December 13, 2014

Paper Marbling, Mystery Sleigh, and Me

Nothing says "It's the holiday (Christmas) season" like learning a traditional paper marbling technique in a Muslim country.

I miss American Christmas stuff. As tacky as a lot of it is--read: George Michael's "Last Christmas" or cheap, fake greenery--it's a deeply embedded part of my Americanness. This year though, I'm experiencing a non-Christmas-celebrating culture.
"Happy New Year" -- See what I mean?

Well, kind of. Turkey doesn't want to commit to Christmas, especially here in Kayseri. Too Christian, I suppose. I understand and respect that. This is a Muslim country. In America, we don't do much for Ramadan or any Eid holiday. However, here in Kayseri, there is a strange mix of not wanting Christmas, and wanting just a little.

New Year's decorations often include a mysterious sleigh led by deer hovering in the background. Strings of tiny lights wrap pillars at the mall. Surprisingly, the bigger grocery stores stock a very modest collection of Christmas decorations. On our budget, I limited myself to a string of multi-colored lights and box of six assorted ornaments. Just a hint of Christmas this year.

Ok, so there I was, last weekend, the first week of December, missing my holiday season. Our Turkish teacher (also my colleague at school, and friend who plays volleyball) organized a trip downtown to a historic building where we could learn Ebru, the art of paper marbling.

Hunat Hatun Medresesi
The building itself is worth a description here. As I understood, it was a school used in Ottoman times. It's connected to a big Mosque, and also to a historic tomb, though I don't know much about either of those things. The old, stone building we visited was laid out around an open-air courtyard where Kayserians meet up for tea and chatting. A dozen tiny rooms border the courtyard, each with a tiny door. The small doors force those who enter to lower their heads (or whole torso in my case), which is a symbol of humility and respect for the teacher inside. The rooms, which are no bigger than the kitchen of most American homes built in the 1970s, are filled with art, carpets, instruments, or books. Our room was dedicated to Ebru.

The Ebru Master and me
The Ebru master in our room demonstrated how to use oil, water, paint and a special chemical to create a marbled masterpiece. A clear plexiglass tray is lit from underneath, and filled with water to allow the painter to drop bits of color onto the surface of the water.This technique has traditionally been used to make decorative covers for the Koran. He worked quickly and with the grace as he dipped the tools into paint, and then lightly touched the water's surface, causing a ripple of color to surge forth. From three green circles, suddenly an elegant tulip emerged as he pulled the colors around on the water's surface. For me, watching the colors was almost hyponotic. I have always been an artist at heart. Once satisfied with the design, the artist placed a paper onto the water's surface and then carefully lifted it back out, revealing the same beautiful design transfered to a paper. We helped him set it on the drying rack hanging just inches above our heads.

Trying my hand at Ebru
The master let me try my hand at Ebru. Using a pigeon language between English and Turkish, I decided to try to make a cactus. It was fun dipping into the paint and touching the water, though having an audience and being in the smallest possible space made me both light-headed and shakey. I made dots and curves, and pulled the colors around on the surface. At some point, the master gave up on my cactus idea and gave me instructions for making a traditional tulip. The resulting painting has a beautiful red tulip atop a clumsy cactus-stem. He also didn't let me choose not to add two red hearts to the background. When learning someone's art, it's best to follow directions, right? So my painting turned out looking a little weird, but I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I'd love to try again with more autonomy, and fewer people in a small room.

Overall, life in Turkey is becoming richer every day. Developing friendships piece by piece, riding the ups and downs of teaching, learning more Turkish, trying more cultural things--this is the process of having a life here.

Me, Justyna (awesome Polish friend), and Alan