Sunday, February 05, 2006

Two Americans find warmth in Muslim Istanbul

I'm always glad to read a good Turkey travelogue, this one is pretty thorough:

"Given recent world history, I was not sure how two obvious outsiders would be received in Turkey, whose population is overwhelmingly Muslim. But my travel companion, Cliff, and I found during a four-day visit that Istanbul is one of the most beautiful, gracious and -- for Americans -- unspoiled big cities in Europe."

"Everywhere we looked, we saw the collision of the traditional and the new, the handmade and the mass-produced, the religious and the secular."

"Nowhere did we stick out more than when we ferried to Asian Istanbul, a 15-minute trip across the Bosporus. Istanbul straddles Europe and Asia, the world's only city on two continents.

As we boarded the boat, a man sprinted toward us, begging us to pose for a picture with him. We smiled as his companion snapped a photo, and I wondered how he would explain the shot to his friends.

The Asian side of Istanbul was more conservative, with many more women wearing headscarves. We also got more unabashed stares there. Kids outside an apartment complex stopped playing soccer when we passed and asked in their best English, "Where are you from?"

"The shopping experience was more intense at the Grand Bazaar, a labyrinthine building of rug and souvenir shops where the vendors are more than willing to bargain. I bought several ceramic bowls with whirling dervishes painted on them -- although we missed seeing the famed meditative dancers -- and asked the salesman where the shopkeepers prayed.

There is a small mosque in the bazaar, he said. But in the bazaar, as in the rest of Istanbul, most people seemed to greet the prayer announcements indifferently. They stayed at the cafe, at the bus stop, at their T-shirt stand.

Are people praying on their own time? I wondered. Are there unwritten rules about Turkish Islam? Perhaps we could find out."

"We stopped at yet another cafe after the Blue Mosque, and our waiter soon asked where we were from. We struck up a conversation, eventually exchanging e-mail addresses, and I asked about the lack of public reaction to prayer announcements.

"We are soft Muslims," he explained. He had not been to mosque in five years, he said, and he and many of his friends drink beer."

"Our waiter charged us the equivalent of $15 for a bottle of water and a beer -- a sum we knew was inflated from our visit a few nights earlier.

Here it is, I thought, the rip-off of the Americans.

I questioned our waiter about the bill, but without Turkish, I didn't get far. So I paid it, and we headed toward the stairs. But as we reached the landing, a man called out to us. At first I thought he was another photo seeker. But he walked down and asked us how much we had paid for our drinks.

I told him, and he looked to the top of the stairs, calling our waiter down to apologize. Clearly, this man was some sort of supervisor, perhaps the manager or owner of the Cambaz. Then he counted out the equivalent of about $10 in Turkish lira, gave it to us and apologized himself.

I was dumbstruck. We were as good as gone -- for all he knew, never to return to Istanbul -- and yet he chased us down to do the right thing."
Two Americans find warmth in Muslim Istanbul

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