25 – 31 May 2014
Istanbul was an inspiration. Being a foreigner in this beautiful, cosmopolitan city was easy and refreshing after SE Asia. The hilly, cobblestone streets were full of cute and healthy-looking cats (the street cats are taken care of by the locals, with food and even bedding sometimes put out). Public places were clean and orderly. There was space to breathe, and the Turks were unfailingly warm-hearted and generous. Even the tiniest little cafe displayed thoughtful style, and quality food was the norm. Although the call to prayer that drifted through the streets at regular intervals was a constant reminder that we were in a Muslim country, women without veils walked arm-in-arm with veiled women, and I never felt uncomfortable not wearing a veil. The diverse population seemed to mingle un-self-consciously, in fancy clothing stores, nice restaurants, and in the street. At night, the walking street Istiklal came alive with musicians, and groups of people from every country and religion would gather, smiling, to clap and listen. Around the Galata tower on a Friday night, young punks clumped with their cigarettes and beer (or Arak, the local liquor), just like in any given major metropolis.
We could hardly walk a few meters without someone trying to strike up a conversation with us (yes, often it was a preamble to a sales pitch, but sometimes not). Just like everywhere else we had visited, once someone learned we were American, they would smile and say, “Obama!” The people who engaged us on the street usually seemed to do so from a relaxed and happy place; the undercurrents of quiet desperation, cynicism, or defeat that I had noticed in SE Asia were noticeably absent. Turkish men looked me straight in the eye and talked with me like I was a real person, even when Jacob was standing right beside me. I could walk alone without attracting much special attention (although a blonde was still a rarity). The city had somehow been able to weather the onslaught of tourism without losing its soul. We felt so welcome. Really, I was impressed: somehow this city had prospered while retaining a generous and tolerant spirit.
And yet, of course this was not the whole story. One day while wandering around the stylish, eclectic neighborhood of Cihangir, which is filled with cute boutiques and overflowing antique shops, we came across a store called Closet Circuit. There was a half-naked mannequin wearing a pink wig outside the door and some scary but beautiful leather masks in the window. Inside, the store seemed mostly empty of things to purchase, and instead had a counter with an espresso machine, and a room with a couch, some tables, pretty posters about permaculture, and yantra paintings. “90 % of this shop was constructed with items already in hand,” a sign read. In the back room we discovered a well-curated offering of vintage clothes. We loved the place immediately. But we were about to love it even more.
“Look at that guy’s moustache,” Jacob said.
I had already noticed him and thought he looked like he might be from San Francisco.
When we checked out, Jacob started chatting with the shop owner, a wisp of a woman named Ulku, and discovered that the elegant moustache guy actually was from San Francisco – it was her brother, Cian (sounds like John), an art student who had been living in SF for two years. Ulku and Cian invited us to sit while they hand-rolled cigarettes with tobacco from Eastern Turkey.
We were in Istanbul at the one year anniversary of massive protests at Gezi Park that had sparked an extreme government response. The city had tried to cut down trees to build a shopping mall in the middle of the beloved park, and when the people protested, the government had responded with tear gas and tanks.
“There are already 80 shopping malls in Istanbul,” Ulku said.
Meanwhile, allegations of corruption swirled around the president, Erdogan. Twitter and YouTube were blocked (we tried to use YouTube several times in Turkey, to no avail). Twitter was then unblocked under court order, but problems with service remained. The president was on the defensive, and when more protests were sparked by a deadly mining accident, Erdogan even hit a protester himself.
Cian and Ulku had other concerns about their country, too. “We are worried about the direction of Turkey,” they said. “The extremists, they are not ok with this,” Ulku said, flicking at her sleeveless top, “They are not ok with women.”
It was hard to imagine the sophisticated citizens of Istanbul submitting to a more restrictive Islamic rule. Yet, I wondered if others had thought the same about Kabul and Afghanistan in the 1970s.
I felt that the city would put up a fight. But the extreme response of the government to the recent protests set a terrifying precedent.
As the police gathered in Taksim Square and prepared to block the roads for the anniversary of the protests, we left Istanbul and headed to the interior of Turkey. Far from the European-like atmosphere of Istanbul, I was both excited and anxious about what we would find.