A drive from Istanbul airport to the hotel started with the taxi driver politely asking for permission to turn the radio on. My nod triggered a husky but sonorous voice that streamed out of the speakers, most sensually.
“She is Ebru Gundesh. Have you heard her songs before?” the driver asked me in passable English. Before I could answer him, he lowered the volume in deference to azaan blaring out of loudspeakers from a nearby mosque, and swiped his face with cupped hands while muttering holy verses. This was quite in contrast to my last visit to Istanbul over a decade ago when, on more than one occasion, even my salaam greetings were answered with raised eyebrows.
A regional security workshop was to start two days later, so I had time to sample the neighbourhood of Besiktas district, an upscale area of Istanbul in which our hotel was located. A walk down the Chiraghaan Street on the western banks of Bosphorus took me to Ortakoy, a locale once famous for its cosmopolitan outlook, with Jews, Orthodox Greek Christians and Armenians (all since emigrated), living in harmony with the majority Muslims.
I went past the Ayios Fokas Orthodox Church as well as the Etz Ahayim Synagogue, which are located not far from the beautiful 19th century baroque Majidiye Mosque, by the coastal pier of Ortakoy.
Despite rain and lashing winds on a cold January morning, tourists had started to congregate at the pier. Shops serving lokum (a Turkish sweetmeat that is a useful complement to the hellishly bitter kahva), falafels, kebabs and fruit cocktails, were ready for their daily business. The majestic Bosphorus Bridge formed a picture perfect backdrop while the morning fog still hung in the air.
On my way back, I walked past the imposing Ciragan Palace, now leased out as a heritage hotel. With plenty of time at hand, I decided to visit the sprawling Yildiz Park, which is very similar to the Shakarparian Park in Islamabad.
Except for some anxious moments caused by a pack of stray dogs whose intentions I could not read clearly, the outing in the park was absolutely salubrious. Like the rest of the city, the park was as clean as it could be; beautifully laid out petunia flower beds caused a delightful riot of colours. The rain had picked up again, so I decided to take a taxi to Nishantashi, a posh street with all the ritzy fashion and glamour shops.
Out of my carefully rehearsed vocabulary of a dozen Turkish words, I chose the right ones to tell the taxi driver of my intended destination. Somehow, he took me for a local and started off a monologue, which I thought wise to interject with “evet” (yes) at regular intervals.
Reaching Nishantashi Street, the driver asked me where exactly did I wish to go. Having run out of the right words for further instructions, I blurted out tamaam (okay, enough). A fluke couldn’t have worked better, for he was immensely pleased with his passenger, but my abrupt disclosure about being a Pakistani evoked such amazement that he did the double handshake, and froze in the hands-on-heart act for a while.
Men and women clad mostly in jeans and jackets were to be seen in equal numbers, testifying to a high level of women’s participation in the work force. I saw a number of women smoking cigarettes, but this habit could be endemic to the trendy locality. At most shops, getting by in English was not a problem, unlike a decade ago, when Turkish was the preferred language everywhere.
The demands of economic development, including the ability to converse with global business partners, as well as the ability of Turks to compete in the international job markets has led to a premium on learning foreign languages, principally English and German.
With the biological clock skewed, I was up at 5:00 on most mornings. A good way to while away time was to get done with the domestics, and take a walk to the nearby Besiktas Pier, from where ferries ply to and from Uskudar across the Bosphorus. Old men would be at the pier to feed the gulls just as in movies, or would simply huddle up on the benches watching the fog lift up and reveal the Asian side of the city beyond the waters.
By the time I’d walk back to the hotel, the bus stops would be crowded with people ready to start another work day. I saw two parks where open air exercise machines had been installed, and men and women were busy with some morning bending and stretching.
The traffic in Istanbul is quite orderly, helped by an excellent road network all over the city. Discipline on the roads is notable, and is a reflection of the overall discipline one expects in a people who are highly educated. I also wondered if it had anything to do with the menfolk having been through compulsory military service.
The Istanbul metro bus, which inspired the one at Lahore, is very popular, with packed Mercedes buses plying all over the city in designated bus lanes. Taxis, mostly Fiat models, are available at reasonable rates, with high-tech digital meters visible in the rear-view mirrors. European cars are as popular as Japanese models, most being manufactured or assembled locally. Mercifully, motorcycle menace as seen on our roads is almost non-existent in Istanbul; the few that are spotted occasionally belong to courier services or pizza deliverymen — a lone rider going about his business fully kitted like the Knight Rider of the TV series.
With Istanbul attracting the bulk of Turkey’s 45 million annual tourists, the city gives a festive and cosmopolitan look throughout the year. National flags and buntings can be seen displayed on roadsides, shops and apartment blocks on any given day, giving the impression of perpetual national day celebrations.
A good place to sample the nationalistic pride is at the Barbarossa Square, adjacent to Besiktas Pier and the Naval Museum. The Ottoman Admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa’s statue is flanked by Turkish flags and the square is bedecked with several naval cannons. The nearby Sinan Pasha mosque evokes the grandeur of Ottoman times.
In the evenings, street musicians attract crowds who revel in the glory of their much adored city.
One notes many subtle changes in Istanbul, though much of it remains as it has under a secular dispensation for nine decades — liberal, to the point of being irreverent. The present Islamic leaning government has been in power in Turkey for 12 years, and has struggled to balance the increasingly materialistic culture of a free market enterprise, with the moderating influence of Islam that stresses a more austere lifestyle.
Ottoman-era mosques, that were locked in the not-too-distant past, have undergone major renovations and are in full service, though seldom overcrowded. Nonetheless, if the high decibel level of azaan and the increasing numbers of women in hijab are any indicators of piety, secularism is facing some challenges in modern day Istanbul.
Cleansing one’s soul and uniting it with Allah is the ultimate aim of sufis, and this spiritual journey is expressed by the well-known dance of the ‘whirling dervishes’. Though the centre of Sufism is at Konya, the dance is performed for the benefit of tourists at major cities, including Istanbul.
One evening, the participants of the workshop decided to attend the sema’a (listening) as it is known. We took taxis to Sirkeci area of the historical peninsula where the Hodjapasha Hammam (public bath) is located. The 550-year old Ottoman-era hammam has been restored as a dance theatre, and is quite popular with tourists and locals alike.
The sema’a started with a series of supplications and salutes by five dervish dancers, with music and chanting provided by an ensemble of four men, and surprisingly, a woman at the drums. The much awaited whirling started after about 15 minutes and continued with frequent pauses for salutes.
The ceremony was rather slow and repetitive and, to most of us, the only wonder was that the dancers had not lost their spatial orientation after whirling for nearly an hour. The sema’a was rounded off with a most apt verse of the Quran: “The East and the West belong to Allah and wherever you turn, you are faced with Him”.
As we were leaving after the performance, we found a crowd ready for the next show — this time, a raunchy belly dance! The sacred and the profane still seem inseparably intertwined in Istanbul today.