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From Istanbul with Love
A personal travelogue of a birthday pilgrimage
Michael Werbowski (minou)     Print Article 
Published 2006-12-23 08:09 (KST)   
Sevinc (which means joy in Turkish) invited me for my birthday to Istanbul recently, the city where popes and patriarchs meet, where Byzantine emperors ruled and Ottoman sultans sat on empires. All this history in one place seemed overwhelming to me, almost like a dizzying spell.

Perhaps a visitor to this city on the Bosporus should read the Edward Gibbon's great historical classic "The Rise and fall of the Roman Empire" in which he gives a splendid account of the siege of Constantinople of the Turkish Ottoman invaders. Gibbon in a lengthy passage describes the fall of Constantinople in 1453, conquered by Sultan Mehmed II. This event may have presaged the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922. Indeed, Istanbul throughout the ages has been sacked, conquered, adored, worshiped and feared. It has been made slave and master over and over again. Istanbul is at times harlot of the harem and a regal empress. Istanbul is a temptress and tyrannical witch.

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In December, it was for me a relief to run away from the pre-Christmas shopping frenzy in Europe to be on the doorstep of Asia. It was a thrill to feel the energy of the East, to behold with a mixture of temerity and apprehension the threshold of the Islamic world.

Women have always personified great cities for me. Sevinc, who lives on the European side of the city in a modest but quaint flat, is one of them. Her neighborhood is abuzz with activity. There are fruit stalls galore on every corner block.

On the street shoe shiners with methodical application buff men's footwear. I decide to partake in this little luxury. The shoe shiner replaces my somewhat worn laces and offers me new them as a birthday gift. It was a small but powerful gesture of human generosity.

It is such a pleasure to pamper yourself with an Istanbul haircut as you grow a year older. As the barber gives me a shave the old fashioned way and trims my hair I feel like a Pasha; almost like a renewed much younger man. He restores my faith in the traditional barbershop.

In the tearooms and coffee houses which are strictly an all men's affair, I sat puffing on the water pipe. My nose smelled a fragment smoke which wafted gingerly in the air. Here smoking is still scared rite unlike in the European capitals where it is being banned in public and private gathering places. Oddly for a "Westerner" like me, there is neither a hint nor even trace of a feminine presence among the tea drinkers and hookah pipe smokers.

This setting is so beguiling. The waiter, as if reading my thoughts, instinctively brings me another cup of tea as I listen and watch a Turkish version of MTV. It is all so sublime and yet so ephemeral. My head begins to spin in this parlor of sensual delight like a dancing Dervish. Outside the traffic whirls around Taxsim square (An Istanbul version of Times Square) in a perpetual rhythmic swirl.

Istanbul as seen through the eyes of residents of the city

The romantic reason for my trip to this city is Sevinc. She is for me a post modern Turkish woman who originates from the eastern Kurdish part of the country. The "Kurdish question" is never far from the headlines in this country. Yet instead of politics and reading newspapers we talk about art and cultural outings in this city.

Like many women of her generation (who barely recall the brutal military coups of the early 1980s) this attractive thirty-something Turk is driven, ambitious to make her mark on an all male dominated society. She works for a major Western corporation, is "Europeanized" in the most positive sense of the term in that her English is impeccable and her tastes for Western fashion are geared to the latest trend.

Is she a product of our borderless, globalized highly commercialized world? She seems to shun the traditional women's role in Turkish society which confines most for her gender to the social strictures of family and motherhood and faith in Islam. She epitomized to me the "new" Turkish professional woman.

We awake just before dawn to the sound of the first call to prayer. I then look out the window and see the minarets in the distance and the homes of the surrounding hillsides cluttered together. Meanwhile, my companion prepares me a breakfast with Turkish coffee and freshly backed pita bread, wonderful fresh goat cheese and olives. It is all so civilized compared to stale buns and instant coffee which is my usual breakfast fair.

Wishing not to appear as intellectual lightweight in Turkey and in order to impress my companion I quickly immersed myself into the writings of Orhan Pamuk. This year's winner of the Nobel prize and author of "My name is Red" and the somber political thriller "Snow" has focused international attention on his homeland. Pamuk seduces me with his writing about his city of birth.

In his book "Istanbul: Memories of a City," the author describes his childhood and brings the past of this city back to life. In whimsical passages he relates melancholic strolls in the poor districts of the city or walks along the Bosporus at twilight. His words resonate in my head as I cross the Galata Bridge to the Asian side which is crowded with fishermen, and traffic.

There is a longing for a lost past here. It is palpable among the locals. Unlike in Mexico City or Cairo were remnants of a lost empire are museum pieces in Istanbul, as Pamuk writes: "The remains of a glorious past and civilization is everywhere visible. No matter how ill kept they are, no matter how neglected or hemmed in they are by concrete monstrosities, the great mosques and other monuments of the city, as well as the lesser detritus of empire in very side street and corner -- the little arches, fountains, and neighborhood mosques -- inflict heartache on all who live amongst them ... the people of Istanbul simply carry on among the ruins..."

Sevinc is like a Parisian or a New Yorker" a resident of Istanbul and there fore she is one of the millions of "Istanbullus" which make this city thrive and feel so alive. She knows the city exceptionally well and takes me by night to the Galata tower for a view at the top, the cisterns and underground waterworks system (made famous by a scene in from "Russia with love") built by the Emperor Justinian.

We eat tasty salads and succulent lamb roasts and Kebabs together. Yes, indeed one feels that in Istanbul "East meets West" in a cordial and not a confrontational manner. Sevinc takes to the see the remnants of the Theodosian walls along the "Golden Horn." As her own present on my birthday she offers me a wonderful CD of the soundtrack from the movie and musical documentary "Crossing the Bridge." The movie captures the contemporary "sights and sounds" of Istanbul. And anyone planning to come to Istanbul should see it.

Sevinc dutifully goes off to work and leaves me to discover her city on my own. So I venture outside and into the newest Metro line then hopping on a gleaming new subway car. As I gaze at the commuters, I notice young women wearing head scarves and skirts chat and chuckle with one another oblivious to my somewhat indiscreet gaze. Istanbul is teeming with economic activity and is like a phoenix which has arisen from the ashes. I am referring to the 2001 Turkish economic collapse (not unlike the Mexican "tequila crisis" of 1994) which shook the city's middle class to the core. Now it seems this metropolis has recovered and displays with unabashed bravura its newfound wealth epitomized by the growing class of nouveau riche.

A visit to the Haydarpasa Railway station

A short boat ride across the Bosphorus strait and I reach the Anatolian side. My objective is the Haydarpasa train station. This magnificent neo-classical structure faces the sea of Marmora. Its unique architecture in this part of the world is styled in neo-gothic Teutonic facades. This structure was gift from German's last Kaiser to the last Turkish Ottoman sultan.

Here Agatha Christie stepped off the train and onto the platform upon the arrival of the "Orient express." Outside the sea air breeze refreshes my senses. Hungry gulls spat over breadcrumbs with pigeons on the footsteps of this magical meeting place for travelers, workers and tourists alike. Inside a small bistro, I talk with an elderly local about the bygone days of train travel as we sip some local tipple. The man tells me of a project or property scheme rather to build on this site. Haydarpasa unless action is taken to save it is threatened by a mega project to transform the station and site into a hotel and commercial mall: a tourist Disneyland of sorts.

The Turkish national railways are due to be privatized (with support of the World Bank) which mean this grand old building may cease to be a real functioning railway station in the near future. This is a frightening thought for lovers of history like me. UNESCO has contacted the Turkish authorities admonishing them to respect the architectural splendor of this site. What will happen next remains to be seen? One thing is for sure Istanbul will remain a glorious and eternal city no matter how many conquerors, plunderers or property speculators and frequent flyer tourists descend upon her.
©2006 OhmyNews
Other articles by reporter Michael Werbowski

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