My base for exploring Istanbul was Selcen's appartment, a newly graduated English teacher that accomplishes the paradox of correcting her pupil's exams while listening to Pink Floyd, when she doesn't straight forward let me or any other of the foreigners that regularly sojourn in her sofa do it for her. Her relaxed attitude towards life coexists with an unbelievable anxiety for the world. With a father who now and then calls to say hello from India or Katmandu, I understand that Selcen barely has time to breath among film making curses and climbing practice.
One of the musts in Istanbul was a visit to the Aya Sofia, a Byzantine church built in 527 AD, which had already been church for a thousand years when the Ottomans converted into a mosque in 1453. Inside, byzantine mosaics coexist with quranic verses, making the double legacy of the two cultural traditions as explicit as hardly can be see elsewhere. Its only presence proves that Istanbul has always been a bridge, a compromise between East and West. First it was Constantinople, heir of the Rome devastated by Teodoric (as much as by her own arrogance), capital of an Empire that only knew agony. Then it was Istanbul, door always opened of the Ottoman dam, whose high tide would bath the outskirts of Vienna. Today, an eye closely monitoring the European Union. The most European place in Asia, the most Asian place in Europe.
With that history it's no surprise that in 1923, some say under request of foreing powers, over the ashes of Ottoman Empire, Turkey became a resolutely secular republic, where the laws of Coran are not those of the State. Muslim traditions and lifestyle are more reinforce by Turkeys overwhelmingly muslim population than by authorities. But in Istanbul the people living in the Western style is enough to create a kaleidoscope in which one can see the McDonald's next to the mosque, fashionable girls rubbing shoulders with heavily scarfed women. In spite of Ataturk laws most aspects of everyday life follow the bazaar logic. Minibuses for instance hunt for potential passengers horning every 30 meters and reducing speed to offer their services verbally to passers by.
So I consider Istanbul to be somewhat of an aesthetic transition to Middle East. The minarets seem ready-to-take-off spaceships, and they spread mysticism 5 times a day along with the calling to pray. The Bosphorus, constantly navigated by ships of all size, seems in permanent D-day. On the other side, connected by two immense bridges and by ferries, is the Asian side of the 12 million souls city. A Venetian proximity imposes itself over the objective geographic certainty that says that what lies in front is another continent, a little helped by a chromatic affinity (As in Venice at dusk, reddish tones dominate the skyline) and by the oil carriers playing the gondola metaphor. The tiny 1 lira token used to pay the ferry hardly helps to unmask the intercontinental character of the journey.
It was in Bursa, old Ottoman capital 100 kms south of Istanbul, where I really feel to cross the cultural border. Around the great Ulu Mosque, hundreds of stalls form a bazaar. It was dark, and the muslims, who in this sacred month of Ramadan fest during daylight, were queuing in food stalls. There I started to talk with a Coran seller called Sheref, who spoke some German, and I was quickly invited to sit by his side. When I confess that I 've never read the Coran he takes one from his stall and presents it to me. I doesn't matter to him that I cannot read Turkish, he is convinced that the book alone will protect me. He scribbles down his name and phone number in the first page, takes his hand to his chest, and offers the book to me. When a muslim takes his hand to his chest I swallow. The coherence and commitment of the average muslim with the doctrine he believes in is astounding. If I had to choose a country where to be in troubles and need urgent help, that would be a muslim country. Regardless what CNN says, little help you will find in the streets of Berlin or Edinburgh, where predominantly christian-hedonist population holds only a nominal value of their faith. In comparison, one has the feeling that muslim people love helping, even if that means getting out of their way. Of course I didn't tell poor Sheref that I was agnostic, he 'd have never understood.
The people who host me in Bursa are recently graduated guys. Selcen's friends. She is an English teacher, he is an engineer. Absolutely non muslims, they are as hospitable as most of the Turkish people, suggesting hospitality is independent from religious motivation, even if originally religiously motivated. After 2 days in Burs I headed for the capital, Ankara. Modern 5 million people city planned in the style of Brasilia and Canberra. Functional and anonymous except for the Old Town. There, from each alley, a group of kids would tke off to follow me. From the Eastern tower some of the have fun by throwing paper planes to the metropolis. They seem to be posting a message to the city. They hand me a sheet of paper to make my own plane. In amazement I see my hands assemble, after 17 years of pause, a glider. As the one we made with Albertito and Marcela in the streets of childhood… Even if they had forgotten the exact angle of each twist, the fingers repeat the miracle. The kids, who ignored that design, watch it glide over the slums area. It's not the kind of skills we mention in our CVs, but we should never forget the wise things that avoid language…