In the Midst of Muslim Men: Travel Narratives in Istanbul
Note: I am posting this essay to ask my WorldPulse sisters (and brothers?) to help me with my writing. I need to ask for your comments and suggestion to make my essay better both in sense and structure, to make it more interesting, more creative, and more artistic. This essay is one the seven essays under the aforementioned title. I am writing down some travel notes about the few places I had an opportunity to visit and Istanbul is one of them. This is my attempt to combine my physical and metaphysical travel in a series of essays.
To give you a little background, I was one of the 30 young women chosen by AWID (Association for Women's Rights in Development) to participate in a conference on Religious Fundamentalisms. While the weight of the discussions fell into women's rights under Muslim traditions, I had a great opportunity to meet 7 gentlemen, all of which were Muslim guys in Istanbul. I thought of writing about them in my travelogues. The one you will read below is the first one I wrote, which I also wrote just this morning. This essay is already a result of my unconscious, since I wrote it from memory. If you would like to help me edit my essay, I'd be delighted. You may also email me personally for your suggestions: kate_alyzon (at) yahoo (dot) com. I look forward to reading your suggestions. Thank you.
Here it is: ( I hope I don't bore you with this)
Trekking my way to the Blue Mosque alone, a guy in his late 20s approaches me. His skin color is that of a caramelized sugar, bright and deep-set black eyes, and bushy eyebrows. His arms are quite hairy. He is relatively thin compared to the other guys around, and he is about 5’6 in height. He asks me if I need a tour guide because he is a tour guide and he owns, together with his uncle a travel agency. I just shake my head and hasten my walk toward the mosque. He keeps on asking me about my name, where I come from, and my age. I just stay silent to give him a signal that I won’t talk to a stranger.
“Miss, I’m not going to hurt you. You are walking alone. Nobody will take your picture.”
“I can take care of myself.”
“I know. I mean, I can take your picture.”
“There’s no need. Thank you.”
But then he follows me still. I don’t know if that should give me a panic or not but it’s broad daylight and policemen, like tourists, are everywhere too. I remain calm as I always opt to do. My friends, my co-participants in the conference on Religious Fundamentalisms left already when I got down the reception. They probably thought I had left them and I couldn’t find anyone to go out with so I decided to walk around on my own.
When I enter the walls of the Blue Mosque, he comments on my shawl and tells me that the color is nice and pink seems to match my personality. My mind is divided into listening to what he is saying and what my eyes are looking at, the towering six minarets. He says, “You should take your shoes off and put them inside a plastic bag.” “Ok, thanks.” He adds, “I am not allowed to enter because of my ID. I will just wait for you outside.”
Not minding on what he’s said last, I come inside with the heart like Alice entering the world of magic. This is the first time I have ever entered a mosque, and it’s not an ordinary mosque, it’s historical and magnificent. It is as if light is trapped in this building. It is so bright inside; and the light dances to the well-decorated tiled walls of mostly white, blue and turquoise. The plant and flower motifs on the tiles could well live long, the fact that they are given enough light to warm them, so to speak. The domes create a kind of movement inside and outside the mosque; you can imagine them as the whirling skirts of the dervishes. And by looking up long enough to the ceiling, you will feel as if you are entering a kind of trance. I am so mesmerized that if my silence is translatable to a soulful prayer, I could have finished three rounds of the Muslim prayer beads. I am inside a masterpiece. Every detail inside the mosque captures you with great élan.
A sudden tug in my dress brings me back to my normal consciousness. A little blonde and blue-eyed girl, about 2 years of age, flashes a big smile at me. She says hi and giggles. Her mom runs after her and apologizes to me. Her mom is also blonde and blue-eyed, but unlike her daughter who has curly hair, the mom has short straight hair. She has a shoulder bag, a stroller for her baby, and her digital SLR camera hangs around her neck. “I can take the picture of the two of you, if you like.” I suggest to her. “Oh, wonderful!” She beams. We carefully choose angles and spots where we can take pictures, as there are lots of people inside. We review the shots I’ve taken and she is so delighted to see them. Her daughter giggles whenever she sees her pictures. “Nice shots. You have quite an eye.” “Wow, thank you. But it’s not me; it’s this place and your marvelous camera.” She thanks me again and we part our ways.
Already feel blessed at having entered a holy place, and met a nice blonde mother and child; I cannot seem to cover the smile on my face. Absent-mindedly, I hardly notice that right in front of me, the “tour guy” I met an hour ago, is smiling back at me.
“Did you like it there?”
“It was fantastic!”
“Please, let me take your picture so you will have a memory in this place.”
I hand him over my camera and then stand right in front of the Hippodrome, where he takes two shots of me.
“Here’s your camera. See, I mean no harm. Where are you going next?”
“Ah. Are you a student?”
“We all are.”
“Nothing. I’m with friends, actually. We’re here for a conference, and today is our free day also my last day.”
He accompanies me until the entrance gate of Hagia Sophia or Ayasofya.
“I will be back after two hours,” he tells me.
“No. You don’t have to.”
“Yes, I don’t but I want to. See you later at the entrance.”
I’m really surprised by his attitude. I don’t know what he wants from me, as I’ve already told him I only have this day to enjoy the sites and therefore cannot afford to avail his travelling services, especially the afternoon cruise in an island somewhere bordering Greece. He does not seem to cause alarm on my part though. I don’t feel scared or threatened by his ensuing of me. He feels like a nice guy and he talks in good English.
Hagia Sophia for me seems like a living myth. I only read about it in history text books which I believe all history teachers should give justice to, by making history an interesting moving story or stories, rather than a stagnant boring collection of facts. It is after all, the 8th wonder of the world as commended by UNESCO World Heritage. It cannot be the “Mother of All Eastern Churches” for nothing. It is grand and the architecture is ingenious; a bold attempt to show the inter-connectedness of heaven and earth, of God and men, a technique called by Ptolemaeus as analemma. I can only think of it as a metaphor since I don’t quite understand its architectural technicalities. The church, now museum, is a combination of Islamic and Christian artistry. Remnants of great Ottoman and Byzantine empires are well encapsulated in this magnificent and glorious building. The church is huge; and there are several doors that are intricately embossed, carved, etched, sculpted, and decorated. Some of the doors are made of hard woods, some are made of marbles. The spherical part of the building, where paintings and mosaic are found, is predominantly yellow or gold in color. It is glimmering from the inside. Inscriptions of sacred texts are also found in the interior. The arches are almost labyrinthine to me, a series of an almost never-ending passage, and the only thing to do is to find your way to the center exactly below the main dome. Stand there for awhile and absorb whatever unknown wisdom this building has to offer you. The seraphims are hovering above you, fluttering their wings, and are so ready to take you wherever your imagination leads you. The columns are also made of black or white marbles and some of them are elaborately designed too. Some walls are tiled, like that of Blue Mosque, but here colors are vivid and add texture to the already rhythmic inter-play of cubes and spheres. To get closer to the top, there is a passage on the side which is a bit dark, narrow, winding, and made of uneven stones. This passage gives you the feel of something mysterious, something archaic; a feeling like you are in a dark tunnel searching for the light. True enough, the dark passage leads you to the upper floor of the museum, where several paintings and mosaic arts are on display. If for some people a great work of art is like having a shot of heroine into the blood, Hagia Sophia will surely give art lovers an over-dose. Its sense of spirituality or holiness manifests in its marvelous architecture and design. Can I ever give justice in describing this Mother Church through my words? Some things are better to be experienced, and this is one of them.
Tour guy has kept his promise once again. He is waiting for me outside the gate.
“Wow. You’re an hour late. I thought you left already.”
“I am an hour more fascinated. You really have quite a history here.”
“Do you want to see some shops here, like leather, kilims and carpets?”
“Well, I’ve already been to Grand Bazaar and bought some stuffs for my friends. I should be going to Topkapi Palace.”
“Oh, I will just show you our shops and travel agency. My uncle is there and my cousins too.”
“Promise, you don’t have to buy anything. I just want you to take a look. It’s very near here, like a few steps. Please, I just want to show you.”
This is perhaps the boldest thing I’ve ever done in my life—talk and go out with a guy stranger in a strange land. I have enough time to spare a few moments to see his shops without reservations.
His uncle’s carpet store, reminds of Nancy Drew’s the Mysterious Mannequin, which was my first exposure to Istanbul and Turkish rug. The store is a three-storey-building at some corner near the Blue Mosque. His uncle is shy type of guy, who smiles modestly but sincerely. He offers me a Turkish tea, which I love. He explains to me the different designs they have, how these rugs are made and who made them. He says that no design is the same as the women who wove them are dream-weavers. Meaning, the designs come from their dreams, as they remember the images. There is one carpet that’s hanged on the wall that catches my attention. I ask him what the images mean. He says that it’s biblical and it’s the story of the great deluge, that’s why all animals have a pair. Unlike, other carpet shop owners, he does not force me to buy anything. Instead, he gives me his business card. “Just in case, the images on the carpet haunt you, give me a call or email me. I can have it delivered.” He smiles at me with such comfort. He also owns the travel agency this tour guy has been bragging about.
Tour guy brings me to the adjacent street. He introduces me to his so-called cousins, all male. Honestly, I’m not really big on leather jackets since Philippines is a tropical country and because I am also an animal rights advocate. But I can say that the designs of the jacket, skirts and trench coats are quite fashionable. The quality is also commendable—no peeling offs, no pull-out threads, no over-lapping of double stitches on the hem, and so on. The prices range from 300 Euros to 2000 Euros, and prices will also depend on the season. They let me see how a jacket is made, the step by step process. The leather is mostly made of cow skin which is soft and light.
The short tour to the tour guy’s family business has ended, and I am so itchy to see the Topkapi Palace. As expected, he walks me to Topkapi Palace with unhurried steps. Sometimes his left hand brushes with my right hand, and I pretend that I don’t notice it. He has the opportunity to grab my hand but I can sense his hesitations, probably thinking that action might offend me. He is trying to test the water.
“Here, when a boy and a girl walk together, the guy can put his arm around the girl’s shoulder.” He tells me.
“Well, in my country, a guy can do what you said only with the permission of the girl’s parents.” (I am of course lying on this).
“Would you like to go to the park with me instead of going to the Palace? If you go there, it will take you four hours to finish. You know, the park is big and quiet. We can talk there and get to know each other more.”
“I went to the park the other day with my girl friends. I know it’s huge, nice and quiet.”
“Let’s go there instead and talk about our future together. I cannot go to the Palace.”
“But I must see the Palace. It’s in my itinerary. I cannot leave this place without seeing the Palace.”
“Then go back again tomorrow.”He sounds pleading already.
“I can’t. This is my last day. I am leaving tonight back to my country.”
“Don’t you want to give my love a chance? If you go there inside, it means I have to leave.”
“Then, take care of yourself. I must get my ticket.”
He is so quiet for a few moments; his deep-set eyes are staring almost blankly at me. “Here’s my card, please, please email me. Send me your pictures.”
I only respond with a nod and place his card inside my bag without even looking at his name.
I am already standing near the entrance of the Palace. He is a few steps away from me.
“I love you, ok? I love you. I will wait for your email. I will wait until you ask me to visit you and ask your parents’ permission. Take care my Filipina girl friend.” He waves his hand at me, turns his back, and runs away.