Why you should go to Istanbul
“Hello! You walk like an American” said the smiling stranger in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square. How was I walking? Having been to the city a few times, I knew where I was going but felt no hurry in the constant beauty of that incredible city. Did this relaxed confidence mark me as an American? What a terribly lovely idea.
It wasn’t the sort of association I would have expected on my first visit, when I arrived rank with trepidation as to how the locals might view my American nationality. But now it wasn’t that surprising, after those nerves had been immediately dispelled by the undeniable hospitality and irresistible kindness of the Turkish people.
It didn’t take long. I remember the students who jumped to help me on my first train ride in from Ataturk Airport, when I didn’t know to transfer at Zeytinburnu. Their eager words and laughter made me feel I was among friends already.
And at the hotel I remember the staff’s good humor and patience as I puzzled through “teşekkür ederim” to say thank you. It’s a phrase I needed a lot, for those who helped me navigate the sections of that incomparable city, the vendors and waiters who brought me Turkey’s delicious cuisine, and for the advice from friends I made on the ferry from Kadiköy to Beşiktaş, crossing back to Europe after a day in Asia.
The phrase was easy by the time I left Selçuk and automatic before I reached Fethiye. Then I learned its Kurdish counterpart in Diyarbakir and used it often as I wandered the beautiful present and past of Mardin and Hasankeyf, then was humbled by the help of a man in Batman. So much more than a superhero chuckle!
People love to ask a traveler where their favorite place is, and I never quite know how to answer. Though Holland and Nepal come to mind quickly, the most common answer I give is Turkey. In its ancient cities and modern comforts, natural beauty and human kindness, Turkey has something wonderful for every visitor. And none of it should be forgotten in the face of the human vileness of these terrorist attacks.
Why is Turkey the target of so much violence? Several answer for this, from modern politics to ethnic history, but one particular reason stands out, essential to remember when it comes to Turkey.
Turkey represents hope. Established by Ataturk in 1923, Turkey was born a secular nation whose political, religious, social, and economic changes modernized the country and made it a bastion of stability and freedom in a Middle East wracked by war and the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
To focus: Turkey was founded as a secular nation in an Muslim region, and with balance and freedom it has thrived. That’s why it’s under attack by Daesh. Because Turkey, with its concrete demonstration of harmony between modern western culture and Islam, is a threat to those small minds who want us to think Islam is somehow at war with Christianity. It shows the lie of those sad souls who want us to think the Middle East is an opponent of the West. It laughs at those who suggest that we brothers and sisters are somehow enemies.
That’s why they’re attacking Turkey.
And that’s why we should keep visiting.
Terrorists want us to stay home and fear. Instead, I choose the many sites and pleasures of visiting Istanbul, from the markets of its Asian shore to the Golden Horn, including Sultanahmet Square where that man, after saying I walked like an American, invited me to çai with him in his carpet shop.
I know, what a cliche, the Turk inviting you to the carpet shop. It is. And it happens. And yes it’s probably a sales pitch. But it’s so much more. He knew I wasn’t going to buy anything, and invited me anyway. We sat and drank tea from tulip glasses and he beamed when I told him I’d visited and loved his hometown to the east. And when his coworker insisted on showing me some samples, including one that was $420, my newest Turkish friend found it hilarious when I told him that 420 is synonymous with marijuana in America.
We were not enemies, that man and I. Nor are America and Turkey. And we should never be enemies, the West and the Middle East. In Turkey you can visit that. You can sit at the table and watch the unity of the human spirit, as currents flow between continents on the historic streets of an incomparable city.
You can even walk like an American and make a man chuckle at pot.
I want to go back to Istanbul.