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.