Olives, Yogurt, White Cheese and Tea

Yeni Mosque, Eminonou Istanbul
 “Yogurt. It’s TURKISH yogurt, not Greek yogurt.  It’s different…and it’s better” Ali says to me over a communal tub of thick sour yogurt. 

This is his response to the very open ended question What do I need to know about Turkey? And it should tell you the position that yogurt has in Turkish culture (pun only partially intended).

“And breakfast: If it doesn’t have olives, yogurt, white cheese and tea forget about it.  Just go back to bed.” 

Food, I learned in Turkey last week, matters a great deal.  But more on that later.   

I showed up to the five story studio and sometimes home of Ali and Betul at 10:30 for a lesson in Turkish marbling  (5 stories of about 10 square feet each floor, think wide ladder instead of palace).  Paper marbling is a process by which multiple colors of paint are dropped onto the surface of treated water, mixed around to create a pattern (though not mixed together) and then transferred onto thin paper.  You see paper marbling at the beginning and ending of old books and it looks like, well, multi-colored marble.   My bookbinding teacher in Jerusalem was a paper marbler and I’ve been fascinated by it for years though too intimidated to try it myself.  Turkey has a long history of paper marbling with a unique brand of embellishment including flowers and leaves.

"It's sometimes called painting with water”  Betul says to me from her top floor studio where I am torn between jaw dropping views of Istanbul and what’s happening in the seaweed thickened water on the table in front of me.  Betul makes it look easy and while there is a kind of natural flow to raking and fanning the colors, my lines are no where near as uniform as hers and my peacock pattern is laughable – squished flat like a heavy sandwich instead of full like a balloon.  But I thoroughly enjoy the afternoon selecting colors, dropping them onto the sludgy water to see them expand and moving them with metal awls and rakes of various sizes.  I’m only kind of embarrassed when she selects a generic artsy English language playlist on spotify that starts with Simon and Garfunkel and includes many songs I already know.  Is my “type” so knowable? I think, being sure not to drip ox gall infused paint onto my black jeans.   But then I don’t care and I discover what ultramarine looks like with powder blue and crimson red.  (Yes, that's me gasping in the video...) 
After our session Ali invites me to stay for lunch that Betul’s mother has made.  It is a simple meal of fresh green beans with ground beef and the ubiquitous “Shepard’s Salad” known by a million names throughout the Middle East and North Africa: tomato, onions, cucumber, parsley, lemon, olive oil.   Betul’s mother teaches me the Turkish word for thank you and delicious and I watch first when a pail of creamy yogurt is placed on the table and then dip my spoon in after each bite along with everyone else. 

“Why did you choose paper marbling?” Ali asks me, given the other options of calligraphy, felting, tile painting and sedef – traditional Turkish wood block carving and printing.

Happiest I've ever been...perhaps
“I like the colors and the patterns....and the possibilities”

“Do they talk to you?  The colors, do they talk to you?”

Unsure of how to answer I cock an eyebrow towards Ali.

“They will.  He says.  Send your husband away. They won’t talk if he’s there.  But send him away and they’ll talk to you.”

Well, you heard the man Max. 

It's not personal. 

Can't take credit for this one, Betul was really incredible


  1. Every time you post, I intend to tell you how much I enjoy your writing, but never quite get around to it. Well that changes now! What a cool technique and what a treat to learn how to do it yourself. And that photo of you? It radiates happiness. I love it!!

    1. Thanks Anne! I was pretty radiantly happy :)

      How are you guys doing? In DC? Maybe we could meet up next summer....