-- Robin Graham, travel writer and judge of the 2014 I Must Be Off Travel Essay Contest
I felt unexpectedly at home in Istanbul. Sometimes it was a flavour that evoked that sense of familiarity, like the sweet peanut paste called halva, which took me back to my childhood. Argentina’s version of halva is called Mantecol and has a very similar taste. Sometimes it was the architecture. Istanbul underwent a process of Europeanization spearheaded by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the Father of the Turkish Republic, in the 1930s. Entire streets wouldn’t look out of place in Paris or Madrid or even my hometown of Buenos Aires, where generations of Spanish, Italian and French architects have left their mark. This was described by Nobel Literature prize winner Orhan Pamuk in his book Istanbul. I lost myself in his book and in his city.
Orhan Pamuk describes Istanbul as a city of ruins, whose inhabitants have embraced as a common fate the melancholy brought about by the end of the Ottoman Empire and its faded glories. I see Istanbul as someone going through a midlife crisis: her best years are behind, the beauty of youth is fading and she’s trying to reinvent herself, find a new identity; however, she can’t quite achieve that because she is who she is.
Yalis, Ottoman wooden mansions on the Bosphorus
Likewise, traces of the Ottoman Istanbul scattered here and there remind locals and visitors of a past that stubbornly clings to the present. Stately yalis (Ottoman wooden mansions) perched on the edge of the Bosphorus, the tombstones of Ottoman dignitaries in the cypress-lined historic cemeteries topped with a turban or a fez to indicate the men’s rank or decorated with a flower for every child a woman gave birth to, magnificent mosques, a fortress.
Walking is the best way to know a city. You share a bit of the locals’ daily activities; it gives you a glimpse into their daily lives. You can tell what is going on by looking at their faces and the speed at which they walk. One can learn a great deal about a town by pounding the streets.
I learned that it is culturally acceptable for men to walk arm in arm as a sign of friendship. It also applies to women. However, I did not see couples holding hands or kissing, which tells me that public displays of affection are frowned upon. Men and women socialize separately. Men gather at tea houses, where they while away the afternoon sipping tea, playing backgammon and puffing away at their narghiles. Men seem to dominate the streets and the trades. Street vendors, waiters, hotel receptionists, taxi drivers, carpet sellers are mostly male. I also learned that people are not as aware of personal space as some of us are. It was a little uncomfortable to have people walk so close behind me that when they took a step forward they made me stumble and were surprised when I looked daggers at them.
In some cultures, staring is considered rude. This may not be the case in Turkey. People stared at us without shame and without hostility. It was a bit uncomfortable at first but then it gave me carte blanche to stare back and observe them. Men, whom I mostly didn’t find handsome, sport a short beard and wear dark clothes. These are the people in dark coats and jackets [...] rushing home through the darkening streets Orhan Pamuk writes about. Women also wear dark clothes but their colourful veils put a cheerful note in their austere wardrobe. Some ladies have exotic (to me) features: striking high cheekbones and kohl-lined, almond-shaped eyes reminiscent of Scheherazade and all the magic and mystery of the legendary Levant.
Our hotel was close to the University of Istanbul so the area was full of students coming and going along Ordu Caddesi, both walking and on the tram. I felt a tiny bit envious of those students with their books and notes in hand. They can do anything they want; their life is still a blank book for them to write their own story. I wish I were that age again, with the world at my feet, but with what I know now. I noticed that a big proportion of those students were female, both veiled and unveiled.
The tram line along the Ordu Caddesi also goes to the Grand Bazaar and Sultanahmet Square, two of the most popular places to visit in the city, so passengers get on and off at every station. Traffic is dense, if rather chaotic at times. Horns are a constant feature all day long until late at night. While drivers always stop at the red light, pedestrians are more remiss. They take traffic lights as a mere suggestion and cross the street in a helter skelter fashion.
Yet, in the middle of this apparent chaos, devout Muslim men calmly wash their feet and perform the ablutions prescribed by Islam before prayers five times a day. I admire the strength of their faith. Under no circumstance would I ever wash my bare feet in the open air on a wintry day. Seeing this made me question my own religious faith and why I lost it. Did I ever really believe in God? Did the beliefs I used to have come from my heart or were they imposed from the outside? Probably the latter, especially when I was at Catholic school. I think some people need to believe in a Superior Being and some don’t. However, I do sometimes find comfort in the ritual of Mass, in the communion with other people and the energy it generates.
That´s the energy that courses through Istanbul when the muezzin’s calls to prayer reverberate throughout the city, bounces off walls ancient and new and vibrates in my chest. It is the energy that brings people and the past and the present together.
Ana Astri-O’Reilly is an Argentinean expat living in the US, travel blogger, avid reader, curious traveller. She worked as a translator and foreign language instructor in her native Buenos Aires. She is a contributing editor at PocketCultures.com and writes about travel on the blog Ana Travels http://anatravels.com She speaks fluent Spanish, English and some Portuguese.