We awoke to the droning timbre of a man’s voice singing. Unrecognisable words. No rhythm like we’re used to. But a song nonetheless, projected from a distance, vibrations reaching out to thousands of sleeping people. It was 6:30am.
“What is that?” asked Lindsay beside me.
“I think it’s a call to prayer.”
We listened for a while to the strange melodies and unfamiliar cadence then Linds fell back to sleep. After all, they weren’t calling Canadian tourists to pray – were they? It was clearly meant for all to hear . . . I laid awake listening and thinking, mixed feelings when it stopped. This was more than a song – not an order to pray, not even a request – the call to prayer is a ribbon of culture, religion, of life that is woven into the fabric of daily living here. A sign of shared priority (though not necessarily belief) that seems so foreign to someone raised in a secular society. Wherever you are in this city you will hear it five times a day. Every day. It was a powerful reminder that we are the strangers here. Strangers who are welcomed with open arms, but strangers nonetheless. We had just arrived in Istanbul.
A long way from home
Both geographically and culturally this is the furthest from home we’ve been on this full time family travel journey. Some families would be apprehensive about traveling in Turkey. We decided to make this our first “slow travel” destination. Six weeks in a place that inspires very different reactions in different people.
What is it like to experience Istanbul as a Western family? Let me tell you the story of our first day here. You can be the judge.
Our Airbnb is called “The Little White House” and is located in Kuzguncuk, a subdistrict of Istanbul located on the Asian side of the city. For those who don’t know, Istanbul is unique in that it is the only city in the world to span two continents: Europe and Asia. The border is the Bosphorus, a marine waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Aegean. We are on the east side of the Bosphorus in one of the oldest residential areas in the world. Makes you wonder what stories lies beneath the foundations of the quaint shops and trendy cafes that line the village.
Our first day in Istanbul
On this particular day the woman who manages our Airbnb, Songul, is coming to pick us up at 11am. We enjoy a lazy morning, family breakfast, the boys build a double-decker restaurant out of their bunk beds using Plus Plus blocks for the food, Jake and I get a workout done on the big terrace. Songul is coming over because I told her my laptop needs repairing at the Apple store which is located across the Bosphorus. She offered to accompany us at the same time showing us how the public transit system works. If you ever get such an offer from a local in Istanbul, you’d be a fool to pass it up.
Songul, who has lived in Turkey all her life but has also traveled extensively, arrives right on time.
“Hello, family!!” She is so excited to see us – especially the kids. Every time she sees Eli she let’s out an excited “Ayee!!” and her face glows. Eli doesn’t quite know what to make of it. All of the boys have their hands clasped and get their own greeting. They feel special.
After teaching us how to use the dishwasher and checking on a few other things, we head out. On our way down the street, Songul teaches all of us the Turkish names for the different stores: fırın [furun] is bakery, kasap is butcher, kafe is cafe. As we walk, she introduces us to Apo the butcher, Akun from the grocery store, Cibel, the owner of a cafe who has offered to teach Lindsay how to cook some Turkish food. It takes us a while to reach the bottom of the street but our Istanbul education is already rich with content and meaning.
Songul explains that to get to the Apple Store we are going to take a dolmuş (minibus), then a ferry across the Bosphorus, and finally a city bus. Flagging down the blue dolmuş as it rockets toward us, Songul leads the six of us on board and hands the driver some money. I try to pay her back. “No, no! I want to support you on your trip!” I argue with her but clearly I will have to find other ways to circumvent her generosity.
The dolmuş takes us to Uskudar which is where many ferries leave from on the Asian side. Here we purchase “smart cards” which you can load with money and use to ride the ferries, city buses and metro. Very convenient (and cheap), except that the machine will not accept the bills I have. Songul slips in a bill of hers. It works and again she won’t let me pay her back.
Turkey and the history of everything
As we cross the Bosphorus, we talk a little about the history of Turkey. You just can’t avoid it. It is everywhere and everything, story upon story of conquest and struggle, hope and meaning. You could spend a lifetime peeling back the layers – 40 000 years worth. If Africa was the cradle of civilization, Istanbul was the place of our formative years, forging our human identity, struggling to grow up.
Given it’s strategic location between Europe and Asia as well as its access to both the Black and Mediterranean Seas, the land has been fought over, conquered and ruled by multiple empires over the centuries from Persians to Assyrians to Greeks and finally the Ottoman Empire. If you read about Byzantium, New Rome, or Constantinople, these are all the same place: Istanbul. In fact, the Ottoman Empire began in Turkey as a small Anatolian tribe. Over six hundred years it became one of the most powerful empires the world has ever seen before finally collapsing during the first world war.
But it’s not gone. Under the leadership of an Ottoman general named Mustafa Kemal (aka Ataturk, “Father of the Turks”), in 1923 the Ottoman Empire was transformed into the Republic of Turkey. It wasn’t easy. Most empires over the course of history have gone down in a blaze of glory, their legacies constrained to historical accounts and imprints left on other societies.
Who is Ataturk
Over the course of our day with Songul we heard Ataturk’s name mentioned numerous times. Posters and banners with his image are everywhere. She spoke of him like a hero, even a saint – but one with a very real and very relevant impact on Turkish society. Considering the glacial pace of change we are used to, his fifteen years in power were mind-blowingly productive. Ataturk replaced the Arabic script with the Latin alphabet. He banned women’s head coverings, he separated religion from politics and generally westernised the new nation. In a nutshell, he made Turkey secular.
But much of Turkey’s population is conservative Muslim. Before his death in 1938, Ataturk knew that the progress he had made was fragile so he legislated power into the hands of the military, charging them with the responsibility to maintain the secular foundations of the society that had so recently been established.
Turned out, this was a incredible bit of foresight. Over the next 80 years there were numrous coups by a military that was still loyal to Ataturks’s ideals. Even though each successive coup destabilized the country, they were all successful . . . until 2016.
Turkey is changing . . . again
Many credit his savvy use of social media for Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s successful quelling of the 2016 coup. As tanks stormed Istanbul, the conservative Muslim President of Turkey appeared on news stations via video chat and pleaded with the nation to gather in the streets before the tanks and soldiers to “save their country” once and for all.
It worked. Since then Erdogan has continued to consolidate his power which gives some people hope for stability and others concern that Atakurk’s progress is being undone.
Songul didn’t mention Erdogan during our day together except to point out the gargantuan mosque he had built on a hill beside the Bosphrus. “Totally unnecessary. It can hold 30 000 people. Why do we need that?” she says, “Except maybe to show his power.”
It’s all about the people
Songul ended up spending the whole day with us. She helped us find delicious Turkish food for lunch. When the Apple store couldn’t fit me in for a week she walked back in to give them an earful. She took us to the Turkish Naval Museum and ordered sahlep for the kids (a thick, delicious creamy drink made from orchid root flour and sugar) from the kafe there.
Everywhere we went, Songul would be chatting with Lindsay, discussing politics with me or running and laughing with the kids. I have to remind myself that we just met two days ago. She is our Airbnb host. Wasn’t this supposed to be a business arrangement?
No, this is Turkey in all its diverse, imperfect, and impassioned glory. To see how this country is depicted on the news you might think it is hostile, alien, even dangerous. Our first impressions are quite the opposite. The words that come to mind are friendly, interesting, proud, and welcoming.
A short walk down the main street in our neighbourhood tonight we bumped into Songul who brought a basketball from her house and joined in a family game with us at the park. Apo the butcher waved at me as I walked past. And the young man at the grocery store asked me where I was from and then taught me how to say good evening (iyi akşamlar) in Turkish.
What would you think about a place like this?
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