Ambiguity is Okay
The week before we left for Turkey news breaks that there had been a bomb in the Istanbul airport right in the terminal we would have been going into. The decision to go to a country that was a bit unstable or stay home rested in my hands. Despite the danger, I felt as if I wanted to go more than ever. I wanted to be with those in mourning and love them well. By a miracle, the rest of my group felt the same.
As we boarded that airplane together that Saturday I knew two things. One, that this trip would change my life. Two, that regardless of where I go in the world a thousand may fall at my side, but evil will not come near me because I can ask for protection of the Most High God and he will deliver me (Psalm 91). In America, we always feel as if evil cannot touch us here, but I knew that in the same way America is not immune from evil, I could not escape God’s protection. In fact, without the veil of security in dialing 9-1-1, I am more dependent on the God that rules over all the earth.
Gazing out the plane window at the Swiss Alps above the clouds, I knew what is big to the world is microscopic to the Lord. Before I could blink, I landed in a country I had never thought twice about, that now had become my place of residence for two weeks.
We soon met with cobble stone streets, carts selling fresh bread called simit, fresh flowers in every window seal and a sun setting over the Bosphorus to the glorious outline of city towers and mosques. The glamor of city, was only broken by me racing to the edge of the sidewalk with my luggage to avoid being run over by a speeding scooter.
Safety is Deceiving
The military coup, that occurred during our trip, was only a small fraction of our time there, but it was the only thing that many people wanted to hear about.
On the second to last night of our trip, some Turkish friends told my group that the military was taking over the Bosphorus Bridge and that we should take cover in our hostel. The whole event was happening a few miles away from where we were staying. I could hear jets and what sounded like shots firing, but my biggest concern, at the time, was not being able to go to a local island with my Turkish friends the next day and say good bye.
Soon, I began to hear about the people of this city dying in the streets. My reaction still did not change into terror, instead to great despair. I never feared my own life, even though I knew it could be at risk. I trusted my life was in God’s hands and I would be under his protection. I despaired because I had grown to love the people of this nation and suddenly lives were being taken right before me. Yet, all I was reading in the news was how the coup effected the diplomatic relations or how there were British citizens trapped, but I could find little about the lost souls of Istanbul. That was the news that made me ache.
The reason I had grown to fancy these people so much was their hearts for others were like none I’d ever met. The hospitality of Turkish nation blew my mind. I would ask for directions or recommendations and suddenly we are eating a meal together or touring the city or telling our stories or they were giving me gifts. How different would life be if Americans broke their plans to help a foreigner find somewhere to eat? Americans can be so trapped in our schedules that we do not take the time to go outside our friend circles to eat with someone new or walk someone to the destination they needed help finding.
Though the city was constantly bustling, it wasn’t as if everyone was oblivious to those outside their bubble. We often went to the park by the seaside where everyone would dance together or sit on the rocks to talk to one another and laugh.
I felt no tensions through differences, only a unity through love. I would see a group of girls comprised of one wearing a hijab and the other with a see-through shirt and tattoos. There wasn’t an air of separation, but a desire to be with each other not blinded by judgment.
The Collision of Continents
Turkey’s unique ability to collide two cultures of Europe and Asia, while maintaining the pride of their own nationality, was beautiful to witness. And the views in Istanbul were no less beautiful. A top of Çamlıca, the tallest hill in Istanbul, there was a garden with a view of the European and Asian side.
The European side felt, in a way, similar to America in the way it had been commercialized. One ferry ride to the other side felt like a different city filled with small coffee shops (there are so many grounds in Turkish Coffee they tell fortunes in them) and fresh markets.
The Hagia Sophia is a great example of this collision in the way it holds two religions so peacefully. The Hagia Sophia was an old church in 6th century that was turned into a mosque in 1453 by the Ottoman Empire and is now claimed a museum. On the walls, you can see where they have now scrapped off paint that once covered older mosaics of mother Mary and Jesus. There are also huge medallions with Arabic inscriptions on them. The altar at the center once faced Jerusalem, but now faces Mecca. Two vastly different religions lived in the building rather seamlessly.
My favorite collision in the city of Istanbul has to where the mountains kiss the Black Sea at a beach. I was astounded to see such lush greenery not far from a city with millions of people. We even went into a bat cave where my foot was covered in tar – I suppose I can truly call myself a Tar Heel now.
In Ephesus, I was able to walk the grounds that Paul walked in the bible and through an ancient wonder of the world, the Temple of Artemis (don’t let the name deceive you, it is now only one column). I was physically walking through history. I couldn’t help but think of the many types of people that had walked through these ruins from all generations and all different backgrounds.
For the Foodies
The only thing that I found little diversity in was the food; there wasn’t a wide range of dishes from other cultures.
A morning starting perfectly began with menemen, basically an omelet (minus the bacon because pork is impossible to find in Turkey) with peppers, tomatoes and spices. The egg continues to cook in the stone bowl it is served in while it is eaten. I noticed breakfast in America is a lot sweeter. Istanbul considers a waffle a dessert and breakfast’s mainly meats and cheeses.
I loved the traces of Italy in a dish called İskander. It had the flavor spaghetti, with grilled lamb and pita bread. A fast and easy lunch would be considered a shawarma, a wrap that can hold a variety of fresh meat shaving cut off a rotating spit. Often çay is served after meals, which is delicious Turkish tea served with sugar cubes.
When my sweet tooth needed something, I would grab some baklava from Gulluogu or some Cocoa Puff covered pomegranate Turkish delight from the Spice Bazaar. While we were there, I was able to swing by the Grand Bazaar and picked up some Turkish towels for 10 tL, about $3.
Almost everything I tried was fantastic, but two things I would not recommend would be çiğ köfte (a raw meat wrap with spicy watercress leaves) or Ayran (a Turkish favorite to drink that tasted like salty uncultured yogurt).
So despite the ambiguity I entered the country with, I left with the assurance that Istanbul is a city like no other and I had experiences that changed my perspective forever.
Of course, the leaving part was about as challenging as the decision to enter. Our flight was canceled because of the coup and we had to sprint through the German airport (almost not making it through security) to board our last plane. But, at long last, we made it home, though a part of me still longs to be back in the streets of Kadıköy.