Look…my merich

Last year I travelled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to Ramallah and back to Jerusalem in a day. While travel guides will tell you to travel in a group or take a taxi, I did as the Palestinians – I took minibuses. These are also popular, cheap forms of transport in Turkey, and in Russia. The last time I went to Russia was solo, so in between these three cultures, and with some Arabic, I figured I could find my way around.

The distances between these cities are not great though a 30 minute journey from Bethlehem to Ramallah took 2 hours. Firstly, because the road skirts Israeli settlements and secondly because the minibus was involved in a car accident. That meant I had plenty of time to meet some folks.

Road to Ramallah

Road to Ramallah

In Jerusalem and Bethlehem, I blended in, travelling as a single female, I wasn’t out of place. Ramallah reminded me of various Turkish cities from 15 years ago. It felt familiar and when Palestinians learnt I was Turkish, their kindness doubled. The only place I was an anomaly were in the transitions, for instance on the journey between Bethlehem to Ramallah. I was the only female on the minibus, but with recitations of the Quran playing the whole journey, I did not feel a tinge of angst or danger (one of the reasons the Quran is broadcast is for protection). Seated next to me were two Palestinian men, being born and raised in Jenin refugee camp. Between them, they probably spoke 20 words of English. Now I first wasn’t sure if they were being friendly or “friendly” so I kept my sunglasses on and guard up. The one sitting next to me was just fascinated that a Turkish woman was travelling solo, not part of a tour group and doing as the locals do. He was very keen to start a conversation with me. So he showed me his phone  – a basic Nokia, one of the early versions with a colour screen, to show me pictures of his kids. He wanted to look at the maps of Jerusalem and Bethlehem I’d picked up from the tourist offices. The journey continued through uninhabited spaces – save for shacks, literal shacks belonging to herders with sheep and goats running around. Then, he presented his phone, “look, my merich, my merich.” I took the phone and said ‘hello” to which a woman answered – merich..his wife (my marriage). The conversation:

(me) – hello?

(merich) – hello how are you?

– very well, how are you?

– how are you?

– (realising this could go on and also becoming shy…) You have a beautiful country, I’m very happy to be here

– (giggles)

– ok here’s your husband, bye!

– (giggles), bye bye, bye bye!

Shortly afterwards, a car drove into the minibus, it wasn’t a bad accident but meant we all had to exit and wait for a new minibus to take us the rest of the way. At the corner where the accident happened was a furniture store so I went in to charge my phone. Playing on the computer screen of the managers desk was the immensely popular Turkish show, Muhtesem Yuzyil (the soap about Sultan Suleyman, Hurrem and co.)

Turkish soap power

Turkish soap power

The replacement bus arrived, we continued to Ramallah. They walked with me until the center of the city and said goodbyes. Custodians of a stranger, they went their way and I went mine. I do wish I had exchanged contact details, but stopped, limited by adult onset shyness and thoughts of what communication means when you don’t share a common language. I don’t even remember their names but that endearing terms stays with me, “my merich.”

Where do you come from?

At 8 years of age in year 3 with Mrs Finlayson, we were taking a lesson on ancestors. She had a copy of the passenger list of the convicts from the First Fleet. This was 11 ships full of largely petty criminals arriving in Botany Bay in 1788 to colonize Australia. All the eager youngsters put up their hand for their teacher to trace their ‘ancestor’ based on last name. I didn’t get picked. Actually I didn’t really fit in. Everyone was blonde haired, blue eyed with easy to pronounce names. James, Amy, Sarah, Grant, Mark. I had dark hair, dark eyes and definitely not white skin. Back in those days kids used to throw dirt at us, call us names during weekly ‘little athletics.’ I don’t remember that but my mum does.

Fast forward to mid teenage years and the only thing I wanted to do was play my sports. I was good at it, no one interfered with me and it was my escape in so many ways. It was a time of discovering self and identity. My mum would remind us “you don’t know what kind of family you’re from” but I didn’t really care. All I wanted to do was listen to the top 40 hits on the radio and be ready to push down ‘record’ on the tape deck, play hockey and be cool.

And then I went on holiday to Turkey by myself in 2004 after everyone around me seemed to be singing praises of this country, and everything changed. My previous memories of Turkey were going to relatives houses, eating a lot of food, wandering at will and having a freedom your parents would never give you at home. But this Turkey I saw was like waking up to the Mediterranean sea on a summers day. Captivating, beautiful, shiny and deep. Shortly after, I bought a one way ticket to Ankara, (I was living in New York at the time) determined to stay just 2 years. That became 6 years and began what some of my friends call an obsession with all things Ottoman. That may not be accurate but that time did lead to finding out who I am and where I come from.

Sultan Murad IV

Sultan Murad IV
Portrait on display at the Military Museum, Istanbul

It turns out our first ancestor, the first “Dogramaci” was treasurer to Sultan Murad IV during the Baghdad campaign in 1638. Dogramaci Kara Mehmet ended up staying in what is now Iraq, or then Ottoman territory. This is why its difficult to answer the question ‘where are you from?’ What do I say? Iraq? I’m not Iraqi. Turkey? But I’m not from the borders of contemporary Turkey. Australia? I was born there but I’m not from there. I still get puzzled looks if I volunteer that answer. If I tell people I’m Ottoman, most won’t understand, some will think you are a snob and very few others give you a reassuring smile and nod.

What is certain is that my family is almost 400 years old. Down the line, the family is known mainly for my great uncle (Ihsan) and aunt (Emel), and their father, Ali who was a Pasha(Governor) during Ottoman rule, then after the end of the empire, a Senator in the Iraqi parliament. History became real and that depth and captivation of famliy started to take meaning. When you discover that you are connected to something far greater than just one or two generations, for me at least it inspired a sense of ownership and preservation. There are enough connections to places, relics as well as conduct transmitted down the line. Everyone speaks multiple languages, puts a premium on education and diplomatic connections are effervescent. So next time I’m chasing dreams and a past in Jerusalem, Bursa, Rhodes or Istanbul, or when I start telling Ottoman stories about palaces, mosques, people and places, you’ll understand why.