To work together. To realize it's a choice we can make.
Early June and I am walking the streets of Istanbul with my new friend Ulvi—one of the most generous, hospitable men I’ve ever known. And I can’t believe I was raised to hate Turks.
To fear and distrust them.
The Hakimis were the only Turkish family in our neighborhood. And they had a rough go of it. More than the Asian or Black families on our block, the Hakimis were not to be trusted and even now I don’t understand the political motives behind that fear. But the first Cold War was raging and Turkey’s ties to Russia probably had something to do with it. Their status as a Muslim country certainly didn’t help either. And some neighbors didn’t need religious or political reasons to hate them. Skin color was more than enough.
But first, let me back up.
My parents—and some of the other parents on the block—were not this way. And would never condone intolerance, racism, or hatred. But there was ugliness elsewhere. Friends’ houses. School. T.V. Suspicion found its way into my unconscious and, before I learned to think for myself, that ignorance gained a dangerous foothold.
We pass a mangy dog curled up beside a stoop and Ulvi stops. He reaches into his pack, pulls out his bag of dog food, and scratches the dog’s head while he feeds him.
“I want to let him to survive,” Ulvi says, looking back up at me. He stands and we start walking again.
This is Ulvi’s thing. He loves animals more than most people and cares for as many stray dogs as he can. He used to spend close to 4,000 lira a month on dog food alone. Delivering it to a dozen key spots around his neighborhood where he knew strays hung out. But he had to scale back when he started having trouble paying his own bills. Now he’s down to 2,000 lira a month and only a half dozen packs of dogs.
“I can’t let them all to survive,” he laments. “But I wish I could.”
I’ve only known Ulvi two weeks but it feels like much longer. My friend, Salim, happens to be one of his sons. He introduced me to his family one of my first days in Turkey and they instantly took me in. Gave me my own room in their house and, since then, I haven’t seen the inside of another hostel this entire trip.
I’ve wanted to come here for years—since my twenties—when I started unlearning the horrible things media had taught me and began realizing what a beautiful place Turkey was. Ulvi and his wife, Sükran, are the nicest people I’ve ever met. Despite the language barrier, or any cultural differences, I’m already at ease with this family as if they were my own.
“Iver,” Ulvi said during one of our first conversations, “we don’t care what religion or nationality you are. As long as you are good people that’s all that matters.”
Turning the next corner we enter Taksim. I’ve heard a lot about this neighborhood and it instantly lives up to its reputation. It’s still early afternoon and people of all ages walk the wide cobblestone main street. So many that we have to keep dodging women with strollers, young couples holding hands, and groups of carousing teenagers. Every other doorway leads to a hip bookstore, a bar or club already playing live music, or some fantastic fusion restaurant. Side streets and alleys branch off of this main artery and Ulvi assures me that there’s even better food, drink, and music off the beaten path.
But you don’t have to go inside to hear it. In Taksim, music is everywhere. Street performers playing anything from traditional Turkish tunes to blues, rock and roll, or grunge. With everything from kavals and bağlamas to harmonicas and electric guitars. I resist the urge to stop and listen to each one. But I know Ulvi has a lot to show me today.
“Wow,” I tell him. “I’ve never seen a place like this.”
He nods but frowns at the same time. “It was nicer before, when we had a…how you call—?” He points down to a train track, half covered by patches of cement.
“Train?” I say. “Trolley?”
Since I was introduced to him, Ulvi’s been dying to show me Istanbul. When we first met he’d laughed and called this his "classical tour.” The one he gives anyone new to Turkey.
“It’ll be long day,” he’d told me. “But we can see much important places in full day. Don’t worry,” he said. “It only lasts as long as you keep smiling. When you stop smiling, that’s when the classical tour ends.”
There are flags everywhere. Turkish people, I’m learning, love their flags. There are also photos. Big banners hanging from windowsills and store fronts. Some of Erdoğan, Turkey’s current leader. And some in black and white of a man I don’t recognize. But, since I arrived, I keep seeing him memorialized everywhere.
“Ulvi,” I say, pointing to one of the banners, “who is this man?”
“Ah,” he says, and smiles proudly. “This is Atatürk.”
“Atatürk?” It sounds so familiar. Then I realize why. “Like the airport I flew into?”
He nods. “Named for him.”
“Who was he?”
“Our founding father. The man who helped end the Ottoman rule and bring democracy to Turkey. He make sure everyone vote and all people treated equal despite religion or background. He welcomed refugees and turned Santa Sofia into a public sanctuary.”
“You’ll see. We’ll be there later today.” Ulvi shakes his head and stares at the ground. “We all loved him. And still do. He was great leader who loved his people.”
Ulvi goes on to explain that Atatürk served as the first president in 1923. A radical. A progressive. And a secularist. He made education free and mandatory and gave Turkish women equal rights. In fact, because of him, Turkey was one of the first nations to give women the right to vote.
His birthname, Ali Rıza oğlu Mustafa, was eventually changed by Turkish Parliament, who granted him the surname Atatürk:
Father of the Turks.
But before all of that, he was a war hero. An important leader in the fight against the Ottomans. He’d spent time in jail for his anti-monarchist activities. He also played an important role in the Young Turk Revolution and helped seize power from Sultan Abdulhamid II. Atatürk loved art and science and developed a new alphabet so his people could communicate better with the Western World.
Ulvi frowns, pulls out his handkerchief, and wipes the sweat from the side of his face. He keeps staring down at the street. “After all that. All that we fought for. All the people who died for Turks to be free. Now we have Erdoğan…”
I nod. Erdoğan. Unlike Atatürk, this is a name I’ve heard. I know that only a few months ago he held a controversial referendum that led to giving himself more power and his people less. He went from president or prime minister to, essentially, a dictator overnight. I’d also heard of a coup attempt against him a year ago. But that’s really all I knew.
We reach Ulvi’s favorite restaurant, Mikla—a hole in the wall down a Taksim side street—and find a table outside, underneath a tattered red awning. The waiter brings bread and rice-stuffed muscles fresh from the Bosphorus and instantly we are swarmed by stray cats. As if they sense Ulvi’s kindness. Before long birds start swooping, too. Landing on empty chairs nearby. Or the cobblestone at our feet. Ulvi is already picking apart his bread. Giving it all away to the birds. When more appetizers of cheese, cucumber, and tomato come he starts tearing the cheese into smaller pieces and feeding the scraps to the cats.
One thing I’ve learned in this life is that people who abuse or mistreat animals are the worst. Pure evil. But those who truly love animals, the way Ulvi does, have the biggest hearts in the world. Another reason he’s one of my new favorite people.
Ulvi looks out across the crowded streets of Taksim. “The trolley,” he says. “So nice. One of most important symbols in Istanbul. Erdoğan make it stop. He said it would start back up again one day, but how can it? He’s filled in the tracks with cement.”
Ulvi grew up in a large Sunni-Muslim family from Izmir and moved to Istanbul after marrying Sükran thirty years ago. In that time he’s seen the city grow from 7 to nearly 20 million people. He’s also seen Erdoğan’s rise to power. From mayor to prime minister to president. And now to his most recent role as dictator with unlimited power. Erdoğan’s even eradicated the term limit for leaders. Now he can go on changing existing rules, making up new ones, and continuing to take away his peoples’ rights till the day he dies.
“Erdoğan is opposite Atatürk,” Ulvi says. “In the center of Taksim he’s tearing down arts center to build another mosque. He keep demolishing city parks to build shopping malls. He’s a business man. Not a leader. He uses his political power to make himself richer. More importantly he demolishes public spaces to stop people from gathering. From organizing or protesting. To take away our voices.”
But Ulvi’s mood lightens a bit as he remembers some good news. “We have not been completely silenced,” he says, feeding cheese to a skeletal gray cat whose climbed up into his lap. “When Erdoğan tried to demolish Gezi Park in Taksim Square even his own supporters protested. People from all over Turkey came and camped in the park for days. Some of them for weeks. And still he—” Ulvi looks up to the sky as if the words will come from above. “He spray them..?”
“Spray?” I say, almost laughing. I am imagining Erdoğan pissing on his own people. Something he seems more than capable of doing.
“Not spray—“ Ulvi says, looking frustrated. “Uh—” He pretends to hold a hose like a machine gun.
I shake my head. “Gas, maybe?”
Ulvi throws his hands down and nods excitedly.
“Tear gas?” I say.
“Yes. He tear gas them. Can you imagine? Babies in strollers. Cats. Dogs. Children. All sprayed. For trying to save one of the most important places in Istanbul. What kind of man do that? To his own people. Even his supporters were angry. Then came the Standing Man.”
“The who?” I say.
“Standing Man. He was, how you call—?”
"The last straw?"
I’m still confused. “Because he stood?” I ask.
“In middle of Square. Where no one was supposed to protest. Unarmed, of course. Non-violent. Peaceful. Still, they aimed their guns at him. Other protestors stood by the guards and read Atatürk’s books to them. About how Turkey was founded on free speech, the right to assemble. The need to share public space.
"Soon another protestor stood by the Standing Man. Then another. And another. The small group grew and grew until thousands of Turks stood peacefully defying Erdoğan. And now, because of it, we still have our square.”
He smiles and shakes his head. “It was a good day. And still we lost the referendum. Not by a true majority, of course. Erdoğan said some Turks who voted didn’t have the “proper” stamps on their voting cards, so of course their votes couldn’t be counted.”
Ulvi is turning pale. He looks really sad for the first time since I’ve known him. “If he hadn’t cheated in the election he wouldn’t have gotten away with it and this country would be different place. Maybe even headed back in the right direction. Like the days of Atatürk.”
I sigh. “I don’t get it. Why would anyone vote to have a leader stay in power for a lifetime? Especially him? Why would anyone vote to lose their right to vote?”
Ulvi takes a deep breath and frowns. “Fundamentalists. Muslims who misinterpret the Qur'an. They think everything Erdoğan does is somehow good for them. And they don’t want free thinkers to vote. They don’t want freedom of religion, for one thing. Or secularism—Atatürk’s main principle. What you call separation—” He’s grasping for words again.
“Church and State?” I say.
“They build walls. They don’t want diversity of faith or background. They don’t want refugees or immigrants. They want everyone to think and be the same. And Erdoğan represents that hate and fear. So they want him to have more and more power. They’re happy to give up their own votes, their own rights, if it means the rest of us can’t fight for equality and freedom.”
He’s almost shaking now. I can tell Ulvi’s done talking politics and so am I. We’re finished with lunch anyway and the check seems to arrive on cue. I reach for the bill but as usual Ulvi won’t let me pay. Though he speaks to the waitress in Turkish I know he’s telling her to put it all on his tab.
So we start walking again. Continuing Ulvi’s classical tour downhill a few blocks to where a bunch of mid-sized boats are docked. For twenty lira each the boat taxi will take us, and a handful of other sightseers, across the Bosphorus to the Asian side of Istanbul. To eventually loop back to Sultanahmet Square and Santa Sofia. As I step on the boat the sky above is deep blue and the Bosphorus a turquoise, almost glacial shade.
As we cruise across the strait I’m ecstatic. Istanbul is even more beautiful than I could’ve imagined. Especially from open water. The only city in the world to straddle two continents. The East and the West. The modern and the ancient. Because of its unique location it’s always been an important conduit, welcoming outsiders with new and different ideas. Because places like these bring different parts of the world together they are like hybrid cultures. With the best music and food. The most progressive innovations and contributions to art, architecture, science, and philosophy. Istanbul reminds us that when different cultures, races, and religions collaborate, human possibility is limitless.
As the boat starts its wide sweep to the right, to return to the European side, melancholy rises inside me again. Thinking about Erdoğan and how this, the most incredible city on Earth, could be somehow slipping backwards in so many ways. Losing the very elements and ideals that have always made it so great.
Imagine it. If you can. Living in one of the greatest democracies on Earth and watching its civil liberties erode. Imagine watching it barrel—undeterred—toward dictatorship and tyranny, ruled by madmen who use political power for their own gain. Lunatics who care more for money than the people they’re supposed to govern and take care of. Imagine leaders who rig their own elections and rise to power without even securing a majority of their citizens' votes. Imagine it. And now be glad you don’t live in a country like that.
Or do you?
When the boat docks again we get off and start walking uphill toward Sultanahmet Square. “But what about the coup attempt?" I ask Ulvi. “There’s obviously a strong resistance to Erdoğan. Maybe he’ll be overthrown.”
Ulvi takes hi handkerchief back out of his pocket and wipes his forehead. “That coup was staged,” he says. “By Erdoğan himself. So he could demonstrate his so-called power. So he could increase people’s fear and better control them. I mean, who plans a coup--as he did--for the middle of the day, if they really want the coup to succeed?
“It’s a joke,” he says. “They even renamed the bridge where the coup was attempted. Martyr’s Bridge.” He turns and pretends to spit in disgust. “Just to glorify Erdoğan. To remind people they must live in fear. After all, that's the best way to control people. Fear and hatred.”
Ulvi stares back down at the ground and I am thinking of ways to change the subject. But luckily I don’t have to. A moment later we reach the top of a rise and Ulvi turns and smiles.
“We made it,” he says. "This is it."
And it’s true. I suddenly realize we are standing in the middle of Sulltanahmet Square. I see the famous Blue Mosque in all its glory, the ancient pillars gifted from Egypt eons ago. Everywhere exotic flowers and shrubs burst from gardens. This place puts any botanical garden I've ever seen to shame.
Ulvi points behind me and I turn. The most beautiful sight so far. And I don’t even have to ask. This is Santa Sofia.
Ulvi smiles. We start walking towards it and I can’t look away the whole time. Huge pillars. Ornate carvings. Everything about it so beautiful. Everything pure art.
At the door we are asked to pay a steep entry fee. Forty lira. “Used to be free,” Ulvi tells me. “The way Atatürk wanted it. But Erdoğan recently changed all of that.”
Still our mood is light as we walk in, smiling, staring up at the vast dome ceilings, laced with gold and decorated with the most striking art work you can imagine. Diamond chandeliers hang everywhere. For centuries this sacred space has remained open for Christians, Muslims, and all faiths. There are murals of Jesus, Mohammed, saints, and prophets everywhere. Religious leaders who wanted harmony and love.
Not terrorism, fear, or hatred.
As we tour Santa Sofia I want to go back in time. To my old neighborhood. I want the younger me to knock on the Hakimi's door. Introduce myself. Get to know them. Ask them about this amazing country they come from. And sit and listen to all of their incredible stories.
But they are long gone. And so am I.
In the middle of Santa Sofia's main hall stands a beautiful marble basin for worshippers to wash their feet and hands. Grooves circle the basin where, for eons, holy water has carved rivulets into the marble. And I want to stay in this space longer. But I know the classical tour is almost over. Soon we have to catch our train and, more importantly, Sükran will have dinner waiting for us back home.
Still, before Ulvi pulls me away, I linger as long as I can. Trying to take it all in. To process the possibilities. Wondering how we insure that places like Santa Sofia keep teaching us how to live on this planet together.
A church and a mosque, a museum and public space, Santa Sofia symbolizes it all for me. This is what Tolerance looks like. This is Beauty. And Art.
This is what’s possible when we choose to work together.