In September last year, on a five-day vacation in Istanbul, my wife and I stumbled upon the Hagia Sofia. The irony here did not escape us, but what mattered more was that we had failed to escape the Hagia Sofia, despite our resolve to stay away from tourists. We were staying away from tourists to avoid the classification: we were travellers. It is a fashionable distinction these days, tourists vs travellers, and on the surface the two appear similar. They aren’t.
Tourists move around in droves, families or groups with a leader, while travellers often are solitary animals. When a tourist is lost, she looks lost, and helpless; to a traveller, being lost marks the beginning of adventure: he relishes it. While the tourist is busy framing postcard snapshots of a monument, the traveller clicks away at a vendor next to its entrance, a bearded old man who palms roasted chestnuts to baffled passersby. The traveller, then, has an eye for the not-so-obvious, an instinct that leads him to interesting corners; the tourist goes where the guidebook takes him, ticking off five more of the 1000-must-see-places-before-you-die. You’ll never spot a traveller on a camel or an elephant (unless this is the lost traveller in the wild); the tourist, especially a mutant common in our networked society, posts a selfie with the camel on Facebook, and every minute of the ride she checks for likes. (Other tourists on her friends-list oblige.) And in Istanbul, the forgotten great city that straddles East and West but belongs to neither, you can find tourists sipping tea on the Bosphorus cruise, haggling for a carpet at the Grand Bazaar, or gazing at murals in the Hagia Sofia, while the traveller finds refuge in the warren of lanes below Galata tower watching the play of commerce that hasn’t changed much in a hundred years, or counting boats crossing the Golden Horn into the Sea or Marmara, or watching a company of middle-aged men taunt a puppy at a shady street corner: pointless things, and the only memories worth returning home with.
We soon learned that steering clear of tourists means staying away from History. The guidebooks tourists follow are full of historic sites: Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Topkapi palace, Fortress of Europe, Grand Bazaar, et cetera. Our plan was to spend time wandering the city, skipping most of these sites. Forget History, and absorb what it’s left us with.
On day one we dodged the Topkapi palace. The city conspired to draw us in (all trams and roads seemed to lead there that day), but near the palace entrance we chose to walk instead in a park next to it. It was a fine Sunday afternoon, and Gülhane park, a narrow stretch of green hugging the palace wall, was full of locals. We spotted couples, on benches or nestled cosily on the green: a park for clandestine lovers. Here, hidden in this corner, was a facet of the city invisible in the bustling streets elsewhere, whose modernity conveyed a contrasting picture of openness.
At the end of the park was a cafe overlooking the Bosphorus and the Sea of Marmara. The place was overrun by locals, and we non-locals were treated with privilege. A traveller’s perk, unexpected and delightful. I was beginning to like Istanbul.
We sat sipping Turkish tea, eating sandwiches, watching ships and barges cross the channel. An hour flew by.
Turning left from Gülhane park, we followed a small lane lined with hookah bars. Opposite one of these was a graffiti-filled with a sign drawing attention to a ‘Painting Exhibition’. Following the sign we walked through a low, crumbling passage into an enclosure that seemed part of an abandoned building. A cat was slouched on a dust-ridden chair, gazing at a wall full of hieroglyphs.
A door led to a hall that held the paintings of local artists. The only person around was a woman in headscarf peering at a laptop. She nodded as we entered. We hung around longer than we intended, struck by beauty and by the price tags of five-thousand Liras or more.
Outside, continuing without purpose along the lane we soon reached Hagia Sofia’s outer wall. From this angle behind the mosque, its domes and spires appeared modest. Stripped of its glamour, this scene from a deserted back-street is what I cherish most from our visit to Hagia Sofia. The mosque itself was a disappointment: the interiors appeared shrunken by the scaffolding, which also obstructed a full view of the ceiling. The Byzantine mosaics on the first floor were lovely, but it is hard to assimilate such works with noisy tourists around. So despite its layers of history, Hagia Sofia left me feeling vacant, unsatisfied. In contrast, Süleymaniye, a mosque I knew nothing about, was a revelation.
We visited Süleymaniye on another day, soon after the afternoon prayers, when few tourists were around. The space in and around the mosque produced a feeling of great calm. I felt religious. (Born a Hindu, I’m now a practicing atheist.) I saw myself as a boy running about the large courtyard, then as a student sitting in a corner studying. I wanted to live nearby, visit this space each day, to meditate or simply walk around.
Places of worship do this to me, but this was a first in a mosque. Before Istanbul, I had only seen the exteriors of mosques. The interiors in Süleymaniye were stunning, and I felt a similar serenity in the less known mosques of Istanbul. The carpets, wall to wall in all mosques where prayers were held (the Hagia Sofia is not one of these), were always lush and comforting, drawing you to kneel down and pray. Seeing these carpeted floors and later running into carpet shops at the Grand Bazaar led me to the obvious connection: these mosques fuelled the carpet business. With five prayers each day, under the constant press of foreheads and knees, the carpets must get worn pretty soon.
Inside Süleymaniye we absorbed the atmosphere in leisure, staring at the wonders of its domes, photographing the interiors.
Some sites, though full of tourists, cannot be missed. The Grand Bazaar of Istanbul is one of these. We visited it twice. On both occasions we almost bought a Turkish carpet (an article we did not want) and failed to acquire a pair of standing dervishes (something we desired very much).
The carpets were a temptation.
“Hello! Are you from India?”
“Yes, we are!”
“You look like someone who wants to buy a carpet.”
“Do we?” Flattered, we walked straight into his net. “You read our minds — we were thinking about this one, actually. How much does it cost?”
“Come inside, please. I will show you much more…”
Fifteen minutes and a dozen carpets later, I was stuck figuring how to wriggle away gracefully from the clutches of this persuasive man. Trust the wife to find a way out.
“We’d like to see how this carpet looks in natural light,” she said.
The man carried the carpet outside the shop and spread it on the lane. This was still indoors (the Grand Bazaar is a network of alleys inside a large structure), but the incandescence here was yellow, and the carpet looked duller. Inside his shop, under white lights, our impression had been different.
“Yes, this carpet looks brighter in white light,” he said.
“Then it will look dull at home.” Wife and I looked at each other, feigning disappointment like actors in a comedy show.
“In natural light the silk carpets look better,” he said. “Please come inside.”
“Silk carpets? No, we don’t want silk ones. But thank you for your time.”
The dervishes were pure desire.
About a foot long, the slim ceramic dervishes carried an unmistakable grace. Head slightly bowed and arms folded across the chest, the Sufi figurines wore a cerulean coat above a white skirt with inscriptions in Arabic. I sensed an irrational liking for these pieces of glass. Wife liked them too. Such a concurrence visits us as often as Comet Halley. Our eagerness must have been plain to see, for the young man in the shop stubbornly refused to lower the price below 300 Turkish Liras, which seemed a lot for a pair of ceramic figurines. We left, and returned two days later, hoping to run into another salesperson. But the same man recognised us, picked up the dervishes he knew we were keen on. And he refused to negotiate. We left again, assuming we could find them elsewhere in the Grand Bazaar, and although there were dancing dervishes in all postures, we found none of this kind, standing ones with arms folded in subdued elegance. Outside the Grand Bazaar, in a glitzy handicrafts emporium, the same dervishes were tagged 400 TLs. But it was too late to return. The dervishes shall remain mementos in absentia. I’ve set aside a place for them at home, a vacant spot I fill with my memory of that pair. You’re right: a sentimental atheist is what I am.
The grand bazaar creates a space for such exchanges. Most people speak English. Exploring something to buy and negotiating a price is reward in itself. We did succeed in bargaining the price of a ceramic plate to a third of the initial price quoted. Ismail, a cheerful middle-aged man, came around after a few minutes of good-natured haggling. As he packed the plate in bubble-wrap, I asked how long he’d been in the Grand Bazaar. Twenty-five years, he said. But things were different then, he went on, because the Grand Bazaar in the Eighties was a marketplace for retailers. People brought goods — raw material like leather, or wool — from different parts of Turkey and sold them here. So you saw people with stacks of leather for sale, not the finished goods you see today. Today this is a bazaar for tourists — a very different place, twenty times the size of the bazaar in those days, even spilling over to the streets outside.
Ismail did not seem to rue this change. He, like others, had adapted, and business was thriving. He noted that a Novartis conference was on in the city that week, and Europeans carrying Novartis bags were all over the Grand Bazaar.
One could spend an entire day wandering about the Grand Bazaar, chatting with the traders, bargaining, watching people, drinking Turkish tea. To put it in guidebook style: whatever you do in Istanbul, do not miss the Grand Bazaar.
On an untypically cold and windy day (the hotel landlady said Istanbul had never seen such temperatures in September) we did the unthinkable: at Eminönü, Istanbul’s busiest port, we purchased tickets for a ferry ride up the Bosphorus. This was like eating a five-course meal in the middle of Ramadan. But the weather left us no choice than sitting inside a warm cabin looking at a shifting landscape. (We only had to ignore the tourists around.)
The journey was like any other touristy ride on a large boat. You sat at a table beside a window, watched the skylines on the shore, bought refreshments at the counter, photographed the landscape. The tea was Turkish, the roasted cashews saltier than usual, and at one moment I saw a pair of dolphins loop over the surface of the Bosphorus. I read a book for most of the journey.
The ferry rides we took with the locals (from the European to the Asian side and back) were different. They were never crowded, and commuters on these boats were middle-class people, well-dressed in business or casual wear. They appeared lost they way people are in a subway or on a tram, but there was always a view here, a stretch of water and land and sky, which made such journeys unlike any other public transport ride.
I couldn’t let go of this difference: the ferries were identical, but being with locals (instead of tourists) made a difference to my perception of the ride. Much has been said about the tourist being a specimen in this age of mass-tourism, but the effects of such invasion go beyond the inconvenience of encountering a group of Japanese tourists at the Uffizi or long queues at airports. When you travel, you do not want to see more of your own kind. If you are a traveller, that is.
One way to determine if you are in a place with no tourists is to speak in English. If no one follows you, if the response rings out in Turkish, chances are that you are in local territory, unpolluted by tourists. Which may be good or bad, depending on the spot you are in. With us this happened on a local bus. We had chosen it on the casual-sounding advice of a distracted tourist office employee (lost travellers sometimes have no other option than the local tourist office), who told us to take number 94 for Bagdat Caddesi. On the bus we named the street and paid the driver, a frail old man who nodded and muttered something we did not understand. The bus was empty, so we hung around near the driver, hoping he would signal us to get down when Bagdat Caddesi arrived. After ten minutes we grew anxious (the destination was not far away, we were told); I bent forward at the next stop and said: “Bagdat Caddesi?” The driver seemed irritated by my question. Pointing ahead he muttered something, again in Turkish. I took it to mean our destination was ahead.
The bus slowly filled up. Most passengers looked like locals, and the way they stared at us showed we were in a place we weren’t meant to be. We were lost. I looked out of the window. This stretch along the Sea of Marmara had apartments on one side and a tree-lined park next to the sea on the other. An upper-class neighbourhood with a landscaped sea-front, this Asian section of the city was more upscale than anything we’d seen on the European side of Istanbul.
On a seat nearby was a man in a suit talking into his phone. I waited for him to finish, then asked him if he knew English. He shook his head. “Bagdat Caddesi?” I asked. He still appeared confused, but another young man standing nearby responded: “This bus — no Bagdat Caddesi!” “No?” “No. Number 4 — there.” He pointed to a stop approaching us. We thanked him and stepped off the bus.
In the week we spent in Istanbul this was the only occasion where language was a (temporary) barrier to communication. Which showed that we did not really avoid the touristy places. And that the Turks are rather unlike the French.
Bagdat Caddesi had been recommended to us by a few locals (our hotel landlady was one of them), and the moment we stepped off the bus we understood why. Here was the Champs-Élysées of Istanbul, only more chic. So this was the Istanbul they wanted us to see and remember, the image they wished we’d carry back. But I did not take to Bagdat Caddessi: I found no cats on the street.
It is said that Prophet Muhammad, looking to choose a robe for his prayers one day, found a cat sleeping on it. Not wishing to disturb the cat, he cut off the sleeve of his robe instead.
We found a similar reverence for cats in Istanbul. They were everywhere. And nothing had prepared for this.
One morning my wife and I found ourselves sitting on the floor in a ballet class with teenage boys and girls. The instructor, a short, wiry woman in her forties, demonstrated each step and spoke a few words in Turkish (of which we understood nothing), switched on the music — a piece of Chopin or Tchaikovsky or a modern classical composition — and said “Hazir”. The students, six boys and eight girls, stood on three sides of the rectangular studio holding with one hand the horizontal bar. While they performed, some with more precision and elan than others, the instructor gave verbal cues for the steps to follow. This pattern recurred several times, each with a different sequence, before a break was announced. But it was no real break: the students began stretching exercises, arching and bending their impossibly flexible young bodies.
How did we reach this unlikely spot in the city? The previous evening, over dinner in a small restaurant near the Galata tower, we began a conversation with an elderly Turkish couple on the adjacent table. They asked us about India. The woman, Sebnem, had visited the north on a few occasions. We spoke of our recent experiences in Istanbul. (The city has shades of India, I said). When my wife asked Sebnem about a book — titled Ideokinesis — she was carrying, she replied, rather casually, that she taught modern dance at a school in Istanbul. This was a modest self-appraisal: her husband leaned over and revealed that his wife had founded the dance school and continued to head it. Can we visit one of your classes? my wife asked. Her boldness surprised me, but Sebnem responded with enthusiasm. She did not have a class that week, but we could visit one of the other classes. She then placed a few calls right there, in the middle of her meal, and fixed up for us an appointment with her assistant next morning.
The university building, a tall office block next to a much taller Hilton tower, was set in a commercial district. At the lobby the security guard smiled at us and asked if we are from “Hindistan”. Yes, we said. He then stopped one of the girls walking in and asked her to lead us to the dance school. This girl, whose name I now miss, was a masters student at the school, and it was her class we visited half an hour later. The assistant, also named Sebnem, showed us around the place, the dance studios for practice and a small theatre for performances. The school had about 40 students, and they performed mostly in Turkey, although as individuals some did go on tours to other countries. I asked her about the school’s origins. In the beginning they had no permanent place to gather and learn, she said, until Sebnem (her boss) managed to get this floor allocated by the university for the dance school. And Sebnem had modelled and shaped everything, from the type of flooring to the class structure — it was to her that this school owed its existence. The assistant herself had graduated here and now also taught dance.
The class revealed an untypical side of Turkey. Here was a group of next generation muslims (one of the boys even had a full beard) practicing modern dance with ease, as though this was part of their culture for generations. Inside that studio I felt this could be a great city in the West — London, Paris, or New York; outside, domes and minarets were scattered across the horizon.
As we wore our shoes near the exit I saw a sign, drawn with dancing figures, which revealed itself only from a distance: Dance first. Think later.
What does the experience of a new city leave you with? What do you carry back home? What can make you relive it? Memories? Mementoes? People? Conversations? Photographs? Journal entries? Books? Music?
All of these. And yet, as I mulled this over on the flight back to Frankfurt and wondered how this experience had changed me, I discovered I was returning with a bag full of words — names of people, places, things — that had no meaning for me only a week before:
Now, after a week, each word was a key to an experience, a memory. Often, word and memory were inseparable. They were also inseparable from the city, Istanbul.