27 July 2006

i never dreamed this life was possible.

Adding to Friedman's analysis of Turkey, I've seen men pushing strollers and carrying groceries. A thriving and open gay culture existing side by side with devout Islam. Murat, our host for Sunday and Monday night, owns the Sugar Club Cafe, a proudly gay cafe on Istaklal Avenue, a famous shopping and nightlife district in Istanbul. He was quite the change from Ersin and Hakan the nights before, who were clearly uncomfortable with the entire notion of homosexuality. Hakan wandered around Istaklal trying to find the cafe because he didn't want to ask someone and have them think he was gay. After he called Murat to take us to his house on Sunday, he hung up the phone surprised that he "didn't sound gay." I think we gave him his first real interaction with a gay man, and it was less traumatic than he expected. Turkey's not perfect, but I think it's coping just fine. It's a mixture of old and new, east and west, in a way reminiscent of Morocco but much more pronounced.

Erin and I spent Sunday on a boat floating through the Bosphorus, then headed back to Istaklal for dinner at one of the ubiquitous rooftop terrace restaurants before meeting Murat at Sugar Club to catch a cab back to his flat on the edge of town. Murat and Hakan both live bachelor lives in their parents' old apartments, but in the most unexpectedly opposite ways possible. Murat's flat was barren, with crumbling unpainted cement walls, a broken lock, and floors that hadn't seen a broom or mop since he first moved into the place. The toilet was broken, so we flushed by filling a bucket from the shower. The shower was a faucet on the wall of the laundry room with no drain, so we washed our hair over the sink to avoid flooding the apartment. Hakan's place, conversely, was adorably decorated with a floral wallpaper border halfway up dividing two lovely shades of pink walls. Tables had lace tablecloths, windows had matching curtains, and the flowers were not only alive, but thriving. The living room still had family pictures of Hakan and his sister as children on the shelves. The shower not only had a drain, but a curtain and a rug as well. Erin and I joked that only the differing numbers of products in the two bathrooms convinced us Murat was really the gay host. The entire experience just adds to the absurdism that was our weekend in Istanbul.

Monday we slept late and wandered down to the Old Bazaar, converted from the Sultan's former massive stable complex. Each stable has been converted to a shop, and similar goods are grouped together. The place feels more like a mall, with doors on each store, upscale jewelry and clothes, and every shop accepting credit cards, so we left it in favor of the crowded chaos of the nearby Spice Bazaar. You can't use your Visa, but fresh spices and teas in every flavor make up for the inconvenience. We made it to the famous Blue Mosque just in time for the call to prayer, so it was closed to visitors until everyone finished. Once we finally made it inside, it was worth the wait. Every inch of the walls are covered with intricate blue tiling (hence the name) and the ceiling is painted in a similar fashion. Soft rugs cover the entire floor (you leave your shoes outside) and only a few pillars break up the massive space inside. Women pray separately in divided areas along the edges of the main floor, and interestingly, they were still there when visitors were allowed to enter. The men had all finished, but I'm not sure if men start before the women or that since visitors can't enter the women's areas anyway, they don't wait for them to finish. Either way, I was intrigued.

We got lost trying to find a Turkish bath before giving up and having dinner on Istaklal once again. We stopped at a cafe afterwards for dessert, and were having a great time people watching from the balcony until Erin noticed a painting on the wall. It had several scenes from Istanbul, but the panel in the corner was of a plane hitting the World Trade Center. Our waiter noticed us staring at it, and laughed and said it was Istanbul. We asked about the 9/11 panel, and he smiled and said that was New York. He wouldn't elaborate on why it was on the wall, and feeling rather nauseated, we quickly left. We weren't sure what to make of it, but both left feeling furious that anyone would make light or even revel in a nation's tragedy. It was a rather disappointing end to a beautiful day in the city. Regardless, I'm still in love with Istanbul and excited about coming back here one day and exploring more of the country.

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