Wednesday, March 09, 2016

Airports and burqas

A Saudia plane has landed at the same time as ours and the Ataturk airport is a sea of burqas. It’s interesting how something that is designed to conceal the woman makes them stand out so very much. All individuality may be erased but the very black burqa is by no means a subtle presence. We line up behind a group that is predominately women in burqas and it isn’t for several minutes that I realize it’s because there are two female passport agents and one of the them is ours. One man goes toward the booth with three or four women in tow. He hands over the passports and does all the talking. The women wait until prompted and then take turns lifting their veils for the agent to show that they are, in fact, the one in the passport. It seems the children are completely free to do what they like — running back and forth beyond the passport control and back which obviously enrages the Turkish passport agents who cannot communicate their frustration in arabic and therefore gesticulate vigorously with little or no effect. The little girls are beautiful but you can see, by the age of about eleven — I suppose the threshold of puberty — their beauty gets sucked into the vacuum of black.

The tram is a lesson in courtesy. The citizens of Istanbul seem to be competing to see who can get up the most quickly to offer their seat. Not just for the very elderly but for anyone even nominally older than themselves. It is done so quickly and without fanfare. We are sitting on one side of the tram and Henri is on one of a pair on the other. A man asks Henri if he wouldn’t mind moving to another empty seat so that his wife and daughter can sit together. Henri misunderstands and gets up and moves to stand away from the seats. The mother motions to Henri, the father motions to Henri but he’s actually pretty happy standing so he smiles and waves them off. The father, seeing the now unoccupied seat sits down. A move he learns to regret. His wife gives him an earful – appalled that her husband would take this kid’s seat and make him stand with his luggage. The poor guy tries to explain and we watch him move away from his wife and then back, trying to get back into his wife’s good books. For 18 stops she gives him the silent treatment.

When we make it through the ancient crumbling walls marking downtown Istanbul we go by a baklava/tea shop and see packs of teenage girls perched on their stools around a table. They giggle, take selfies and chat. Some are in headscarves, each a different colour to complement their outfit. Offering at least an opportunity to show a little individuality, in Istanbul the headscarf is a fashion accessory. I’m still not sure what a burqa is.

Our hotel, this time, is on the other side of the Galata bridge. We dump our luggage and head back to the foot of the bridge to take a ferry to Asia. The sun is going down, setting fire to the skies behind the endless mosques that dot the skyline. We’re determined to watch the sun set over Europe from Asia. There is so much traffic in the Bosphorus Strait, over a hundred shipping vessels a day on top of the crazy constant flow of ferries bringing people and cars from home to work and back — only part of the remarkable and cheap public transport system that moves the 14 million residents of Istanbul.

As we move away from the shore we watch a line of men on both sides of the bridge yielding gigantic fishing poles and the tiny little fishing vessels getting tossed in the ferry’s wake.

Once on the other side, we hustle to the jetty to watch the sun go down. Vendors are out selling mussels, roasted chestnuts and the ever-present simit, the turkish version of a bagel, more dense, with a twist and covered in sesame seeds.

Feral dogs and cats fight over scraps of food along the water. Couples and packs of teens lounge on the huge boulders lining the shore -- I imagine as protection from erosion. We sit and watch the Strait and the city beyond – dozens of container ships queuing for their turn to unload, cormorants diving for fish and, of course, the setting sun.

I can’t get over the fact that one city straddles this huge, fast moving channel. Constantinople must have had quite the firepower or a wicked reputation in order to defend such a vast territory and stay intact.

As we head back to the ferry terminal, the air crackles with the muezzin’s call. Unlike the ear-splitting cacophony of Morocco, the Istanbul call is a haunting, evocative serenade. It’s hard to imagine why every mosque wouldn’t want their invitations to be as tempting as the ones we hear here. We head back across in time for dinner, the deck of the ferry decorated with empty tea glasses sitting in their dainty, colourful saucers.

We walk through the Karaköy neighbourhood — hip central. The streets are lined with cool cafés, shops with interesting jewellery, mid-century furniture, curated collections of everything under the sun. People are out having drinks or dinner, some sitting on low stools eating from a communal plate — a large flat tortilla-looking thing called a dürüm, heaped with delicious looking spiced, minced beef and peppers.

We have an amazing dinner – yummy mezze, octopus, lamb, smoked fish and lots and lots of a meal component we found completely overlooked in Italy, namely vegetables.

In the morning, with no time to waste, we stride past the early risers downing their morning coffee with baklava or picking up simit to eat on the tram. We’re rushing to the Blue Mosque. We managed to botch the times on our last stopover and missed seeing the inside.

We loiter around ‘til it opens, edging in front of a very enthusiastic Japanese tour group. We stop at the booth to pick up the blue potato-sack skirts that women in pants or short skirts need to wear. Our heads were already covered with scarves I’d brought. We all removed our shoes and placed them in a plastic bag ripped off a roll (think vegetable shopping) and stepped inside. Wow! The volume of the building is mind-boggling. Smaller domes feeding into larger domes feeding into even larger domes dotted with hundreds of symmetrical windows and all of it supported by massive columns. Despite its size and the fact that it can hold 10,000 worshippers, a series of rustic candelabra hang from hundreds of cables about eight feet off the ground, both illuminating the space and bringing the huge vaulted domes down to a very human scale. Every inch of ceiling is covered in tile, in gorgeous contrasting geometrical and floral patterns. The Sultanahmet may be the biggest in Istanbul but it is only one of many impressive mosques that are scattered all over the city. I’m afraid those will have to wait until next time. And there will be a next time.

Çok teşekkür ederim Istanbul!


Kevin and Sally and Family said...

Ahhhh.. so nice to read your travel in prose.

Jenny Wren said...

Wonderful - I feel I am traveling in your pocket with your descriptions. You have packed so much into such a short time, such a rich experience for the family. Welcome home!