It’s a cool summer Istanbul night and I find myself with the sudden urge to express all of the thoughts coalescing in my head. Nearing the end of nearly a year of living and working in Turkey, there is a lot to absorb; about the past, the future, and all the sorts of romantic thoughts and flawed idealisms which inevitably bloom in a mind that has not yet been hardened by the realities of a desk job or paying the bills, a mind that has been softened by a fortunate life of education and travel.
My room’s white sheets, empty desk, and uncluttered floor provide an almost ironic backdrop to the various thoughts and ideas buzzing about in my mind. Whether it was the friends; who hailed from all over the world; the city, which will remain indescribably beautiful once I am in turn departed; or the adventures I’ve had; there are enough experiences from the past half year to digest. Napoleon Bonaparte once said that if the world were a country, Constantinople would be its capital; nothing could be closer to the truth.
I had been lucky enough to travel a decent bit leading up to my study abroad in Istanbul. But this time, it was different. I was to be on my own, dropped at the crossroads of the world to live and learn more in these few months than I ever had before. It was a new chapter in my life. The adventure started in January and I remember it like it was yesterday. Jet-lagged but too excited for it to matter, I walked out of the airport with a suitcase and backpack that held my belongings for the next semester.
Little did I know what the contents of my bags would see over the coming months. Little did I know that in late May I would take the shirt off of my back to cover my girlfriend’s mouth and nose as tear gas slowly but aggressively crept into the small and poorly lighted bar where we were having beers. Little did I know that the jacket in my suitcase would be used as a thin layer of insulation as I went skiing on a belly full of mulled wine in Romania, that I would employ the towel in my backpack as a blanket for a poorly-prepared camping trip in Montenegro, or that my swimsuit would be covered with salt as I floated effortlessly in the Jordanian Dead Sea. But before delving into these exploits, I must first write about home base, throne of empires, epicenter of the clash of civilizations, one of the most fascinating and beautiful cities in the world; the majestic city of Istanbul.
It is often said that in order to write about Turkey, you must either write your immediate first impressions upon arrival, or write about everything after you’ve lived there long enough to have absorbed a true sense of the identity and culture. It has admittedly taken me a while to be able to write about such a fascinating place in the world. Turks, descendants of the warlike clans of Mongols from eastern Asia, are a proud, fearless, hard-working people. The women are dark, beautiful, reserved, and often weary of men’s advances. The men are as macho and territorial as they are hospitable and generous. I found during my time in this country that the Turks are what the French would call chaleureux—warmly cordial, welcoming, eager to help. More often than not, if you ask a Turk for directions in the street, they will not just point you in the right direction; rather, they will lock arms with you and take you to your destination. The people in Turkey didn’t just see me as a tourist or an exchange student; rather they saw me as someone who came to their country out of interest in their culture. Turks were eager to share their culture and express their views in order to try and cultivate a real friendship. My friends and I were always greeted with open arms and a warm greeting anywhere we went. A cup of cay was the typical offering everywhere we went.
Something I noticed early on about Istanbul, and admired greatly, is how passionately the people in the great city do everything. Whether it was protesting social injustice in the streets, celebrating the victory of a soccer match, courting women, or yelling at passersby to advertise whatever they’re selling (Simit! Balik ekmek!), the Turks did everything with ferocious energy and passion. There was so much intensity and raw emotion in the city that often manifested itself in beautiful ways. I especially noticed this in one of my last days in Istanbul—between a pro-Morsi/anti-Egyptian coup solidarity rally by the New Mosque and a 24-hour sit in to commemorate the six people that had been killed during the Gezi Park protests. This truly ineffable energy will often give visitors the impression that they are at the center of things, at the heart of the world. And in many respects, they are. Turkey (and Istanbul) is unique in the world in so many ways—geographically, culturally, historically—and there is so much to learn, to see, to fall in love with. It is the bridge between east and west, the only city in the world that connects two continents, Europe and Asia. As I would sit on the Galata bridge drinking cay, I couldn’t help but think of the historical significance of the city. Istanbul was the capital of the Byzantine empire under the Romans and the capital of the Ottoman empire under the Turks. It was Christian for one thousand years until the Muslim rulers invaded the city in a spectacular battle that changed the course of world history. With the Caucasus and Asian subcontinent to the east, the Balkans and the gateway to Europe to the North, Africa and the Middle East to the south, it is truly the center of the world in many respects.
I tried to explore the city every day for the time that I was there, but by the time I left I still had the feeling that I hadn’t seen half of the city. As a massive city of 18 million people strong, it was hard to get to know the entire city on an intimate level. But I loved every aspect of the city as I got to know it. The packs of dogs making the streets their homes, the seagulls perched on top of the fish market in hopes of getting a snack, the light of the sunset over the minaret-riddled skyline, the ferries crossing the Bosphorus to Kadikoy, the old men sitting on street corners smoking nargile without saying a word, the little children selling tissues to make a few lira, the melancholic call to prayer lingering over the streets, ancient hues of sunlight brushing against the discolored windowpanes of old wooden homes, the thousands of people packed into the sprawling Istiklal street, which runs through the city like an artery, the delicious fish sandwiches sprinkled with lemon juice and red spice, the steep hills lined with artsy shops and kebab restaurants, the scantily clad 20-somethings and the veiled women staring at them with contempt, old European embassies barely kept upright next to the more contemporary Starbucks and other sterilized symbols of globalization, young artists in Cihangir discussing Islamisation, Muslim pilgrims worshipping in Eyup, Kurds occupying the shuttered homes of Greeks and Jews in Tarlabasi, roosters strutting by Roma weddings in Balat, and the pictures and statues of Ataturk in every corner store, bank, school, and park … it is hard not to fall in love with the contradictions, flavor, and passion that could be found in the city every day.
While I was excited for the adventure ahead of me as I left that wintry January, I had no idea that in a few months the city would erupt into a popular uprising, or that I would witness one of the most important turning points in modern Turkish history.