One thousand and one tastes

One thousand and one tastes

The tiny handwriting covered the whole page. It was not easy to read, not only because the letters were so miniscule, but also spaces between the lines were very tight, there were even no margins left in the paper. For the writer apparently every square inch of paper in the notebook was valuable, he was aware of the fact that he had to make very clever use of all the space to note down every moment of his voyage, his impressions would we invaluable in the future.

Now, about three centuries later, looking down the open pages dated 1709 of the travelogue, I utter to myself, of all the glitter and glitz, this is the highlight of the exhibition for me. The new exhibition at Arkas Art Center in İzmir, titled “Thousand and One Nights”, curated by Jean-Luc Maseo, is a striking show that takes the visitor on a magical carpet flight over the mystical world of the Orient. The exhibition is greatly based on paintings, statues, tapestries, artifacts and costumes belonging to Lucien Arkas collection, together with loan pieces from private collections and museums from France with a modern touch of installations by contemporary artists Felekşan Onar with her illuminating glasswork and Suhandan Özay Demirkan with her cloud-like textile ceiling piece. Just across the street a black-light installation by Julien Salaud at the French Cultural Center contributes to the exhibiton. However, my personal highlight pieces remain to be the notebooks handwritten by Antoine Gallard, the famous 18th century French orientalist, writer, scholar and traveler who was the first to introduce the tales of 1001 Nights to the western world.

Antoine Galland was attached to the French embassy in Istanbul in 1670, in addition to his excellent knowledge of Greek and Latin, he mastered Turkish, Arabic and Persian languages and literature. He traveled extensively in Ottoman lands, to Syria, the Levant and beyond, and he is also known to have spent time in İzmir where he first landed in 1676. His memoirs shed light to the past of İzmir, and also to his amazing voyages, which gifted us with this inspirational collection of eastern folktales, which eventually led to the creation of this fantastic exhibition at Arkas Art Center. 

This magnificent corpus of Oriental tales had taken Europe and then the world by storm, augmenting the curiosity on the unknown mysteries of the eastern world. In fact, Galland had initiated the wave of Orientalism in Europe. The tales of the Thousand and One Nights surely had a major influence upon the development of the fantasy literature of the 18th century, which evolved in tandem with a passion for all that was exotic. One can say that the tales also evoke a curiosity and fascination about the flavors of the east, the mysterious source of spices that had seduced European taste buds since the medieval times.

The initial frame story is that of the ruthless ruler Shahryār and his clever wife Scheherazade. Shahryār, betrayed by his first wife, believes that all women are untrustworthy and infidel, and starts to have every single girl executed after the nuptial night. It is only the shrewd Scheherazade that will halt the vicious circle. Scheherazade must be the most famous storyteller of all times. On the first night of their marriage, she starts to tell her husband a tale, but does not end it deliberately.  Each night she weaves one tale into another, each more captivating than the one before. Curious about how the story would evolve, Shahryār postpones the execution of Scheherazade every morning. Amidst a geographical backdrop that stretches from Arabia, Persia, Egypt and North Africa to China, Scheherazade whiles the hours away with her tales that follow one upon the other, evoking for her audience a variety of exotic lands, in which many adventures transpire. Supposedly this goes on for one thousand and one nights.

This is the story, but in reality the effect of the tales has lasted for far more than a thousand and one nights; these works of immense imagination unfolding a surreal universe continue to remain an inexhaustible source of inspiration over the course of the centuries. Now it is time explore the fascinating journey of Gallard together with a cornucopia of orientalist artwork and inspirational installations. In fact, what 1001 Nights exhibition does is to bring out the genie of İzmir, Lucien Arkas, the magician who always manages to take us on a whopping ride on the magic carpet.

Note: The exhibit will be open till 30th December 2018.

Book of the Week: Before visiting the 1001 Nights exhibition, I’ve received my copy of a wonderful book, “The Culinary Crescent, A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine”, but did not have the right time to browse through its pages. Written by Peter Heine, Professor of Islamic Studies and translated to English by Peter Lewis, it is published by Gingko. Now I’m lost in its pages, the book embarks the reader to a fascinating voyage of the Middle Eastern tastes showing how cuisine interweaves with religion, history, tradition, folklore and sociability, just as the tales of 1001 nights does. It is a must read and taste voyage, providing scholarly knowledge to the general reader and 70 accessible recipes to the curious cook. 

Fork of the Week: Sweet something? When listening to never-ending tales of Scheherazade, Shahryār must have craved for sweets to suppress his anxiety. These sweetmeats drenched in sesame are perfect for nibbling through 1001 nights, they will have an “Open Sesame” effect, and bring you the taste of the Orient, unfolding the exotic flavors of the east. The recipe is of course from my newly discovered treasure chest, the wonderful book, “The Culinary Crescent, A History of Middle Eastern Cuisine”. Madgūga, literally meaning ‘ground in a mortar’, are made with dried medjool dates. This is how it is described in the book: “In a heavy-based pan on the hob, heat 125 grams plain flour over medium heat until it begins to turn brown and give off an aroma. Remove from the heat and, in a processor or using a hand blender, mix 400 grams stoned dates and 3 tablespoons tahini with the toasted flour until you can form a ball out of it. If the mixture is too stiff, add a little more of the sesame paste. Now take 1 teaspoon each of ground cardamom, ground cinnamon and ground coriander seed and work them into dough. Form little balls from the date mixture and press into each of them a roasted half-walnut. Roll the balls in sesame seeds and serve. 

Cork of the Week: Lucien Arkas is not only is a keen collector of arts, but also owns LA winery, which produces premium wines. LA Consensus Shiraz-Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot 2014 is just fit to enjoy one of the nights or more of 1001 nights. A Bronze medal winner at the International Wine Challenge, the organic wine bridges eastern and western grape notes, spicy and seducing, plummy with hints of coffee, perfect for a magical night under the stars and the crescent.

Aylin Öney Tan, Turkish food, cuisine