Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Hayye ales Salah - Let's go to the mosque....

One cup of coffee and you remember it for 40 years - That is a Turkish proverb to live by, shared by my friend Moses over apple tea outside his carpet shop. As Moses said, "Familyship, relationship, friendship, these are all most important to us in Turkey..."

In the end it is these moments that last and it is perhaps the greatest gift of travel, moments shared with others that stay with us, like hearing a new friend, Ali, a reciter of the Koran, speak passages aloud to me like poetry and translate the haunting sounds of the call to prayer that I hear in the streets of Istanbul every day...

As Professor H. A.R. Gibb has said about Muhammad and how the reading of the Koran affects the human heart, "No man in fifteen hundred years has ever played on that deep toned instrument with such power, such boldness, and such range of emotional effect."

Here is Ali's transliteration for me and his literal translation of the call to prayer that comes five times a day:

Allah Ekber - God is great ~
Eshedu en lalilahe illallah - There is no one like God ~
Eshedu eme Muhammad un Rusulluldai - Muhammad is the person like the men God wants from us ~
Hayye ales Salah - Let's go to the Mosque ~

I met Ali near the Grand Bazaar when I asked for directions to the whirling dervish show; he walked me there, then spent an hour and a half telling me stories of the miracles of the world from the Koran.

Though only 22, Ali was full of knowledge and stories. He said according to the Koran if we could hear the sound of the world turning we would explode.

He talked about the two moons that are part of Islam, although we can only see one here on earth, and that the second moon is also a miracle - the crescent moon of course is featured on the flag of Turkey as a symbol of Islam.

He said that God knows how many breaths you will take in your life - it is predetermined - and for that reason he said I might notice that the Turks breathe deeply and slowly! Make your breaths last and extend your life... This is one of the best reasons I've heard so far to breathe deeply!

My friend Ismail asked me what Turkey is famous for and when I said, "Turkish delight? bellydancing?" he answered, "Turkish hospitality." Ismail spent an afternoon showing me the Süleymaniye Camii or Suleymaniye mosque, which was built in seven years, from 1550 to 1557, by the great architect Sinan for Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent.

The night before, we smoked a nargileh and drank raki at his friend's courtyard bar in Sultanahmet - before that I'd been out dancing at a local bellydancing show by a fiendishly beautiful blond dancer who rippled her sinewy body in surprising and sensual S-shapes - I want to dance like that I thought! I'll keep practicing my bellydancing so inshallah someday I can... She did pull me up to dance with her which was fun...

Another favorite moment with Ismail, who works in hospitality managing a restaurant in Sultanahmet, was when he told me, "I can say I love you in ten languages," and then proceeded to share each one with me. He spends so much time with tourists that he's learned key phrases - such as that one! "I love you" in Turkish is "seni seviyorum."

I packed a lot into my eight days in Istanbul, with the help of my friends. The hammam (Turkish baths and massage where they scrub, soap down and rub you!), multiple mosques, a boat cruise down the Bosphorus, dancing in nightclubs in trendy Taksim night after night, climbing the winding cobblestone hills to take in the panoramic views from Galleta Tower, even dinner in some charming historic neighborhoods frequented by the locals, so off the beaten path...

My dear friend Seref from the Kennedy School showed me around town and also loaned me his friends as guides. His friend Mehmet and Mehmet's son Birkan took me to dinner at Ulus, perched high on a hill above the Bosphorus with spectacular views - We then went for Turkish coffee in Bebek, a charming Istanbul neighborhood frequented by locals, and drove along the length of the Bosphorus.

The Bosphorus itself is fascinating, a narrow strait that links the Black Sea to the Marmara Sea and that separates the European from the Asian side in Istanbul, the only city in the world that spans two continents.

Drinking our Turkish coffee overlooking the Bosphorus, Birkan taught me more Turkish slang, including "Wassup?" (Nasil gidiyor?) and "Take care of yourself" (Kendine iyi bak). My Turkish friends loved it when I pulled those out in conversation!

I love the convergence of worlds that travel brings, like hearing legends about the famous castle that is a historic landmark in green Slovenia from my new Slovenian friend Bruno, who was also staying at my hostel, as we ate kebab (loaded with sauce, for 1 lira only! or about 60 cents...) in Taksim at 4 a.m. with a hazel-eyed Brazilian engineer, Cassiano, a British rugby player named Will, a posse of Aussie friends all from the hostel, and local Turkish friends... The world comes together around kebab.

I think my favorite night of the trip was when I walked from Ortakoy, a charming districts of cafes, restaurants and shops along the Bosphorus that the locals frequent, to Arnavutkoy, which is one of the most beautiful little places I've ever been on earth! The coastline curves along the Bosphorus and along the sea curve where the fishing boats dock is a row of four and five story gingerbread Victorian homes, like something you'd see in old New England or San Francisco...

There is a canal in this section of town abutted by restaurants full of cafe tables with red and white umbrellas and full of families and couples enjoying the evening along the Bosphorus... I dined on the outdoor rooftop terrace at Garga, a famous restaurant with pictures of its visitors - Brigitte Bardot, Alfred Hitchcock - lining the walls.

My spinach salad with orange slices and walnuts and a glass of house wine only cost 15.50 lira (about $10 USD) and the sunset view was free... It was one of those moments of feeling like I am in paradise when I travel, since after all paradise can be something we create on earth, I believe...

It is such a gift to have these moments, small miracles, when the rest of life can feel hellish on hustling, bustling, busy, cranky days... We all have some of those as well. It's a gift to simply enjoy beauty and be in the flow of life, to take it slowly and enjoy the simple pleasures. This has been one of the great gifts of my travels so far...

I was sad to leave Istanbul although I'm happy to now be in Athens, staying at the home of my dear friend Xenia who lives in Papagoy, a suburb of the city. From her rooftop terrace you can see the sunset - I watched it tonight and understand what she meant when she talked about the Golden Age here.

Xenia is a career diplomat, currently posted in San Francisco as Consul General for nine western US states, and she is trained in history and archaeology - a beloved friend of mine and the perfect Athens guide! She pointed out the mountains that you can see from her terrace, next to the Acropolis - beyond that, the sea.

Here in 480 BC the Greeks defeated the Persians to start the golden age of civilization. How fitting I thought as I watched the sky of gold tonight - I do think the highlights of Greece will include learning more about its incredible history, which shaped Western civilization and culture in so many ways, and the quality of the light.

I think Greece for me will be about the way sunlight shines on the white buildings and blue sea, the luminous and bright quality of the white and golden light. Xenia said this tonight as well, that the quality of the light here literally helped shape civilization because when the quality of the light is clear, the quality of the thought is clear.

She said that here, "the Gods are brilliant and sparkling, everything is sparkling," and this creates clear and brilliant thought. It is easy to see already how one could be inspired by the light of Greece...

I look forward to seeing more sunsets and sunrises here and to learning more about Greek history and civilization. It felt fitting that I left Istanbul at sunset - I had arrived there the first day at sunrise - to complete the circle.

Istanbul is still haunting to me and I know I'll return. I learned a lot there as well, including fun Turkish phrases, and how to navigate when the Turkish hospitality becomes overly friendly, as it can, especially for a Western woman traveling alone. It can wear you down if you allow it to - the attention is non-stop and not always wanted.

Honestly I was feeling a bit jaded by the end by it all, despite being enamored when I first arrived, perhaps like a lover whose infatuation has burned itself out after nonstop passionate days and nights - Istanbul was like that for me.

By my last days there however I decided to take it for what it is worth and deal with it when needed just by ignoring unwanted attention and saying no - simple, right? There is so much that is good in the warmth and kindness of the Turkish people, their willingness to drop everything to show you their beautiful city and to make you feel welcome, that I didn't want to focus on the negative.

My advice for traveling in Istanbul would be - ignore the men on the street when you need to because they will pay you too much attention - which always starts with, "Can I ask you just one question?" - but also be open to some new friendships and to what you will learn from the people there.

My trip would not have been half of what it was without my new Turkish friends who taught me language, culture, history and took me to the out of the way places that aren't highlighted in the guidebooks.

I left exhausted but exhilirated after days of being barraged with attention on the streets, days of drinking in incredible and seemingly inexhaustible beauty, days of practicing my Turkish and dancing 'til 4 in the nightclubs of Taksim... What a trip!

Greece for me has been replenishing so far - A thunderstorm this afternoon meant it was not the perfect day for touring the Acropolis, so I rested, caught up on email and organized myself for the coming days. Tonight- dinner in the Old City at the foot of the Acropolis with Xenia and her husband Kostas and perhaps meeting up with my friend Konstantinos afterwards... More on Greece soon!

© Lisa Powell Graham 2006

36 comments:

Cindy said...

I am overwhelmed and speechless by your travels and writing thereof.

Sheer poetry.

Carry on, young traveler...

b.ferral said...

... i love the breath story... it is brilliant -- as are you miss lisa

your travels and sharing is wonderful!

Jak said...

... i love the breath story... it is brilliant -- as are you miss lisa

your travels and sharing is wonderful!

sultanahmet said...

Great Post
Great Pics
Thanks for sharing.
I will go to Istanbul.

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