What occurs to me first as my taxicab snarls its way through mid-morning rush and into SultanAhmet, is how brazenly and how openly the people of Istanbul smoke. The women especially, stand in the middle of bustling footpaths and blow gusts of smoke onto oncoming traffic…there are no corners to sneak into. I realize soon after that there are few corners in Istanbul, and if there are, there is little need to sneak into them…
Istanbul is loud and expressive, bold and unreserved in the many cultures it withholds: trams exist as easily as cars and horse-carriages do on the same street, the burkha is as popular a fashion choice as cut-away winter dresses are, and even within mosques there are churches. Instinctively, I fall in love with Istanbul. But, what I am not prepared for is how liberating the city is:
In SultanAhmet I spend many hours strolling past souvenir stores and street cafes and food carts and people of all color. I am fascinated by what takes up so much of the street: ketane and gözleme and cobblers and umbrella-sellers and prayers mats and evil-eye bracelets and yet it all so familiar to me, it is not difficult to belong.
The Hagia Sophia, meaning divine wisdom, is even more fascinating that I expect: our quirky tour guide takes us through the Christian and Muslim influences this magnificent structure holds, and I can’t help but marvel at the testimony this is to the ravages of both time and religion. Much of what else we see in SultanAhmet is as a matter of fact…the Topkapi Palace and its view of the Bosphorus, the Basilica Cistern, the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque..
Testimony to the ravages of time, but more to the stillness of time that fills you with a sense of certainty: in everything that falls away, some things still remain. It is this certainty that makes Istanbul so liberating…
Later, as I take the swarming tram ride to Istiklal street I realize it is the palpable energy too. In the many nuances that make up Istiklal street all at once: the crowds at a shopping mall open until midnight, the hum of the shisha bars half-empty watching throngs gather at beer-bars half-full and night clubs with made-up men and women and the quieter ones at the Artist’s Bar we pick, the energy of Istanbul is liberating.
It seeks you out, as it fills you.
And, I feel a sort of liberation: As if I can stand in the middle of any street, fearless but flawed, and blow gusts of smoke onto oncoming traffic. And, as if I no longer need corners.