I have a very strong memory of the first time I ate a fig. I was sitting with my father, beside the pool at my aunt's house. My cousin's girlfriend had just kneed him in the nuts. While he sat doubled over in pain, we peeled the green skin from a fruit whose similarity to that of testicles hadn’t gone unnoticed by the ancient Greeks. The words for “figs” and “testicles” were similar, and at weddings cause for laughter in the aisles of antiquity. What's more, during the annual festival to Dionysus – the Greek god of the grape harvest, wine, fertility, religious ecstasy and ritual madness – involved carving a giant phallus from the wood of a fig tree and parading it around town.
My cousin recovered, we never saw the girlfriend again, and my parents bought a house with a fig tree in the garden. I had just started high school, and I was thirteen. It was the same year I went to my first disco and bought my first pop record (Wham! The Final), got horribly drunk on vodka and kissed a girl who tasted of cream soda. She had long blonde hair and breasts the size of large pomegranates and invited me to go swimming with her at the beach. We were just beyond the breakers when she popped the question: 'Do you know what a French kiss is?'. Before I knew it, her tongue was in my mouth and her pomegranates pressed against my chest, and there was a strange sensation stirring in my groin. She soon ran off with another boy, and I spent spring on a stone bench under the fig tree, eating its fruits and dwelling on my first kiss.
Figs have always held some form of sexual connotation. Pagans believed that because figs have the appearance of a female breast, eating the fruit helped women fall pregnant. Adam and Eve used the leaves of the fig tree to cover themselves after the incident with the apple. And even cookbooks are guilty of objectifying the poor fruit; "alternatively, you can make a fig 'flower' by creating a deep cross at the top end of the fig, then squeeze at the base with your fingers - the four quarters should open out like petals.".
In Italy, my morning workout ended with a stop at the corner grocer to buy figs, an excuse to visit the Slovakian blonde who reminded me of the girl with the pomegranate breasts. She'd help me pick out the ripest in the tray; a couple of green ones and a couple of dark purple ones. Then on the way home, I'd eat them straight from the packet. I grew incredibly fond of this luscious fruit; its delicate aroma and sweet flavour skin that encloses hundreds of seeds held in a delicious, softly purply, red flesh.
Then there was the incident in Istanbul. At the market in Kadıköy, I found ripe and plump figs piled high. It was early, and the vendors were still setting up their stalls. Tea sellers were delivering fragrant çay in tulip-shaped glasses, and there was a tink-a-tink tink as cubed sugar dissolved into the dark brown liquid. I bought four figs from a hospitable fellow and ate them on my way to Kemal'in Yeri in Moda, a sprawling tea garden perched on a hill above the Bosphorus. It's one of my favourite spots in Istanbul. A kind of ritualistic first stop whenever I visit the city. A seat under a canopy of leaves, where I can stare out on the Bosphorus and sip tea while reminiscing about love lost.
Anyway, in Islamic tradition, the fig also plays a prominent role. The Prophet Muhammad offers this sage advice: “If a Fruit ever descended from Paradise, I would say that this is it, as heaven’s fruits contain no pips. Eat from it as it relieves haemorrhoids and treats gout.” As it turns out, the Prophet was onto something, aside from health benefits, figs have lots of soluble fibre, making them a natural remedy for constipation – and lethal cocktail when mixed with the bacteria from a Turkish street market.
I spent a week with my ass on the toilet and my head in a bucket. When, on occasion, I did make it back to the couch, I soon found myself crawling back to the bathroom in agony. Fortunately, Turkish toilets come equipped with a spray-nozzle for wet ablutions. In England, I would have wiped my ass raw. For the first time, I was grateful for a toilet shower combination. I spent five days on that toilet; sipping water; shitting water; hosing my ass; showering myself, and cursing Turkish fig vendors.
I still eat figs. I just make sure to wash them now. And when I bite into one, I think of Demeter, the Greek goddess who wandered the land looking for her daughter who was kidnapped by Hades. During her travels, she stayed at the house of a man in Attica, in Southern Greece. He welcomed her into his home and treated her kindly, and she thanked him by giving him the first fig tree – a symbol of hospitality, sexuality and acute dysentery.