East meets West at their best

Photo essay: Istanbul and more...


East meets West at their best
by Fariba Amini

The Turks are misunderstood by Westerners who have never
set foot in this country. I do not believe there is a race of men more
thoroughly good, loyal, kind. I must except, alas, some who have been
brought up in our schools and gangrened in our boulevards: they become
officials afterwards: I leave them aside. But the people, the real
people, the petits bourgeois, the peasants -- what better men could you
find ? Ask those of us who have lived in the East which they prefer:
Turks, or Bulgarians, or Serbs, or any other Levantine Christians, and
I know what the answer will be!
-- Pierre Loti

Turkey has advanced in many ways in the last quarter century. Istanbul
continues to be a city of amazing historic sites, Byzantine churches,
Ottoman mosques, palaces and bathhouses, and splendid museums. But
instead of the somewhat drab, downtrodden place that it used to be, it
also has become a cosmopolitan city filled with color, life, and modern
amenities, where restaurants and cafes serving great food and beer are
overflowing until late at night, and where tourists from all over the
world are made to feel welcome. On this last trip, I noticed how
civilized people were. Nobody pushed anybody; no one cut in front of
lines. Traffic was well organized. Nobody looked at you in a strange
way. Going into mosques was a pleasure rather than an enterprise
fraught with sartorial uncertainty >>> Photos

At the shrine of Eyüp, one of the Prophet Mohammad’s companions, and
thus obviously sacred and sensitive, no one stopped women without a
hejab from entering. Inside, various young women in jeans only had
their hair covered. On the last day of my visit, the friendly warden
sitting at the entrance of the Yeni Cami (New Mosque) near the bazaar,
handed me a scarf matching the color of my blouse saying, “This one
will suit you”! I felt at home in Turkey, especially as soon as people
asked me where I was from. When I told them I was from Iran, they would
be even friendlier.

Istanbul used to be heavily polluted. Its air was foul with car
exhaust; the industry-lined waters of the Golden Horn served as an open
sewer, and toxic fish alerts were not uncommon. Things have changed
dramatically, the result of years of good municipal management that
started in the 1990s when Turkey’s current Prime Minister Erdog?an
served as mayor. The city now boast many parks along the water front,
even where the ferries dock the water was limpid, there was no trash
floating around anywhere, and at least when I was there, the air felt

Istanbul’s transportation system is one of the best I have ever seen,
even better than that of the capital of the United States. Ferries
still take you everywhere along the Golden Horn and across the
Bosphorus, between Europe and Asia, for a nominal charge. Buses run on
time and all the time. The fast tram connecting the old city with the
new across the new Galata Bridge is clean, efficient, and inexpensive
at the equivalent of one dollar. Talking about clean, I noticed how
clean the bathrooms were all over Istanbul and all the way towards the
Aegean coast. Turks take great pride in their country, and while the
political system is far from flawless, they enjoy basic freedom.

At dawn the echo of the call to prayer is heard from the mosques all
over Istanbul and other towns. Though a bit annoying for waking you up,
it also created an atmosphere, the unmistakable feeling of being in a
place which, while modern, retains its traditional Islamic character.
All over the city, men sell balal (corn) and other snacks from carts,
all healthy food unlike what we see here in the US. Men and women
mingle in cafes, stroll together in parks or sit together in the picnic
ground. There are no guards to tell them to adjust their clothing or
the stop enjoying themselves. During Friday prayer, hundreds of men sat
on the grass in the garden outside a little mosque, near the famous
Blue mosque and the magical Hagia Sophia in the Sultanahmet area, the
inside obviously filled to capacity. They were visibly devout, though
most of them were clean-shaven.

Taking the bus to the Mediterranean coast was another wonderful
experience. Following excellent, well maintained roads free from
lunatic drivers, the luxury coach passed through several historical
cities. Along the way, it stopped at rest areas with excellent
facilities -- clean bathrooms again! At Canakkale, the bus went on a
ferry across the Dardanelles, allowing the passengers to sip tea or
fresh orange juice while enjoying the breathtaking views. At night, we
arrived at the town of Ayvalik, (quince orchard), situated across from
the Greek island of Lesbos (Mytilini). Ayvalik itself was wholly Greek
once, but since their expulsion in 1923, is now inhabited by Turks.

In this beautiful little port town people were even nicer than the big
city. Everyone was helpful and the town seemed to be thriving and on
the road to positive change. A frequent ferry connected the town with
the island of Cunda, a few miles across, landing at a waterfront filled
with laid-back cafes and restaurants. We went on an inexpensive all-day
boat tour around the many little, uninhabited islands in the bay,
allowing people to dive straight from the boat into the crystalline
water. Lunch consisted of fried fish, salad, and water melon, all
delicious and wholesome. The passengers, all Turks, young guys and
women, most in bathing suits, a few in hijab, were enjoying the sun and
the water. Like all young people I saw in Turkey, they seemed natural
and relaxed. They danced to Turkish music, played backgammon and drank
tea or beer. No one was rowdy; no one was dressed up and none of the
women wore too much make-up.

And of course, in Ayvalik as elsewhere, there was Ataturk; he was
everywhere, his statue gracing every park, his picture hanging on all
walls, appearing on coffee mugs, on coins and bills, on mosaics and
flags, on billboards -- Ataturk is the essence of life and history in
Turkey, and Turks know that what they have today they owe to him. After
reading more about the man and his accomplishments I realized that what
he did for Turkey, Reza Shah did not do for Iran.

I was saddened to realize that Iran might have been where Turkey is
today, as was the case in many ways thirty years ago. What the country
has instead is an old man, the unsmiling “great leader,” ordering women
to obey Islamic laws and to stay at home! The shameful and medieval act
of public stoning is again practiced in Iran! More routinely these
days, women are beaten because of their dress code or taken to jail,
young men are assaulted and bloodied because of “criminal activities”
in public, intellectuals living abroad are branded as spies and locked
up without access to legal counsel when they visit their loved ones in
Iran, and are forced to confess on TV and journalists are not allowed
to use sensitive words such as “jonbesh,” “movement” because the
Islamic regime is indeed afraid of movement, any movement. Those who
want change either leave their country (243 Iranian journalists have
left Iran in the last six years), or sit in prison waiting for a judge
to hand down his ruling or for their families to come up with hefty

Meanwhile, Mr. Ahmadi Nejad, Iran’s suave, well spoken but not so good
looking President, hosts Mr. Chavez of Venezuela, and together they
tour the country, spreading their unpopular populist ideas and coming
up with ways to deal with the Great Satan, only to give the US more
excuses to attack Iran. While one is busy destroying the last vestiges
of freedom, the other closes the media in his country that is critical
of him.

That is what we have become. And here are the photos of our neighbor
Turkey as I experienced it. Maybe, Iran, with its 3000 year-old
civilization, will pass through and surmount this terrible era as well.
We can only hope >>> Photos