Istanbul – an amazing amalgam of West and East

Late for this week’s post, late for my Turkish breakfast – but before all that, here is a post-card from the splendid city of Istanbul. It stands with the Marmaris Sea at the bottom and skirts along the Bosphorous through to Asia. Just when you think that this doesn’t look that different to any other European city, you have to stop and check. In the gleaming sunlight, lie dotted many mosques (the more famous ones – the Blue Mosque and the Suleiman) – providing a refreshingly different landscape to the more familiar churches and castles of neighbouring European cities.

Outside our posh apartment in the Golden Horn area, near the Orthodox Armenian church wait many tour buses. As we step out to walk in to town, which is fifteen minutes away, the empty streets of the previous night have turned into a huffing, puffing, sludge of oozing traffic. We found ourselves in a local market (Kucukpazar market) which to my eyes felt as if I was in Pondy Bazaar with its steel utensils shops, in Chennai or Sarojini Market in New Delhi with hardware and plugs. The Sabunsa shop was selling sabun of course which is soap in Hindi. Some shop owners have a special smile when they see our Indian faces and the soft spoken man at the wooden handicraft shop gave us a Raj Kapoor discount (what a wonderful actor, he said, reminiscing about Awaara after how many years of its release?) and mentioned Gandhi too. All around our walks we see refugees from Syria – elderly women begging, a lone boy with his head on his knees having a sleep on the subway steps and also families perhaps with very little but at least together.

After about an hour in the maze of the narrow streets of the market, it did feel a little stifling. Possibly because there was very little joy in the Turkish Delight we were asked to taste for free – this one was lined with marshmallow, was sticky and cloying. We headed out to the Galata bridge. We heard “Fish kebab for 5 lira” as we walked along the water side where men grill fish inside a ramshackle, rocking boat. There’s a heap of shredded lettuce and onions on trays that keeps moving in all directions with the waves. Its a wonder that sandwiches somehow get made and sold. There are floating restaurants in the shape of mosques with golden domes which are suitably garish. We bought Simit (that appears similar to a sesame pretzel but baked and less salty), our favourite bhutta (grilled corn on the cob) and Ayran (a thick salty lassi) and roasted chestnuts from roadside hawkers.

Nadir Gulluoglu’s baklava shop came recommended in hushed, reverential tones by our landlady’s daughter – who shook her head at anything else in town. This might have been the shop that was featured in Yottam Ottolenghi’s programme with the pastry sheets so thin that they look like special silk cloth. In the film that is shown in the shop, they even have shadow puppet theatre behind it! The chocolate baklava was particularly memorable – to be had only with black tea. Shukriya, said the man at the till with a grin of recognition. Thanks to him, we have in our possession 1 kilogram of the stuff, wrapped and fit for 10 days, we are promised.

We decided to hop on a ferry for all of 3 lira a ticket and sailed down the Bosphorous to Kadukoy. We were going on one more recommendation (the landlady’s daughter, same as above) – our ultimate destination the Leander Tower where legend has it that a Sultan’s daughter was sent there for her safe-keeping but somehow a snake in a basket of grapes managed to wend its way into the tower and she died. “So romantic,” we were assured. Disembarking at Kadukoy (we had crossed over to Asia!) we were asked to take the 12A bus to Uskidar – the bus doesn’t skim the coast as we needed it to but wound its way into the bustling city. People are polite to the elderly – immediately getting up to have them sit down (yes, a rare thing for my jaded eyes). I re-opened Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul and I realised how proud people are of him. Ilce, who was opposite me on the bus was impressed enough to start a conversation – she taught Turkish literature at a high school and said she thinks My name is Red is the Nobel winner’s best book. There is also a sense of shame and regret that he is not recognised enough in Turkey for his achievements and international fame.

There are many more hijabs, niqabs and burqas on the other side – but seeing a young girl in a niqab hugging a boy freely and warmly outside a mosque made me wonder at the easy connotations we make about tradition and modesty. Getting off the bus, we walked up to Harem – where the boats go to the tiny island and on reaching there we saw a beach front with broad steps where Turkish cushions are arranged over dhurries for people to lounge and be served tea. Women in hijabs and normal clothes come here for a smoke (they are chain smokers here) and gossip, shelling pine nuts and biting into green olives dipped in salt.

As the sun set over the Bosphorous…we sent away yet another Syrian woman selling long-stemmed roses and got back on the boat to Galata bridge and came home to Balat. Oh, and we didn’t bother with the princess in the tower after all.


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  1. Vivid images of a city connecting many cultures!

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