The more we travel, the more I’m struck by the similarities of people across the world. You’d think it would be the exact opposite considering the unique differences in almost every circumstance of environment: ethnicity, history, government, geography, language, traditions, religion, etc. Though local customs and societal rules may change, I find that, at their core, most people operate with similar dreams and goals.
In Nepal, Ngawang glows with pride when talking about her four children; one daughter helps run the guesthouse and the family spends much of their day congregating in the kitchen, socializing and preparing the next meal. In India, sharing drinks with Madan and his family, we enjoyed hours of conversation before sharing a meal together, cooked by the women of the house. In Bali, we met a Spanish couple, Anna and Dani, who left corporate jobs in Barcelona over a decade ago to become scuba instructors in Southeast Asia. A similar story was told by Megan and Sal, a California couple, who recently left behind the exhaustion of the American rat race to pursue their passion under the sea. In Greece, we enjoyed discussing birthday plans with our host, Niki, whose daughter’s ninth birthday falls on the same day as my 36th. In Serbia, our walking tour guide, Sonja, shared that unlike many other young people seeking better opportunity, she has chosen to remain in her home country after realizing the importance of her family and friends, enjoying the sweetness of a work to live lifestyle versus the alternative.
When thinking about all of the different people that we’ve met, similar themes are demonstrated over and over; the value of connection with others, whether it’s a partner, family, or friends; the ability to make and pursue choices about career, lifestyle, or location that will impact happiness; the drive to protect and raise successful, joyful children; the importance of protecting local traditions and customs while embracing new ideas; the freedom to practice (or not) a religion and the importance of worshipping whichever God you choose. This last theme became particularly relevant as we traveled to Turkey for a week.
I’ll admit to having some trepidation prior to visiting. First, Turkey shares a southern border with Syria and the complexity of the crisis surrounding their civil war and other factors has made for a heated political climate. Additionally, I feel that the sensationalist nature of the American media makes their reporting on the situation unreliable ensuring a difficult search for truthful information regarding the safety of the country.
To top it all off, recent political friction between the US and Turkey has caused both governments to deny specific visa options to the other’s citizens. The US State Department recommends that visitors “reconsider travel due to terrorism and arbitrary detentions.” In fact, the word “terrorist” is used no less than 10 times on the US State Department’s webpage for Turkey. A word that strikes fear into my heart and conjures mental images of Osama Bin Laden and jihadist suicide bombers.
On the other hand, Dean has fond memories of his time in Istanbul, boldly claiming it as one of his favorite cities. So when he acquired online visas for our visit, I pushed my worries aside.
Arriving in Istanbul was exactly like entering any country. You go through immigration, where a stern faced officer reviews your visa, or in this case electronic visa, before stamping your passport and waving you on. Next, you wait an indeterminate amount of time at a carousel for your bag, walk through customs, and leave the airport to find a taxi or public transportation. We easily followed the signs to the metro where we hopped on a train taking us into the city.
If you ever want a first hand demonstration of the similarities amongst humans, ride public transportation. The interactions and behaviors between people is consistent no matter where you are. Students wearing backpacks gathered in small groups to chat before exiting at the station for University. People entered the train carrying groceries, pushing strollers with small children, or briefcases after a long day at work. They looked at their phones, read books, listen to music, or lay heads back to rest their eyes. The young gave up their seat for their elders (when Dean tried to do the same for a woman standing near us, she smiled, flapped her hand, and told him to sit).
Upon arriving at our metro station, we exited the train and followed the mass of humanity up the escalators to street level. Our walk was a short 3 blocks, halfway down an aggressive hill where we met our AirBnB host, Ali, who efficiently showed us our home for the next week.
In typical Krista fashion, I decided to test the comfort of the bed by taking a nap, while Dean was given the important task of finding a restaurant for dinner. After several hours, I awoke hungry and we ventured out to the street directly behind us for falafel.
The three gentlemen running the tiny falafel restaurant laughed as I walked in the door, obviously winded. The walk had taken no more than 10 minutes, but started with a scramble to the bottom of the hill and ended with a slow trudge up the other side. They jokingly told me to get used to it as Istanbul was nothing but hills… great.
The next morning, I awoke to the haunting sound of a nearby loudspeaker blaring the morning call to prayer. While Dean continued to sleep, I enjoyed curling up in a chair to drink coffee and read. Eventually Dean woke up and we decided to get breakfast at a creamery found through a New York Times article and located close to our apartment. We trudged back up the hill towards the Metro stop to Istiklal Caddesi, the main pedestrian drag.
The creamery was small, sporting 4 tables on the main level with additional seating upstairs. We were the only patrons so decided to sit on the main level with full length windows looking out on the rainy street.
Our waiter was a large, wrestler of a man who smiled as he offered us the English menu. Dean and I quickly decided to order eggs with sausage, cheese, and tomato and were delighted when the waiter brought out a big basket of bread and our orders of menemen (an egg scramble served in a pan, similar to a shakshuka).
After hearing us speaking in English, the owner, Fehmi, struck up a conversation. He patiently stood at our table and helped me pronounce the complicated sounds of a Turkish “thank you,” (teşekkür ederim) while receiving our compliments on the food. We enjoyed the breakfast so much, that we went back three more times during our stay.
On our second visit, Fehmi, recommended that we try the kaymak (clotted cream) with honey, a house speciality. This will go down as one of the most memorable things that we’ve eaten on the trip. The cream was extremely rich but light and the honey was fresh, still having a bit of comb making it extra thick. It is served with bread, though both Dean and I ate it with a fork.
While reveling in our decadent breakfast, I asked Fehmi where he was from as his English was only slightly accented. He mentioned that he had spent 6 years in Phoenix, working security at The Biltmore. Upon hearing that I had lived in Scottsdale for two years, his face lit up and he shared several stories about the famous people that he’d met at the world class resort.
On our next two visits, we enjoyed the amazing food and conversation, learning more about Fehmi, his farm and sharing our views on life. He had returned to Istanbul to take up the family business after realizing that there are more important things in life than money. A sentiment that we’ve heard echoed from people we’ve met across the globe.
That first day, the weather was grey and cold, forcing us to bundle up and walk briskly down the steep hill from Karakoy (the neighborhood we were staying in) to cross the bridge to the Golden Horn, or the old city. Since we were getting out later than usual, we decided to check out the wait times to enter the Hagia Sophia, then make a game time decision on entering or postponing to another day. As we approached the massive building, we were waylaid by a man, telling us of the closure of one of the sites and asking where we were from. Now, after visiting India with arguably the most aggressive touts I’ve ever encountered, you’d think I would know how to handle unsolicited salespeople. But I was easily pressured to enter the man’s shop where he invited us to sit down and provided tulip cups of tea. We spent the next 30 minutes being shown a number of Turkish carpets, even though both Dean and I stated that we weren’t going to purchase. Perhaps we betrayed buying signs when asking the cost of the carpet as the price quickly went from $500 to less than half that cost. I will admit to seriously considering it, but my better half sagely suggested that we think on it further. And when discussed over a cup of coffee later that day, we decided that while it would be an extremely cool souvenir, we could think of any number of experiences that would be a better value than an exotic floor covering.
After leaving the shop, we walked across the street to the square to be greeted by a long line outside the Hagia Sophia. So we decided instead to walk across the large park to visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, a beautifully massive building located directly opposite. More commonly known as the Blue Mosque, the building was constructed between 1609 and 1616 and acquired it’s nickname due to the hand painted blue tiles that adorn the mosque’s interior walls.
This would be my first time in a mosque. I know very little about the Islamic faith, remembering only a small amount of information from my intro to religion class taken in college. And I don’t know anyone who is Muslim.
Having visited any number of churches, temples, and holy places throughout our travels, I was smart enough to dress respectfully, wearing long sleeves and pants and remembering to wear my scarf that would double as a head covering. However after taking off our shoes, I was asked to also wear a loose skirt over my skinny jeans. A small inconvenience but really a non-issue considering this congregation is willing to allow me to marvel at their place of worship (for free might I add), the least I can do is respect their customs and rules.
At the entrance, pamphlets were provided in a number of languages to explain more about the Islamic faith. The information was laid out historically, outlining the origins of the Abrahamic religion, as well as providing information about the prophet, Muhammad. The pamphlet addressed several misconceptions about the Islamic faith, making a distinction between Islam and Islamists (an advocate or supporter of Islamic militancy or fundamentalism – radical extremists).
I’m ashamed to admit it, but this is the picture that immediately pops into my mind when thinking about Islam. And I don’t think I’m alone. I have no first hand exposure to the religion, or anyone who practices it, and am ignorant of its evolution and history.
Unfortunately the main context that I have is from news reporting on the actions of a small subset of violent extremists or the conflict in the Middle East. Like many Americans, I operate under the assumption that there is truth in journalism and that the news exists to educate the populace. And at one point in time, that may have been true. However after the repeal of the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine (requiring broadcasters to cover controversial issues of public importance and offer contrasting viewpoints on those issues) under the Reagan administration in 1987, mainstream media news outlets (owned by a small handful of companies with differing agendas) now prioritize increasing viewership and ratings over offering unbiased coverage. Oftentimes the different news networks focus on sensationalist stories that propagate fear as a tool to accomplish these ends.
But what about the Muslim people who don’t fall into the category of extremist? Islam is the world’s second largest religion with over 1.8 billion followers and 25% of the global population. Just pause for a second and think about those numbers.
I grew up in an area of that is predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant (WASP), and many people, whether religious or not, hold similar beliefs, i.e. Do unto others as they would do unto you. Don’t steal, murder, lie, etc.
The numbers suggest that a large part of the global population grew up in a geographic area that is Muslim. Though a different religion than those I have previously been exposed to, I find that Islam holds to the same basic beliefs as listed above. Why then, does a small faction of radicals shape my opinion of the whole?
I believe that you are a product of the information you consume and the influence of those with whom you choose to surround yourself. When I think about it logically, I can understand how my perceptions are shaped by misinformation. I have participated in accepting news as fact while choosing not to critically and proactively educate myself further to expand my knowledge and therefore, my understanding.
When you travel, you have little choice on your exposure and in turn, are granted an opportunity to rethink your opinions.
The pamphlet at the Sultan Ahmed Mosque spoke of a peaceful religion with deeply held beliefs around worship and similar principles to supporting a healthy community. The fact that they specifically address the misconceptions around defining the religion by its radicals, demonstrates to me the desire to be understood and not painted with broad strokes.
And as we walked around Istanbul, my perception of Islam changed. No longer do I picture long bearded men with M16s (an over dramatization, but important to my point). Instead, I see people. People who share similar beliefs, goals, and dreams as the rest of the world.
Groups of youths congregate in cafes and the main pedestrian areas – walking, talking, and laughing with their friends. Tourists marvel at the beauty of the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Families indulge their small children, letting them choose the prettiest dessert in the case at a patisserie. And in one small shopfront, an extremely hospitable cafe owner, who enjoyed sharing his culture with us and fondly reminisced about his time sharing ours.