Istanbul is a fascinating city. It’s a city that has stayed the center of the world for most of its history. Popularly known in history as Constantinople, Istanbul was capital of the Eastern Roman Empire that thrived for almost two thousand years and then the Ottoman Empire for some five hundred years. Even today in modern Turkey, it is still the cultural capital of the country. Architectural masterpieces like Hagia Sophia and Galata Tower date back almost a thousand years.
However, It was not the grand history or rich culture that brought my attention to this city but rather Turkish TV shows that got quite popular during my A’Levels. During my first semester at Lums I took a History course, World after 1457, the year when a young Sultan Mehmet Faith entered the walls of Constantinople. By the time I got done with sophomore year, Turkey became a country I had to visit. Luckily, I got a summer internship in Istanbul and that’s how my Istanbul journey began.
Kadikoy is historically a Greek town in Istanbul on the Asian shore of Bosphorus. However, today it’s inhabited my mostly Turks. It’s the cultural capital of the Anatolian side of Istanbul. With a young bustling population, Kadikoy is a thunderously lively district. It’s a very happening part of Istanbul. I was part of a team of twenty highly driven, talented and inspiring university students from around the world. We were working on promoting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals in the district. We got a lot of support from the Kadikoy municipality in terms of free lunches and venue. We were working with high school students with the Genclik Sanat Markezi (Youth center of Arts) as our base. It was a beautiful wooden mansion more than hundred years old. On working days I would spend most of my time here.
After work we would hang out at Boga Bache Café or Café Bronte. One thing I absolutely loved about this district was its laid back culture that reflected in every resident. People here would love to sit, have chai and talk. Turks can talk about anything and they love to share their opinion on everything. People would sit and talk for hours; one after another cups of chai would come in. Similarly, Moda Sahil was another place where we would go every once in a while, It’s a park on the shore stretching all along the coastline. All of these places were within walking distance. And my god! We were walking 10 to 15km every day. It was also here that I realized how walking distances are very subjective. In the beginning I used to think that anything within 10 to 15 mins would make a walking distance. But my Turkish friends had different ideas. For them the whole Kadikoy district was in radius of their ‘walking distance’. So you can imagine how hard I was trying to catch up here.
For around a month I stayed with Turkish hosts. I realized very early on that all that glitters is not….. (Complete the sentence). I discovered a huge divide that existed in the modern westernized, population and the conservative population. So it made sense how Erdogan was winning elections but it also started to make sense why he faced such stern opposition from the civil society. It made sense why Turkey had been trying so hard to be a part of EU but it also started to make sense why Turkey never made it to the EU and might never will. It was an eye opening journey into the everyday life of Turkish citizens. And I realized that the picture here was not as rosy as the TV shows depicted.
Among other things, I also got to know the things that formed an important part of the Turkish identity, tobacco, chai, Raki and football. To my surprise, Turkey had finished 3rd in the 2002 Fifa world cup.
I got so involved in Turkish Football League that I ended up as a die heart fan of Besiktas Football Club; I watched pretty much every game they played the following year from Pakistan. During Besiktas’s remarkable Champion’s league run in the 2017-18 season I was probably the happiest and only Besiktas fan in Pakistan. Ogi had a great role in turning me into a Besiktas fan. Ogi is one of my closest friends in Istanbul; he was studying Computer Science at Yeditepe University in Istanbul. His number was always on my call log because every time I got lost in the city, Ogi came to the rescue. My tilt towards Besiktas was not liked by Safaq who wanted me to support Fenerbache. Safaq was the first Turkish friend I made. Actually he was the one who came to receive me at the airport when I landed in Istanbul. And I remember on our way to Kadikoy from the Airport, he talked about Fenerbache. Every time i went on the European side Safaq would be my guide. He was working in Isteklal Street so that was a plus as well. He introduced me to his friends most of whom were of Kurdish descent just like Safaq himself. Turkey is a very homogenous country in terms of ethnicities. However, the kurds have a different history and culture. Kurd areas are towards the eastern side bordering Syria and Iran. They have their own political party by the name of People’s Democratic Party that aims to represent the Kurdish people and it mostly wins all the Kurd majority regions. Through them I got a great insight into the Kurdish life. The Kurds are divided in between Turkey, Iraq and Syria.
Istanbul was an extremely huge city for me. I lived near the Sabiha Goken Airport. And my bus rides back from Kadikoy to the home would often take me over an hour. I used to drop off the bus one stop before the airport and then a five minute walk to my apartment. At multiple occasions, however, I would miss my stop and wake up at the airport. The public transport in Istanbul is extremely efficient and well connected. In order to reach my apartment I had to switch from the underground metro to the bus a couple of times. It was funny how I would miss my stop and end up at a place totally different. The first few weeks were tough but later on I understood the way things went around in Istanbul.
Our work was highly interactive and I got to know so many high school kids who were equally curious to know about Pakistan. I was really surprised to see how much Turks respected Pakistan. These kids were brave individuals who were defiant in the face of adversity. One of my students had been part of the Environmental movement that resisted the decision of cutting down trees in Istanbul. The police had to use a good amount of force to get them out of the way. All the interns were paired into groups. My co-intern was Mihaela, she was from Romania. We often talked about our countries and she told me a lot about Romania’s history, culture, politics and other issues.
Fun fact: when I returned from my road journey across western Turkey spanning over 8 cities and some three thousand kilometers. The total money I had spent on my whole trip was almost equal to the amount Mihaela had spent shopping in just 5 hours. She was a shopaholic in the truest form.
Halfway through my internship I met other interns who were working on other projects. So our project had some twenty five interns and there were other projects running parallel to us in different locations. The twenty five interns in our project became like a family, we would spend the whole day together. We would sit at Moda and share our experiences in our communities. On my very first day, I remember, I met Anthony. He was from Marseille, France and had just completed university. A very entertaining guy, over the next month we shared countless extremely funny moments. The crazy thing about him was that every time someone would sneeze, Anthony would say ‘Alhamduilah’. Later on he told me that Marseille had a very big diaspora of Arabic nations and most of his friends were Arabs. Another great intern that became an amazing friend was Irina. She was from Moldova but was in Moscow for her university. She was probably one of the most proactive people on our team. After we returned, Irina went on to visit Istanbul again. This summer she went to Vienna for an internship.
You could clearly see what colonization did around the world. Another very good friend of mine, Mehdi was from Tunisia and Rania was from Morocco. Tunisia and Morocco had been a French colony. So every time I was hanging out with them, they would unintentionally start a conversation in French and I would feel like an outsider. This goes on to tell you what an important role language plays in bringing people together. Similarly, at other occasions Iman, Tanya, Aakarsh and I would start a conversation in Urdu without even realizing it. Akarsh and Tanya were from India, they were both studying in Delhi. Tanya and I had very heated debates on Indo Pak conflict and Kashmir in particular.
Our indo pak debates became a big source of entertainment for everyone. Especially Berfu, she was one of the closest friends I had in Istanbul. She was the president of the Organizing Committee and studying law at university. Her parents went to Bodrum for a one week vacation and she invited all of us to stay with her. I met Noor and Sarah, both of them were interns from Palestine. We had a great time together and I really got to know the Palestinian perspective for the first time. Sarah’s family had moved to Malta but she was a Palestinian at heart. Noor lived in West Bank, where she still lives today.
The best part was that while we were all learning a lot of new things from the rich culture and history around us in a city like Istanbul, we were also learning a lot from each other. It was a multicultural group of people. We would go together to European side by a ferry. A lot of times we would miss the last ferry back to the Asian side, so we would take the longer route via Bosphorus Bridge. The cabs were expensive but we would pool in and survive the inflation.
We spent a day exploring The Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia. On Istiklal Street we tried the finest Turkish delights. Staying together was always a struggle. We would often break up into smaller groups with people sharing similar interests in one group. Aras and I shared a passion for History and Islamic philosophy. He was very well read and we had countless discussions. Towards the end of my trip I lived at his place for a couple of days and left my luggage with him when I left for the road trip.
I just loved the vibe of Kadikoy. It was as if everyone knew they would do fine, there was a carefree feel in the air, by the evening the parks and cafes would be full. Everyone in kadikoy would step out and spend time with friends. Ilayda was another member of the OC, the following year she became the President of the OC and had her own project. She was the friendliest of people I met in Istanbul. She might be visiting Pakistan soon as well.
For some weird reason the most memorable part of the trip for me is the time I have spent on the Public transport, on the metros that bisected the city, on the buses that ran through the busy highways, on the underground metros that flew below the roads and on the ferries that ruined the ocean’s calm. Maybe because in those long hour bus rides or thirty minute ferry rides that cruised through the Bosphorus, it felt as if the things had slowed down like the ocean or the sky itself. You could live in the moment and look back at how civilizations have flourished here in history and how they continue to flourish today and how every second you spend here has become a small, unnoticeable part of that magnificent history.
Cities like Istanbul force you to think on what’s the purpose of your existence, in a city that has consumed emperors and Sultans for thousands of years, what mark have you left? Big or small, it doesn’t matter. Because time passes and with it pass the Sultans and the emperors and the rulers and the beggars and the homeless, it doesn’t matter anyway or does it? I will figure that out in future travels I guess. But for now, good bye!
I hope you enjoyed traveling through Turkey with me as much as I did.
I hope to write soon from some other part of the World.