Innocents Still Abroad

I went to Turkey with a headfull of American ideas about Islam.

Not long after we arrived the afternoon call to prayer came up on the speakers under the Blue Mosque and—after being startled by how loud the chanting really is—we smiled amongst ourselves and thought yes, we expected that. So profound was our understanding of this place and its religion that we waited for everyone to…do something. Roll out their rugs and get to praying? Instead we got nothing. Not one Turk on the street even glanced in the direction of the mosque.

Hmmm. Ok. Well, Turkey is officially a secular state, one with an eye towards membership in the European Union and Istanbul is the fifth largest city in the world. Any urban area that size will be less devout than the countryside.

Still, not so much as a twitch. Orange juice vendors went right on yelling random English catchphrases at us. Taxi drivers continued their honking. Despite the omnipresent ghost howling from a hundred minarets, Istanbul was pretty much just another European city. This made sense.

Then, closer to the Blue Mosque, which is among the most important sites in all Islam, we started to see women in headscarves, or even burkas. Ahh, we thought, here we see that there really are differences. No woman walked alone and they usually followed a pace or two behind their men. The women in our own group, western girls led by the light of a burning bra, shook their heads and said never, never and we felt better because here were things as we expected them to be.

For a while. Istanbul is very, very big. Cross the Bosporus into the New City, where the various mosques are just round humps on the skyline, and people jam the streets shoulder to shoulder, choking off motor traffic, a solid carpet of humanity lining the valleys between buildings. Here, women walk through the throng with their heads uncovered with not a single headscarf in sight. Women, unescorted, in jeans. Women yelling into cellphones with flashy, oversized handbags on their arms. It’s impossible to differentiate them from the jeans-wearing-purse-toting-cellphone-shouting women of any other country.

It occurred to us that the Blue Mosque was, in addition to a holy site, also a tourist destination and that many of the devout families we had seen were likely tourists themselves, from countries that took their Islam a little more seriously than urbanite Turks. Bumpkins come to the big city.

Then consider this: one of the calls to prayer occurs at around four thirty in the morning. I mentioned how loud the chanting is, but the call is downright terrifying when the disembodied voice barrels into your room, in the dark, yanking you up out of sleep. What would happen if the Pope were to start yodeling into every window on Manhattan at four thirty in the morning? The mayor would declare God dead and the city council would have every belfry on the island castrated. So why do the Turks, who evidently don’t care to pray, tolerate such an obnoxious alarm clock? How can something seemingly irrelevant still sculpt their existence so completely?

Thomas Jefferson wrote that travel makes a man wiser, but less happy. The latter half of that statement is definitely true. I’ve seen billboards in Cambodia pleading—in English—that visitors refrain from having sex with Cambodian children and this right outside the entrance to the Siem Reap airport. Welcome to Cambodia, please no kiddie diddling. I’ve seen those aforementioned children shitting in the middle of the street like dogs. I’ve also sat on a whisper-silent train in Switzerland or talked healthcare with a Frenchman and realized that our City on the Hill is, perhaps, just a ho-hum, middle-of-the-road, it’ll-do sort of place.

So yes, travel has undermined my contentment. But wiser? I go to Turkey and I realize that at least a big portion of the Muslim population is ambivalent about their religion and mostly they are like everyone else and yet somehow these people are the face of our unknown enemy and we are their Great Satan for reasons just as illusionary. What is anyone supposed to make of all this information? That nothing makes any sense and never will? The more you know the less you understand? Can that possibly pass for wisdom?

Give me a foe, or a friend, but don’t give me a reflection of my confused self.

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