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December 18, 2011

When there’s Istanbul


December 18, 2011

What is Turkey’s place in the Muslim world at a time when the world is distracted by radical Islam and its manifestation in the ‘war on terror’? How does a secular state contend with its moderately Islamic politics? And is Turkey a model for the Arab countries where the winds of change have largely strengthened the democratic credentials of Islamist parties?
Very relevant and profound would these questions be for a columnist who has the opportunity to be in Istanbul for three days – a stopover in a journey to the United States. But I consciously decided not to probe them. In fact, the idea was to totally shut off from national and international politics, to not follow the headlines or even check the email.
So here we are, my wife and I, in this great and enticing city of splendour and as I write these words on our third day, waiting to take our Turkish Airlines flight to Washington DC tomorrow morning, fairly disinfected from our sorrows that are sure to catch up with us when we meet our younger daughter Aliya and then move on to LA to be with the family of our elder daughter Sheherbano. There, we know, we will be securely plugged into the ceaseless whirl of the media.
Still, being in Istanbul is bound to be a major encounter at both emotional and intellectual levels. Besides, it would be hard to ignore the larger perspective. After all, here is a pulsating and highly evocative reflection of Turkey and its society. You only need to walk in the street to form your opinion of the cultural and economic portrait of the place. In particular, you watch the women go by, look at their faces and their attire, and some crucial aspects of the society become evident.
In that respect, the point I want to make is simply that I have made no thoughtful conversations with any local citizen and or read any newspapers. It should have been possible to line up some interviews or to search out some English-speaking commentators. All I had for these three days was

this city and our rather relaxed exposure to its sights and sounds. There was that drill that is obligatory for tourists, though the middle of December is bound to be a very slow time for that.
Irrespective of the weather, Istanbul is alive and kicking. We had last visited this place just over 20 years ago and the airport itself, when we landed early in the morning, signalled the breathtaking transformation of Turkey. It was hard to dispel the impression that we were in Europe. Also it seemed that Turkey has been spared the crisis that has afflicted its western neighbours.
I said that I was mentally not prepared to delve into serious matters. Yet, I must confess to having read earlier this year Orhan Mamuk’s remarkable book: “Istanbul: memories of a city”. Now, Pamuk is one of the greatest living writers and only the second Muslim, after Naguib Mahfooz of Egypt, to have won a Nobel Prize in Literature. Istanbul is his city and “the home of his imagination”. The book is his memoir.
As an aside, let me say that friend Javed Jabbar, in the literary supplement of a contemporary English daily, had recently included Pamuk’s “Istanbul” among books that he thought everyone must read. I would say that everyone should visit Istanbul to see how a city of history can live to become a modern and functioning metropolis. Yes, it has been through some tough times.
I was thrilled to see that Pamuk has an entire chapter on ‘Huzun’ – the Turkish word for melancholy that he thinks cannot be easily translated into a foreign language. Well, we know this word and its poetic usage. You have these surprises at every step, finding words that we use in Urdu. However, the most invigorating surprise – and sad in its own way – is to witness the past glory of the Ottoman Empire. Istanbul is an enchanting mirror of history, going back to its Byzantine era.
The first thing one must say about Istanbul is that it is beyond any doubt one of the most beautiful cities of the world. In addition to Pamuk’s “irresistibly seductive” book, I had sought some reference from the New York Times’s regular travel feature that recommends how you should spend ‘36 hours’ in a city.
Though dated by a few years, I am tempted to quote its opening lines; “The Turks have changed tactics. For centuries, the sultans of Istanbul sent forth their armies, seizing territories across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa. This time, it’s a style offensive. And the spoils of the conquest are everywhere. Downbeat neighbourhoods have re-emerged as artist and night life enclaves.... With architecture from the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman periods as a backdrop, Istanbul is now the rare place where readers of archaeology and wallpaper magazines can clink glasses with equal zeal”.
Many, many years ago, I had read something about Istanbul in which there was this quote: “Why do people live anywhere else when there’s Istanbul”. It is surely unlike any other city. I have to desist from mentioning major touristic attractions. But we will always cherish the memory, for instance, of that ferry ride soon after dusk when we crossed the Bosphorus, from the terminal in Europe to a district in Asia – in less than 15 minutes. We had the breathtaking views of the “illuminated minarets of the medieval Sulemaniye Mosque, the fairy-tale Galata Tower, the vast dome of the Hagia Sophia and majestic walls of the Tokapi and Dolmabahce Palaces”.
Even beyond my expectations was the buzzing night life we witnessed in the trendy Beyoglu district. Young men and women were crowding the narrow streets, dotted with bars and nightclubs and restaurants. It was hard to believe that we were in a Muslim country in which an increasing number of women are now also covering their heads.
Last night, we had dinner at a first floor restaurant on the posh Istiklal Street, off Taksim Square, watching the crowds and thinking our thoughts. It is a wide street for pedestrians, with modern shops and stores with familiar names. My wife pointed out young women, mostly in western attire, who were walking alone quite casually at that late hour. Among those unattended women, a few were also wearing hijab.
So, what will we carry from Istanbul, in terms of memories and impressions? It is obvious these will eventually figure in any serious contemplation of the state of the Muslim world and Turkey’s place in that world. Wistfully, we may also be reminded that there was a time when we in Pakistan thought that we could be a leader of this world.

The writer is a staff member. Email: [email protected]

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