The sound of the 6:30am prayer call pulled me from my restless sleep. At first, I was alarmed by the strange sounds and syllables echoing off the street walls. Then I remembered I was in Turkey, a country where 97.8% of its residents are Muslim. I listened to the beautiful voice of the Imam singing “We have awoken, and all of creation has awoken, for Allah, Lord of all the Worlds.” When the prayer was over, Istanbul fell silent again, and I closed my eyes for a few more hours.
Later, I was awake and climbing stairs to the hostel’s rooftop terrace. that overlooked little, white specks of sailboats on the Bosporus and the lush, green hills of Asia Minor. For breakfast, I had cucumbers, carrots, soft cheese, olives, bread, hard boiled eggs, and tea. Two girls, also staying in the hostel, invited me to sit with them. Both were from Kazakhstan and in Istanbul on holiday. We exchanged the normal hostel questions; “Where are you from? What is your next destination? What is your name?” Then came the questions I always get, “how old are you? Who are you traveling with?”
“I’m 20 and I’m traveling by myself”
“Wow! You are so brave.” they said.
After breakfast, I stepped out of the hostel on to a quiet side street. A tiny, tabby kitten sat on the picnic bench and basked in the sun. I moved closer to her, held out my hand, and whistled. She looked at me, pupils growing into giant black saucers. She bolted down the street and disappeared into some bushes.
I continued to walk up the street to the Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. Their structures towered over me like the cathedrals in Europe. The square between the two mosques was crowded. It was Sunday, everyone’s day off. People were sitting on park benches, children were playing in the grass, and street vendors sold corn on the cob and roasted chestnuts. Then, almost as if it was God himself, a loud voice came from the sky and shouted “Allahu Akbar.” I looked around, the noise was coming from the mosque. It was their noon prayer. The people seemed unphased. I wandered through the square and headed down the street to the Grand Bazaar.
“The Grand Bazaar is closed today, but would you like to come and have some tea with me?” said a shopkeeper who sold rugs. I stepped inside the small shop. Colorful rugs lined every inch of the shop. There were stacks of them around the perimeter of the small room. A small boy was sitting on a bench in the shop, playing with an iPhone. He looked about 10-years-old.
“This is my son,” said the man, “he’s learning English, can you try to speak to him?”
“Hello, what’s your name?” I asked the boy. He looked at me for a moment and then ran away. His father laughed, “Sorry, he is shy.”
The man offered me tea. It came in a glass cup that looked like an hourglass. A cube of white sugar and a tiny spoon at on the saucer. Steam came from the cup and the smell of apples wafted through the air. It was apple tea, but it was almost too sweet for me. The man smiled at me and asked me questions about my life. I learned the man was divorced with three young children, all under the age of 10. He and his wife had parted because she talked too much and was always nagging him. Now, he was looking for a nice girl to settle down with again.
“Can I show you my rugs?” he said. He took a few from a stack against the wall and laid them out for me.
“They are very beautiful, but I don’t have any room in my luggage to bring them back,”
“I have small ones for you to look through,” He handed me a stack of rugs that were about the size of a book.
“Pick one and it will be a gift for you” said the man. I looked through the mix of blue, green, and red rugs with interesting patterns and shapes until I settled on a blue and yellow one.
“I like you,” the man chirped as I was browsing through his stacks. Yikes, I thought to myself.
“Do you like fish? I know a great restaurant by the sea that only the locals go to.”
“Sorry, but I’m a little busy tonight.”
“Let me give you my phone number and you can call me if your plans change.”
I thanked him for the tea and asked if the spice market was open that day. He said it was and I left the tiny shop quickly.
When I entered the spice market, I was hit by the smell of curry, cumin, and paprika. Shopkeepers were bargaining with customers, other workers were herding people into the shops. Sweets like Baklava and Turkish Delight were displayed outside of stores and served to the thousands of tourists in the market. I stepped inside one store to take a look. On the walls there were cases of spices, tea, and dried fruits. Like a lion and prey, I was pounced on by an overly eager employee who tried to sell me something. He scooped spices out of the cases and held them up for me to smell.
Then he offered me mint and lemon tea. I took a sip and almost spat it out. The mint was so strong that I could feel it clearing my sinuses like a Halls cough drop. I looked around for a garbage can to throw away the potent tea. The city seemed to lack garbage cans. I noticed people threw their trash on the ground, leaving it for the street cleaner who came and swept it up. I poured the tea down a nearby gutter that had accumulated plastic, food scraps, and dog feces. Then I set my cup on a curb as I watched a street cleaner make his way up the street.
I strolled through the maze of tiny streets where shopkeepers sold childrens toys, electronics, clothes, and cleaning supplies. I started to feel overwhelmed by the masses of people that scurried around like ants. Vendors shouted to anyone who was willing to listen, others were busy bargaining with their customers. The smell of grease and rotting garbage made me feel queasy. I felt worn down from all of the excitement. I walked back to the square where I first passed. By now, people had covered every inch of grass, bench, and fountain ledge. Mothers in hijabs and fathers in dad jeans watched their children run around fountains while teenagers walked through the square, laughing and chattering with their friends. Elderly people occupied benches and snacked on bread, meat, and cheese. For me, it was too much, and like the kitten before me, I left the square and disappeared down a side street and into my hostel.
I woke up in an empty and dark room. When I felt I was ready to face Istanbul again, I headed back towards the labyrinth of twisted streets. The shopkeepers I had seen earlier had started to shut down their stores. There were only a couple of stray dogs and cats that were digging in the trash. I started to feel the hüzün Orhan Pamuk described in Istanbul. The hüzün is a deep melancholy that falls over the city in the evening. Pamuk says this sorrow comes from the fall of the great Ottoman Empire and the decline of a great city. I tried to imagine what the city must’ve looked like before the fall of a great empire. Mosques like Hagia Sophia and Şehzade would have been bright, shiny, and well maintained; buildings without chipped paint, and sidewalks without cracks or holes. The streets would have been clean and free of trash. I still saw remnants in the fishermen who set up their poles off the Galata bridge, or the men with mustaches in cafes that sipped tea and smoked shisha.
I found a place to have dinner. I took a piece of my steaming beef stew and tossed it to the hungry cat at my feet. It purred graciously and begged for more. “Her name is Aslan and she has kittens,” said my waiter with a wide, flirtatious grin.
“My name is Habip, do you like apple or black tea?”
“Black tea,” I replied.
Habip brought me black tea which I sipped slowly, savoring its bitter flavor. He sat down in the chair across my table and started chatting. His duties included standing outside the restaurant, trying to bring in customers.
“What do you like about your job?” I asked.
“I get to talk and interact with people. I’m also learning new languages, I can speak about five or six well enough.” he said.
“Is it hard or discouraging when you can’t attract any customers?”
“Yes, but it’s usually because of the weather. I try to remember the good days.”
Then he jumped from his chair, grabbed some menus, and watched a group of people walk up the street. “Looking for something to eat? We got kebabs, lahmacun, and döners,” he yelled. I watched intently as the group came over to look at the menu while Habip tried anything to convince them to come in. Finally, the group entered the restaurant, he had caught them like a fish on a line. He looked back at me and winked as I stared in disbelief.
Habip came back and sat down at my table. “Do you like chocolate cake?” he asked. I said I did. He ran inside the restaurant and came back with a warm bowl of gooey chocolate cake. “A gift for you,” he said. This was a gift, I gladly accepted.
“Do you want to go for a walk after I get off of work?”
“Sure, where do you want to go?”
“We can go to my favorite club under the Galata Bridge.”
I sat at my table while Habip finished the rest of his shift. He kept bringing me black tea, and when he had a few minutes to spare, he would sit and talk to me. After he finished work, we walked together down the dark streets of Istanbul. The restaurants that were bustiling during the day had closed for the night. The busy square had quieted down and only a few stragglers remained.
We arrived at the club, the outside had floor to ceiling glass windows. The air was filled with a hazy smoke coming from the shishas. The music was so loud I could feel it in my chest, and people were dancing with the red, blue, and purple lights that lit up the room. Habip and I ordered some beer and sat in a corner booth. A Turkish song came on and the club erupted into cheers as people started doing a Turkish dance.
“Do you know how to dance this way?” I asked Habip.
“A little,” he said.
“Can you teach me?” I asked.
Habip stood up and started to move his feet in swift, graceful motions. The dance seemed simple, but as I tried to copy them, I looked awkward. The moves aren’t fast or complicated, but I thought it required a certain amount of grace that I didn’t have. Habip’s arms, feet, and hips moved together elegantly. Everybody else on the dance floor seemed to have it down as they jumped and pranced with each other. They yelped and hooted and clapped to the beat of the music. I was lost, but I almost didn’t care. I watched the people dance for the rest of the song.
When the song was over, we finished our beers and left the club. It was almost three in the morning when Habip walked me back to my hostel.
The next morning I sat at the picnic table outside my hostel and waited for Habip. The night before he had asked if I wanted a tour guide for Istanbul and promised to take me to his favorite sports. However, the sky was threatening rain and the city was like a wind tunnel. As I sat there waiting, the small tabby kitten came out of hiding to sit by my chair. I held my hand out and she sniffed it. When she decided I was safe, she nudged my hand and demanded me to pet her. Then the kitten jumped into my lap and purred. I continued to pet her silky fur as she sat in my lap and purred. Habip turned on the street that led to my hostel. I said goodbye to my new furry friend and promised I would come back later. Then Habip took me into the city.