In the sunken courtyard behind the Süleymaniye Mosque Turkish chatter and the trickle of an ancient fountain replaces the noisy froth of cappuccino-making and dulcet tones of Katie Melua track that signify coffee shops back home. Students of Istanbul drink black tea after black tea from ornate glasses and saucers, papers spread out like a canvas on squat tables in front of them. Some chat in clusters on bright-cushioned chairs, lazily passing a waterpipe between sips. Business men, shop keepers and stall owners from the Bazaar gesticulate wildly – lost in grand political debate and a haze of apple tobacco.
The first sip of black tea scalds my tongue and I nearly spit it out. Perhaps it’s paranoia, but I’m sure I hear a group of students giggle. When the waiter appears with our own nargile Mark and I look around nervously, hoping that the seasoned pros reclining in self-confidence don’t notice our huffing and wheezing attempts to smoke the waterpipe. The waiter looks in pity at us trying to relax Istanbul-style. Taking the pipe from me hand and inhaling deeply, he gets the water bubbling for us. When the coals burn deep amber he lets us have the pipe back, like a parent spoon-feeding a couple of children.
After a few spluttered attempts at smoking, our draws become smooth like everyone else around us. The tea has cooled to perfection. A noisy gaggle of cruise ship tourists pool at the courtyard entrance. Not wanting to get caught up in the crowd, we decide it’s time to leave.
Past the cries of street vendors selling cheap cookware, mosaic lamps and coils of waterpipes the smell of the Spice Bazaar floats on the air. We are engulfed in a maze of bright yellow, burnt sienna and rust coloured powder. Mark dons his chef face, tutting and hmm-ing at various spice stalls. I’m not a chef – I’m an eater, a sampler. I spot a brass coffee machine and through a cloud of steam the mustachioed barista catches me looking.
“You like to try? For free?” he shouts across Bazaar to me.
I nod and shuffle over, leaving Mark bartering with a spice merchant. Coffee is my domain.
He pours the coffee from a long-handled brass jug into a tiny cup and looks taken aback when I decline sugar. I see why as the bitterness hits the back of my throat. I like it.
Mark waves a bag of bright yellow turmeric in my face – a victory – and I match him with a bag of Turkish coffee.
Like all great cities, Istanbul claims to be built on seven hills, and it feels like we climb every single one of them on our tea quest. Halfway up a steep cobbled street a clattery old cart sells tea from another brass contraption – like a steam punk vending machine. The gnarled old man beams as he hands us scalding hot dirty glasses of tea, poking in fresh mint leaves.
Our final stop is a ramshackled old house on the edge of the Bosphorus. The wooden floorboards are wonky and the much needed trip to the toilet is like crossing the galley of an old ship, a tea-clipper perhaps. Another tourist couple have found their way to this tea house. We watch as a Turkish man lights the vanilla-scented coals of their waterpipe, and they both wait until he’s turned his back before inhaling, coughing and spluttering.
I take a smooth draw of our nargile and patiently wait for my tea to cool. Tomorrow we might see that same couple in the sunken courtyard, reclining amongst bright cushions like they’ve been in this city for years while a bustling tour from a cruise ship looks on in admiration.
Turkish Tea tour by Suzy Pope is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.