Istanbul: A shock to the system

I can think of no better way to say it. Istanbul, Turkey has been a shock to my system.

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.

16 replies »

  1. Sara, as an American who has lived in Istanbul for much of the past 40 years, let me say that your cultural shock was mostly unfounded. Almost all of those veiled women you saw were Arab tourists. The city is full of Arabs, some escaping the Arab spring, and others just out to have a wonderful time in this much more liberal city. Many of these Arab women are heavily veiled. There is only one small Turkish neighborhood in Istanbul where many women wear this kind of veil and I doubt that you would know how to find that 6 square block place (most Turks could not either). Turkish women work as academics, doctors, engineers, etc. etc. Back in the day, an American professor friend of mine said that when he got a female PhD engineering student, she was almost certainly Turkish. Come again to Istanbul and this time spend more time and take a clearer look at what you are seeing. This is a wonderful and exciting place, to visit and to live.

  2. So basically, you think everybody else you see is local. And tourists come only from the ‘West’. Maybe it was not the Scandinavia….

  3. You must not have seen part of the Istanbul I saw when I last visited 7 months ago. I saw numerous women from the moment I landed until when I went back and most did not wear head coverings. Turkey is pretty secular, especially in Istanbul. Even the ones with head coverings were out and about quite a bit. None of the local women I met though wore the coverings.

    It’s a muslim country, but it’s much like the United States when it comes to religion. Many people believe in whatever religion, but they aren’t that serious about it. You have groups that are serious about it, and groups that are in no way serious about it, then you have many people who say “Yeah I go sometimes.”

  4. As an American married to a Turk, I am grateful to Sojourner and the others for their balanced and knowledgeable responses.

    Dividing our time between Turkey and New York, my husband and I were last in Istanbul in June and July. For the first time ever, I noticed a lot of women dressed head-to-toe in black. Local religious converts coming out of the woodwork? Nope! Arab tourists hitting the malls for the second annual Istanbul Shopping Festival.

    As a native English speaker, I ran interference for some visiting Egyptians in local stores who couldn’t be understood in their native Arabic but needed a friendly intermediary to listen in English and relay their questions in Turkish. (Today’s generation is taught a second language starting in junior high; it may or may not be English.)

    It’s true that 99% of Turks are Muslims, but the vast majority are secular. Over the years, I’ve encountered dozens of highly-educated professional women in Turkey blazing new trails in business, commerce, and other arenas. Starting with my 88 year old mother-in-law, who retired as am airline executive. Yes, there are pockets of inequality yet to be resolved (same as the United States, right?) but my overall impression of modern Turkish society is that it is liberal, progressive, and surprisingly easygoing.

    Istanbul the city is larger than Switzerland the country. You can’t cover it in just a weekend or a week. I encourage all travelers to put Istanbul and Turkey on their “bucket list” . You are sure to find it fascinating and rewarding, and chances are you’ll want to come back for more!

  5. Istanbul truly is a beautiful place and somewhere I encourage every travel-lover to visit. This post was published as just one part of a series as I visit various countries, and it’s only one traveler’s perspective as a first-time visitor to Turkey. Perhaps it sounds narrow-minded, but writing only about the beauty I see would not have made for an entirely truthful perspective on my part. Regardless, I appreciate the comments. It helps me (and I’m sure others) to continue learning along the way.

  6. I lived in Ortaköy. I haven’t seen such things you described.I dont know how you described in a medieval tone. I don’t need to describe it. Just goole the word “ortakoy istanbul” and you will get the image.

  7. It is a nice article as it shows perspective of a tourist from West who haven’t been to Turkey, I can’t blame you on your view on religion in Istanbul as most people think Turkey is a Muslim country when it is a secular republic actually, although after current AKP Government came to power religion became more obvious and supported, most people still are secular and modern, AKP is like Democratic Christians in political sense so they promote religion and their views. On the other hand Burka (Black Dress) is banned in Turkey so those are the tourists wearing them and some religious extremist, religious women in Turkey dress much more different then any other, they wear headscarf with brands and wear designer clothes they have their own fashion and fashion magazine “Ala”. In order to understand Turkey and Istanbul you need a month in the city to realize not everyone living in the city are Turkish and religious people can be secular as well, Istanbul is a mystery itself in many ways 🙂

  8. Yeah, I actually live in Ortakoy and over the past 5 years or so I’ve noticed a marked increase in the number of women wearing the niqab or burqa, but Sojourner is right, ESPECIALLY in Ortakoy it’s all tourists. Every turk who lives in Ortakoy (like, 100% of the ones I’ve ever met) are either totally unveiled or just a headscarf, but for the most part it’s actually less religious than most other areas of the city. Early in the morning while you were there the ONLY people who would walk along the seaside in Ortakoy are tourists, all the women/men who live here would have been hustling off to work.

    Also, not that it matters, but the skyline is not particularly ancient… I’m sure when Sojourner first arrived they can tell you that the city was still mostly forested and calm, it’s just hte last 50-60 years that the massive buildup of the city has really started. Ortakoy was still dirt roads and farmland… This booming metropolis you’re talking about (and one filled with Gulfies no less) is totally new….

    • Thanks to both Sara and the commenters. This is a part of the world that I, like most Americans, don’t know much about. The exchange here is quite informative.

  9. Great first reactions Sara. It reminded me of my first trip there while on a European tour in 2002. I loved it so much it drew me back and I ended up living there for 3 years and marrying a Turk! I saw change while I was there, and a lot especially since I’ve left. But I’d have to agree with the previous comments of the no-women and veiled-women. In Sultanahmet, the historical (ie touristy) area, most locals never go there…so unless you work in that area other Turks assume you’re a tourist. One time my wife was walking there and the bazaar salesmen kept trying to peg her language to draw her in … Italian .. Spanish … Hebrew … anything but Turkish!
    Thanks for sharing your experiences with the world, and try to go back there for a few days with an informed local taking you around. You’ll love it even more! After 3 years and numerous trips after I’m still learning about the city and its people. Enjoy!

  10. Jason,

    Very true about the grand bazaar in Sultanahmet. If they think you’re a tourist, they will talk to you. If they think you’re a local though or Turkish, they won’t. This is what a local who’s lived there all his life told me. I am able to pass as many different ethnicities, and while I am only a very small percentage Turkish, everyone seemed to think I was a local in Istanbul everywhere I went. On my last trip there, I went roaming around aimlessly and decided to walk through the Bazaar another time. I was by myself this time, instead of with my friends (who are American looking). Not one person said a single word to me in the 20 minutes I walked through the Bazaar. It was nice, but kind of odd 🙂 This is a big mindset of a lot of different countries. If you’re a tourist, it means you have money. If they think you’re a local, there’s a risk that you might not have money so they barely talk to you in the tourist areas.

  11. I would like to thank all the “insiders” in enlightening Sara and others.
    Sara’s “Istanbul Shock” was a shock to me.

  12. $8 a meal?. Must have been eating at quite low profile dineries (in the range of McDonalds, Subway and etc..) I just returned from my short trip to Turkey. By looking at my credit card history, there is no food thing below $11.40 ( which wasn’t even a restaurant but a cafe.)

  13. Although the buzz has died down on this particular thread, I would like to share another tourist account of Istanbul that may help balance things out: http://www.asianage.com/travel/irresistible-istanbul-418 .

    If nothing else, it will corroborate the premise of the “Bland Men and the Elephant” and “Rashomon” riffs: What you see depends as much on the viewer as on that which is seen. Every traveler deserves to have their own Istanbul!