On a muggy July morning in Karachi, I walked into the air-conditioned waiting lounge of Gerry’s Visa Application Centre to apply for a Turkish visa. I wasn’t alone. My family sat beside me on the steel benches as we waited for our token number to be called. Several months of arduous planning had brought us to this moment. Our plane tickets had been booked; our itinerary had been meticulously chalked out. But I wasn’t prepared to leave the city.
Over the last few years, I’ve had my misgivings about slow-moving queues at airports, the frantic buzz of metal detectors, and the irrational fear of my plane plummeting to the ground. But this time around, my anxieties had an even stranger stimulus. Earlier this year, I began writing my third novel, which is set in Karachi – the chaotic city that I call home. Still sailing through a manuscript that was only 20,000 words-strong, I was reluctant to abandon – however briefly – the city that lent authenticity to my characters.
At the visa centre, I put on a brave face, straightened myself on the bench and willed my sleep-deprived mind to concentrate on filling out a form that was provided to all applicants. As I nervously scrawled out the mundane details – my date of birth, passport number and travel dates – a question printed on the document pushed me into a quiet frenzy: what do you know about Turkey? Resisting the urge to scribble “it’s a country, stupid” on the form or write what I knew about the failed coup attempt in 2016, I churned out a short, four-lined account of the Ottoman Empire – anything to convince visa officials that I knew more about Turkey’s history than they did.
When I left the visa centre, I cringed at the absurdity of my response. Though my answer was rooted in facts gleaned from textbooks, it felt somewhat inadequate. When we flew to Istanbul a month later, I made a pledge to discover facets of my holiday destination that hadn’t made it into textbooks or brochures. By the same token, I assigned myself another goal. I would write 10,000 words of my novel during this trip.
Hours after we landed in Istanbul, I crossed the road from my hotel near Sultanahmet Tram Station and stopped to take a picture of the Blue Mosque, struggling to capture its domes and minarets on my phone screen. Later, I sat under the shade of a tree and gazed at the Hagia Sophia. The historic mosque no longer resembled the image that I’d come across in textbooks. Its magical mosaics and marble pillars pulled me into a trance – there was the thrill of a discovery.
As I strolled past the shops near the tram station, I caught sight of evil-eye ashtrays, souvenirs and trinkets, and stacked cartons of Turkish delights. But nothing intrigued me more than an Arabic calligrapher who sold diaries that he inscribed with the names of his customers. When I asked him to carve my friend’s name on a diary, the calligrapher grew pensive, wondering which Arabic letters he could use to write, what was to him, an obscure name. He turned to me for suggestions and we had an enlightening discussion in English on what the most appropriate alphabets could be.
When I returned to my hotel, I thought about how the calligrapher had transcended cultural barriers in that brief exchange. Inspired by his ability to tread uncharted terrain with ease, I revisited the Word document that contained my manuscript and tentatively wrote a few paragraphs, surprised by how comfortably a story set in Karachi had surged forward in a foreign city.
The next day, we took an evening cruise along the Bosporus River and were seated on the boat on the basis of nationality. At first, this seemed strangely reminiscent of a Model UN session – without the role-play, of course. But as the sunset against the sapphire waters of the Bosporus, it didn’t feel strange to hear the crew sing songs from each country. The gentle hum of Jeevay, Jeevay Pakistan reverberated alongside melodies from India, Brazil and Nigeria. Witnessing this display of unity, I realised that it didn’t matter that I was away from home. The sights, sounds and scents of Karachi were entrenched in my mind. When I returned to the hotel room, I spent a few hours filling the pages of my Word document.
It didn’t take long for me to develop an aversion to doner kebabs. Fortunately, my brother, who is an avowed vegetarian, found us an alternative option. One afternoon, we took the tram to a small restaurant in Tophane called Vegan Istanbul. We ordered eggplants with mixed vegetables, lentils, soy meatballs and zucchini patties. In the land of kebabs, this family-owned establishment was nothing short of an oasis – an unexpected reward for all the meat we had eaten.
After lunch, we visited a quaint bookstore called Muhsin Kitap where I picked up a dusty copy of a Barbara Cartland novel. In retrospect, it was a strange book to be drawn towards, in Turkey, but it cemented my new-found belief that people always carry a part of the city they come from when they travel. The following day, I finished reading the novel during my flight to Bodrum. By the time we had checked into a resort in the port city, I was feverishly writing the novel. I wrote on the balcony of my room, taking breaks to admire the dark silhouette of the Greek Islands against the Aegean Sea. I wrote by the poolside as I reclined on lounger chairs and shielded my laptop from tourists who dived into the pool and sent water splashing against the pavement. As I walked along the beach, I envisaged conversations between my characters along the shore of Karachi. I even wrote in the hotel lobby as we waited for a cab to ferry us to the airport for our flight back to Istanbul.
Upon returning to Istanbul, we were driven to our new hotel near Taksim Square. At first, I feared that my mind would be consumed by thoughts of the political activism that the site had witnessed over the years. But that didn’t happen. Instead, I tried to imagine my characters wading through Istiklal Street, nudging and pushing through the crowds of tourists, and soaking in its chaotic charm. The characters were no different from what they were in their cloistered Karachi homes. This helped me write about them with a freshness of perspective.
I typed keenly during tram rides, occasional stopovers at parks and tea breaks at cafes. During a day trip to Bursa, the words pierced their way into the manuscript, making me forget the severe migraine induced by a bumpy ride along the green hills.
As the trip drew to a close, I was able to finish writing 10,000 words – that too mere minutes before we were picked up from the hotel for our flight back to Karachi.
At the airport, my father asked me if I had found any inspiration in Turkey to fuel the creative process. I nodded, even though I had another 30,000 words to write to complete the novel.
I often wonder if I should return to the Gerry’s waiting lounge and apply for another Turkish visa so I can get down to completing the manuscript. This time, I’ll probably need more than four lines to tell visa officials what I know about Turkey.