Istanbul

From Turkish Diary

Monday 6th

Probably will spend a couple more days here in Istanbul, just to slow down.
Today after the hostel breakfast of watermelon, gooey cheese, olives, bread, jam and coffee, went to the bazaars looking for simple cool cotton pants and shirt.  Istanbul men like jeans and flashy cotton poly shirts and leather shoes so it took a while.
Finally found a row of stalls selling natural or khaki-coloured shirts and loose pyjama-like pants, for 15 lire each, about 15 Aus dollars or 12 US dollars. The label says all cotton, but it feels a bit like cotton polyester, and the back of the label says dry clean only. Glad I got XXL, for shrinkage. Anyway, much more comfortable today.

Got a second hand Lonely Planet for 20TL, and also a novel by Turkey’s greatest writer, Yashar Kemal, translated as “They Burn the Thistles,” so I have something to read. Might see if I can get some second hand poetry, for long bus trips.  Much more relaxed today, chatting with stallholders, and not so guilty about saying I am not buying and then moving on. It’s the way it’s done. Sample some little cups of tea, and some Turkish delight. Long walks up and down the crowded hills. Inside the Blue Mosque today. It is very grand, but the inside, through beautiful and impressive, did not move me. The exterior of the blue mosque is a magical pile of marble cupolas. Sat for a while in the small Firuz Aga mosque. Not visited my many tourists. Just a few men praying. This mosque, on the main street between Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque is small and classically perfect, built in 1490. The decoration is intense but not heavy.
Then a long wander up the hill to the Suleymayne mosque, one of the grandest in the city. It overlooks the whole city and inside is tiled with intensely jewel like stained glass windows.

After that to the Rustem Pasha mosque down by the spice bazaar, another smaller gem of perfect proportions, honey coloured wooden doors and blue tile work.
Got a big glass of freshly squeezed orange juice and a kebab and wandered down the street of metal cans and plastic piping, the street of chainsaws and lawn mowers, the small cul de sac of toilet paper and household cleansers, the long narrow alley of hammocks, wooden spoons, chairs and children’s cots, to the plaza of table cloths, baby clothes and sateen quilt covers, then out to the roar of the buses and trams crossing the Galata bridge, and the New Mosque (built in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) where I could rest and meditate for a while. This mosque is heavily gilded inside, and so it shimmers in the light of many small bulbs, which dangle in the huge wheels of small class cups. The glass cups would have held oil and wicks a hundred years ago.

Back up the narrow streets to the main covered bazaar, the contents of the shops changing from utilitarian goods to carpets, copperware, tiles, silver ewers and cups, jewels and twenty-two-carat gold necklaces. A good day of walking, drinking tea, and resting in the shady arcades of marble courtyards reading my book.

Will head east, perhaps to far eastern Turkey in a couple of days. My guidebook says Ramadan starts on the 11th of August, so I will need to eat my food and sip my water discreetly during the day.

Tuesday 7th
The mosques are all open. I have sat quietly in quite a few. Oh, today I did see some women doing the prostrations behind a screen for the first time.

A lot of the faithful here are very casual. No skullcaps in the mosque. People sit on the steps, which say “sitting forbidden” in Turkish and English. It’s all very mellow.

Now, as I suppose, anyone wandering around on their own in the Middle East must be considered a bit weird. I was sitting on a park bench in front of the Blue Mosque, when it was all lit up in laser light show (dervishes, a sound and light show about Rumi) last night and families milling around everywhere, and was propositioned by a young ex soldier (he spoke a bit of English, and I got a bit of tough life story).  I’m sure I didn’t look that gay, as I have a four-day growth, glasses on, and look scruffy. He told me eventually, as he put his arm around my shoulder and offered for me to take him back to my hotel “this park, this big bazaar!”  But I declined with a smile and said, “God be with you” before I wandered off.

The only Sufi thing I can find advertised anywhere is a big dinner show with dervishes. I have found nothing else in English on the net.

Konya most definitely is on my itinerary. I will probably go to Ankara tomorrow to see if I can get a visa for Syria. Or, go to Konya. I don’t know yet.

Maybe in Konya I might meet someone to chat with.

Today I took the bus out to the walls of Theodosius and went to the little twelfth-century Chora church, which is covered in mosaics. Sublime. Went for a wander on top of sections of wall, only a few vagrants, scared dogs and lots of rubbish around. Great view of the back of Istanbul.  Walked back into the city, down Fevzi Paşa Cadessi, passing a few mosques on the way, including the very grand Fatih Camii. I had shorts on so I didn’t go in.

Passed the Aqueduct of Valens, a very pretty urban part of Istanbul. The street that crosses under the aqueduct is lined with butcher shops, maybe a dozen of them, selling sides of lamb, boiled lambs’ heads, tripe.

Further into town, at a large freeway junction, the lower levels of the crossing are crowded with bicycle shops, baby carriages, and plastic toys. A littler further on, past the Sheherazade mosque, I found a lad selling khaki cotton shirts and pants for 5 lire each, a third of what I paid at the bazaar, so I got another shirt.

There are orange plastic rubbish receptacles hanging from electricity poles on the main commercial streets outside the historic areas. But around Sultanahmet I see nowhere to dump an empty water bottle or a used paper napkin. Everyone drops things where they stand, and I begin to do the same, seeing that there are many elderly men walking about with twig brooms, sweeping rubbish into pans and then dumping them into rubbish bins on wheels.

A pretty young woman in a floral print dress prepares to take a photo of her equally pretty boyfriend, or perhaps her brother, who leans, clasped in a languid, almost amorous embrace with his father. Both of them smile beatifically for the camera. It is so tender, like a lover’s embrace, to someone from a cold northern climate.

In the back alleys near my hostel, after much to-ing and fro-ing in the leather and hardware streets, with the word for plug mistranslated as funnel, eventually found a housewares shop and got clothes pegs and washing powder, and then a plug and did my own washing (tourist laundry is exorbitant here, 10 bucks for a couple of kilos) and hung it up on the terrace.

Wandered through the Palace gardens. The gardens are full of cats, as are the back streets around Sultanahmet.  Istanbul cats are wild and free, but fed. Some that prowl around the squares and parks are sleek and disdainful, but most are scrawny, dirty and very affectionate. The large sleek, disdainful cats must be the Khans of the Istanbul cat world.

Took the ferry over to the Asian side, to check on train timetables at Haydarpaşa station. and a leisurely ferry trip back to the Galata side and walk across the bridge into the city. Nice vistas. The big city monuments tourism thing will wear off very soon with me. But I am feeling relaxed and mellow.

On the plaza outside the Yeni Camii, down by the Galata Bridge, old ladies in tattered shawls sell small metal dishes of grain, so we might feed the pigeons, which swarm over the cobbled plazas. People here do not keep pets, but they care for their animals. Oh, but a few keep pets. I have seen a few modern trendy Istanbulli with large dogs, pit bulls, and retrievers.

I don’t know what it is, but one of the restaurant touts was chatting with me as I bustled through this evening, offering me the specials, “Adana Kebab, Iskender Kebab, and … My Kebab . . . .” followed by a pause and a wink. “You are a very bad boy,” I banter back.  As I left I laughed and asked, “so how much is your kebab then?” and he got all coy and said his kebab was only for the ladies. Yeah, right.

So this is about as much local conversation I have got so far. Train trips are often good for late night talks. And I have a half litre of Finnish Vodka. That might help!.

This excerpt first appeared in the monthly magazine Black Lamb, which can be seen at http://www.blacklamb.org.

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