I didn’t want to go to Istanbul.
My opinion of Turkey was shaped by what I learnt in Lesvos whilst volunteering during the refugee crisis. And I worried about our safety there after the attempted coup in August that followed a number of bombings, including an attack in the tourist area of Sultanahmet and Ataturk International Airport. Terrorist groups continue to threaten tourist sites and the Foreign Office advises to take extra care. But Fraser had travelled through Turkey when he was 21 and was keen to return.
I booked a cheap apartment in a residential area on the Asian side of the city, thinking we’d be okay there. And we were, thanks to our Airbnb host who helped us navigate the excellent public transport, drove us to a nighttime picnic spot high above the city and welcomed us into her home to meet her family and friends from Pakistan, Yemen and Syria.
There’s no way I could’ve enjoyed the city as much without her
I was dumbstruck by the size of Istanbul. It’s a beast of a city. It goes on forever. High rises everywhere. Never-ending blocks of accommodation cut with countless roads. Waterways busy with boats and container ships. Streams of people crossing roads, boarding and disembarking ferries. Here is where the immensity of the human race hit me in the face.
Big green spaces are rare in Istanbul and there’s few leisure or sporting facilities. But boy are there mosques! The call to prayer is blasted through loud speakers from hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mezzanines across the city. It was a cacophony, distorted by wind and by my ignorant mind. I heard menace when there was none.
It’s tricky to un-make your mind without experience or education
So, when Fraser and I were invited to share breakfast at a local cafe where we had intended to have just a coffee, my harsh opinion of the country and its people began to yield. Two men, who had no English, gave us soft-boiled eggs (without an eggcup nor a spoon – you just had to suck out the yolk), homemade butter (from his cow and he had churned the milk), stringy feta cheese, tasty tomatoes, chai (black tea served in curvy glass cups), white bread and honey. It was a delight and delicious, though a bit uncomfortable at times especially when they wouldn’t let us pay. They were pleased to learn we were married, praised our marital pickings, and discussed between themselves that, yes, the English and Scottish don’t hate each other enough to bar love affairs. (Astonishing what can be understood with sign language.)
I’m glad I touched the surface of Istanbul. And grateful to have been welcomed into a family, however brief. The personal is political and it’s people and their stories that change minds and lives. We received many small kindnesses in this monstrous city. Plenty to begin unpicking a mind that had been made up by other stories from other people in a different place. I’m always happy to change my mind.