On Friday night 29 of my colleagues and I boarded a ferry in Istanbul, Europe and headed for dinner in Istanbul, Asia. Before we left Denmark we were given an option for tonight-- either taking a a dinner cruise on the Bosphorus River or having dinner in the home of a Turkish family. However we were told that the family could "only" accommodate 30 guests, so it was a first come, first served deal....so I was a bit worried that I might not get a place....but I did!
I learned that our school has brought student groups to Istanbul before and each time they have been invited to have dinner in this family's home, so I was quite excited to see....well, truthfully, what we were getting ourselves into. I could not imagine a private person opening his home to 30 strangers...giving up his Friday night to feed and entertain us... but that was before I met our host.
We entered this fantastic home and immediately took off our shoes which is quite customary in Turkey; we were then welcomed into the family room which resembled a museum.... it was filled with all kinds of wonderful relics that the family had passed down from generation to generation. We all sat there in our bare feet, looking around at the things on the shelves and walls, waiting to see what the night would hold.
The first order of business was a "hilsen" (Greeting) that Anders, one of our religion teachers brought to our host from the class that had visited last spring. It was a precious moment to watch him present this token, as his Danish greetings were translated by our interpreter into Turkish. But you would never know that these 2 men spoke such different languages...their eyes and their smiles communicated with one another in a common language which was amazing to see.
Then dinner was served. We had many traditional Turkish items, but I have to admit that one of the most interesting parts of the meal was watching my Danish colleagues struggle with the fact that they had only placed a fork and spoon at each place setting....no knives. :-) I, of course, was right at home!
When we were finished eating all of the ladies were invited into a sitting room to visit with our host's mother, a PRECIOUS Turkish woman who did not speak English, but again, it did not matter..... we really did understand one another.....
After dinner we were invited up to their top floor for Turkish tea and a view of the Bosphorus bridge! It was amazing.... After tea we all went down into their basement, which was an amazing room that had walls covered in the same type of blue ceramic tiles that you find in the Blue Mosque. At that time we were able to ask to our host questions about his beliefs, his work, and his community outreach throughout Turkey and the world. Of course, everything went through our translator, but it all felt quite natural. He talked about his family's belief in education and supporting the community in whatever way they can; he also shared a bit about other groups that had been invited into their home to share a meal and some tea.... While the questions and answers were shared, I was given the distinct privilege of writing a note from our group in their guest book, which was a book that had a personal note from every group that had been in their home before us. I thought quite a lot about what to write on behalf of myself and my 29 colleagues... and finally came up with something similar to this:
"The vision statements of Herning Gymnasium include a focus on globalization--both for our students and for our staff which is why all of our teachers have traveled to Istanbul together. Not only do we want to expand our experiences geographically, but we also hope to expand our spirits, so that we learn to be more open and tolerant toward other cultures. The way you have opened your home to us, complete strangers, and showed us such wonderful hospitality has taught us a great lesson in humanity...a lesson that we will take back with us to Herning, Denmark, and a lesson that will not only make us better teachers, but also better people."
I wanted this man and his family to know what it meant for us to be in his home....what it meant for a man of the Islamic faith to open his home to 30 non- Muslims, 30 foreigners, 30 people "not like him" who had many questions and curiosities about things in his life. A man who answered our questions so patiently, and again, gave up his entire Friday night to be with us. What an incredible example he was and is.
As we rode the bus back to our hotel that night, I thought about something.....
What are the chances that one of us, a "westernized, non-Muslim, Dane / American" would do the same...for a group coming from Turkey; a group of 30 Muslim teachers. Would we open our homes to them? Would we open ourselves up to their questions and curiosities?
I would like to think so, but it sure gave me lots to think about as I rode back across the border from Asia to Europe..... and those thoughts are still with me today.