What is it about birds? Alfred Hitchcock showed us they can be creatures to be feared, blood thirsty avian packs of murderous intent. To followers of Judaism and Christianity the image of an olive branch bearing white dove is a symbol of hope and peace. To Ancient Egyptians it was a long legged herron that created initially the universe and then gods, goddesses and men to live in it. For me personally, birds represent something a lot less complicated or involved. They are a glorious reminder of the magic that abounds in the city I now call home. Istanbul, Turkey.
For years I have played the role of a smitten lover, a humble servant, an obedient receiver to the call of this city. I was first affected 7 years ago, the attraction immediate. It began with a late night hair raising yet exhilarating taxi ride from airport to hotel. My driver diving in and out of heavy traffic, a warm foreign breeze filling the taxi, driving alongside the churning Bosphorus covered with the glitter of ships in port, the car stereo turned up to degrees of deafening proportions! My intrigue and wonder was further compounded when I first heard the Muezzin sing out the call to prayer from a nearby mosque as I lay my head down for the first of many nights in this city. By morning I knew the deal had been done, the task had been set, the seed firmly imbedded. I had just found the new love of my life. Still after nearly 2 years spent here, this city, Istanbul, she still dazzles and amazes me on a daily sometimes hourly basis. I’m certainly not the only one that feels this way. Increasingly more so expats from around the world have set up homes here, they too finding it near impossible to leave.
Apart from the obvious attractions of this city – the cobbled back allies, the history filled streets, the controlled chaos, buildings that date back thousands of years, east meets west, baklava, 3 TL pints of beer (the list goes on…) there is something about Istanbul that I can’t touch or see with my eyes alone. There is an unmistakable magic that swirls about and fills these streets … and skies. When I’m asked by family and friends back home why I keep returning I find it hard to give a definite answer. I find it hard to put into words exactly what it is that draws me back. My answer is always the same – it’s undeniably magic, it’s the people, it’s something in the air and it’s the birds that circle in the sky. I’ve spent so many hours sitting on my rooftop terrace, sitting up above the craziness that consumes the streets below, sitting surrounded by blue sky and watching the birds duck and dive, float and flit, shift and rest among the apartment blocks. For me they signify the very thing that I find so hard to capture in words alone. They are freedom encapsulated, they are carefree, they are poetic life forces that fill the skies with grace and wonder. They are the image and symbol of everything I love so much about Istanbul. This city is chaotic and manic, bustling and crumbling. However, regardless of its dilapidated state it presents a wonderful example of humanity in its purest form. Just like the birds that occupy the skies above them, the people of Istanbul duck and dive, flit and float among and around each other. For such a highly populated city I have never encountered the kindness of strangers as I have here. From helping a stranger park their car in the narrow and jam packed streets to inviting a foreigner into their home for a cup of tea, the people in this city rarely turn a blind eye to someone who may need their help.
From my terrace I have a clear view of the many apartment blocks scattered haphazardly among the streets that surround my apartment. There is one sight that will stay with me long after I have left Istanbul, when I have returned to my country of birth or set up home in another foreign land. A visual metaphor I believe captures the essence of Istanbul, an event I eagerly await as evening arrives. There is a man that lives on the 5th floor of a ramshackle apartment building just across the way. His apartment is very small but somewhere in the shanty shack that he occupies, he keeps pigeons. In the late afternoon, just on dusk, he lets them out to fly. To sit, on sunset, the sky a collage of deep blues, mottled oranges and dusty pinks and witness his birds circling in the sky fills me with a wonder and beauty I have rarely known in my life. After a time of allowing his captured birds out to be free, explore, behave as all good birds should, he waves an enormous white flag from his balcony to call them back in and they respectfully obey.
Many of the birds that migrate between Europe and Africa each year choose to travel through Turkey. Some of them choose to stay here and breed while others prefer to merely pass through like the many European tourists that pass through Turkey each year. Perhaps these birds feel the same way I do about Turkey. They are obedient receivers of a calling to this country. They are intrigued by the magic in the air. Some stay to explore this magic more, delve deeper into the mystery that abounds in this ancient city, while others choose to have a taste and move on, perhaps to a place they too feel they are but a humble servant.