Alan Semerdjian >

How Turkish Coffee Got Its Name
How to Read a Fortune in a Cup of Turkish Coffee




How Turkish Coffee Got Its Name

I want to bring coffee here and read the gas station attendant’s fortune in the grounds that take the shape of a ghost or treasure chest. The kind of coffee my mother used to make. And before that, her mother. The kind that rises on the stove in the pot. Rises like the inside of a volcano. The side you never see until it reaches the brim. Then you pull it off and serve it. In tiny cups. The kind I’ll bring and spread out across the counter during an oil change.

I want to bring this, but I’m not sure what to call it. My mother called it soorj, the Armenian word for coffee. And when she translated it to me and my American friends, it was Turkish coffee. It was always Turkish coffee. And it was easy to remember that way.

I want to bring it here to these two men and their family, who own the station. I know they’re Turkish because it’s in their eyes. It’s in their eyes because of the way they look at me when I speak the few words in Turkish that I know. I know these words because I am Armenian. That is also why I know they are Turkish. Typically, I should know more than a few words, but I wasn’t born there. Most Turks know a little Armenian; most Armenians know a lot of Turkish.

I am also carrying a book of Nazim Hikmet’s jail poems. After getting out of prison, it was he who wrote, “This Armenian citizen won’t forgive / his father’s slaughter in the Kurdish mountains. / But he likes you, / because you also can’t forgive / those who blackened the Turkish people’s name.” He wrote many beautiful poems about many different subjects. He is a famous Turkish poet.

The man at the gas station notices my book: How you read that now? He asks me. I tell him I want to learn how to write poetry. I ask him his name. We begin to name things, everything else: Syria, Cairo, father and joke, traditional instruments and Ataturk,, government and politics, love and work, other poets, and, eventually, it’s time to go.

I want to bring coffee here and spend a lot of time going over the shapes. Time is an animal afraid of change. Poetry a circle. A shell. A turtle. An hourglass on its side. Static folios of sand, a mountain. I want to bring coffee here, but I’m not sure what to call it.




How to Read a Fortune in a Cup of Turkish Coffee

She studied fate on Sundays. It wasn't every Sunday, but it felt like it, mostly because of the way she held the handle, read the insides like fantastic scriptures or subway maps. It was easy for her. In ten minutes of work, she'd find two birds carrying white beaded necklaces, a baby in the trees, and the curse of an eye exploding out of a volcano. The young in the family couldn't wait to grow up—their tongues hanging out for coffee and a lick of the old country. In the Semerdjian family room, the women sang stories like gypsies while I marked my height against the hall closet door. They read each other's minds.

I once saw my mother begin her spin of the cup on a blue afternoon. I remember how she swirled its insides, loosening the essential fibers at the bottom, then turned it over. The tiny layer of thick mud poured into the saucer's curves. Its descent was slow and complete; the handle of the cup, upside down now, looked like an Armenian nose.

She, too, gave her cup to my grandmother. She, who washed her clothes, translated her mail, took the same address and never made a sound to wake her at night across the hall. She asked for her fate as well. What could my grandmother tell her? What could she read in the bottom of that cup of coffee that she didn't help write? What could she unpack that wasn't already put away? They tried at it for hours. Hours turned to days, days turned to weeks and weeks turned the conversations into graffiti you almost forget is there.

I knew then that I would ask for the same treatment. Over time, I would finish my cup in a dimly lit middle eastern café on the lower east side and tell the waiter to keep the change. My grandmother would be long passed away. My mother would not be around, perhaps in the old family home worrying about the length of my coat for the season. I knew then that when the night came, I would put my pen and notebook away, turn the cup over, and imagine what he'd see.