The Cairo-Istanbul connection

Cairo is so hot right now. Three of my coworkers have taken vacation there in the last month, as has Jennie, one of my fellow-sufferers in Hakan‘s Turkish classes (yes, I fulfilled my New Year’s resolution to resume Turkish classes with my favorite quintolingual chainsmoker). And of course Kate was there in the fall, stealing the hearts of merchants and taking sublime pictures (scroll down for Cairo, Luxor, and Aswan), as she is wont to do.

The review from these highly respected sources runs something like Samuel Johnson’s assessment of Paradise Lost: ‘it is one of those books the reader admires and lays down, and forgets to take up again. No one ever wished it longer than it is.’

Cairo is one of the great cities of history, and the pyramids, like PL, deserve a chance to cast their spell on you. But no one I know seems to want to go back to Cairo. It is disorganised, overrun, filthy. In Kate’s words:

‘I felt cramped, claustrophobic, uncomfortable [in the Egyptian Museum]. In fact, this is how most of Cairo made me feel. It drew many similarities to feelings and experiences I had in Damascus. The same dirty grittiness of that comes from thousands of years of inhabitance. The same overwhelming numbers crowding streets and buses. You could feel the oppressiveness of the poverty. You could see the differentiation between wealth and the lack of it. You could taste the pollution; the smog hangs over the city like a hot summer haze.’

I visited Cairo in 1998, when I was gripped by an Egyptomania so severe I taught myself how to read hieroglyphs. My family fondly remembers how I would correct our clueless guide, Hani, when he botched the stories behind my favorite temples and archaeological sites.

For my part, I have blocked this aspect of my childhood – obnoxious smartassery – from my memory. What I do remember, though, is disappearing into the upper reaches of the bazaar with my brother Edward one day and being offered a fistful of marijuana for about $5. Even in my childhood innocence I could tell that was a good deal (we didn’t take it).

Cairo’s bazaar was the thing that bothered my friends the most. The constant heckling, fear of bag snatchers, and wildly inflated prices do not make for a relaxing vacation. Jennie, who returned last week, had plenty of horror stories about the street scene, and shared some during one of Hakan’s smoke breaks.

‘Cairo,’ she concluded, ‘makes Istanbul feel as clean and orderly as Copenhagen.’

Petri, a forty-something Dutch businessman who recently joined our class, shook his head. ‘If you could have seen Istanbul when I first came here in 1988! It made Cairo look – well, not clean and orderly, but – I suppose cosmopolitan. You couldn’t walk a foot in Istanbul with your wallet hanging out of your pocket. You couldn’t see the other side of the street for all the smoke. And the hecklers would loop their fingers through your belt loops until you bought something from them.’

I was surprised to hear this. I know Istanbul has gone through significant changes over the last 20-30 years: take, for example, the fact that the population has gone from 2 million to 20 million. But to my mind the Istanbul of 1988 was a relative backwater, a faded ghost town when compared to its past and future vitality. What, I wondered aloud, changed between then and now to make Istanbul the relatively clean, European city it is today? Was there some mayor who cleaned up the streets, Giuliani-style, locking up the crazies and making the peddlers buy permits?

‘It’s much simpler than that,’ said Hakan. ‘People got richer.’

Could it be that straightforward? True, Istanbul’s population boom corresponded with a massive increase in Turkey’s wealth: inflation-adjusted GDP grew from $90 billion to $270 billion in the ten years between 1988 and 1998, and to $734 billion by 2008, according to the World Bank. The structure of the economy changed as well, with more than 15% of the workforce shifting from blue-collar jobs in agriculture and manufacturing to white-collar service jobs.

Yet the World Bank statistics never take into account the black market, which in Turkey is generally estimated to account for 20-25% of all economic activity. Nor does it seem likely that all of Istanbul’s 18 million new residents have managed to find jobs more lucrative than begging, petty theft, and selling fake sunglasses. But take a walk down any street outside of Sultanahmet, Istanbul’s touristy center, and you’ll realize something must have worked. You’re more likely to be heckled in Harvard Square than on Istiklal Cd, Istanbul’s main shopping and nightlife artery.

Reason No. 25601 I’m glad I moved to Istanbul: it doesn’t fit the models I’m used to, and so is constantly intriguing. Reason No. 25602: I have too many pairs of fake Ray-Bans already.

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Back to Reality

The picture above, taken at a gallery opening we happened upon last Thursday, is taken from Kate’s latest facebook album. Kate the Intrepid has returned to Istanbul, having ridden through deserts with Bedouin, participated in a Muslim wedding, and guest starred in a Bollywood movie (well, as an extra), among innumerable other adventures. As she enjoys her (dwindling?) days of funemployment, she has more time to update her website, so I would urge anyone still reading this sorry excuse for a blog to check hers out instead.

I hope to be back soon, however, with tales of sprained ankles, the Romanian economy, and gypsy palaces.

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Crazy Christians!

When, last spring, I first thought of moving to Istanbul, I talked over the idea with Kate, who I’ve mentioned quite a few times in this blog. The logic went something like this: instead of moving back in with my parents while I figured out what I wanted to do with my life, I would move somewhere where the rent is cheap and maybe get to know a new part of the world. It sounded logical, she said. It even sounded like fun. We flirted with the idea of moving over together, but as our summers took us in different directions – her to work in Boston, me to China and the former Soviet Union – it looked more and more like she would be starting work in New York City and I would be arriving in Istanbul on my own.

Which is what happened, sort of. I arrived in Istanbul and started to look for work, and Kate enrolled in a job training course. Or at least I thought she had until she wrote me and told me she’d found a good fare and bought a ticket to Istanbul.

Inside one of hundreds of cave churches

I didn’t manage to keep her in the city for long. Armed with a sturdy backpack and a sense of adventure that makes me look like a hermit, she set off for Syria, Palestine, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Iran, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, or so was the plan last time I checked. But first she eased her way into life on the road by exploring Turkey.

It didn’t take more than a single entry on her blog to convince me to put my own pack back on. The fact that the correspondent I had been working with had decamped to Pakistan for an indeterminate period, and that flights to Capadoccia, where Kate was, were $30, sealed the deal. I left the next day.

Capadoccia, in central Turkey, has some of the most interesting geology on earth. Four volcanoes covered the region in lava a few millennia ago. Persistent winds wore the soft stone into cone-shaped towers, and rivers carved colorful gorges through layers of pink, white, and yellow lava.

From the 5th century onwards, Capadoccia became a refuge for early Christian sects deemed heretical by the orthodox church. They burrowed into the stone cones and, sometimes, underneath, digging subterranean cities with as many as eight stories. They eeked a living out of miniscule farms fertilized with pigeon droppings. To this day, it is said that a man won’t be taken seriously as a suitor unless he has a sizable flock of pigeons.

The most elaborate cave churches are covered in frescoes,
most of which date to the 11th century.

Many Capadoccia natives have capitalized on the exotic appeal of their homes by turning them into inns. I discovered Kate lounging on a bed of carpets on the deck of the excellent Kelebek Cave Hotel soon after I arrived. Though we were staying at the also excellent Kose Pension – on the roof, no less – she had, characteristically, already made friends in town. Ali, the innkeeper, was pouring wine liberally, and it was established that there was nothing that could possibly be done with the afternoon but watch the colors of the valley change as the sun set.

My second day, we turned to the serious business of exploring. Life in the underground cities could not have been much fun. The tunnels are tiny, designed so that attackers would be forced to move slowly and therefore killed easily. It may be a claustrophobe’s nightmare, but the little girl in me thought it was one of the coolest things I’d ever seen. Cowboys and Indians seem so quaint compared to cave-dwelling heretics and pagan/Muslim/Orthodox crusaders.

The Goreme ‘Open Air Museum’ – a series of remarkable churches in the most widely-visited town in the region.

We didn’t have to guess at what life would be like in the cone towers because Ali invited us to his friend Apo’s place for a barbecue. As the lamb was grilling, Apo showed us his sumptuous (well, for a cave) living room. It was covered in Turkish carpets and tapestries, which I had expected, and had a wireless router, which I had not. Ah, modernity.

Most of Apo’s friends didn’t speak English, but I bonded with one who was playing a saz, a six-stringed lute-like instrument that is common in Turkey. He showed me some basic chords and we began to sing together, no doubt to the horror of anyone who was listening.

I had trouble falling asleep on my overnight bus home. From the center to Istanbul in the northwest is a solid eleven hour drive through the Anatolian heartland. Occasionally the bus would shudder to a halt next to a roadside stand that had appeared, unannounced, out of the surrounding blackness. A small crowd, usually old women, was waiting at each, clutching small cloth satchels and huddled against the late October chill. They shuffled on board, taking the places of a handful of equally wizened old women who melted into the night outside, and then promptly fell asleep.

I did manage to drift off a little past two, but woke with a start just past three. A woman the color of dusty hills and at least as old had fallen asleep with her head on my chest. She was wearing the drop-seam pants that have recently become fashionable (‘genie pants’) but are in fact native to this region. The story behind their origin goes something like this: one early Christian sect believed the Messiah could be born again at any time, so they had their women wear drop-seam pants that would catch baby Jesus II when he popped out. The pants would also help hide the baby in case Herod II decided to come try to kill him. Evidently, no one is going to notice you walking around with a baby tucked in your pants.

When I woke up again in Istanbul, the old woman had disappeared back into the countryside, far from the skyscrapers and housing complexes of the city I now call home. Reflexively, I checked for my wallet, but I really didn’t need to. As a Turkish friend explained to me, Turks protect guests in their country – they use the word guest, not tourist – with almost religious passion. This is changing in the increasingly developed tourist hubs of Old Istanbul, Izmir, and Troy, but I still feel safer in Turkey than in, say, Paris or New York City. Kate, meanwhile, continues to defy anyone’s notion of what is safe for a small blonde woman by hitchhiking around the Middle East. If I could think of a single place in the ‘west’ where she’d be as safe doing that I’d feel slightly more charitable towards the people who have managed to convince conservative America – make that most of America – that the Muslim world is full of bloodthirsty fanatics.

Getting there: Fly into either Kayseri or Nevsehir on one of several cheap flights a day from Istanbul’s airports, then take a 20 lira one hour shuttle to Goreme. By bus or car, it’s an 10 to 11-hour ride from Istanbul or Izmir. You could stay in the slightly more upmarket Uchisar, but we recommend Goreme for its range of accommodation options and proximity to the best sites.

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Reflections, directions

I’ve discovered that when you start working two jobs, you don’t have much time for blogging anymore.

But in much, much more interesting news, Kate Bloomer has been traveling all in and out of the middle east. I can’t get enough of her blog and photos. My friend since we were wee bairns and my best friend since college, Kate is a constant source of inspiration: if you take a look at her blog, maybe she can be for you too.

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This is a boring one

One of my colleagues in Madrid last summer, Tom, used to work as a steward on a private airline that specialized in flying in and out of conflict zones. Their motto: ‘where bullets fly, we do too.’ I asked him why on earth he would choose to work for them instead of, say, Delta.

‘Simple. I never wanted to get stuck on the Des Moines-Minneapolis route. We were flying Paris to Sarajevo. Wouldn’t you rather have your layover in Paris?’

People keep on asking me why I wanted to move to Istanbul. I don’t really have an answer for them, but something along the lines of Tom’s makes sense. There is nothing wrong with the live-in-Brooklyn/Queens-commute-to-Manhattan life I so nearly embraced alongside three quarters of my graduating class. But for the time being, I want my layover in Paris.

Istanbul isn’t even a figurative bridge between East and West. Half the city is literally in Europe and the other half is in Asia. It is the city where the East tries to go West: immigrants have swelled the population of Istanbul from two million to twelve million in the last thirty years. They arrive, realize getting into Europe is not easy, or that Bulgaria and Romania don’t hold that much appeal, or that Istanbul is nice enough, and that it’s full of nice buildings abandoned in the mid-century purges of Greek and Armenian citizens; they pick the locks, set up camp and never leave.

Then there are the odd ones who come from West to East for all their various reasons. Maybe they want to see what life is like in the spicy and sweet melting-pot of the world. Maybe they want to see if Istanul’s latest renaissance will bring it back to the status of international prestige it has always had and lost. This was once Rome. Constantine the Great moved the capital of the empire here in 330 AD, and its rulers called themselves Romans, not Byzantines, until falling to Mehmet the Conqueror in 1453. I want to see if it is going to be Rome again.

In other news, because I’m horribly behind, please see Miss Kate Bloomer’s blog as she’s actually been writing a little about the day-to-day of my/our life over here.

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