Taking the overnight bus from Malatya to Hatay with Danielle and Fabio, I immediately cursed my bad luck as I was forced to sit next to a wide squat Turk who was expanding into my seat. No sleep for me, I thought to myself; of course, I was wrong. I fell asleep almost immediately and did not truly stir until we arrived in Hatay province.
Still with a half hour to go until we reached our final destination – the city of Hatay, formerly known as Antakya, the old city of Antioch – my seat mate and I made eye contact and started to chit-chat.
“You know Turkish?”
“A little,” I groggily responded.
“Wonderful, wonderful! Where are you from? Are you American? Why are you coming to Hatay? There is so much for you to see here, it is beautiful with so many sights!”
“Yeah, I’m American. My friends and I are traveling around here for the weekend.”
“Oh, wonderful! Are you students in Turkey?”
“No, we’re English teachers.”
“English teachers! Maşallah!” he exclaimed with his face beaming. “Well, Hatay is wonderful. Or was, a lot of the city was destroyed by earthquakes, but it is still amazing! Hatay is special city. It’s truly cosmopolitan. For example, there is a street with two mosques two types of churches and a synagogue all within one block. They work together too performing concerts around the world. My brother went to New York last year with them to perform.”
“No way, really? That is very cosmopolitan.”
“Definitely, definitely!” My seat-mate was nearly bouncing up and down with excitement next to me recounting all the glories of Hatay to me. “This province is amazing. For example, my family are Syrian Alawis and this is the only place in Turkey where we’re accepted.”
Overcome with excitement – and of course due to the natural Turkish welcoming attitude to foreigners – he happily volunteered to show all of us around the city until our friend Ben, another English teacher based in Hatay, finished his morning classes and could meet with us. Stopping first for breakfast, we finally made acquaintances.
“I’m sorry, my name is Fırsat. Usually we say that first when we meet someone, but I got really excited and I forgot,” he said beaming, while stuffing börek into his mouth. “It just really is wonderful that you came to this city. I wish the whole world were like Hatay, where everyone lives together like brothers. That’s what’s important to me. You know, Sunnis don’t love us Alawis so Hatay is especially important for us.”
“Well, don’t worry,” I said patting him on the shoulder. “I think all three of us agree about brotherhood being the most important thing.”
Fırsat did not disappoint either with his promises of religious tolerance in the city. After breakfast he took us to a Syrian Orthodox Church in the middle of the city that no one is truly sure of it’s age due to frequent demolitions by earthquakes over the past 1,500 years. Although the church was officially closed, it was happy to open when Fırsat continued his cries of “American tourists want to see building!”
In general churches make me uncomfortable – I always feel as if the priest will attempt to convert me. In this church, fully decorated for Christmas with a mixture of Russian and Syrian icons, I was happily welcomed as just another person. As Fırsat, the priest, Danielle and I all talked about our differing religious backgrounds no one was the least bit judgmental. Instead, the priest again mentioned the multi-faith choir he was a part of noting, with a tinge of sadness, how there were not many Jews represented in it.
Later, over tea in an authentic restored Hatay house, the conversation again turned to religion. “Us Alawis are very different from the Sunnis,” Fırsat said. “They really don’t like how we mixed our faith with parts from Christianity and Judaism.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, for example, we celebrate Easter.”
“Easter?” Danielle and Fabio said glancing at each other. “Ask him how he celebrates Easter!”
“We make a sacrifice and drink wine.”
“But, what do you celebrate?”
Fırsat let out a huge laugh. “I have no idea. I just know we eat and drink a lot and everyone’s happy. We have our own book which talks about all of this, but I’ve never read it.”
If you enjoy this article, please read the next post about Hatay: Where History and Modernity Collide. Please, don’t forget to share!