Arabesque: Notes on a Journey

In May, Dr. Marty Stortz went on a pilgrimage to Turkey as a guest of the Pacifica Institute, a Turkish-American organization interested in “intercultural dialogue.” As she discovered on the way, the travel directly relates to her ATS research grant on pilgrimage. She wrote an extensive and informative travelogue of her trip, presented in weekly installments. The final installment follows. Read from the beginning.

Thursday, June 4: A Day of Mosques

On our last morning in Istanbul, Yavuz invited us to come worship at the Mosque. Bill and Sally, Jim and Janet, Judith and I joined our guides at 4:30am to head up the Golden Horn to this historical mosque built by Mehmet the Conquerer in 1458, tomb of Eyup Ensari, Mohammed’s standard bearer. The mosque fell into disrepair and was renovated in 1800 by Selim III, so the decor is Ottoman Baroque and the walls bear beautiful blue tiles we’d seen throughout Istanbul.

Though the streets in front of our hotel were deserted, people thronged the mosque, men heading into the mosque proper and courtyard in front of it. The women headed with Arzu over to a separate building at the far end of the courtyard. We covered, took off our shoes, and entered a very crowded, carpeted room. My first thought was: I got up at 4am for this? But the prayers began, and I fell into the rhythm of the chanting, the ebb and flow of the muezzin’s voice. We did whatever the other women were doing, turning to the good angel at our right, to the judging angel at the left, standing, kneeling, planting our faces into the carpet.

It was all very physical, and I became aware of how the concentration in the room ebbed and flowed. I also noted class: we’d been meeting lots of people from the Gulen Movement, who struck us as largely middle- and upper-middle class; these were working class people, poorer and more shabbily dressed than we’d met in the movement. We’d seen them in streets, we’d seen them tending shops, we’d seen them serving tea and cleaning sidewalks. Now we were worshiping with them.

About forty-five minutes later, worship ended, and we spilled out into the courtyard of the square, blinking into the dawn and sated with prayers. The smell of fresh bread flooded the square, and women with big copper samovars on carts were selling tea, simit, birdseed, and sahlep, a drink made from the orchid root. Magically, tea and simit appeared, and we settle for a snack. Someone fed the birds as well, and the square filled with pigeons. Somewhere a man hosed down the mosque complex, scattering the pigeons with his hose. As I “chatted” with the women vendors, and one of them gave me a complimentary cup of sahlep, thick, creamy, and topped with cinnamon. We all enjoyed a sip.

As we headed back to the hotel, the city was beginning to wake up. I kidnapped Bill and Sally for my usual walk. Sally did the walk like the ace tennis player she is: in bursts of sharp energy, lagging behind us and then rushing to catch up. All the neighborhood cats were out, the smell of fresh bread spilled out of the taxi drivers’ bistro in Fatih—and the Ataturk Bridge had not gone anyway in the last 24 hours. But it did look like rain was coming in from the north, and we felt a few drops on the way home.

First stop of the day was the media center sponsored by the movement, and to get there we crossed the Bosphorus into Asia. At the headquarters, Yavuz’s nine-year-old son Selim joined us, accompanied by his grandfather. He had missed his dad—and climbed immediately into Yavuz’s lap. As the tour officially began, we saw see the same attention to social responsibility and we heard the same emphasis on “responsibility” from the media group as we’d encountered the day before at the Zaman group. Mostly we toured the facility, moving through several sets and production rooms—the best was a cooking show readying for a live broadcast that noon! And we watched as President Obama gave his speech to the Arab people at the University, though everything was dubbed in Turkish. Finally, as we assembled to leave, one of the heads of the institution came to greet us: it was the teacher of the men’s Koran study who’d been at our first host family dinner in Uskudar!

Next stop was the charitable organization, Kimse Yok Mu, which means literally “Is anyone there?” We met our first female host, and Nur Sunmeyye Ensari reminded Arzu of someone she went to school with. Our hostess did not wear a headscarf, but was dressed in Western clothes, her long curly hair pulled back. It was a very impressive presentation, and she did a terrific follow-up, fielding our questions with ease. By Turkish law, charitable organizations are mandated to put 90% of the money they collect into direct service; they can only keep 10% for overhead. We asked how they managed! She replied that they were linked into the media group and got some money from that. They got no direct aid from the Gulen Movement. The group sponsored a number of “sister family” programs, which partnered wealthy families with poorer families. They moved into disaster zones, particularly into Pakistan, ravaged by earthquake only a few years before. There they did what we’d come to expect of a Gulen Movement operative: they built schools! But after setting them up, Kimse Yok Mu turned the schools over to Pakistan for administration.

Since 9/11 charitable organizations have been under scrutiny, and Farshad raised this as a question. She said that before moving into any disaster zone, the organization checked with the foreign minister and kept in touch throughout. They didn’t want their service to present diplomatic problems for Turkey

We had lunch at Kimse Yok Mu, then moved on to a visit with the group that had sponsored our trip: Bakiad. We were met by the director, two assistants—and two cameramen, who filmed the entire session and accompanied us for the rest of the afternoon. After dessert and the obligatory tea, our host showed a video and explained Bakiad’s purpose: Who are we? What are we doing? And why? Again, we heard what we’d been hearing: a commitment to intercultural dialogue, to mutual respect while maintaining our own values, an attempt to emphasize commonalities rather than differences, and a focus on solutions, rather than problems. There was lots of talk about “values,” particularly “lost values.”

In conclusion, he asked how we’d found the trip, and we all said something as we were filmed. Mahan in particular asked to be introduced to some of the critics of the movement: he felt that would give us a more balanced view of what was going on. This was well-received. We all went around the room and spoke. I realized this would be a rehearsal for our final interviews, which were to be held with the same cameramen later that afternoon.

Then we loaded up and went to visit the Armenian Orthodox Church in Kuzguncuk, a magical village along the Asian side of the Bosphorus. It was a jewel of a church—and small. The priest was not there, but his son let us in. The church was built next to a synagogue, but we couldn’t get into it. We repaired to a small park along the Bosphorus, where we had pastries and—of course, tea. This was also where the cameramen interviewed each of us individually. We were to give about a three to five-minute speech for our sponsors, Bakiad, about what surprised us and what we’d learned. We’d been prepared for this: it’s what totally spooked other delegations about the trip. I’d rehearsed what I’d say, and a version appears at the beginning of this travel diary. I begin my introductory course in Christian history with similar lecture, and as we traveled through Turkey, it struck me as a good cautionary word for myself. Every trip like this is both a window into a very different world as well as a mirror to our own culture. We needed to remember how small that window was; we also needed to remember which culture we knew better. The question was how to bring those two views together: how would we live differently in the world we knew best with this new knowledge of a world to which we’d been introduced. We’d only been in Turkey for ten days: we’d just begun. I knew mostly what I didn’t know—and how much more I had to learn. But it was also true that I’d learned something, both about Turkish culture—or Turkish cultures!—and about my own. And I had to begin somewhere. This intercultural dialog trip was a fabulous starting point. I meant every word—I could have talked for hours! Instead, I guess I’m writing for pages….

But I almost didn’t get to talk at all—none of us did! The scene turned to comedy, as the cameramen kept having battery trouble they seemed unable to resolve. Delayed for forty-five minutes, Judith said to me later: “Maybe the only things in Turkey that work well are those run by the Gulen Movement….!” Clearly the cameramen were hired from outside. As we waited, I fell into conversation with one of the men fishing off the small waterfront park. His catch was small, both in terms of the size of his fish and the size of his catch overall. We asked what’s he do with it, and he replied: “Well, since the fish in the Bosphorus are a little bit poisonous, I give them to the neighbors.” We all burst out laughing.

Bill and Sally had gone off wandering the neighborhood, which seemed pretty old and was set into the hills that dropped into the water. They returned with stories of beautiful old yali, or vacation homes for centuries of Istanbullians, so Farshad and I set off to investigate. We quickly found ourselves walking narrow shaded lined with shops and restaurants. In most of the buildings the second story jutted out over the first, adding to shade and the sense of intimacy. Bright paint and contrasting trim decorated the almost exclusively wooden buildings, and cats owned the neighborhood, encouraged by the locals. People had “kitty chow” out on bowls on simply strewn across ledges and windowsills. It was wonderful—you could also see how easily a fire could spread from one dwelling to the other. Pamuk talks about two tankers colliding in the Bosphorus, describing how burning wreckage drifted to Asian shore and set fire to the densely packed yali. It could happen.

When the interviews were finally finished, it was approaching rush hour, a terrible time to try to make our way across the Bosphorus and home. We had wanted to visit the only mosque in Istanbul designed by a woman, and we made our way back into “Asia” and the Sakirin Mosque, designed by Zeynep Fadillioglu and just opened next to a wooded cemetery.

(See: Sakirin Mosque + Istanbul, which aired on “All things considered…” on October 21, 2008.)

Michael exclaimed: “For the love of God, not another mosque or church or synagogue. I’m taking a nap.” He slept on a bench outside the cemetery, while we entered the courtyard of the mosque, where a reflective spherical globe gushed water into black marble basin. It reflected the sky; it reflected whomever looked in; it quite literally drew us all into the mosque, into the heavens, into the world.

The design inside was simple and powerful: the single dome was supported by four pillars, instead of the Sinan-inspired dome held aloft by a supporting circle of half-domes. The late afternoon sun, filtered through clouds, filled the space with luminous light. The mihrab, a niche marking the direction of Mecca, was slate blue—and shaped in a womb-like oval. It was filled with a gilt design which collected all available light. The minbar, a pulpit to the right of the mihrab, curved toward the ceiling, covered with golden calligraphy from the Koran. The color scheme was slate blue and burnt sienna or red clay or ochre, with gold accents. The same gracious ochre curves decorated the dome, along with gilt calligraphy containing the names of God, one after another, after another. A beautiful chandelier hung from the center of the dome with raindrop lights, “the mercy of Allah falling like rain upon the earth,” as the imam later explained.

Arzu beckoned to me, and we went upstairs into the women’s balcony. There was a slate-blue fence around the edge, letting the women have a privileged view onto the floor of the mosque. It was lovely up there, but we could see people gathering for prayer, so we joined them on the main floor. For the five “official” prayer times, women went to the loge, but because the mosque was not yet open, we were not interrupting anything.

And the imam was a young man in a business suit, eager to speak about the mosque. As Yavuz translated, he told us the symbolism. It was like listening to a poet. He asked if we’d like to pray, and we knelt facing Mecca, as he chanted from the Koran. He had a beautiful voice, and we were transported.

We fought our way in traffic across the Bosphorus, heading to a restaurant in Fatih that was in fact set up for us—but had no food. Yavuz looked exasperated, but we urged him to take us back to the place where we’d first had lunch in Fatih on the Street with the Bridal Gowns. We had our last supper on the second floor, enjoying again the array of dishes, mezes, and desserts we’d had upon our arrival. We’d come full circle, but were quite different than we had been only a few days ago. Ten days makes quite a difference, and we knew a lot more than we had upon arriving.

There too we had a spirited tribute to our guides and presentation of gifts: Chico bags for all—including two for the dear Suat, sweatshirts from Chico State University, prayer beads for Yavuz, two beautiful scarves from India that Judith had brought for Arzu, a collection we’d made on the bus for whatever the guides deemed fit. Yavuz said later that, as a student and a father, he’d never been able to donate anything to Kisme Yok Mu, the charitable group we’d visited. Our three guides agreed the money should go there.

A group left for the airport at 4am, and we had to get back to the hotel. Donal had not felt well enough for what proved a very strenuous day, and he needed checking on. Anne wanted the extra scarf with coins on it that I’d scored at the Grand Bazaar, goodbyes abounded, along with promises to stay in touch. The tour was officially over.

Friday, June 5: Epilogue—or the last day in Istanbul

The van that took half of our group to the airport at 4am blended into the early morning traffic, and when I woke up, we were a diminishing group that gathered at breakfast that morning. Yavuz looked exhausted: he’d downloaded everyone’s pictures from their digital cameras into his computer, seen everyone off on their various early morning vans, and probably still needed sleep from that infamous night under the Galata Bridge.

I’d wakened early—and resolved on my walk to get to the Galata Bridge, making my way to the Ataturk Bridge but then walking along the waterfront down the Golden Horn down to the New Mosque, which guards the Galata Bridge. It was probably the sketchiest neighborhood I’d walked in, so I was wary and quick. I passed the ferries that moved people across and along the Bosphorus and around the City. I passed the bus terminal, like all bus terminals not the best part of the city. I crossed the Galata Bridge to Taksim, then went back again. The Galata Bridge crowd was a good deal scruffier than the Ataturk Bridge crowd, but there were the same vendors selling tea and simit. The sun spread golden light on the water. I hated to leave this city.

I went into the courtyard of the New Mosque, where it was suddenly quiet. I watched the cats, the pigeons, the swallows, and a man cleaning a courtyard that seemed already spotless. It took me about an hour to go home, but I made my way down now-familiar streets in Fatih, lured to breakfast by the smell of fresh bread pouring out of the bakeries. Chuck and Judith and I had the day to ourselves: we’d scheduled an extra day with a 5:55am flight on Saturday. We agreed to meet up for a last trip into Sultanahmet, the Cisterns, and the Grand Bazaar.

That gave us some time to negotiate luggage. We’d bought some gifts for our old friends in Berkeley, but we’d gotten even more from our new friends in Turkey, all of them given in these gorgeous velvet boxes. Taking the gifts—delicate, hand-painted porcelain tea cups and plates—in their gift boxes would have required another two sets of luggage, so we strategically packed pieces around dirty laundry—and hoped for the best. If we were going to need an extra piece of luggage, I wanted to know by the time we set out that morning. When we felt we had my luggage under control, we set off in the tram for Sultanahmet.

First stop was the Byzantine Basilica Cistern, laid out under the Emperor Justinian in 532, largely for the demands of the palace. At some point, the place fell into disrepair, vanishing from memory. Only a century after the conquest did the Ottomans discover it, and then only after hearing reports of people dipping water and even fish out of holes in their basement floors. Now the place has been excavated and its 336 columns, about 26 feet high apiece, are accessible through a series of walkways. It’s like a cathedral to one of the most valued commodities in a dry land: water. We wandered to the sounds of Turkish classical music. Probably the columns had been plundered from other earlier monuments, and there’s evidence in one corner of the watery museum: Medusa heads supporting two columns stolen from somewhere else. They could mark a shrine to water nymphs; they could be simply “scrap marble,” but they were lovely, one right-side up with its eyes open and fierce, the other up-side down, sleeping. It was lovely.

We repaired to our favorite café on the Hippodrome, where our waiter tried to teach me how to count to ten in Turkish. It must have been a slow morning, but I was a willing pupil, but slow. After ten days in Turkey, I still had no feel for the music of the language. I still don’t—and that bothers me.

Fortified with tea and a nosh, we made our way to the Grand Bazaar. Chuck and I needed a few more gifts; Judith had not even stepped inside. Though I really wanted her to see the Spice Bazaar—which would have been heaven for such a good cook!—the Grand Bazaar was closer. I found pillows, bracelets—and eventually, pottery. I saw some pieces that I liked, asked the price—and found it too high. Bargaining brought the price down somewhat, but not enough for my liking. I walked away, and we were about half-way down a block, when the shopkeeper chased me down and offered a lower price. I thanked him and told him I’d decided on something else. I found lovely bowls—for half the price and no haggling!—at another shop.

When we met up with Chuck, he’d turned into a bargainer! Initially certain the Grand Bazaar was the one stop he did not need to make, he turned up at our meeting place laden with gifts. We laughed—and headed into a tiny local café for some soup and mezes. The chef was so happy to see us—most of the rest of the folks at the six tables in this place were locals!—he gave Judith and me a big hug!

Judith and Chuck negotiated the tram home; I needed a walk. From the Beyazit/Grand Bazaar metro stop, I made my way down narrow streets of the Yenikapi neighborhood to the Sea of Marmara. When we’d been in Yenikapi for dinner, I’d noticed a concrete boardwalk along the sea wall. I spotted the path again from the balconies of the Topkapi Palace. If I could just get there—and get across the busy Kennedy Boulevard that girdled the peninsula, I could walk all the bodies of water in Istanbul: the Sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus, and the Golden Horn. It seemed a good final walk.

Everything in the City radiates from Sultanahmet like spokes from a wheel. Westerners looking for a north-south, east-west grid will get disoriented until they discover that Istanbul works like a wheel. Similarly, Westerners used to the vertical rectangular symmetry of a Gothic cathedral will miss the spherical beauty of cascading domes in an Ottoman mosque. I would have wondered about all this more had the streets not been so steep, the cobblestones so treacherous. I made my way to the water only by instinctively heading down, down, down, through a maze of streets, cats, children playing, and a tunnel that dumped me onto the busy thoroughfare of Kennedy Boulevard. I found a crossing and was quickly at a clutch of waterfront cafes right on the water and overlooking the Port of Istanbul. There were container ships anchored out over the water, which was a deep turquoise that the light breeze set to glistening. Pamuk writes so much about the “dark, swirling waters of the Bosphorus,” that it begins to sound like a trope—but in comparison to the Sea of Marmara, they are dark and treacherous. Here sailboats were out; people were walking, couples, old men, and bunches of boys. A couple of kids had balloons strung across two posts staked out in the rocks that tumbled into the water from the sea wall, and a beebee gun on the wall aimed at them, a make-shift boardwalk amusement park. At a boat slip, boys were diving off the sea wall into water eight feet below, some good swimmers among them. Further along, old men staked out the flat rocks for sunbathing, drinking tea, beer—and probably raki, the anise-flavored spirit that is Turkey’s version of the Greek ouzo. They reminded me of all the retired guys who’d hung out at The Point on Chicago’s South Side at 55th Street. I walked behind the six minarets of the Blue Mosque around the back of Topkapi Palace and came out on the Golden Horn at Seraglio Point. I headed inland through Gulhane park, behind Topkapi Palace. Here we’d visited the new museum of Science and Technology—in 25 minutes. It seemed like ages ago.

I saw a young boy in white tux and white cape tearing down the path, weaving among pedestrians with sheer delight. Behind was his mother and sisters, laughing at him—and holding a white crown. It was a circumcision party, and I recognized the gear from the shop we’d seen a few days before. The boy didn’t seem to be either blood-stained or in pain. Where was Donal?!

I walked up past some restored Ottoman houses along Sogukcesme Sokagi, coming up the hill at the Cistern. If I were to come back to Istanbul on my own, I’d stay in one of these B&B’s on this street: they’d been restored for the Turkish Touring and Automobile Club and are guesthouses for tourists. It’s a busy street, but centrally located between the Palace, Ayasofya, and the Blue Mosque. I could run along the sea wall and swim in the Bosphorus with the old men.

As I walked past the Cistern, I’d come full circle. I boarded the tram and head back to the hotel, where I put the finishing touches on packing. We’d planned an early dinner—but we’d first planned—drinks! Because of our Muslim hosts, alcohol was not offered at any of our meals, and respecting their practices, none of us ordered it. Besides, we kept too strenuous a pace: there was no time for relaxing. I hadn’t missed it, but Chuck demanded beer on his last night in Istanbul. I’d staked out a place a few blocks from the hotel. It was clear the North Shield catered to tourists, and the pub-like atmosphere confirmed that. Nonetheless, I had my first glass of Turkish wine (light and mineraly, delightful!) and Judith and Chuck sampled the local beer, Efes! We went to the Simit Salon for doner kebab, sitting upstairs away from the smoke-filled rooms and overlooking the street. At some point, some men joined us on the narrow balcony, and one of them said to me: “Do you remember who I am?” It was the post-office clerk, who’d gracious mailed our postcards — even though one day the rate was .85 Turkish lira and the next day .80 lira. As we left, he came up to me and in very precise English said: “I like you very much,” to which I could only reply very precisely in return: “Thank you very much. You are so very kind.” I was a little flustered, because the affection, even in translation, seemed so genuine.

It was still light after dinner, so we decided to visit our favorite baklava place one more time, scoring some sweet one last time. We took it back to the hotel, and as evening gathered, sat in the lobby and, on plates the concierge quickly provided a final sweet.

Arthur Holder and his son had been on this delegation two years before. His son was about 18, and Arthur describes him as somewhat withdrawn and struggling with dyslexia. Yet, when asked in the final interview how he’d found Turkey, he summed up his trip with words could easily have described ours: “I’ve traveled in lots of countries—Italy, Greece, Germany, and I always felt like a tourist. This country made me feel like a guest.”

And now… ?

The whole experience was like trying to fit a thousand piece jig-saw puzzle together, without knowing whether the piece you held in your hands was right-side up—or not. There was no box cover to guide you. You weren’t even certain you had all the pieces at hand.

Finally, you fit a few pieces together—and discover in time that any number of pieces would have the same seamless fit.

The puzzle can be put together in many different ways.

This is an attempt to identify a few of the pieces.

Link to Martha’s blog.