Dinner of Herbs

First edition

By Carla Grissmann
Published by Arcadia Books, 2001
£10.99

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Book Review | Cornucopia 24

Light Years from New York

By Maureen Freely


Carla Grissmann does not keep a diary. She is not one for dates. But she is fairly sure she made her first visit to Anatolia in the spring of 1968 or 1969. She would have been forty or forty-one at the time. She was based in Jerusalem, working in the proofreading department of an English-language newspaper. Someone had told her about the cave churches in Cappadocia, and she wanted to see them for herself.

During her two-month stay in Ürgüp, she made friends with a young schoolteacher named Kâmuran. In halting English, he told her about the central Anatolian hamlet where he taught. She listened carefully to his stories and tried to make a picture from his faltering words: “village, forty houses, 300 people in all, no electricity, no road, walking from one village to another with his hands full of stones to throw at the dogs that leapt around him”.

Before moving to Jerusalem, she had worked in Morocco and Tunisia. Her brief glimpses of village life in those countries had made her hungry for more. “For a long time I had wanted to touch the life of a Turkish village, knowing how remote it was from the classical splendours of Istanbul or the Ionian coast, and how different it must be from a Muslim village in North Africa, but I knew I could not approach a village alone.” So she asked Kâmuran if he could take her there. His first response was, “You will not like it.”

When she asked him why, he urged her to read Bizim Köy and Mehmet, My Hawk, though he admitted that, in fact, his village was not as bad as those portrayed in these classics of village life. The people were “open and kind”. Eventually he agreed to approach the Muhtar and the elders to ask if they would “allow a foreigner, a stranger, a woman to be a guest in their village for a while”. Their answer was “Yes, of course, yes.”

So in early autumn of the same year, Carla returned to Ankara and boarded a bus that took her 250 kilometres east, to a town somewhere between Yozgat and Yerköy. Here her friend Kâmuran was waiting for her.

Together they boarded an old farm bus that took them to a village she calls Bulutlu. On this first day they found a jeep to take them the last eight kilometres to Uzak Köy. But on many other occasions she would make this last leg of the journey by donkey or even on foot.

And then there it was, Uzak Köy, “held in the cupped palm of a rise of high land, overlooking a broad dry river bed crawling out of sight around the feet of the retreating hills”. The “forty-odd houses that sheltered the inhabitants of the village all faced in the same direction, open to the sun”. Below them was a patch of land that caught the overflow of water from a spring. Here there were “long rectangular strips of gardens”.

“The only trees, you could count these graceful shimmering poplars on one hand, grew along this same invisible path of precious water.”

Carla was met by a swarm of women and children and taken straight to the Muhtar’s house for her formal welcome. After the meal they had made in her honour, the Muhtar’s mother, wife and children conferred and decided that Carla was to live as a paying guest with another family that was “poor but good”. She was never sure that they consulted the family in question before making this arrangement: as she soon discovered, it would not have mattered if they hadn’t. This was not a village of separate households. People were in and out of each other’s houses from dawn until bedtime. They slept in large groups in the same rooms where they lived during the day. They prayed and fasted and feasted together, and whenever there was a problem that was larger than they were, it was Haci Ismail the Muhtar and the elders who led the discussion.

And so it was the following June, when Carla was abruptly summoned to Ankara and told about a law that prohibited foreigners from living in any village classified as a hamlet. She was given three days to pack up and leave. Upon her return to Uzak Köy, Haci Ismail offered to go with the elders to Ankara and insist that she be given a reprieve. When she told them that it would be no use, he offered her a sheep to take back to her father. She explained it would never survive the journey, but then Haci Ismail’s wife, Inci, came to her with what she hoped would be the perfect solution. Carla could become Haci, Ismail’s second wife.

“You will live with us,” Inci said. “I will teach you how to make bread. I will teach you how to pray. We will be sisters.” It was impossible to explain to Inci why it could not be.

Before she knew it, Carla was back in New York. It did not feel like home. She had been born in the US to an American mother and a German father, and educated at American schools; she had moved to Paris as a young adult and had spent most of her time since then abroad. Now she felt more like a foreigner than ever. “I was grieving and frustrated.”

So she decided to make use of the manual typewriter that happened to be in the house where she was staying. Writing came easily to her. “I began and it came and it came and it came.” She is less sure about what “it” was. “I cannot say I put my memories into words because they were not yet memories but part of my daily life.”

She packed the typescript away when it was done, but when she left New York for Afghanistan later that same year, she took it with her. It has accompanied her ever since. It was only last year that a writer friend persuaded her to show it to a publisher. Now, at last, it is a proper book. Its title comes from Proverbs 15:17, “Better is a dinner of herbs where love is than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.” It applies to the writer as well as the subject.

Carla places herself in the background of almost every story she tells. At times she is no more than a pair of eyes. She studies and learns before she passes judgment. She expects her readers to be as respectful as she is, but in this she has been disappointed. When I met her in London, in her pristine basement flat just off the Fulham Road, she told me how appalled she was when one reviewer alluded to a life of “grinding poverty”.

“What grinding poverty?” she wanted to know. It might have been true that the inhabitants of Uzak Köy lived in mud huts, and were strangers to running water, toothbrushes, doctors and basic hygiene, and wore rubber shoes, and kept themselves warm in winter by wearing many layers of clothing because they owned no overcoats. Yes, most of the adults were illiterate. No, it had not been easy to get them to use funds she raised abroad to help them build a new schoolhouse. From time to time, she had seen them accept unnecessary hardships with a fatalism that she, an educated Westerner, could not quite fathom. “But there was no grinding poverty. There were some poor families but everything was relative.” Everywhere you went, there was so much camaraderie and laughter. “It was fun all day long.”

I have many happy childhood memories of Anatolian villages from about the same era. Dinner of Herbs brought them all back: more than anything I have read, it captures the hum of everyday life in an Anatolian village, the almost tangible good cheer that rises out of their communality.

What it did not quite explain was how Carla Grissmann, a single, childless, foreign woman, was able to gain the villagers’ trust. But I knew the answer the moment I saw her. Or rather, the moment I saw her eyes. They are clear and open and guileless. When I asked her if she’d ever had trouble with men or indeed women making “the wrong assumption”, her wide eyes opened even wider as she gasped with horror.

“I didn’t have one minute of fear and misunderstanding.” She knew the ropes already, she reminded me, as she’d spent quite a few years in Islamic countries by then. “I knew how to dress and how to walk with my eyes down. I kept quiet. I was older, and there was that respect for age. I never felt more honoured than I did in Turkey.” Carla told me how, when she walked over the hills around Uzak Köy, “from each village I passed, one person would walk out to meet me and escort me to the next village.”

She found this same “generosity of heart” in Afghanistan, the country that she now thinks of as her second home. It was not love at first sight. “Kabul is a very ugly city. When I first arrived from Erzurum in 1970, I kept looking around and thinking what a hideous place. But the second day, I went out for a walk. Back along the walls of the palace there was a soldier sitting on a guardbox. He had a geranium on his epaulette. When I got close, he said, ‘Selaam aleikkum, Hanim!’ He made a sweeping gesture towards the teapot and said, ‘Chai!’ There were tomatoes ripening in the sun in the guardbox and there was a Russian pressure cooker for his supper. And I thought, ‘Oh, this is wonderful, I want to stay here for ever,’ and so then I found a flat. Wherever I went it was like in Turkey, they looked you in the eye.”

They sized you up at once, she said. From that moment on, they either trusted you or they didn’t. “The women pat you and laugh at you and say you look so funny, just like the Muhtar’s wife did. They invite you to their homes and accept you as an equal. I felt so honoured.”

Her first job in Afghanistan was at the university, but when student unrest closed it down she went to the Kabul Museum. These were the best days of her life. “I couldn’t wait to wake up. It is one of the ‘great small museums of the world’.” Its collection covers fifteen millennia.

She was forced out of Afghanistan in 1980, when her then employer, the Asia Foundation, was accused by the Kabul Times of smuggling opium out of the country to support the running dogs of capitalism. She went on to work for the Asia Foundation in Sri Lanka, and from there went on to Pakistan. “That was as close to Afghanistan as I could get.”

About fifteen years ago, Carla made London her base. Until the dynamiting of the Buddhas last March, she was able to go back to Kabul once a year to work in her beloved museum. This year, the invitation did not arrive. She went instead to the Afghanistan Institute, opened last October in Basle. It is, she says, the Kabul Museum in exile; she is helping to make an inventory of its holdings.

She could not keep the emotion out of her voice when she showed me the catalogue of the museum in Kabul. She is not sure how many of its treasures have been destroyed since her last visit. She told me about the event she believes was the starting point for the Buddha outrage: the day a group of mullahs came and began to hit a Buddha on display because it “had a human face”. The staff stopped them, after which the mullahs took their rage elsewhere. The dynamiting could have been stopped, she believes, had Unesco and Western governments taken the trouble to involve “people like me who understand the country” instead of sending people who knew nothing and used confrontational tactics that immediately got the authorities’ backs up.

It upsets her but does not surprise her. She has seen it happen too many times before. In the meantime, she has made her separate peace. Her London flat is a museum of her travels. The only thing that tells you this is not Kabul is the garden that you can just see through her kitchen door.

It is this intense but fragile honouring of memory, I think, that makes her reluctant to go back to Uzak Köy. Too much has changed since then. It is no longer possible to travel as she did in those years, never planning, just letting things unfold, and so often discovering little paradises no foreigner had seen before.

She was lucky to see Uzak Köy before “the roads, electricity, television, the internet, and the doubling of populations”. She told me she would be so disappointed to go back and find that all her friends were gone.

Then she looked up and gave me a plaintive look that said something else entirely: if “anyone else” decided to go, they would let her know, wouldn’t they?

Maureen Freely, is the author of ‘The Other Rebecca’, ‘The Life of the Party’and’Enlightenment’. She is well known for her translations of the writings of Orhan Pamuk

Carla Grissmann died in London, 15th February 2011

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