BLOG: Thank you to the people of Istanbul
AFP photoAs I contemplated a visit to Istanbul this year, I was confronted with multiple warnings of danger there. The Western media seemed to be obsessed with concerns about the Muslim world, its perceived hostility toward the West and the ever-present threats of terrorism there. The official US State Department warnings had been upgraded, cautioning travelers to use extreme care when considering visiting Turkey. And many of my friends and colleagues admonished me not to go to Turkey.
Well, I did go to Turkey, and it is my pleasure to serve as a first-hand witness to would-be travellers that much of this fear is the product of gross over-generalization and a measure of destructive stereotyping. I decided to go to Istanbul for the four month Spring academic term, teaching and living on the Asian side of Istanbul. I can testify happily that this Muslim world offered me nothing but unsurpassed kindness, indeed a hospitality I have never experienced anywhere else
I spent four months teaching at the university, traveling about the city, enjoying the usual restaurants, shops, malls, social events, interacting with all the other local Istanbul residents around me. And to my surprise, everywhere I went, in all my interactions, the Turkish people were the nicest and kindest I have encountered in my travels. (I have spent a little or a lot of time in 32 countries, some for only a day or so, others for weeks or months, but a fair basis for comparison.)
My surprises began early in my stay. In my first week, as I was about to board a public bus, with about twenty other fellow travelers at a busy bus stop, I was unsure of how the bus card worked and how this large group would all get on this bus at the same time. I asked a young man what to do, and that was it! He and his girlfriend took me under their care, explained everything, and got me onboard easily. Then two different people on the bus offered me their seats (can’t remember that happening at home - This repeated itself repeatedly on the metro throughout my stay). Fifteen minutes later, my new friends instructed me to follow them, and they led me off the bus and into the metro: “This way is quicker.” Seven stops later, we arrived in Moda, and they instructed me to go along with another fellow and his young daughter with whom he had been talking – apparently they would (and did) show me how to find a concert hall some blocks away from the metro terminal. Door-to-door hospitality to a stranger!
Subsequently, as I shopped and traveled in the city, I found the people in the shops and on the streets welcoming. A dear friend and university colleague hosted me to several concerts at the impressive Sureyya Operasi in Kadköy, where we enjoyed first rate performances of everything from opera, to ballet, to German Lieds. We were always received warmly, and even invited back stage the first night to meet the performers and orchestra conductor. Whenever I attempted to pay for any of these events, my colleague refused my money, declaring: “You have no jurisdiction here.” Another generous colleague escorted me to a Sunday afternoon soiree of classical piano and socializing at a lovely flat overlooking the water in Moda. Music and hospitality abounding.
My weekend journey down to the lovely lake at Sapanca yielded the same impressions. At the busy Pendik train station, I asked a smart looking fellow where I should go to find my train. He took my ticket, read it, and then walked me to the platform, led me physically into a train car, and showed me my reserved seat. His friend – I presume headed in the same direction – sat down across from me and started chatting – we talked for 30 minutes until he told me that the next stop was my station.
As one might expect, the administration, faculty and staff at the university offered the needed leadership and assistance to help me succeed in delivering the classroom product to the students. They and especially the Assistants devoted themselves to helping me navigate the language, logistics, and different educational systems to serve the students well.
The students themselves were special: eager, intelligent, multilingual (thank goodness) and fun. They worked hard and performed well. And many of them introduced me to Turkish treats (dried figs with walnuts, and Cezerye! – unbelievable tastes!).
Obviously, I recommend Istanbul to anyone with a thirst for serious history, architecture, art, culture, food, and especially friendly people.