Thursday, June 28, 2007

Istanbul to Jerusalem

Brian Phelps

This summer, I have been traveling with Keegan from Istanbul to Jerusalem – following the route of the first crusades. Along the way, Keegan, two others, and I have been attempting to create a documentary/travelogue of sorts on the modern day legacy of the crusades – whether the history of the crusades is still alive and meaningful for the people who live here or whether it is a dead history whose images are conjured by religious and national leaders for political gain.

I write from Damascus, Syria, and I will attempt to summarize the Turkey portion of our trip in this post, write about Syria in subsequent posts, and in the future, post more regularly. However, it has been tough to post frequently when moving from place to place every few days. Not being able to settle in one town or city for very long has made communication difficult. My apologies to our friends and to the readers for not posting yet.

* * * *

Many of my friends have traveled to or lived in Turkey, and while I have been to many countries in the Middle East, this was my first visit to Turkey. Naturally, they had told me stories about how wonderful Turkey is, how welcoming its people are, and how beautiful its sights are. My expectations were exceeded within the first week.

Turkey is a perfect introduction to the Middle East, and for the purposes of our trip – following the route of the first crusaders – it was apropos for us to enter the region in Istanbul, which was at one time Constantinople, considered by many to be the greatest city in the world. By many measures, Istanbul is half Asian/Middle Eastern and half European. Geographically, the city itself rests on two continents – separated by the Bosphorus Strait.

From the moment I arrived in Istanbul, I could see both the European and Middle Eastern influences on the city. My first experience with Istanbul outside the airport was with the traffic. Turkish traffic exhibits all of the usual Middle Eastern signs: drivers ignore traffic lights, lane markings seem to only be painted on the roads for decoration, and any living pedestrian will tell you that cars have the right-of-way (in fact, the right of way goes to the biggest and heaviest vehicle on the road). However, my fare had all the signs of a twenty-minute cab ride in London.

As I stepped out of my taxi, as I was searching for the small backpacker hostel where my three friends and I had agreed to meet, the call to prayer serenely echoed across the skyline filled with minarets. For Muslims, it announced the high-noon time to pray. However, for me, it served as a reminder that I was marching around the city in the heat of the day with a 40 pound backpack, trying to navigate unsigned streets with an inadequate guidebook, and ask directions in a language I did not speak.

I did eventually find my hostel, and very soon after arrival, I was offered a beer at the hostel’s streetside café. As I looked up and down the street, I noticed several bars and several convenience stores that sold beer. And I couldn’t help but notice the already-intoxicated Kiwis a couple of tables down from me. [These were the same Kiwis who later that night would be singing on the rooftop bar with their pants on their heads. While embarrassed for them, I couldn’t help but think: “Thank God they’re not Americans.”] In Istanbul – and almost everywhere I visited in Turkey – beer and alcohol were available almost everywhere. Nowhere else is this more evident than Istiqlal Cadessi, a long cobblestone street filled with clubs, smoky pubs, discos, and swanky rooftop bars. This is the place where Turks come to party.

To me, this should seem normal for a big city. Except, I was in a country where 97% of the population considers themselves Muslim, and Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol. This dichotomy between my greeting to Istanbul from the muezzin in the Blue Mosque and my goodnight lullaby from D.J. Koray was somewhat jarring. And for me, it epitomizes the intentional secularism of Turkey in a way that perhaps goes even further than what some European nations would be comfortable with.

Although there are many people who choose to be religiously conservative, there are also many people who do not consider themselves practicing Muslims. But, in Turkey, most people tend not to pry into others’ religious practices or judge others harshly for what they decide to do. Religion nowadays, for most of the people who we spoke with, is a private matter – between the believer and his or her god. This is a country with a deep Islamic history topped with a unique flavor of European secularism as well.

But Turks don't see this as two opposing forces. Turks are a proud people, and they see the secularism, the Ottomon-style mosques, and their hospitality as distinctly Turkish. There is no contradiction when on a weekend, the most happening clubs are closing up just as the morning call to prayer begins to sound. Turks, some who are of Kurdish or Arab origins, see themselves as distinctly Turkish, and are proud of the liberalism and tolerance that allows people of different backgrounds and beliefs to integrate into Turkish society.

I could go on with some fun (and some stereotypical) examples of the different European and Middle Eastern flairs in Istanbul and Turkey. I will talk about the uncomfortable hospitality we were shown by many of the people we met along the way, but I promise to incorporate that into another post. And perhaps, that post will be a bit shorter.

For now, it’s on to Syria, a place that I expect to be very different...


Rodrigo said...

Oi, achei teu blog pelo google tá bem interessante gostei desse post. Quando der dá uma passada pelo meu blog, é sobre camisetas personalizadas, mostra passo a passo como criar uma camiseta personalizada bem maneira. Até mais.

Lauren Jill Hatshepsut said...

Brian, I have finally read your posting and am glad I did. I was so pleased when I heard about this project, and more than that, glad for you (and the others) being able to do what you're doing. You sure write well and thank you. I've connected with Matt and hope to write up something this weekend about my month in Cairo. Those of us who are in 2 worlds ... an interesting state of being and also an enriched one. Blessings to you and Keegan and the others.

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