Turkey: Under Construction

Lily Iona MacKenzie's picture

Istanbul wasn’t what I expected. Derelict buildings, many abandoned for years, others trapped in disrepair, doors hanging on one hinge, windows missing, exterior walls bare of paint and understructure exposed. Istanbul—a jumble of yellow taxis jostling for space on the narrow corridors, thousands of pedestrians dodging cars and struggling to cross streets without being hit. 



Flickr cc: Moya Brenn


It wasn’t Europe any longer, though parts of the city are on the European side of the Bosphorus. Nor was it the West. It was Asia, only the residents pronounced it “Ah-sha,” with a kind of reverential air. The word sounded foreign, even in their mouths, but for us it was like entering Alice’s rabbit hole, everything turned inside out and upside down. Under construction. 

The rules we’d learned for walking and driving no longer applied—solid lines became broken and vice versa. Red lights meant green. Stop signs? Just ignore them. And cars are built to speed and pass everything on the road. 

In the Sultanahmet area, the heart of historic old Istanbul, carpet salesmen lurk around every corner, repeating their spiel—“You American? Come to my place for apple tea. I want to be your friend.” 

Istanbul carpets.

Photo: Sharon Yee


The press of people on the sidewalks, many aimless. Men as donkeys, hauling carts laden with watermelons or tomatoes. While I’m describing the Sultanahmet part of Istanbul, we had similar experiences everywhere we went along Turkey’s Southwest coast. 

Did these incidents turn us off? No. They actually made us fall in love not only with Istanbul, but also with the other parts of Turkey we visited. 

But it took time for the country to work its magic on us.

On our first night, we had dinner at Hamdi, which gave us wonderful water views as well as our first look at the Blue Mosque from the outside. Lit up at night, it’s a stunning sight, like something from outer space. Domes of different sizes resemble multiple breasts and are layered like a wedding cake. Six spires that have a serious affinity to spears flank the structure. 


Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Blue Mosque. Flickr cc: SuperUbO


Before my trip, Turkey had called up images of the Arabian Nights, mysterious to a Canadian-born American. But once there, the Arabian Nights’ reference faltered: I didn’t see men wearing pajamas, a towel wrapped around their head, and golden slippers with a curled-up toe. Many looked like the guys on American streets, wearing t-shirts and jeans, though some, especially the older men, had the kind of groomed mustache I’d expected to find. 

Still, this definitely wasn’t California. It also wasn’t the East. Located in such a pivotal area, Turkey has one foot in both the West and the East. Its historical roots go deep and seem tangled with every other civilization. Consequently, there’s nothing straightforward or predictable about the country or its people. 

It’s been on the verge of becoming a distinct nation since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk took hold at the time of WWI and hammered it into existence. But the problems he faced at the collapse of the Ottoman Empire still plague the people and the land. A strong pull exists from the Islamic conservatives, particularly the more fervently religious followers of today’s Islamist president. Retreating from Ataturks’ militant secularism, they seem to want to align themselves with his right-wing Islamist nationalism. As a result, secular Turkey appears threatened. 

Yet we left feeling hopeful, the highlight of our time there the conversations and meetings we had with the new “Young Turks,” as important and potentially influential as those young officers referred to as the “Young Turks” in an Ataturk biography. They hold the promise for the country’s future. 

After breakfast one morning, we headed for the Eminoiu ferry terminal and joined the crowd trying to get aboard. No order. Everyone pushing and shoving, wanting to get the best seats. Of course, none of this was necessary because there were plenty of seats for all. We sat on the inside, next to a window we could open. It was exciting to be heading up the Bosphorous for the first time—an hour and a half cruise each way. 


Cruising the Bosphorus


Soon we were conversing with a young woman who had attended university in America. She believed Turkish women needed to think carefully before they either wore or removed the head covering. Having grown up in a liberal family, she didn’t feel pressure from her parents to do so or conform to any particular religion. They wanted her to make that choice herself. 

We met another young Turk in a restaurant in the old part of Istanbul, a Kurdish waiter who served us. The Kurds aren’t unlike our blacks in the oppression they’ve suffered. He had taught himself English and many other languages. Verbal, self-assured, he moved among the tables like a general in charge of his troops, making us all feel confident in his hands. He had loaned the café his collection of American jazz, which we enjoyed listening to. At the end of our meal, he brought us Turkish tea in little glasses, stating, “It’s on me.” It was a lovely parting gift.

On the ferry to Canakkale, on our way to visit Troy, we met a group of high-spirited high school students from the Black Sea area. They approached us immediately, eager to converse with Americans in their limited English and wanting to have their pictures taken with us. One of their teachers motioned a student to let me use her binoculars. That led to a wonderful few minutes of chatting with him and the students before we landed. They were intensely interested in us and welcoming. 

Farther down the coast, in Fetihye, when we picked up tickets for a day cruise, we had a long, deep conversation with Charles, another young man, about politics, Turkish and American. He was as knowledgeable about our country as we were ignorant about his. But we still managed to communicate and learn from one another. Fethiye is located on the site of the ancient city of Telmessos, the ruins of which can be seen in the city (the Hellenistic theatre by the main quay). Telmessos was the most important city of Lycia, with a recorded history starting in the 5th century BC.


Telmessos ancient theatre, Fethiye

Telmessos. Wikimedia Commons: Ana al'ain


In Pamukkale, while relaxing around the pool after a day of sightseeing with several busloads of Russians, we met Marat, a photographer who wanted to take our picture, for a price, of course. We had our own Canon, so we didn’t see the need to have our picture taken. But we felt cheap and embarrassed not to have done so. We ended up having a lengthy conversation with him, a handsome, Dionysian looking fellow with curly dark hair and intense brown eyes. Though we didn’t purchase a photo, we learned that Marat had graduated from college with a teaching credential, but he couldn’t find any jobs. There were too many applicants and not enough positions available. But we shared email addresses and have “friended” each other on Facebook where we’ve continued our dialogue. 





When we left Antalya, the gateway to the southern Mediterranean area, to return to Istanbul for three more days, we stopped overnight at Afyon, located in western Turkey’s countryside. Our Turkish travel agent had booked us into the Orucoglue Thermal Hotel, and when we arrived, we thought we had reached a Turkish Disneyland. A huge kids’ slide and garish signs announced the place. The largest hotel we had stayed in, it was very busy. The main floor had oodles of sofas and chairs clustered in seating units. And several glass elevators traversed the interior of the four-story structure. 

The best part of the place was the individual rooms with thermal pools that we could rent. After unpacking, we used one for a luxurious hour. The pool was 7 x 7 and 5 feet deep. There was an all marble area next to the pool where we could cool off. It held a sink with pans to fill with water and pour over us. It also had an outer room with a mirror and two lawn chairs for cooling off and relaxing. 

The hotel itself seemed to be filled with mainly Turks, a new experience. Most of the places along the Aegean and Mediterranean coasts had been teeming with international tourists. For the first time, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. An outsider. The Turks there seemed to represent a cross section of the country, from women wearing burkas, their faces covered except for their eyes, to a bleached blond sporting tons of make up and tight clothes and showing her décolletage, as well as everything in between. 

Once again, we struck up a conversation with Serif, a young Turkish woman, who was born in Germany but whose parents are Turkish. She handled the hotel’s public relations. She was very with it, very modern, and very educated. Though 23 and still living at home under her parents’ authority, she didn’t feel she had to wear a veil or scarf to show her belief in God. She goes to prayer, but she also drinks and believes in living with the man she loves before marrying him. From growing up in Germany, she has more of a European sensibility, yet she feels Turkish. Her mother also is more liberal, though she wears a scarf. Serif said, “It’s the same everywhere: the people in the hinterland are much more conservative and traditional; nearer the coast they open up. Become more liberal.”

We were clearly in the hinterland. Not many people there spoke English, causing us to have a more authentic Turkish experience. And the people we encountered in the lobby, restaurant, and hallways were unwelcoming—except for the staff. No one smiled or looked at us. But after we dined at the buffet, we heard Turkish folk music and followed the sounds to another room. 
An older man was playing a stringed instrument and singing. A large group of kids danced and joined in the singing. We stood around watching and listening, and while we were standing there, a woman walked up to us and asked if we spoke English. She was from New Jersey, Turkish born, but left when she was 15 for America. She returns every year and still has a home in Istanbul. She invited us to sit with her, a sister, and a friend. She said she never had to wear a scarf growing up, and she wasn’t happy about all the religious types at the hotel and their intolerance. She said, “They don’t like the folk music. They only like their religious songs.”

But we liked it, and we three women, along with my husband, got up and danced together, a mix of American free style and Middle Eastern mash. We shook our shoulders. We wiggled our hips. And I finally felt inside the culture and not just a tourist.

The next day, we returned to Istanbul changed. My husband and I felt much more affection for the city and understood why people fall under its spell. It was like returning home. Instead of that ancient city seeming to be a jumble of dislocated and abandoned buildings, the ruins are part of the attraction, an emblem of Turkey: all of the country is here in one way or another. If you don’t love Istanbul, then you can’t love Turkey. 





A Canadian by birth, a high school dropout, and a mother at 17, in her early years, Lily Iona MacKenzie supported herself as a stock girl in the Hudson’s Bay Company, as a long distance operator for the former Alberta Government Telephones, and as a secretary (Bechtel Corp sponsored her into the States). She also was a cocktail waitress at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, briefly broke into the male-dominated world of the docks as a longshoreman (and almost got her legs broken), founded and managed a homeless shelter in Marin County, and eventually earned two Master’s degrees (one in Creative writing and one in the Humanities). She has published reviews, interviews, short fiction, poetry, travel pieces, essays, and memoir in over 140 American and Canadian venues. Fling, one of her novels, will be published in July 2015 by Pen-L Publishing. Bone Songs, another novel, will be published in 2016. Her poetry collection All This was published in 2011. She also teaches writing at the University of San Francisco, is vice-president of USF's part-time faculty union, paints, and travels widely with her husband. Visit her blog at: http://lilyionamackenzie.wordpress.com.




All photos courtesy and copyright Natalie Sayin, Turkish Travel, except where noted