Istanbul is one of the cultural crossroads of the world. With over 12 million inhabitants, the city’s countless neighborhoods sprawl out from the Bosphorus like a tightly knit rug held together by mosques and glittering skyscrapers. Perhaps New Yorkers, accustomed to trekking endless blocks in the omnipresent humidity, can relate to the vastness and richness of this megatropolis, but for me, a Jerusalem resident and Rhode Island native, Istanbul will forever be a measuring stick for urban triumph.
I arrived to Istanbul last Wednesday to spend my summer participating in Boğazici (Bow-ah-zee-chi) University’s intensive Turkish language program. Although I have visited Turkey often over the years, this is the first time I unpacked my belongings, bought a pillow, and set up shop for six whole weeks. It is a moment filled with joy and uncertainty: even as an undergraduate some ten years ago I dreamt of this day, but a world apart from the Jewish comforts of Israel and my loving wife are challenges that test me every day.
Walking along one of the main drags in the trendy Etiler (think Emek Refaim) neighborhood of Istanbul this weekend, I was overwhelmed by the mosaic of restaurants and cafes that stretched over a mile down toward the sea. At its center was a Starbucks, packed to the gills with high society types whose BMWs and Porsches were being whisked away by a regiment of valets eager to impress. There is money in this part of the city, big money.
But I was entranced by the all-too-familiar scent of what Anthony Bourdain would glowingly label “street food” next door. A spit of chicken shawarma, or döner, sizzling with glee in its slow-grill dervish dance. I could hear Shlomi Shabat, or at least his Turkish cousin, calling after a long lost love, or was he calling for me?
The scene, so familiar to anyone who has wandered the streets of any Israeli city looking for a midnight snack, felt natural enough for me to wander inside. Only then did I realize that instead of a grease-stained portrait of the Baba Sali, or the Lubavitcher Rebbe on the wall, it was Turkey’s founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who met me with an unblemished, piercing glare. There was no teudat kashrut, and dare I say, no halal one either. And after the store owner quickly discovered (I was asking him what every strange sauce was called) that I was a yabancı, a foreigner, and asked where I was from, I hesitated. Was it better to represent myself as “Ben Israilliyim” when the past two years between Turkey and Israel have been as sour as a cup of ayran? Or would it be better to say “Ben Amerikalıyım,” and identify with the US, a country that many Turks distrust? I was caught between the seemingly familiar and the unfamiliar.
Istanbul, and Turkey in general, is a tangled mix of such encounters. Western influences spiced with Middle Eastern tradition, and vice versa. Navigating these cultural pathways will be as challenging as the city streets themselves; however I am fortunate to have quickly learned that Turks, like Israelis, are an incredibly welcoming and hospitable people – steeped with ethnic and nationalist traditions – that are trying to balance the weight of their past with the opportunities of the future, as they take another step into the unknown.
My goal over the next six weeks is to better understand Turkish society through its cultural capital and its language. What values define this uniquely “Euro-eastern” city’s residents? What role does Islam play in their politics, and everyday life? Why is the Turkish language an intense source of pride, and disharmony? Where is there opportunity for growth, and an exchange of ideas between Turkey and Israel? How does this relationship impact the Jewish community of Istanbul? How are internal and foreign threats perceived as existential dangers? Most of all, I hope to find lessons in the Turkish narrative that we, as Israelis and Jews, can learn from.
These are charged issues, and I already anticipate more questions than answers, but nevertheless I invite you the reader to join me on my journey in one of the world’s most complex, and inspirational meccas.
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Editor’s note: Over the coming weeks, Gabriel Mitchell will be writing a series of articles about his stay in Turkey in which he hopes to address questions relating to modern Turkish culture, society, and politics.