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Urfa’s old city is an invigorating array of tones and sounds. Dominated by an intriguing maze of narrow streets, the buildings all share the same sun-baked sandy hue, suggesting that they rose up from the earth on their own centuries ago. Landscape and cityscape blend into one here, and cars are outnumbered by ornately painted motorbikes equipped with sidecars, vehicles perfectly equipped to navigate roads too narrow for vans and sedans. Older men don poşu scarves of varying color combinations, and Arabic is spoken more frequently than Turkish.

Believed by locals to be the birthplace of Abraham, Urfa is known as the “City of Prophets.” The municipality proudly advertises this fact. Its most famous site is Balıklı Göl, a lush pool filled with carp thought to be sacred, housed in the serene courtyard of a 13th-century mosque.

We were so intoxicated by the city’s sheer beauty, having not seen its vivid tones anywhere else that, a cold evening beer or three almost fell off our agenda. Pious Urfa is no party city. During our visit, we only encountered two tekels, the cluttered kiosks selling alcohol and cigarettes that can be found on every street corner in many parts of Istanbul.

There is a similar lack of drinking establishments, and we’ve heard that the few around are the seedy type exclusively inhabited by men. However, our research led us to the city’s lone bar where men and women can hang out in a comfortable atmosphere, complete with Kurt Cobain posters on the wall and live music on the weekends.

As one heads north on foot, old Urfa quickly fades into new, resembling the typical modern Turkish city, with six-story apartment blocks and numerous construction sites. Cafe Antik is located near the beginning of this transition, hidden in plain view between tall apartment blocks. It’s owned and operated by 31-year-old Celal Ay, a longtime veteran of the service sector.

“I started working at a cafe, just emptying out ashtrays,” said the tall, athletically built Ay. He later studied management at Anadolu University in the city of Eskişehir, did his mandatory military service upon graduation and wasted no time in acquiring Cafe Antik.

“I took the place over on the second day after I came back from the military,” he said, adding that a friend had been running the establishment for more than 10 years prior. It was Urfa’s only venue of its kind then, and it still holds that distinction.

Ay is a Kurd with roots in the Iraqi border city of Zakho, though his family has been in Urfa for several generations. Upon entering Antik, a sign welcomes guests in both Turkish and Kurdish. The walls are stacked with paperbacks, including a biography of Mahir Çayan, the iconic Turkish leftist revolutionary to whom Jimmy Fallon bears an uncanny resemblance.

We could have once imagined a similar establishment in Diyarbakır, the city two hours east from Urfa that is widely considered to be the cultural capital of the Turkey’s Kurdish southeast. But central Diyarbakır has been engulfed in the conflict between the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and the Turkish military in recent months, leaving the historic central quarter of Sur in shambles.

Urfa has not witnessed such conflict, and though it is hosting hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees, the tension seems to be minimal. In Cafe Antik, a different type of newcomer is the main crowd.

“Most of our customers are foreigners. By foreign, I mean not from Urfa,” he said, adding that most of his patrons are schoolteachers who grew up in cities in western Turkey and were appointed to the southeastern province.

The small sign on the door leading into the basement bar can easily be missed, and the online map listings for Cafe Antik put it on the wrong side of Atatürk Boulevard. It’s on the left heading north. The discrete location and unassuming entrance seem strategic, though Ay says the bar’s status as the only comfortable, mixed-gender drinking den in Urfa hasn’t caused it any problems.

“The reason that we haven’t had to deal with any pressure is because we are from Urfa and because we come from one of the area’s biggest aşirets,” Ay said with a grin, referring to the tribal system that still commands power in this part of the country.

On a semi-busy Friday night, a sharply dressed Ay shuffled from table to table, serving pints of beer alongside a refreshing snack of carrot sticks dipped in lemon juice. A talented local band playing Turkish folk songs regaled the crowd of mostly 20-somethings.

Cafe Antik also has a rather surprising contingent: local police. Yet even in an establishment with a clear pro-Kurdish, leftist vibe, this isn’t an issue. The police come to drink and unwind, Ay said, and he has no problems with them.

We suddenly realized this actually makes sense in Urfa. All over town but particularly in the old city, night and day from the newer section where Cafe Antik is located, we picked up a laid-back, cheerful atmosphere that gets overshadowed by Urfa’s reputation as a holy site. In a Turkey going through a particularly dark and chaotic period, the thought of police and Kurdish leftists downing cold mugs of Tuborg in the same room gives us a glimmer of hope.

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Published on August 26, 2016

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