Ankara Stories: Everything stops still for Atatürk and coffee cups

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The Independent Online

It's a stunning transformation. At 9.04am, Ankara's ugly four-way junction at Kizilay is, as usual, manic. Beeping yellow taxis and pushy blue minibuses cut each other up. Businessmen, students, street hawkers and shoppers surge off the kerb as soon as the lights change. When I join my friend near a half-hearted fountain, I can barely hear her above the noise.

It's a stunning transformation. At 9.04am, Ankara's ugly four-way junction at Kizilay is, as usual, manic. Beeping yellow taxis and pushy blue minibuses cut each other up. Businessmen, students, street hawkers and shoppers surge off the kerb as soon as the lights change. When I join my friend near a half-hearted fountain, I can barely hear her above the noise.

Then at 9.05am it stops.

Wherever they are - cars mid-way across the junction, passengers halfway off the bus, dustman broom in hand - everyone freezes to mark the exact moment in November 1938 when modern Turkey's founding father, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, died. Some motorists stand by their cars. Others sit rigid behind the wheel. Everyone around me is standing in an attitude of private respect: backs a little straighter, heads slightly bowed. Atatürk's death is commemorated throughout Turkey. But the veneration is greater here in Ankara, the dull, dusty town he chose as his capital over politically promiscuous Istanbul.

Above us, from the rooftops of modern Ankara's sleek business centres, air-raid sirens wail over the suspended crowds. Then, as they fade, spines relax, heads come up, busy people press on. A voyeur by the fountain, I am amazed, fascinated, and slightly shamed, too, that no one in my country's history has ever elicited this kind of respect from me.

I wonder who put the advert there, of all places? Right in the middle of the busy avenue which divides the Presidential Palace from the Prime Minister's residence, a glossy poster appeared last week, of a beautiful model with immaculate skin, lipsticked smile ... and an exquisite silk headscarf wrapped over her hair.

She looks lovely: better than the tarty leatherwear girl who was on the same spot last month. But in fact she's more provocative. Turkey's secular establishment frowns on headscarves. Seen as an expression of political Islam, they are banned from schools, universities and government offices. Because she chooses to wear one, Emine, the wife of the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, is never invited to cross this road for functions hosted by the secularist President, Ahmet Necdet Sezer. While she can dine with the Blairs and take tea with the Bushes, a presidential dinner in her own country is out of the question.

If you can stomach it, the bitter brown sludge at the bottom of your Turkish coffee cup is worth investigating. Up-ended over the saucer, these grindings can reveal your fal - the key to your love life, health and career. Traditionally, fal is read by a relative, neighbour or a friend. Poring over the gloopy puddle in the saucer and residue in the cup, they pick out fortune-telling patterns. In Ankara, a magnet for provincial students and villagers seeking work, a fal-reading aunt is not always to hand. The answer? Tucked between the downtown internet bars, a cluster of recently opened "fal cafés", which sell both coffee and analysis to a young and anxious-looking clientele.

The urban approach doesn't mess around. "Do you have a gynaecological complaint ?" the intense young woman asks me within seconds of seeing the gunge in my cup. "Do you have a gun?" she asks my husband. "Or a heart condition?" Neither of us slept particularly well that evening. Perhaps it was the coffee.

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