Saturday, August 14, 2010

Istanbul: Defying Cliches since 1454

I wake up each moring and this is my view out the window of the flat my good friend Yigal has allowed us to use. Pull head off of pillow to the right and I see Asia... to the left, Europe... and all around me... I'm in Istanbul, a city that is plagued by cliches that can never come close to describing it. I've been waking up rather refreshed these days, granted that at three in the morning some kids run through the back alleys beating drums.It happens to be Ramadan (Ramazan in Turkish) and the drummers are waking people to eat before the fast begins at sunrise. Istanbul is a city that too often gets more than its share of cliches. East vs. West, Europe meets Islam, Old meets New, you name it and some hack writer has applied it to Istanbul. And some of those cliches may be valid, but they get packed into nearly every Sunday magazine supplement ever written about the place.
For me, Istanbul is one of my favorite cities in the world for a simple reason. It is a History Sandwich. Take two slices of Empire, add a generous smear of social history, mix in a salad of religion, sprinkle with politics, and the pile on some nice spicy ethnicities. Serve on a twin peninsula straddling Asia and Europe. Now, that's what I call lunch.
This blog started back in 2006 as a chronicle of one of my trips to Istanbul, and it seems only reasonable that I retrace some of my steps during this trip. Of course, back then I was here a lot longer - two months - and had a fresher command of the Turkish language than I do now, but I am excited to be back, even though Istanbul is undergoing a heat wave that is nasty even by Anatolian standards. But Istanbullites know how to deal with the heat - almost every indoor space is air conditioned in either modern or Byzantine style: ancient thick stone walls that keep places like the covered bazaar comfortable even in the miserable baking heat.
The heat has another consequence: a lot of shops and markets are closed for Ramadan. In most of Istanbul this isn't a problem - in Beyoglu, Sultanahmet, and other areas everything is open as usual. Turkey remains stubbornly secularist, and about a third of Turkey are not strict muslims or are Alevi who do not fast during Ramadan, but in conservative neighborhoods like Fatih the city is almost deserted in the afternoon.\Folks can't drink, smoke, or eat so their is little action. And you don't want to be rude and walk among the more pious fasters sipping cold water or slugging down mojitos in the burning heat. Traditionally, Ramadan is a time when restaurants do renovations and shops take inventory. And then, at night, canons mark the end of the fast time and the city goes on an eating binge.
The iftar is thhe feast that follows the day of fasting and there are special iftar set menus advertised at every restaurant in town.
Tents are put up serving specialty foods, and Ramadan is a time when money is no object and the family goes all out for fancy sweets, intricate baked goods, and quality snacks each evening.There are even free food tents set up in Fatih to feed the pious poor. But prices in Istanbul are extremely reasonable - you can eat quality food served with care at low end kebab shops as well as in posh restaurants. In fact, in most high end places you are paying for the atmosphere and the snob status. For me, I'll be eating street meat for a few weeks. And posting about it. Afiyet olsun!


carpetblogger said...

O! Yigal is our mutual friend!

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Barry in Portland said...

Ah, I recognize the Rushtem Pasha mosque - extraordinary place!