So, I went to Istanbul with my mother. Apart from the US and the UK, I do not think we have ever traveled to another country together. My mother very kindly picked up the tab for the whole trip so I pretty much went along with everything she wanted to do. She had booked us into what she would describe as a “mid-range” hotel. By my standards, traveling, it was ostentatious luxury – we were welcomed by a staff that more or less prostrated themselves in front of us and made us feel like royalty. The glistening bathroom in my room had a separate circular mirror for me to shave in front of and I had hot towels to clean my filthy face. I am just not used to it when I am overseas but I took full advantage of the pampering and enjoyed the exquisite buffet breakfasts in the mornings.
However, my mother, when she travels, is used to doing pre-planned tours, escorted around (sometimes in a convoy surrounded by armed guards) and everything is taken care of to the last detail. I had this sense that she felt a bit frightened doing it solo (I mean “solo” with me) even though we were in the heart of old Istanbul and there was nothing to fear. For example, not long after we arrived, the sky was filled with the regular religious wailing exchanged between the mosques. I had heard this in India (but not nearly as often as I did while in Istanbul) a year ago but I think it freaked my mother out a bit as she nervously said “you really feel like you are in a foreign country over here…” I found the exchange between the Mosques hauntingly beautiful – poetic even, although of course I did not understand a word of it – but neither my mother nor I were happy that the wailing started at sunrise (about 6 AM). In our typically politically incorrect English way, we joked that it would be funny if we both poked our heads out of our windows simultaneously in the morning and shouted “will you lot please just shut the fuck up! Trying to sleep over here!”
Silliness aside, I have never seen a city so uniformly lined with the minarets of Mosques. They are ubiquitous across the skyline everywhere. It is very interesting considering the history. When ‘Constantine the Great’ became emperor of Rome in the 4th Century, he was the first Roman emperor to convert to Christianity (when I think of ancient Rome’s relationship with Christians, I always think of them being mercilessly fed to hungry lions in the Coliseum) and was determined to make Byzantium a new Christian city to fend off the Muslim hordes from the east. The city was renamed Constantinople after him and became the capital of the eastern Roman Empire. Then, almost 1000 years later, the city was sacked and pillaged during the Fourth Crusade by a mob of vicious Catholic zealots. That, of course, did not last and the Ottoman Turks took over and transformed Istanbul into a bastion of Islamic culture. Hence, the ubiquitous wailing Mosques. I write this with no judgement beyond that, as I struggle with my own agnosticism (I want to believe in God), I am always profoundly despairing in all of the human suffering religion has caused throughout our history. But then I listen to the songs between the Mosques and I think how beautiful faith is…
Okay, that was a ridiculous digression. On our first day, my mother and I took a 6-hour cruise up the Bosphorus to the mouth of the Black Sea. It was lovely. I was quite struck by how very prosperous both the European and Asian sides of it looked. Exquisite, multi-colored homes stacked up on the rolling hillsides for miles and miles. I had expected to see much more poverty and desperation. When we got to the mouth of the Black Sea, we got off the boat and climbed to the top of a hill to the ruins of an ancient castle, the name of which I do not have at hand (but undoubtedly built to fend off the Muslim hordes from the east). The view from the top was astonishing and, although I do not usually go in for boat cruises, I was happy I had gone along for this ride.
My mother and I had lunch on a terrace just below the ruins and, as lovely and enjoyable as it was chatting with her, I found myself brooding about religion again. As we had climbed the hill, I had watched a woman in a full, black Burqa struggle up the hill with her husband and son who were both in jeans and T-shirts. I simply do not understand why Muslim women are prepared to put up with that. She must have been so miserable and hot and meanwhile it was perfectly fine for her husband and son to be dressed like Americans. Why? Why do women get such the shit end of the stick in these countries? It is simply not fair or just and, in my view, it has nothing to do with any God.
Alright, after that second digression, the next day, my mother wanted to see the traditional tourist sites (e.g. the Topkapi Palace, Blue Mosque, etc.,) which I joined her for and enjoyed despite the swarms of tourists. Afterwards, we parted ways as my mother wanted to stay in her comfort zone and go on a bus tour while I took off on foot. Istanbul is very easy to navigate as there is a central tramline that you can always get your bearings by and it is not too easy to get lost (although I enjoy getting lost). I followed my way along the tramline to the old ramparts of the city. They were quite beautiful and crumbling on my left but to my right there was the poverty that I had not seen before as I walked deeper into the streets on my way to the Golden Horn. It almost felt like being in India again as kids looked at me wide-eyed and shouted “American! American!” They came and touched me as if I was a rock star even though I am a basic, middle-aged guy from Canada.
Speaking of the kids, when I finally made it down to the banks of the Golden Horn, I played soccer with a gang of them for a while on my shit-bag knees (yes, I’m an idiot for doing so). One of them, who could speak pretty good English, asked me: “what’s it like in Canada?” I looked at him and said, “You know what? Me and my friends, when we play soccer – we play just like you guys do here. In the park with no rules – so it’s pretty much the same”. He looked at me as if to say “you’re full of shit but thank you for saying it”. Problem is, I was telling the truth!
After leaving the kids, I continued down the banks of the Golden Horn and wandered in to see the sights that I will not list for fear of boring you. Unfortunately, there was a 4-day holiday in Turkey so many things were closed. The only big disappointment about this for me was that that the Grand Bazaar was closed. I was really looking forward to that – I had some gifts I wanted to buy for a couple of people there.
At any rate, my mother and I had a “last supper” at the hotel (lovely Turkish food) the night before she went back to Montreal and I went off to Lebanon on my own. She was full of anxiety about me going to the Middle East but I guess mothers are like that even if their sons are fully grown men. The next day, the hotel staff and my mother waved me off in my taxi, my mother’s face a mask of worry.
I must say this, on a final note, every Turkish person I met there (fine, there were not many) were kind, gracious and hospitable and I thoroughly enjoyed their company. I am completely and totally impressed with the country and the people. European Union – let them in!!!