Tuesday, 22 November 2011

Not welcome in Istanbul

Istanbul, previously known as Byzantium and or Constantinople is a cultural and historical hub.
It is the only metropolis in the world to sit on two continents - Asia and Europe and because of this has enjoyed and endured one of the most interesting history in the world. It is a maze of beautiful architecture and promotes itself as a “modern Muslim city.”
This place sounds right up my alley – history, culture, architecture, religion – it even has a reputation for a unique night life.

Taksim Square, Istanbul
(c) fifiheavey

But when I visited last month, it didn't live up. It didn't even stand up.
Because I didn't feel welcome.

The city is amazing, old and new buildings contrast, streets wind up and down, history pores from almost every street corner. And yet it did not come together for me.
The colours and smells from the late night shopping around Taksim Square were intoxicating, the puffs of coloured smoke and strange taste of the hookahs entertained and the music pumped all night long.
On the other side of the city, the Blue and the Suleymaniye Mosque dominated, they commanded respect. The Grand Bazzar, Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia - all were fascinating.

Taking a puff of a Hookah
(c) fifiheavey

But I didn't feel safe, I didn't feel welcome and above all I didn't feel respected.
I love finding myself in a new city, the strangeness, the unknown, the difference. You can't beat being somewhere for the very first time. Yes you must take photos, see the sights and dine in local cuisine. But you must also wander, drift away, tuck your camera away and observe, blend in and see the city as a passer by.

The shouting didn't bother me, the hassle didn't affect me, the comments didn't even take a flinch.
It was the looks.
As I walked alone down the streets (appropriately dressed), trying to get my bearings, politely smiling and shaking my head to various offers from street stalls, I felt weary and anxious.
The sellers were unlike the men in Marrakesh who forced you to buy something you merely glanced at, they were aggressive about it.
They did not appreciate my lone status, I felt like it insulted them. But even in a larger company with men at the table they showed no greater respect. They stared suspiciously – not grateful at all for our custom.

The best kebabs in town
(c) fifiheavey

My thoughts on Istanbul are surprising to me, I am usually so open to cultural differences, to a conflict in ideals, manners and beliefs. But what I experienced in Istanbul was stronger than a difference. It was stand off-ish.

I felt like they wanted me to know – you and your ideals are not welcome here.
My friends felt the same way, acquaintances back home also understood my explanations.

“You are not in Europe now” a friend was told during an exchange in a bar one night.
He was right, of course – but we were in the former European Capital of Culture, in a country that once campaigned to be part of the European Union.

Two trams pass by at the gates to Galatasary High Square on Istikal Street
(c) fifiheavey

Did I miss the point – have I got Istanbul all wrong?


  1. Was searching #Istanbul on Twitter and found this blog post - very interesting. I'll be heading to Istanbul next week for the first time, interested to see if your observations hold true!


  2. @Hussein I certainly hope you don't observe the same thing - but do let me know how you get on - maybe I could learn from your experience. Enjoy x