James Brown certainly wasn't describing the Turkish çay evi (tea house) when he crooned those four words, but he could have been. Even in Istanbul -- but especially in Turkey's more conservative east -- the çay evi is a cultural artifact claimed by males. It's run by men, staffed by men (and often boys, who work as tea runners, delivering orders beyond the tea house), and frequented by men.
In the east çay evi are everywhere, two or three to a city block. Tea houses are community halls, gossip nodes, places where men come together with their friends. They're where backgammon and cards (and other games that we're not familiar with) are played and TV is watched.
They're where buyers and sellers gather to compare purchases and sales after a morning at the market.
They're where a prayer bead maker might set up shop and a watch seller peddle his wares.
Turkish tea houses are also spots for solitary pursuits: a bite of breakfast, an hour or three of silent contemplation. They're where, if you are a retired Turkish gentleman, you might go to get away from the house, because the house is where the women are. You might call the çay evi an extension of the living room, if Turkish families were made up of nothing but men and boys.
I can't claim to be in tune with a culture that dictates that a goodly portion of its population spend the majority of its time inside the house. But it is what it is. We fell hard for eastern Turkey, and we especially love its çay evi.
As a woman I rarely felt unwelcome in a tea house -- but then again I'm a yabanci, or foreigner, and I was accompanied by a male. (I'm also "of a certain age", which in Asia and Turkey commands a respect, deference, and certain amount of courtesy that it doesn't in the United States.)
And the weather was fine so we often sat outside, especially if a çay evi was crowded. If ordering required walking inside, Dave would take care of it. He payed for our tea most of the time (when we weren't being treated -- that happened often.). And invariably if one of the men wanted to chat he'd turn to Dave first.
I spent a fair amount of time pondering this as we made our way around eastern Turkey, this "tea house as man's world" thing and my place in it. I am a strong woman, I think, who's never thought of herself as anything but equal to men. Yet here I was retreating to the background, allowing Dave to test the waters in a tea house before we decided whether or not to drink there, sitting outside so as not to offend, so sensitive to appearances that I'd avoid paying for my own tea if I could.
And yet -- some of our best, most memorable encounters in eastern Turkey took place in tea houses. Once a customer figured out that it was I, not Dave, with whom he could communicate the conversation flowed. And flowed. That I was a woman seemed to be a non-issue (or maybe, as a yabanci I am a sort of undefinable 'non-woman'.)
(As an aside, all of this tea house conversation made me wish that women in eastern Turkey had gathering places similarly accessible to travelers -- because the one thing I lacked, and wished for, on this trip were more opportunities to talk to women.)
We spent hours in (and on stools in front of) tea houses. Beautiful old tea houses with sweeping views of the Syrian plains in Mardin.
Newer, characterless tea houses with pleasant outdoor courtyards in Van. A cubbyhole of a tea house in Gaziantep, where we watched the owner assemble an order of 25 glasses in about 3 minutes.
In çay evi we learned that -- unlike American cafes and Malaysian coffee shops -- it's quite OK to bring in outside food and drink.
That laying your glass on its side when you've finished means you've had enough, and that turning it upside down means the tea wasn't good.
That Erzurumlu like a slice of lemon in their tea.
That in the east the sugar cube goes not in the glass, but under your tongue or just inside your bottom lip (like chewing tobacco) or between your lips, to be melted with each sip. (Sugar cubes in the east are also harder and denser.)
That the only man allowed in the tea maker's cubicle -- besides the tea maker -- is Ataturk.
That for us, "Cay içer misiniz?" ("Will you drink some tea?") are among the three most evocative words in the Turkish language.