I've had many friends tell me that Istanbul is one of the greatest cities in the world. Now, I can see why they say that. From the start, the international flair was there. On my bus from the airport to Taksim, the city center, I eavesdropped on two perfect strangers sitting in front of me. One a Russian, and the other a Turk. They spoke in English about all things from soccer to the current political turmoil in the Ukraine to the young Russian's schooling in nearby Cyprus. The stage was set. My eyes and ears were open.
When I arrived in Taksim, I jumped in a cab to meet my friend, Allen Hulsey, at an event he was playing nearby. I ended up at this private gathering of local bartenders who had recently decided to have a community night where they ate and drank together. Allen was the entertainment, sponsored by Jameson Whiskey. The only English speakers were Allen and the Jameson rep, Memet, a Turk who studied at Miami. This didn't matter. I was warmly welcomed with smiles, handshakes, delicious food and Jameson. And, of course, music has a language all its own... one that everyone speaks. It was a great first night and it ended on the couch of Allen's friend, who was hosting us both, talking about philosophy, music, and our crazy vagabond lives into the wee hours.
One of my goals for this trip was to experience the Muslim culture of the city, which was new to me. Of course, I have many indoctrinated ideas about Islam that I know to be highly speculative. So, the next day I traveled to the Blue Mosque and, for the first time, set foot inside a mosque. As is the case for many old Christian houses of worship, the art and architecture are beautiful. I carried my Dr. Martin boots, the ones I've worn everyday for the last nine months, in plastic bags given at the entrance where I was prompted to remove them. Head wraps were given to the women who did not have them as were body wraps for the women who had exposed legs. The experience was mild, warm even, not much different from walking into a classic cathedral further west. I left with little more feeling than the fulfillment that I'd scratched something off my bucket list. The next step, the real cultural experience, would have to wait. The communal days of worship were on Fridays. I wouldn't be in Istanbul then.
Muslim culture and influence are a major part of the city. That is apparent in the mosques that densely populate it, their beautiful spires shooting into the sky everywhere. This isn't too dissimilar from where I grew up in Dallas, TX, albeit crosses are mounted on the towers instead of crescent moons. At certain hours of the day I was intreagued by the calls to prayer over loud speakers. These are not in Turkish, but Arabic. If you remove your ideas and indoctrination about it, it is a kind of appealing a cappella song.
Music is a big part of the city too. This is especially revealing through the life of Allen, who had another gig that night at a rock and blues club. I arrived to find a thoroughly American scene. Pictures of rock legends like Hendrix and Joplin graced the walls. A giant Hwy 66 sign hung from the middle of the venue. It was here that I met Esin Iris, charming, hot as hell, born and raised in Istanbul. A singer and writer, she spoke perfect English, and we had a nice conversation over Allen's Americana set. At one point, she snatched my phone away and entered herself as a contact. "If you can't reach Allen, don't hesitate to contact me," she said.
The next day started abruptly. I was too much on the outside to comment on the details, but the reality became that Allen and I needed to leave the apartment we were staying in. I had two more nights in Istanbul and was now unsure of where I would go. Allen assured me that all was fine and he was alright. In a matter of hours, we met with a friend of his who, with one email via his iPhone, got me a room at a fancy hotel just off of Taksim Square. We spent the rest of the day and well into the morning with this friend of Allen's. I would come to find that this day was the eve of his 19th birthday, and that his father was a Turkish business mogul, but he a German national. A computer wiz far beyond my understanding, he already had a thriving e-security business out of Berlin. Wow.
We spent most of our evening at a hidden gem of a bar molded after the Prohibition Era. The bar tender, Alex, was an ex-pat from San Diego who stirred up killer cocktails. As if this day needed any more amazement, we made friends with a particularly interesting stranger. We welcomed him to join our party and, as it turned out, he is British photojournalist Ayman Oghanna. This is a man who has spent his young career in the war zones of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. I was immediately engrossed. Several hours and many cocktails later, I asked him about the beaded bracelet around his wrist. Without hesitation, he pulled off the beads and gave them to me. He explained that he got them in Eastern Turkey. They are prayer beads (pictured below). He told me each time things got rough (which I could tell by his portfolio is a regular thing) he would think of something he is grateful for with each bead. Now, it belongs to me. I then took the bone bracelet off my wrist from Estes Park, CO, and fastened it to his. The exchange was complete. Eventually, we all went our separate ways. Our youngest compatriot, now officially 19, paid the substantial tab. But the night wasn't over for this teenager and I. He invited me over to his home for a nightcap. There, overlooking the Bosphorous and the bridge linking Europe to Asia, we listened to music and discussed political theories like Liquid Democracy. The sun was coming up by the time I returned to the hotel to call it a day.
My final day in Istanbul was a fairly uneventful one. Some good Turkish food, a visit to Hagia Sophia and the Grand Bizarre, and, of course, a little music. I got to see Esin do her thing and, via Allen, had the pleasure of discovering Turkish songwriter Selim Saracoglu live. I didn't make it a late night. I had a 7am wake-up call to catch a flight.
When I say that I went to the edge, I am being a bit figurative, but quite literally I mean the edge of The West. For centuries, Istanbul, once Constantinople, has been a gateway. It's borders encompass both Europe and Asia. It's geographic location makes it the city it is, a crossroads of culture that is thriving today. It is a hot bed of politics and ideology. Its Prime Minister is currently embroiled in a corruption scandal and is infamous for the crackdown during the Diren Gezi protests last summer. It is a city (and perhaps a country) that struggles with its identity. Many of the young, liberal people I encountered expressed discontent over the Muslim population, a couple even out right saying it's the city's biggest problem. I can understand that. In my home country I am often frustrated by the political sway and presence of the ultra-conservative Christian right. But I must take a step back.
As I was riding to the airport via public transit, a Muslim couple sat next to me. The woman was fully covered in a black burka. As we came to one of the more picturesque parts of our bus journey, she whipped out her iPhone and commenced with snapping photos. I couldn't help but smile. Are we really that different?
Allen and I had a lot of great conversations over our four days together, but one stands out in this case. For a long time I have been thinking about my own self-righteousness, the trait that makes me (or anyone) think they are an authority on right and wrong. Fact is, I'm not... how could anyone be, in a world as diverse as ours, in a universe as vast as ours? So, as hard as it is, I try to let go of that self-righteous inclination and instead move in the a direction of the one value I hold most dear: love.
Istanbul is a city full of love. As I ponder the gifts it gave me, I feel it, pure and simple. I grasp the beads around my wrist and I am thankful. As I appreciate the tradition handed over to me, I remember to respect the Muslim I know little of and the Christian I know much of. Though I am in a category like my artist brothers and sisters who push boundaries and challenge traditions, I am well aware that I do not have all the answers and there is so much I share even with the most conservative human. We all want to feel love, to be in love, however it is individually defined. Do I get angry? Of course. Am I capable of hatred? Unfortunately, yes. But I try not to give in to these emotions as they are contrary to love and move me away from that universal, ultimate pursuit... the one for happiness.
I was half dead when rose from my wake up call at 7am. There was a text from Allen. "Make sure you get the poster I left for you at the front desk." Turns out, Allen had gone back to the venue where Selim had his show, took down one of the posters and had him sign it for me with a personal note (you can see it below, though smashed a bit from my travels). It was a classy gesture from an old friend and one I've yet to officially meet, one that suggests the spirit of Istanbul, in my experience... a city of the world that meets you with open arms.
Funny memory of Istanbul: I got called Brad Pitt at least five times. I guess all us blond, square-jawed white-boys look the same. Kinda racist. Kinda awesome. I mean, if these attributes alone make me the mirror image of Hollywood's leading man, I'll take it. In passing, I said to a group gawking at me, "I'm here to invade Troy". It took a minute, but they burst into laughter once they got it. Question is: do you? Maybe I should move to Istanbul. I'd be a bigger hit than the Trojan horse. Of course, an inflated ego is a bit of an Achilles heel.