I’m sitting by the Bosphorus watching the sun go down and the moon rise. It’s incredibly haunting. As the sun sinks beneath the water, the ancient call to prayer rolls across the water. As this is Ramadan, fasting Muslims crowd into the waterside restaurants to have the first food and drink of the day. Yet they are citizens of a modern city – riding on the latest air-conditioned trams, ears constantly bent into their mobile phones – and walking past chic bars and restaurants to match the coolest New York hangouts. It’s a city of contrasts swirling with the energies of opposite forces intersecting with each other: old-new, East-West, religious-secular, permissive-intolerant, democratic-autocratic, patriarchal – egalitarian.
Somehow, at all these intersections, Istanbul seems to be at the crossroads of the world – as it once was the centre of one of the world’s great empires. One young Turk told me he believed that Istanbul was, once again, at the pivot of the world, in a way it had not been since the fall of the Ottoman Empire.
The city has a restless energy. The streets pulsate with people, shopping, eating, drinking tea, arguing, doing deals, hustling tourists. At particular times of day, at the calls to prayer, human walls of stern-faced men barge down the street, looking neither left nor right, pushing the ambling out of the way in their single minded determination to get to the mosque. In fact, many Turks seem to have their necks locked into forward position, incapable of looking left or right, incapable of flexibility. They seem to me rather like bulls. I have never collided with by so many people fixed in their straight path from A to B, unwilling to compromise on their intentions by an inch. What is manifested physically may also be something deeper. One non-Turk who has lived in Turkey for many years told me that he had experienced this unwillingness (perhaps even inability) to compromise in many Turks. They have their fixed ideas and fixed intentions, and no amount of evidence or argument will shift them.
There are several benign “fixed intentions”. Taxi-drivers apart (see below) this is a safe city. A young attractive woman told me that she never has any worries about walking alone in the city, even late at night. Alcohol is only available in a quite limited way. Many Turks either are teetotal or drink modestly. I never saw a drunk person, and people who have lived there for years confirmed that real drunken behaviour is so rare that it becomes a talking point. The strong religious and traditional values that underpin Turkish society include helping strangers and those in distress. I don’t get the impression that there are many lonely Turks. They problem may be the other way round – you are not left alone when you might rather be.
This is a man’s city, at least to the visitor. All the shopkeepers, cooks, waiters, hotel receptionists, public transport officials, cleaners, security staff, are men. I’ve been served by perhaps 200 men in different ways while I have been here, and maybe 5 women (one in a post-office, one in a chemist, and a couple in the more trendy western-style restaurants – and of course hotel bedroom cleaners here are women as they are everywhere in the world). Male dress sense is undeveloped. Unless they are in uniform (and even that is normally a bit shabby), they wear dirty un-ironed jeans and cheap T-shirts. Many reek of sweat when you get up close. You hardly see men in suits, far less anything approaching male fashion.
Most women over the age of 35 are veiled. The 35-45 age bracket can do this with some sophistication and style. The over-45s however just look dowdy and plaIn. They are generally in small single-sex groups. Today I watched three women in their 50s earnestly discussing the merits of different teapots in a kitchenware shop. I am struggling to recall a husband and wife walking together in a “couple”.
Under-35 women are completely different. They look just like young women anywhere. Smart jeans and tops, bracelets and jewelry, worldly, cigarette smoking. I wonder if they will ever adopt the clothes and customs of those 20 years older.
One evening I took a ferry, crowded to the gills, among whose number were what looked like a football team. As we came into port, there was a man and a woman in their 20s on the pier, passionately kissing one another and completely oblivious to the rest of the world. The guys in the football team immediately started up this kind of good-natured chant, congratulating their fellow-male on his conquest. The general message was “go-go-go-man”. There is a lot of open and demonstrative male physical camaraderie – often in groups.
I chatted at length to a young Turkish man shortly after the boat scene. He had just resigned from his job, having saved enough to travel outside Turkey for the first time in his life. He was headed for Western Europe with a rail pass. He was pessimistic about Turkey’s future. He saw that the freedoms which had opened up in the past decade were being rolled away on a tide of religiously-backed conservatism – he saw the contrasting lifestyles in Istanbul as evidence of a battle rather than a mutual accommodation – and felt that it was a battle that liberal western-oriented Turks were losing. He was not sanguine that the kissing couple would be tolerated in public for much longer.
As soon as you go into the side streets and suburbs you see children in huge numbers (again mainly male). They are full of life, cheekiness, confidence, curiosity, like mediterranean children anywhere. You get the sense they are loved and know who they are.
I was told by close outside observers of Turkish life that all the curiosity and energy is battered out of children by the dire public education, which is all about rote learning and conformity. Creativity is not valued. By the time most Turkish people reach adulthood they have lost all ability to think by themselves and their orbit is narrowed to the immediate practicalities of life (how to make money, how the get the plumbing fixed). In many issues they just re-iterate time-honoured sayings handed down from their parents or in the culture. Adult illiteracy is a major problem in Turkey. It is only relatively recently that the length of compulsory education was increased from 6 to 8 years. There is a move to legitimize home education. Progressives fear that this is an attempt to move back to the stage where most women basically don’t get an education at all.
This is a city over-run with foreign tourists. Europeans of all varieties in particular, but large numbers of Asians too – Koreans, Iranians.
There is a particular kind of earnest European tourist family that I like. The archetype is a quiet husband and wife in their 40s with a well-behaved teenage boy or girl (usually just one) in tow. Often German, or Dutch. Guide books and maps are clutched like bibles. Courteous and educated – I imagine they tip generously. I have seen, and smiled at, many such families. Sometimes we compare maps, when (as is often the case in this city) we are slightly lost in the search for some improving cultural artifact or out-of-the-way ruin!
There is also the other type of tourist. The other day I was sitting quietly having my breakfast in an almost deserted hotel dining room. Suddenly two couples in their 40s burst noisily into the room. The men were wearing baseball caps. Both had HUGE cameras around their necks – one had sunglasses on the cap.
It’s a nice dining room, but it’s not the Sistine Chapel. They proceeded to take numerous photos of the dining room, with different combinations of them posing at different tables (husband A photographing couple B at table C, then husband B photographing couple A at table D, and so on), and after trying 4 or 5 different tables, finally sort of settled at one, and ate breakfast in the kind of self-advertising way which communicated that really this was such an interesting spectacle that we other diners really ought to be getting our their cameras and taking photos of it all. They were speaking a language I didn’t recognise, but it was some kind of European, I’m ashamed to say.
There are hundreds, if not thousands, of mosques in Istanbul. And every one of them is a teeming hive of activity, all the time. Many are in compounds which also include schools, charitable organisations (particularly serving the many poor of the city), cemeteries, gardens. They are real and vibrant community centres. I’ve only been to one other Muslim country, and that was Egypt. I was there in 2008, when the anti-Mubarak (and anti-Western) sentiment was already bubbling and seething in a dark and disturbing way. I felt threatened in Egypt (and often resented as a westerner), and the idea of going into a mosque never remotely occurred. It would have been like going into enemy territory. Here in Istanbul Westerners are positively welcomed in any and all Mosques. In that respect, I felt Istanbul very similar to Bangkok, where the temples were completely open and welcoming to all comers. If Westerners want to easily experience and understand the shape and rhythm of Islam, then Istanbul is probably the place to do it.
All that is asked of anyone going into a mosque is that you take your shoes off, cover your knees (if a man) and cover your hair (if a woman). You can sit, walk, take photos, talk, rest, read, drink water, and no-one will bother you. If you have a question, and can find someone who speaks the same language, you will be answered with courtesy and warmth. Every mosque is carpeted from wall to wall, and they are vacuumed all day long with fanatic devotion. Somehow the carpets make you feel you are in a communal and welcoming living room.
Getting about is easy once you know. But knowing how takes a day or so to acquire, and if you arrive (like I and many others did) - tired hot and confused after an overnight bus trip – at the most chaotic main bus I have ever seen station (that also happens to be 10 km outside the city centre) , then nothing seems easy. It’s like a vast parking lot but with no bays or direction signs - with buses and taxis careering around in random directions, people everywhere – including elderly men who seem to be there just to stand and watch. People are sitting patiently everywhere on top of vast piles of boxes, bags, animal cages, all in the glaring sun with no cover whatsoever. You are ejected from your nice air-conditioned coach into this bedlam and then have to fend for yourself. Eventually I found a small rusty sign with the word “Aksaray” on it. This was what the travel agent had scribbled on my ticket. Unfortunately the first bus was completely full, and so I had to stand in the glaring sun for almost another hour, afraid to move for fear of losing my place and having to stand there yet another hour. Toilets seemed nowhere in evidence. As for an information desk or anything like that - forget it!
I was warned repeatedly and insistently by everyone both before and during my trip – “never get in a taxi – ever – under any circumstances. You will certainly be cheated, likely robbed, and a good chance you will be involved in a road accident” since there are no traffic laws enforced, no seatbelts, and taxi drivers are suicidal in the way they drive. As a result, as far as I can see, all taxis in Istanbul are empty almost all of the time, and sit in long forlorn lines near every tourist attraction. Their drivers hassle everyone who passes, and you just have to learn to pretend they don’t exist. I asked someone why the city doesn’t regulate its taxis. That’s a long story!
Fortunately, the public transport is cheap and efficient. You buy tokens or cards from booths, and the average journey costs 2 Turkish Lire, which is about 60p. The pride and joy of Istanbul is its sparkling new air-conditioned tram line, which snakes through all the main tourist areas. But the most fabulous transport is provided by the public ferries which go from side to side of the Bosphorouus all the time, with great efficiency and frequency. For 60p you get a world class 20 minute ride. And if you tire of the view you can always get a cup of tea from the buffet. In fact I was told, so addicted are Turks to tea, that the buffets specialize in allowing you to be able to by and consume TWO glasses (always glasses, never cups) of tea in the 20 minute ride, and STILL have time for a cigarette!
There are world-class tourist attractions in Istanbul. And some of the best of them attract world class queues, particularly at the weekend. A little-advertised way of jumping the queues is the “Museum Pass” which for around £25 allows you free access to 10 of the major museums over a 72-hour period. However, these passes are not advertised anywhere that I saw. I was told about them by another tourist, who was told about them by their Istanbul-living host. You have to ask for the pass at the ticket office of any participating museum. In my case, the person who served me told me I had to go to another window, and I was served the pass out of a bottom drawer with ill grace as if I was cheating them out of the money which was their due.
Most of the major attractions are historic – uncovering, showing, and celebrating, the incredible millennia-deep human history of the region. I’d single out the Archaeological Museum as particularly mind-bending. Pots and implements from the 4th Century BC had their glazing and other decorations still intact and visible. As one went from room to room, one witnessed whole civilizations and empires rise and fall, each with their incredible artifacts, tombs, statues, each to crumble to nothing. As our own civilization will surely do before long.
I tried with several Turks to get a sense of how important Islam is. I got converging information from several people that the proportion of the population that observes Islam in a devout and fairly complete way is somewhere between 40% and 60% of the adult population. However there were some qualifications. In the current political climate, being seen at the Mosque (and women wearing veils) was more a social than a religious statement – it stated to the society around you where you stood in the current social and politicaldebate. I was told that over the past few years the number of women wearing the veil had dramatically increased, but with no sense that there had been a corresponding sudden increase in religious devotion.
On the other hand, if you ask most Turks “do you believe in God” or “are you a Muslim”, they will say yes without hesitation. In fact one young woman I got into conversation with was really quite shocked when I told her how many people in England were agnostic or atheist. In particular, she just couldn’t get her head round the idea that a country like England, with its Christian tradition, could have elected an agnostic Prime Minister (as David Cameron is). She shook her head sadly, obviously feeling very sorry for the British! I didn’t get a sense she would be booking a flight to London any time soon, perfect as her English was!
Why don’t the authorities regulate the taxis? One person told me that there is a deep aversion in most Turks to publicly criticize or blame other Turks, particularly in front of foreigners. Therefore, in any tension or dispute between a Turk and a foreigner which gets to the level of some legal or official dispute the authorities are likely to favour the Turk. So if a Turk contravenes some traffic law, or rips off a tourist, the authorities are likely to turn a blind eye. It would just not be in the Turkish psyche to regulate taxis.
On the other hand I was also told that you need an official licence to do anything – that the state has taken more and more control of religious observance and the way that mosques and imams can behave. Also I was told that there is no shuttle bus from the city centre to one of the major airports because the contract has been interminably stalled in some government department.
So I am not able to really understand what is going on here. And again and again my non Turkish contacts in Istanbul have said – in one way or another - no matter how long you live here, no matter how many Turkish friends you have, no matter how many Turkish families welcome you into their homes, you will never really understand the Turks. You think you understand, and then something happens which makes you realise you don’t really understand at all!
Istanbul is full of people living here who seem to be refugees in one way or another. Not necessarily in the strict sense of the word, but here because something has not gone well for them in their country of birth, and so they settle here, for shorter or longer duration. Most of the outsiders I met here seem to find it relatively easy to get jobs and apartments here. The economy is relatively booming. I spoke with an Iraqi, out of his country because of the political turmoil there which had taken huge toll on him and his family. I also met an Iranian, who had lived in Canada for many years before coming to live here. And someone from Amsterdam. And several people from Australia. And a man from London, just down the road from me who, although not officially living here (he has a job as a teacher in a London comprehensive) spends all his holiday time here. In different ways I was told by these people that what kept them here was the strong sense of local community. Wherever you live you will be noticed, talked about, and – if you are lucky (which most seem to be) – welcomed into the community and cared for. Community is something which is in short supply in the Western world. In Britain, Australasia, North America, and increasingly in Western Europe, the bonds which held local communities together have fractured. People do not know their neighbours, and do not help their neighbours. Here in Turkey, community is alive and kicking. You may have issues with the particular forms it takes, the restrictions and contradictions it throws up, but you cannot escape it. Come to Turkey. You will be noticed! And if you reach out, you will be welcomed.