NOTE: This article was first published for “Today’s Zaman,” an English daily newspaper in Turkey. View the article as it originally appeared here.
He was the best of men, he was the worst of men. It was the season of giving, it was the season of taking. This slightly amended phrase from Dickens illustrates how I felt at the end of my second visit to Sultanahmet in Istanbul. Home to both the Hagia Sofia and Sultan Ahmet Mosque (Blue Mosque), it might be the most visited site in all of Turkey and certainly one of the top tourist destinations in the world. However, for that reason, one can find all sorts of characters.
Without my friend Emily to guide me this time, I found myself alone amidst the sea of tourists (I admit that I am one myself) and salesmen, primarily carpet dealers who often also conveniently owned a leather shop. Decked out in a khaki photographer’s vest, Disney polo, and camcorder, I certainly fit the tourist look. A look carpet dealers were attracted to like bees to honey. Here, I encountered one of the most unsavory Turks, and one of the most generous within the same couple of hours.
The square was already bustling with visitors rushing between the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sofia by the early afternoon when I made my way to the Blue Mosque. Out of nowhere, a stout Turkish man, roughly in his mid thirties, approached me.
“Hello Sir! Hello. Where are you from?” said the mysterious man. Two hours alone in Sultanahmet already had taught me this man was likely selling carpets or leather, probably both. Feeling generous, a feeling I quickly lost, and in the interest of practicing Turkish, I let this go on. I have since marked this my worst decision in Turkey.
For a short time, we made small talk about where I was from and what I did. I spoke Turkish while he, getting more impatient by the second, spoke in English. Finally, I asked in Turkish what he did. He looked sheepish, seemingly offended that I asked, even though I believe he knew exactly what he was doing. He explained that he had both a carpet and leather shop, and it was at that point I made my half-hearted attempt to get out. I quickly replied, “No thanks” several times, but he was not going to let me leave so easily.
I explained time was short, I was in a rush to see the Blue Mosque. But he said, “No, no, you can’t go now. It’s prayer time,” even though I knew that the prayer was almost over, “Come to my shop and have some tea.” I made it clear that I had no interest in buying, telling him that there was no price to make me buy today.
“This isn’t like America,” he said, “It’s not buy or no buy. Just come in and have some tea. It’s hospitality, Turkish hospitality.” It’s true that many Turks consider hospitality to guests a high virtue. Unfortunately, this hawker was not one of them.
Next, I made my second worst decision, which was to agree to visit the shop. I believed he was genuine and decided to check out the prices for my mother overseas. After following him away from the Blue Mosque, we suddenly veered off and entered a dimly lit hallway, headed to the second floor of one of the old city’s tightly packed buildings. Meanwhile, he explained his business was “family run for 35 years.”
Three small, but well lit rooms, made up the shop. Nearly every square inch of wall was covered in leather jackets or bags. There must have been hundreds of jackets and bags. I was inside for seconds before his cousin came over, pulled a jacket off the rack without me even asking, and brought it above my shoulders as if I would immediately want to slide it on.
After “trying on” the jacket, I quickly sat down and made it clear I wasn’t buying. But the barrage of offers continued, “200 Euro for this jacket at any other shop, but here, for you, 130 dollars! Make me an offer, please!” I continued to resist their efforts of goading me into making an offer. I continued to check prices of bags, while this aggressive trader tried to “shock me” with supposed low, low prices. But when he spilled water on the case of my Hi-Definition camera, while showing me that the leather bags were waterproof, I had enough. I got up from the chair in a big huff (its best to use body language when your linguistic skills are limited), thanked him for tea, and began to make my way to the door.
Before I took a single step, he looked me in the eye and spoke in Turkish for the first time, “Twenty-eight?” I replied in kind, “Twenty-eight what?” “Tip,” he said. At this suggestion, I almost lost it. I brought up his remarks of hospitality on the way over, and he just stared. I pulled out five lira, hoping to speed up my departure. As I opened my wallet, I couldn’t believe to hear him ask, “Ten?” I threw the money on the table, and left bitterly. Later, I learned I should have left period, but I was happy to be out of there.
Afterwards, I dragged my feet up back towards the Blue Mosque. While gazing at two of the most revered houses of worship in the world, I was angry to have found such greed. For the next two hours, I moped around the Blue Mosque in doubt of the famous Turkish hospitality.
Things took a turn when I decided to visit the carpet museum alongside the Blue Mosque. I approached the Mosque’s groundskeeper’s house, and peeked my head in. In Turkish, I asked if anyone knew how to the carpet museum.
A young Turkish man, not much older than myself, warmly greeted me from the back room. Having spent a year in Virginia, he spoke English. He explained the museum was closed, and again I felt my luck playing against me. I asked if he could recommend any good restaurants, and he immediately asked, “Are you hungry? Would you like to eat with me?” At this point, I was still uncomfortable accepting such offers, particularly from complete strangers. A friend from my university said later that ninety percent of the time, these offers are genuine, and you just have to avoid the other ten.
After accepting, Ibrahim motioned me to the grass in between the house and the mosque. It was another bright and beautiful summer day in Istanbul as I waited for him. In what seemed like only minutes. Ibrahim came out with fresh bread and a delicious vegetable stew. It was a welcome fix after the rough day.
I found myself de-stressing while exchanging stories about the US and Turkey with Ibrahim. He was a student from Cyprus visiting his friend at the mosque. However, he was not having the best day either as he ended up sitting by himself while his friend busied himself with work.
Where the morning merchant always had an angle, Ibrahim was the opposite. He was soft spoken, and had no other motives beyond getting to know a new friend. Ibrahim asked me for absolutely nothing, except that if I made my way to Cyprus, to call him so he could show me around his university (and offer me a place to stay). We finished our time together touring the Blue Mosque. I told Ibrahim I had wanted to film the Blue Mosque for my blog on Turkish culture, but the area restricted to tourists was incredibly cramped and I had no place to think, never mind capture footage. Ibrahim was delighted to bring me in, and give me a Turk side view of the impressive space.
Besides learning you should only enter carpet and leather shops on your terms, the day reminded me that like the United States, you can find good and bad people everywhere. Yes, Turkey is infamous for treating visitors and guests extremely well. But it doesn’t mean Turkey is free from scam artists and other rotten apples. Rather, sometimes Turkey’s traditional hospitality can make it harder to read those who are playing you. But still, for every Turk I’ve encountered like the trader, I’ve met ten Ibrahim’s.
After two months, this blog can finally begin to live up to its name, the Turk FILM Project. Below is the first of what I hope will be many videos to come. I’m still getting adjusted to filming in Turkey and getting comfortable with the language, so this video is very simple with no interviews or voice over. However, I believe the images coupled with the sound of a live Turkish street band provide a perfect little introduction about life on this side of the world. The video is a very tiny peek at Turkey’s largest and most visited city, Istanbul.
For over 3000 years, Istanbul remains one of the most important cities on Earth. As Byzantium and Constantinople, the city served as the capital for two of the world’s most influential empires, the Byzantines and Romans. The city continues to play a major role in world and was recently named the cultural capital of Europe. This is a very small glimpse of the incredible city known as Istanbul.
I want to thank all of you who are already regular readers; I’ve gotten some great emails and feedback about the site. If you are reading, please feel free to make any comments public. You do not need a user name to comment on any of the articles, just simply type in your comments with a valid email addres. I hope that this site can be a malleable tool where visitors can help steer content by asking questions and posting their curiosities about Turkey.
And now, please enjoy Turk Film’s inaugural video: A Glimpse of Istanbul.
This video was filmed during my past two visits in Istanbul. The images are primarily from some of Istanbul’s most visited sites including the Hagia Sofia, the Sultan Ahmet Cami (the Blue Mosque), the Spice Bazaar, Galata Tower, Topkapi Palace, and from various locations on the Bosphorus. The band’s name is unknown, but are playing on one of Istanbul’s most vibrant avenues, Istiklal Caddesi.