We have to beat feet to Ankara. Our plane leaves for Istanbul at nine and it’s a four hour drive from Cappodocia.
Unfortunately we arrive after dark in Turkey’s capitol city. I can’t see much. It appears from it’s highways, a very modern capitol. The freeway to the airport is broad, with bright, blue, neon displays every kilometer or so.
The airport itself, with its architecturally stunning and spacious, marbled public areas, is worthy of any capitol city in the world.
We arrive at the Sabiha Gokcen Airport south of Istanbul in Asia rather than Atatürk International on the west and in Europe. On the bus from the plane to the terminal I meet a Turk who speaks excellent English. He’s a colonel in the Turkish army and a graduate of West Point. We chat only briefly but after reading several book on Turkish politics I yearn for a real conversation to gain his unique perspective.
It takes another hour and a half to reach the Grand Anka Hotel where we will spend our last three nights. At this late hour the trip is long and uneventful other than crossing the beautiful Bosphorus Bridge as the tens of thousands of colored lights ringing its cables and superstructure put on an ever changing light show.
Our final days with the group, who is now more family than simply co-travelers, are spent meeting with various media, charitable and professional associations as well as exploring Istanbul’s famous bazaars.
Our first stop after breakfast, is Fatih University, an inter-faith college and the alma mater of Serkan’s wife, Nooran, who we finally meet. She needs to pickup some paperwork for their upcoming three-year sojourn in America.
We meet with one of the administrators and, true to form, our erudite group peppers him with questions about education at the university level in Turkey and Fatih in particular. Fatih is a Gülen inspired institution and draws students from around the globe. I believe seventy-five countries are represented. Classes take place in English. The university is young and only now providing graduate-level courses.
Our next stop is Zaman, one of Turkey’s leading newspapers and the only with an English language edition. Zaman’s modern building is architecturally interesting with a visually stunning interior atrium rising seven stories to an open skylight. Offices circle the brightly-lit interior while floor to ceiling windows allow a view into the bustle of the newsrooms.
An interesting point that opened my eyes to the danger Al Qaeda poses beyond the U.S. we learned from our conversation with the editor: Because of Zaman’s stance as a moderate Islamic newspaper and its vocal condemnation of terrorism, the military recommended security measures be taken. Zaman’s building is now surrounded by high fences, cameras and guards; it’s underground parking protected from car bombs by moveable barriers.
Amazingly, we have a free afternoon to spend in the Grand Bazaar and the Spice Bazaar. Several of us spend hours wandering the maze of over 4,000 shops lining the crowded, noisy corridors and narrow alleys of the ancient bazaar. Certainly it’s touristy, with trinkets and geegaws alongside finely-made leather jackets, quality silks, beautiful, hand-made carpets and exquisite fabrics.
If you can’t find it inside, then it’s likely sold in the warren of streets we encounter while trying to find the Spice Bazaar. Thousands more shops bustle with with activity; Turks here rather than tourists.
The two bazaars appear much closer on the map than in reality and after a few wrongs turns we stumble upon the entrance and unmistakable aromas of the Spice Bazaar. It is a delight to the senses, even more than its larger cousin. Elaborate displays of colorful spices, nuts and candies line the aisles, each stall competing for eyeballs and noses. Signs proclaiming “Iranian Saffron”… and “Turkish Viagra” vie for our attention.
One of my architectural clients in Vail told me I must look up a friend with a shop here. I find it without much trouble, opening its door, one of only a few stores with doors, and step from the noise and crowds into the quiet, lightly-scented interior. I find a store selling much higher quality merchandise than most.
I ask for Tahir but am introduced to his brother, Ibrahim, instead. Tahir is out of town, he tells me, visiting their family’s home town of Nigde! Nigde of all places!! The small town in central Anatolia where we received such an overwhelming reception only two nights before! Talk about coincidences.
Ibrahim invites us downstairs into a basement world of fine carpets, fabrics and clothes where, true to form, we share tea and customary Turkish hospitality.
Our last day together begins with a visit to a Gülen-inspired charity, Kimse Yok Mu, “Is anybody there?”, the name based upon a cry from a victim trapped in Turkey’s 1999 earthquake.
Afterward, we stop at Samanyolu, among Turkey’s highest-rated TV networks. Here, we are told, they strive to provide quality programming that is in some way uplifting or family oriented. As well, they over-dub popular shows from other countries including America. No gratuitous violence, certainly no profanity. A brief tour finds us in the kitchen of Yesil Elma, Turkey’s Emeril, just prior to broadcast.
We receive a quick lesson in Turkish cooking from the gracious host while indulging our questions. Cem, our “assistant guide” from LA, phones his wife, a big fan, handing the phone to the chef. She is thrilled.
It’s now lunchtime. We’re in Asia and Serkan directs us to a restaurant owned by a friend in Üskadar, across the Bosphorus from the Golden Horn and Istanbul’s prime historical attractions. The restaurant has been around for ages and specializes in dishes from the Ottoman Era.
During lunch, smoke rises from the upper floor of a bakery across the street. Fire has always been a severe threat in Istanbul due to the crowding of the wooden buildings, many, very old. The city has suffered huge conflagrations in the past.
The rest of the afternoon is spent in Asia. We visit Bakiad, the Atlantic Association of Cultural Cooperation and Friendship, one of the sponsors of our trip and meet with Osman Baloglu, the General Secretary. Their mission statement reads: Our ultimate goal is to serve and maintain global peace and harmony by building bridges towards a long lasting friendship between the peoples of Turkey and North America, including transatlantic countries, through educational, social, art and cultural activities.
I must say, and I believe I speak for the other members of our group, they achieved their goal with us. We have learned so much about Turkey’s history, people and culture. We have experienced unparalleled hospitality. We have engaged in deep, rewarding dialog, gained insights into Islam and it’s unique practice in Turkey’s culture, and I believe we also provided those we met with a tiny window into our culture, beliefs, values and lifestyle. Clearly, the goal of building bridges was achieved. We hope too, that lasting friendships were formed.
Our final meeting is with members of the journalist’s and writer’s association. Our group is ushered into a bright, spacious meeting room whose broad windows open to a lush, terraced garden. The de rigeur tea is served and our dialog with two, well-dressed gentlemen, one, a former Imam, both writers, begins.
Much of what is discussed focuses around their interest in ways to get the message of the moderate Gülen Movement out, especially to the US, and who to invite on these exchanges. Our ideas surround inviting Buddhists and Hindus; the smaller sects, in addition to those of the Abrahamic traditions; also, inviting artists, ministers of mega-churches and young people, so that they might live with an understanding of the warmth and love we experienced and that this understanding might influence their future.
Additionally, we talked about Wahabbism and the power it exerts over America’s perception of Islam. Succinctly, the former Imam described it in these terms: Taking a cup of tea he said, “This is tea and this is sugar. Sugar is spirituality. Tea needs sugar. When you take the sugar out of the tea, here, you have Wahabbism. No spirituality, just pure religion, dry knowledge.”
Later, in summing up the purpose of these cultural exchanges he cites a story about Rumi: “One day Rumi was asked the meaning of love. He struggled, but couldn’t define it. Instead, he said this: ‘I can’t express to you the meaning of love, just taste it.’. You came here, we’ve been to America and we tasted. Our duty is to say just taste it.”
Dusk is now descending. Still in Asia, Serkan has one last surprise. We find ourselves in a park, high above the Bosphorus, the colorful lights of Istanbul’s two famous bridges shine far to the west. A large, palace-like structure looms in the gathering twilight, floodlights playing across its ornate facade. We enter the high-ceilinged, tastefully, ostentatious rooms for our last dinner together. This is a restaurant few tourists would ever find.
Capping our meal as well as our trip, we each attempt to share our feelings about our time in Turkey, each other and especially our warm feelings toward Serkan. Little do we suspect that Serkan has a final surprise up his sleeve. Cem’s wife, Noor, joined us at lunch and spent the afternoon with us. It’s her birthday and Serkan has ordered a birthday cake complete with sparklers shooting into the air.
We all sing happy birthday and Noor is overcome with tears. Such a fitting ending to not only a wonderful day, but to an incredible journey filled with warmth and surprises.