The bridge in Izmit, toward the Marmara Sea
My first few months in Turkey, I was amazed and overwhelmed by all I found here. I lived in Izmit, Kocaeli, in the northwest, not far from Istanbul. Enjoy my impressions with matching photos. From my new book, “Fire and Ice”:
After my class is over, I walk up the bridge that rises over the old, mysterious mosque with mossy stones, a minaret, and golden crescent moon. I stare down at walls enclosing gardens, smell the sweet, sweet scent of jasmine, and hear the song of Call to Prayer. I look ahead toward the towering bridge where colors change in twilight. Red is for the Golden Gate of San Francisco, and blue is like the curving arc across the San Diego Bay. Clouds fill the sky above me, and sudden rain pours down, mixed with sunlight slanting through in rays like blessings on the land.
Oh, God, you know I need the reality of rain . . .
I hurry to meet friends at another rooftop café. I want to sit with them and watch the sun set. They greet me like I am a princess, standing up and pulling out my chair. Immediately they offer chai and a meal of spiced meatballs served with rice and vegetables.
I love this café culture. We can sit for hours together on this balcony that overlooks the Marmara Sea. The hills that edge the other side are brilliant green, with emerald slopes reaching down toward red-roofed houses that line the sea bank. The highest mountain is like Lake Arrowhead, a lookout on its peak above the pine trees. I stir my chai and lean my head upon the table, listening to the drone of voices and distant Turkish music.
These Muslim people sitting around me seem so gentle, kind, and passionate. They value family ties and self-control and sitting down for meals together. They use the Latin alphabet that the founder of modern Turkey, Mustafa Ataturk, introduced. He created their patriotic army and a secular democracy that offers religious freedom (that first school where I taught a week–when I mentioned this–offered me my job back). Oh, I know the Turks are not perfect, and I still must read their Koran, but I think the idea that all Muslims are terrorists is ridiculous.
I admit it bothers me that some women wear a full-length black veil with only their eyes visible. They carry heavy bags, walking behind men who wear khaki mixed with blue and gold-embroidered skull caps. There are sometimes protests in the streets, and black-clad police with helmets and acrylic shields quickly make their presence known. And the Turks all seem to hate Israel . . .
For all this, America could learn some things from Turkey!
Sometimes I am so lost in thought that I drift away from the people around me. I am called back to the café table when Fatih, to my right, slaps down a white chip on a Backgammon board and laughs. He has black hair to his shoulders, a full beard, and his brown eyes crinkle at their corners when he smiles. He is zealous for his religion and his people. At first he would not get near me since I am a Christian woman, but now he sits next to me and calls me his adopted Aunt. He throws the dice on the playing board and moves more chips across. The sound is somehow comforting. As I watch his darker arm move with each flick of his wrist, I think it is not so very different from mine.
To his right, his brother Eyub sits at the table’s head, tall and regal in a suit with white-collared shirt. He is full of life, a natural leader, with short, groomed hair and no beard. He is the finance manager at this mall, his shiny black shoes and stylish watch reflecting his position. He smiles a lot and jokes and sometimes holds long, passionate discussions with me about religion. He is the best friend of Davut.
To his right sits Feyyaz, alternately playing the game and typing on his handheld computer. His face is round and sweet, and if his soul had a color I could see, it would be a soothing green like the slopes of those mountains reaching toward the sea. Once when I was crying, he held his hands out to me, tears in his own eyes, and assured me that tomorrow will be better.
Next to him, across from me, Davut leans a little forward, smoking a cigarette. His eyes are brown with a glaze of olive green—like the water from a pond I saw once in a park in San Diego. His nature is thoughtful and quiet, like still, deep water. He is my favorite, and we often lean our heads together and discuss the most amazing things, understanding each other despite the fact that he must think and speak in his second language.
He is a young Turkish Army sergeant who must take orders and carry a gun, and I know he is angry for it. He bears a dragon’s heart, and I want to tell him, in what wisdom I have gathered, to seek the gentle, healing soul, and not the beautiful but angry woman. He yearns for something more than he has known. He carries that same sense of purpose I have borne my whole life. I believe that God is calling him to lead his people.
We lean toward each other now, my delicate, silver-looping cross with crystals hovering between us on its chain. Someone told me not to wear it here in Turkey, that it would offend the Muslims. But I cannot take it off. It was a gift from my daughter, and it is like a little piece of armor that guards me somehow, like a breastplate for my heart that should have been protected better.
I notice the little flecks of white in Davut’s black hair. He smiles, his mouth turned up more on his right side, his cheeks a bit unshaven–a sweet Turkish smile.
Turkish people love to hang out at cafes, especially near the water
As I muse at that café table, sunset begins to fall upon the land of Turkey, and I realize how vulnerable we humans are when we take the risk to love. We can be rejected, abandoned, betrayed, abused. But perhaps that is the deepest heart of God. He sent His Son to us, knowing well that most would never care.
We were like a lost kitten hiding beneath a car, screaming out for help but afraid of the human hand held out to us. I heard such a kitten screaming dolefully while I was sitting at a Turkish café, and though I offered soothing words and food, the little cat did not approach me.
I must become a cat and speak in cat language, I decided. Then she would understand I am trying to help and follow me out from the car to where the shelter, food, and water wait for her.
If I left my human state to become a cat, could I go back to being human?
In my story, I have been many things, like ice and fiery bird. I have also been like Joan of Arc, battling to the Gates of Hell, but I am tired of heavy armor. I want to be lovely as Galadriel, the Elf Queen of the forest. She stood beside her royal consort, a diadem upon her blonde and flowing hair, her white dress like wings around her. She poured water from a silver pitcher into a tiny pool and showed Frodo what might happen if he did not destroy the evil Ring. She showed the future in her liquid mirror . . .
Turkish music draws my eyes away from the glass of half-filled chai I was staring into. I stand and walk to the railing at the balcony and lean over to peer down. I see a Turkish wedding, and the family and friends gather in a circle now to dance. They raise their arms and lift their feet so joyously, a multi-living unity, two families joined together.
Life is like a dance. We whirl in a circle past each other, briefly touching hand to hand as music rises round us. And, if God blesses us, we pause between the verses of the song, the notes suspended as we stop before that special soul, a partner in whose eyes we see ourselves. And then we grasp each other’s hands and hold as close as ever-changing life will let us, until the dance is over.
Why am I here in Turkey? What will the future hold?
Hydarpash Train Station in Istanbul, viewed from a ferry
Oh, I will take the train to Istanbul and ride the ferry across the waves and past the Maiden Tower. I will visit my first mosque, step inside that mystery with bare feet and a veil upon my head. I will stare up at vast, domed ceilings adorned with geometrical designs in brilliant colors and watch the graceful Arabic letters loop in gold upon the pillars. I will step beneath spiraling circles of crystal lamps like constellations and watch a man, who has washed his feet, kneel upon the rug and lift his palms in prayer. And I will think,
Isa (Jesus) will come for this people.
I will see the ancient church of Saint Sophia rise in buttresses, spires, and stone murals—and wonder how such contrast of stained glass and minarets connect together in this city set on hills above the sea and waterways, where ancient castle walls mark the place where Christians once fought Muslims. I will see the towered bridge of The Bosporus connecting the continents of Asia and Europe—and wonder how opposites attract each other.
And I will be invited to students’ homes, recline on balconies above gardens pungent with fresh peppermint against the sunset hills and yellow wildflowers, watch the chickens in the trees below me, and eat fresh humus mixed with olive oil. I will admire old photographs and Turkish coffee cups and almond-shaped Arabic eyes–and gather new philosophies.
Sunset fills the sky with changing colors. Yellow reaches out to green which bleeds toward royal blue. Reddish sun melts silver water, and my fire and ice become this Turkish sunset above the Marmara Sea. I turn to watch the blackening hills–where lights spring up like stars on land that answer stars in heaven—and wonder what I’ll find in Turkey.
The view from Boazichi University in Istanbul. See Boazichi Bridge and the town of Bebek Below
Read the rest of my adventures in Turkey here: