It’s probably not innocence. That was lost somewhere in the haze of the Cairo days. It’s probably not intelligence- two stolen passports in two years will testify to that. Nor is it grace; any of my old boyfriends will tell you that. But I do possess something in the Arab world, some invidious quality that offers me a (sometimes false) air of confidence- the ability to communicate. Not merely that, but the ability to offer progressively complex thoughts, arguments, commentaries, and other grandiose musings. With Arabic, I can comfortably communicate with millions of people spread across multiple countries and continents.
Enter Turkey, land of perhaps 10 English speakers. Upon exiting Jordan, I was regretfully informed that the visa I thought had been renewed had, in fact, been cancelled by my local police station (bloody infidels, all of them), and, if I wished to exit the country, I would need to pay a 50 dollar fine. Well, I presented my argument in increasingly voluble (Arabic) tones until time dictated my terse surrender to the customs official. With a few muttered curses, I handed over my fine and stomped off to Turkey.
I suppose, to maintain a semblance of accuracy, I flew off to Turkey, as stomping to said country would involve crossing into Syriaâ€¦and I had experienced enough confrontations with border control agents for a few weeks. Mother had brought me a pair of lovely, furry half boots to warm my chilled little tootsies in the frigid wilds of Turkey. But, emerging from Ataturk airport, golden sunshine and mild breezes washed over us, melting away the frustrations of the previous hours. “Maybe I can actually be warm!” Mother exclaimed, referencing, with punctilious frequency, the non-heated nature of my flat in Amman. “Perhaps.” I smiled, dreaming of a long, hot shower, gushing forth from the shower head in torrentsâ€¦.
Our van trailed the shoreline, passing the glittering waters of the Sea of Marmara, young families chasing after screaming children, swooping seagulls, swathes of green grass (remember, it’s been only me and the desert since September) and crumbling stone walls. “Byzantine. Fort,” our driver barked, gesturing towards the ramparts nestled between modern apartment buildings and spindly minarets. The streets narrowed, and the pavement turned to worn cobblestones. Carpet shops, boutique hotels, quaint restaurants, and magnificent ruins all crowded into the neighborhood of Sultanahmet. We checked into the Hotel Pennisula, hauled (well, I and the front desk man hauled, Mother largely followed) our luggage up the narrow spiral staircase, and promptly fell asleep. Yes, that’s right. Our first few hours among the splendors of the Ottomans, and we slumbered. To be fair, the room was pleasantly heatedâ€¦
By night we feasted on Turkish delicacies (and the ubiquitous French Fry). Lusciously sated, we wandered towards the Aya Sofia and Blue Mosque, a mere 5 minute walk from the hotel. An almost-full moon lit our pathway as we climbed one of Istanbul’s many hills, pausing as our view filled with the impregnable contours of the Aya Sofia. Across a park filled with the ethereal cascades of a fountain rested the Blue Mosque. Younger than its neighbor by over 1000 years, it displayed the whimsical beauty of youth, delicate minarets soaring into the heavens, silvered domes topped by golden spirals. A fairy tale mosque, if they had a place in such fantasies. A veiled princess, trapped in a minaret, rescued by an imamâ€¦
But I digress. As usual. With dreams of mosques and starlit (chaste) romances flitting through my dreams, I awoke to a warm, deliciously powerful shower and the steely light of overcast skies filling the breakfast room with tepid warmth. Nonetheless, Mother and I marched off to our first destination, Topkapi palace, a rambling coalition of courtyards, fountains, mosques, harems, treasuries, pavilions, and tiled rooms. Unlike European palace-fortresses, Topkapi sprawled, its one or two-storey rooms stretching out over a vast area, encircling green courtyards and delicate pavilions. Built around 1600, Topkapi harboured the imperial treasury of the Ottoman empire, still on display to incite royal envy in fist-sized diamonds and piles of emeralds. The Ottoman sultans were famed for a number of reasons- their harem, for one, and their exquisite porcelain tiles, for another. Both were shielded from the ordinary citizen behind high palace walls, although the tiles graced many inner walls of the palace, while the women were confined to a rather constricted area where no man, other than the sultan and his sons, could venture.
We spent several hours in the palace, wandering through its echoing chambers and admiring the still brilliant blue, turquoise, and red tiles colouring the Ottoman world. After lunch, we ambled over to the Aya Sofia. “It’s really rather ugly by daylight,” I commented to Mother as we approached the imposing edifice. Indeed, age has not exactly heightened its beauty, although the something must be said for its sheer perseverance. Built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian around 300 A.D. as a church, the Ottoman invasion 1000 years later converted it into a mosque. Today, it functions as a museum, the chipped paint and irregular brick faÃ§ade supporting an equally dilapidated interior. Walking through the arched doorways, I could not help but gasp at the enormity of the interior domes, totally unsupported by pillars. But the sensation that lingers most is one of ruined grandeur, faded frescoes, peeling walls, and half-intact mosaics offering a sense of sundered glory lost to the ghosts of history.
With my Middle East impermeability stolidly anchored, we fended off the numerous offers to “come see my carpet shop” and “where are you from?” and “Yes, I am here” from touts on the street. I may not be fluent in Arabic, but at least I can resist the pressure to enter a carpet shop! Which really makes my education entirely worth it, in my opinion. Resisting the temptation of Milka, however, requires an entirely different set of principles I have not yet mastered. Milka, is, of course, the best chocolate in the world, smooth milky alpine chocolate filled with such wonders as strawberry yoghurt, rich carmel, or crunchy nuts. In terms of enjoyment, Mother and I enjoyed our Milka candy bars with the same awe as the ruins of Epheseus and the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia. Well, maybe that’s a slight, slight exaggeration. But it was really very good chocolate.
For dinner (which could not be merely Milka candy bars, alas) I had quite scrumptious octopus salad. By morn, I dragged mother from beneath her warm comforters (“But it’s actually warm!”â€¦Yes, mother is no longer envious of my ‘exotic’ lifestyle, which mainly consists of huddling within a 2 foot radius of my heater and taking trickle showers J ) and we headed to the Blue Mosque, intent on penetrating the graceful, domed beauty. The interior was stunning, painted windows casting muted hues over luscious prayer colors, softly illuminating beautiful tiles and the giant ‘elephant feet’ pillars supporting the arched dome. A few men prayed in the direction of Mecca with droves of tourists frantically snapping photos. Merely, of course, adding to the reverent ambianceâ€¦.
If you know either me or mother, you have likely discerned a void in this tale-shopping! Indeed, we had abstained from art of purchasing (and, trust me, in Turkey, bargaining truly is an art) until that day. Early in the morning, while delivering our laundry to a local service, I espied a sign in the window of a corner shop: “Hand-woven silk productsâ€¦” Needless to say, we emerged half an hour later with three more scarves to our name; 2 soft, cotton ones and a subtle, raw silk grey one for mother. Although I had fingered the 100 dollar scarves, I regretfully refrainedâ€¦or my credit card might have protested.
Under my influences, we walkedâ€¦everywhereâ€¦.in Turkey. And this day was no exception. We trod upon brown, cobbled streets of Sultanahmet; stoically ignored the many offers to visit carpet shops; passed the Blue Mosque and Aya Sofya, both glowing with the still soft light of morn; trekked through the modern district of Eminou, with internet cafes and restaurants wedged between Ottoman baths and ancient tombs; turned onto a side street, mingling with the rest of Istanbul flooding the sidewalks; followed the wall of a 16th century mosque; and finally walked beneath the archway signaling the start of the Grand Bazaar, a truly spectacular collection of shops sprawling under a covered roof, a veritable maze of twisting alleyways, wide avenues, and glittering goods to entice the buyer. Without any signs in English marking the exit, Mother and I soon found ourselves happily lost amid the hand-painted tiles, silk scarves, silver earrings, woolen carpets, and bronze lamps.
After the passage of several hours, we paused for a respite, realizing, rather regretfully, that we should attempt to discern the exit. Otherwise, I, the pack mule, was in danger of tipping over due to the ceramic plates in one hand and the tiles in the other. Hmmmmâ€¦”I think it’s over here,” I murmured to Mom, leading us out of the Grand Bazaar into an enclosed courtyard. “Or not.” We returned to the Bazaar, wended our way through the shops until another exit appeared. Although not the one through which we had entered, I took it, anyways. I then proceeded to lead us on a tour of ‘real’ Istanbul. Mother claims I was lost. “You’re lost,” in fact, were her exact words after half an hour of wandering through the back streets of Istanbul. In defense of my honor, I was not lost, merely taking the scenic route. In doing so, we passed several gorgeously ruinous Ottoman-domed mosques and walked through some fascinating residential areas with tall, sagging apartment buildings crowding narrow alleyways full of children shrieking, veiled women bartering for bread, and the men, as always, loitering in doorways and not accomplishing much of anything. Men.
I noticed Mother’s pace had suddenly matched my own. “Where are we going,” she hissed, as the eyes of men (still lingering in doorframes) followed our progress. “Ummmâ€¦the Bosphorus?” At least, that was my aim, and I was slowly heading towards it, albeit at a slower and more circuitous route that my guidebook indicated. Soon, I spied a major intersection ahead, and hoped to find a familiar landmark. Alas, the quaintness of Sultanahmet had been transformed into characterless concrete buildings, lanes of traffic spewing pollution, and a drab bridge leading to an unknown part of Istanbul. “Taxi?” We hopped into one, finding a driver who spoke not a word of English and charged us an exorbitant fee. Miffed, we eventually exited near our hotel, deposited the purchases on our bed, and found supper in a couple apples, Milka chocolate, potato crisps, and almonds.
As we were returning to Istanbul at the conclusion of our Turkey travels, we left the large suitcase at the hotel (and with it several of the more fragile souvenirs), and embarked on our next adventure-the Turkish bus station. For some reason, my family thinks I am fairly independent (wherever they found that silly notion, I haven’t a clue), and so mother and I decided to forego expensive tours and visit Turkey’s wonders via public transport.
The bus station exhibited typical Arab world (although, I know, Turks are NOT Arab, they still often behaved quite similarly) chaos, the brightness of women’s headscarves and the swish of men’s robes causing us to cower in a little corner of the vast terminal until our bus arrived, observing the dramas of everyday life unfold- goodbyes, warm embraces, kisses on the cheek, the transfer of luggage from mother to son…On the bus, we were offered lemon-scented hand cleaner, water, coffee, soda, various snacks, and the enjoyment of Turkish soap operas blaring throughout the duration of the ride. Soap operas, at least, are a universal language.
By nightfall, our bus had reached the Gallipoli Peninsula, where some of the fiercest battles of World War II had raged. Even now, the ghosts of past carnage linger, darkening the shadows of dusk and silencing even the raucous boy seated several chairs in front of us. Our bus boarded a ferry, then soon disembarked in Canakkale, our destination for the evening. We collected our luggage, wheeled it to the Kervansary Hotel, and headed out for a night on the town. Following the recommendation of the hotel clerk, we dined in a charming restaurant overlooking the Med, sampling (really, really fresh!) calamari and a mis-communicated plate of veggie appetizers.
On the way home, we passed the Trojan horse. Although perhaps not the real one the warriors of Greece hid in to deceive the Trojans, this one had the (in my opinion, greater) distinction of hiding the personage of Brad Pitt. It was used in the movie Troy, and then donated to the city.