Wednesday, August 18, 2010

On the Bosphorous, Istanbul at sunset

It is difficult to describe the warmth and friendliness of the Istanbullus, and it’s even more difficult to put into words the breathtaking, but somehow heartwrenching commuter ferry ride across the Bosphorous from Karaköy or Eminönü to Kadaköy. As we travelled from Europe to Asia, across waters that have supported the passing of thousands of years, from Romans to Byzantines, Ottomans to Turks, waters that enabled trade, commerce, and pleasure since the Middle Ages, we slipped with ease into the city’s daily life. Contemporary Istanbullus are not so different from commuters anywhere: they read the evening paper, talk on cell phones, listen to ipods, watch us with fascination, the intruders to their ancient world. They might stare, but never with any obvious disdain. On the contrary, the man who circulates with tea treated us as he did all the other customers, and two men spoke to us one night as we returned home from Kadaköy after dinner: they were interested in where we came from, what we were doing, how six of us from four different countries could possibly know each other. I was nothing but charmed by the locals of Istanbul.

The city’s magnificent skyline is another story. It’s complicated. As the sun sets, as it rises, and even in its midday intensity, the sun is the exclamation mark that asks us to look at this city over and over again. In fact, the sun and the light over the Bosphorous will ensure that we never look away, that for generations to come like those that have been, we will notice the magic and mystery of a restless, forever unexplained world. As the city’s skyline cuts a dramatic figure against the setting sun, on its way from yellow to orange to red, it is not only eerie and mystical, but also, somehow, devastating. In the serenity onboard, sipping tea, watching the waves as they chop against the side of the ferry, we look at that skyline and we remember the centuries of injustice: the power struggles, occupations, religious persecution, even when the city was at its most powerful. And we wonder where these social imbalances are today, in a city that clearly has other things on its mind.

This is a city in which human rickshaws are still a reality, where poverty, homelessness and unemployment are inseparable from a superb cuisine, ornate mosaics, and magnificently domed halls that serve as steam baths for the wealthy. With all its dichotomies, Istanbul is a city that, despite what hearsay may claim, will never be admitted into the European Union. Turkey is a country in isolation, and as gatekeeper of the divide between Europe and Asia, it is neither European nor Asian. It is not Christian or Muslim, neither Western nor Arab, filled with synagogues and churches, wanted by no other, yet in good relations with all. It is said that the growing size of the Turkish flags that adorn poles at every possible juncture is the measure of the shame of the Turks, their shame at isolation and rejection despite the grandeur and longevity of their past. The enormous crescent moons and stars have less to do with strength, power and the age of country and culture, and are said to reflect the Turkish need to hide the shame of the people that nobody wants.

In a city filled with dreams and fantasies that are caught by the haze and humidity as it hovers over the skyline, a skyline defined by minarets, mosques, towers and palaces, it’s easy to imagine day to day life might be difficult. And this difficulty is somehow made visible and audible in the very magic of the sun, sea and clouds as they mysteriously fill the sky over the Bosphorous Strait. There is nowhere in this world quite like Istanbul. And there is nothing in Istanbul quite like being on the ferry from Europe to Asia at the end of the day.

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