Istanbul: Where East Meets West
Updated: Feb 11, 2019
To me, “What’s your favorite place you’ve ever visited?” is an impossible question to answer, yet I get it all the time. “Favorite” can mean many things. The prettiest place isn’t necessarily the most fun place, and neither might be the most relaxing, though all three are my favorite. Interesting, on the other hand, is much easier to answer. The most interesting place I’ve been, hands down, is Istanbul. Istanbul defies definition. It’s old, yet new, traditional, yet modern. You’ll see the hottest trends next to traditional hijab, sometimes as part of the same outfit. You can board the metro in Europe and get off in Asia one stop later. Every street is different, and each is more fascinating than the last.
Smoke from shisha pipes floats through the air outside a hipster coffee shop I would have sworn was in Brooklyn, were it not for the circle of Turkish gentlemen in traditional garb out front, perched on mismatched chairs they clearly brought from home, chatting animatedly in a language I don’t understand. The restaurant blaring ‘80s American pop music kills the volume when the evening call to prayer starts emanating from the surrounding minarets, and then immediately cranks it back up the second the muezzin finishes. I’ve not witnessed such a peaceful coexistence of seemingly disparate ways of life anywhere else in my travels.
One day I sifted through mountains of spices at the Grand Bazaar and got bathed in suds at one of the city’s oldest hamams (accidentally discovering the perfect cure for jet lag in the process), and the next day I sipped a cold brew at a trendy cafe, swapping childhood stories with a friend of a friend I’d never before met in person. Thanks to his suggestions, I saw more of the city than I ever would have by sticking to the guidebooks, but I know I still only scratched the surface.
As fate would have it, I touched down at Atatürk Airport to an email from the State Department informing me of the tragic bombing that had taken place on Istiklal Street just hours before. It didn’t take long for me to appreciate that I wasn’t visiting during normal times. My feeling was confirmed time and again, as waiters and shopkeepers kept telling me how much quieter the city was than usual. There were fewer crowds to fight at the tourist attractions, but a sense of weariness hung over the city like a faint fog as people went about their days.
The one thing that didn’t waver, though, was the kindness of the people. The Turkish people are among the friendliest and most genuine I’ve met anywhere in the world. Our conversations invariably started with them asking whether I felt safe being there (I did, I assured them), and moved to questions about what they could do to make more Americans unafraid to visit. I only wish I’d had a better answer for that second question.