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.

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