I don’t talk about it that often. Partly because I was raised not to be too open and partly because it feels a bit like showing off. But I grew up on the mission field and spent the majority of my life moving around Central Asia. One of the places I remember best is Istanbul, Turkey. I loved my time there and the culture! I often wish I could go back for a visit. So, when I was given a non-fic assignment in college, I decided to do a travel piece.
A wail pierced the night and soon became a chant. I was ripped from the thin veil of sleep I had just managed to pull over my eyes. Within seconds, the chant was taken up in all directions. With the wailing came the howling of the stray dog packs that took possession of the vacant lot next door. “Ughh! How will I ever sleep here?” Mosques weren’t exactly a new thing for me, but I had never been near ones fully equipped with very capable loudspeakers. At least three within hearing range, and none of them quite in sync.
By the time I moved, nearly five years later, I had gotten used to it. There came a point when I would sit near the window through the whole call to prayer and not realize I had heard it until it was over. Nevertheless, those first few nights were rough. Battling jet lag at the same time wasn’t much of an advantage either. It was better during the day. Not that the call was any less earsplitting or disruptive, but it was tempered with the noise of the busy city. I had to listen for it over the rumble of buses and cars as I made my way to church on Sunday mornings with my family.
Boarding the bus, I would scan my akbil to pay for the ride and try to find a seat. There often wasn’t one. I soon mastered the art of staying upright on a crowded bus that was constantly lurching forward and stopping abruptly. I distracted myself in these less than ideal situations by watching out the window. As I passed the crowds of people and cramped buildings, I realized how lucky we were to have found such a great place to live.
In Istanbul, a city housing 15 million and spanning two continents, there is not much room for any one person. However, we were blessed with a standalone apartment building containing a small, nicely tended, garden. There was a scrap yard across the street, but at least no windows looking in on us. And though the empty lot next door provided the dogs with a congregating spot (and the stench from the animals housed there at Ramadan was certainly not pleasant) we were far better off than many others.
As the bus crested one of the many hills it traversed every day, I was given a glimpse of the wonder of this city. The buildings, that up close looked dirty with dust and chipping paint, here became a vibrant mosaic: white, yellow, orange, and pink, and brown, all with red tile roofs running down to meet the glistening curve of the Bosphorus. Which I would then cross by boat.
Another scan of the akbil, a helping hand to board, and a short swaying walk past the enclosed seating of the first level, where one could buy snacks and tea, and up to the top for a clear view and delicious breeze. That is one of the things I miss most about Turkey. The boat ride, but also the food. Toast (more like an English toastie or a grilled cheese than the American breakfast food); pide and lahmacun (the conquerors of all pizza); iskender, döner, and köfte (savory meat dishes); kebaps; and for special occasions, baklava and sütlaç! But I digress.
Once docked, the ripe smell of the fish market met my nose. From there it was just a short walk to the metro and then onto Istiklal Caddesi (or Independence Avenue). “Now, I heard there was supposed to be another demonstration today,” my mother would say, “so we have to be careful.” Right, because Istiklal wouldn’t be Istiklal without some form of protest. But the protests were generally peaceful, not much more than a small group holding signs and some riot police standing by just in case. More importantly, they generally took place at the opposite end of the street from us. Although, Istiklal has won itself international fame for the demonstrations that became rather violent a couple years back.
Despite this, I always liked Istiklal. A long, cobbled street, displaying some gorgeous architecture. With quaint red and white trams running through its middle, it is home to some superb restaurants and splendid shops. Most tourists like to visit the grand Hagia Sophia and the fragrant Spice Bazzar. I thoroughly enjoyed my bit of this typical experience; however, I found a shop I much preferred to visit. I only went in a few times and was never able to buy anything, but it was more astounding to me than any amount of refurbished paintings or tasteful cooking supplies. Somewhere in the press of buildings on Istiklal Caddesi is a small second-hand shop most wouldn’t see unless they knew it was there. Inside is a treasure house. A labyrinth of cultural artifacts, lightly coated with dust under dim lighting, and exuding a musty sent. Faded fezzes, rusting swords, tapestries woven in rugs, furs, pipes, and elaborate dresses fit for a sultana. Many of the objects came from the sets of old films, or so I was told.
Emerging from the magical closet, my path led back to the teeming dock, over the rippling river, onto the bus stocked with a myriad of people, and into the apartment with a yard and empty lot. There to have dinner and listen to the symphony on the loudspeakers once again. And so I adapted to much more than a call from a mosque. I imbibed the sights, smells, tastes, and feelings of this vibrant culture and found my home, my place among 15 million.