Hanna and Laura in Istanbul

Hanna and Laura in Istanbul

BELGİN AKALTAN - belgin.akaltan@hdn.com.tr
Hanna and Laura in Istanbul Imagine you are coming from Europe and you land at Istanbul’s Atatürk Airport. (The other one, Sabiha Gökçen Airport, on the Asian side is a different story.) You step foot on Turkish soil; what would be your first impressions?

I am assuming you are not from Istanbul. If you live in Istanbul, like me, I would say, “Thank God, I’m home.” There would be no first or last impression because everything is familiar…

In a flashback, several old comments of foreigners cross my mind. Like the young pious Tajik driver in Moscow a few years ago. He had asked me, full of yearning, “They told me you have mosques in every neighborhood in Istanbul, is that true?” Oh yes, Dilaver, it is very true. The best part of Istanbul for him was the abundance of mosques. 

Also, for instance, a lot of Turkish television is watched in Kosovo. After being exposed to Turkish soap operas so much, when they come to Turkey, their first disappointment is: “Where are all the beautiful women and handsome men? None of them are on the streets of Istanbul.”

A Canadian local politician jumped in his seat in panic, shouting “What’s going on?” when he first heard the call to prayer, the “ezan,” in Istanbul at 104 decibels. A group of Swedish researchers thought Galata Bridge was the “famous Bosphorus Bridge.” 

Around Sultanahmet, the cheekiness and sauciness of sellers reach a peak when they see an unaccompanied female tourist. It is just normal for American women to shout back at them after their first shock, but this makes them drool even more.

A group of Danish teachers came and had lunch at the Hürriyet building a few years ago. It was their first time in Turkey and they were in total bewilderment because of what they had seen and what they had expected to see. It was less than 24 hours after they arrived and their opinions had changed:

“The Turks we meet over there are not like you.” Anyway, it was during lunch in the huge hall in that building accommodating about 50-60 large, hexagonal tables when they asked me “How many of these people are Kurds?” Excuse me? My jaw dropped. I think this is the most vulgar form of discrimination but it was what Europe was imposing on us… I blabbered that I had no idea; I still don’t.

Anyway, two German ladies came to the office the other day, one to our paper, the other to our neighbor paper, the “late” Radikal.

Laura was working in Berlin for Bild and Hanna is from Hamburg. They are both here for two months on a scholarship. Hanna was here as an Erasmus student nine years ago; since then it has been her dream to return to Turkey as a journalist. As an Erasmus student in Istanbul she fell in love with the city, in her own words: “Having a simit on the ferry, walking down the crowded İstiklal Caddesi, drinking çay in a café in Kadıköy: I longed to do all that again. Now I am so happy to be back in Istanbul after nine years.”

Laura was in Soma in May, covering the mine accident. She noticed the huge disaffection in society then but also noticed the love and hope as well. She wants to figure out what Istanbul is all about.

As Laura and Hanna took a taxi from Atatürk Airport to the city, Laura thought “what the hell is going on?” Now, after two weeks, she does not even look up, being acclimatized to the sounds of Istanbul traffic, the honking, screeching, shouting, honking again, sounds of brakes. Hanna tried to speak her Turkish when the taxi driver asked her “Nerelisin?”

Laura was quite scared when she witnessed some protests around Taksim. She tried to avoid tear gas but when saw people going on with their routine, she thought the city had gotten used to it after Gezi Park. Hanna feels like Istanbul is a very cosmopolitan city where she can blend in easily.

Laura is observing the contrasts in the city. While she learned of 10-year-old school girls being allowed to wear headscarves, she also notices girls dancing with skinny shorts and boots in crowded bars.
“Istanbul has changed a lot in nine years. There is a new underground under the Bosphorus. Many old shops are gone and there seems to be more homeless people on the street. I also feel like the number of women wearing a chador has increased,” Hanna told me.

The biggest difference from Germany, according to Laura, is that small-talk here is about politics, not about the weather. Traffic is definitely crazier here, Hannah said. She feels happy every day when she manages to cross a street safely. She enjoys being invited spontaneously for a cup of tea and a chat by the restaurant waiter or the shop owner next door, which happens often in Istanbul.

Laura is getting to know what she calls “a very strong young Turkish generation, who do not forget their old traditions but are still looking forward to a European future.”

Hanna wants to enjoy the view from Kız Kulesi (Maiden Tower) again (Oh, I want to do that, too, Hanna.) She also wants to go and see how her old neighborhood in Üsküdar has changed after nine years.

I’ll ask their impressions in two months.

But before that, I want to be a tourist myself in Istanbul. And in Bodrum. Maybe both.