Eric, Man of Malatya: Southeast Turkey

At the end of our three days in Malatya in southeast Turkey, we hardly could walk down the street without being mobbed and some shouting "Eric!" Maybe it's due to his silly name, which translates to "plum" in Turkish.

Eric's fame began with the policemen on the bus up to Nemrut Mountain. They were tireless singers; we felt like we were at camp. Every few songs the chief would stop and call out, "Eric! Your turn." Eric would fumble through a set of bogus Turkish lyrics, which sent the police into wild applause.

"Ah ha ha - Eric! Yeah!"

Back in town, a band of shoeshine boys with blackened hands trails us wherever we go.

"Hello! What's your name? Eric? Hello Eric!"

We walk through the market and are swarmed. The cheese vendor leaps over the counter and grabs Eric by the arm, dragging him into his shop. He offers us samples, then asks me to take his photo with Eric.

The spice vendor insists we come into his shop for tea. The bread guys, the donut vendors, the cigarette sellers - all want Eric to sit , have a chat, and take a photo with them.

Hours pass before we make our way through the market. We're just about there when a female voice cuts through the air.

"Eric? Eric!"

It is the singing police chief's wife. She shows us her photos from Nemrut Mountain - many of which we're in - then she invites us to her house for tea. We must decline, as we're feeling queasy.

You see, one of the drawbacks of Eric's popularity is that people feed us all sorts of fruits, vegetables, sweets, cheese, bread and tea, and insist we eat the excessive quantities they provide. To cope, we've become adept at sliding apricots up our sleeves and stashing potatoes in our pockets. In all sincerity, we shook our clothes the other day, and out fell one and a half boiled potatoes, 5 apricots, one tomato, and a handful of seeds used to freshen breath.

But back to Eric - the real test of his popularity came on Nemrut Mountain, when he went head to head with the Turkish Regis Philbin, host of the local version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Sure, the TV star was surrounded by admirers, and people thrust babies in his face and snapped photo after photo. But who drew the bigger crowd?

You know who.

We are about to leave Malatya now on a night bus bound for the Iranian border, and - can it be? yes, it is - the hotel desk clerk is giving Eric the Turkish double-cheek kiss and is helping him on with his backpack.

I struggle on with my own pack, unassisted.

Jun 30 - Jul 3, 2001

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