Paul Michelson is won over by Turkey’s colourful characters… I was excited. We were finally packing for Turkey. It was a place I’d wanted to see ever since I’d read the Golden History of the World as a kid. But I was also a little apprehensive. I knew Turkey is no theocracy, but I also knew that it’s 99 percent Muslim and that not all Muslims have been ardent admirers of the US in recent years. So while my wife and I were eager to go, we were a little uneasy about what we’d find.
What we found of course was that we needn’t have worried. Turkey’s a Muslim nation, but it doesn’t march in lock step to the muezzin’s call to prayer. It’s a land of individuals, as diverse, as individualistic, and sometimes as colourful as any people could be.
The Hotelier. Our first few days in the country, we stayed at a hotel just outside Istanbul’s old city walls. The desk clerk was a hospitable guy who spoke good English and offered us a cup of tea as soon as we arrived. Over the next couple of days we stopped by his desk now and then for a chat. It probably didn’t take him long to figure out I wasn’t the most religious guy on the planet. One day as we were heading out just before the afternoon call to prayer my wife and I stopped at his desk to drop off our key. “You off to pray?” he asked, facetiously I suspected. I thought about it for a second. “It’s not going to happen,” I said. My wife, probably in the interest of intercultural harmony, said, “It might do us some good.”
“It might,” I said, “in the long run.” The clerk chuckled. It seemed pretty clear that, though he was most likely a believer, he had a sturdy streak of irreverence.
The Evangelist. After a few days in Istanbul and Cappadocia, we climbed on a bus for Konya, a city of about a million out on the barren Turkish steppes. Two hours into the trip, a young Turkish man in jeans and a skullcap leaned over the back of our seat and offered my wife and I some apricots. “Try them. They’re sweet,” he said, smiling. “Where’re you from?” California we told him. That was probably enough to convince him we could use a good dose of religion. He handed us a pamphlet written by a noted Islamic cleric. “He studied science,” the man said. “He makes a rational argument for God.” I thanked him and said I’d read it. I meant it. I was curious how science and rationality might figure in the tract. He smiled and settled back in his seat.
Over the next few days I read the tract, but I never could find evidence of science or rationality. Still, the proselytizer had been a pleasant guy, and his apricots were good.
The Orthodox. Five hours after leaving Cappadocia our bus rolled into the outskirts of Konya. The mosques, their aluminum domes gleaming in the sun, were an impressive sight. But I was a little nervous. Firmly implanted in Turkey’s Islamic bible belt, Konya was one of the most conservative places in the country. Our guidebook said western women had been harassed there. A hotel clerk had warned us not to drink there. Not only that, but I was lily white, and my wife was blonde. It’s not like we’d blend in. I imagined old men shuffling past us, glaring, muttering epithets in a language that, mercifully, I wouldn’t understand.
The reality, of course, was nothing like that. As our tram clattered from the bus station into downtown Konya, a well-dressed young man walked up the aisle and offered to help us find our hotel. He’d probably seen me glancing back and forth from my map to the passing city trying to figure out where to get off. Later that day, our waiter at a cafeteria helped us find a drugstore and corralled a bilingual friend of his to explain our needs to the pharmacist. The next morning, when we stumbled into a travel agency looking to buy bus tickets, the agent had his assistant take us to a bus company down the street where he helped us make a reservation. In a country where affability seemed like a national character trait, people in Konya surpassed the norm.
The Imam. After three weeks of travel, we stopped for a couple of nights in Selҫuk, a convenient base for exploring the nearby Roman ruins at Ephesus. During the previous two weeks, as we’d made our way west along the Mediterranean coast, we’d occasionally seen white-robed imams strolling through museums studying the exhibits. Typically, these had been bearded, reserved, older men busy discussing some artifact with a retinue of followers. The imam we met at Selҫuk’s Isa Bey Mosque was a much different sort.
Portly, clean-shaven, and cheerful, dressed in slacks, short-sleeved shirt, and sandals, this imam hurried out of his mosque one afternoon just as we were slipping off our sneakers. “You don’t need to take off your shoes,” he said, chuckling. “Leave them on.” He ushered us inside, told us about the mosque, and proudly handed us a full-page picture of himself that had appeared in Condé Nast years earlier. It showed him sitting cross-legged in a white robe, facing the camera with an open, innocent expression. He was thinner then, with more hair. “That was twenty years ago,” he said, giggling.
Skilled in Arabic calligraphy, he asked our names, then pulled out a laminated card, wrote our names in flowing Arabic script, and gave us the card as a present. Needless to say, when he asked us a moment later if we’d like to buy something from his souvenir shop downstairs, we could hardly refuse. Genial, enterprising, and bustling with energy, he might not have been the holiest holy man I’ve ever encountered, but he was easily the most colourful.
The People of Ramadan. Our last week in Turkey coincided with the first few days of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month of fasting and prayer. One hot, humid afternoon my wife and I walked up to Istanbul’s huge, open-air Hippodrome to watch the crowds gather for that evening’s breaking of the fast. Normally, we were careful not to eat or drink in the open, but that day, forgetting ourselves in the heat, we’d bought a couple of shaved ices, walked around for awhile, and found a bench in the shade. My wife finished her ice and tossed the container in a trash can. Before long, a small group of young people in identical blue tee-shirts walked over and asked if they could help us. They were one of several groups of volunteers who roamed the area welcoming visitors.
The kids were eager to talk. My wife asked one of the boys if the fasting was hard for him. “I don’t mind it,” he smiled. “It is the least we can do to give back.” Still sucking on my ice, I began to feel a little conspicuous. One of the girls piped up, “I don’t observe Ramadan.” “You don’t?” my wife asked. “No,” she shook her head decisively. At least, I gathered, I might not be offending everybody.
Ramadan did have a way of making me feel I wasn’t quite with the programme. Occasionally, when we’d drop into a café for lunch, we’d see children devouring an afternoon meal while their fasting parents sat with them, waiting patiently. It made me feel vaguely derelict, as if I had more in common with the pampered little kids than with their upright, disciplined parents. There were, of course, those who fasted only reluctantly. A clerk at our Istanbul hotel told us he fasted alright, but he wasn’t crazy about it. His strategy, he said, was to eat a big meal right before bed so he wouldn’t have to get up to eat before dawn. I’m not sure it worked all that well. Whenever we saw him he looked like he was about to nod off.
Just Like Us. Talking to friends about Turkey one evening after I returned to the US, I surprised myself by blurting out, “They’re just like us.” Thinking about it later, of course, I realised that wasn’t strictly true. Men washing themselves at a long row of faucets before entering a mosque; women sunbathing on an ocean beach, cloaked head to toe in pastel burkas; a sea of people with picnic baskets sitting in a sweltering park at sundown waiting patiently for the evening call to end the daily fast; we wouldn’t see sights like that in our country. But deep down those must have seemed like trappings to me. What defined the country for me was people’s independence, helpfulness, and amiability. In the midst of so much that was unfamiliar, it was those qualities that made Turkey feel, if not ‘just like’ home, a lot more like it, at least, than I’d ever imagined. Paul Michelson