This piece was originally written for Baedeker Travel Magazine at NYU. It was completed on November 4th, 2015. I refrained from publishing it until I heard back from Baedeker on whether or not they would publish it. However, at this point I don’t really know what is going on with them so I decided to just publish it on my own blog. Enjoy.
When I first set out to write this piece I envisioned it going a different way. I wanted to write a story that talked about the Turkish people and how welcoming they are, in an attempt to dispel the notion that it is unsafe to travel to non-white European countries, Muslim countries in particular. I wanted to write about the Istanbul that I experienced, a bright city propelled by its aims at modernism but still holding on to the age old traditions that distinguish its rich culture. I wanted to share my appreciation for architectural wonders like Aya Sophia and the Blue Mosque and my admiration for the thought provoking and well-curated works at Istanbul Modern. I wanted to write about the people I encountered and the small interactions I had that reaffirmed my belief that Turkey and its people were worth getting to know.
And then, someone broke into my Airbnb in the middle of the night and stole my precious phone, camera, and money.
I would be lying if I said getting my stuff stolen didn’t sour my opinion of the country. In fact, for a brief moment it made me hate Turkey and it made me feel guilty for not listening to the many warnings of friends and family who implored me not to go. I felt cheated by this city that I had wanted to love but that left me with little more than a broken heart and several boxes of Turkish delight. But Turkey was not done with me.
On my flight back to Paris almost as if by divine intervention, I sat next to Ilhan, a Turkish man who sensing my sadness, did everything in his power to make cheer me up. He listened to my unfortunate tale with sad understanding eyes, nodding his head along in sympathy and giving me advice on how to get some sort of justice. He pulled out a fragrant bag filled with home made Turkish pastries and gave me half of them, refusing to take no for an answer. When the airhostess came by with a cart of drinks for sale, he insisted on buying me “something to ease my troubles”. Ilhan asked me about my family and told me about his and treated me as if I were of his own flesh and blood. His kindness made me forget about the electronics that were no longer in my possession and focused my attention on the trip itself. My thoughts began to flashback to some of the more pleasantly memorable pieces of our trip and the people that made them important in the simplest ways.
Our days always began with a traditional sesame pretzel from a quaint little red cart in Taksim square. The pretzels themselves were nothing out of this world, but they were cheap, and the man who sold them to us was taken with our politeness and our attempts to communicate with him despite the fact that we didn’t speak Turkish and he didn’t speak a single drop of English. Given that we were continually thanking him in place of having an actual conversation, he attempted to teach us how to say teşekkür ederim, thank you, in Turkish. We continually failed, and he continued patiently teaching us, smirking every time we butchered it and smiling triumphantly when we finally got it right.
Then I remembered the day we attempted to get into Topkapi Palace for a second time using our museum card. We weren’t aware of the fact that you could only use your card once to get in and the guard apologetically said there was nothing he could do. However, upon explaining to him that we hadn’t had the chance to see the Harem, his demeanor instantly became charged with the desire to share with us the treasures of his country. He asked us to stand to one side while he talked to his superiors about what he could do to let us in. His superiors simply said that we were out of luck. But the guard waited until they weren’t looking and asked one of his tour guide buddies to scan his own pass, which deactivates the doors so people on a tour can go through. The guard simply winked at us as he ushered us through, clearly proud that he had helped us out but not making a big show of it or expecting any sort of compensation. He was seemed simply glad to share his patrimony.
Finally, I thought of the day when we were exploring Iztiklal Caddesi, a popular shopping street in the modern part of the city. As we were waiting to cross the street, a group of young guys came up to my friends and I and asked in English if we were from Istanbul because they needed help getting somewhere. We simply responded that we were also dumbfounded tourists and any attempt at helping them with directions would probably end up getting them more lost. Upon hearing our inability to help, a Turkish man who was just standing by quickly turned around and offered his help. He gave the guys some directions and even outlined the path on the map they had. I was astonished at the fact that this random person had no hesitation to help even when they didn’t directly ask him. This however, seems to be very common in Istanbul. I myself had many random people intervene on my behalf while trying to buy something or trying to negotiate cab fare. To me these were great acts of altruism, but all the people who advocated for me simply brushed it off, replying that since they had the ability to help, they should.
As I remembered all of these selfless people, I began to smile widely, attracting the attention of Ilhan who nudged me and said, “I’m glad to see you’re not so sad anymore.”
Ilhan was right, I wasn’t sad anymore. The anger at having lost my personal possessions dissipated with my remembrance of all the good times I had in Turkey. I realized I still loved my trip to Istanbul. I still thought it was worthwhile and I was definitely glad I had gone. Having my things stolen made me take a step back and really analyze my entire trip. But after all I realized that that really terrible moment couldn’t overshadow my whole memory of Istanbul. I couldn’t judge the entire country on the actions of one individual.
This realization really emphasized the idea that I originally wanted to explore in this piece. As westerners, and especially as part of the population affected by 9/11 and its aftermath, it seems we have become hardened to Muslim nations. Sometimes subconsciously, other times more overtly, a lot of us try distance ourselves from Arab nations and people out of fear. As a society we often generalize the acts of this or that radical group to a whole people or a whole body of believers. I myself am guilty of thinking in this way after being personally wronged but after analyzing my reaction I came to the conclusion that I wasn’t being fair.
I was hesitant to go to Istanbul, I was told explicitly not to go by people I trust. I personally had a bad experience there. But I also had a lot of good experiences. The people I met, the food I enjoyed, and the beautiful art I saw made me fall in love with Turkey. I have a good reason to not go back and to dismiss the country as dangerous. But the truth is, I still want to go back. There is danger everywhere, there is crime everywhere, but ultimately, crimes are rare instances committed by bad people.
So forget your hesitations. Go to Istanbul or Bogota, or Mexico City or whatever place you’re missing out on because you’ve been scared away. I for one will not stop recommending Istanbul as a travel destination. The peace that befalls the city after a long prayer call and the succulent baklava on every corner are more than enough incentive for me to make the long trek back to Turkey as soon as possible. Besides, as Ilhan pointed out, I have to go back and recapture all those photos I lost.
Istanbul, Turkey/ Paris, France