Thursday, August 9, 2012

Along the Streets of Istanbul (1996)

In the morning when you wake looking out my hotel window one can see over the lifting mist the long strait that divides Europe from Asia, near the Black Sea (One evening I took a ferry up and back in the center of the strait to the borderline of the Black Sea one evening, it was—if anything, a night spectacle.), it is the only city that expands two continents—it was first known as Byzantium and then Constantinople, now Istanbul.
    Over a loudspeaker one can hear the Muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, now you have the enchantment of the East.
        My first night there, I could see across into windows of the next hotel, a middle aged man on his knees bowing in prayer, not even swatting the minute insects that one often discovers here and there in his hotel room, or outside it.
       The city itself is on seven hills.
       As I stepped into the streets of Istanbul the first morning, little children were sleeping near a blowing heat that circulated somehow from the hotel, to its outside vents, my eyes half shut, the two children immune to the bits of the insects, and the chill of the air I got my first glimpse, of down and out, then walking about, got my first and only shoe shine that morning in Istanbul.
       One of the most memorable moments for me was seeing the Obelisk of Cleopatra taken from Alexandria Egypt, and visiting the Hagia Sofia (first Christian Cathedral, 400 AD?) and the Blue Mosque (1616, having some 20,000 tiles, lords over Istanbul’s Old City) which both structures seems to dominate Istanbul.
       I’m not sure if there is a correct census for the population but I’ve heard it ranges up to nine-million inhabitants mostly Muslim, more on what I’d call the more social acceptable: not the typecast we so often get from the Middle East today (2012); but it was busy like bees everywhere I went, and especially in the Gran Bazaar, and around the street vendors, peddlers are common.
       Istanbul to my knowledge is something like 2,229 square miles, with an average temperature of 64 F.  If I recall right, it was the center focus of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” in the 1920s.
       It didn’t rain when I was in Istanbul, and so it was dusty, some dogs trotting about the side streets, a sole proprietor, who sold pictures and did some framing, befriended me.  The sidewalks were pretty narrow.
       One night we—the group I was with, we ate at a Turkish restaurant instead of the hotel as we usually did, a very exclusive one, and a friend of mine, who owned a ranch on the island called New Zealand, paid a dancer, a belly dancer, to sit on my lap and try to seduce me—more in play than reality—it was apparently charming for the groups entertainment.
       Actually we found ourselves that evening at the city’s tumultuous epicenter then moseyed on down to the dock area, where the boats were all tied up to the dock.  There you will find some shady people, peddlers selling everything under the sun alongside the boats, and even on the boats, I actually had to push my fellow comrades out of a houseboat, as three thugs came in through the door, ready to muscle their way about, asking for money for a silver ring they said one of us stolid, just away to frighten us an give them money willingly, I put my foot into the side of the open door, and told them to scrabble, that we were being set up.
       In Istanbul, everyone eats late, night clubs open late, but they have great stews, with lots of beans and potatoes, roast meats, and cheap. The coffee is as strong as eating camel meat burnt to its bones, in which I ate in Egypt, two years later. Unfortunately, I never made it to the Turkish Baths, they were cleaning them the day I decided to have one, and in its place was a simple shower that I could get at the hotel.
       Istanbul, It seems to have retain its glory of the old days, at least in spirit, thus enduring the centuries, and keeping it soul, even drunken and laughing Muslims towards midnight walking the streets are no threat, soaring, swaying, and then praying in the wee hours of the night. Perhaps there is still the Magic of the East in Istanbul, where Christian and Muslim can meet without a poisonous grin—so I felt anyhow, when I was there, in 1996.