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a walk in istanbul.1 URBANbody

One year ago this week I headed off to Istanbul, almost one year to the date.  This was my first venture into a predominantly Muslim country, here is a bit of my story .

View of the "Old City" from The "Galata" bridge

View of the "Old City" from The "Galata" bridge

Until this time my experience of the rich ancient Islamic culture has been filtered through art and media that converge into the New York City melting pot Mecca.  Words like “sofa” and “bazaar” come to mind.  The movement of a belly dance, and the texture and sweetness of honey cast chewy pistachio candy.

After arriving in Istanbul, the airport was my last vaguely western landmark. Istanbul is full of the most incredible sounds and smells. Melodic prayer and exotic scents emanate from the hundreds of mosques.


Walking South on the Istiklal in Istanbul, Turkey

My short 5 day visit was confined to the two neighborhoods separated by the natural harbor known as the Great Horn, and linked by the famous commercial corridor Istiklal and the Galata bridge; to the north Taksim, contemporary and western; and to the south the historic old city, the  ancient center of Istanbul.

My walk into the ancient world of Istanbul began in Taksim square. The landscape and people  here mirror distortedly typical European cities. I see business suits and women wearing pants with uncovered hair.  There are globally recognizable corporate logos, familiar hotel chains, and high-end retail malls.  Buildings are large glazed surfaces of steel and glass albeit covered in dust and the chaos of streets more dangerous to navigate than any I had ever encountered.   Interiors glow, lit to expose activity and functionality within, the indication of the entrance into modernity.  The private sectors of life exposed to the public realm.

The common embrace of friends on the Istiklal.

The common embrace of friends on the Istiklal.

Something peculiar, the subtleties of which took time to pick up on, is the change in body politics. Scantily clothed people were not present in advertising or on the street. As a result of the traditional values engrained in Muslim society.  Although Ataturk at the earlier part of the 20th century claimed and ensured Turkey to be a non-secular country, there were no images of semi-nude female bodies selling chocolate or cell phones.  I was surprised to find myself relieved by the absence of pornographic imagery that allow my senses to  become numbed to in the United States. Men embracing and walking arm in arm were commonplace, sans the standard negative social stigma in the United States. Here it is a symbol of community, attachment and connection. A lost art to Americans in an era of digital connectivity, each person in a pod immersed in their computers operating system.

I am sure that you can find a blurry -eyed Turk up all night on the internet. I am not that naive.  Trust me I am not.  Yet I allowed myself to be romanced by the fact that digital images had not yet begun replace the glass surfaces much like the building walls in New York’s Times Square.  Here walls crumble decay and still fall apart.


Merchant navigating his inventory through the chaos of the street near the Galata Bridge

As I made may way down toward the bridge the broad open boulevard funneled and dropped off into rustic passageways on a steep decline, letting way to ancient puzzle pieces of the city where you find local merchants selling electronics and music equipment. The people here seem to be negotiating between the modernism behind me and the ancient history ahead of me. A wonderful respite hiding in these alleys came in the form of the most exquisite freshly squeezed pomegranate juice I have ever tasted.  Gravity pulled me down the rest of the way to the heavily trafficked borderline and the chaotic Galata bridge.

Crossing the bridge I met fishless fishermen. They seemed to fish as a ritual or social activity, going through the motions of  casting lines and chumming the water. I watched them for a time and did not witness one catch. When I peeked into their buckets I saw they held only bait fish. I enjoyed the irony of a baron harbor lined with seafood restaurants serving imported fish.

As I ventured into the ancient quarter across the bridge I immediately noticed a contrast to Taksim. The modern woman here, cell phone in hand, wore a Burka. Ancient traditional values seemed imbalanced between men and women. Men in contemporary garb, and women young and old completely obscured by heavy drapes of fabric. Coming from America where money and sex is the primary social religion, encountering the visual re-value of sexuality and bodies on display en masse was certainly a source of  fascination. I also felt aware of the relative ages of our countries, the US in it’s spiritual adolescence, and Turkey part of the ancient world.

Birka Modern woman

Turkish modern woman clasping cellphone, clasping Birka

2 responses to a walk in istanbul.1 URBANbody

  1. Andrew says:

    Hi, Leyden. Your writing is always delightful. Thanks for your insightful analysis and for taking your readers elsewhere. Your descriptions of the contrast and coexistence in many ways of the contemporary and ancient reminded me of the photographs of my friend Tarek, who traveled throughout the Arab countries of North Africa. I think you’ll appreciate their ever-present architectural and cultural richness:

  2. Judith Pascoe says:

    Revelled in the rich sensuality of sights, sounds and smells. Thank you for transporting me for a few minutes to another world so different from my own.

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