Like many tourists arriving in Berlin I was surprised to discover the main minority in the German capital was comprised of Turks. It was later explained to me that after WWII there were few able bodied German men around to begin the arduous process of rebuilding of the city so the Turkish people were welcomed as “guest workers”. In the communist eastern half of the city Vietnamese immigrants were imported for the same reason. After a few decades Germany had been sufficiently rebuilt and the government attempted to oust the “guest workers” but by then many had built lives here which they were not willing to leave. Nowadays the Turkish population of Berlin numbers around 300,000 and is the largest settlement of Turks outside of Turkey. Since a friend of mine was doing his intern work in Istanbul and invited me over for a visit I decided it was high time for me to brush up on my Turkish 101.
Until recently, other than the occasional late night doner kebab, Berlin’s favorite fast food, the only encounter I had with Turkish culture was what I had read in From Russia With Love , where Bond’s faithful sidekick is the head of the British Secret Service Station in Turkey, Kerim Bey. He was depicted as a jovial bear of a man who could also be stern and even harsh when the situation demanded it of him. Through Ian Flemming’s mystical images of the orient with its exotic scents, towering minarets and wondrous sights filled my mind with a culture altogether foreign to western sensibilities. It had been many years since I last read the book so I did a bit of googling to study up on some basic facts about the country before my New Year’s vacation.
Nothing however had prepared me for the sheer scale of the city and its bustling multitudes. Having been born in Brooklyn I had thought I knew what a crowded metropolis looked like but I was wrong. I flew into the SAW airport on the Asian side of the city and took a bus to Kadikoy where my friend was sharing an apartment with another student. On the bus ride from the airport into the city I saw breathtaking mosques and huge skyscrapers and urban centers housing literally millions of people and this was before I had even reached the city center. Upon arriving at Kadikoy I understood how the geography of the city made the ferry system across the Bosphorus river the most important public transportation system of the city, bringing together the two continents of Europe and Asia. The bridge across the river is almost a mile long and was not completed until 1973. Before that the ferry was the only option to cross between the two halves of the city. Istanbul itself was much too big and important to do justice in only 6 days so I did not do much more than wander through my neighborhood Moda on the Asian side and sample the amazing diversity of foods. The cuisine however is perhaps the best reflection of the people; complex and intense, with a wide range of exotic ingredients and spices many of which cannot be found outside of Turkey, yet at the same time it is colorful and familiar, like déjà vu or a smell which brings you back to a half remembered, half dreamed childhood memory.
Much like Berlin Istanbul is a city which is divided still, between the old and the new, between east and west, struggling to modernize yet unsure of how to preserve and treasure the best of their past greatness. I had heard a wonderful anecdote about Ataturk and the unconventional, yet subtly brilliant ways he managed to change the image of Turkey abroad. For example he was unhappy by the amount of women who chose to wear headscarves and felt Islam was keeping the Turkish people from modernizing and moving towards to the European ideal. Yet rather than just ban them outright he came up with a more clever solution. He made it mandatory for prostitutes to wear headscarves and voila, Turkey was on the path to becoming a more secular nation, at least to all outward appearances.
Ataturk would most likely not be happy about the resurgence of Islam creeping more and more into daily life but as the Turks have been so secular for so long they have found a way to integrate their religion into the society in a way that was not obtrusive in any way, to me at least. I grew to appreciate the beautiful singing voice of the Iman who called the faithful to pray, even at six in the morning. Many people in Europe and Germany fear the rise of Islam, and others still criticize the Turkish community in Germany for not doing enough to integrate. After visiting their country however I have a new appreciation for their point of view. If they have managed in Istanbul to bring together 20 million people of different faiths and nationalities and at the same time create a joyful celebration of daily life and humanity, then is perhaps not such an inappropriate wish for them to hope that other countries, regardless of their religious or nationalist tendencies, can aspire to do the same.