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Talking Turkey

a group of Turkish children, Istanbul
Istanbul school kids encouraging me to juggle the 17th century
Turkish sabres I've just purchased from a street vendor.

s I stand at the edge of the lush sloping 25-acre gardens of the Istanbul Hilton, I breathe the air of two continents and gaze out over the gleaming blue Bosphorus Strait. I hiked all the way up here from the train station to find Saladin, my occasional traveling companion, who's having lunch with his girlfriend, an Indian princess from Kashmir. I wish it would rain and cool things off. Apparently August isn't the rainy season. I'm soaked with sweat.

Saladin (whose real name is Julio - he's from Peru) has my laptop and a stack of Turkish travel postcards he's chosen for me. I've come to Istanbul, Turkey's most populous city, and its cultural and financial center, to rediscover the marvel of this ancient and highly seasoned mixture of religious, social and political ideas.

Turkish sweets on display in a shop
When the fellow in the alley urged me to try Turkish Delight,
I didn't expect a candy confection.

Terrorism is alive and well in the world, thanks to the Cheney-Bush administration's ferocious efforts to expand the American Empire. I'm learning this everywhere I go. As an American abroad these days, in particular an open-minded American willing to discuss politics, I am subjected to relentless abuse about my government's current leadership and its misdeeds.

view of the bridge linking Asia and Europe over the Bosporus
Looking across the Bosphorus from Asia to Europe, wondering
how to bridge America again with the Muslim world.

Our allies, the Turks, believe they can teach us a lot about diplomacy and restraint. How a nation such as Turkey has survived united, geographically situated in both Europe and Asia, historically linked to the great events of Western civilization yet wedded to the rich cultural heritage of the Middle East, is a remarkable model of compromise and tolerance. Or so I thought.

Ah, Byzantium.

It's another five degrees hotter and I don't know where Saladin and his princess are dining. I wonder which restaurant in this massive hotel complex to search first. I could use a beer.
There's a fellow who's been following me for about an hour, offering me means to transportation, food, lodging, Turkish rugs, anything I need - for a fee. He calls himself Mahir.

"Mahir, I'm fine. No problem," I tell him. But he is earnest and wants to talk.

"Not much money. Just a little," he promises. "I can get you a car, take you anywhere. A good clean hotel. Great prices for you. Rugs - Turkish, Persian, anything you want."

"I'm looking for my friend. After that - maybe," I tell him. Big mistake. He's encouraged.

"Your friend too. Anything he wants. Or she..." he adds, smiling. "No?"

There's something about the delicious aromas mingling in the humid stifling air that takes me back to yesterday, many years ago, when I first came to Istanbul. Most of the seven rolling hills on the original peninsula upon which the city was built were green with trees and fields filled with sheep and goats. I sat in a loud, colorful, crowded marketplace, eating dolma with vegetables and melon, and pide, a fresh round flatbread. I knew about the subtle refinement of Turkish cuisine, a centuries old mix of Turkic, Arabic, Greek, Armenian and Persian cooking. I remember the wonderful winehouses where one can sit all afternoon, sipping fine wine with serious French influences, or dine at one of the countless fresh seafood restaurants that numbered in the hundreds in every district of the city. I was sitting alone, watching the merchants engaging tourists in lively exchanges over carpets, leather goods, belly dancer outfits, copper coffee pots and all sorts of food and trinkets. I never thought I'd come back to Istanbul.

Today, these once pristine natural hillsides are completely covered with houses and apartment buildings, a testament to the phenomenal growth of the city, now numbering more than 14 million people. These Turks have left their countryside, the farms, ranches and rural businesses, for the greater promise of the riches of the city. And every Turk I speak to has an opinion about everything.

the Sultan's Palace
Walking past Sultan's Palace with a dog the locals affectionately call "W".

Walking around the Hilton is becoming tiresome. This isn't the real Turkey. Actually, I could simply call Saladin on my mobile phone. It only costs something like ten dollars per minute around here and he could tell me where he is. Except he never answers his phone. He probably doesn't ever turn it on. I don't blame him. I'll wait until later when we're supposed to meet at the Istanbul Archaeology Museum. Now I think I'll hike across to Topkapi Palace, possibly Istanbul's most famous architectural landmark.

the writer walking the streets of Istanbul
That's me, lost again after spending another afternoon at a popular
Istanbul winehouse.

"Mahir," I say. "I appreciate your offer, but I'm fine. OK?"

"You do not understand about the rugs," he explains, handing me his business card. "They are are hand made. The best ones take three years to complete, thread by thread. One woman, or man, alone, puts her whole life into a single rug. I can get them for you for next to nothing." He says "next to nothing" just the way he's heard it on American TV in used car advertisements.

I laugh. "Thanks, but no." Topkapi looms above me. I fumble for my camera. Mahir suddenly calls out to a friend who now rides up on his bike and stops to join us.

Standing in the beautiful courtyard of Topkapi Palace, Mahir introduces me to Ali. "Ali is my friend since childhood." Mahir explains. "Even though Ali is Persian, and I am a Turk, we are friends. Only in Turkey, eh?" Mahir slaps Ali on the shoulder and Ali laughs.

"Yes, my friend," Ali says and extends his hand to me. "I am Ali, friend of Mahir the Turk." They both laugh and I shake Ali's hand.

"So," I blurt, never smart enough to avoid saying something stupid. "You both are an example of the cultural melting pot today in Turkey, eh?"

"If you refer to race," Ali says, frowning. "We are Turk. First and foremost. And we are Muslim. Although my brothers are more devout than I, and they put Allah above country or family." Ali's expression is serious, almost dark.

"We have radicals, just like everywhere, just like your United States," Mahir adds. "But not just Muslim. Also Jew and Christian. We have many minority religions of Greek Orthodox Christians, Armenian Christians, Catholic Levantines and Sephartic Jews. They are not always content either."

"But," I ask. "Turkey seems free of the terrorism that riddles the rest of the Middle East and parts of Europe. How do you come by this tolerance?"

"We are tolerant because we are Turk," Ali says proudly.

"But what about your border areas? Kurds, Persians, Armenians..." I begin.

"All Turk!" Ali repeats firmly. "No Armenians. No Kurds. Only Turks."

"But..." I protest. Mahir touches my arm.

"We are all Turks," he says quietly. "There are ethnic and religious differences, but we are proud of our country, our history, our families. And that comes first."

Ali interjects, "Your government wants to condemn us for defending our country against riots and civil war. And not even this Turkish nation, but the old Ottoman Empire - not part of who we are today, but part of our proud heritage."

"You mean the Armenian genoc..." I stop myself. But not in time.

"No genocide! Not a genocide!" Ali snaps. "You are a guest in our country. You must be respectful of our history. Not like your president and his politicians. There was terrible loss of life on both sides of the uprising. Unfortunate. A terrible time for us all. But we are now all Turks."

"You see," Mahir explains. "We are a Muslim country, but most of us prefer a secular government. A government that doesn't interfere with our religion, that is populated by Muslims who understand we must learn to live with the world."

"I meant no disrespect." I say sincerely. It sounds like a line from an Indiana Jones movie. I almost sense sabres are about to be drawn.

"None taken," Ali calls out, waving his arm then taking my hand again in his. "We are patient with you Americans. You are like children. You do not understand the ways of the world. Your leaders are ignorant. We have compassion for you, America, a great and wonderful nation."

"I understand how you might feel that way," I say, again sincerely.

tea vendors near the Hagia Sophia
I'm there, in the bushes. The tea vendors warned me the
Turkish blend was very powerful.

The sun drops behind Topkapi and shade envelopes us. The rich colors of the Bosphorus below us, the boats on the water, the houses glimmering on the hills, are heightened in the deep afternoon light. The heat remains stifling. All at once we hear the call to Salaah, Islamic prayer.

Muslims are bound to pray five times a day, and this is the mid-afternoon Salaah. On each occasion the call to prayer is preceeded by Adhaan, holy verses honoring Allah, voiced by the muezzin, or crier. His solo voice rises in praise to Allah, now together with voices coming from all the hillsides and countless mosques in the city.

Mahir and Ali take turns and bid me farewell. They will go to the nearest mosque to join the congregation in prayer. I thank them for the warm companionship and good conversation, and they thank me even more heartily for the same.

"We shall meet again. Perhaps you will return for the Istanbul International Film Festival," Mahir says before he walks away.

"I'll look forward to it. It's one of best in Europe," I observe.

"It is the very best in all the world!" Ali shouts, already wheeling away on his bike. Then he laughs and yells, "Definitely one of the best."

Ali has disappeared from the courtyard and now Mahir is also gone. I ponder whether to tour Topkapi now, or to retreat to the museum to find Saladin. I am curious about Saladin's princess. What is she like? I wonder about her life as Hindu royalty in Kashmir, a nation administered by Muslim Pakistan. How does he meet such interesting people everywhere he goes?

Thanks, Terry, for letting me hop on your shoulders (in my imaginary travel, I'm light as a feather) and wander the streets of Istanbul with you. This mode of travel allows me to smell the smells, see the sites, as you describe, but avoid the crushing heat and humidity!

Most of all I enjoyed the wisdom of Mahir - his wonderfully simple declaration of being a Turk first and then a Muslim; his observation that Americans are children in this world. Only children could elect the biggest bully to its highest office and give him the keys to a closet full of horribly dangerous toys. One can only hope we'll grow up before we blow up.

Please travel to Beirut - another city I've always wanted to 'walk.'

Thanks for sharing.

Brenda Hughes
Richland, WA

I'm struck by how kind and civil the people were to you considering how much hostility (justified) that they have toward our government. It's refreshing to know that if Obama or Clinton becomes President he/she may be able to begin to heal these wounds and hopefully undo the Bush/Cheney damage and that because people of all faiths are good people, the damages don't have to be permanent.


You make Istanbul sound like a great destination.

Roger Fallihee
Puyallup, WA

I so had to laugh at your conversation with Ali. Trying to be an open minded American abroad and having a political discussion can be a very frustrating experience. Now matter how open minded we can be, or how many points about our own country we willingly admit, it can be so tough getting others to do the same. They do seem to take any topic (such as the Armenian genocide) and just turn it back to us. "But what about all the bad things the US has done?" Yes, but...I already conceeded that. Can we talk about your country now? As I'm heading for uber-anti American Serbia in 3 weeks I'm going to keep your Istanbul experience in mind.

Ben Liu
Seattle, WA

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