Sunday, September 26, 2010

Observations from an American in Istanbul

 I came home late last night after spending 4 days in Istanbul, know...the place they used to call Constantinople; the place we all learned about in World History class, but never dreamed we would actually visit later on in life?! Yep, that's where I've been the last few days.

I traveled to Istanbul with 83 of my colleagues from Herning, Gymnasium as a study trip for the staff that was planned in alignment with our school mission toward globalization with the goal of not only increasing our knowledge about the area, but our tolerance and understanding about the people and their "story" as well. 

Not only did we see all the sights throughout the city, but we visited 5 different Turkish schools, heard a presentation from a member of the Danish Foreign Ministry in Turkey about the relationship between the two countries as well as Turkey's membership in the EU, and were dinner guests in the home of a Turkish business man. The dinner experience is too special to just mention needs its own blog...which will come tomorrow! 

 The city was amazing, like nothing I have ever seen before. The architecture and placement of the buildings, especially the mosques, seemed to illustrate the values and tradition that are so important to the Turkish people. 

I wonder if anyone would say that about the structures we have in America? Or in Denmark? That our buildings reflect our values as a people? 

Istanbul is the 5th largest city (by population) in the world and 99% of that Turkish population is Muslim which helps a tourist to understand why there are so many mosques all throughout the city of Istanbul. They seem to truly rise out of the landscape in every direction. 

My travels throughout Istanbul happened by bus, by ferry, and on foot and each of them gave me a first-hand look at daily life in Turkey.

First I noticed how different the European side of Istanbul is from the Asian side. All it takes is a ferry ride across the Bosphorus or a trip across this bridge and you are on an entirely different continent. It reminded me of how things look so different when you "cross the railroad tracks" in many Texas towns. 

The evidence of poverty increased and it was much less "touristy" on the Asian side. I wondered a lot about the taxes and government support of local areas and if as they have just poured more money into the European side to increase tourism, it has caused there to be less support for those living on the Asian side? And I wondered if people choose to live in Asia or if they are relegated there due to the cheaper housing and cost of living?  Of course, the more I wondered, the more unanswered questions I had, but it did not cause me to wonder any less. 

Another observation was related to the pace of life in Istanbul. Although the city is filled with millions and millions of Muslims, the pace is quite rushed in my opinion. I am not sure what I expected before I arrived, but I do know that after reading about the pillars of Islam, and knowing some of practices of those who follow it, I expected things to move a bit slower. Maybe that sounds naive for such a large city, but between the intense traffic and the constant buzz of activity throughout the markets and bazaars, I felt a little stressed, like I was in a hurry to get everywhere I was going. I have never seen traffic like this before and I have been in a great many "big" cities. Life just felt so fast, so rushed and even as I stood and looked out at the Bosphorus Bridge at 11pm one night, I noticed that the pack of cars crossing it was just as heavy as it had been during rush hour that morning.

My other "big observation" was related to the traditions of the people of Istanbul. Of course I expected to see woman in head scarves and lines of people walking into the mosques at certain times throughout the day, but expecting to see those things and actually seeing them in practice are two very different things. 

Whether you agree with the tenets of Islam or not, you have to admit that so many of the people who follow it are extremely devout in their habits, their rituals and the way their religion impacts their daily lives. 

They are guided by the clock throughout the day and are committed to stop what they are doing and pray. This was evident every time I passed a mosque. I saw men rushing inside wearing their business suits as if they had just excused themselves from a meeting because it was time to pray. 

I saw women holding their children's hands, leading them into the mosque, modeling to them the importance of prayer to their daily lives. 

However I also saw people whose lives just continued as normal even though the prayers were being broadcast throughout the city every few hours. They kept working, kept eating, kept chatting at a local cafe, seemingly unaware of the prayers being spoken across the sky. And as I saw them, I wondered why? 

Why do some Muslim women choose to wear a head scarf while others  choose not to and still others cover their entire bodies except for their eyes? Why do some stop whatever activity they are involved in during the day to pray, no matter what, but then others do not? Does it illustrate their levels of spirituality and commitment? Of course not; not anymore than wearing a cross or carrying a Bible makes one Christian more devout than his friend who does neither. 

So I left Istanbul with more questions than I came with, but I actually think that was the point.... to make us think; not necessarily to find out answers to all of our questions, but to allow ourselves to ask the questions because wondering is what ultimately leads to understanding which leads to acceptance..... at least in my opinion. 

I am so grateful for the opportunity to travel with my colleagues to this amazing city and to see things that I never dreamed of seeing outside of a textbook. But even more I am grateful for the opportunity to once again extend the borders of my own experiences; to see real people living real lives in ways that have meaning for them and knowing that it is perfectly ok if their meaning is completely different than my own. 


PiNG aka Patti said...

I could comment about all the unanswered questions you posed, but I'd rather just tell you...

This is a beautifully written post!

Corinne said...

They Might be Giants and Tiny Toons get into that whole Istanbul/Constantinope thing... Although the breath-taking cliches in the video are...uh, breath-taking. Fun song, though.

Istanbul is on my bucket list. There's so much I want to see there. I was really into reading about the Ottoman sultanate for a while; I think it is a fascinating piece of world history. I'm very jealous of your experience!

Anonymous said...

What a life-enhancing experience! It is when we stop asking questions that we may as well be dead...

Your last sentence should be a motto more people live by: to know that it is OK to let others live lives so completely different from our own.

Annemette Kuhlmann said...

Also on my Bucket List.
Such a wonderful place filled with contrasts of every sort.
Hope to go there!....and to wonder!

United Studies said...

I too want to travel to Istanbul someday! I think it would just be so awesome to wander around the city and just soak it all in.