Monday, March 17, 2008

That Time In Istanbul

The truth is, I love thinking about Istanbul.

Just this morning, whilst I was power-walking about the hills of Manayunk, I let my mind drift back to Sultanahmet. Often I imagine what it would be like to live there, temporarily. I ponder the logistics of the move (would we stay in Sultanahmet, the heart of the old city? Or should we perhaps move to suburban Uskudar, on the Asian side of the Bosphorus?). I picture my family coming to visit, and ushering them through Aya Sofya, watching their eyes widen at the sheer magnitude of the site: the gorgeous, massive ancient structure.

Aya Sofya

My yoga instructor always urges the class to visit our "happy places" at the beginning of each "practice". Oftentimes, I find myself sitting, with J, in Sultanahmet Park, in between Aya and the Blue Mosque. Sitting and staring at the two buildings; at the perfectly manicured lawns; at the people walking by. I can't remember a time when I felt more at peace.

J and I at the park. The Blue Mosque is in the background.

Of course, the great irony is that when J and I ventured to Turkey last October, the country had just invaded Iraq. The Armenians were pressuring the U.S. government to pass a resolution claiming the Turks' killing of Armenians during World War I was the first genocide of the twentieth century. Our wedding travel agent, Nicole, had raised the prices for our up-to-this-point-set-in-stone packages. Our accommodations were less than stellar, and the moment we stepped out of our hotel to explore the country on that first afternoon, a military jet whirled just above our heads, nearly deafening us.

"Hmm," J said, clasping my hand in his. "That was a little unsettling."

And yet.

The city we experienced was so warm, so inviting. We trekked throughout the streets each day, from the Blue Mosque (where we were given an expensive lesson in Islam), to the Galata Bridge (where the stench of fish nearly killed us), to the gorgeous harem at Topkapi Palace, to the Grand Bazaar, arguably the world's oldest mall, where we admired carpet after carpet, and purchased 8995 pashminas and gorgeous Ottoman-style tiles, for good measure.

Learning to worship inside the Blue Mosque.

Inside the Grand Bazaar.

The cuisine was excellent; and we sampled different dishes each night. Part Greek, part Middle Eastern fare; the Turkish pizza was my absolute favorite. And after each delicious meal, we'd sip warm apple tea and marvel at our good fortune.

Most evenings, we'd find ourselves at the Cozy Pub, watching rugby with Englishmen or smoking a hookah with new friends Mehmet and Ahmet.

And then there was this one time.

We'd spent most of the afternoon walking the streets, shopping at the Grand Bazaar and sampling Turkish delight candies at the Spice Bazaar. As the sun was setting, we meandered through Sultanahmet Park, then found ourselves once again on the main strip in the old city, at the Cozy Pub. Ahmet worked the door, enthusiastically encouraging passers-by to come in and have a drink or a snack. Mehmet ran a small gift shop behind the pub, but was typically hanging out at the bar, chatting up the ladies. We called him Turkish Scott Baio, as he looked and acted like Mr. 45 and Single.

On this particular night, we sat at a small table outside, talking with Ahmet and Mehmet. An Australian jewelry and bag designer named Julie soon came into our circle, as did English couple Nick and Amanda. Amanda was a school teacher; Nick wrote books about mountain biking.

So we ate and we drank. For hours and hours. At one point, Mehmet and I ran to his shop to prepare a hookah, which we filled with apple "tobacco" and brought back to the rest of our group.

Man, did I have a love affair with that hookah. If you are ever in Istanbul (Or even Le Souk, in Manhattan) , please, please sample the apple tobacco.

Mehmet and me, and my beloved hookah.

The night wore on, and soon it was time to retreat back to Hotel Mina. Julie was staying on the same street, so we walked her back to her place and crept back to our room, turning on the television to take advantage of the late-night English programming.

It wasn't until the next morning, while I was in our miniature shower, that J noticed something was missing.

The Bag.

The Bag is where we keep our Valuable Stuff. It is a virtual man purse that never leaves J's side when we are out of the country. He protects the bag like a child. And as if we had lost our first-born, J was nearly hyperventilating.

"Stay calm," I tell him, as I dress quickly. "It's got to be at Cozy, and they are good people. They'll have it for us."

I suppose I only half believe this myself, but I am intent on keeping J calm. We dart out of the hotel and run to Cozy, a two-minute jog.

The bar is empty, but Amir, last night's waiter, is straightening up.

"Amir!" I shout. "Please: where is our Bag?"

I describe the bag to Amir, but he only stares at me blankly. I run to our outside table, desperate for The Bag to be there.

It is not.

"You must have it, Amir," I say. I describe the bag in detail and tell him it is full of Valuable Stuff.

Another staffer overhears this conversation, and opens a safe behind the bar.

"Is this it?" He asks, holding The Bag.

"Yes!" J and I cry. I hug Amir. J checks The Bag. Not a single item is out of place.

"Thank you thank you thank you," we repeat, as we skip outside. We both exhale.

"Turks," I say. "I knew they'd come through. They're good people."



Anonymous said...

It can be inspiring the sorts of experiences that shape our opinions of others...blanket statements are always a dangerous though.

Homevalley said...

I agree with you... I am sure that gentleman from Midnight Express would have a vastly different opinion of the Turks, based on his horrifying experience. And often I find myself running into Armenians and Greeks in the US who have very few kind things to say about Turkey.

Just a snapshot in my life that forever endeared me to the city and its inhabitants.

And you know, anytime we visit a strange country, we are always curious as to how the locals perceive us, and America. So we usually ask, and get into many philosophical discussions. On our first day in Istanbul, the concierge offered his opinion: "That's your government; this is our government. We're all just people."

I loved that attitude. Everywhere you go - good or bad, sane or crazy - we're all just people.

Anonymous said...

At first glance I am also a big fan of that attitude, but do you think the founders of Democracy wanted that kind of disconnect between the "we're just people" and the "they are our government"? It implies to me that citizens of countries have no control over "thier" government and don't take responsibility for the actions of "they" as their government. That to me is scary, but unfortunately I think it is also mostly true, as countries and governements are clearly run by the rich and therefore powerful.

Most people are not rich and not even close to powerful when standing alone. Maybe since the founders of Democracy were the rich, that was their intent, but somehow doesn't it seem like it all went awry somewhere? Imagine if our entire country refused to pay taxes, every single legal and illegal resident, what would the government do in response to tax reform then? What if everyone in the country actually did stop driving and bought a bike in protest of our government's handling of the oil crisis? Imagine if every person in the country refused to vote because there is no worthy candidate, what would happen then?

The "just people" are only strong when they realize the power of the whole. If you can't take responsibilty for the actions and stereotypes of your own government and country, are you really a good person? Does looking past it solve anything in the end?

Serious transgression from the original point there...

So back to the original, I agree that we are all just people, even the rich and powerful are just people. But there will always be people at both ends of the spectrum, good and bad. The problem is that the in between people have to count more towards the bad side because if you are not good, you have to have done something bad to fall off the wagon.

To clarify, imagine if you had gotten back your bag from the bar...passports-check, credit cards-check, travel documents-check, Lorenzo Lamas photo-check, cash-gone.

Now what?

Homevalley said...

I think his statement wasn't so much a deflection of responsibility, but a sentiment about our shared humanity; a friendly: "Turkish or American? Hell, we've all got issues."

That being said, I do think you bring up an incredibly interesting point about the ordinary citizen's role in government. It seems we are an increasingly apathetic society; so tired are we of the housing crisis, skyrocketing oil prices, and the recession, that we tune it out and go about our day, quick to blame everyone else, never looking inward. I didn't vote for Bush in 2000 or 2004; does that mean that I am free from sin? Are you to blame for this mess if you did vote for W?

I don't think there is an easy answer here, but I am so intrigued by your comments; in fact, they are virtually a call to action for everyone who is reading to take a long, hard look at our role in government and our potential impact (though not to buy a bike this afternoon, per se, possibly we need to do more than just bitch about our paltry state of affairs? Take action?) Certainly something I want to revisit on the blog. I thank you for reading my thoughts critically and raising important questions.

Lorenzo Lamas photograph intact, but money missing? This is the danger you described in blanket statements, for certainly I would never proclaim all Turks evil thieves had everything been stolen. I would have chalked it up to a few bad seeds in an otherwise delightful country. Obviously I am an optimist; and I have to believe everyone is inherently good, until they prove otherwise.

Thus, possibly I should amend my statement to "The Turks [we have come in contact with on this trip]... they are good people."

I like you, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

I appreciate you seeing my side and quite possibly you underestimated the philosophical nature of your Turkish friend!

I anticipate your eventual comments on the subject of the power of the people or more so the responsiblity of the people as i could go on and on with regards to how society and more specifically the citizens have lost their role.

Once again, a problem that is universal, as the majority of if not the entire world suffers from weak masses that blindly support their government. They hope for change that only they can bring about and yet they do nothing to enact it. A viscous cycle..."rich white men"...oh, those "rich white men".

sultanahmet said...

Great Post
Great Sharing
I will go to Istanbul