Taking Tea in Turkey

Here’s an article on Turkish customs I wrote for the Sunday Telegraph (London).

Taking Tea in Turkey

What could be more Turkish than coffee?

Tea, actually.

When the Ottoman Empire collapsed in 1923, the Turks lost Mocha and suddenly coffee was an expensive import. Bereft of the traditional high-octane stimulant, Turks turned to tea (çay).

What beer is to a Bavarian, tea is to a TurkÇay (CHAY) oils the wheels of commerce, government and society. It is served everywhere, anytime, in tiny gold-rimmed, tulip-shaped glasses accompanied by two or three huge lumps of beetroot sugar.

A Turk’s first question is Nasılsınız? (How are you?) The second inevitably is “Some tea?”

English tea, by the way, is highly prized, and makes a good gift.

To be ignorant of Turkish tea customs is to expose oneself to reactions ranging from bemused wonder to solicitous alarm. Tea without sugar? Perhaps you’re diabetic. Açik(weak) çay? That’s for ladies and the faint of heart. Only one glass? Tut tut, drink up, we’ll get some fresh. Tea with lemon? How exotic. Tea with milk? Allah protect us!

Turks’ prodigious consumption of tea (and cigarettes) accounts in part for their love of nightlife: with the day’s two-litre quota of tea and milligrams of nicotine enraging the nervous system sleep is impossible, so why not have some fun?

Turkish nightclubs are jolly affairs where it’s expected that local heldentenors will arise from the audience to sing along. After politely allowing the professional folk dancers the first turn, the audience will jump up and join in.

Don’t laugh—you’re next.

As a foreigner, you’ll probably be called upon to sing and to demonstrate the steps you do—no doubt often, and to fulsome applause—in your local…what is the name? Pub?

All this exercise works up a sweat, so when the clubs close just before dawn you may be spirited off to the hamam, the Turkish bath, for a restorative soak and massage. Men are given a light towel modestly to gird their loins, and it will not do to let it drop even while washing down there. Women, on the other hand, may be greeted by gales of derisory laughter should they attempt to keep any part of their anatomy covered. And it’s depilatory all round.

Give in to the importunations of the masseur (or masseuse) and you throw away your life. He’ll knead you, roll you, walk on you and crack your joints loud as pistol shots one by one. It feels great…when it stops. Then comes the bill. Tip well, or he’ll do it to you again.

Finally it’s back to your hotel. Low on cash? Take a dolmush, the Turkish jitney, cheaper than a taxi. The Ottoman Empireis gone, but a last whiff of its purdah etiquette demands that ladies sit next to ladies whenever possible, and alone or at least next to door or wall whenever not. A lady who willingly sits between two strange men is no lady.

Back at your hotel after your all-night revel, a new day awaits.

What? Simply can’t do it?

You need a jump-start. Have some tea!


(Published as Not the Done Thing in Turkey. Copyright © 1995 by Tom Brosnahan. All rights reserved.)


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