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From Istanbul

By Sahand Rabbani

from Istanbul: Banter with Türk kahvesi

Dear Friends,

I begin writing this message to you on the evening of April 21, 2008. Prior to today--in Vienna, Bratislava, the Czech Republic, and Berlin--I had been traveling with my family. But today, I flew from San Francisco to Istanbul via Frankfurt to begin day one of fifty-five in my solo Europe trip. I intend to spend about 15 days in Eastern Europe and the Balkans before I move on to Western Europe via Italy.

On the flight from Frankfurt to Istanbul, I sat next to two Spanish-speaking women. I had assumed, before I started to talk to them, that they were visiting from Spain. During the flight, one of the women turned to me and asked if I were Turkish (in which language or hybrid she asked I did not grasp, but I understood her question). I replied in Spanish that I was not Turkish. She then asked me, now certainly in Spanish, if Turkey was on the euro.

I was relieved. On that flight arriving in Istanbul, I had no idea what the name of the accommodations were that I hastily booked the previous day, I did not know what the conversion rate on the Turkish currency was, I had no idea how to get to the main city, let alone whether that was even where I needed to go, and, more urgently, I did not have a visa, which I was instructed to buy at the airport (with which currency? from the shifty-eyed visa dealer with the trench coat?). But these women did not speak a word of English or Turkish or any language that even had a chance of being spoken in Turkey. They didn't know the currency. They hadn't even known what the flight attendants had been saying until I started to translate the Turkish-accented English into a combination of broken Spanish and charades. And these women, fresh out of Quito, Ecuador, were going to be fine. And I, too, was going to be fine.

Sure enough, I paid in euros for my visa from a well established visa vending counter and I hijacked a rogue wireless network at the airport to look up the market TRY-USD conversion rate and the address of where I was staying. I withdrew money and found a subway map. Within about an hour, I was in my shoebox of a room in the center of Istanbul.

It is now the second day. Istanbul almost pulled eighty degrees, with humidity. At night, however, the weather is cooler. I am now in a cozy outdoor cafe called Lale Bahçesi, situated in a small underground inset near the majestic Süleymaniye Camii. I sense, from the groups of Turkish youth and the subtle scent of flavored smoke from the nargile (hookah), that this is a popular and hip venue for young Istanbul. I just had a küçük çay (small tea) and am awaiting a Türk kahvesi (Turkish coffee).

Earlier today, I went to the Kapali Çarsi, the grand bazaar: a maze of dim but wide corridors full of rugs, hookahs, watches, pottery, and souvenirs. No words can do justice to the magnitude and denseness of this market. I will show you pictures upon my return.

Afterward, I explored some of the historic sites: the Aya Sofya and the Sultanahmet Camii, which was closed to visitors for prayer at the time, but my Iranian appearances passed me off as a regular customer.

I have developed a strategy for communicating with the Turkish speakers. Since many of them speak English and since Turkish and Farsi share many words, I speak every sentence in both languages. In my run-in with a Kurdish street vendor today, the Farsi served me best as it is mutually intelligible with their native language. In general, though, I have found very few Iranians, and, honestly, the English without the Farsi would do just fine. When I ask the Turkish vendors "Farsi?" they look at me confusedly. Perhaps they do not recognize the name of the language as they may call it something else.

As a side note, at the Frankfurt airport the other day, I ran into some Iranian nationals who were returning to Iran from Equatorial Guinea in Africa to spend their holiday in the motherland. Apparently they have been in Africa for over a year doing some sort of infrastructure building. I considered that random enough to merit a mention. They repeatedly urged me to visit Iran, since I would be so close, but then every time reversed their position by concluding with "actually, don't waste your time." I wonder if they were trying to distance themselves from the country's bad political rep.

Tomorrow is my last full day in Istanbul. Though I have not bought the tickets yet, on April 24, I intend to take the 9.00 bus out of Istanbul to arrive in Sofia, Bulgaria at 18.00. There, I will lose the comfort of the Latin alphabet and the Persian cognates and will put my true linguistic survival skills to test. I have no idea how prevalent English is in the Bulgarian capital, but I will soon find out.

A group of young girls sits at the table to my left. They have their books with them. They have all finished their Turkish coffees and have turned their cups upside down to let the muddy coffee grinds drip down the sides. They will tell each other's fortunes from the shapes in the trails of the grinds. To my right, two men are engaged in conversation while smoking their cigarettes.

Though perhaps I speak daily to many more people during my travels then when at home, I still long for the harfeh del (Farsi for "words of the heart") that we speak among good friends. But I must soon make friends with the beast that is the Cyrillic alphabet. I hope she is kind.


from Istanbul II: Aussies abroad

Dear Friends,

I write to you at the end of the third day and my final night in Istanbul. I had reserved today for tying up the loose ends of my visit, such as checking out the Topkapi Palace and crossing the Golden Horn again for a more thorough look at the northern part of European Istanbul. Indeed, Istanbul is one of few (only?) cities that spans two continents. Countries that do so include Turkey, Egypt, Russia, and Spain.

At any rate, I was purchasing a tavuk döner kabab, a sandwich with shreds of delicious rotisserie chicken meet and lettuce and tomato, when I ran into a sizable group of Australians. I had heard that many young Australians backpack across the world for years at a time, fresh out of high school or in some cases not even having finished it. Many acquire a two-year working visa in the UK through their commonwealth status and buy a one-way ticket to London. Arriving in London, they then look for a job and put themselves up in long-term hostels and earn some pounds for a few months to then leave for the continent and travel for another few. They repeat this for months or years before their dollar savings finally measure in quadruple digits to afford a return flight to Australia.

One of the mates says that he has been traveling since August of 2007. One girl has just turned nineteen. One group has just come from Egypt. Another girl says that because her father is Dutch, she has permission to work in the EU and is therefore hoping to land a job in Greece to earn some money and then spend the summer in Scandinavia. She had received a call about a massage gig on one of the Greek isles. "Which one?" I asked. "Oh, hell, I'd never heard of the place." She secretly resented "the whole two-year working visa in the UK thing." She also criticized American rap, portraying their lyrics so: "Detroit yeah motherfucker!" She proceeded to criticize other aspects of American culture. I think that she did not take kindly to me at first, but then softened up after I emphasized that I was not personally responsible for the US refraining from the Kyoto Protocol. I explained that America is bigger than its rappers and politicians. "I guess we're not one to talk," she conceded, "since Australia only just signed it."

The others were very accepting of my Americanity. They also recognized California as disparate from the rest of the US. I explained that there were many cultural divisions in the US: south versus north, urban versus rural, and the likes. I sang praises of New York, Chicago, and San Francisco.

We are, however, fundamentally the same. We speak the same language and we like the company of open-minds. We like a two-TRY kabab. We have our Mexico with it's Tijuana and they have their Thailand with its Bangkok and its four-dollar massages and two-dollar happy endings.

This week is a particularly special occasion for the Aussies and Kiwis (those from New Zealand): on April 24 it is ANZAC (Australia New Zealand Army Corps) day, the day commemorating the tragic occasion when the Aussie and Kiwi troops were sent to invade the Ottoman Empire in World War I, but bad coordinates led the troops to their doom. Every year, our friends from down under remember this occasion through a pilgrimage to the jagged shores in Turkey where the slaughter occurred. The Turks have been expecting these invaluable Australian tourists; store owners playfully cheer, "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie!" to the passing Aussie crowds who respond, "Oy, oy, oy!"

One of the kind Aussies adopted me into his tour, introducing me to the tour guide as "an American mate who's been traveling for ages." I tagged along and made a number of kind and open-hearted acquaintances to whom I've referred. The tour took us to a swanky rug boutique where we witnessed a demonstration of some impressively sized, decorated, and priced rugs. We finally came around to the Topkapi Palace, and afterward the crowd disbanded. I was on my own again.

Later in the evening, I returned to Lale Cafe, whence I reported the previous night. I ordered a Turkish coffee and a cup of tea and read last week's fiction page in the New Yorker that I had printed in Berlin.

I cannot resist but to mention a few facts about Turkish linguistic history that I find fascinating. My history may be hazy here, but I believe that Atatürk was one of the latter rulers of the Ottoman Empire in the early twentieth century. A reformer, he appreciated Western civilization and endeavored to modernize Turkey, including its language. Until then, Turkish was written in the alphabet of Arabic and Farsi, but Atatürk, in an effort to be European, called for the Latinization of the entire language. From this was born a quasi-Latin alphabet tuned to the Turkish language. Additional letters such as "Ç" (entirely different in pronunciation from the French letter) and the equivalent "S" version (which I cannot type) were added. Also, there is the letter "G" with a u-shaped arc above it and a "Ü". There is an "I" both with a dot and without one. The capital version of "i" has a dot on it, whereas our "I" is the capital version of the Turkish letter without the dot. "Istanbul" is spelled with the former. Thus, in Turkish, the leading capital letter has a dot on top of it. This duality causes some problems when, for example, you try to visit a website with an "i" in the URL. The dotless "I" is located where our English "i" is on the keyboard.

Today, I inadvertently passed through an urban residential complex in my attempt to find the southern coastline along the Sea of Marmara. This area was clearly underprivileged. Despite my dark complexion, my bright orange shirt and backpack betrayed me; I did not belong, but the bands of young boys with their partially deflated soccer balls and the packs of young girls with the triangle rope game did not give me a second thought. Though I did not take a picture of these beautiful alleys and people, for I could not bare to bring this awkward attention to myself, I did take one picture of which I am particularly proud: from an overpass above the highway that runs along the sea, I caught the southern facade of this residential neighborhood with colorful and narrow buildings mated by the clothes-line necklaces of dresses, jeans, and head scarves. Turkish flags run amok in their red simplicity and their white Muslim crescents.

Though Turkey is a secular republic, it is unmistakably a Muslim country. At five in the morning, I am awoken by the citywide loudspeakers atop every mosque that chant their followers to prayer. Many women wear head scarves. Many, however, do not. Even among groups of young women, one finds both. Live and let live.

It is now the next morning, April 24, the fourth day, and I am on the bus to Sofia, Bulgaria. The bus makes several stops along the way so that the passengers can grab a bite to eat and empty their bladders. At the last stop, I found a secured wireless network and tried my luck at the password. I have come to find that many secured networks here have numerical passwords, perhaps because the nonstandard Turkish alphabet and the Cyrillic alphabet used in some of Eastern Europe can cause confusion. Sure enough, I tried a few preferred customers like 123456789 and the name of the SSID followed by a numeral 0 or 1 until I finally got through. With newfound internet access and a few minutes' time, I cached a few pages on the Bulgarian language and was happily on my way. As I finish this email, the bus is stopped at the Bulgarian border. All passengers have their passports in hand. There is at least one American. She teaches English in Turkey. She is going to Sofia to renew her Turkish visa. She will return to Istanbul soon. I, most likely, will not.


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