Does it get any better than this?

It was a day for adventure. I knew it. Waking up early – early for me, at least, I took the 8:30 bus to Taksim. My new friend Steph wasn't going to be able to meet me, and so I was on my own. Following the crowd, I stepped off the bus at the last stop, and found myself in Taksim Square. A cacophony of sights and sounds surrounded me; here I was, in Turkey's Times Square.

It was a day for adventure. I knew it. Waking up early – early for me, at least, I took the 8:30 bus to Taksim. My new friend Steph wasn't going to be able to meet me, and so I was on my own. Following the crowd, I stepped off the bus at the last stop, and found myself in Taksim Square. A cacophony of sights and sounds surrounded me; here I was, in Turkey's Times Square.
Where should I go? Streets funnelled off in every direction, ready to take it's visitor on any number of adventures. I turned right. I walked for a short while down a street. Shops and stores and cafés filled the passageways. Every alley had even ore to explore. It was impossible to pay the attention due to each.
Çay. My stomach was now grumbling, and çay and simit fit the bill. I found a quaint little patisserie further down one side street, and in my meagre Turkish, ordered my mind-morning snack.
Simit is a circular bread, covered in sesame seeds, a sort of hybrid between a bagel and a pretzel. They're sold everywhere in Turkey, a staple food for sure. And with my meal being only 1.75TL – hardly over $1 USD – it's not surprising.
But there was much more to discover. Leaving the patisserie, I ventured back into the street, and continued navigating it's twists and turns. I found my way back out into the main square, and saw the one thing that got my giddy before I even stepped foot on the plane here: pigeons. Hundreds and hundreds of pigeons. In an attempt at modesty, I first began walking through the friendly feathered sea. Soon, however, my excitement for the best of me, and my excitement got the best of me, and my walking turned to jumping; the waves were getting bigger. My excitement was rather obviously, and soon one of Taksim's famous pigeon ladies came over to me. 1TL for a cup of seeds was an offer to good to refuse. Within seconds, the seeds were everywhere, the pigeons following. I learned quickly that the higher you threw the seeds, the higher the pigeons leapt; soon I had them dancing at my command. Leaving my feathered troupe for another day, I walked on.
Continuing down the street, I waited for a shop to grab my attention. There were so many, but I knew I would hear one calling my name eventually. And then I found it. This beautiful, dark and dusty, nameless bookshop. With no sign on it's entrance to mark it's place, it was the homeless stacks of books outside it's doorstep that caught my attention.
I crept inside; I could hardly tell whether or not it was even open. An elderly man sat puffing away at his cigarette by the front desk. “Merhaba, hosgeldin” he welcomed me. “Merhaba” I replied. “English? Français?” I asked, hopeful of a common language with this name who was sure to become a new friend. “Yes, little English... Français” he replied. His English was ok, but his French, as it turns out, was non-existent.
Floor to ceiling, the walls were covered with books. While a few were relatively new, most had been published before the first world war. Many dated well into the early 1800's, or earlier. My eyes skimmed over the books. French, German, Spanish, English, Greek, and Turkish, of course. Many were old school books, teaching on the history of any number of countries. One interesting one was a French “Anti-propaganda” (propaganda) book about Palestine. I may go back and have another look at that one. The one that caught my eye, however, was a small, hardcover prayer book. Along with the other religious texts, it was kept in the back corner, and I could have easily missed it. It was no bigger than a moleskine notebook, but it pages were frail and yellowing. The script deceived me at first. It was arabic letters, and so naturally, I assumed it was an Arabic text – being an Islamic prayer book, I'm not sure why it would have been another language. I thumbed through the pages with great caution. This book, I knew, was the one I wanted.
I approached the man again, and asked him for more information about my new treasure. It was indeed a prayer book, from around 1886 (I don't recall the exact year), but it was not in Arabic. The book was written in Ottoman Turkish, which borrows a variation of the Arabic alphabet, and is easily confused for it, to those who don't know the difference. Ottoman Turkish was replaced, however, in 1928, with Modern Turkish. That's when Ataturk came in and, like the great hero he is (“is”, because when you're speaking of Ataturk, the present tense is necessary), rescued the nation of all things Islamic, and along with it, all things Arab. Such reforms included an overhaul of the language and writing system, and adoption of the Latin alphabet. In all seriousness, though, this was an incredible change for the Turkish people. It brought the language to the people in a way that simply hadn't happened before, and literacy rose.
I digress. It was a beautiful book. The price pencilled into the front cover was the equivalent of $150, so it will have to wait to me, back on it's dusty shelf in the corner. I will be back for it, though. It took only crossing the threshold of this little anonymous bookshop to know it would become one of my favourite places in all of Istanbul.
After saying good-bye to the man, now on his 3rd cigarette since my arrival, I stepped out once again into the street. I quickly found a café, and sat down with a steaming hot coffee – extra cream and sugar; some Turks don't seem to understand the Westerners need for such things. I found an empty table on the patio close to the street, and sat down to people-watch, to photograph, and to write. Istanbul is a place of such diversity, so many colors, and backgrounds. It was fascinating to watch the people wander down the Istiklal, imagining their stories, their lives.
The adhan sounded; it was Friday noon, and prayers were about to begin. Some people rushed off to pray, and others rushed off to shop. Such is the dichotomy of this land. After finishing my coffee, I started back towards the main square to catch my bus. Passing on of the many mosques along the way, I spotted a woman and her baby at the entrance, holding a box; I dropped in some alms.
As I neared the bus station, the pigeons once again everywhere in sight, I couldn't help but think “Is it possible for life to get any better than this...?”

Surgeon General's Warning

If Turks are world famous for their cigarette smoking, I'm gaining some of that fame by way of world famous quantities of second-hand smoke...

Flags, veils, and sharia

"Like many, Summeye Kavuncu, a sociology student at Bogazici, has been caught in the net. She complains that her stomach “gets all knotty each time I go to university. I no longer know whether to keep my (head)scarf on or to take it off. The secularists look upon us as cockroaches, backward creatures who blot their landscape.” Few would guess that Ms Kavuncu belongs to a band of pious activists who dare to speak up for gays and transvestites."

As background information for much of what this blog will be about, The Economist offers an excellent primer with it's article "Turkey’s future: Flags, veils and sharia". It's a highly recommended read; I'll offer my thoughts when I get the chance.

çay in the afternoon sun

The sound of the adhan, - the Muslim call to prayer - echoes from one of the multitude of minarets that dot Istanbul's city skyline. I sit here in the afternoon sun, drinking my tea; two şeker, extra dark. Aydan, the youngest boy, is napping, and his older brother Emre is at chess with his anne (Turkish for "mum"); I take advantage of this first opportunity to rest and reflect, the first since my arrival.

It's difficult to give a fair assessment of Istanbul, or Turkey, in such a short time. For one, I have only been here one week. But more importantly - and this is what I am currently struggling with the most - I have no context. For example, I was forming my first perceptions and opinions about Turkish elders during our tri-weekly visits to grandma and grampa's house; how they treated the children, their dress and demeanor, their thoughts and ideas about life... only to be told last night that they are not, in fact, Turkish. Heavens, no. They are most definitely not Turkish, but rather Kurdish, and I must absolutely learn to differentiate. (Admittedly, as little as I know about Turkish-Kurdish relations, I do know enough to know the heavy, sordid truth behind that statement)

Such context - proper historical, and cultural perspective - is essential in a city, a land, entrenched in dichotomies, mysteries, controversy.

I'm anxious to further explore the city centre, see Sultanhamet, spend my lunchtime with the old ladies who feed the pigeons in Taksim Square, spend long, lazy afternoons in Tea Gardens sipping çay with the best of them. Maybe, I'll even get to know some Alevi Muslims, and be able to experience their unique - and gloriously refreshing - worship firsthand.

But alas, all things come in time, and for now, my next glass of tea - my sixth of the day - is calling me...