A man carries tea leaves freshly harvested up the hill to the truck

Though the story is true, the names, places and circumstances have been changed and some fictionalization has been added to protect the identity of the people.

He untied the potato sack and uncovered the head of the girl.  in the dim light of the  flickering lantern he saw her golden hair uncoil from her bun and tumble down her shoulders to her waist, and blue eyes blazed at him………

He had made a mistake, a terrible mistake: this was the wrong girl, he hated blondes and blue eyes , he was supposed to abduct the brunette for his bride…….

The Black Sea holds so much in its bosom but holds no rancor, smooths it secret memories and throws them back on the beach as small polished pebbles for little children and adults with children’s hearts to play with. On occasion it embeds its memories in the rock and polishes it and shapes it into a heart shape lest the future generations forget.

The legends of the men and women of the black sea Black sea are woven with the leaves of tea they grow and the ships they sail.  They were not always from the black sea but fate and naseep brought them there and dumped them like the pebbles on the beach and the waves of time and circumstances polished them till they shone, but it was never a painless process………

So, let me relate one such true story related to me by one of the later generations of a girl from Istanbul and a man from Rize at the Coast of the Turkish Black Sea (Karadeniz):

……….A month ago, he had arrived back after sailing for months on his Trade ship and happily told his mother that he had been promoted to captain.

“ She kissed him on both cheeks and said “ ahhh my dear son now we can get you married to Ezge she has been waiting so long’

 The dark eyed chubby cousin of his flashed before his eyes. Ezge’s mother who looked like a tank and was as strong as one and harvested the max tea in the village, loomed over his imagination like “Hulk” a movie he had watched on board. he groaned, “ not her Annae !( mother in Turkish) he said. 

His mother gave him “the look”,” and said “who and when are you going to marry, you are getting old……… you will get involved with some heathen chick in Russia on your sailing trips and our entire generation will be ruined”

“ You know I won’t Annae” he smiled, “ they all have blue eyes and blonde hair and you know I hate that”.

“ My son if we give our boys away to other girls then girls from our family will be left sitting unmarried” said. his mother

He was 23 years old. was that old? at the ports of Istanbul, Georgia and Russia the men he had met considered him a “boy”.  However, in the Karadeniz you grew up fast, thanks to the hard life of long days of physically intense work and the lack of protection from the weather . Here the youth took on far more responsibility then someone growing up in the drawing rooms of Istanbul. While the Istabulites  were taking piano lessons or fencing lessons to appear more couth the youth of the Karadeniz were on the slopes helping their families harvest tea in the long days of summer.

He had returned home to help his family with the tea and hazelnut harvest. Summer was a time when all the men and women from The Karadeniz came home to give the family a hand with the harvest.

It was Thursday night, they sat down at the long wooden table and his mother turned to his father, “ please ask the Hodja to make a special dua for our son because we are going to ask for Ezges hand on Saturday”

Before he could open his mouth his father said “why not tomorrow? It is Friday and a blessed day; we can go right after Jummah namaz”

“ Tomorrow Engin is coming home, and I would like him to join us when we go to ask for Ezge’s hand “said his mother.

There was a frozen silence. Everyone knew what Engin did for a living and as far as his mother was concerned it was not open for discussion, thus no one talked about it.

“Annae………” he began gently” “yes, my son she answered affectionately but her black eyes were like tempered steel brooking no argument.

He continued trying to ward off that stare that always melted him. “ I don’t want to marry a cousin; the children may have issues…………” and his voice trailed off. Basically, by saying that he was condemning his own family as well as the entire village as they were all married to first cousins or second cousins.

There was dead silence at the table.

The tea fields on the slopes of the Karadeniz coast

He had obviously put his foot in his mouth.

He went out to sit under the stars. His sister came and sat next to him” Aabey !”( brother) she said “ what is this thing about children from the marriage of cousins?” She asked. She was studying to become a teacher……. Self-taught, as the school was at the bottom of the hill and there was no time to go down and come back up and get all her chores done. in her spare time in between harvesting the tea, cooking, cleaning and feeding the animals and helping her mother in the vegetable garden she would study……At 16 she was ambitious.

After all, each of her siblings had sort of broken the traditional mold of the Karadeniz family. Her oldest brother had done the most radical thing……….he was ‘ a highway man” who robbed the rich to provide for the poor of the tea fields, though no thanks was given to him openly but the village approved with one face and denied knowledge with the other side of the face. For his Robin Hood efforts even, the local police looked the other way.  He was revered and honored by the poor when he did appear at local weddings or children’s sunnah events. He would occasionally bring his sister a gold necklace and rings obviously taken from the women on the stagecoach arriving from Istanbul.

He was handsome, no beard, with  a thick lock of pitch-black hair  falling on his forehead, his dark wavy tresses that came down to his shoulders wild and untamed to a comb.

Her middle brother the captain of the ship had compensated and had done everything to please his mother , he had gone to Technical school and  learned trade and shipping and now was a captain of a trade ship. He was also self-taught and was working towards a degree from Istanbul.

His sister sitting next to him wondered at the change in her middle brother. Now for the first time he was biting at the bit….. he did not want to marry a cousin but why? Ezge was the same age as her and was in love with him since she was 13. Granted she was a bit chubby and some said she was lazy but she was pleasant enough she thought.

He was tall unlike his father, lanky, Had a serious thoughtful look in his dark eyes and was always reading books that he had bought on his travels. The most recent one was a Greek book about the souls of women in the sea or the “Denizens of the deep dark sea”. I guess that was where he had come up with his being averse to blue eyes and blonde hair, they were a sign of the devil.

They heard a crunch in the path and a dark coat flapped in the wind…….

“ Abaey ………: she squealed with delight and went running and slam hugged her oldest brother,

He got up and shook hands with his eldest brother. “ You are early” he said.

“Evet”(yes in Turkish) said his older brother……..and fell silent. 

Ahh there was a major heist tomorrow he thought which is why his brother has come home early.

“Eh…ehhh……..so what happening? Engin asked ruffling his sister’s hair and pulling off her hijab.

“ we are going on Saturday to ask for Ezges hand for Abey Omer” she said looking sheepishly at Omer.

Engin smiled devilishly and looked at his brother……..” so what happened to the theory of not marrying your first cousin” he asked teasingly.

Omer sat with his head bowed………to him this was no joke. He had read in the last book he had bought in Istanbul, that people who married their first cousins could have deformed or retarded children…….but how could he say this to his community which was almost 90% married to a first cousin.

He wanted to marry a rich wife, he did not want to live the life of the tea pickers, he wanted to go to Istanbul. All of this was heresy in the book of the Karadeniz village residents. 

A man did not forsake his family, he did not marry outside his family when there were eligible girls sitting in the village, one did not forsake the legacy of the family of tea growing and picking it was the stamp of honor and nobility to grow Turkeys tea that made it famous.

The stars twinkled in the black night, they could hear the waves scrape against the coral rocks and polish the stones on the beach.

“ If you will excuse me, I am going to sleep……” said their sister and went inside.

“eh…eehhhhh said the eldest and smilingly nudged the younger brother.

“Abaey this is not a joke…… I am serious”

“ Well I have a solution for you if you really really want to marry a rich girl outside the family”

Omer turned to his brother, his face lit up in the silvery light of the moon, and there was a question in his eager eyes………”

“ How Abaey…….”

His older brother hesitated observing the innocent face of his younger brother and wondering if he was up to it and then saw a spark of something in his eyes……. Perhaps a hidden wild desire for adventure……”

“ There is a coach tomorrow from Istanbul…………..” and he stopped.

“ and………….?” Asked his brother

“A rich elite family of Istanbul is coming to tour Rize……….” Omer waited with bated breath.

The older brother went on..” There are two sisters on the coach with their mother and Aunt laden with gold and gems. One of them is a beautiful brunette, I have seen her photo from a concert where she played the violin”

He stopped ……….” You do know that the only way you can marry rich and not within the family is to abduct this girl and present her as a fait accompli to Annae and of course her family will not take her back except as your wife …………….because……You know……..” he trailed off without underlining the fact that once a woman had been compromised she automatically became the bride of that person and no one could object.

“ Let s go………..” Omer could not believe that the words had come from his mouth.

“ are you sure?” asked his brother?

“Evet!” said Omer and they went in to sleep on it and make plans for Friday evening.

Omer fell asleep with dreams of dark brown tresses mingling with his dark hair and warm golden eyes looking at him with love and kindness……….till he fell into the oblivion of a dreamless state.

Am Ottoman mansion on the Bosphorus ( courtesy NYT)

Meanwhile in Istanbul…………Friday

“Stop it….!” Her mother slapped her hand and took the book and threw it on the floor. “Do you think book smarts is going to get you a husband?”

Learn to dress your hair and do your eyes so that the men on the coach look at you and maybe fall for you”

“Annae……..” she protested.

“The only reason we are taking the coach for the Black sea tour is that the rich businessmen from Izmir are going to be on it,

Her brunette haired sister smiled smugly………”evet Annae…” we will snatch them don’t you worry.

As Selin picked up her hijab to wrap her hair her mother objected, just leave the front open so the men can see your hair.

Aghast Selin looked at her sister……”but Annae?”

“OK OK cover up let’s go” Her mother relented. She was tired of how religious Selin had become since she started her Quran and Arabic lessons.

Their suitcases were hauled on to the coach, She was sweating…….how she hated to sweat in these elaborate dresses, why couldn’t she wear a simple muslin skirt and an off the shoulder white cotton blouse like the ones worn by the women of the Karadeniz villages…..

He silk dress trailed behind her, the pearls and amethysts embroidered into her bodice were understated to remind people that she was a virgin and unmarried.

The only excess that her mother had allowed on this trip was to let her wear her Aquamarine pendant that matched her eyes.

The gauze and silk headdress left the delicate lobes of her ears open to aquamarine earrings that hung in teardrops.

Selin resisted wearing them, “ Annae we are going to villages not an opera” she said.

“Put them on” said her mother with steel in her voice.

“With this attitude even with your looks you will never find a suitable husband”  said her mother exasperated with her younger daughter. She never imagined how true her words would be just 24 hours later.

A sitting room at the Bosphorus ( courtesy pinterest )

Selin and her sister sat in the drawing room in their royal Ottoman house looking out at the Bosphorus, the walls were covered with French silk damascene wallpaper and the Grand Steinway piano sat regally in the far corner. Turkish silk rugs from Cappadocia covered the floor and famous French paintings of still life adorned the walls.

She looked out at the Bosphorus and felt she was saying goodbye………. She shook herself I am only going on a weekend trip I will be back on Monday.

The servants announced the car which the driver had brough to the portico, Their mother got up and beckoned to the girls, 

“we are leaving……..” she raised her voice towards the library, and a guttural sound came from the master of the house “ Enjoy yourself! It will be nice to have a weekend of quiet in the house”

And on second thought he asked “ are you taking Shareef ( the senior servant)” 

“ Yes Yes, of course”  said the lady of the house and stepped out of the house and into the gleaming black Bentley.

They were dropped off at the Rize chartered stagecoach stop. They got on the sleek though small bus followed by two well-dressed young men. One of them looked obviously foreign and a little effeminate but spoke fluent Turkish

The trip was smooth and uneventful until they were only an hour away from Rize. Suddenly the road became uneven and the coach rocked back and forth dropping into large potholes jarring the passengers and soon their coach came to a complete stop.

“ what is the matter” asked the mother from the handsome effeminate man who was going on business to Rize. He was visiting from France where His Turkish father and French mother lived.

“ Let me check”  he said. “ Ohhhh we have a flat tire actually two of them” These are such wretched primitive roads, why doesn’t the government do something about it?” he waved his handkerchief in front of his nose  as if to prevent the dust from striking his face.

tea pickers

Selin looked out of the window……….. on one side were the rolling hills filled with green leaves of tea, the workers were bent down to collect the leaves on the slopes. She noticed with surprise that they were all women. They were wearing the colorful floral skirts and white blouses she had always been attracted to. Their hair was covered with a bandana which was also very colorful, They looked like flowers in a sea of green.

She turned to her sister and asked……..” Abla why are all the harvesting workers women?” .

Her sister turned up her nose “ I guess they are poor!” 

“ what kind of an answer is that? Aren’t the men poor?’ The older man a little shabbily dressed sitting a seat ahead listening to their conversation chimed in “ the men are out to sea as most of them are sailors or tradesmen”

Selin turned her gaze back to the women on the slopes their colorful floral dresses, white blouses and tight handkerchief hijabs looked so beautiful and pure amidst the green tea plants. She wondered what it was like to be free on the slopes all day unencumbered by the heavy silk skirts in the suffocating surroundings of the fake aristocracy of Istanbul.

She was about to find out.

When the sun dips in the Black sea darkness falls like a giant black cloth, plunging everyone and everything into the inky black darkness Fortunately the bus was repaired before it went completely dark and started back up the hill, gingerly proceeding forth for an hour, the road was bumpy on the unpaved gravel which was almost invisible. The mist had descended and night had fallen in earnest, they had been delayed by the flat tires otherwise by this time they would have been having tea in their hotel.

As the bus turned around the hairpin bend it suddenly came to a grinding halt with squealing brakes. The sound of gunshots rent the air, women screamed, Selin noted the scream was coming from her mother, she got up from her seat, her veil had fallen over her face partially obstructing her eyes and forehead from an onlooker. 

Suddenly she was choking with the dusty smell of potatoes as a sack was flung over her head and her wriggling body was tied with a string. There was pandemonium in the bus while she was half dragged half carried by the muscular arms of what felt like a tall but lanky man. Someone shouted for the women to throw their jewels through the window to escape harm, while the driver was being held at gunpoint.

She was choking on the dust in the sack and could not even scream……

She was being carried on someone’s shoulders when she first tried to resist.

Abey ………. I need a rope.” Came a baritone male voice. ‘She was paralyzed with confusion and fear, as she was stood on her feet. Mentally she tried to run, scream and shout and no sound came from her throat, she was completely frozen with.  

Nothing in her 16 years of sheltered life had prepared her for how an abduction felt…………. it was very different from the romance novels she would read.

Fast forward…………that night, in the hut in the mountains:

He untied the sack and golden blond hair tumbled from her bun onto her shoulders, her veil and hijab were still in the sac. Blue eyes ablaze with anger and shot with shards of fear stared at him in the dim lantern light.

He was stunned…….blonde and blue eyes: a hated combination, he hated it with a passion.

“ You were supposed to be brunette.” he tailed off.

“ I hate you!” she said she as she pushed away from him, the potato sack pooling at her feet. “let me go!” she said her voice hoarse from the potato dust and dirt.

“ I hate blue eyes and blonde hair; but this is my naseep, I don’t want to see you and he blew out the lantern as he led her with firm hands to the quilt on the floor….”

They were married by the village Imam the next morning, her eyes swollen with crying as no one from her family had come to rescue her or even enquire about her.

The legend in the village was that one of the captains had married a woman who could read, write and dance but she hated male children and had an explosive temper.

The pebbles embedded in the heart at the Karadeniz

Thus is the history of the Black Sea, the women on the slopes, the men in the ships, their dreams and their ambitions, one sees romance where there is only the harshness of sheer hard work, one sees kindness where one does not expect, one sees anger where there seems to be no reason……….. nothing much is tempered by the teachings of Deen because even though the Black sea is immersed in the sunnah , the pebbles on the beach, the men in the boats and the women on the slopes have be polished by the crashing waves at the coast of the Karadeniz and by the passage of time.

The descendants of this couple are doctors, lawyers and engineers and live in Istanbul, but they are constantly pulled to the Karadeniz by their ancient roots and their desire to understand their past…….

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