Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Istanbul... Istanbul

At 7:00AM, 12 hours after leaving Tartous, I made it to a modern looking hotel on top of a hill. Blurry eyed, I stood on a terrace and took a long look at the panoramic view of the Golden Horn laid down for my eyes only. Istanbul was yawning but already awake drinking a cup of Turkish coffee. The smell of spices and cardamon filled my airways with euphoric anesthesia. The enchanting minarets, stilettos piercing the heavens, awakened a docile spirituality I had previously tamed. My mind cried for sleep. My heart begged for a walk. But for a man like me, who doesn't give much thought to thinking, the heart always wins.

Over the years, I have followed with fascination travelers’ accounts of distant cities and faraway places. Istanbul remained uncharted territory although Ataturk airport has served as a transit point for my out of range expeditions on many occasions. A seafarer who has sailed the seven seas and beyond often talked about this magical city as if he were describing a woman he’s utterly in love with. I can easily understand him, for favorite cities are like beautiful women for me too and a return after a long absence feels like being in the arms of one of them. Yet Istanbul is different. Untamed and fierce, dazzling and spoiled, she’s more like an intimidating beauty we often lust for but are too hesitant to loose ourselves to.

The melange of East and West is certainly Istanbul’s most unique feature. Sailing through the Bosphorus, with Europe to my left and Asia to my right, both within swimming distance of each other and connected by two high suspension bridges catalyzed the most magical moment of my seven day visit. This is a city with a dark and bright history of domination. The Byzantines, the Greeks, the Romans, the Arabs and the Ottomans, among more obscure others, have taken turn in invading and controlling Istanbul for its local riches and strategic location. Sure, we often hear and read of claims by other cities and countries of being strategically situated but none come close to be a gate between continents and seas like Istanbul. The Bosphorus provides the only outlet for the landlocked Eastern European countries and those lying on the Black Sea to the rest of the world.

For the empires that ruled the Middle Ages, relinquishing control over the 31 km Bosphorus strait was like strangling themselves to death. More significantly, I believe, it was then that the fire of Western Christian Islamophobia was re-kindled for a second and more everlasting time after the Crusaders forced exodus from Jerusalem earlier. Yet the original fear of Turks and their brutal savagery and the acquired hate toward Islam and its draconian teachings fade in comparison to this second wave of European atrocities committed against Muslims starting from the 15th century onward. Although historically debatable, the invention of the Croissant in France in the 17th century was a gift to Hungarians in celebration of their victory over the Turks. It served as a gruesome symbol, it is argued, of cannibalism practiced against Muslims from as far back as the 11th century, when the first Crusaders invaded the Levant. Count Dracula might be a fictitious character to most but he is based on a real one, Vlad the III of Wallachia (1431–1476), also known as Vlad the Impaler. Vlad’s victims, numbering in the tens of thousands, were mostly the “infidel” Muslim Turks. His favorite execution method was to drive a wooden stake up the rectum of the prisoner. Bram Stoker's 1897 novel “Dracula” about vampires, wooden sticks and fictional blood sucking was acceptable, even entertaining, euphemism of European boorish history to the civilized 19th century West.

I am a wandering writer, my ideas come in bursts in what I believe are moments of truth. In Istanbul, I was assaulted by such revelations. It’s hard to describe the Turks, those I met at least, as either very nice or extremely hardy. They are actually both. Their Ottoman Empire was one of the greatest to rule the world, and like all the other empires before and after, Turkey’s history is plagued by cruelty and blessed by the splendor of the arts and sciences. But Istanbul and Turkey mean more to me, much more.

During my stay my mind clipped, edited and played one scenario only: What If? What if we had democracy in Syria and in the rest of the Arab countries? Turkey is a vision of the future, a country with a troubled history, turning into a military dictatorship then self-transforming itself into a modern, yet very unique democracy. While the entire world is suffering the aftermath of an economic crisis and while Europe has succumbed entirely to its role as second fiddle to the United States, Turkey stands tall and leads its own blazing trail. Its economy is going strong as it has become one of the top global tourist destinations, along with an advancing industry and very efficient agriculture. Sooner or later Turkey will emerge as a superpower. It’s halfway there already. Will the West, the United States and Europe, if they had their say, ever let the Turkish example spread further south? This is the question I wondered about and credited myself with knowing its answer as I was wandering through the streets of Istanbul.

14 comments:

Gabriela said...

I've read wonderful things about Istanbul (Estambul for us), much about facts, dates, names and information like that. But this is the first time I feel the city, even though I've never been there (hopefully, I will some day, who knows?). Thanks for this lovely promenade around a full of life city, in the way only Abufares can do it.
Enjoy being there!

Sean said...

I don't usually like to talk politics too much, but seeing as you've already kickstarted the discussion...

I should certainly think that it is only a matter of time until things spread south and east. Every Southern European country has already had its Ozymandias moment:

Portugal (1975)
Spain (1978)
Italy (1945)
Former Yugoslavia (1991)
Albania (1990)
Greece (1974)
Turkey (1946, with frequent interruptions until recently)

Sure, it was a rocky road for all of them - some much more so than others - but financial crises notwithstanding, they're all *much* better places today.

When it comes to your other neighbours, Cyprus is already there; Lebanon, Iraq and Israel have something approaching democracy (albeit incredibly flawed in each).

It'll happen.

It's perhaps worth quoting Twain:
'Damascus has seen all that has ever occurred on earth, and still she lives. She has looked upon the dry bones of a thousand empires, and will see the tombs of a thousand more before she dies'.

Isobel said...

Oh! Lucky you, Abufares! What a fantastic place to vacation. Frankly, I'm a little jealous! ;) I'm dying to visit Istanbul. I remember studying the architecture, like Haiga Sofia, years ago in Design school. A few years ago a friend gave me a book called The Historian (enchanting read) in which the main characters spent time in Istanbul. The author described in detail the beautiful Topkapi Palace. I finally went out and bought a tour book (Eyewitness books)which whetted my appetite even further. And now, you with your beautifully written, verging (as always) on the poetic, post has sealed my desire to get there. Thank you for the charming tour as seen through your eyes.

abufares said...

@Gaby
You know, with Istanbul being one of the closest European capitals in term of distance I never thought about it as an exotic place. It is, however, one of the most interesting cities I've visited during my travels. You would tremendously enjoy the unique experience of being there. Hopefully, one day :-)

abufares said...

@Sean
I thought about the troubled modern history of these countries over the last few days and I certainly agree with your first list. Lebanon, Iraq and Israel, however, and in my opinion, are not even close. All 3 of them are freakish examples of experiments gone wrong. Or it could be that evil intent and foul play were purposely built-in the experiments themselves. But as you said, politics aside, there is a certain historical inevitability. These are very important times we live in as far as our region is concerned. May we live long enough to see a dream come true.
And, the Twain quotation... what a gem!

abufares said...

@Isobel
Last year, in one of my travels and as I was browsing a used books stall in a flee market, I stumbled on The Historian. The mammoth volume fascinated me specially after leafing through the introduction. I've learned a great deal about Turkey, medieval Europe and the legend of Count Dracula from that fascinating book. And yes, it was in the back of my mind during my visits to the enchanting mosques, libraries and palaces of Istanbul.
You, of all people, would simply fall in eternal love with this city as soon as you set foot there. I hope your dream come true one day and not too far in the future. You could then continue south and honor us with the pleasure of having you in Syria too :-)

Omar said...

Lovely description of a city I have yet to visit, and inspirational ending to the story. I too hope that we catch the democracy bug from Turkey, and start taking lessons from their success story.

In a time of turmoil, one longs for a piece of normalcy, as a simple as reading something that lets your imagination soar and puts a smile o your face. Thanks for the post Abufares.

abufares said...

@Omar
Hi there, time of turmoil it is. To write about any other matter besides what's going on in Syria requires a high degree of concentration. I often find myself unable to do that but my visit to Istanbul inspired me to get out of my shell.

Neetu said...

May This Ramadan be as bright as ever.
May this Ramadan bring joy, health & wealth to you.
May the festival of lights brighten up you
& your near & dear ones lives.

The Syrian Brit said...

Two years ago, my wife and I went to Istanbul.. and we both fell in love with the City.. Its streets and its bazaars, its mosques and its churches its history and its modernity... and your article brought about all those lovely memories...
As for your last question, I believe that you make your own destiny.. The Turks did not wait for anyone to 'allow' them to get where they are today.. they did it themselves.. and THAT is the lesson that Turkey's southerly neighbour needs to take on board...

abufares said...

@Neetu
Sorry for being so late replying to your comment but I've been on the road most of the time lately. Happy Ramadan to you and yours too my friend.

abufares said...

@Syrian Brit
As I said earlier to Neetu, sorry I'm late.
I totally agree with your assessment. It is up to the people to forge their own destiny no doubt but my rhetoric question was more of an explanation to the way the West has been dealing with the situation. Their words and actions are on opposite end of a long and crooked stick.

Anonymous said...

Happy Eid

Haifaa said...

Abu Fares,

Does Istanbul make one long to be a Muslim?