.  I told R that I would attend.

I entered the center a few days later, and was again met with an abundance of food.  The tables were loaded with plates of couscous, potato salads, rice pudding, cinnamon pastries, bread, and other Turkish dishes, all home made.  I chose a table and sat down.

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A few minutes later, a woman came around with a tray of coffee and offered me a cup.  The coffee was strong and sweet, served in a delicate cup and matching saucer.

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The first item on the agenda was to explain the significance and history behind Turkish coffee. Hundreds of years ago, coffee was a precious commodity.  To be offered a cup was to show your value.  But drinking coffee also provides important social cues.  Coffee is served with a cup of water.  If the water is sipped first, it shows the host or hostess that the guest is hungry and food should be prepared.  If the guest partakes in the coffee first, it signals he is full.

My favorite part of the night was when R advised it was customary to ask guests if they liked more sugar or less in their coffee, and then revealed no matter how they answered she prepared all the coffee the same way.  R is respectful but also practical- she will acknowledge the custom of asking, but it would take far too long to prepare coffee for every individual taste.

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The professor launched in to a discussion and slideshow on body issues.  Much of it was familiar to me- anorexic models gracing the runways, standards of beauty becoming more demanding over time.  But she also showed us a commercial for a product called “Fair and Lovely.” In the ad,  a woman with a darker complexion tries to apply for a job.  The fair complected woman behind the counter gives her the “You? Are you serious?” look, and the applicant leaves in shame.  Her father gives her Fair and Lovely to apply.  Her skin not only transforms to a lighter shade, but her appearance changes as well.  She becomes glamorous and sophisticated.  We see her stepping off an airplane, now a jetsetter, all thanks to Fair and Lovely.

I was dumbstruck.  I guess no matter where you are from, women have unattainable standards to achieve.

At the end of the speech was a Q and A.  I inquired as to if the veil and modest outfits provide Turkish women with less of a worry about body image.  I was relieved and saddened to find out that Turkish women have the same concerns I do.

The speech ended and the women began to eat.  I was seated next to another American woman.  We commented on how our last few gatherings have not illustrated such preparation.  It seemed almost like a lost art or a throwback to a different time.   I felt honored to be a guest at such a magnificent feast.

When I moved to Arizona, I took cookies around to all our neighbors as a way of introduction.  Everyone thanked me and they were all very nice.  But the effort was rarely reciprocated.  We all drive into our garages, shut the doors, go into our air-conditioned houses, and act as if the outside world doesn’t exist.  I found the Ladies coffee night to be a reminder of a time when people wanted to know each other.  They didn’t want to see a blurb on Twitter from an acquaintance hundreds of miles away.  They sought to build communities and make strangers into friends.

The last custom I learned about Turkish coffee is that when you are finished with your drink, you place the saucer on the top, and flip the whole thing upside down.  In Turkey, a fortune teller would look at the patterns of my coffee granules, and tell me my future.  There was no such specialist available, so I had to guess at my own fortune.  But I noticed that my granules formed many paths down the side of my cup.  I like to think it means that I will be attending multiple gatherings at the center.

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I left warm from the coffee, the food, and the abundance of effort to welcome me as a friend.

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