Before coming to Turkey, we heard a lot about the hospitality of the people here. We heard stories about people on buses inviting you over to dinner, strangers talking to you and welcoming you and about the general niceness and openness of everyone. Although we have met a handful of incredibly wonderful, kind and helpful people, overall we have felt pretty alienated from the general population. It is no help that we did not learn more Turkish before we came and that is something we need to work on. Needless to say, in some ways the transition has been hard. Two things happened in this last week that have really changed my perception of Turkey and of generally being here.
While I was at work last week, I went to take a sip of my coffee and instead of reaching my mouth it spilled all over the front of my cream colored dress. Not only was I out of my much-needed caffeine fix, but it was only 9:30 am and I faced a day of walking around with a huge brown spot that somewhat resembled Florida on my front side. (On my best quadrant I dare say, for the 30 Rock lovers). I went to the bathroom and promptly made the stain twice its size as I tried to clean it out. Then there was a great blast of light as the bathroom door opened and I think somewhere in the distance I could hear angels singing. In walked the bathroom assistant lady. She took one look at what I was doing and shook her head and came over and grabbed the front of my dress and pulled it under the sink. She promptly soaped it up, scrub-scrub-scrubbed, wrung-wrung-wrung and like magic my dress looked better than when I first bought it! Then she took me under the dryer and waited until it was dry before she left me to my own devices. And then, just like that, before I could even properly say my broken ta-shakraylar (thank you), my angel was gone!
This past weekend we went to the Prince’s Islands and when it was time to pray, Feraz and I set out to find a mosque. Eventually, after Feraz asked someone every ten feet which way the mosque was, we were able to find it. Unfortunately once I got there there were no hijabs (head scarves) for me to wear while praying as there typically are in mosques in Turkey. I sat there for a while thinking I wouldn’t be able to pray when I saw one of the girl’s there pulling a scarf out of her bag. Well. This was a very big bag. And if there was one hijab in it I thought, there might be two! So I tapped her and asked, “Hijab? For me? To pray?” (Sometimes you have to become frugal with your words when most of the people in the country don’t know English!) And to my delight she did! I wanted to hug her and kiss her for being such a prepared Patty but instead I accepted the hijab and gave her a big smile. “Where you from?” she asked me. “Originally from Pakistan but now I live in the US,” I replied. She didn’t hate me immediately! She didn’t yell at me about the financial crisis! She just smiled and said, “Oh, very nice.” Then she giggled and walked away and I went off to pray. After praying I set down the hijab next to her because she was still praying and went out to meet Feraz. As we were leaving I hear an “Excuse me!” behind me and I turn to see my new friend. She says, “Just one minute please!” I wonder if I have gotten my post-biking sweat all over her white hijab or if I left it with the wrong girl. I wonder if she just remembered that she has to yell at me for being American. Instead she comes out with a present!! She tells me that she wants me to have a little reminder of Turkey as a gift. She gave me a small travel prayer rug and this small but very, very big gesture filled me up and made me so happy. I will never forget her act of kindness and how it made me feel welcome in a country that has been so scary and intimidating because of my foreignness.
So, Turkey isn’t perfect. Neither am I, and neither is anything else. But the more I open my eyes the more beauty I see and I realize that this experience is going to be more amazing than I can imagine.
Some thoughts on Turkey…
-We love our apartment. It is smaller than we expected but there is definitely enough room for us. It is a very efficient apartment and has everything you could possibly need. I think that almost everything is from Ikea. The tables, rugs, towels, dishes, and even the kitchen unit. The apartment also comes with a disco ball in the ceiling! It is very tasteful and every night around 11:30 the family room becomes a discotecque. No complaints here. We lucked out on the location as well. It is right next to the metro, the Bosporous, and right off of Istikal street which is basically the main street in Istanbul.
-We have made a few great friends who have been amazing in helping us settle in and get to know the city and just making us feel like we are not complete strangers in this new place. If not for them we would probably still be walking around Taksim square looking for the metro.
-There is very high security. There are metal detectors, police and security people all over the place. At my work they check every single car that goes into the auto park including the trunk. Most of it seems pretty pointless and paternalistic more than anything.
-Microwaves and dryers are very uncommon so eating leftovers and doing laundry can be a bit of a pain.
-Random things are really expensive. I am not sure if it is because of where we live or just because some things are hard to import. For instance, gums and mints are super expensive. Also, I haven’t been able to get a pair of flat black shoes for work because I can’t find anything I like for under 150 lira. On the bright side (the really bright side) I did manage to get a pair of orange adidas for 10 lira from a man selling them out of cardboard boxes… 🙂
-Even though Turkey is predominately Muslim, you really can not tell. Women who wear hijab (the headscarf) can’t teach, be in the government or go to University. In some cases they aren’t even allowed to enter museums. There seems to be a great divide between practicing Muslims and non-practicing Muslims which just feels weird and alienating.
-Even though we live here we still have to pay tourist dues. For instance, the first week we were here we were walking to the Istanbul modern when a shoe shine guy walked passed us and dropped his brush. As innocent as I was back then, I rushed to tap him as Feraz retrieved his brush. The guy was soo nice!! He thanked and thanked us. Then he insisted on cleaning Feraz’s shoes. What a man! He even told us stories about his family and his kids. They sounded so nice! Except for his poor baby who was in the hospital. Some tourist made the baby have an accident! Stupid tourists. Then his brother came and started shining my shoes! This was just too much. Turkish people are as nice as everyone says! Finally we were all done and the man takes hold of Feraz and asks for 16 lira. Oh no he didn’t! Oh yes he did! We just started laughing thinking wow, this guy is serious! So we gave him 5 lira and said peace homes, thanks for making us totes not heart you anymore. We also had a cab guy try to charge us 25 lira for what was supposed to be a 3-4 lira ride but the grand baby of them all was when we saw some tourists getting charged 120 lira for a bosporous cruise for which we paid 10 lira. Oh snap.
Today was my first day of work. It was a strange feeling to be walking in my suit, in this strange country, with my heels not quite fitting, with the uneven paved streets of Istanbul but just like all the other Turkish folk I was swept up in the mass of bodies that boarded the metro and started their commutes. In this strange land it felt odd to act like someone who belonged.
Last night I stopped to pray at a mosque right in the heart of the city, on what feels like the busiest street in the world. On this crazy street there is this mosque from 1597 and as I walk in, I feel like a chicken with its head cut off because there are men everywhere and I can’t find the women’s area but an old man comes and helps me by taking me to the stairs and pointing out that the women are upstairs. So I go upstairs and I can look down on this beautiful mosque with its ancient tiling and the whispers of hundreds of years of worship. Already I am touched. And as the prayer begins I am moved by these words that I can recognize in this strange country where I feel so foreign and where everyone speaks so fast in Turkish that I am scared I might wither away from loneliness. And soon I am very moved and very humbled by this place and by God and by my own imperfections and I can’t stop crying and there is an old Turkish woman next to me who is covered in her long black abaya and she takes my hand and then wraps me up into her and is saying comforting words in Turkish like I am a small child and she is telling me to sleep as she runs her hands over my eyes. And I want only to cry and to fall asleep right there but outside Feraz is waiting for me and I pull myself away when I am ready and I know that I am not able to thank her so I kiss her hand and say shukrun and try to find her eyes so that she may at least know how grateful I am. As I walk outside Depeche Mode blasts “It is written in the stars above, the gods decree, you’ll be right here by my side” and life moves on but I feel as if on this very busy street where the whole world seems to have come to meet, God has come to meet me.
In contrast today it is Friday prayer at the same mosque. As I walk into the musjid area there were so many men. Rows and rows as far as I can see and I am afraid of the men’s gaze for no good reason. One kind man points me towards the women’s area for jummah and I quickly scurry in. It is a small hut but the wind can come in and we can hear everything and it feels very safe. The sermon is said in Turkish so I am lost in my own thoughts and then there is the call to prayer and as I stand up to pray, I don’t realize that there is an opened window shutter above me and my back catches it with such violence that it actually breaks the window off its hinges! Then the whole window came toppling down on me. I block it from hitting my head with my arms but still it’s weight hurts me. There are only three other women in the area and two of them are praying. The other I would later find out is a beggar, but for the moment she just laughs. (I like to think it is a kind laughter and if that is the case, I am happy she got to see it because it probably did look comedic) But in the moment I feel awful and start crying. But then the imam starts the prayer and I feel my first moment of relief since stepping into the mosque. Suddenly things feel better and now I am the one who is rushing to meet God.