When I’m traveling, I generally consider it a compliment when people take me for something other than an American. I do love my people, but bless us, we have a terrible reputation as travelers. Loud voices, loud clothes, loud annoyance when things turn out to be not like America. (On the plus side, we also get spotted for lots of smiling and eye contact. Go Team Positive!) Living in Saudi Arabia means much easier access to Europe, Africa, and Asia than you have from North America, and we factored travel into our cost of living here. So last week we stretched the weekend and went to Istanbul. Given that we are rather obviously not Turks, we got a lot of questions about where we were from. Germany? Holland? U.K.? Nope, we’re Americans, here just a few days.
“Oh!” the Turks would say, with this face:
So we’d explain that no, we didn’t have any jet lag. We live in Saudi Arabia, four hours and no time zones away.
“Oh!” they’d say, with this face:
Turks seemed anxious to let us know that they weren’t that kind of Muslims. The most anxious was an elderly and devoted man explaining the Blue Mosque to us, who wanted us to come back later and talk to an imam who spoke English and could teach us more about proper Islam. Another, a shopkeeper in the Grand Bazaar, asked us if it was true that there were religious police in Saudi Arabia. When we said yes he just started shaking his head. “Islam is all about choice,” he said. “You follow Allah because you want to. You don’t force people.”
It is striking how little Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, and Istanbul, its capitol at the empire’s peak, have in common. Saudi Islam is not representative of Islam anywhere else. For example, women aren’t allowed in the mosques in Saudi Arabia. They are to pray at home, or in women’s mosques (usually an adjunct to the bathroom in public places). But in Istanbul, I got to see things like this:
So yes, it was easy to identify Istanbul as “not Arabia.” But I found it harder to pin down what it was. I finally decided that Istanbul is like a beautiful older woman, the kind you notice when you walk into a room and think, “I bet she’s fascinating.” But she’s not talking. If you want to hear her stories, you’ll have to work for it.
For one, she doesn’t speak your language. Turkish doesn’t share roots with any European languages, so you really can’t parse anything out of signage or place names. (With a few exceptions: Internet. Koffe. Bankisi. And–yum–kebab.) I was surprised to discover how little English was spoken. In places frequented by international travelers, my experience has been that hosts and visitors default to English. Not so in Istanbul, where most taxi drivers, shopkeepers, and restauranteurs speak no English. A well-known landmark near our apartment was known as the “tunnel,” (“tunel” in Turkish). Finally! A Turkish word we could use! But taxi drivers seemed puzzled when we said it. After naming a number of other landmarks near it, finally a light would go on. “Oh! Toonel!” Or maybe more like “Tchoonul.” I wasn’t sure. Turkish is hard. But if you want to talk to the fascinating lady, don’t wait around for her to learn your language. She’s happy with her own.
She’s also inscrutable. The old city is a webwork of ancient cobblestone lanes. If they’re open to cars at all, they’re barely wide enough for one, yet you’ll often see a parked one at the side, another squeezing past it, and a pedestrian pressed against the wall like a bug.
(If you look closely, you can see a loaf of bread in a basket right below the right end of the banners. The boy in the foreground was making the morning deliveries to residents of the upstairs apartments, who let down baskets to get their bread.)
Most of these little lanes, though, are just for foot traffic, and they wind around and cross each other each other for MILES. Really learning your way around, and getting to a point of knowing where things are, could take years. But the lady just smiles. I’m in no hurry, she seems to say.
A few things are different when you operate a business in a spot like this. Getting your merchandise in and out, for one:
And it’s not tourist businesses lining these lanes. Fabric shops, party supply stores, kebab stands, shops for uniform supplies, medical equipment, light bulbs, luggage…and mannequins.
I would’ve liked to see the porter bringing those in.
Little lanes like these, once filthy and squalid, found in the run-down inner-city neighborhoods of cities all over Europe, have become Picturesque. When you turn down a cobblestone lane in Paris or Vienna, you find potted geraniums and a couple of cafe tables and chairs snugged up to a stone wall. Lace curtains in the windows. In Istanbul, you see a lane disappearing around a curve and have no idea what you’ll find. Could be a really cool pub with lights swagged across the alley, with an avant-garde art gallery next door. Or it could be graffiti and a steel door and a couple of cats fighting. But the old lady is happy with herself as she is and is never going to pretend to be something else. If you want to get to know her, you’ll take the stray cats along with the cool pubs.
And you say to yourself, Boy, she sure is interesting:
And man, she has a LOT of stories:
The pictures above are from the Hagia Irene (“Holy Peace”), on the grounds of Topkapi palace. It was the first church in Constantinople, and hosted the Second Ecumenical Council in 381 A.D. (Rarely open except for concerts or events–lucky us!) Being alone in there with the ghosts and a pigeon was profound. Or there’s Hagia Sophia, built in 537, which served as a cathedral and the seat of the Eastern Orthodox patriarch until 1453, when the city fell under Islamic control and it was converted to a mosque.
You’re looking at the door that only the emperor was supposed to use, topped by a mosaic showing one of them being forgiven by Christ after the Patriarch excommunicated him for marrying his mistress. I believe that’s called “pulling rank.” But now you need a guide book to find his name and kids in blinky sneakers are running through his precious door. Who’s got rank now, eh, buddy?
Hagia Sophia is a museum now, showing both its Christian and Islamic past:
Which is kind of the story of Istanbul: an Islamic city with a Christian past. The interesting older woman might be known as the dowager duchess of something-or-other these days, but she used to be a dance-hall girl. I’m pretty sure she could still nail a high kick or two.
And boy, is she ever beautiful.
In a lot of ways, traveling to Istanbul was less exotic trip for us now than it would have been a couple of years ago. Then, I would have heard the call to prayer and thought, “Wow! Listen to that! Can you believe we’re here?” Now, I think, “Wow. That muezzin sure is a lot better than the one over my back fence.”
But then I also heard something else. Church bells. And children playing.
Yes, we made a quick four-hour flight to go from one Islamic country to another, from the cradle of Islam to its imperial capitol. Not far, at least physically. But far enough.
(P.S. Istanbul is very photogenic and we have far too many for a post in a blog that’s supposed to be about Saudi life. If you groove on other people’s vacation pictures, there will be an album on Facebook.)