Turkey: Under Construction

It wasn’t what I expected.  Derelict buildings, many abandoned for years, others trapped in disrepair, doors hanging on one hinge, windows missing, exterior walls bare of paint and understructure exposed.  Istanbul—a jumble of yellow taxis jostling for space on the narrow streets, thousands of pedestrians dodging cars and struggling to cross streets without being hit.

It wasn’t Europe any longer, though parts of the city are on the European side of the Bosphorus.  It wasn’t the West.  It was Asia, only the residents pronounced it “Ah-sha,” with a kind of reverential air.  The word sounded foreign, even in their mouths, but for us it was like entering Alice’s rabbit hole, everything turned inside out and upside down.  Under construction.

The rules we’d learned for walking and driving no longer applied—solid lines become broken and vice versa. Red lights mean green.  Stop signs?  Just ignore them.  And cars are built to speed and pass everything on the road.

Carpet salesmen lurk around every corner, repeating their spiel—“You American?  Come to my place for apple tea.  I want to be your friend.”  The press of people on the sidewalks, many aimless.  Men as donkeys, hauling carts laden with watermelons or tomatoes.  I’m describing the Sultanahmet area, the heart of historic old Istanbul, of course, but we had similar experiences everywhere we went along Turkey’s Southwest coast.

Did these experiences turn us off?  No.  They actually made us fall in love not only with Istanbul, but also with the other parts of Turkey we visited, though it took time for the country to work its magic on us.

Before our trip, Turkey had called up images of the Arabian Nights, mysterious to a Canadian-born American.  But once there, the Arabian Nights’ reference faltered:  I didn’t see men wearing pajamas, a towel wrapped around their head, and golden slippers with a curled-up toe.  Many looked like the guys on American streets, wearing t-shirts and jeans, though some, especially the older men, had the kind of groomed mustache I’d expected to find.

Still, this definitely wasn’t California.  It also wasn’t the East either.  Located in such a pivotal area, Turkey has one foot in both the West and the East.  Its historical roots go deep and seem tangled with every other civilization.  Consequently, there’s nothing straightforward or predictable about the country or its people.

It’s been on the verge of becoming a distinct nation since Ataturk took hold in the early 1900s and hammered it into existence.  But the same problems he faced in the early part of the 20th Century still plague the people and the land.  A strong pull exists from the Islamic factions, particularly the more fervently religious ones, to retreat and align themselves with other Muslims rather than with this relatively new place called Turkey.

Yet we left feeling hopeful, the highlight of our time there the conversations and meetings we had with the new “Young Turks,” as important and potentially influential as those young officers referred to as the “Young Turks” in an Ataturk biography.  They hold the promise for the country’s future.