John Walsh: Tales of the City

‘The witch-doctor lady squatted on her seat, melting lead over a fire. It was time for my Turkish exorcism...’
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The Independent Online

It was clear to me that something was wrong. I've been on some dodgy holidays and I have a quivering antenna about these things.

Things seemed fine at first. The hotel, on Turkey's raggedy south coast, was gorgeous. Life was simple: we ate, drank, swam, read, snoozed and made holiday-style conversation in the same rectangular sun-trap every morning. The pool was warm and seductively sparkling. The Mediterranean was a dusty 15 minutes' walk to where a boat called Dazzler waited to ferry us along the Antalya coast, to swim in little coves and eat fish caught by the crew. The local Efes beer went down well; the Turkish aniseed liqueur, raki, was dangerous nectar. Rosie, our hotel boss, a Hampstead rose gone semi-native, introduced the Turkish neighbours and showed us the best beach bar (where the owner, belying his nickname of Rambo, spent hours crashed out in his hammock).

But something was definitely wrong. One clue was the forest fire that started one night as an unfurling of grey clouds on a far hillside; it soon flourished giant flames from its secret interior, like a bad-taste magician, and burned orange and red across the pine-forested slopes. How ludicrously British we felt, sitting around a table at midnight, 12 of us playing after-dinner games while the incandescent line of fire rolled over the hillcrest and seemed to be heading straight for us.

There were other clues. The sweet, soft-mouthed hotel dogs, Emma and Bella, barked on the terrace every evening, as though demanding that the darkness come outside and say that. Signs in English took on sinister meanings ("Pool Deth: 1.4 metrs.") And I became fantastically accident-prone. Striving to adjust a sun-lounger, I impaled my forehead on the spoke of a beach umbrella. Despite the sun-factor 25 with which I anointed my flesh, I picked up the kind of full-body burns hitherto associated with Joan of Arc. In bed I lay groaning, while blood from the Beach Umbrella Incident oozed from my chin and pooled on my lightly roasted chest.

Whatever had gone wrong, action was required. Rosie, who knows everything, suggested we try an exorcism, to remove the nazar, or Evil Eye. A local woman would do it for us, and throw in breakfast beforehand. "Nice combination," said my friend Jon Canter. "What does she call it? Brexorcism?"

We all trooped down to her house, sat on mats, drank tea, ate cheese-and-spinach pancakes and thought: well, this is a little weird.

The ceremony is known as kursun dokturmesi, or The Lead-Pouring, and it goes back 200 years. Young Turks today don't approve of it. They have no time for mystic-folklore bollocks. They are go-ahead, groovy people who dance to Istanbul techno. We sophisticated Brits, on the other hand, lapped it up.

The witch-doctor lady was massively broad in the beam, and squatted on her wooden seat like a giant nesting bird. She started by melting lumps of lead in a blackened saucepan over an open fire, while each of us in turn lay under a sheet. She arranged a trayload of voodoo fetish objects: a comb, an onion, some bread, some money, a rose petal – emblems of humility, the only way to ward off the evil eye – around a bowl of water. When the lead liquified, she heaved herself up, held a tray with the water in one hand, the saucepan in the other, and poured the lead into the bowl over the sheeted face of the supine figure. It's alarming to have molten lead fly through the air inches from your face, but we were terribly brave. When the lead hit the water, it solidified into curious shapes, each quite different from the last, which the eldritch dame interpreted for each of us, twisting the little sculptures this way and that, snipping off bits, as chuckles and whistles emerged from her gypsy face.

Her commentary became predictable. To the ladies, she said: "There is a man who is talking about you/ looking at you/ thinking about you," (I guess that was probably likely,) although she sometimes varied it with: "You are very tired," or: "You must endure a long journey." To the men, she was more adventurous: my son was told: "You must be careful of your right leg," and: "You will buy two necklaces." In each case she did the lead-pouring three times, over the head, stomach and feet of each victim, and usually concluded: "The man is no longer talking about you," or: "The tiredness has gone," or: "You have risen above your problems, like this metal bird in my hand." All the evil eye stuff, you see, had been extracted, a little too simply.

When it was my turn, I lay under the sheet feeling idiotic but oddly excited. Above me, a splash and a hiss. The crone studied the shape, which looked astonishingly like a man head-butting a poolside umbrella strut. She regarded my burnt nose, the cut, the grog-blossom on my cheek and beamed. A giggle escaped her lips. "You have had an illness," she said, "but it is better now." Which was clearly South Turkish for: "You are a neurotic Western urbanite without a clue how to handle fire, sun or raki."

But from that day, I stopped crashing into things, I lived in the shade and took lots of water with the aniseed moonshine. The dogs stopped barking. The forest fire died down. It was brilliant. The evil eye had departed. So next time you're in trouble, call me and I'll nip round with some lead, a saucepan and a tray of onions, rose petals and combs...

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