As you may or may not have noticed, this blog is heavy on the photos, rather light on the words. Below, sadly, I'm about to drastically reverse this weighting, with a piece I wrote while living in Istanbul (2007). If you get through it, well done. Perhaps even let me know what you think.
Istanbul is a city. As of 2007, it has (in some estimates) up to 20 million people living in its greater metropolitan area, which constitutes about a third of Turkey's entire population. There are estimated to be around 1.5 million vehicles jockeying for position every day on its many roads, most with only superficial awareness of traffic laws. Mosques dot the skyline and yet headscarved women are not allowed to attend universities. There are entire districts devoted to selling women's knickers or frying pans. Fishing is the most popular recreational activity, given the easy access to the Bosphorus or Marmara waterfront. The city straddles Europe and Asia, and so does the cultural history of the city and people.
It's an interesting place. At once, repellent, hostile, confusing and ugly, yet fascinating in the same way that people slow down to look at traffic accidents on the other carriageway. And as there are perhaps 20 million people (and 1.5 million vehicles) involved in this particular pile up, it’s quite a spectacular result.
Perhaps the first thing that strikes any visitor to the city is the sheer number of people. On a weekday most streets are simply busy, with traffic often creeping along in queues and throngs of people milling around with whatever business they have. On a Saturday or Sunday this is multiplied as the city empties out into itself and many streets become solidified with people.
Soon after this point, anybody new to Turkey will begin to notice the diversity of Turkish people: far from being all descended from Attila the Hun, Turkish people have a very wide variety of genetic identities. Yes, the majority of people have fairly dark skin and dark hair, but even for these people there is a wide variance in eye colours. Also represented are people with fair skin and blonde hair. People with semi-Asian appearance. Mousey brown hair. Bright ginger hair with freckled skin, somebody who might seem more comfortable with an accent from the Scottish Highlands rather than eastern Anatolia.
Of course, Turkey, and Istanbul in particular, has had an extremely interesting history in the last couple of thousand years. With empires coming and going like the tides of the Bosphorus and Marmara sea it is no wonder that the city can appear a great mixture of peoples.
Not all of these people are good people. Soon after arriving in the city, I got pickpocketed on the Galata bridge. It was my first experience of it, but if you have an extended stay in Istanbul it may not be the only incident, as pickpockets thrive in the throngs of people, packed with unwary tourists ready for the picking.
This particular little man, with a face that ended in a sharply pointed chin, approached me on the bridge with a big packet of pocket tissues he was trying to sell me. I brushed him off, but he kept thrusting the tissues at me at waist height, concealing my pocket. I waved him off again but he kept keeping pace alongside me, staring up at me, gazing intently into my eyes. I guessed something was amiss, so I slipped my hand into my pocket to feel around. Not much to my surprise, my phone was missing.
The little man chose that moment to drop back, so I turned and came face to face with a larger and burlier man staring at me hostilely, the little man stood behind him almost concealed from view. I looked at the little man and then at the big man, who had an utterly stoic and blank face. Probably a big player in the Turkish poker leagues...
With a smile, I asked politely for my phone back, without response. They scuttled onwards in a crab-like sideways motion, always keeping me in front of them. I asked them again, and in a quick motion the pickpocket picked my phone up from the pavement and handed it to me.
After giving my pockets a quick inventory, I smiled at them again and walked on.
When I was sure I was out of sight I found the nearest pair of policemen and with a bit of mime and gesticulation they seemed to grasp the nature and location of the problem, although in true Turkish police style they perhaps brought a little too much force to the encounter, as they both unclipped their pistol holsters as they sped off in their van towards the bridge.
In roughly the same category as the thieves are the numerous grifters who work the city. One of the ploys that I did fall for is plied by the more mobile shoe-shiners, who walk around with their equipment dangling from a small box. Occasionally, the brush will "accidentally" drop off and some kindly (but ignorant) passerby (such as myself) will pick it up. Very rapidly, you will find your shoes being buffed and a story of woe and many children in Ankara will swiftly follow, and of course, you also swiftly find that this is not just a reciprocal act, and requests for usually very high payment follow.
I got caught, but refused to pay an absurd eight lira for having some dirty water scrubbed into my shoes. It became obvious as a scam after the next three times I saw brushes being carelessly dropped in front of hapless tourists.
People do prey on tourists, both legally and illegally. One woman waiting outside Aya Sophya found herself suddenly with a man standing next to her, asking why a "beautiful woman" such as herself had not already been "stolen" by somebody. When her friend arrived and they walked on, the man moved onto another target. Thief? Pimp? Local Casanova?
Of course, every nation has its good and bad, and most Turkish people are extremely friendly and welcoming. On a busy Saturday evening down by the waterfront I was startled by a "hello" directed at me from a small boy who obviously had the innate Turkish ability to detect a foreigner at forty paces.
I said "hello" back and sat down to look at the water. Soon, several small children were clambering around me, unselfconsciously using me as a convenient handrail whilst walking along the wall I was sitting on. The little boy returned from talking with the adults he was with, and said, "My name is Jan." I laughed and introduced myself and shook his hand as the other three children sat down around me to stare.
One of the women, who spoke no English at all, offered me some of her home baking, a thick slice of layered pastry that was tasty and filling. Pretty soon, Jan was busy introducing his whole family (always using "My name is..."), and I deduced that the woman who offered me the pastry was the grandmother with her four daughters and their own children. I was being stared at by all of them and I was feeling a little self conscious, but after another pastry I was beginning to feel like part of the family.
Before saying goodbye, they took snapped me with their camera phones with a grinning nine year old Jan, and I took a photo of all the family, all of them except the smallest girl staring earnestly into my lens.
On another occasion, an old man named Sadik started talking to me in a Dolmuş taxi, and he spoke French, Italian and German, having lived for twenty-six years in Switzerland. When I met him he had just been to visit the Swiss consulate, and had been turned down for a visa. With no family, he wanted to return to see a friend in Zurich. Despite my being late for an appointment he took me to a café and thrust tea on me.
Sometimes there is a simmering disdain for foreigners, mostly from those who work directly in tourist dependent businesses, but more often there is genuine interest from most Turks in meeting people from distant lands, such as the curious little Jan and his family, enjoying the evening on the banks of the Bosphorus.
The Bosphorus itself is a focal point for Istanbul, part of its history and contemporary identity as an important trading city. It also appears to be one of the most heavily fished straits in the world: up and down the waterfront, recreational fishers jostle for position. Unlike in the UK, where fishing seems to be the preserve solely of middle-aged men, Istanbul fishers represent a wider demographic. Admittedly, the majority are male, but there are a few women fishing, although perhaps just to keep their boyfriends company. In the evenings, men wearing business attire can be seen casting their lines out into the darkening waters, perhaps to forget their woes at work, or avoid going to more woes at home.
Nobody seems to catch anything except the bright green Bosphorus seaweed, despite rigging their lines with plenty of little wriggling bait fish. Nevertheless, where the fishers are found, an army of cats can also be found lazing in the sun, waiting for a catch.
Also on the waterfront are lovers holding hands, and young men enthusiastically taking photographs of each other with their camera phones, posing enigmatically, staring out into the waters of the Bosphorus. I could never understand what they were saying to each other as they took the photos, but I could imagine them shouting instructions to the “model” as a photographer would: “Give me some Sean Connery, baby. That’s it. Set that jaw. That’s it. Narrow the eyes a little, I want mysterious, baby. Oh yeah.”
Taksim square is supposedly the “heart” of the city. Is it that interesting? Perhaps not, as it is in actuality just a very large traffic island surrounded by aging hotels with brutalist architectural tendencies. I circled once just once, perfectly convinced that I had seen all that Taksim had to offer, and I sat myself down in a circular area where a monument to Atatürk stands. Even to an ignorant foreigner like me I can see that it’s very culturally significant to the Turks, as after sitting down in front of it for five minutes I find myself included in several dozen tourist snaps and eventually a mob of Turks surround me to pose as a group, and I get the unspoken message of "move along unless you are part of the extended family."
Looking for new pastures, I can't help but noticing the swarm of people coming and going from a street to the right of the monument (Atatürk looks like he’s leading his massed forces down the street). I also can't help but noticing the Burger King, and I realise that I'm about to walk down the local equivalent of Oxford street, Istikal caddesi.
I'm not disappointed in my expectations, and the crowds do swarm. I stop to take a few photographs of the sea of bobbing heads, and when I put the camera down a simit vendor who had been in front of me was beckoning: it seemed that he assumed he'd been in my frame, and he wanted five lira for his services. My Turkish didn't extend to "not a bloody chance", so I decided to snap a couple of his mulish face just for good measure.
I bobbed with the crowd for a while, taking a detour to the right through some smaller streets, overflowing with nuts, fish, spices and sun dried tomatoes dangling in bunches. On the corner of two streets a large wooden overhang had obviously chosen this day to finish rotting through its supports, and it had collapsed in a heap of splinters and peeled green paint. I couldn't see any bodies or blood seeping from beneath the wreckage, so I think it had failed to crush any passersby. Returning to and crossing the main shopping street, ignoring the global temptations of the United Colours of Benetton and other shops, I climbed up the quieter streets opposite and soon found myself passing many shops with curiosities and antiques: hundreds of pairs of cufflinks, rings, cigarette lighters and coins, a numismatist’s heaven glittering inside. While strolling past these small shops, I eventually made eye contact with one of the people inside one of them, so I step inside and smile and nod.
Despite the amazing diversity of Turkish people, they are able to smell foreigners even before the inevitable point when we open our mouths and make fools of ourselves. After I picked up a couple of things to examine closer, the younger of the pair said something in Turkish, and on seeing incomprehension switched to passable English. We chatted while the older man came in with two cups of tea.
I kept browsing the shelves full of diverse clutter until I found myself being proffered a small glass of tea, a gift from Nazım, my new Turkish friend. I was surprised, but I took it gladly: a small saucer, spoon, two lumps of sugar and a tulip shaped glass full of red liquid.
I took a sip, and Nazım continued to talk: "Istanbul is very dangerous. If someone give you tea, do not drink. You will wake up somewhere else." As he speaks, he sees my raised eyebrows with the cup still at my lips, and he laughs. "Not this one!"
I believed him, as the old man was already in the process of getting them before I arrived. It was good, and I felt bad about depriving Nazım of it, but with the amount of tea the Turkish drink every day perhaps he would not miss it too badly. It was slightly bitter in taste, but refreshing in the warm weather.
I found something very small and interesting I wanted to buy, but after talking with the old man who owned the small shop, Nazım tried to offer it as a gift, but I gave some money and I promised I'd be back another day to try some Turkish coffee.
Amazingly, a few days later, whilst riding the bus home, I felt a tap on the shoulder, and after a few seconds I recognise the smiling man as Nazım. We both had rather shocked expressions, and not without reason, for what are the chances of running into people you know in a city of teeming millions of people?
We chatted on the noisy bus, and then got off near the waterfront to get some more tea. Though his English was patchy and far from perfect we discussed many things, and I found out that he was a car mechanic, and that he also studied at university something related with mechanics.
When I ask him about his family, I learn about some of the difficulties faced by people when dating in Turkey: He is from a minority group of Muslims in Turkey, and religious identification still seems to be a strong factor in finding a girlfriend or boyfriend, even for someone like Nazım, whose religion only plays a very limited role in his life.
For Nazım, therefore, one can only hope: of the ten million people who form his religious minority, roughly half will be female, and of those perhaps only one or two million will be in his generation. And then he has to meet somebody he likes.
However, while secular westerners might think they are above such systems, I think that the astonishingly diverse group of western subcultures function in much the same fashion. For example, if a Goth raver chick wishes to marry somebody, is she likely to marry a man who wears pastel coloured shirts and whose hobbies include stamp and coin collecting? The importance of religion may have been diluted in the west (although it has by no means disappeared) but other old divisions such as social background and socio-economic status are just as important as they ever were.
Religion is of course an important and controversial aspect of contemporary Turkey. On the one hand, it is part of Turkish heritage: as diverse as the Turkish people are, so this diversity can often be seen coming together to pray at the many mosques dotted liberally around the city. Sitting outside one mosque near the Grand Bazaar, I saw one couple go in, the man wearing Levi jeans, the woman in a very fetching blue headscarf that perfectly matched the rest of her attire. A few minutes later, a tall businessman in a black pinstripe suit walked up to the entrance, took his shoes off, but kept hold of his laptop case as he walked inside to pray. A few minutes later still, a large group of Indonesians arrived, forming a queue to get in.
For a secular state, the mosques dominate the skylines, the minarets jutting upwards at regular intervals from the mess of buildings surrounding them. Occasionally, women wearing all black Islamic dress come sashaying down the street, but mostly the dress is casual, and it is certainly not uncommon to see women with headscarves strolling along with their non-Islamic (or less observant) friends.
Nevertheless, the mosques were designed with the same shock and awe principles of Christian cathedrals, and walking into the dimly lit hall of the Blue Mosque draws one's eyes towards the heavens just as walking into York Minster does. It is an impressive sight, with giant pillars supporting the dome above, beautifully decorated with pale blue iznik tiling.
In the Blue Mosque however, the waft of commercialisation was as heavy in the air as the pungent aroma from thousands of tourist's sweaty socks. Despite charging no entrance fee, it is obvious that it is locations such as these that help feed the tourism economy of Istanbul, with its many and far-reaching tendrils, from hotels and taxis to airlines, simit vendors and pickpockets. In the Blue Mosque, only a half dozen worshipers were present, perhaps put off from their devotion by the thousands of tourists staring at their backsides thrust into the air as they prayed.
On trudging out of the mosque with all the other tourists, I couldn't quite believe my ears when I heard some Teutonic heavy metal music streaming out of one of the administration rooms. Add to this the many touts flogging postcards, oriental hats, and spinning tops and the picture is not one of spiritual serenity but of cheap commercialism.
Despite the official secularism of the state, the majority of people in Turkey are Muslim to one degree or another of observance.
As an example, despite being a Muslim country, alcohol is drunk by a lot of the population. This is in contrast to the more strictly observed rule of not eating pork. One Turkish person told me that this is a result of underground drinking slowly gaining acceptance and becoming mainstream: men would gather illegally in clubs to drink and watch belly dancing. Today, men gather legally to drink and watch belly dancing, and alcohol is almost as readily available as in any western country.
This attitude is not appreciated by more devout Muslims. For example, the same person described being on a flight, and despite eschewing the pork meal, he and his friends all ordered wine to the disapproving glances of fellow passengers.
Among any other vices of the Turkish, tobacco is by far the most common. The inhalation of nicotine laced smoke is a national pastime (perhaps even an obsession) in Turkey. Most of the population seem to smoke, and to walk down the street in any part of the city is to walk through a swirling cloud of reeking second hand smoke. Everywhere you look, fingers loosely entwine a dangling cigarette, and most faces trickle streams of smoke in their wake.
As somebody remarked, the Turkish view of smoking seems roughly equivalent to the western view of smoking forty or fifty years ago, when Hollywood movie stars made smoking a symbol of husky masculinity and independent feminism. In such a macho culture as Turkey's, smoking was bound to be a big hit, and Turkish smokers don't usually smoke with the same furtive embarrassment as in modern western countries but brandish their cigarettes with theatrical relish.
The health consequences don't bear thinking about. Particularly when I attended a baby shower, and immediately after the expectant mother opened her presents the rest of the group brought out the cigarettes and started puffing away.
Perhaps the Turkish aren’t too worried about the long term health effects of smoking, as there are other more immediate dangers to be faced every day: the roads truly are treacherous, with many drivers taking a robustly pragmatic approach to traffic laws (if indeed traffic laws even exist, although the existence of traffic police seems to suggest so, however frivolous a gesture).
For public transport, Istanbul has more options than most cities. The "I'm full" Dolmuş taxis are an interesting concept: faster than the bus and cheaper than the taxi, it is a communal van that does a pre-defined circuit of the city: you get on at roughly set points but get off whenever you want by shouting at the driver. To pay, people pass money forwards through the van which the driver finally receives, he does some quick calculations and counts out change whilst navigating the city traffic (often simultaneously smoking a cigarette and yelling into his phone), which he then passes back to the passenger. Multi-tasking is an important skill for drivers in Istanbul; it’s just a great pity that they sometimes suffer “system crashes” that nearly results in real crashes, such as the time a driver took his eyes off the road to light his cigarette and nearly drifted into the back of a stationary car: to calm his shot nerves, he sucked his cigarette down to the butt in one long drag.
The Dolmuş drivers are like all drivers in Istanbul: frustrated that they can never achieve more than forty kilometres per hour, and so feel the natural desire to skip in and out of lanes promiscuously, undertake any vehicles if the chance arises and if possible make sure to take up two lanes of traffic just as a way to hedge their bets against which lane might prove swiftest. In all of this, checking mirrors plays a small part of driving procedure while indicating directions plays none. Instead, swift and frequent use of the horn indicates all possible desires and intentions to other road users.
Indeed, the roads of Istanbul are a stressful territory and it can be quite traumatic as a newcomer just to be a passenger, let alone a driver. In particular, any driver from a country where road rules are in place and observed would swiftly find themselves culled from the pack like a runt piglet being tormented and abused by its stronger brothers and sisters.
To have some sympathy for the devil, in such a frantic and densely populated city, it may well be that owning a car gives the owner the freedom to a little personal space, and as in any place, some vehicles are symbols of success. In the affluent waterfront area of Ortakoy, Bentley has a successful dealership, and despite the astronomical taxes levied on many imported vehicles there still seems to be a market for the classic luxury cars, and the roads are clogged with Infinitis, BMWs, Mercedes and Audis. As in many places, peering through the smoky windows of monster SUVs usually reveals a small housewife taking her children to school. One blacked out sedan had a wizened old businessman hanging out of the back window, his grey pinstripe suit bunching around his arms to accentuate his frail thinness. In one bony hand he clutched his phone to his ear, and from the other dangled prayer beads and a cigarette.
More tranquil than the roads are the many ferries that constantly skim over the Bosphorus, dodging their way between the freighters and tankers and other private boats. Some of the small ones just nip from shore to shore but there also bigger versions that venture out into the Marmara sea, plying the route that strings together the Princes’ Islands (Adalar). Every weekend, hordes of Istanbullus venture out for a peek of land that isn’t concreted or paved over. The ferry cruises past the big Chinese freighters unloading containers and construction equipment and picks up passengers in Kadikoy before heading out into the open sea towards the first island, bristling with telecomm antennae. At the second one, the ferry barely manages to avoid keel-hauling swimmers from the beaches next to the dock. On the third island is the Turkish naval academy, complete with a mock up of a sailing ship’s mast, ready for rigging practice. Lastly is the biggest island, Buyukadar, where most people disembark after the two hour journey from Kabataş in the city.
As the pulsing of traffic along Istanbul’s streets astonishes, so does the lack of it on the Princes’ Islands: only essential municipal vehicles are run here, and the rest of the traffic is horse-drawn or by bicycle. However, it was obvious that the police make a bit of extra income on the side by acting as a taxi service for locals not keen on walking from the dock to their home, laden down from their shopping sprees on the mainland. Most tourists take a tour; the horse drawn carriages scuttle around the island’s coastal road, as well as visitors on rental bicycles and local children skidding around all like wild things.
Once out of the town that centres on the ferry dock, forested areas can be found creeping up from hillside from the coast. These would almost be pretty if it wasn’t for the appalling levels of litter lying around. Discarded newspapers; takeaway plates, knives, forks and spoons; plastic bags caught on undergrowth, fluttering in the wind; discarded aerosols and sun block tubes; innumerable water bottles with droplets of condensation, trapped inside for a non-biodegradable eternity. The forest floor is like a stratum of contemporary Turkey, and no doubt in thousands of years’ time it will provide a valuable seam of information for archaeologists looking to unearth the mysteries of Turkey at the turn of the 21st century.
For me, however, it was just sickening, and the stench of rotting kebab meat was in the air, and the many wild dogs knew it too, snuffling and picking through the detritus. The sea was not much better: while better in terms of water quality than the oil streaked waters around the city, more rubbish bobbed on the waves and accumulated in certain parts of the rocky coast where the currents kept it all trapped like a layer of frothy milk on a cappuccino.
Despite this, people swam, and so did I, enjoying the cool waters on such a hot day, although the thick layer of bright green seaweed that covered the entire sea floor was quite disconcerting, not knowing at all what was below it.
After cooling off I walked to the highest point of the island, and above a certain altitude there were suddenly no tourists, like walking past the “tree line” at other altitudes. Here however, instead of no trees, just no ambling visitors, and consequently, no rubbish. At the very top was a tower under construction, the crew taking an extended break in the heat of the day, snoozing in the cab of their truck and in the shadow of the tower. I asked if I could go up to take some pictures of the view. While walking up the external gantry, the wind nearly blew me over the railing. It seemed like the tower would be turned into very small apartments, probably for visitors to the island, but while the view might be quite spectacular the high winds would put me off living in such an exposed location (although laundry would certainly dry quickly, if you could keep it pinned down).
I left the islands thankful for having seen some non-urban things (including some scuttling green lizards and emaciated cattle) I also felt pity that there was so little care for preserving the natural environment: on the ferry home I began to notice the people who would flick their cigarette butts and empty water bottles out into the oily blue waters.
Most Turkish people probably wouldn’t list the degradation of the environment as a particularly prevalent problem. Terrorism, on the other hand, is.
While buttering a slice of toast after coming home from work, the whole neighbourhood around my apartment was pierced by an explosion that echoed amongst the walls of the clustered apartment buildings. It was not the kind of sound that could conceivably have been a car backfiring, or any of the usual clichéd disguises for gunshots or explosions. This truly did shake the windows in their panes.
Looking outside my window I could see that the people on the basketball court had stopped playing and were staring around, unsure of what had happened. Other people peered out of windows, and on the street below there were several people running, although there seemed to be no definitive direction decided. So, grabbing my camera I decided to see what had happened, half thinking that perhaps a porter had dropped a gas canister which had exploded, and of course, considering the possibility that the shopping centre in front of my apartment building might be a pile of smoking rubble, the children's carousel perhaps still spinning amidst the carnage.
I was surprised when I did walk out the front door that most people were calmly wandering about their daily lives, couples hand in hand, people strolling along with shopping bags. Over from the right, however, a mass of people were moving quite determinedly in my direction. Getting closer, I could see that some people were sitting down on concrete flower pots and crying, whether injured themselves or from the shock at whatever they had just witnessed.
The crowd continued to pile out of the main shopping street that went up on my left, and so I pushed my way through the crowds quickly, brandishing my camera, looking down the street for signs of carnage, or smoke, or rubble. There was nothing to be seen, until finally, with my nearsighted eyes, I finally saw the piece of street that people seemed to be trying to avoid. It was glittering, littered with shards of glass. Still, there were no screams. There were no bloody limbs scattered across the street. In fact, there was no sign that there had been any kind of explosive device at all, and it seemed more like a group of vandals had come along during the night and smashed all the windows and ripped the shop's signage down from the wall. There were no craters, no scorched marks or flaming simit stalls.
The shattered glass was spread pretty far down the street, and it crunched underfoot as I approached. Bewildered shop staff stood in front of the affected shops, obviously unhurt but probably aware that they would at least need to call a glazier before the day was over: sharp icicles of glass hung from the top of the window, threatening to fall. However, despite the total destruction of the windows, the mannequins inside seemed to have been rather untroubled by the whole event. There were no decapitations or even minor flesh wounds. The most damage seemed to have been done to their hair styling, with the man's hairpiece knocked back from his forehead most unflatteringly, and the woman's looking badly in need of a brushing.
The police in all this were nowhere yet to be seen, nearly ten minutes after the initial explosion. One or two had arrived, but they failed to take charge of the situation, and outside the shop a group of men were making frantic calls on their mobile phones, probably to their insurance agents or glaziers.
When the police did finally arrive, they came hurtling down the street on several motorbikes and began trying to push the crowd away further down the surrounding streets, but the other shopkeepers refused to leave their doorways, even when faced with a bomb attack. Many held up their mobile phones to record the event.
I wandered away, sensing that the event was over, except for the work of the street sweepers and glaziers. Other people sensed this too, and within half an hour of the blast the basketball match had resumed in full swing, and people returned to their cafes and shopping. It seemed, in all, that this was not a particularly major event for the people of Istanbul, more like routine, and the shopkeepers in particular were probably anxious to get back to selling. In fact, early the next day the affected shops were already open again, the mannequins' wigs rearranged and sealant still soft in the seams of the recently installed windows; in this city, nothing can deter the shopkeepers or shoppers.
Istanbul has a big police force. They can often seem more like a paramilitary force, as not only do they all carry pistols, many can be seen watching over crowds wearing bullet-proof vests, brandishing sub-machine guns. White painted armoured cars can sometimes be seen lurking in side streets, and buses full of officers can often be found parked in busy areas.
However, the police here are not universally trusted, particularly by outsiders. Many people have been on the receiving end of the classic tactic of calling in the wee small hours of the morning, banging on the door and flashing bits of paper which, in the case of hapless foreigners, might not mean much. This was certainly the case for two American friends who were shaken out of bed by banging on the door, and had their belongings rifled through by two eager looking coppers, one of whom spoke excellent English yet refused to explain what his bit of paper said.
These kinds of tactics are the least of the problems faced by unwanted minority groups in Turkey, particularly Kurdish and Armenian people, many of whom have been "disappeared", only to turn up dead or not at all in most cases.
Also, despite having an ostensibly free press, the murder of journalist Hrant Dink sent a ripple of unease through the Turkish media, along with the self-preservation idea that perhaps they should not be quite as free with their speech as they previously had been.
Despite this, while strolling along the main shopping street one day I noticed an abundance of people with bulky looking cameras, both still and video. Looking around, I saw one side street blocked off by several large police buses, and out of these were slowly trickling a large number of police officers in riot gear. Was it the humble beginnings of another of the recent riots over Abdullah Gul's wife's choice of headwear?
It seemed not. I walked towards the centre of the street, where between the opposing forces of cameras and police stood an uneasy group of men and women wearing t-shirts bearing numerous men’s and women’s names and faces. I saw a bundle of placards being hugged tightly by one woman.
I waited, and slowly the police began to get into formation. A large number of female officers were clearly present, wielding batons, guns and clad head-to-toe in shiny black armour. All of the officers at the front held riot shields, and a couple of senior officers stood in front of the formation, talking into radios.
After a few moments, the media people began to walk over to the as-yet undemonstrative demonstrators, and began talking to them. Perhaps they were in a hurry to get to their next assignment and wanted this one to be over? The demonstrators fanned out in a semi-circle, holding out the placards, with more faces on, and laying some out on the ground in front of them. The photographers swooped in; the cops stood looking bored, the lucky ones leaning on their shields.
I am ashamed to say I have no idea what the demonstration was about while I was observing: it seemed like a plea for information about missing family members (“nerede”, where), although I couldn't say why they were missing. Regardless, after ten minutes or so, everybody dispersed, and the police filed back onto their buses.
Later, of course, I found out that all the people in the images had allegedly been "disappeared" by the Turkish police.
Had the police been there to protect the public from this demonstrating mob? To intimidate and threaten the demonstrators into behaving themselves? Neither seemed very probable, as the small group of demonstrators did not look as if they would have been capable of inflicting any damage upon anybody, being mostly composed of middle-aged women and men. Neither did the police do anything except be observably present.
As well as involvement in numerous conflicts, Istanbul’s history is as an important trading city, and modern Istanbul is a commercial as well as commercialised city. Close to the Galata bridge is a squat, ugly concrete building that claims to be the "Istanbul Commerce University", in weather beaten lettering. However, most of the people of the city need no schooling in this field, as the art of making a quick lira seems to be in their blood.
Without a doubt, Turks are entrepreneurial people. Indeed, the city's history is wrapped up in trade and empires, and so the modern city continues this tradition. While out walking on the waterfront, I saw that one young businessman (perhaps a mature eight years old) had obviously swum out into the Bosphorus, tied a large number of balloons to a rope laid across the surface, and was then charging his customers for the opportunity to take pot shots at the balloons with a pellet gun.
Most of the street vendors can sell you a simit or cheap bracelet in any of the major tourist languages, such as English, German or Japanese. Most seem equally keen to work on their Spanish and Italian. Walking out of the Topkapi palace, the street hawks listen to the babbled mixture of languages and repeat "(Deutsch, English, Francais, Italiano, Ruski, Nihongo, Espanol) book" constantly in whatever language is appropriate. However, it might be a little more impressive if they could also learn the word for "book" in each respective language.
Commerce does literally flow around the city. In the area of the textile markets, small trucks unload large bales of textiles that men heave onto special backpacks that allow them to easier carry them through the bustling streets. When they stop for their regular tea breaks, these backpacks also serve the dual purpose of seating, and they sit out with their friends, sipping cay and playing backgammon.
Business in Turkey appears to be a very personal affair when compared with standard Western business practices (ie: "Did you get the contract I emailed to your Blackberry last night?"). While they make use of modern technology such as mobile communications and the internet, important discussions seem usually reserved for face-to-face meetings, preferably over a glass of tea. To accommodate this need, a fleet of waiters scurry around the city with trays of glasses, replenishing supplies in shops whose staff cannot imagine leaving their entrance unattended.
However, given the multitude of shops offering identical products, it's sometimes difficult to see exactly how many in the city really manage to earn a living. In the Grand Bazaar, for example, the actual diversity of product on sale is extremely limited and if you were to reduce them down to their fundamental product categories then you could probably fit all of the merchandise into four or five shops, rather than the sprawling mess that it really is. Shop number one: textiles, both finished product and raw materials. Shop number two: shiny gold and silver items, usually cheap looking jewellery. Shop number three: leathers, either jackets or leather baseball caps. Shop number four: lighting fixtures. And finally, number five: tourist tat, whether of the generic international variety such as Bart Simpson t-shirts or local Istanbul flavours.
Perhaps there is a huge out of town warehouse where all the stores go to load up on merchandise. Certainly, most of it looked identical to me as I strolled from store to store, although I can't claim to be an expert on bronze Turkish coffee pots.
Trying to put aside my jaded cynicism for just one second, perhaps it truly is a better economic model, where the discerning shopper can walk from store to store in an attempt to find a genuine bargain. However, I personally would rather have a bit more variety on offer.
Nevertheless, most of Istanbul's shopping is very much a themed event. For example, above Galata tower is a long street of nothing but music shops, while below Galata is a street of electronic components. Next, in the subway next to Galata bridge is a consumer electronics market, liberally interspersed with shops displaying rack upon rack of handguns, boxes of ammunition piled up on the counters like boxes of sweets. Lastly, next to the Galata bridge ferry stop is a collection of diving equipment stores. Another district had a street devoted only to maternity clothing. In one part of the city there are even several streets devoted to lingerie, and some of the mannequins were obviously dressed with relish, an interesting contrast with some of the black clad Muslim shoppers. Some streets are less risqué, one with at least three or four small stores devoted to selling small weighing scales.
Are such themes sticking to traditional areas? ("My grandpappy sold thongs here and his grandpappy before him." etc etc...) Why did they congregate together, instead of letting each area offer a selection of goods? And perhaps most perplexingly, how do they avoid putting each other out of business? Surely - with such similar product lines - the shop with the lowest prices will survive and the others will shrivel up and vanish? Nobody even seems to do a great deal of work, and outside each shop, at least one person will be leaning nonchalantly against the doorway smoking a cigarette or drinking a tea, an activity that seems to be the main role of retail managers in Turkey.
For those without the means to open their own shop, Istanbul's local trains function as makeshift marketplaces. All day, people wander up and down the carriages (changing at stations, as it is not possible to walk between the carriages) carrying black bags of various goods, mostly cheap toys or small household items. Imagine the sight of a group of toy cars navigating their way through the tired legs of Istanbul's commuters, doors opening and closing, music blaring from the miniature stereo and the LED headlights flashing.
Sewing kits, spinning tops, bandages and plasters, bottles of water and vegetable peelers. The touts try to flog all these things and more to the mostly indifferent commuters. Although, when a young couple holding hands decide (on the spur of the moment) to take the big step and buy the potato peeler then perhaps it is difficult to fault their business plan. Particularly when, on a hot day, the man selling small electric fans sold six on just the one carriage. It was interesting though that the man selling hand fans sold none.
Istanbul's trains are street theatre anyway, and suddenly, a toothless old crone can flourish a previously concealed photograph of her starving children/grandchildren and begin a well-rehearsed spiel about her heartbreaking hardship.
The dividing lines between commerce, begging and grifting are well and truly blurred in this city.
There is a lot about Istanbul's economy that is difficult to understand, but the tourist's euros, pounds, yen or yuan are obviously a key component; the Turk entrepreneur's eyes track the defenceless foreign tourists like a surface-to-air missile site tracking a lumbering passenger plane. Most can make their pitch in all the required languages, and one man in particular had a real knack for impersonating an American accent, as well as shouting out in Japanese, "Good day! Friend! Like Japanese people!" to all passing Japanese. All know the price of their wares in several different currencies and shout out the relevant amount to passing tourists: san-zen en! Fifteen pounds! Venti euro!
Watching the pained, bitter disappointment on their faces if their target escapes is an interesting thing to watch, but there are always more people shuffling through, more targets to attack. One has to ask the question: do the tourists realise that these people only see them as walking ATM machines? While the guidebooks may advise that "haggling is essential", don't the tourists realise that this is only part of forming the exotic mystique and allure of the "Grand Bazaar?"
Haggling for everyday shoppers in most of Istanbul’s shops is as unthinkable as it is for somebody buying a loaf of bread in Tesco. It says eighty-five pence on the label, and that is what you pay. It says one lira eighty on the loaf of Turkish bread, that is also what I pay, although perhaps next time I go shopping at the local Migros supermarket I will try to haggle with the checkout staff, and point to my guidebook as evidence that this is how things should be done in Turkey. It's worth a try, at least.
Istanbul is worth a visit. As Napoleon said, if the world were a single nation, Istanbul would undoubtedly be the capital. Almost like the archetype of a city, it was a great metropolis even when cities like New York and Hong Kong were still muddy collections of huts.
In other words, Istanbul and its inhabitants and customs have had some time to practice the art of being a city, and now fusion is occurring, with 21st century global modernity being welded (sometimes neatly, sometimes not so neatly) to the historical framework of perhaps the world’s most fascinating city.