The following was written May 2010, shortly after my return from Turkey.
I'll never forget where I was the first time I heard the Muslim call to prayer.
It took about 45 minutes by tram to get from the Istanbul airport to the old city center of Sultanhamet where I would be spending the next 4 days. The first thing I came across while making the 10 minute walk to the hostel was the Hippodrome. This was originally the sporting and social center of Constantinople where the people would participate in and bet on chariot and horse races. Now, it's just an oblong park that holds 3 different monuments taken from Greece (the Serpent Column, c. 5th century BC) and Egypt (Obelisk of Thutmose III, c. 1490 BC). They were, up until now, the oldest things I had ever seen. The original 3 heads of the Serpent Column were destroyed over 400 years ago, but it probably looked pretty cool back in the day.
It was cold. I stopped to open my backpack and put on my windbreaker, which would come in handy later on (and not just to block the chill in the air). I left the Hippodrome and, following the hostel directions, found myself on a road that ran directly between two of the most spectacular architectural works in the world: The Hagia Sophia (c. 360 AD) and the Sutlan Ahmed "Blue" Mosque (c. 1604 AD). They faced each other. They were massive. It's the type of thing that makes you stop in your tracks when you see it and just stare.
It was noon. And that's when I heard it. The "muezzin". First it came from the left, then the right. Soon it was all around me, overlapping itself. It was eerie, but peaceful at the same time. When I got off the tram, I felt like I was back in Prague. This is the European side of Istanbul and, rightfully so, it looked and felt like a typical European city. But now I was being reminded that I was in a very different place. In the old days, the prayer-caller had to climb to the top of one of the tall spires, or minarets. There he would sing. 5 times a day. Now, though, there is a public address system attached to every minaret of every mosque. And there are a bunch of them. They all sing the same thing. The words are all the same. But they are all sung by a different person at each mosque and not always in unison. So the sound literally surrounds the entire city. By the 3rd day, I guess I was used to it to the point of not even really noticing it.
In my ignorance, I expected people to stop what they were doing and make their way to the mosques. Some did..but not many. This is Istanbul, the most progressive city in Turkey, the most progressive country in the Muslim world. There were trinkets and pretzels to sell to the hoards of gazing tourists. No time for prayer. There was money to be made. And thus set the scene for my entire Turkish trip.
I tried to keep an open mind. I tried to take the difference of cultures into consideration. I honestly did. Aside from Miami and the entire state of Alabama, I've really liked everywhere I've ever been. For different reasons, of course, but the overall feel of a city has usually been positive. My 2 weeks in Europe last year was a success. Two cities that I would gladly recommend to others, or visit again myself. So I naturally expected the same for this trip. I wanted to like the city of Istanbul and the people within it. But after being home for a few days and processing everything, I can honestly say, I didn't.
I can't speak for Turkey as a whole, but Istanbul is like walking into a giant used car lot. Where the salesmen all have thick, black, 70's porn star moustaches, chain smoked, and wore a slick suit with an open collar dress shirt. In a word, they were slimy. Everyone. All men, mind you. I don't know exactly where the women were, as in 4 days, I did not meet or talk to a single local Turkish woman. More on that later. I guess everyone in Istanbul owns a shop. A shop that specializes in some piece of crap that you, as a tourist, do not need or want. I came across a shop that sold only buttons. THOUSANDS of buttons. Here, we have Walmarts and Targets. A one stop shop for whatever you want. Let's say, you want to make a shirt. Here, you can get everything you need in one trip. There, however, you'd need to visit the fabric guy. Then the scissors guy. The tread guy. And God help you if you don't visit the button guy. So these 70 porn star, slimy bastards all stand outside their shops, smoking their cigarettes. And they wait. Like lions hiding in the brush. And as soon as you walk past, they pounce.
"Hello, my friend! Where are you from?"
Some of them have evolved new tactics of surprise attack. They leave their storefront and find you where you're most vulnerable. I looked like a tourist, no doubt about it. We all do when we're tourists. I was trying to find my way into the Blue Mosque. Unlike the Hagia Sohpia which went from church, to mosque, to museum, the Blue Mosque is still an active, open place of worship. The infidel (me) cannot go in during prayer times. During non-prayer times, we can enter, but we must go through a special non-Muslim entrance. The signs weren't exactly clear, so it was nice when a local guy came to my aid. "Hello, my friend!" He lead me to the correct door and told me what was expected of me (I had to remove my shoes and place them into a plastic bag.) He was also more than happy to answer my question about flash photography and the like. Maybe this was the Turkish hospitality I had read so much about. But then, the pitch. It turned out, this guy owned a carpet shop (thank you for fulfilling a stereotype, you slimy bastard.) He explained that now that he had helped me, I was obligated to visit his shop. He pointed to the exit and told me that he'd be waiting for me to take me to the shop after I was done inside the mosque. I said ok and went inside.
The Blue Mosque was amazing. We call it "blue" because of the many blue tiles that line the inside. I had never been inside a mosque before. No seats. Just a very large open floor area with huge chandeliers hanging from overhead. It was weird to be in there, taking pictures and gawking with the rest of the infidels as some worshipers were kneeling and bowing. Sadly though, I couldn't enjoy it to the extent that I should have because part of me was trying to figure out an escape plan. How the hell was I going to avoid going to this tout's shop? I peeked out the exit door, and sure enough, he was there...waiting. A lion. A used car shark. An in-person telemarketer. I walked back to see if I could go out the way I came in. Not possible. I debated for a good 5 minutes about going out the Muslim exit. I was afraid to take the chance. But do you see what's going on here? I'm trying to enjoy a once in a lifetime experience, yet at the same time, I'm trying to hide from someone. This is an uncomfortable ordeal. I finally waited by the door long enough to watch him get distracted talking to someone else on the front walkway. This was my time for escape. I pulled the hood of my windbreaker up over my head and pulled the chords to tighten it around my fase, exposing only my eyes and nose. I put my head down and made a run for it. I made it outside of the Blue Mosque complex only to run smack into another. "Hello, my brother! Where are you from?" Allah damn it.
Always "friend," or "brother." My first day there, I was uneducated, unsuspecting. And they could smell it on me. One fish restaurant owner extended his hand and a warm smile. As I walked by, I shook it. But he didn't release. He was physically trying to pull me into his restaurant. "My friend! Come in, eat! Comfortable seats!"
"I already ate. I'm not hungry" That wasn't good enough. Telling these people "no" just isn't acceptable. I had to finally yank my hand away and walk off. On my 3rd day, I had an exchange with a carpet shop owner. (80% of these slimy scumbags own carpet stores) He asked me to come into his shop and look at the rugs. I said I'm not here to buy a rug. I was making my way down the sidewalk to buy a token for the tram, TRYING to mind my own business. When I made it clear that I was not interested, he got aggressive, almost angry and dared to ask "why not?"
I stopped. I had finally had enough of these touts. "Why not?? Are we really going to debate this? I'm on vacation. I'm not here to buy a damn rug."
I guess, in a sense, it's more like a Hooters restaurant than a used car lot. The seller uses whatever tricks they've got to get you to purchase something you don't really want. (I'd actually rather waste my money on an ugly rug than eat the wings at Hooters.) They act like they're your best friend and that you're the most important person in the world. Then, once you make it clear that you're just there to look, they turn ice cold. That said, I wouldn't have minded seeing a Hooters while I was there. Women were just nowhere to be found. Only chain smoking slimeballs with giant moustaches. I'm certain that if Dante had ever visited Istanbul, he would have had an entire level of his Hell reserved for these bastards.
I mentioned this to a couple Czech guys that I met at the hostel. They pointed out that, even though it is a more liberal Muslim city, it's still a Muslim city and therefore much more conservative that what I'm used to. I did see a couple women in the head scarves, but not many. The females that we out wandering the streets were mainly tourists.
In all honesty, Istanbul wasn't all negative. I was excited to think the friendly, funny owner of my hostel was a saving grace for the aggressive, obnoxious Turks I had come across. But it turned out, he was from Iran. Great guy, who made everyone feel at home in a great hostel. The sites that I went there to see were well worth it. Amazing architecture and history. The cruise up the Bosphorous straight, which separates the European and Asian continents and houses a lot of Ottoman-era palaces and mansions was nice. (More on this in a future blog) I'd tell people to go and spend 2 days seeing the major sites. Walk with your head down and never make eye contact with the bastard shop owners. Don't even look at a menu unless you're about to starve and HAVE to eat. I think it's important to point out that I never felt unsafe. Just annoyed. Really, very annoyed. Most everyone speaks English (especially the shop owners, who need it to try to sell you their crap) If you learn any Turkish at all, let me suggest: "Get the hell away from me." and "Leave me alone, you slimy bastard."
I give the historic sites 5 out of 5. They didn't disappoint and I'm really glad to have had the opportunity to see them. I'd give the city as a whole 4 out of 5 (it's crowded as hell, but they layout is easily managed, the tram system is efficient and easy to figure out and it's safe to walk around pretty much everywhere, day or night. Another point, the whole city smells of a hint of apple because of their love for warm apple tea and the apple-flavored waterpipe, which they embrace after a long day of work like we do a cold beer for happy hour) The locals: 1 out of 5 (would be zero, but there was a guy who tried to help me on the tram when I had a question. He didn't speak English, so he couldn't help, but at least he tried. Had he been able to communicate with me though, I'm sure he would've told me about his rug shop) The women: N/A (I cannot honestly rate that of which I didn't see) Again, if you use this as any sort of personal travel guide for yourself, I'd say get a good guidebook and go see the historic sites. My pictures and words do not do them justice. But only go for 2 days. Unless you like the unwanted attention from aggressive 70's porn star lookalikes.