Pieces Of Turkish Delight

In the midst of heinous midterms last
fall, on a whim, I decided I would kick out
2008 and welcome in 2009 someplace far
away from campus. Thus I bought myself a
roundtrip ticket to Istanbul, Turkey. A new
world for a new life in a new year.
My best friend for the past 22 years, Sam
Atchley, has been living in Istanbul for the
past several years studying and performing
Turkish clarinet. It was time I went to visit
him in his comfortable surroundings, the
place he now calls home.
He greeted me at the airport with big
hugs and sloppy kisses, and we were
immediately whisked away in a little yellow
cab. We raced down endless streets in a
fashion that resembled shear mayhem. To
watch the Turks drive, it’s a wonder why
anyone ever bothered to paint lines in the
road or post maximum speed signs since no
one adheres to either.
We arrived at Sam’s apartment building,
along a cobblestone street just off Istiklal
Cadesi a main thoroughfare in Old City. His
home was located near the famous Taksim
Square, nestled among thousands of other
old shabby apartment buildings in the
Sultanahmet neighborhood, which even in
Turkish Monopoly is considered the slums.
We climbed four flights of pitch-black stairs
rank with the smell of burning coal, backed
up plumbing and cat urine, a signature smell
of Istanbul.
Inside his two-story unit that
encompassed the entire top two stories
of the building, the smell became a solid
wall of stale cigarettes, beer – backed up
plumbing. It was the quintessential bachelor
pad. Three men lived there, but many
different people frequented “The Palace”
as it is known in their circle of friends. It
is where parties, hookups and live Turkish
music take place on a daily basis. It was all
completely foreign in comparison to my
docile life in Anchorage.
That first day I mostly slept off my jetlag
and awoke in time for evening, which is
when not only Sam, but all of Istanbul,
really seems to come alive.
We first went out to a club to hear live
music. It was an infusion of Western jazz
and classic Turkish, Greek and Balkan
sounds. What was amazing was not only
the brilliance of the musicianship, but also
that the club was packed to the gills with
writhing, pulsating bodies both young and
old. I thought about America, and how such
music might draw a middle-aged crowd that
would be sitting silent and polite.
Sam and I went home late that night and
talked over a bottle of Rakuh, an anisebased
liquor, the Turkish drink of choice,
until early in the morning.
At 5:30 a.m., I heard a haunting male
voice rise from the cobblestones down
below, up into the warm confines of The
Palace.
“It’s the Ezan,” said Sam.
“It’s the call to prayer.”
I went outside on the terrace to see if I could
find the man singing.
“No,” Sam said. “It’s not one man, but
many. It happens five times a day.”
I listened, and sure enough, he was
right. I could see mosques all over the city.
From one, an amplified voice would sing
for a measure, then it would ring out in a
different voice from another mosque down
the way. Underneath it I could hear the
Muslim men at prayer, singing, praying.
I looked out across the massive city, the
sun casting a glow of grey and gold dust,
and listened to the music of the Islamic
faith. It was beautiful. As an audiophile, a
lover of music, I had found pure euphoria.
Everything in Istanbul was music.
Although I rarely was awake in the
daytime during my stay in Istanbul, and
thus did very few touristy things, every
night I experienced another spectrum of this
delight. Even on New Year’s Eve at Sam’s
Palace, where a raging party was held, live
Turkish music was played all night long.
On the few days that I was awake before
sunset, I would venture out into the city
and lackadaisically peruse the streets. I
experienced a hamam, a Turkish bathhouse,
and rummaged through old antique stores
and shops filled with frivolous gewgaws.
I even embarked on a journey into the
labyrinths of Kapal? ?ars?, the Grand Bazaar
and the M?s?r ?ars?s?, the Spice Bazaar,
whereupon I found that I am tremendously
good at the art of haggling. I would walk up
to a vendor, who generally had lured me in
with some lyrical phrase like, “I welcome to
you. Very good prices today.”
“How much?” I would ask.
“Fifty lira,” he might say.
“No. Ten.”
“You hurt my emotions. That is too low.
30.”
“No. Ten,” I would say nonchalantly.
“Chai?” he would ask and then talk into
an intercom on the wall. Within minutes,
hot black tea would be served on a platter
in small vials.
We would sip daintily and continue the
sale until he finally caved in at ten.
“Very good deal. Very, very good deal,”
he would say sadly as he carefully wrapped
my wares in bubble wrap. And then he
would look up and give me a heartfelt smile.
“Enjoy Istanbul. Istanbul is a wonderful
place, no?”
Everything is negotiable in Istanbul:
dancing, dating, marriage, meals and chai.
In just ten days, I had haggled enough
fodder for a rich novel. I had entertained
and refused four marriage proposals, eaten
several tons of exotic cuisine and celebrated
the most wondrous of friendships.
Returning home, I met a man on the plane
who had been traveling for three months
through many countries. He told me that
of all the places he had been he had least
enjoyed Istanbul. He found it dangerous
and hard to find anyplace to go out at
night where he felt safe. I thought of all the
hidden clubs and restaurants I had explored,
all the mysterious foods, the complicated
and enticing rhythms and sounds, and
fascinating conversations. He evidently did
not visit the same place I had. The city I met
was more than just an experience; it was the
perfect framework for the year to come.