Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Istanbul: Part I

Hello there. It seems that I am in ISTANBUL.

Leaving Paris was hard to do, but it turns out that if you are going to leave behind a city as fabulous as Paris, Istanbul is the perfect destination. Not only is Istanbul filled to the brim with gorgeous things to see, it is also appropriately grimy enough to feel that I am in the (constant) presence of real human beings.

Which always gives me comfort. 

What also gives me comfort is the distraction of a language I have no familiarity with whatsoever, regardless of the amount of time I studied Korean: one of the languages linguistically related to Turkish, a fact I was reminded of when I ran into a young Korean-American translator named Eric with whom I spent a day wandering around Topkapi Palace and some of the swankier streets of Istanbul.   Eric and I met in the way all foreigners abroad meet: in a hellishly long line for a ticket counter. It turns out he lives about an hour south of where I used to live in Korea, so we started talking, comparing notes, and soon I learned that not only did Eric know Korean, he'd also been studying French in Lyon, so then we started talking about the differences between French and Korean and English, what it means to translate something accurately, what it means to learn a language: basically, the kind of obsessive discussion of linguistics the non-fluent have abroad that makes most people want to put a knife in their eye. We talked over the course of about 8 hours, during which Eric also revealed to me that, as a pastor's son, his greatest fear is that God would soon tell him he must go work as a missionary, a revelation which, I'm not proud to say, made me nearly snort my tea over our shared plate of pistachio baklava.

"What do you mean God will tell you to be a missionary?"

"I mean, I think God is going to tell me I need to leave my life and go preach His word."

"And how is God going to tell you this?"

"Through signs. Anything and anyone could be His messenger. You could be his messenger, for instance."

"Trust me," I said. "I am not God's messenger."

He laughed. "It wouldn't be you, but maybe something you say. But when God speaks to me, I'll know."

"Can't you just ignore him?"

He looked at me. "I'd like to. My father tried to. But eventually the voice just becomes louder and louder. How are you going to ignore God?"

"I don't know. it seems pretty easy to me. He ignores the hell out of us."

Eric wrinkled his brow. We'd already had part of this discussion before, in which I'd asked him why he believes (out of curiosity, not hostility: religious feeling to me being a foreign concept) and he'd replied that he has no idea why, but that he's moved to do so, and then we both fell headlong into that old rhetorical Slough of Despond: Why believe in God when there is no reliable evidence for it and bad things keep happening in the world, blah blah blah. He fed me the line that man, being imperfect, could never hope to fathom God's intentions. I fed him the line that we shouldn't have to believe in something whose day-to-day or even century-to-century morality is beyond our comprehension. "Even if God did exist," I told him, "I would still refuse to believe in him out of protest. I'm an American. This God doesn't get my vote."

Eric blinked at me rapidly, then went back to his pastry.

Normally, I don't go around talking about God because it bores the crap out of me. Conversations about religious belief are designed to bring out the worst in its participants, making believers sound either like moralistic prigs or pudding-headed Polyannas and the nonbelievers like narrow-minded, apocalyptic cranks. If I were to tell Eric that my greatest fear was ending up naked, starving and hunted by zombie cannibals through the wilds of North Carolina like some doomed extra in a Cormac McCarthy novel, I think our conversation about the limits of human morality in the presence and/or absence of the divine would effectively be over.

I think the reason we even ventured onto this topic, however, was the low-grade religious fever we'd both been running all week. Evidently, before meeting me, Eric had a fierce discussion with a Tunisian Muslim about the fact that--at the end of days--all people will be converted to Islam, a point of religious belief with which Eric might obviously have some contention. Considering the fervency of Eric's own belief, I began to wonder if his disinterest in the mosques we visited together was not entirely about architectural aesthetics but some still-simmering discontent with the Tunisian's position. ("These places," he kept saying. "They just look so, I don't know, the same as all the others.") 

As for me, I was raised in an effectively Christian nation, educated at a Catholic school and now I count myself a survivor of our fair nation's post-9/11 onslaught of nationalistic demagogery. Turkey is the first (yes, politically secular) ethnically Muslim nation I've ever visited, and while there are many things about this city that don't scream Muslim (though the city does, oddly, scream "Hot pants!" to me, considering the number of Turkish women wearing tiny sweaters over pants barely more substantial than leggings), there is of course the fact that many of the touristy things to do and see here revolve around mosques.

And these mosques--including obviously the fascinating religious history hybrid that is Aya Sofia--are awesome. 

I don't mean "awesome" in the Valley Girl kind of way. I mean "awesome" in the "Holy shit, I think that burning shrubbery just SPOKE to me!" kind of way. These mosques are probably the most beautiful places of worship I've ever seen, and I spent my last day in Paris at Saint Chapelle, oozing with glee in its hall of stained glass windows.

There is also the fact that five times a day men from their representative mosques get on their loudspeakers and begin to sing the call to prayer. And each time it is utterly arresting. I find the calls both sonorous and plaintive, and am mesmerized by the way these slightly speaker-tinny voices (which, to me, just adds to their effect) spool out over the city.

But it is not so mesmerizing, it seems, to 26% of Turks. This figure, if correct, is the number of staunchly secular citizens in Turkey and it comes to me via the owner of the hotel at which I'm staying, a very nice place called Zeynep Sultan (thanks, Hikmet!) run by one of the staunchest of this 26% who finds these calls to prayer annoying. Part of this has to do with the hotel's proximity to both the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofia, along with 8 other smaller mosques in Sultanahmet. "It is not just that they are so loud you cannot even talk on the phone when they start up," he says, "it is that they are also staggered, so that one starts up as soon as the other finishes, so it goes one forever. Long before, at least, they had no bullhorns so you could ignore it. Now these loudspeakers make it impossible."

"Are they singing verses from the Quran?"

"Who knows. It's in Arabic. It starts with something about Allah is great, which is repeated twice, and goes on. Everything is repeated twice. But it's like someone singing in Latin in the west. Hardly any of us knows what they are really saying."

"At least it sounds beautiful."

"You're here for a week. Spend 40 years here listening to this and tell if if you feel the same. I can't wait for the EU to finally give up their Christian prejudices and admit Turkey into the union. Once that happens, we will have to give up these rituals. Believe, fine, but it should be private. Turkey is a secular nation, but for the past 10 years we've been sliding backwards. We need to get into the Union and stop sliding backwards."

"You really want to link up with the sinking Euro?" I asked.

"Hey," he says. "I would rather be a little poorer and free, than rich and forced to be fundamentalist."

(An interesting side note about this hotel is that it is built on a christian church from 332 A.D. I got to see it the other morning with a Russian art historian and a couple from Spain just as we were finishing up breakfast. The owner took us down a steep series of steps into an impressively preserved warren of stone rooms and archways that the owner told us had been a very early precursor for Aya Sofia's design. See? Religion really is everywhere here.)

Regardless, over the next few days, the hotel owner's words began to jaundice my own reactions. Yesterday morning, at 6:30, the world still dark, I woke to the first loudspeaker's call to prayer.  "If God was really great," I thought, groaning and burrowing under a pillow,  "God would let us all sleep in."

I know that posting about this subject technically defies one of my own early promises about this blog. But it's hard not to end up thinking about this even a little. Being a perpetual tourist, as I am now, I visit the most well-traveled landmarks of the cities I visit, and inevitably the bulk of these landmarks are religious. I see them, yes, because other people have seen them, because supposedly they will tell me about the character and history of the city. I also see them because these kinds of activities help fill my days. But really, am I inspired by or even interested in these sites? 

In Istanbul, I can sift through my dim recollections of the Ottoman Empire's highlights to help me out. I can talk about the history of the crusades in the area. I can recognize the importance--and visage--of Ataturk. But the mosques are something else. The mosques I am visiting are largely working mosques: small knots of men gather in their corners, praying together, heads bent as they try to ignore the throngs of tourists scurrying around with cameras. Watching them, watching Eric's possibly studied dismissal of the mosques themselves, I am reminded suddenly of the old Catholic idea of grace I learned years ago in school. God, I learned, grants grace; you can't earn it or think your way into it. For the first time, I feel like I might understand some small part of the confusion, even the faintest trace of the envy, that the unchosen would have felt for the ranks of the preordained. Why does that person get chosen and not me? Why does that person believe and not me?

When I go to one of these religious sites, I don't wonder if I'm missing something--I know that I'm missing something. According to Richard Dawkins, it's a gene. But whatever it is, and however little this absence actually bothers me in daily life, it does surprise me that I've continued to travel to these places.  All those temples in India and China, Japan, Tibet, Korea, northern and southern Europe. Why, if I am not interested in religious belief, am I visiting them?  I say it is because these places are historically important and beautiful, and they are, and because I'm learning something, which--quite frankly--I'm not. There are never any useful signs in these places, and my guidebooks have always been cheap and highly redacted, my rented guides equally clueless or not fluent enough in English. If I'm honest, I've learned more about churches from reading Michael Camille than seeing one in person. So why go? What am I hoping to see? 

Alone in my hotel room, I fished out from my purse the free Quran I got outside the Rustem Pasa mosque. (Hey, I might not believe, but I have never turned down a free meal or book.) Flipping through at random, I found these bits of verse:

"God brought you forth from the wombs of your mothers while you knew nothing, and gave you hearing and sight and hearts, so that you might be grateful.

Do they not see the birds held poised in the vault of heaven? Nothing holds them up except God. Truly, there are signs in this for those who believe."

I folded back the page. I planned to show the verses to Eric the next time we met, thinking he might be amused by the mention of signs in it. Our meeting was being arranged partly by chance, however, as neither of us had a phone and Eric didn't have any access to the internet. We'd agreed to meet at Dolmabahce palace, at the entrance, sometime around 3 on Tuesday. If we saw each other, great. If not, have a good rest of your life. 

I showed up at 3 as agreed, but didn't anticipate the agonizing length of the lines. After more than an hour in the cold, people were herded into groups and led up the marble steps into separate tours wending through the palace. So many heads, some blonde, most dark. I squinted: was that Eric ahead of me in one of the other groups? The kid in the puffy blue and black jacket, something like a book tucked into his back pocket? The young man half turned, then disappeared into the crowd as it began to weave up the red carpeted stairs. Maybe it was him. Or maybe it was someone I just wanted to think was him.

The crowd pressed forward into an alcove, separated, wove to the far end of the sultan's grand entrance hall. I watched the puffy blue and black back as best I could until it turned another corner. I squinted, but it was useless. Whoever it was, he was gone.


  1. Truly, they were as gods who built that bakery . . . I'm sure that's culturally insensitive: what do they call bakeries in Heaven, from which, surely, you took that picture.

  2. Ah, random travel companions. My favorite was in a small bar on New Zealand's south island, a French guy and I claiming our own country had the most offensive foreign policy. "We'll sell bombs to anyone!" I remember his saying. Glad to hear you made it to Saint Chapelle, now two or three cities back.