Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Adventures on Istiklal

The Bilgi University Starbucks.
After a week and a half in Istanbul, I have started to fall into a rhythm. I wake up every day, get dressed, and make my way downstairs, where I meet my classmates at the Bilgi University shuttle. Once on campus, we all split apart and visit our favorite breakfast venues on campus before rushing off to class. After class, it is time for lunch before taking the shuttle back to the dorms, where I take my afternoon siesta. No matter what, I will never give up my Roman siestas. After taking a nap, I usually start working on my readings for the next class before heading out to the local restaurant for dinner.
This rhythm may not seem that strange to you, but I have been very surprised by how similar Istanbul is to home and how different it is from my expectations. Aside from the mosques that can be seen just about everywhere, Istanbul does not seem that different from Europe. This is especially true when one takes a walk along Istaklal, a central shopping street I found myself walking on this afternoon. As a group of friends and I made our way to visit Mango, a clothing shop that caters primarily to women and fortunately for me, contains numerous benches for men to wait in, I was surprised by all of the foreign stores. Diesel, Quicksilver, North Face, Krispy Kreme, Starbucks, and McDonalds were all present, as well as hundreds of other brands that everyone back in the states would recognize. And these stores were not just limited to Istiklal Street, but can be found littered throughout Istanbul.

The Bosporus, one of the many sights I have come to love.
The diffusion of foreign brands into Istanbul is very interesting in the context of our International Development course, yet it is more interesting to think about how trade with Istanbul used to be. While Istanbul is on the receiving end of the diffusion of culture currently, several hundred years ago the opposite was true. In its golden age, Istanbul was the center of trade in the Mediterranean, and I wish I could have seen it then. Glory days or not, Istanbul has still captured my heart with is beauty and I cannot wait to see what hidden treasures I will unearth in the coming days.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013


Beautiful and sensational is how I would describe Istanbul.  Everywhere there are green parks, grandiose mosques, creative street markets, intricate clothing and jewelry, and natural wonder.  But more than this, the people here express a joy in all of this like no other.  This city has a pride in it I haven’t seen in many other places.  

The longer I stay here, the more I take to heart that I am a simple traveler from the outside.  I am just an American student from the South experiencing a city of great historical significance, economic phenomena, grand geography, and social intricacy.  I originally entered the massive city lost and not knowing what to do with myself.  Still now, I don’t exactly know what to do in such a city of incredible possibilities. We often times say we can’t truly experience certain cities in just one week; I don’t think I could effectively experience Istanbul in several months.

From what we have seen of the city and its surrounding area, its beauty goes on and on; it reaches every corner of the region, from the isolated suburbs of Istanbul to as far as the distant Black Sea.  Because of this, it leads me to believe the beauty of the city is not for the multitudes of tourists that come here, but rather for those living here.  The Turks take such pride in where they live.  We can see this in the families happily lounging in the parks, the men fishing for dinner off the Galata Bridge, and the young boys swimming in the Golden Horn.  I am coming to realize that Istanbul is the kind of city you can experience in part by just watching and taking it all in.  


It is a highly regarded notion in my eyes for a culture to maintain itself despite incredible and swift development and change.  The beauty of the city has certainly kept up with its development.  Here, I am able to see a mosaic of the region’s history and culture everywhere I look.  I can see Christian artists helping to construct the early churches of Constantinople or the Byzantine soldiers on the Theodosian Walls in defense against the Ottoman siege.  In Istanbul, you can see history vividly.  The city serves as a testament to time, and it is evident the Turks will never forget this.

A Little More Than Chora

As I shook Ahmed’s hand and begin to walk away I could still here him pleading after me “Two, no! Just one gram!” Interactions in places like the Grand Bazaar make it easy to note the differences that exist between life in the US and in Istanbul. After a week in and a half in Turkey, noticing change and cultural differences is, of course, normal. However, sometimes I find myself stopped, scared even, when I find myself facing alien aspects of my own heritage;  links of my culture stuck in amongst so much that I cannot recognize. Sometimes I find myself unable to truly interpret what it all means to me. 
On Sunday, a group of us went to the Chora Museum/Church/Mosque (it all depends on who you ask). To explain what I saw would be to say that there were some beautiful mosaics that depicted with great detail scenes from the New Testament. To explain what was there is far more difficult. Now, anyone could go on about the cultural, ethnic, and religious conflict between the Turks and the Greeks which makes it so difficult to even name the building I was in. The history and reality of this conflict surrounds anyone who stands in Chora or walks through the streets of Istanbul. However, I came to Chora not with the eyes of a Greek or a Turk or a Muslim or an Orthodox Christian, but with the religious education of a Presbyterian (of all things). And however I tried, I could not decide what anything I saw meant to me. Here was some of the most beautiful artwork I had ever seen, depicting stories that I had been taught since my childhood, this should have been both a deeply moving experience for me as well as something that I could have easily related to. However, try as I might, I could not say for the life of me what any of those mosaics depicted or who any of those people were.
The Orthodox Church, as I have learned, has a veritable language in pictures and icons, which while seemingly obvious to anyone with some background in Orthodox Christianity, are indecipherable without being given a kind of key of the clues to look for. Instead of the mosaics depicting familiar stories, they were as alien to me as the rest of Istanbul and the complex culture that fills the city. The question of what historical culture means to me has followed me from the Archbasilica of Rome to here in Istanbul. Cross Cultural Communication 101 will nicely explain all this. All cultures have symbols and outsiders have to learn to read them to understand them. The roots of our culture, which run through so many western societies, do not connect us as much as we like to think.  However, there is a deeper issue at work here. I am not merely talking about misunderstanding cultural symbols, but also a part of my own heritage and culture. The history of Istanbul is perhaps more complicated than any other city in Europe, even Rome, but the root heritage of Chora is the same as all Christian faiths, so in a way part of my heritage, oddly enough, seems to be plastered onto those walls as well.

While some voices in development call for greater understanding and respect of local cultures, we find ourselves faced with unanswerable questions. Chora was built by a merchant who has long since died, by an empire that was destroyed, by people who (sorta, it’s complicated) no longer live there, and by a culture which no longer holds sway in the immediate region. Yet why does this place still mean more than just its art? Adding the fact that the building was later used as a Mosque only complicates the matter.

            There are few cultures that do not bear the marks of another culture, and, in essence, there is no way for a nation to become developed without opening itself up to outside cultures and straining its own. How do we address these complexities? Do we address these complexities? As we see nations develop and they resolve the issues of historical burdens, it seems that we may occasionally see bits and pieces of our own pasts appear before us. Some parts of cultures are transnational and perhaps allow us to relate to issues of developing nations. Interpreting these bits and pieces of our own culture may be impossible, but recognizing their value, I think, is essential to placing value on local cultures and their heritage as nations drive towards development and the world as a whole drives towards a more developed outlook.

Monday, July 29, 2013

"Catstantinople" Part II

If you read my last blog post, or if you happened to pass through Istanbul, you’re aware of the large number of animals wandering the streets specifically cats. Istanbul’s vast roaming cat population, which has earned this ancient city the moniker “Catstantinople,” is a mixture of strays and domestic pets though the differences are surprisingly minimal. One would not expect the scraps of even a highly populated area such as Istanbul would not be able to support a correspondingly high number of felines. Yet, the kediler (cats in Turkish), for the most, part are relatively healthy looking. At the expense of having piles of cat food strewn across the metropolis, the Turkish people seem to collectively care for cats feeding strays and other peoples’ cats alike whereas, in America, these cats would receive a decidedly less warm welcoming. Istanbulites treatment of cats, despite not being bestowed the title of “man’s best friend,” is telling (beyond the economic benefits of not having to pay for cleanup as well as the pleasantry which is being able to go about one’s daily without tripping over cat carcasses).
Though their animals rights may not be on par with their European neighbors (Holland has a walkway going over busy streets for cats), Turkey has been (according to the Turks I've spoken to) and is an extremely welcoming country perhaps even more so than America and Italy (unless you’re a crusader). In America and Italy, people give you directions; in Istanbul, people will get up from enjoying their chai and walk you to your destination. In America and Italy, your friend will share half their sandwich; in Istanbul, people who have fasted all day, who don’t speak much English, who you’ve just met, will invite to share in their iftar (Arabic for breaking the fast). By no means am I calling Americans and Italians inhospitable, I’m saying Turkish people take hospitality to a new level. I believe this is due in part to the economic development of America and Europe which both an extensive business culture which is, at times, cold. Hopefully, Turkey’s continued economic growth will not come at the expense of its friendly culture.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Hitting Close to Home

“Are you Turkish?”

In the Hagia Sophia - Looking Turkish?
I have lost track of the number of times this question has been asked of me in the short span of my first week in Istanbul. Sometimes they don’t even ask and begin to chatter away in Turkish, to which I helplessly respond, “Türkçe bilmiyorum!” (I don’t speak Turkish!) When they do ask, I answer with an honest “No” – although I’m sure an evet (yes) would bring prices tumbling down at the Grand Bazaar. (Unfortunately, I don’t speak enough Turkish to pull off the lie.)

The next question is always “Where are you from?” If I’m in the mood, I’ll grin and make the merchant guess.

“India? Pakistan? Iran? Indonesia?” When they get hopelessly cold, I give them the answer: Afghanistan. 

At least, it’s the Afghan half of me that piques their curiosity. I was born and raised in Oakland, California, but I grew up in a bicultural household, with an Afghan father and American mother. I was raised Muslim, and I speak Farsi. The cultural similarities between Afghan culture and what I have experienced thus far in Istanbul are marked. And as if to make the cultural parity blatantly obvious, I apparently look Turkish.

The azan can be heard from this mosque near our dorm.
I had never been to a Muslim country before Turkey – the situation in Afghanistan has been too volatile to allow a visit in my lifetime – and so the features of religious life around me have been simultaneously striking and familiar. On my first night in Istanbul I heard the azan (call to prayer) projected through loudspeakers throughout the city, and a shiver went up my spine. They were words I’d heard a thousand times before, but for the first time, the communal nature of the call resonated with me. Every person for miles around was hearing them, too. They hear those words five times a day, every day.

The Hagia Sophia and Blue Mosque were incredible sites to visit in regards to their expression of this
Wearing head coverings inside of the Blue Mosque.
sense of Islamic community. Clearly, I had been to a mosque prior to visiting either of these, but the mosques at home are tucked away, a perfect embodiment of the hidden nature of Islam in the US. Here, it is everywhere, and the mosques are everywhere – at least nine can be seen from the roof of our dormitory alone. Upon entering the Blue Mosque in particular, I felt that I was stepping foot into a familiar place.

It is the secularity of Istanbul, too, that makes me feel at ease here – while most are practicing Muslims, they are moderately religious, in parallel with my personal religious upbringing. I do not feel out of place for lack of a hijab (the head covering worn by Muslim women), and while I dress modestly out of respect for the holy month of Ramadan, I hardly feel repressed.

Çay - a Turkish (and Afghan) staple.
I know I must be careful not to lull myself into feeling too comfortable in Istanbul – while it bears many resemblances to Afghan culture in regards to faith, hospitality, food, and even language, I have to remember to keep my mind open to differences. I remember this when a burst of Turkish words goes sailing over my head, when dinner is served without rice, and especially when a merchant is trying hard to sell me something.

I know that Turkey is not quite my cultural home. But as I sip on çay (tea) late in the evening and listen to the Allahuakbar of the azan, I cannot help but feel that it is remarkably close.


One week in Istanbul. One week of exploring, of gazing at the mix of mosques and modern buildings, of waking up to the morning prayer, and gazing at the Bosphorus Strait. Two more weeks await us, too long to be a tourist and too little to truly study abroad.

One of the most fascinating aspects of Istanbul has been our interactions with the citizens, although it has thus been limited to various merchants hawking their wares. Unlike their American counterparts, there is an amusing, even comical nature, to the way vendors attempt to attract our attention. The most notable have been pick up lines. From overtures to our heritage to proclamations that they have been waiting for women like us, the vendors are theatrical in their efforts to lure us to their shops piled with beautiful silk scarves, intricate tea sets, jewelry, and other items designed to be authentically Turkish. My personal favorites include references to Bollywood movies, such as the tea vendor who proclaimed that he was “Shah Rukh Khan”. Coming from Italy, where Indians were viewed with suspicion, the happy embrace of Indian culture was welcome.

Another fascinating interaction with the vendors has been the language interaction. While the average Turkish citizen speaks broken English alongside their native language, the vendors can be expected speak many more languages: English, Arabic, Turkish, Spanish, some French. These are the languages of tourism in Turkey, and any vendor in their right mind would know how to haggle with a tourist in their native language, to make them feel like home.

It’s easy to feel like home in Istanbul, what with the welcoming embrace of Istanbul’s citizens. As one vendor told me, “I’ll make you feel like you’re at home”. I already do feel that way.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Sails, Seagulls and Serene Saturdays

After a week of haggling in the Grand bazaar, weaving through heavy city traffic and packed tram rides, our group finally got to get onto one of the ships that we had eyed at the docks of Eminönü. As we sat down on one side of the boat (the side with the best view), with the breeze in our hair and beautiful scenery in front of us, we were ready to sail toward Asia.

On our way to our destination we passed several boats, a couple of islands but only one region that looked like a slum. As soon as I saw the background change from colorful buildings to a more dull area with several makeshift houses, I couldn’t help but zoom in as much as I could with my camera to get a better look. It looked like people lived in these small huts and serviced boats for a living. Since I have been in Istanbul I have seen the occasional beggar here and there, but what I haven’t seen are slums or anything that could indicate poverty. I was surprised to see this small shanty area, barely noticeable if you looked away, tucked in one side on the Bosphorus. When I saw this I realized that I had only seen the nice, gift-wrapped version of Istanbul. In my next two weeks here I hope to explore the other, low-key side of this city.

We reached the village of Anadolu Kavaği exactly as our stomachs began to grumble for food. Waiters from different restaurants approached us with their menus and ‘special price just for you’ offers. A couple of us sat down in a restaurant that overlooked the Bosphorus. We were given a menu in four languages and shown trays full of fresh fish and Turkish seafood dishes to help us decide what we wanted to eat. 

After a great lunch (with a great discount) we each got homemade Turkish ice cream to cool us down from the summer heat. Holding a half melting ice creams we wandered around – deeper into the village.

Once we moved from the 100 meters of touristy shops and restaurants, we saw a different picture- there were many tiny, cute houses, a billion cats (like everywhere in Istanbul) and people seemed to lead a more laid back life style compared to the life style in the city.

At around 2:30pm, it was time to get back; we parted with this delightful village and headed back to the kaleidoscopic mainland.
The quiet, peaceful ride back was perfect for a siesta – some habits acquired in Rome are simply too hard to let go of.