Friday, October 7, 2011

Istanbul: A Last Word

{on left: taken by me, outside the New Mosque; on right: source}

People say Istanbul is the city where East meets West, but I disagree.  Sure, the city straddles Europe and Asia, and yes, it has both Starbucks and spice markets, but Istanbul to me can only be called a dividing point, not a meeting point.

Head to Eminonu and hang out by the New Mosque for a while, and you will see that the crowds are polka dotted black with women covered head to toe in burkas.  (Not just head scarves, I'm talking the real deal here.  Don't even think about pulling that bottle of wine out of your messenger bag.)  You can feel the eyes staring you down, silently shooing you back to the tourist sites where you belong.  The atmosphere in this part of town is guarded, hostile, even.  But then, take a stroll along the Bosphorous in Besiktas and watch the students hurry past you with their trendy red skinny trousers and matte pink lipstick while you sip an Efes at a trendy cafe.  Take note of the cars parked on the street (they're all Mercedes), the sunglasses worn by the women in the shops (they're all Prada), and keep your eyes open for Ataturk tattoos.  

This disparity among the people, neighborhoods, and lifestyles of this city creates a tension and a sense of instability that is at once invigorating and unsettling.  Being there made it easy to understand how the city has been the hotbed for so many revolutions in its modern history.

On a different level, however, Istanbul carries with it a sense of homogeneity that you don't find in any city in the U.S.  It's the pervasive kind of genetic homogeneity that stems from ancestry and grows through history.  It’s obvious just from scanning the streets that all of these people -- that woman behind the scarf, and that student in the Prada sunglasses -- share blood.  It's in their almond-shaped eyes, their sharp bone structure, their sing-songy voices.  And I am one of them, too.  Those eyes, that nose, that blood -- they are mine, too.  Realizing this was one of the most unexpectedly profound experiences of my life.

There were times when I felt welcomed, pulled into the proverbial family picture by these stranger-relatives.  And there were times when I felt like an outsider who had overstayed her invitation.  In fact, one of the strongest emotions I remember from Istanbul was the discomfort of being stared at.

I am not the kind of woman who gets picked out of the crowd just because of the way I look.  But in Istanbul, among people I should blend in with, I have never felt so noticed in my life.  Everywhere we went, I was looked at – not by men, but by other women, usually the devout covered ones.  These women unabashedly stared at me, heads turning in unison as I walked past them on the street.  It couldn't have been my clothes, as I pointedly dressed conservatively in long dresses and flat sandals, and no outfit I own is worth a double-take.  Was it the fact that I didn't cover my hair or wear the traditional Islamic clothing?  Some kind of moral high-ground kind of thing?  But why me?  There were plenty of women around me showing much more than just their hair.  Out of the 20 million people in that city, what about me would attract any attention at all?  

If I were to venture a guess, I think it was the fact that I look like I could be one of them, but I so clearly am not.  I share their Turkish features in a vague but obvious way, but my language, my attitude, maybe even the way I carry myself betrays the truth:  I am American, through and through.


Amanda said...

It is so interesting to read this. I didn't feel it so much, eventhough at some point I was wearing a short skirt (way above my knees, though with a light sweater) and I also did not see women in Burkas. Most of all when we were there people were very hospitable and welcoming, always explaining this and that and proudly showing us their culture. But I think what you felt (the stares) just might be, like you point out, because of the fact that they recognize that you share blood with them. You know, the first time I saw pictures of you, it struck me "wow she reminds me a lot of Derya", our turkish friend... and then I read that you had turkish origins and thought, well that makes sense. I will send you a pic, it is not so much that you look alike but there is a family air...

Ashley said...

That's so funny that you could tell right away that I was Turkish! I think that things may have changed a bit in Istanbul since the last time you were there because of the religious party that has since come to power in the government. My dad said that seeing all the women in burkas was a big change from what he was used to seeing in Istanbul, and it was quite a difference from Izmir or the coast for sure.