It all started when our plane arrived 45 minutes early (but curiously took off 10 minutes late) into Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. Delirious and exhausted, we exited the plane at 4:30a.m. to find about 20 robed Muslim men and women scattered around the arrival gate on their hands and knees. They had been participating in one of their five daily prayers while waiting for a flight.
I had slept for about 20 minutes since leaving Copenhagen, Denmark and nearly forgot what continent we were on, let alone that we were entering a predominately Muslim country. I gave myself a mental reminder that we weren’t in Kansas anymore, then continued on to passport control.
When we finally made our way to Ortaköy, the neighborhood we planned to stay in for the first three days, we took a seat along the Bosphorus and waited for the city to awake. It was 7:30a.m., and we saw no sign of life except a few lonely fishermen and a group of stray dogs and cats roaming for dropped scraps.
Where are all the women? I thought, as I looked around. As I reflected back on our morning, I realized we had passed only a handful of women – and they sat among us on the shuttle bus from the airport. I have seen reports indicating that men do outnumber women by a small proportion, but it certainly seems more dramatic when roaming the streets. When I inquired about this to some locals, they explained that many of the conservative Muslim women just don’t leave their homes often.
Those women who wear burkas appeared intimidating at first glance. Of course, I have seen women in burkas before, but never so many in one city. Some wear one large scarf around their heads, leaving their faces and clothes exposed. But, others walk the streets covered head to toe in long, black burkas, exposing nothing but their eyes. On especially sunny days, these women also wear sunglasses, leaving not one part of their bodies visible but an occasional glimpse of the hand.
When it comes to fast pace and loud culture, Istanbul is New York City on steroids. The prices, however – those better equate to something one would find while eating dinner in rural Nebraska. Cheap. We can buy bottled water off the streets for 50 cents. My impossible-to-finish large dinner last night cost me eight dollars…and had my eyes been the same size as my stomach, it would have cost me four. People shout during casual conversations and do so even in confined public places. Paired with the sounds of honking cabs, screaming business owners and the five-times-daily Muslim calls to prayer, the city rarely seems still.
Few people speak English in Istanbul. While I certainly understand that Turkish natives speak Turkish, the limited English surprised me for a city that attracts so many international tourists. The culture overall radiates impatience, which has posed a whole new meaning to the word “challenge” while attempting Turkish-English conversations.
Men have no problem showing affection toward other men – a part of the Turkish culture I wish we better embraced in the United States. Men greet one other with cheek kisses, link arms while walking in the streets, and sit with one arm around the other while waiting for ferries. This caught me off guard at first, but I immediately admired it.
Perhaps it was spending the previous week in Scandinavia that created my bombshell awakening in Istanbul. It could have also been the city’s visibly dramatic variety of religious practice, 13.5 million people pushing through Italy-sized streets or the men’s uncomfortably aggressive personalities that did me in. I can only assume that the combination of these chaotic factors paired with a peacefully beautiful ancient skyline created my unpredicted puzzlement.
For better or for worse, Istanbul has been a shock to my system. But, I suppose we could all use a little extra jolt once in a while.