My first night in Istanbul I dream about my father, a torpedo-man aboard the USS Cowpens who had been deployed to the Persian Gulf. A small child again, I sit on his knee and beg him to tell me my favorite story, one I will not understand until I am much older, will not appreciate until I have seen the bazaars of Istanbul. He describes with relish his latest port of call. The ship docks in a Muslim country, the town wrapped in the festive clothing of Ramadan. As the soldiers walk the streets, unarmed in this peaceful time, their growling stomachs beg them to eat the steaming plates of saffron and sage, couscous and kebab offered by women smiling toothless smiles, but like the men whose wives and sisters offer food so willingly, the soldiers will wait until the sun has kissed the earth to put food to their lips.
“Where are the churches?” Our guide regards the girl who has asked this question, in the middle of a mosque, her indignation evident in the downturned corners of her mouth. I wonder if later our guide will describe us as a bad joke (“Nineteen white Anglo-Saxon Protestants and a bad Catholic walk into a mosque …”) that provided its own punchline: “Where are the churches?” Muslims converted Christian churches to mosques in the name of Allah and Muhammad, his prophet, but that did not make the space less of a church. I consider explaining this, but I know she will not understand the continuity of sacred space, that our God and their God need not be qualified by possessive pronouns. I pray to God that she will see it for herself.
By the end of our first week in Istanbul, the beggar woman knows my tour group’s daily route into the city. She stands and shakes her cup at us. She says nothing. One of the women among us, Sally, lives with her heart wide open, feeling the pain and suffering of others keenly. We tease Sally that she is too blonde, too beautiful, too American to have donated her leftover kurus to the woman after our first trip to the Turkish ice cream stand. The woman’s ankles – the only part of her body visible from under the folds of her clothing – are swollen and dark. Her eyes plead from under her hijab for the mercy that Sally once showed. One of the men, asserting his machismo, tries to shoo her away from our group. “Can’t you see we’re in a hurry? Stay away, you b****. We don’t have anything for you. Do you hear me?” As though English swear words could touch this woman.
On the last day, I empty my wallet into her cup.
Two days before my group returns to Istanbul, I sit on the starboard side of a Turkish gulet, anchored just off the coast of Bodrum, staring out into the great expanse of the Aegean. My professor sits next to me, quoting Zorba the Greek: Happy is he, who, before dying, has the fortune of sailing the Aegean. I ask him if he has found happiness. His beard and bushy eyebrows wriggle under the weight of my question, and he is slow to answer. Later he tells me that every year, Turkish people elect to make the Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca in such great numbers that the government has to hold a lottery. He has found happiness, he explains, in the sheer serendipity that his sight of pilgrimage is somewhere between faith and reason, and that he can make that journey any time he wants.
At ten in the evening, I once again hear the call to worship. My roommate and I are lying on top of our beds, stripped to our underwear by the oppressive summer heat of Istanbul, listening to each other’s breathing in the darkness. I can feel her raise her hand, count on her fingertips the number of times (one, two, three, four, five) we hear the warbling cry emitted from the highest spire of the Blue Mosque. Around the city, the Muslim men given the honor of crying into the night are scaling towers in the name of Allah. I envy them their strength of conviction. In the morning, we will leave Istanbul and I will miss being awoken by the sound of God singing through humanity and falling asleep to His evenly chanted cadence echoing in the night.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.