Two Episodes from My Trip to Istanbul in 1988
Nimet Was a Lovely Young Woman
In October of 1988, I embarked on a journey that would take me through the heart of the Turkish countryside and into the bustling city of Istanbul. The bus was a smoke-filled vessel, packed with men dressed in drab gray suits and black mustaches, all in a different world from me. Yet, there was one figure who stood out among the rest, a stewardess, who drifted down the aisle with a delicate bottle of clear liquid in hand. One by one, the men would hold out their palms to receive a few drops of the fragrant liquid, which I soon learned was not cologne, but rather, a rose water with a faint and pleasant aroma.
As dawn broke, I caught glimpses of the country women, dressed in their pajama-like pants and vests with bold flower patterns, going about their daily business. Although I cannot recall our arrival in Istanbul, I do remember checking into my hotel room, with an archaic view of the walls of Topkapı Palace and the room-sized structure that was the city’s oldest mosque. I drifted off to sleep, lulled by the haunting call to prayer that echoed throughout the city. That afternoon I set out to explore my surroundings, sketching pastel drawings of the grounds between the magnificent Blue Mosque and the historical Hagia Sofia.
The following day at breakfast, I had the uncertain pleasure of meeting an American couple, both financial journalists for U.S. News and World Report, who were on their honeymoon. They had recently returned from a trip to Czechoslovakia, behind the Iron Curtain, and spoke surprisingly of the lack of vibrancy and the general feeling of depression among the people.
It was then that we were served by the receptionist, hostess, and waitress all in one – a beautiful young woman by the name of Nimet. She was about 20 years old, with pale skin, dark hair, dark eyes, a delicate nose, and an elegant pinkish mouth. She was fluent not only in her native Turkish, but also in English, Arabic, and French, a truly remarkable young woman. Our conversations over the days led to an invitation to join her on a boat trip along the Seven Hills of Istanbul, an offer I eagerly accepted.
As we journeyed down the Bosphorus, we shared stories of our lives and families, and Nimet revealed her love for the music of Bizet’s Carmen. Our boat stopped and let us off at a rickety old pier and while we waited for the return journey, we feasted on freshly grilled mussel sandwiches slathered with garlic aioli, all the while taking in the exotic surroundings.
It was on the way back that Nimet’s demeanor shifted, and I knew that I was about to hear the purpose of her invitation. She confided in me that her parents were in the process of arranging her marriage to a stranger, a tradition that was all too common in her culture. We discussed potential stall tactics, including the possibility of her traveling abroad as an au pair. Upon our return to the pier, she swore me to secrecy, as she had told her parents one thing and the hotel manager another, in order to sneak away for the boat trip.
The following morning, the journalist couple engaged Nimet in conversation and asked about the state of women’s rights in Turkey. Nimet handled their questions with grace and skill, speaking in generalities that satisfied the couple, who, as enlightened journalists, were no doubt content with her answers.
The journey to Istanbul was one filled with wonder, discovery, and a glimpse into a world vastly different from my own. I will always treasure my time spent with the remarkable young woman, Nimet.
The Man in the Grove
It was dawn and my hotel room overlooked the Topkapi Palace Walls and one of the oldest mosques in Istanbul. In front of the walls was a small grassy tree grove, and the mosque was small and unadorned, similar to the one-room Greek churches you see on the islands, but made of unpainted and unadorned ancient-looking stone. Walking among the trees was a man I first mistook for a gardener or groundsman. However, something was off. Though I couldn’t hear him, my view was close enough to see that he was mumbling to himself and making incriminating gestures with his hands. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I sensed that he was not crazy or drugged, despite his behavior reminding me of the crazy people and drug addicts I had seen on Hollywood Blvd in Los Angeles.
That afternoon, I took a break and visited the famous Blue Mosque, the most beautiful monument I had ever seen, both inside and out. I was familiar with it from my art history studies a decade before. There were steps leading up to the mosque, and a sign in English asked visitors to refrain from sitting on the steps, which was odd as in Europe, people and tourists would sit anywhere they were comfortable. Before entering the mosque, everyone had to take off their shoes and wash their feet. I wondered if there was a religious reason for the “No sitting on the steps” sign, due to the juxtaposition of the sign and the shoe rack.
The Blue Mosque was breathtaking, with its soothing proportions and elegant details. If I were to think of heaven in building form, the Blue Mosque would be it. There were guides giving tours to groups and individuals, and I could overhear informative details about the building in English. A middle-aged Turkish man approached me and offered to guide me through the interior for a fee of around five or ten dollars. I agreed, and the man was a pleasant fellow with superb English and easy manner. During the tour, I asked him about the “Do Not Sit on the Steps” sign and if it was for religious reasons. He gave me a charming smile and said, “No, it is not for religious reasons. Rather, it is to keep shorts-wearing female tourists from sitting on the steps and unintentionally giving arriving religious men provocative views.”
As my private tour was wrapping up, I asked the guide one more question. I asked him about the man in the grove next to the old mosque. He looked momentarily confused and then, with a light bulb of recognition, he knew what I was asking. The guide kindly explained that every Muslim entering the mosque must be pure of mind and harbor no thoughts or feelings of rage, angst, or eroticism. The man in the grove was trying to enter the old mosque but couldn’t until his mind was clear.
When I arrived home that afternoon, the man was still pacing the grove, trying his best to shake away his impure thoughts. I came away with so much empathy and respect for him, and I realized that integrity is personal and comes from within. It is up to each individual to be the judge of their own integrity. It is not without some irony that my art celebrates sensual-erotic works, and I feel that instead of being impure, it can lead us to our greatest moments of Eudaemonia. But the great lesson I learned that day was that integrity is personal, it comes from the inside out, and we as individuals are the judge of it.
I’m happy to say that my writing platform, The Shrewd Artist, has found a home on Substack. This platform provides independent writers like myself a great opportunity to reach readers and receive support through optional donations, all without being overbearing. I prefer to keep things relaxed and allow my content to be available for free, without any set posting schedule. My WordPress site serves as a central hub, where followers can easily access my archives, articles, tweets, and more. I’m glad to see everything coming together smoothly.
Thank you for viewing and reading.
Michael, Idyllwild, February 9, 2023.
2 Replies to “Tales from Turkey”
Fascinating story with an important moral. Integrity is personal. A beautiful visual example of that in the form of the man mumbling to himself. I’ll check out your substack. Ric
Thank you for those observations Ric. Appreciated.