Women-only tour of Turkey helps change local women’s fortunes

My clumsy fingers lose hold of the thread and it unravels, spiralling out of control. Back to square one. I pick up the wire frame and wind the brightly coloured cotton around it once more. Aasma, tasked with showing me how to handcraft intricate earrings, is patient with my mistakes. But then, she knows all about things falling to pieces, and having to start again. Arriving in Istanbul as a refugee from Syria, she didn’t find it easy to pick up the threads of a new life. Work permits for displaced people are hard to come by, so she had no hope of finding a secretarial job, the career she’d had at home.

Here at the Olive Tree, a community centre on a narrow lane in Istanbul’s Capa district, she found a way to begin again. Gathered around a long wooden table, while their kids play downstairs in the children’s centre, more than 40 women refugees embroider bags, print T-shirts and hand-coil drop earrings – with the tagline “drop earrings, not bombs” – for their own fashion brand, Muhra. The proceeds help keep their families afloat financially.

As Aasma and her friends show us the basics of jewellery-making, they share stories of homes left behind. “I don’t think I will ever be able to go back to Syria,” says Aasma. “But still, I am lucky. I haven’t lost anyone, yet. Many of the women here, their families …” She trails off, but the silence speaks.

I’m visiting this social enterprise scheme as part of Intrepid Travel’s new Turkey: Women’s Expedition, a tour led by and for women. We travel from Istanbul to the wind-carved rock-scapes of Cappadocia and on to Kekova, a sleepy-feeling island off the Aegean coast. Our itinerary intersperses famous sights with the chance to meet local women who are using tourism to change their fortunes.

Intrepid launched the first of these women-only tours in 2018, to Iran, Morocco and Jordan. The company’s customer base is 65% female anyway, and these tours sold out in a month, making them the most successful style of trip in the company’s 30-year history. Tours of Nepal, India and Turkey were added, and this month the operator introduced trips to Pakistan, and Israel and Palestine.

In Turkey, travelling in an all-female group opens doors that would be closed to a mixed-gender party, and we are able to make heartfelt connections with Turkish women – and support their businesses. Only 30% of Turkish women are in paid work, and this is something Intrepid hopes to change by championing and mentoring female business owners.

One of these is Keşke, an Istanbul-based single mother who teaches and performs traditional dance, from Turkish folk dance to the Egyptian-style belly dancing that has become popular in Turkey. We’re here for a class in the latter, and as we tie scarves adorned with jingling bells around our waists she tells us how what was once considered low-class dancing is now de rigueur at weddings. Her snake hips seem to move in directions ours can’t, but by the end of a laughter-filled hour we can all stumble through the semblance of a routine.

No one could give a warmer reception than Sabahat, who welcomes us into the Istanbul home she has shared with her daughter and grandsons since her husband and son-in-law died. The second I enter I’m enveloped in a hug, then ushered into her kitchen to be plied with food. There’s a börek pastry the size of a manhole cover, candied pumpkin with fresh cream, homemade baklava and turkish delight.

We’re nominally here to learn the traditionally female art of reading coffee grounds, but this is just the start. Sabahat is a one-woman party. She sings, plays tambourine, teaches us to dance. After our coffee fortunes, she melts pieces of lead to reveal yet more of what the future holds – one of us should expect a proposal, another a pregnancy – and to dispel bad spirits that may be hovering. I don’t see where they could hide: Sabahat’s life-affirming force fills the apartment. Before we go, she presses more gifts on us – prayer beads she brought back from her umrah pilgrimage (currently banned as part of coronavirus precautions).

This tour doesn’t skip the classic sights – in Istanbul there’s time to visit the usual mosques, bazaars and palaces before we move on to central Turkey, where we’re up at 3am for a sunrise balloon flight over Cappadocia.

Back on the ground, in a traditional cave house, local, self-taught chef Nuray cooks us lunch of dolmas, purslane salad, courgette patties and her award-winning baklava. Seven years ago, her daughters entered her in a local cookery competition because they wanted the prize money to buy a computer. Now, her business – providing traditional meals and cookery lessons to tourists – is helping put the girls through university.

Even though working for a salary remains relatively new for many Turkish women, one of the nation’s most famous exports is a result of their talents. Historically, weaving was a female pursuit and women’s lives are written into the warp and weft of Turkey’s carpets, if you know how to read them. Our lesson in this art comes from Ruth, a New Zealander who has been in the rug trade here for 30 years. Rather than giving us the usual hard sell, Ruth speaks passionately about the women who made these rugs by hand – an art that has almost died out as nomadic and village communities modernise. I enter her shop, Tribal Collections in Göreme, somewhat half-heartedly but leave a convert, wondering how many of the cecim rugs knotted by nomadic women from Konya I can fit in my suitcase.

Our next stop is the Antalyan coast and Kekova island, an idyllic spot where bougainvillea curls around harbourside restaurant terraces and Lycian ruins pepper the wooded hillsides. On a day cruise around the island, our traditional wooden gulet is piloted by Sebahat, who owns the craft with her husband Mehmet and proudly displays her captain’s licence. We swim, eat, swim again, eat again, and as the sun sets our guide Aynur opens yet another bottle of wine.

In 2017, Intrepid committed to doubling the number of female tour leaders it employs, and 34-year-old Aynur, who grew up in Amasya in Turkey’s Black Sea region, is one of its local recruits. At our side since we landed in Istanbul, she’s the lynchpin of the trip: translator, navigator, cultural commentator, sommelier, late-night-dancer and expert Turkish coffee-maker. As we sit on deck, watching the stars, I remember the proverb she told us as she brewed the first cup of our trip: share a coffee with a Turk, and you’ll share a lifelong friendship. Whether caffeine is the catalyst I can’t say but I’ll definitely leave Turkey having forged bonds with women I’ll never forget.

The trip was provided by Intrepid Travel. Its 12-day Turkey: Women’s Expedition costs from £1,290pp

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