Monday, July 8, 2013

Mosaic City

It's fitting that during its Byzantine period, Istanbul (then Byzantium) was known for its remarkable mosaics, because while Hagia Sophia's namesakes may have fallen out of fashion and into a state of crumbling decay, the mosaic is still alive and well in Istanbul - it is just represented (in true postmodern performative fashion), in the eclectic lives of its inhabitants.

My own life here is one grand shambolic mis-matched mosaic, with each distinct part a different colour, texture and smell, and I thought it might be interesting to write about this.

Monday to Friday mornings and early-afternoons, I spend my time in the leafy well-heeled enclave of Etiler, which could be a residential neighbourhood in any well off suburb in any westernized city the world over. Shopping malls (loads of shopping malls), cafes, and sport utility vehicles clog the streets, along with my place of employment, a primary hued preschool catering to wealthy upper class Turks, Ex-Pats, and of course, their very well taken care of children. It is worlds apart from where I wake up , a mere 4 metro stops away, in working class Tarlabasi.

Three stories down from my kitchen window, a street cat scurries across a makeshift garbage dump, old women send baskets down through their windows for local shopkeep to fill with bread and milk, and seemingly semi-feral rambunctious children play late into the evening with under inflated dirty balls, or collect half squashed tomatoes from the gutter after Sundays chaotic weekly market bazaar. Last week I came home to the usual crowd of Kurdish women on my front stoop spinning freshly shorn sheeps wool; here, where it seems as though time has stood still for the past several decades, men sit on the road drinking their tea, keeping watchful eye over the slums less desirable inhabitants (drug dealers etc), life goes slowly spinning on while  a mere 10 minute walk away, one of the busiest shopping streets in the world, Istiklal Caddesi, fills with its usual throng of tourists eager to buy clothing, throw back pints of Efes, and spend their dollars. It is a very interesting contradiction, and fascinating to walk the daily tightrope between these two worlds.

Several evenings during the week I head around town to teach private English lessons to a few different groups of people, traipsing over to Uskudar on the Asian side, or near Kabatas ferry pier, I sit and enjoy copious whipped creamed iced beverages and attempt to explain, with some difficulty, such linguistic nuances as a "past participle". My students are average middle-to-upper class Turks, who seem to have little to talk about besides T.V shows and viral Youtube videos (and the latest Epilation procedures - what is with Turks and hair removal? It seems one thing hasn't changed since the days of the Harem).  I have tried to kickstart juicier conversations regarding politics or relationships or religion (trying to keep myself from falling asleep mostly), but have generally received awkward lukewarm reception.

Weekend evenings I dive headfirst into the party vortex of Taksim square, where one could visit a different bar every Saturday night for a year and still probably have some left to try. Dancing and drinking and wandering home with friends at 5 am, the sun rise reflecting off the Golden Horn into my bedroom window, I climb my wooden spiral staircase, open my double barred front door and tumble into bed, facing the cool cement wall to fall asleep as the pigeons wake and the call to prayer begins...

Weekend days I often play tourist (living in one of the most gorgeous cities in the world, after all), and sightsee in historical Sultanehmet. It is a completely different world from my Monday to Friday working life - one capitalizing upon the Orientalist image that I of course am a sucker for. Scarves, carpets, Nargileh pipes and jewelry in the bazaars all beckon me to spend my hard earned dollars. Generally speaking, during the week it is easy to forget that I am a foreigner here (given my international group of English speaking friends); it isn't until I stroll up and down alone through picturesque Sultanehmet streets, and I hear once again vague proclamations of love, offers to drink tea and "look at their shops", whispers of "sexy sexy" and, my personal favourite "I like your tan", that I am indeed reminded I am in fact, not a Turk.

These areas are just a few of the many distinct neighbourhoods comprising the overall Mosaic of Istanbul: From Beshiktas' and Kadikoys students to Aksarays cheap-rent enticed immigrant community (and thus tempting Arab and Uygar restaurants), Ortakoy and Bebeks fancy clubs and sea-side sheesha bars, Fatih and Eyups religious conservative population, and of course Cihangirs smoky intellectual cafes, patios and hip stray cats.

It has been said that Turks like to consider themselves a rather homogeneous group, (perhaps that explains the lack of diversity within traditional Turkish eateries - Kebab anyone? , general overuse of the Turkish Flag, and oh, those little gaffes such as denying the Armenian Genocide and the general existence of Kurds), but the way I see it, any city with such a long, glorious and fascinating past, is better off to celebrate its various unique bits that make up its whole. This city is a crazy bustling mass of 15 million people, many leading seemingly remarkably differing lives, but all united in a love of tea, friends, and socializing.

I am just one of many wanderers to have dropped anchor here for awhile, one foot in Europe and one in Asia, dancing back and forth on the crazy messy colours of this absurd Istanbul carpet.


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