The way it was: Turkish delights before dinner

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

In my village I often see people riding a bicycle on a frosty morning, with their head and torsos wrapped in a blanket, paddling away in beach slippers. The hairy legs are virtually naked and other essential endowments are exposed to piercing drafts, because the dhoti has been tucked up to keep it clear of the greasy bicycle chain

They strode in to the beat of marshal music, instantly seizing the audience with their measured gait. The awesome Mongol hordes could not have made a stronger impact when riding into Baghdad. The Turkish ambassador to Pakistan said Lahore had been conquered again. Tracing history through the Mughals he reminded the dazed audience that it was the second time the Turks were in the Lahore Fort. Fortunately, this time there were no bloody arguments. Everyone present at the Shahi Qila willingly surrendered to the ‘Timeless Heritage’ from the shores of Bosphorus, the mesmerising charm of the ‘supermodels’ from Turkey.

The models presented an endless array of costumes designed by Madam Zubal Yorgancioghu, popularly, and understandably, known as Madam Zee. Her creations are inspired by Ottoman and Turk apparel and motifs and the embroidered patterns and apparel span the various periods through which Turkey has progressed, from the days of the Ottoman sultans to the modern times. Her inspiration draws upon the folk arts of Anatolia, which was a melting pot of many civilisations, as well as the Harem at Topkapi, where “most exceptional, powerful, ambitious and beautiful women resided wearing long silk dresses embroidered with gold and silver...ruling by letting be ruled.” Most women today just like to rule without letting anyone rule them. What a pity!

The evening was a magical display of femininity adorned with majestic costumes. Turkish embroidery and patterns are vivacious in comparison with the aesthetically restrained Iranian handiwork. Iranian crafts are impeccable to a degree where they become cold. When the Turkish and Persian arts and crafts mingled with the ways of our region, a synthesis was achieved that expressed richer aesthetics, warmth and diversity. The Turkish ambassador of course rightly pointed out that we in South Asia have a longstanding association with Anatolia and Central Asia. After the show he asked the audience, “Now you know from where you got your Shalwar!” Actually we have inherited and accepted many other influences from the Turks, besides the baggy trousers and the hukkah, which the ambassador forgot to mention. We can see Turkish influences in painting, music (many of our raags have Turkic origin), dance (Kathak is an example), architecture (the arch and the dome) and other arts and crafts, including of course the state administration.

But Turkish delights for me go a long way back, much before the stunning Turkish ladies forced us into voluntary submission through their aesthetic invasion. I have admired the Turks since my grandfather narrated to me the events of the 1915 Battle of Gallipoli where Attaturk, leading the Turkish forces, decimated the allied forces and sank the entire invading British Fleet. However several years later, in the winter of 1964, when I crossed over from Greece to Turkey, it was not without some anxiety. My wife and I, and my parents who were also travelling with us from London, stood in a queue at the Turkish border. Tired, cold and fatigued we waited for our turn to present the passports, which we held in our hand. The rather plump young immigration officer, sitting out in the cold was not impressed by the long queue and worked at his own leisure. Skimming through passports was taking longer than it would take to get a punctured tire fixed. None of us was suitably clad for the low temperatures. (Actually, have you ever seen a Pakistani suitably clad for winter?) I have seen our ladies in freezing temperatures wearing Hawaii chappals! In my village I often see people riding a cycle on a frosty morning, with their head and torsos wrapped in a blanket, paddling away in beach slippers. The hairy legs are virtually naked and other essential endowments are exposed to piercing drafts, because the dhoti has been tucked up to keep it clear of the greasy cycle chain. But let’s not quibble too much on that score; one cannot be too careful in a rural landscape.

Here’s a digression but I can’t resist telling you this. It was several years ago, in autumn (or as the Americans say, the fall), I was happily driving along on a dirt road along the Gugera canal not far from Okara, when I sighted a resourceful country gentleman with a charpoi balanced on his head, cycling in my direction. As soon as he saw the car approach him, I noticed he became a little unsteady. Knowing what my country brother was capable of accomplishing, I veered the car to the very edge of the road and turned off the engine. There was a steep slope beyond; otherwise I would have given the entire road to him. In order not to disturb him in any way, I switched off the engine and looked away from the approaching danger pretending to be engaged in counting leaves of a tree. By the time my friend had come within a few yards, he became visibly agitated. Everything had gone awry. The charpoi was out of balance; the cycle was out of control. Pulling and pushing the handle with one hand would not steady it. He found the best course open to him to save himself was to jump onto the car’s bonnet, with the bed on his head. The cycle unceremoniously abandoned in that process followed him and collapsed after colliding with the front-grill. You may be amused? But I was not, at least not at the time. I suppose it was my fault. I should not have been there in the first place or should have demonstrated a better presence of mind by jumping into the canal, the moment I sighted him.

To be fair every person is armed differently. It is amazing to see the ease with which a farmer can work with his tools. How easily he can climb tall trees and prune branches. Give him a cup resting on a saucer and he freezes. He will not be able to move a step without making rattling sounds; spilling more than half by the time he reaches the person who was to be its beneficiary. Very funny isn’t it? Try asking a smart city-bred to harness a horse, sit for five minutes on his haunches, milking a cow or killing a snake or even distinguishing one plant from another. If he is sensible he will not take up the challenge; foolishly, if he does, he will certainly make an ass of himself.

But getting back to the Turkish border. After a while I noticed the podgy young custom officer who looked like one of our pampered young Butts from Royal Park, first wave at us and then zealously summon us to come forward. As we hesitantly approached, he gestured to the people at the head of the queue to step back — to step well back. Apparently he had sighted our green passport. To our complete and unexpected surprise he raised one of our passports to his lips and effusively kissed it and then asked, ‘Pakistani?’ I was quite baffled but responded with a meek smile, ‘yes!’ At which he stamped our passports in quick succession, and then rose from his chair making a grand gesture for us to enter. What were we waiting for? He seemed to ask, as though Turkey was our own. I am told things are a little different now. It will be thirty years this December, but the memory of our welcome into Turkey makes my pulse run faster even now. It is amazing what an individual can achieve in a moment, that states sometimes cannot gain in a decade. I don’t have a sweet tooth but Turkish Delights? Any time!

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist