I was deeply touched by Molly Newborn’s June travel article Istanbul – the magic, the madness & the mosques. I was in Istanbul in 1958, exactly 50 years ago, my head full of Pierre Loti,
taking a summer course in Turkish for foreign students at Istanbul University.
It was the most beautiful city I had seen, at least its skyline of domes and
By the way Bosporus is a strait between two seas, not a river (Mr. Richler,
please correct me if I am wrong) although it may look like a river if you don’t taste its salt water.
Ms. Newborn’s first impressions were bitter. She was hassled by peddlers offering to sell
her a carpet and by cavaliers hoping to date her. They could tell she was a
tourist. Maybe the way she was dressed in jeans or her typical tourist
behaviour, looking around with curious starry eyes the way no local would.
Judging by her photo we would expect her to draw admiring glances not only in
Turkey, though we can’t expect her to accept an invitation for a date, especially a crudely formulated
one from a stranger. She goes back to her hotel room to cry for the rest of the
day. She is obviously a sensitive young woman. It may be her weakness as a journalist, but it is her
strength as a writer.
Well, carpet sellers or other peddlers did not run after me. I was a student,
and students, even foreign students, were not expected to have much money.
Ms. Newborn is rescued by Ahmet, a former Turkish classmate from UCLA, who gives
her a guided tour of the city. She is “stunned” by the grandeur of the Hagia Sophia. I remember how excited I was, as a
Christian, seeing what was perhaps the most beautiful Christian church ever
built. Mehmet the Conqueror had transformed the church into a mosque, adding
the first of the four minarets. The secularist President Ataturk turned it into
A house of worship has a soul that a mere museum cannot have. Something Ms.
Newborn missed. She shows us a photo of the Blue Mosque, illuminated at night,
displaying the inscription “DONYA AHIRETIN TARLASIDIR” (“The world is the ploughed field for after-life”). Yet, one of the wonders of the Hagia Sophia is its Christian mosaics which
had been plastered over during the four centuries when the building was serving
as a mosque. The subject matter may not have been objectionable to the Muslims
who venerate the Prophet Jesus and his Mother but a mosque may not contain any pictorial
representations, viewed as idolatry. To most if not all Turks, it would have been tantamount to a symbolic surrender of the city to the
Greeks, a nightmare, which had almost happened at the end of World War I.
Ataturk’s victory over the Greeks and their British and French allies saved the city for
Turkey and for Islam.
When visiting the Blue Mosque, Ms. Newborn feels “uncomfortable” at being asked to cover her head. Come on, young lady! Haven’t you ever wrapped your head with a scarf to protect yourself from Canadian
wind? I don’t remember whether Western women tourists were asked to cover their heads when
visiting mosques in Turkey in my time. I remember that we all had to take our
Ms. Newborn is not much impressed by the Islamic call to prayer, appreciated by
so many non-Muslims, including Byron who had fought against the Turks in the
Greek War of Independence:
“’Twas musical, yet sadly sweet...” (The Siege of Corinth)
On her own Ms. Newborn takes the train across the Galata Bridge to the
Dolmabahge Palace. A train across the Galata Bridge? I am sure the “train” here is a misprint for tram, or is it an innovation since my time?
After her guided tour of the city Ms. Newborn spends the night partying with
Ahmet and his friends in the bars of Taxim (her spelling). That is quite in
character with the society. Unlike most Muslims (Arabs, Iranians, Pakistanis)
the Turks drink openly, without inhibition, even taking pride in their drinking
prowess. Except that those were strictly men-only sessions. It was not
considered dignified for Turkish ladies to drink raki. I wonder if there were
Turkish girls partying that night?
Please note the spelling: Taksim. There is no X in Turkish. It is an Arabic
loanword meaning “division” or “partition.” Taksim Square is the centre of Pera or Beyogiu, the formerly “Frankish” suburb of Istanbul with more bars than mosques.
In the end Ms. Newborn forgets her initial disappointment and is won over by the
city: “Istanbul is magical. There is no other place that compares.” I haven’t been back to Istanbul for 50 years.
Ms. Newborn has captured the spirit of the place and brought back precious
memories of my youth.
Thank you, Molly!
Çok tesekkür ederim!
– Jan Witold Weryho, NDG
Dear Ms. Weryho,
You are so very welcome! I was delighted to learn about your experience in
Istanbul 50 years ago. It seems as though things haven’t changed too much.
We were asked to take off our shoes and cover our heads upon entering all
mosques. Taking off my shoes made me as uneasy as covering my head. There were water fountains outside all mosques
where the men washed their feet (and face and arms?) before entering. I found a
crowd of about 30 women jammed into the ladies’ restroom with three sinks outside the Blue Mosque washing their feet. As a foreigner it is not my place to complain, especially since entering the
stunningly beautiful mosque negated any uneasy feelings.
Ahmet presented me with my first glass of Raki during our lunch under the Galata
Bridge. The first of many. There certainly was no shortage of alcohol for the
ladies in Taksim! There were girls in Ahmet’s circle of friends who joined us in the festivities, and they could have easily
passed as Americans. This took me by surprise since I was advised to “cover up” while traveling around Turkey, but when it came to Istanbul the girls
definitely weren’t shy to be sexy. This is a far cry from Urfa, which I will be writing about in
a future issue.
I did come to enjoy the Islamic call to prayer. It was a bit of a jolt when I
heard it for the first time without warning. It was a constant reminder wherever I went, saying “Listen! You’re in Turkey!” And I certainly appreciated it when it woke me up to catch my flight.
Thanks again for your reply! I am so happy we were able to share our stories
with one another.
– Molly, Los Angeles
Labels: Features, Letters, Molly, Travel