Meli was a force. I remember on my first trip to Turkey in 2006 when she took us to the Ataturk Memorial in Ankara. We stood, 20 American tourists, next to the massive, neo-classical building resembling a modern Acropolis. She began to tell us about Ataturk and how he founded modern Turkey. Before she could get too far into it a couple of soldiers walked up and began talking to her in halting Turkish. We were too big of a group to stand there, they told her. But where was she supposed to stand to teach her group about Turkish history, she asked them, her voice growing louder. She stood probably four feet six and glared right up at the six-foot soldiers. They gestured to the coffee shop across the grandiose plaza. Meli relented, but probably only because they carried guns.
She was a self-made woman. A single mother whose expertise in early Christian history in Anatolia—the Apostle Paul in particular—led her to guide for Rick Steves in the 90s, before going out on her own. She led trips in Turkey, Central Asia, and Mongolia.
Meli was a teacher. A trip with Meli was like taking a university level course. I remember one of our first days in Istanbul she walked us out of the Hagia Sophia to a jumble of pillars and capitols. “Feel free to sit on the history,” she said, as we sat and listened for an hour to her talk about Byzantine Constantinople.
One morning, halfway through that trip, we had breakfast at a family’s home in Konya, the birthplace of Rumi, the most famous Islamic Sufi poet. As we ate a traditional Turkish breakfast of olives, cheese, and tomatoes as she talked to us about Islam. It is a religion of peace, she explained, we shouldn’t take what the Hezbollah does as an indication of what other peaceful Muslims want. What about jihads, someone asked. A jihad, she said, literally means Holy War, but it can refer to a personal struggle. She proceeded to tell us a story about a jihad she waged against her son’s elementary school teacher.
As I listened to her I thought about our trip to the Blue Mosque in Istanbul a few days earlier. She took us there for evening prayer. As the September twilight turned bluish, hundreds of people filled the mosque. We sat at the back and observed. There was no Jerry Falwell sermon, no Fire and Brimstone. It was a practice of collective prayer and meditation. Afterwards men sat around chatting as we wandered, awestruck, by the blue tiled ceiling hundreds of feet above us.
Meli was a Cub Scout Den Mother. Several years after that trip Meli decided she wanted to go to Syria to see Greek and Roman antiquities with a group of friends. A month before we were to leave, in March 2011, the Arab Spring came to Syria. We were nervous about getting our visas, but Meli assured us it would be OK. As we stood at the border crossing from Turkey, under the midday sun and a portrait of Bashar al Assad, Meli went inside with our guide Aiman to negotiate with the border agents. When she walked out with the stack of our passports we must have clapped, although I don’t remember exactly if we actually did.
Two years ago, Meli was diagnosed with cancer– a brain tumor– and fought her own personal jihad against the illness. Yesterday she lost the final battle of that war.
When I think of the guides I’ve had in my travels I can think of nobody who I learned more from than Meli. She taught me curiosity, strength, and kindness. Most of all she taught me that travel is more than going on vacation. Travel teaches and transforms people. I wonder if the misguided US policy makers, who seek to restrict the movement of peaceful Muslims, were to take a trip to an Islamic country with Meli would they change their minds. I think so.