If you’d asked me a week ago what I thought about my experience abroad I would have said, “I want every moment of the rest of my life to be like the last three months.” On the ferry from Beşiktaş to Kadıköy, while Istanbulites busied themselves with their evening commute, I had that peculiar sensation of having nowhere in particular to be when everyone around you is in a hurry. For two lira, the price of a pack of gum, this ferry takes you across the Bosphorus Strait from Europe to Asia. The idea of crossing continents, a momentous event for most people, is just part of the everyday grind of a rush hour commute for the people of this magical city.
Europe as seen from the ferry.
This time has been filled with all the lush clichés of travel narrative. I overcame the depths of disabled despair and had the trip of a lifetime. I fell into the ecstasy of love with countless people, places, things and, above all, foods. Every day was a new adventure to discover the myriad wonders this world has to offer. Words trite enough to make an English teacher queasy, and arguably I’ve been conditioned by the literature to feel this way, but all of it rings undeniably true.
At the Fenerbaçe football game
When I first arrived, I was taken aback by the aggressive Turkish nationalism that pervades every aspect of society. Yet, I quickly learned that such passion applies to Turkish art, music, cuisine and especially the polarization of domestic politics. At the risk of making too broad a generalization, Turks are simply a passionate people. The people of Turkey are right to be energized and proud of their country. Turkey has gone from an impoverished backwater to one of the most prosperous, dynamic countries in the world over a period of time that even teenagers can remember.
Ataturk institutes the language reforms
Filed under Travel, Turkey
As seen in The Georgetown Journal of International Affairs
A new fashion has arrived to accompany the alcohol-soaked beach resort hedonism of Turkey’s Mediterranean coast. Alongside bare-breasted Scandinavian tourists, women sporting the latest designer burqinis splash in the waves and build sandcastles with their children. A burqini is the crossover between a burqa, the traditionally modest Islamic dress, and a bikini. The innovative combination of these two seemingly irreconcilable articles of clothing represents the interwoven contradictions that comprise modern Turkey.
In recent years, Turkish politics has taken a culturally Islamic and economically neoliberal direction. The ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which came to power in 2002 espouses a brand of Islam that embraces Western-style capitalism. This represents a stark departure from the Turkish Republic’s strictly secularist roots.
Filed under Travel, Turkey
Author’s note: For last week, I wrote a post on the state of Turkey’s economy in which I criticized the country’s tariff policy that prevents the importation of quality electronics. In a bout of comically absurd irony, the post was deleted when my hard drive crashed and I was unable to get it fixed because the necessary parts could not be imported or purchased.
Last weekend we traveled to Konya, a large city on the Anatolian Plateau. Konya was the capital of the Seljuk Empire, but it is best known as the home of Rumi, the great Persian poet and Sufi mystic. He founded the Mevlana order of Sufi mysicism. This order is best known for its whirling dervish ritual.
The ceremony begins with the Sheik giving his blessing to each whirling dude.
We happened to be in town for the 804th anniversary of Rumi’s birth and were lucky enough to witness this elaborate ritual performed in his honor. Also, through some stroke of Georgetown connection magic, we got to meet Rumi’s great great great… (x26) granddaughter before the ceremony. Continue reading
Filed under Travel, Turkey
Let me begin by saying that I have yet to try any food in Turkey that I did not immediately like. I’m the kind of person that is willing to try almost anything, but I also like to think I have high standards for judging food. I would rate my experience with Turkish cuisine just below Italian and on par with French cuisine. Upon my return, I vow to crusade against whatever set of unjust immigration and trade regulations that have prevented Turkish food from becoming a staple in the American diet.
The basic unit of Turkish food is the kebab, which refers to a wide variety of meat-based deliciousness. Turkish cuisine incorporates elements from Middle Eastern, Central Asian and Balkan traditions. Here are some of the most memorable meals from Istanbul:
4 course meal at Ottoman Hotel Imperial: The theme of this restaurant is to recreate actual meals eaten at the Ottoman court. The restaurant had hired our guide Günhan as an advising historian to ensure that the dishes were made with historically accurate methods and ingredients. My favorite dish was Mutanjene: Sun- dried Apricots,Raisin,Shallot,Honey & Almond flavoured diced Lamb Casserole.
There is an invisible layer of melted butter too delicious to be captured on film.
Iskender Kebab: I had dinner with some university students, one of whom did not eat at all because he had “eaten Iskander Kebab today for lunch.” I later understood what he meant when I sat down and proceeded to ingest upwards of 4,000 calories in one sitting without pausing to breathe. Iskender Kebab consists of very thin slices of grilled lamb meat with tomato and pita, which is then fully saturated in butter and yoghurt. The waiter came by every few minutes with a bucket of melted butter to pour over and replenish the meat. Continue reading
Filed under Travel, Turkey
Over the bridge to Beyoglu. "You wanna go. To the city and the bright lights" -Tiesto
After a somewhat disappointing first night out, we tried a new neighborhood. It didn’t take long to discover the Beyoğlu district just across the Golden Horn. This area around Taksim Square is packed day and night with locals, tourists and expats all looking for a good time. With countless rooftop bars and basement clubs lining Istiklal Avenue, it was not surprising that we opted to return here and explore night after night. Here are a few of my highlights:
Araf: The main feature of this club is the band that plays live music all night, every night of the week. The genre of music is difficult to categorize. I would call it Turkish folk/bluegrass with a danceable edge. Whatever it was, it had all kinds of people up and dancing. I managed to set a bar stool in the middle of the floor and participate. This place is popular with foreigners, mostly because it was written up in Lonely Planet. I had great conversations with one guy from Scotland and another from San Francisco, as well a girl from Hungary. Drinks were a bit overpriced, but well worth it for great free musical entertainment.
The gypsy band at Araf
Istanbul at the crossing between Europe and Asia.
I’ve finally made it to Istanbul and, as promised, this city is certainly one of the most beautiful and amazing places I’ve ever seen. Based on the landscape alone, it is easy to understand why Istanbul formed the core of several great civilizations throughout history. Endless container ships along the Bosporus at all hours of day or night make Istanbul the heart of the world pumping the lifeblood of commerce to the far-flung extremities of civilization. This country’s palpable youth and energy manifests itself in a culture of hyper-nationalism and overheated economic growth. As the city hurdles into the future with high-rises and highways, Istanbul’s awe-inspiring monuments to its Greco-Roman and Ottoman past serve as a preview of its limitless potential.
I’ll write three separate posts later about my three obsessions: one about my impressions of Turkey’s political-economy (for those who share my IR nerd enthusiasm), another about Turkish food (which is excellent), and a final one about the music/nightlife scene (rage). But for now I’ll move on to the fun, touristy stuff:
Our first stop was the Noah’s Ark hotel in the Sultanahmet neighborhood, which would serve as our home base for 10 days. A group of four boys and four girls, we occupied a substantial portion of this small hotel. Overall, I would definitely recommend Noah’s Ark to anyone looking for a hotel in Istanbul. The owner, Ali, was friendly and his staff helpful and competent. The best part of Noah’s Ark is its prime location. Even on crutches, the hotel was a perfectly manageable walking distance from the major attractions of the old city. Like many buildings in Istanbul, the hotel features a rooftop terrace where we enjoyed breakfasts with a view of the Hagia Sofia.
The first night out, we decided to look for a bar to unwind after a day of traveling. We stumbled upon a small place tucked into the side of some ancient stone building that featured the decor of a 16th century Ottoman opium den. A waitress gave us menus for food and Nargile (Hookah).
“Can we see the menu with alcohol?” a member of the group asked.
“We don’t have alcohol,” the waitress responded with an impatient look that suggested that we were not the first group of stupid American tourists to make that mistake today. So we sat to enjoy bottled water and bond over the absurdity of having flown to the other side of the world at age 20 only to be denied alcohol one last time.