I, Istanbul

Note: Thank you to Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) and to our phenomenal trip leader Jesse for the chance to spend two weeks of my winter break in Turkey. Harvard kids, apply!!! Check out the program here.

Selina Xu Harvard CMES Turkey Winter Excursion

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The cypress and plane trees, the rooftops, the heartache of dusk, the sounds coming from the neighborhood below, the calls of hawkers and the cries of children playing in mosque courtyards mingled in my head and announced emphatically that, hereafter, I wouldn’t be able to live anywhere but in their city.

My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk

Funny how all you need is a novel to throw you back into the feeling that a city gave you. Memory isn’t too reliable now that I’m sitting on my bed in Cambridge trying to recollect the city from the glimpses and fragments on my phone camera roll. And Orhan Pamuk’s My Name Is Red.

Istanbul has to be seen from up above — the balcony of the Galata Tower, the mountaintop views at the Pierre Loti Café, on the cable car from the waterside at Eyüp. After the ascent, or during, there’s a breathtaking moment where your eyes drink in the three peninsulas: on one side, Asia, the other, Europe, and then the historical side with a skyline of minarets, domes, coastal villas, electric lines.

Golden Horn Selina Xu

As I type this post, pausing ever so often, I am casually flipping through the dog-eared pages of My Name Is Red, which has traveled with me from Istanbul to Singapore to Cambridge — I started reading it on the rocking ferry across the Golden Horn and finished it on the red-eye flight from Istanbul to Singapore. Even a continent away, now, the pages still immediately engulf me in the chill and mystery of winding streets; the sheets of rain tickling a Bosphorus that has seen far too many conquerors and armies on its banks; the incredible awe that leaden domes, cypress trees, stone walls, minaret towers inspire at first sight; the bitter burn of çayı (tea) when gulped down too fast; the clink of teaspoons against the curve of the glass; the sound and fury of lives past; the romance of Istanbul.

Words, photos, and memories coalesce.

I think of sensory vignettes. The meat and onion-filled manti (dumplings) with a generous scoop of yogurt, topped off with a sprinkling of red pepper flakes. Striking blue tiles. Ornate stalactite patterns. Golden pyramids of baklavas. Cigarette butts on the floor, embers glowing. A hint of fog, always. The heartache of dusk dissipated by the fluorescent glow of the streetlamp. The city is, to the eye, a painting.

Selina Xu Istanbul Harvard January Trek CMESBaklava Selina Xu

I, Istanbul, the city sings and intones. A first-person proclamation that asserts its undisputed character amidst modernization.

But Istanbul is so hard to unravel. History assaults you on the streets, so saturated that it seeps in through your soles with all its layers and contradictions. Once the epicenter of Christendom and then the heart of the Muslim caliphate when conquered by Mehmed II in 1453, Constantinople was the seat of the Sultan till 1923 — the year the Turkish Republic was founded. The modern republic was for Turks, an ethnic-driven nationalism that would erase and stifle the breathing space even further (after the 1915 Armenian genocide) for the minorities.

Who gets to define who counts as a citizen? In our two weeks there, we saw Greek schools and Orthodox churches, Armenian foundations, Syrian and Iranian restaurants. What is Turkishness if these people have all lived on this piece of land for centuries, through the rise and fall of three empires? What is it like to grow up in a state where you don’t officially belong and yet its lands are all that you’ve known?

On January 19th, 2020, I attended the first protest in my life, commemorating Hrant Dink’s assassination 13 years ago outside what was once the offices of the Armenian weekly Agos and now Hrant Dink’s site of memory. People held placards that read “Shoulder to shoulder against fascism” and “We are all Hrant. We are all Armenian.” A Turkish journalist of Armenian heritage, Dink fought for minority rights in a country where such causes counted as violating Article 301 of the Turkish penal code (penalizing remarks against the state or insults against Turkishness).

If there’s one place I recommend that you visit in Istanbul apart from Hagia Sophia, it would be the Site of Memory. I knew nothing about the man before visiting but was moved by his fiery sense of justice and bold crusade for his beliefs. His words would eventually cost him his life, but I walked away realizing that ideas are bulletproof. They live on.

May my pen too never falter.

Hrant Dink protest 2020

Istanbul, Constantinople, Byzantium, call you by whatever name:
Be a book on the palm of my hand,
let me run my fingers over your ridges,
your weathered pages,
blemished margins,
the ink illegible,
in a font of sorrow,
a palimpsest of empires and histories,
layer upon layer,
teach me how to read you.

Good night x

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Oh, Cairo

Returning from Cairo, Egypt is like waking up from some hot, hazy dream. These first few days after spring break I fall asleep each night as though I’m drugged. My skin feels like papyrus, my eyes are always heavy. There is a residual kiss of the city on my forearm — dark brown tendrils, an exploding sunflower fading from the touch of water and soap. Some kind of spell — an experience that cannot be easily shed, thick and sticky as it is — made from the concoction of heat, civilization, dust, camels, kofta, sand, golden brown mummies, and the blue Nile lingers and weighs.

Day 6

We are at Khan el-Khalili, a labyrinthine bazaar. We wind through alleyways drawn with shadows and glitter, under the fraying canopies and corrugated metal roofs overhead, and past the heaps of gleaming silverware by our feet and gilded lanterns by our faces. There are pyramids as small as the size of my palm, papyrus that lies in sorry stacks, and sequined dresses and ‘I ❤ Egypt’ T-shirts fluttering in the breeze.

The guide points out the famous El Fishawy Café — Perhaps the most famous café of the Arab world, he says. Lazy, hooded eyes stare at me through the veil of vapors from the shishas. I watch myself — slightly tanner, wearing a white “H” hat, eyes shining from under the visor — in the giant mirrors that decorate the exterior of the café on both sides of the alley. This was where the Nobel Prize-winning writer Naguib Mahfouz wrote frequently (also apparently the setting of Midaq Alley). I picture myself writing here for a moment, surrounded by battered mirror frames, bubbling water pipes, and fresh glasses of mint tea. The promise is so great that I can almost taste it, like apricots with tobacco on my tongue. The thought dissipates when we emerge from under the archway, the swirls of smoke behind us.

We are showered in sunlight. It’s like walking through a living vignette.

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Day 4

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We have lunch on a terrace overlooking the expansive lush greenery of the Al-Azhar Park — now an urban oasis full of fountains, boulevards, and greenery, where it used to be a sea of garbage and rubble. Before lunch, when we are walking up a slope, Professor Asani says a name as though I should recognize it.

Aga Khan? I repeat, bewildered.

He’s the current Imam, believed to be a direct descendant of Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, Professor Asani tells me. Still alive. The park is his gift to Cairo.

After lunch, we get onto golf carts. They zoom down the smoothly-paved concourse and the park roads running alongside the 12th-century Ayyubid wall (which used to wall off the old city dumpster, i.e. in the Park’s previous reincarnation), before gliding out of the vehicle gates —

We are down a congested alleyway, lined with workrooms, construction sites, teetering shacks, and breathtaking medieval architecture. We hop off twice to see the mosques, both still in different stages of restoration by the Aga Khan Cultural Services. The mosques stand like epitaphs amidst the biographies of poverty. The reality is that the beautiful park is in the middle of slums — one of Cairo’s poorest districts.

Later, when the carts retrace the path back to the park, the children wave at us from the windows that look over the wall.

Do they come here often? I ask the professor.

Yes, they do. There is another entrance, not the main entrance, but it’s much closer to the Darb al-Ahmar (the slums). It’s very convenient, he tells me.

I think of ruddy cheeks and grimy hands frolicking in the grass. It almost seems perfect, but somehow it’s not.

old city wall

DAY 3

The bus is winding through the streets of Old Cairo. We are on our way to the American University in Cairo. Outside the glass, the downtown colonial-style buildings recede. Wide bridges soar over open bazaar squares full of umbrellas that sprout like mushrooms. Amidst the colorful stalls is the Al Hussein Mosque with its towering minarets. That too disappears from view. Soon, I see an endless sea of half-constructed buildings baking under the sun. Receding past us are floors without roofs, rooms without walls, windows without sills — abandoned brick and mortar Lego lands. There is the sky on the other end, dotted by rippling clotheslines of clean colors amidst the rubble. Someone is climbing from one room to another, grasping jutting concrete, in full view. I glimpse their lives, half-enclosed, in mid-sentence. After a while, the view seems perennial. 

But, a swerve, a turn, and we are down another road. There are now swaying palms, multiple cars parked before gated mansions — Victorian, Versailles, Mediterranean, Greek Revival, Art Deco, you name it, they have it. The roads are eerily empty. In the last few minutes before we pull up in front of a very American-looking campus, the bus passes Dunkin’ Donuts, H&M, and strip malls with familiar logos.

If the mansions weren’t clear enough of a sign, these malls are. We are in ‘New Cairo’ — Egypt’s new capital, still in construction and yet to be named.

DAY 1

I am strangely awake despite the exhaustion of flying fifteen hours the previous day, the jet lag of having slept only 2 hours this morning before waking up at 6:45AM, and the sheer heat from my baffling choice of dressing in all-black, long-sleeve.

Our local guide Yashar’s voice booms from the front of the bus through a mic, as we pull up at the Pyramids of Giza. He tells us three ‘must-knows’:

  1. Egyptians are very friendly (the type of friendly that entails inviting you to their house so that they can learn English or insisting, as I would later witness at Khan el-Khalili, that I have waited my whole life for you — said to a group of us by a vendor).
  2. ‘Free’ means ‘you need to pay.’
  3. You need a little baksheesh (tips) for everything.

The bus roars with laughter.

With these three things in mind, it was easy to ignore the vendors trying to sell scarves, guidebooks, and bookmarks with hieroglyphs at Giza.

At Saqqara (where the oldest complete stone building complex known in history was built — Djoser’s Step Pyramid — in the 27th century BC by his vizier, Imhotep, who happens to be the title character of The Mummy!!!), a few hours later, I try to find the public bathroom. It takes me fifteen minutes wandering through the parked tour buses before I find a desolate-looking sign at the edge of some steps leading steeply downwards.

When I reach the bottom, there is a man cleaning the entrance. I am about to walk right past him when he rubs his thumb, index, and middle fingers together in front of my face. Behold, the universal sign for baksheesh.

I groan internally, as my wallet is locked in the bus. We stare at each other for a brief moment before I wordlessly turn to go. But he stops me and graciously lets me through. In a few seconds, I emerge again.

No toilet paper, I tell him.

He shrugs and it occurs to me he might not understand English but then he unlocks a cabinet to hand me a roll.

Shukran, I say.

He stretches out a hand. I shake it.

Kiss hand? he asks. When I widen my eyes and says no, he smiles and shrugs again.

OK, he says.

It’s both the strangest and most effusive public bathroom encounter I’ve ever had. The truth in our guide’s words resound.

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***

Religion is a multi-sensory experience.

Professor Ali Asani tells us this at least three times each day on the trip.

The sentence seems to be intuitively right, but I only begin to grasp it when the days wore on.

Cairo is full of sounds. Different cadences of the Adhaan (the Muslim Call to Prayer) play from minarets, a few seconds apart. They cloak you for a few solid moments, so viscous that your mind goes blank. Then, the shroud lifts and life resumes.

In Cairo, you see the soundscape mattering as much as the landscape does (recitations of the Quran! Sufi music! the Adhaan!). Symbols and space cannot do without one another.

There is something quite wondrous and unexpected about the ambiguity between the Prophet and the Poet; perhaps, both one and the same. The divine that is embedded within the text of the Quran is one that is not only read but also listened to.

When the Quran is so much of an oral and a visual text, stylized and recited, what does it mean to read?

There’s a quote by a Persian poet, Saadi of Shiraz, which Professor Asani shared with us:

Every leaf of the tree becomes a page of the sacred scripture once the soul learns how to read. 

The book of nature — the scripture that is all around us. It’s a beautiful thought.

The Prophet once said, the professor tells me gently when we are standing in the desert under the unimpeded glare of the sun, that God is beautiful and He loves beauty.

What about the violence and ugliness in the name of God’s beauty? I ask.

That’s not religion. That happens when religion becomes increasingly secularized, he says.

Immediately, it sounds oxymoronic. But, as he explains, I understand. Religion used to be about the transcendent. Yet, now it’s about politics — to govern people, to create wars, to carve territory, and to kill enemies.

The religion I witnessed on the streets of Cairo and in its astounding mosques is not that religion that we hear of so often in the media — wrapped up tightly in the political lexicon of coups and democracies, the numbing statistics of casualties, or the heated debates over accessories in the West. There has always been a visceral fear, fanned by one side, seeded by another. But, in Cairo, Islam may be chaotic, Islam may seem contradictory, but it’s really just about grasping transcendence in the seemingly ordinary moments of transience, of beauty, of listening.