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When you spend time in a place with a culture wholly different from yours, it tends to stick in your mind, either with a positive or negative connotation.
The food, the people, the experience as whole all leave a mark in your mind.
My trip to Turkey, specifically the city of Istanbul and the region of Cappadocia left me with mixed views on the nation.
My personal experience was nothing but positive.
However, overlooking the injustice of a government that is trampling on free speech, concentrating autocratic power in an ever shifting executive and perpetrating a brutal war on the Kurds is impossible.
In any event, we in the West have to better understand what Turkey is and where it is going.
Turkey is by no means an average American’s tourist destination, as it is still ostracized as part of the oft-maligned “Muslim world.”
Unlike the oft-problematic Iran or a friendly Israel, Turkey, on paper at a least, is a secular nation.
Despite President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent Islamization, the nation does still retain a secular vibe to it.
Sharia law is, to the dismay of American über conservatives and anti-Islam activists, not implemented, although the population is 98% Muslim.
The overwhelming number of women do not wear headscarves. A small number of women, often concentrated in more conservative neighborhoods, wear burqas.
Business is booming, in Beyoğlu, the party district complete with free-flowing alcohol, an unusual quality for a nation with such a high concentration of Muslims.
Despite Turkey’s largely secular nature, it retains unmistakably Muslim qualities, which have become amplified under Erdogan. If you expect to go to Turkey and feel as if you are in a European city such as Paris or Prague, you will be in for a surprise.
In Istanbul, the call to prayer rings loud and clear five times a day, although the overwhelming majority of Istanbulites are not rushing off the street to get into a Mosque to pray.
Istanbul is a Muslim city in the same way that Paris is Christian city-largely by cultural hegemony, although in Christianity, the visual cues are far more subtle. Well, for an American, at least.
The clearest way to describe Istanbul is a city encapsulated by its nearly seamless mixing of the ancient and the modern.
The Grand Bazaar, an ancient space for local merchants, is now flooded with locals peddling knockoff soccer jerseys, sneakers, handbags — most of western, Milanese and Parisian origin.
A modern, European tram flows throughout the city, stopping less than five minutes from the ancient sites of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque.
This integration of old and new is demonstrated in the generational differences of many families. It is extremely common to see a hijab-clad mother or grandmother walking with a free-haired daughter or grandchild, despite being of the age when a hijab is required.
This phenomena goes against irrational U.S. conceptualization of Islam as oppressive or stifling towards women.
In Turkey, well, in Istanbul at least, it appears, generally, to truly be the woman’s choice how she expresses her relationship to Islam.
Outside of Istanbul, these qualities tend to be less common, as the culture retains more conservative, old fashion qualities.
In our first day in Istanbul, we embarked on a “Culinary Walking Tour” led by a middle-aged woman of German birth and Turkish heritage.
While the food was truly incredible, it was her social commentary which carved out space in my mind.
When we first met her on the shores of Beşiktaş, she asked where we were from. She responded in an unexpected way to our admission of our Americanness.
“Oh, you’re American? I haven’t met many of you recently, you’re all so scared of us. Why?”
Leading us through a neighborhood in Beşiktaş dedicated to the sale of industrial prod- ucts, we stopped in a back-alley courtyard, which she declared was our first stop of the day.
Before sitting down, we passed a multitude of seemingly-stray dogs. She explained that the city of Istanbul picks up the dogs in order tag, vaccinate, and neuter them.
The dogs are then released back into the city, and are usually fed and cared for by the people in the neighborhood they occupy.
As a result, she explained, “they’re very friendly.”
She also explained that the city didn’t extend the same services to the multitude of stray cats dotting the landscape.
As we sat down, she explained the concept of a “tea guy.”
There is, in most every neighborhood, a man who’s sole profession is to deliver tea to the shop owners.
“Money never exchanges hands when I get my tea,” she said, while rifling through a pile of multicolor plastic tokens smaller than a dime. “I buy 200 of these a month, and every time I finish a cup of tea, I leave one in the dish.”
Almost immediately after she finishes her tea, her “tea guy” comes and takes the glass, with the token in it.
Despite its modernity, Istanbul retains a personal quality which seemed almost inconceivable when compared to the general impersonality of New York City.
Getting up to proceed to our next stop, she explains, “His tea is the best. It’s clear and not bitter. The tea at the next place isn’t nearly as good.”
Later in the day, after a multitude of stops and a 25-minute boat ride, we sat down for af- ternoon coffee in Karakoy, a neighborhood on the Asian side of the city.
Our guide explained that after living in Brooklyn for some time, she was dissatisfied with taste of our American “filter coffee,” as well as its surrounding culture. Turkish coffee and its attached culture, she argues, is inherently better, as long as you know how to partake in it.
“Sip it slowly, starting with the foam. If there’s no foam, its not a good Turkish coffee,” she said.
The grounds of a Turkish coffee concentrate at the bottom of the shot-glass-sized mug.
“We never drink the mud [grounds].”
Only after the Turkish waiter, clearly an acquaintance of hers, had left, did she lean in and whisper, “Sometimes, I like to drink the mud.”
Not only due to Turks decry the taste of American coffee, some detest the culture which surrounds it.
She explained that in Turkish culture, coffee is to be consumed in a calm state — not as a wake-up remedy.
“We don’t use it to wake up. For us, it’s the opposite,” she explained. Pointing to a older couple in the corner, she explained, “I’m sure they’ve been here for hours. Sometimes, I come here and sit for 2-3 hours.”
Thus is the oasis of calm in the chaos of the 14 million person city.
Turkey, despite its position as a world power, lags behind Europe and the U.S. in its acceptance of LGBTQ rights.
Unlike many other countries with similarly large Muslim populations, homosexuality is not a prosecutable offense.
Although not technically illegal, LGBTQ peoples are not privy to special protections under law.
Thinking about it, I probably shouldn’t say Turkey lags behind the U.S. — considering LGBTQ peoples don’t have these same protections in many of our states.
Our tour leader explained that, “in Turkey, men kiss men and women kiss women (as a form of greeting.”
Lowering her voice, with no malice or judgement, she nearly whispered, “those from the other shore, would never show it in public.”
Based on the context of the of the conservation it was clear “from the other shore” was referring to those with same-sex attraction.
Despite its claims of secularity, Turkey is still a country with a 98% percent Muslim popu- lation.
Other religions exist and are free to practice, although certainly as a minority status. Since the founding of Israel in 1948, the number of Jews in the country has drastically declined.
The Jews left in Turkey live almost exclusively in Istanbul, and largely in a specific neighborhood.
Growing up as a reform Jew in New York City, I’ve never really experienced the isolation this community must feel. In an attempt to connect with and understand this community, we embarked on a “Jewish Heritage Tour.”
Climbing up the hilled cobble streets of the Galata Quarter, we made our first stop at the Ashkenazi synagogue.
The street view is truly a thing to be seen. The synagogue, the site of multiple terrorist attacks, is protected with massive, daunting blast-proof doors. Walking inside, we were invited to join in the final moments of the morning prayer service.
The synagogue itself is quaint. The women of the congregation are dressed conservatively in a way highly reminiscent of a Muslim hijab.
“All of the synagogues in Turkey are orthodox,” our tour guide explains. As a result, the service is segregated — women upstairs, men downstairs.
Despite the differences, there was truly something so incredibly comforting about muttering the mourner’s kaddish with the older, non-english speaking members of the congregation.
On the way to our next stop, we passed another synagogue, which looks more like a prison than a place of worship. It’s black metal doors were adorned with relatively small Jewish stars.
In front of these doors, instead of parking spaces, were 7-8 metal poles, apparently to pre- vent car bombs. Our tour guide explains, “There were two attacks here. There was a shooting which killed about 20 people. Al Qaeda claimed responsibility for that. The other one killed some people with a car bomb. Nobody claimed responsibility, but it’s assumed to have been the Palestinians.”
Next on the tour, we were taken to the Ahrida Synagogue.
This congregation is bewildering in a few ways.
It was founded by Jews who came from what is now-Macedonia, and the spoken language was Ladino, a combination of Hebrew and Spanish. The street view, while not as daunting as the previous synagogue, is similarly protective.
Three would-be parking spaces are blocked by metal rails. Once inside the gates, the experience gets more surreal.
The bimah (the space form which the Rabbi leads the service) is centered in the middle of the building, and the seats face it in a Rose Bowl-like manner. Along with its odd positioning, the bimah is a replication of Noah’s Ark.
When leading the service, the Rabbi climbs the ark, preaching from its highest most point. A truly baffling imagery for our westernized version of Judaism, isn’t it?
Another unique feature of the synagogue is its dual domes, which are only visible from the interior.
“The Ottomans didn’t persecute the Jews, but they made a law that Muslims were the only group who could have exterior mosques,” our guide explained. “But, this congregation wanted a dome, so they built it under a flat roof.”
As we left the synagogue, I noticed that the older Jewish man who had let us in had stopped to have a conversation with a younger woman in a hijab. They spoke for a minute or two, hugged, and went on their way.
Finally, we stopped at the Zulfaris Synagogue, which has been converted to a museum.
Like the Ashkenazi synagogue, this museum is equipped with massive blast proof doors. Imme- diately, we were greeted by a white-haired man offering our group little chocolates.
Despite speaking no English, he excitedly showed us around the small former-synagogue, pointing out his favorite art pieces. On our way out, he handed up numerous papers and pamphlets, smiling cheek to cheek.
The next day, Christmas Day, included a trip to Topkapi palace, a marvelous relic of the Ottoman Empire.
Despite being Friday, the Muslim day of worship, the place was teeming with school groups and families.
Further juxtaposing the old with the new, we continued our day with lunch at a straight-out-of Soho looking French brasserie as well as a trip to the Istanbul Modern.
Like the MoMa, the Istanbul Modern was full of well dressed college-age people as well as groups of grades schoolers. There were very view things about this museum which felt Muslim or Turkish.
The lone exception was a video that featured a woman unwrapping hijab after hijab off of her head. The model’s eyes were covered throughout the video, as she was seemingly un- able to remove the multitude of headscarves.
In the evening, we walked around Istikal street, a modern shopping area near the infa- mous, often protest-filled Taksim Square.
Oddly enough, the shopping street is swaddled with a few European consulates, as well as the Church of St. Anthony of Padua.
Despite being Christmas Day, we entered the courtyard of the truly magnificent church.
As we walked in, we noticed that there was something odd about the nativity scene. Among Jesus and Mary laid tarnished life vests and children’s clothing — specifically a tiny pink Barbie t-shirt.
Below the scene a yellow, laminated piece of paper was posted, reading, “Yeni yurtlara ula(s)ma umuduyla sularimizda bo(g)ulan si(g)inmacilarin aziz ansina.”
Below that, in English, it read, “In loving memory of the refugees who died in our seas while trying to reach new homes.”
The next day included touring the Suleymaniye mosque as well as the Chora Church. Both are equally gorgeous, as relics of the Ottoman and Byzantine empires, respectively. The tour concluded by driving up to a view point from which an arial view of the city is accessible.
Driving through Eyüp, our tour guide explained that, “this is one of the most conservative neighborhoods of Istanbul.”
Almost every woman was in a hijab, and many were in burqas. Unsurprisingly, we passed a massive, 3-story hanging flag featuring socially conservative President Erdogan, along with the Turkish flag.
The Turkish people are fiercely nationalistic. We forget, Turkey is a relatively new nation, and they truly do have a lot to be proud of. Nearly every apartment building has Turkish flags of all sizes hanging out of personal windows. Big shopping streets are adorned with vertical, massive, nearly street-sweeping flags.
Later in the day, we ventured to the Grand Bazaar, where I was sure to purchase two soccer jerseys, costing 10 liras (about $3 dollars) each. A friend of mine who spent the term studying abroad in London convinced me that I needed to find the roof of the Grand Bazaar.
After a few minutes googling and rifling through travel books, we were able to find an odd, not-so-safe stairway up to the roof which TripAdvisor declares “unsafe and structurally unstable.”
Standing on top of the Bazaar is truly magical. You look to your left, and see the sunset-soaked silhouettes of local boys playing on the roof.
You look straight and you see a view of Istanbul which reaches all the way to the water. And to your right, you see a huge Turkish flag.
Later in the day, we embarked on the second leg of our trip — Cappadocia. A 1-hour flight from Istanbul, Cappadocia does not exhibit the same integration of modern and ancient as Istanbul.
The small towns in this region are older, quieter, poorer, and generally less modern. Living in homes typically crafted from ancient stone, the residents of this region tend to work in farming, tourism, or the service industry, which is largely based on tourism.
People flock to Istanbul for the city life, while visitors storm Cappadocia for its natural exploits.
Cappadocia is a region known for its geology, hot air ballon rides, and archeology. The flight to Cappadocia is about an hour from Istanbul. However, flying domestically in Turkey is drastically different from flying domestically in the U.S., or flying between European Union countries.
When you arrive at the airport, you are met with security at the entrance. All of your luggage, checked and carry-on, goes through an X-ray machine, while you walk through a metal detector. It is only after that security checkpoint that you check in for your flight.
After the check-in, you go through yet another level of security, this time a little more intense, as shoes come off and laptops come out of the bag. At the discretion of the TSA-equivalent agent, certain people, often military-aged men, are instructed to produce and turn on their computers.
Once on the plane, it’s nearly identical to an American flight. However, during takeoff and touchdown, cell phones, even on airplane mode, are strictly prohibited. All of these security measures, unsurprisingly, are due to the threat of radical Islamist terrorism — a threat, which for Turks, is always present. It is this threat which is the largest deterrent for European and American tourists.
Landing in Cappadocia went without a hitch.
The region, as a whole, was a solid 20 degrees colder. The region is also comprised of spread out, basic towns. Going from Istanbul to Cappadocia is like going from New York City to Alaska.
When driving through Cappadocia, everything looks grey. Due to corruption issues and a lack of economic development, there are a multitude of half-built, abandoned buildings. Other buildings are falling part but still occupied. Most still have Turkish flags hanging proudly.
We were awoken at 5:00 AM the next morning. We huddled into a van, and drove about 20 minutes. Getting out of the van, we were offered snacks and coffee, all the while nervously checking the weather conditions of the region.
After about 45 minutes, we were quickly ushered back into the van, and driven to a field about 25 minutes away. We waited, as we watched the sunrise-swept sky fill with a horde of misshapen silhouettes.
After 10 minutes, we were in the air, in a hot air balloon, looking down on Cappadocia. Never in my life, have I ever experienced anything so terrifying and breathtaking.
I’m a tall guy, so the railing of the balloon went only about halfway up my chest. Ignoring the freezing cold temperatures and my seemingly repressed fear of heights, I gawked at the changing views.
I saw a balloon silhouette-marked sun- rise. I looked down on the ancient towns of Cappadocia. I gazed upon the contemporary towns of the region. Our balloon pilot took us down into a valley, only to bring us back up for the stunning views. After the 45 minute flight, we rushed back to our hotel in order to make our flight back to Istanbul.
Unfortunately, due to the unpredictable weather of Cappadocia, we were delayed at an amenity-free airport for about 7 hours.
Eventually, our flight got us to Istanbul, despite the windy and rainy conditions. We spent the next day, our last day, back in Kadakoy, the shopping area on the Asia side.
After a few hours purchasing food products and trinkets, we passed back to our hotel. Heading back to our hotel for the final time, we traveled past a police station.
As we walked by 3-4 riot vehicles pulled out of the driveway. These menacing vehicles were equipped with a large battering ram looking instrument and some type of gun (either water, gas, or bullet-based) on the roof. Despite Turkey’s democratic state, these vehicles were a reminder of the threats Turkey faces, as well as the somewhat repressive nature of the government.
During our 10-day trip to Turkey, I believe there were two or three bombings in Istanbul. The Freedom Falcons of Kurdistan (TAK) set off a bomb at Sabiha Gokcen airport, killing one. Despite this bombing and those like it, the city does not shut down, as business continues as usual.
Truly, I’m not sure Istanbul, a city of nearly 20 million people could shut down.
In mid-January, about two weeks after I returned to the US, I was appalled and shocked to read of the deadly bombing at Sultanahmet which killed 10 people.
For those who are unaware, Sultanahmet is the neighborhood which both the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia call home. Despite being a tourist neighborhood, it is also the heart of Istanbul’s old city. This was a district which we frequented often throughout our trip. This was a district we frequented four times through this trip, and one where I felt incredibly safe.
As a Jew, I have no spiritual connection to the Muslim faith. Some would argue I should have an antagonistic relationship with the religion.
However, there was something truly magical and bewildering about the hearing the call to prayer at Sultanahmet. It was our first day, and I was jet-lagged beyond belief. When we stopped at Sultanahmet right at sundown, we looked behind us and saw the Hagia Sophia.
We looked forward and saw the Blue Mosque. The call to prayer played from both locations, almost in a dueling nature. They were not in sync, but rather one echoed the other. This moment was one of a serenity. This neighborhood was somewhat of a home base on this trip, and a place where we could feel safe and grounded.
The citizens of Istanbul, specifically of this neighborhood, had unfairly been robbed of their sense of serenity and peace.
And so was I.
All photos taken by Charles Dunst/ RISE NEWS.
RISE NEWS is a grassroots journalism news organization that is working to change the way young people become informed and engaged in public affairs. Anyone can write for us as long as you are fiercely interested in making the world a better place.