How can a blind man find his way through such a crowded street of Istanbul? Especially, when his female partner is also blind. The couple was walking confidently with canes at 11PM in the night. I was in awe and felt so happy for them. Little did I know that I am in fact the blind one. I fell face down. My water bottle rolled into the road of speeding cars. My packet of chocolate wafers flew near a surprised brown cat. The only thing I clutched tightly in my hand was the plastic bag (now torn into pieces) formerly carrying the two objects.
After a few seconds, I registered that I had tripped against the man’s walking cane.
My Turkish friend immediately asked the man if he was alright while my other friend helped stand on my feet again. I was embarrassed for making a fool of myself in the middle of a large crowd an for disconcerting the couple who was strolling happily. More importantly, I was shocked that I was the one who fell.
Of course, I don’t mean to say that I’d rather have had the man fall down. What I mean is that we don’t actually see as clearly as we think we do. And yes, here is where I go off to a tangent. Not really. It is quite relevant to the discussion of how my attitude has changed from my first post. I just realized that I was wearing the same outfit the day I arrived in Istanbul. In a week, my life has made a full circle. I thought I saw clearly that I had made a terrible decision to come here. In reality, my vision was simply muddled with anxiety. I had no idea that a week later, I would feel so much more comfortable in my new surroundings and with the beautiful people I had met.
Sight is not in the eyes, but in the soul. We need to let go of our fears and see farther than what our eyes, not the most loyal companions, can reveal to us. (All my advice is often first directed to me!)
Alright, back to the ground. This whole incident happened right before I went to watch my first World Cup game with two friends, one of who is really passionate about soccer. It was between Algeria and Germany. We watched it at a café called Simit Sarayı and we’ve been going back ever since. The games run from 11PM to 1:30AM or sometimes longer. It’s been quite a lot of fun! That’s where I had my first cup of tea in Turkey that I looked at and enjoyed. (Accompanied by a chocolate muffin.)
The day after, we walked from the university down a steep hill. And when I say steep, I mean really, really, acutely steep. So steep that we couldn’t walk; instead, we were running and panting down to Bebek. We were laughing the whole way, even when a car was driving up the hill and we had to scoot over to the narrow sides of the street to save our lives. Bebek is in one word, magnificent. Serene, with men fishing, people strolling, cats watching, and us licking. Ice cream. After a long walk, we were looking forward to the famous Bebek ice cream. I had the pistachio and chocolate and it was delicious.
From there, we courageously walked to Ortaköy. It was over an hour’s walk from the university and although my feet thought I was crazy, my heart wanted to continue on. I had heard about the Ortaköy Mosque, also known as the Büyük Mecidiye Camii (the Grand Imperial Mosque of Sultan Abdülmecid). Praying in it was my incentive. When we arrived, I fully understood that the energy spent was perfectly worthwhile. The mosque was lit up because it was evening time and the call of prayer began as soon as our eyes fell on the gorgeous architecture. The interior was equally striking with an unearthly view of the Bosphorous from the window.
After prayer, we went to the restaurants nearby feeling overwhelmed. Of course because of the beauty we had just witnessed, but also because of the headwaiters, all of whom seemed to know we were new to the area. The restaurant we ended up choosing was the one where the headwaiter was literally screaming, “Gyal, gyal, gyal,” come in, come in, come in.
Two days later, we went to Ortaköy again. We hadn’t had enough of that vibrant area; heck, this was just the beginning. This time, we sat on a terrace on the fourth floor of a restaurant. The view of the Bosphorous, the bridge, and the mosque was amazing! I ordered a tuna sandwich and while it was being prepared, I went to pray at the same mosque especially because it was so nearby. When I was walking down the spiral staircase of the restaurant, my heart fluttered in excitement for these were the things I always missed back home.
Later that evening, we perused the area. One of the vendors who spoke Turkish asked if we spoke Arabic. Some of the girls in the group said yes, and then he asked me if I spoke Urdu in Urdu! He said he spoke ten languages and had lived in several countries. My first opportunity to bargain. It was fun although it was for a bracelet one of my friends had fallen in love with.
We ended the night with a Turkish waffle and a fast and furious cab ride back to the university.
Do you remember I had mentioned the magical Boğaziçi Pastanesi in my first post? I had reported feeling that I was bound to come again. And I did. The next day at this café, I met up with a Turkish friend who was studying at my university back home and was visiting family for the summer. We couldn’t stop laughing thinking how great it was to meet up in a completely different continent.
On Friday, we went to the older part of Istanbul. I was speechless when I walked into the Sultanahmet Mosque. It is also known as the Blue Mosque because its interiors are decorated with blue tiles. It was built in the early 1600s and I could almost see and hear the all the people who were born, grew up visiting this mosque, and passed away. Generations after generations. I was particularly riveted for I had written a paper on this mosque for my Islamic Art and Architecture class. I couldn’t believe I was standing in a place about which I had only read in rusty textbooks from the library.
The Sultanahmet Mosque was built right near another building which was famous at the time (and still is) to show the power of Islam. This other monument is the Hagia Sophia, also called the Ayasofya in Turkish. It was originally established in the mid-500s as a Greek Church and then, it was converted to a mosque. It was interesting to see up close the images of Christian art partially erased to portray this change. Eventually, Hagia Sophia was treated as a museum, for wanderers like me to experience in awe decades of rich history.
After quite some sightseeing, we sat down at a restaurant nearby (on the terrace again and so, you witness my obsession with terraces). The food was delicious and when we were leaving, we saw a whirling dervish. I am not aware of their practices well enough to elaborate and it would be disrespectful to do so without a complete understanding. So, I will leave it at that for now.
A few snapshots on our way back from the restaurant:
I am dying to return to the older side of Istanbul, or “The Historical Peninsula,” as my roommate fancily calls it. I was very excited to spend the holy month of Ramadhan in a Muslim country. However, in the area where we live, it isn’t celebrated as much as I had expected. Sure, the people who are fasting do gather at restaurants waiting to hear the call of prayer on the TVs so that they can open their fast. But I feel that the other side of town would have more festivities. This could be an erroneous assumption. We shall see since we are planning to attend this Friday’s prayer (Salatul Jumah in Arabic) at Sultanahmet Mosque. We hope to spend the day in the area concluding with iftaar (meal when we complete the fast) outside the mosque, where we’ve heard Muslims come together to eat in a community of benches clustered together. I am quite excited!
Yesterday, we went to Indian Musafir Restaurant. I was craving my mother’s spicy food and this place looked like the closest to such cuisine in Istanbul. It was around the infamous Taksim Square. As soon as the call of prayer played on the TV, all the waiters sat down at a large table to have iftaar as well. It was great to see everyone eating together. I had chicken kadai, spicy chicken curry served in a special pot called kadai. I ate the curry with naan, a form of bread. To top off my special meal, I ordered a glass of sweet lassi made of yoghurt.
Allow me to now elaborate on the area near us. There is a café which we discovered has board games (apparently quite common here). I cannot wait to go there! There is a great place right by it with a fresh variety of Turkish delights. (Note: the picture of the store here actually belongs to a different sweets place we had walked past earlier that day but the closeup is of the box I purchased from the nearby place.) Today, we went to a restaurant right near South Campus and the its specialty was an assortment of burgers! I had a Chicken Kansas Burger (with spicy fries, a rare delicacy in Istanbul so far!) and one of the other girls had a New York Burger!
The farther you go from our area and the closer you are to the older side of town, the deeper you feel hüzün, a Turkish word with Arabic origins. It means “a melancholy resulting from inadequacy or failure and weighing so heavily that it becomes communal, resigned, and even curiously poetic.” So many children roam the streets of Istanbul trying to sell flower crowns or crouching on the sides of the road to create toys out of the soil. I spotted a young boy near a watermelon vendor once, biting down on the leftover of an almost eaten slice. There was a mother and her child knocking on the window of our cab when we stopped at a red light today. Near the port, when we went on the Bosphorous Cruise, there was a family (a couple and two children). They were sitting on the ground and the man was calling out trying to grab attention at the little items that he had gathered. Right past an expensive carpet shop, there was an old man pulling a cart full of heavy baggage. I wish I had a magical wand that could alleviate the plight of these people and those struggling all around the world.
I will end with the story of Mr. Shoe Polisher. He was walking near us and one of his brushes fell down. Unknowingly, he kept walking and one of the girls in our group who is Turkish said, Pardon, Excuse me! He turned around and she pointed to the brush. He walked back to us and because the brush was near my foot, I bent down, picked it up, and gave it to him. He said thank you and we continued walking. That’s when we heard someone call out, Pardon, pardon! We turned around to see it was Mr. Shoe Polisher. He immediately sat down on the floor and told me to come so he could polish my shoes at no cost. I couldn’t believe it. He appreciated my small action of courtesy so much that he responded with such a beautiful gesture. I was baffled, but came back to my senses in time to answer, “Çok, çok, çok teşekkürler!” meaning Thank you very, very, very much and “Kolay gelsin,” a phrase I learned in Turkish class which means May your work be easier. My friends were so proud and the Turkish girl patted me on my shoulder for having responded so well in Turkish. (I seriously wish I can learn the language.)
Seeing the humility, kindness, and hope in the eyes of the children and the hardworking men and women here reminds me that there is so much more than racing in the world for material assets. Yes, money is important, but we need to see beyond aiming for luxury. If we all try to sacrifice our luxury, we may actually provide for someone’s necessity (again all advice is first directed to me!). That of course seems like a dreamlike world, but doesn’t hüzün involve becoming poetic after all?