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Istanbul

There have been centuries to write about Istanbul. It has existed as a city for thousands of years. It has withstood countless power shifts. The city exposes time. The ancient and modern are accessible. Unlike other cities that reveal their cutting edge innovations or their history – Istanbul is shameless about its age, and its youth.

The city is a construction site. Dusty wounds form around the mosques as each neighborhood is demolished but for them – to make way for shiny, empty skyscrapers. The construction is not walled, it is on display. The refuse and grit and innards of buildings fly through the wind at passersby. 

There is no seamlessness to this march of gentrification.

It’s not a consistent rippling of change, it’s a ragged scalpel. The sidewalks and landscaping haven’t been installed yet. On one block is a twisting maze of old houses, crumbling into disrepair as those that live in them are uncertain of the sustainability of their ownership and unwilling to invest in their upkeep. On the next block is a forming complex of hotels and corporate towers, a vast space of construction equipment and buildings and mapped roads that no longer exist. 21st century communication towers nose into the sky alongside 16th century minarets.

The concern over this development doesn’t show in the citizens.

Perhaps they have better things to worry about. You can see it in the behavior of the cats that have entwined themselves as public pets for thousands of years. They’re being pushed out, and they know it. Politics are also shifting and though I try to remain willfully ignorant – the smell of dictatorship is in the air.  The people here are used to transitions, they are wistful and poetic, not anxious or upset.

And then there is the crunch of faith. At any given time, about three quarters of the people on the street are men. I pay extra attention to women who are in niqab, the head to toe black figures, ghosting their way through the background, designed to be unseen, to make sure I register them in the ratio. It is a stark fact that most of the modern, metropolitan, cosmopolitan Muslim women in the world are at home behind closed doors.

No matter my complicated feelings about religion in general and Islam specifically, the call to prayer is beautiful, and more beautiful in Istanbul than in any place I have heard it sung. I am transported and inspired by the acoustics of the sea and mountains, the sloping, twisting landscape, and the melodic cacophony of echoes from every direction. Like the rain in Istanbul, the chant pokes into opportune times and punctuates my activities perfectly with both wit and somberness – reminding me to pay attention to the psychic signals of the Immensity.

I feel God in it.

And so the sounds of the singing chant mingle with the sounds of construction, and both human and concrete reach ever upward.

I am sitting in a police station in Istanbul with my Airbnb host filling out a missing person’s report for my fiance, who hasn’t come home. I’m fraught with anxiety and can’t imagine these sexist keystone cops will be able to pick one small man out of the 15,000,000 people in Istanbul. They’ve told us to wait until they eat their dinner before they will collect our information. My female host responds with a smile and what I imagine is an “Of course!” in Turkish.

On the wall in front of us is a poster of Erdogan. On the wall behind us is a mural of Ataturk. I am staring straight ahead, in concern. My eyes scan the features of their new dictator.

My host narrows her eyes as she sees me looking at him, and says “I hate him.” I glance over my shoulder at Ataturk. “I love him.” she says.

The police look to stereotype me. They ask how long I’ve known him. For our relative ages. I’m American, he’s not. He’s 10 years younger than I am. They can’t believe he hasn’t ran off of his own accord, 3 days before our wedding. They ask a dozen times if he has access to my bank account. They’re sure he’s taken all my money and hit the road. They look at me with pity for not knowing it. 

I am furious with them for the implications, but don’t mouth off to the police. They can’t understand English, this is all through the interpretation of my host. She apologizes to me for their behavior in English, multiple times. She’s educated, has a good job. With that plus the money she’s reaping from her Airbnb investment, she is far more well-paid than the police. But she didn’t get to her position through ignorance. She knows I’m telling the truth. I see the disgust in her face as she communicates on my behalf with the room full of men in uniform.

A month later I send her some of the wedding photos. She loves them.

My fiance returns home at 3:00am. He was detained by the police and missed all public transportation so walked across Istanbul. The police who detained him didn’t recognize that he didn’t need a visa to be in the country, so they kept him, hoping for a payoff, until he was finally able to convince them that he wasn’t doing anything illegal. The police report I filed never made it to those police who detained him, and/or the detainer’s report never made it to the police I spoke with. There were no reports, in the end. I note they use WhatsApp to communicate police matters, so I send the only officer whose contact info I have a note letting him know that my fiance is back. I don’t hear back.

The cloud of dictatorship now shows its edges to me from any part of the city. I see the increase in law enforcement. Erdogan is building his own private army.

A long night approaches.


This is an excerpt from my work in progress: Travel Ban: A Geopolitical Love Story.

Please check out my book: Down and Out in California

Stories about the big city:

1: Bangkok

2: Miami

3: Los Angeles

4: Las Vegas

5: Amsterdam


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