I just returned from a journey to Turkey and Israel.  My husband is the kind of Jew who eats ham and

The Family: Intrepid Travelers
The Family: Intrepid Travelers

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

Michael, Ahmet, and Me
Michael, Ahmet (one of ‘his boys’), and Me

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

Site of terrorist attack in Istanbul one day before we arrived!
Site of terrorist attack in Istanbul one day before we arrived!

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 In memory of attackdebated 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.

Snowy day in Fener
Snowy day in Fener



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

Tour of a Turkish Spice Shop
Tour of a Turkish Spice Shop

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

Ancient Cistern

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)

8 Responses to Welcome to ISTANBUL, NOT CONSTANTINOPLE

  1. Hi Judith,

    Thanks for sharing your travel stories and the insight they inspired. Loved the photos, too. Who’d think of snow days in Turkey? I’m looking forward to reading more about your trip!


  2. Thanks, Judith, for this clear, reflective piece. Helps me think back on my experiences and agree! Sounds like you had a great trip. Look forward to hearing more in this blog. Kind regards Meg

  3. Hi Judith. Sounds like a fascinating trip! So glad to be reading your blog. I love your storytelling. Please say hello to Michael for me (he may remember me and my husband, Tom.) Enjoy!

  4. Meg, when were you in Istanbul? Am sure you must have remarkable observations and memories.

  5. Had this open in my browser since it first arrived, and loved it.
    Truths are everywhere, all we have to do is doge the rhetoric and negativity!