Sunday, March 25, 2018

With Dame Zelda in Byzantium

Between the two mega-mosques in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet Square, Dame Zelda spotted a quartet of Muslim women in hijabs taking a selfie with the majestic Blue Mosque in the background. All that could be seen of them was their eyes. I hope I will not be thought Islamophobic for having found this very funny, as I hope also I won’t be found Islamophobic for wondering why exactly we had to be awakened barbarically early every morning by the pre-recorded ululating of the city’s various muezzin blaringly summoning the city’s faithful to reaffirm their submission to Allah, as they would four more times over the course of the day. 

Honestly, how can Al be that impressed by the devotion of people who have to be so noisily reminded to express their devotion? Wouldn’t he be a lot more flattered if they remembered on their own? Doesn’t this insatiable need for affirmation remind you unpleasantly of the God of the Old Testament, the one forever proclaiming, “I am The Lord Thy God,” as though those to whom he presented himself might mistake him for Moise the shepherd, or Terry, the condescending IT guy?

On the Big Bus hop on/hop off tour, we learned that one of Valide Sultan Mosque (the Mosque of the Sultan’s Mother) took a long time to be built because its site was in what was then a Jewish ‘hood, Eminönü. One imagines negotiations. 

Sultan Mehmed III: We'd like to build a mosque on your big vacant lot in the Eminönü quarter.
We’re prepared to offer you a trillion Turkish lira

Sol Finkelman, owner of the lot. A trillion lira he offers! In rags we should dress? 
Instead of such an offer, across the punim why not just slap us!

Later on the Red Route tour, we learned the Prophet is never referrred to simply as The Prophet Mohammed, but as The Prophet Mohammed Peace Be Upon Him, which we imagine his smart-alec classmates having shortened considerably, as when wondering, “Yo, Mo? So?”

We learned also that the number of minarets with which one was allowed to adorn his mosque depended on his social status, with four signifying someone indisputably A-list. The Blue Mosque has five, leading one to imagine that the sultan who’d built it, had he lived in the 21st century, would be the sort to click eagerly on penile enlargement advertisements. 

We were delighted to discover ourselves bivouacked a 90-second walk down a hill from a twinkly street lined with restaurants, but our delight was short-lived. Stop to glance at a menu and the hawker who is invariably stationed just outside will descend on you like a plague of locusts, virtually demanding that you dine within, using techniques of emotional manipulation that might embarrass even a spoiled American teenager. Many of the shopkeepers do likewise, and traversing even a short commercial lane can be an ordeal. On Dalbasti Street, where I traipsed for exercise while Dame Zelda napped, I discovered that it isn’t necessary to pause for a millisecond to glance at a menu. The proprietors of kebap places yelled, “Yes, please?” at me from deep within the bowels of their establishments. The good news is that few of them attack you with daggers for ignoring them.

I went for an early-morning walk our first full day in town, and was almost immediately befriended by a guy who turned out to want me to visit his rug shop. And here I’d dared to imagine that it was my personal magnetism inspiring all these strangers to welcome me to their city! 
We went to a restaurant with live music, to which a dervish who was either bored or ecstatic whirled. When Dame Zelda asked what sort of beer the place offered, our servers eyes suggested, “Die, infidel bitch!” We settled for pomegranate juice.  I will not pretend to have enjoyed the music, all of which sounded identically plaintive to me.

All the restaurants in which we dined displayed Sigara Içilmez (no cigarettes) signs, and much smoking was going on in all of them, on glass-bottomed water pipes in which fruit-flavoured tobacco is covered with foil and roasted with charcoal. I think the pipes are called shiksas. According to research carried out by the World Health Organisation, an hour-long shiksa session gets as much carcinogenic crap into one’s lung as five packs of cigarettes.

We went to the city’s two great bazaars, the Egyptian Spice, and the Grand. The first reminded me of the Notting Hill Festival or Black Friday at Walmart in that there wasn’t room to turn around for the swirling masses, which almost certainly contained a fair number of pickpockets and cutthroats. At the gorgeous, literally awesome Grand Bazaar, there are a trillion merchants all selling the identical merchandise — the same T-shirts, Turkish delight, trinkets, and baubles. It was there that Dame Zelda bought an Istanbul fridge magnet to replace that which she’d impulsively bought at the airport in 2011 during our brief layover before flying to Bodrum, and before she amended her Official Rules of Acquisition to make a new piece eligible for the collection only if from somewhere in which she had actually set foot. (Airports aren’t real places.) She will accept offers for the original magnet, which is mint condition.


You should be reading, and subscribe to, my new ezine, For All In Tents and Porpoises!

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