ISTANBUL, NOT CONSTANTINOPLE
I just returned from a journey to Turkey and Israel. My husband is the kind of Jew who eats ham and
cheese sandwiches on the synagogue steps on Yom Kippur. So, when he muttered, “I think Ineed to go to Israel,” I said “hold that thought” and got planning. Always wanted to go to Turkey, and once you are half way around the world, how far of a detour is it?
Ironically, it was himself who was able to provide us windows into both cultures. During the Vietnam War, Michael (the hubby) avoided the draft by working as a missionary in Turkey. (Don’t ask! OK, he primarily coached basketball, taught English and shot
billiards.) His ‘boys’ now had bald pates and were at the far end of their careers, but many of them made us welcome in their homes and hearts. They were all Muslims.
Though Ataturk dragged Turks into a modern, secular state, the nation remains about 98% Muslim. In the U.S. our exposure to Muslims is limited. They make up a mere 1% of the population. Since the
Paris attacks, this small population has been exposed to heightened threats and violence. There has also been a rise in anti-Muslim rhetoric within the Republican party. The top Republican presidential candidates have compared Syrian refugees — most of whom are Muslim — to “rabid dogs,” toyed with the idea of a Muslim national database, and seriously debated temporarily barring Muslims from entering the United States.
Here we were in Turkey, a place where we could actually experience a broad expression of Islam.
My sister and I took a long walk one day, getting quite lost from Fener, the small middle and working class neighborhood we were renting a home in. We turned a corner and every female around us was draped from head to toe in dark clothing and every man’s head was adorned with a kufi. I whispered to Rebecca, “I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore.” We continued to walk for another hour in this very orthodox neighborhood, and despite the fact that we wore western jeans and bore uncovered heads, not a single person, orally or physically, sneered at our very unorthodox ways.
The next day we took a culinary tour with a lovely, bright, and very communicative young woman in a stylish skirt, long dark hair, and delicately applied
make-up. I asked her what the most peevish thing was that happened on her tours.She replied immediately “Not just once or twice, but many times I have been told by westerners that I ‘don’t look Muslim.’ While in Turkey I learned what Muslim looks like.
Muslims are women in full Chadors, and Niqāb or burqa.Muslims are slim men in sharp European suits with dark, brooding eyes.
Muslims are teen aged girls with a shock of green running through their hair, hip huggers and shirts with
names of bands on them.
Muslims are men dressed in salwar kameez, with loose Turkish pants, flowing tops, and prayer caps, kufis, upon their heads.
Muslims are women in modest dress with head scarfs that cover their hair and neck.
Muslims are little boys in jeans and tea shirts, racing down the street.
Muslims are women in french high fashion, their heels clicking on the ancient stones.
Muslims are… as varied in dress as the broad range of humans representing any world religion.
This might well suggest, that were Americans to engage them, we’d also find them richly varied in thought, action, and the practice of religious traditions.
In this city of Istanbul, a Byzantine cistern, constructed in the 6th century, uses 336 columns, to hold up
hundreds of curved ceiling pieces, resulting in both stability and breathtaking grandeur. Islam, whose origins reach back to same era, is practiced here in every shape and form. Like those columns they have learned to collaborate and tolerate one another so that they might hold up a united secular state. Why is this so difficult for the rest of us?
(Next blog entry: What do roaming dogs and shtreimels have in common?)
(Next next blog entry: The West Bank and Jerusalem, it’s complicated)
(Next Next Next Blog: DISGRACED, a play Ayad Akhtar, and yes, they are all related)