Mehlika Seval, mother, guide, friend, passionate advocate for a modern secular Turkey, died on March 27. Meli had a bigger impact on me than any guide I’ve ever worked with.
I met Meli on a day-long bus tour she was leading from Kusadasi. Seeing beach balls on the bus, she started by saying, “This is a demanding and educational tour, and I aim to give you a better understanding of our history and culture. I’m going back to the station so those interested in lying on the beach can take a different bus.” By the end of that day, watching Meli whirling gracefully through rustic villages, excavation sites, and lush countryside — introducing us to farmers at work, exotic taste-treats, and ancient statues as if they were alive today — I was only thinking one thing: I must connect this woman with Americans wanting to experience Turkey.
We agreed to co-lead tours, and a year later (still barely knowing Meli), I met her at the Istanbul airport with 20 eager travelers. I was a bit nervous — this was in pre-Internet days, and organized group travel in Turkey was dicey. But it turned out to be the beginning of a ten-year partnership in celebrating Turkish culture by getting American travelers out of their comfort zones. We discovered that the stimulation was perfect for nurturing a broader perspective. Meli co-hosted four TV shows on Turkey with me. (Our Eastern Turkey show, one of the most demanding and rewarding I’ve ever produced, is still in circulation.)
Meli was a passionate Turk in the modern, Atatürk sense. She had a hard-to-fully-appreciate admiration and love of Atatürk, who established the Turkish Republic in 1923 and remains the beloved father of modern Turkey. Meli’s father died during a moment of silence remembering Atatürk. As a young girl, Meli worried that she’d never be able to love another man because of her love of Atatürk. If there’s any blessing in Meli’s sickness and death, it’s that it came in time to deliver her from being aware of how the current president of Turkey is the anti-Atatürk. Knowing Meli, her reaction to his post-coup consolidation of power would have probably landed her in jail.
Meli danced at every chance she had. She was a mean backgammon player. She cared for her bus drivers as if they were family. She treasured her children, Asli and Ahmet. Meli fought for civil liberties and was a breathtaking example of a woman standing tall in a society thoroughly dominated by men. She spoke boldly against the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in her land. She traveled far and wide for many years across the United States, teaching at whatever schools would host her. Meli seemed happiest when on her tour bus. She seemed to live on her bus, meeting a steady parade of American groups, as she was clearly on a mission: to share her culture in all its fascinating glory…yesterday and today.
Meli’s teaching charisma blossomed at ancient sites (she wrote a beautiful tourist guidebook to her favorite, Ephesus) and in Turkey’s far east, where the ethnographic festival of Turkey is most vivid.
Anatolia, the land of mothers, has lost one of its finest. But Meli’s impact will live on in the generations of guides she inspired and travelers who she introduced so artfully to her beloved culture. Thank you, Meli. Bless you, Meli. And guide on.
Rick Steves and countless other travelers whom you inspired