The bombings in Turkey in 2016, the unending war between Turkey and Syria, the grievances of the people of the Northern Republic of Cyprus about the Turkish occupation, and the equation between Turkey with mysterious Muslim countries, … made many people afraid when they heard that we decided to make a trip to the place that has only encouraged tourism for about a year. Meanwhile, the country located in a prime location, always attracting undue attention from the big countries, never been a truly peaceful place is in fact an attractive concert between Western and Eastern culture, between Islam and Catholicism, between grandeur and softness, between ancient and modernity, between mystery and openness, urging us to agree on starting our journey.
Topkapi (or Seraglio) Palace is a large museum in Istanbul, Turkey. In the 15th century, it was the administrative headquarter of the Ottoman Empire.
Maiden’s Tower is located on an island off the Asiatic coast, Istanbul, Turkey. Currently, it is a restaurant-café attracting a large number of visitors to enjoy the cuisine and beautiful scenery every day.
BETWEEN THE QUR’AN RECITATION
I once gasped when I heard my friend Smirthi tell about the harsh things she had to try to live in peace with. I met Smirthi in the fall of 2015 in Saigon, during her internship in a marketing company. She is from Chennai, South India, studying marketing in France, had almost completed the course and was getting married. Her boyfriend, Kannan, is also an international student in France. Although the two of them are from South India and the family contexts are also of the same level, the freedom of love is still taboo. They were fortunate enough to be understood by the two families, allowed to marry the one they loved, but absolutely, no outsiders were allowed to know about this. “Let us arrange this! And remember, promise to us, do not hold hands, no intimate actions. The pictures of the two of you taking together should best be kept in your phones, don’t let others see it or else people will talk about it!” – She repeated her parents’ words. Every time she returned to her hometown, she had to show that she was a righteous girl waiting for a mother whose son was of marriageable age to ask for marriage.
Through the stories she told, I also knew Muslims had to pray 5 times a day; not drink alcohol or beer; not eat pork because pig is an omnivorous, filthy animal; Other meats and fish need to be slaughtered in a process that causes the least pain for the animals and thoroughly cooked with no fishy blood. Muslim women are encouraged to dress plainly and reservedly in public, wearing a veil to cover their faces and hair to keep men from temptation. Like other religions, the commandments of Islam are aimed at directing people to honesty: respecting parents; generously giving to the poor; no adultery, gambling, murdering, races and other religions discrimination; living modestly, giving mercy to the poor, etc.
Carrying our curiosity about Islam, we went to Turkey. There were many mosques throughout the cities, and especially more in the busy city we visited – Istanbul. Visiting the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, also known as the Blue Mosque – a magnificent structure built under the reign of King Amed I, whose exterior is covered with pale blue bricks, shining mysteriously in a late afternoon, we met many Muslims who came to pray.
The square in front of the Blue Mosque, where people sit and relax, watch passersby and enjoy the feeling of peace.
All Muslim men and women came here with respect. Before entering the mosque, the men lined up by the basin with lovely copper taps in front of the mosque to wash their hands and feet. And the women are was in a room hidden on the side of the mosque. Seeing me going on the wrong path, a woman with sharp eye makeup kindly called me, showing me the direction with a gentle, pleasant smile.
Under the high, ancient dome with various eye-catching carvings, and sparkling chandeliers, the prayer areas of men and women were also separate. Each believer chose a humble place, facing Mecca Holy land, kneeling and praying. The sound of the Quran made the scene before us so sacred that for a moment I wished to become a Muslim to keep myself connected to the heaven and the earth with an unbelievable belief.
THE MUSLIM COUNTRY WITH CONTEMPORARY BREATH
Once, during dinner, I asked Mr. Yasi – the local guide – about some of the Muslim customs there, to see if they were as harsh as what I had been told. He shook his head, “I think we Turks are quite easy-going! Except for the eating habit of abstaining from pork, all other “rules” are “loosen”. For example, if I have to do a job that makes it difficult to schedule 5 times prayers per day, like my job of tour guide, I can skip the mandatory prayer hours and only do the ritual when I feel ready. You see, here women can dress comfortably and stylishly, without wearing a burqa, niqua, or chador (head-to-toe coats). Sometimes people wear a hijab (the headscarves only cover the head and neck). They are quite traditional people.” Yes, all the Turks with their tall and healthy builds like the Europeans and the soft Asian characteristics on the faces that we met carried the breath of the times.
Walking along the busy streets of shops in Istanbul, visiting the busy markets, or wandering through small towns from the coastal to the mountainous areas, you’ll find most Turkish men do hard-working jobs, in hard conditions. They are allowed to drink alcohol and beer. They are polite, gallant, funny, romantic, and friendly. And Turkish women often do light works, in cool places.
Turkish women can choose their fields of study, favorite jobs, date their loved ones, openly hold hands and kiss on the street, have sex before marriage, roam the beach with a bikini showing their sexy figure, calmly wait for the bus at the rush hours, live independently from their family without the protection of a man. The lady in a leather goods shop in Kusadasi I had the opportunity to talk to was a typical example. She spoke English quite well with the Northern European pronunciation. I even thought she was from Northern Europe because few Turks spoke English as quickly and as fluently as she did. I wanted to confirm what I had just discovered with a Muslim woman in Turkey – her. She had a wide smile and curly hair. Every time she smiled, she looked attractive. She said, “What you just said is true. I am happy to be born here.”
What is even more amazing is the tolerance of Islam for other religions. There are many mosques renovated from Christian churches like the Basilica of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, which was originally a Christian church built from the Byzantine period. Until the Ottoman Empire invasion, King Mehmed transformed that place into a mosque by covering the God statues, God paintings on the walls, adding typical features of Islamic architecture, and bringing here the wish stone from Mecca. If you put your thumb in the center of the stone and still be able to spin your hand 360 degrees, all your wishes will come true. The house of St. Mary in Kusadasi – believed to be the place where Mary lived before she died – is also preserved, open for tourists to visit. Or as Goreme – once a sanctuary for Christians, where there are many caves with God paintings – is now a beautiful open-air museum.
The more we learned about the people, culture, and Islam in Turkey and touched the remaining traces of development, the more deeply we were immersed in the symphony with the familiar yet strange syllables. Is there anything we don’t know? Sure, many things more! And we are still continuing our enchanting journey …
(The article was published on Beautiful Magazine- April 2018 issue)