Why Turkey? It's explicitly unanswerable

The question of Turkey: simply unanswerableSomething mystical wanders the streets of Istanbul right around dinnertime. As sunset drags its last slow light over the city one can feel it. Up from the cracks in the cobblestone streets of Sultanahmet rises an almost palpable feeling of insight into one’s own role in the inexorable passage of time, like the steamy byproduct of the fermentation of history. Droopy-lidded cats that spent the day napping on centenarian graves, legs dripping over the sides in the lazy way that only cats can sleep, wake and stretch their toes. The Aksam [ed. the Muslim call to prayer as it is called in Turkey] sounds from the minarets.

And in this end-of-day haze, connections are made over cups of thick Turkish coffee, through the rattle of backgammon dice, wafting in the candied smoke of apple flavored tobacco. These connections linger on, even after memories have been filed away in the stacks of dormancy. I have seen a pattern emerge since the month I spent in the city that straddles continents.

It seems that each time I pass a dondurma vendor hoisting an elastic hunk of ice cream into the air behind a tree of cones, or think of the alleys of Taksim crowded with dancers, or enjoy a lamb kebab, someone I met in Turkey contacts me soon after. (Case in point: the day after the nascent idea for this article came to mind, up popped the chat window: a friend was trying to remember the name of the hostel where I tended bar for a few weeks.)

I still keep regular contact with a good number of people I met there. Some will remember with me the brilliant alleyways of lamp vendors in the Grand Bazaar, others the redolence of the Spice Market - a place impossible to forget, for it is piled high with scents, a kaleidoscopic buffet for the memory. A select few will relish the night of the taxi race to Taksim square, some (the losers) irked at their cabbie’s prudence, others just glad to step out of the vehicle alive.

But it’s something more than the memories. These shared experiences are merely the media through which we comment on that special something instilled in us by our visits to Istanbul. Trying to define it is turning out to be a long and Byzantine process, so let me illustrate:

I met Tommy somewhere on Sultanahmet’s main drag at the sun’s most merciless hour. He invited me to come check out his cousin’s café, and contrary to everything I’d learned about how to deal with restaurant and carpet store promoters - ignore them or you’ll never get to where you’re going - I said yes. We drank fresh lemonade (somehow the sweetest I’ve ever had, even though Tommy - whose name is really Hakan - assured me it contained no sugar) and talked about the contents of each other’s iPods. I met his cousin Atakan, whom he introduces to foreigners as Al Pacino - physiognomic similarities between the two. Tommy had worked in a carpet shop on an army base in Iraq and spoke English well. Over the weeks, I brought friends from the hostel to drink wine and convinced hungry tourists to sit down and have a bite, particularly the iskender kebab with homemade yogurt…delicious. My commission was paid in cups of coffee.

I hung out with Tommy every day. We went to his favorite restaurants and shishabars, to the “best bathhouse in the city” where a hairy old Turkish man cracked our neck bones more times than should be possible. He even offered to rent me a room in his place and find me work there. My favorite memory of Tommy is from the café one evening, just as the crepuscular relief from the day’s heat began to sweep down the alley. We drank apple tea in the company of his then-girlfriend, Maria, a half Spanish native of Istanbul. With the mix of languages spoken by the three of us, we could have played a game of telephone in which I would tell Tommy a sentence in English, he would repeat it to Maria in Turkish, and she would repeat it back to me in Spanish, and we would have all been understood. It was fun with one person always being temporarily out of the loop, until one of the other two was gracious enough to translate. I asked Maria in Spanish if she was a 'Tommyista'. (The Spanish she spoke to me was more vibrant than the Turkish she used with her boyfriend, I believe because it made Tommy jealous, which wasn’t hard. She was beautiful.) Of course she was, she said, which was why she loved him. After watching the emotion come to a boil in Tommy, I recapped our conversation in English for him. 

"Istanbul is rife with travellers making list of things to see and do next time!

'Tommyism' is his personal philosophy of peace and love and friendship, a live-and-let-live approach to life that finds a good deal of its inspiration in Bob Marley lyrics. It’s a belief system borne out of the long-term animosity between the Turks and Tommy's people, the Kurds, a struggle of which he has had enough. Personally, socially, historically. And as a belief system, it’s nothing new. In reality, it is not a philosophy at all. It’s Tommy’s adept way of wielding the Istanbuli power of connection; you’re not just his friend, you’re a Tommyist. And like that, the city has attached itself to you, an you to it, and you know you'll never forget this place. 

It is common to be asked about your trip to Turkey, and invariably, the question is "why". The country must not readily come to mind when the travel bug bites - indeed, the reason I went was because I’d never before thought of going. The truth is that the question is explicitly unanswerable. None of us can describe exactly what brought us here, but we’re glad it did. We could try to list off its present attractions: the opulent Topkapı palace or the dank, subterranean, Medusa’s breath air of the Basilica Cistern; cloudy glasses of rakı or the profusion of unfamiliar street gastronomy; waiters that speak five languages or the friendly local who wants to practice his English as he shares his city with you; the whirling of the dervishes or the undulating midsections of belly dancers; these are only the physical manifestations of something we lack the language to describe.

Istanbul has been doing this for centuries; that’s its thing. A perfunctory list of the city’s historical guestbook (which is what you’d get from this indolent chronicler) would serve only to be redundant and inadequate here. But again, specific examples of who came here and when are our best way to explain to ourselves its venerable magnetism that once attracted the monarchs of the world’s greatest empires, and now draws endless populations of rubbernecked, camera-ready tourists. No matter what manner we employ to comprehend this city’s cosmopolitan lure, we find that it is a process that cannot be adequately realized in one trip. Istanbul is rife with travellers making lists of things to see and do next time

see url About the Author

Cody Copeland has been teaching English abroad and traveling for the past four years. He studied Creative Writing at Texas Tech University. He has published short stories in The Istanbul Review and Every Second Sunday: The Seoul Writer's Workshop Anthology 2010. He currently lives in Oaxaca, Mexico.


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 Full name: Republic of Turkey

here  Population: 79.75 million (CIA, 2012)

 Capital: Ankara

 Largest city: Istanbul

 Area: 783,562 sq.km. (302,534 sq. mi.)

 Major languages: Turkish, Kurdish, Other

 Major religions: Muslim, Other

 Monetary unit: Turkish Lira

 GDP per capita: US $14,600

 Internet domain: .tr

 International dialling code: +90

 Source: CIA World Factbook