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.
As I mentioned when I first arrived, my friend Mehmet and his family have opened their home and their hearts to me for nearly two months now. Unfortunately, my time in their home is up. Today, I will be leaving to house-sit for a British diplomat living elsewhere in the city during the next month.
I’ve mentioned a few times already that being hospitable to guests is among the highest of virtues for many Turks. As a yabanci (yah-bahn-ji) or foreigner, many Turks have gone far out of their way to help me. I’ve had Turks take me to locations personally when I was lost, even if they were heading in the opposite direction. (See Map Quest post) In Antalya last week, a man and his wife asked me to sit down and have a drink with them after only a few minutes of conversation while standing on a ledge by the Mediterranean. Not only have my Turkish friends who studied in Boston brought me to dinner or invited me to see their homes or cities, but friends of those friends have called me, out of the blue, offering any help or assistance. In fact, I’ll be staying at one of those friends of friend’s apartments this weekend while in Istanbul.
However, none of the hospitality I’ve been given in the last two months can compare to the hospitality shown by Mehmet and his family. From the first day, Mehmet and Malek, along with their children Sezer and Zeynep, have done anything they could to help me adjust to living in Turkey. Mehmet has constantly looked out for me, and I really appreciated the numerous times he has gone out of his way to help me. For example, he went along with with me on the hour long dolmus ride on my first day and walked to my class building so I couldn’t get lost, even though this journey meant he would be late for work and have to come home later that day. Mehmet, the CFO for Turkish Radio and Television (TRT), already spends long hours at work, often leaving home at around 9:30am and not coming home until 7 or 8pm, and sometimes even later.
Moreover, I would not be so healthy and well off had it not been for Malek making sure my belly was always full. If you don’t believe me, check out some of the meals she prepared for me in the photo gallery under “Good Eats in Turkey.” Malek, an artist in the kitchen, went above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that I was always fed. One night, I came home very late around 10 or 11pm. I had a small dinner earlier, but of course, Malek said I needed to eat something, and after what only seemed like seconds, she came out with a piping hot dolma stuffed with rice and vegetables.
As for Sezer and Zeynep, they have been incredibly understanding of my “intrusion” into their space. I haven’t mentioned this, but I’m currently staying in Sezer’s usual room. Don’t worry, Sezer isn’t sleeping on the couch. There is a third room, a bit smaller, but still a room with a bed and all the other basic necessities. As for my adjustment to them, I grew up an only child so living with an 8 and a 4 year-old has been distracting occasionally, sometimes overwhelming, and on some days, made me want to pull my hair out. But more often than not, they made me smile and gave me plenty of good reasons to procrastinate from this blog including letting Sezer show me his Grand Theft Auto car collection or giving Zeynep a free ride on my shoulders.
I’ve grown incredibly fond of Mehmet and his family. They’ve done more than I would ever ask, including laundry. They’ve trusted me with their home, I’ve house-sitted for almost a combined two weeks when Mehmet and his family have been out of town. We’ve shared a lot of time together, from grilling in the park, to playing basketball, to sitting down and watching American movies like “Office Space,” “The Blues Brothers,” “Sgt. Bilko,” and “Hitch.” The only thing I’ve been asked in return is to help Sezer with his English, which I’ve been more than happy to do.
I’ll never forget the time I’ve spent on the seventh floor of 15 Zuhtu Tigrel, behind door #20. It’s reminded me of the importance of one of our greatest virtues, giving. In a world moving so fast and where so many of us are caught up in our individual wants and needs, we sometimes forget about how good it feels to help out our fellow man.
Already, I’ve mentioned a few instances that illustrate how giving Turks have been of their time to help me while in Turkey. Well, I couldn’t believe what happened during my first day in Ankara while looking for a map. I walked into a small Turkish bookstore down a narrow side street in the busy downtown of Kizilay. I walked in and took a quick moment to check my guidebook for the phrase, “I’m looking for a map of Ankara.” I walked up to the shop owner, Ercan (pronounced Air-jan) Bey, and asked about maps. He clearly recognized me as a foreigner, smiled, and instructed another man using very fast Turkish to find a map.
While this was playing out, Ercan Bey asked me where I was from, why I had come, and how long I’d be in the city. His eyes lit up with pride when I mentioned I’d be staying in Turkey for a year. After introducing me to his 16-year-old daughter Zeynep, he asked me to have some tea, like any good Turk would do. An offer I decided to turn down mostly because I really intended to just make a quick stop. I should have realized there are very few “quick stops” in Turkey.
After about 10 minutes went by, the “map scout” came back with no results. At this point, I expected to thank Erjan Bey, Zeynep, and the trusty map scout for their efforts and then be on my way, but Erjan Bey would not see my needs go unmet. Instead, he turned to his daughter and again, in lighting quick Turkish, he instructed her to take me to another store further in Kizilay that might have a map.
So under the hot afternoon sun, I followed Zeynep down into the heart of Ankara’s downtown. I couldn’t believe this was happening. Zeynep pushed through the crowds, and helped me cross the busy streets while looking for a map. We walked around for about 10 minutes before I got the feeling Zeynep may have been a little lost also. She must have noticed what I was thinking because she looked at me quickly and said, “One minute,” and asked a store owner in Turkish about the location of our much sought after map. We did this three or four times as Zeynep continued to get her bearings. At one point, I tried to explain, “It’s okay, I don’t really need the map. Let’s forget it.” Zeynep was determined not to disappoint me. She again said, “One minute,” and asked another vendor. This time, she seemed to get some good information because she smiled and her pace quickened down the street.
On the way, I noticed a man selling maps! “Perfect”, I thought, “now I can do something.” I stopped Zeynep and motioned to the merchant in front of the Post Office. We looked at the maps. I asked her in Turkish, “Do these look good?” She said, “Yes, but come first.” Zeynep would not be deterred from bringing me to our final destination. A few stores later we came to a photo and electronics store where Zeynep asked about maps. Unfortunately he was also out of maps, but luckily we just went back to the P.O. for our prized possession.
After the journey, Zeynep smiled and asked, “You’ll be all set now?” After I answered in the affirmative, we said goodbye and wished each other well. I hoped she would take a little something from me for being so helpful.
As I expected, not a chance.