Turkish feast and the night


Who are “they”? We fear?

Out there. Distant

Intimate unseen faces yet; disrupt

And the lurking silence of the bright night; fading

The full moon and the purple lights on the buildings; hanging

A family sits at dinner: hookah and barbeque chicken;

Conglomeration! Light and hues the unity, thus intervened

Years ago. Blood stains on the horizon.

Noises filling-up the eerie creep up the feet; suspended,

As bullets and fighters fly low!

The city of Byzantium, Istanbul for the Turks and for us since 1923 when the country formed the first democratic government under the leadership of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, had always been one of my dream destinations ever since I imagined of travel to other lands. Istanbul: Byzantine archaeology, Ottoman empire, Palaces, Harems, Hamam, Turkish cuisine, Islamic art, beautiful dark-eyed ladies— were the few markers! Now this is the city where the street war of sound and technology, otherwise seen on television screen for instance: the two Gulf Wars or the sights at Tahrir Square, Cairo conflict was outside my window. On 15th July, 2016 the night of the military coup to oust President Erdogan of Turkey, I lay petrified in a hotel room in Istanbul. For the second time I was thinking of ‘they’ who suddenly like vampires out in the dark night with no warnings seize us out of our peace intervening and changing our sense of existence. They are the others who though external overpower us. The same feelings came over me years back on February 18, 1983, the night of the Nellie massacre in central Assam when I was frantically awaken from sleep by my Grandma saying “Get up, they are coming!” Her hands were shaking as she opened the chest of drawers to take the family traditional gold jewelleries on a piece of muslin and some money. I had no idea what was precious for me to preserve before everything literally fell flat. I still remember the look of fear in her eyes as we gathered in the backyard with all my cousins, aunts and uncles waiting for some disaster to happen. However it turned out to be only a rumour and ‘they’ did not march towards town; instead we saw the bright light on the horizon as Nellie burned.

We owned some acres of land in Nellie where the family of the caretakers lived– three brothers and their children. Next day the youngest brother was the sole survivor. I never saw or heard from him again but I remember his moist eyes and lean dark figure as he left.  This memory has stayed on without me retrieving it until that night in Istanbul!

The academic engagement for which I was travelling to Scotland from Delhi by Turkish Airline, the cheapest flight in that particular route occasioned the long awaited visit and needless to say I was too excited and in addition overwhelmed when I procured the Turkish e-visa sitting in my room in 20 minutes by paying a minimal fees of Rs 2000 (whereas the travel agent required six thousand to arrange for it). Meanwhile with my confirmed accommodation in Barin Hotel not very far from Sultanahmet, I was basically set to start my journey though the enthusiasm of a pre-visit research online to plan for the three days short tour was cut short by semester-end workload and preparation for the 17 days absence at home with kids on summer break. I had to leave certain assignments to keep them engaged and of course stuff the kitchen cabinets with food. Packing clothes for the tour was another concern as I was visiting two different weather conditions. The irritant was the high temperature in Istanbul which I presumed would burn my skin after the pleasing sun in the Scottish greens.

So when I landed in the early hours of 13th July in Istanbul, I didn’t have a well worked out itinerary or list of landmarks to visit as a tourist in the city. I knew I can never get enough of its rich heritage and vibrant history. I’d already decided to let go and get slowly into the city vibes. Although I would have opted for a closer view of the city and its changes and try to re-live Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul, there was no strong urge to sadden myself by visiting five museums—for which one can buy a single ‘Istanbul Pass’ that includes entry to all the museums and public conveyance—within the limits of three days.

I calculated I had 82 free hours to spend in this great city of the Turks.

The first thing was to spend a little more time in the airport calling home on Whatsapp informing of my arrival, scanning the shops, and finally visiting the tourist office for all necessary information. The well built Turkish man with a broad smile explained everything I wanted to know within minutes without me enquiring anything in particular. He must be repeating them day in and day out for every visitor. Quickly he handed me the maps with metro routes and of the city, marked important locations and wished me a pleasant stay. As advised I took the airport-city train and followed the list of stations I would cross— the names took me a while as they seemed more difficult than my experience of reading long German ones in Vienna. It took half an hour to reach the hotel room and go for a quick shower. Exactly 27 hours after I started my journey to Istanbul from Edinburgh, sleep had been replaced by a strong urge to explore the vicinity and it was making me restless. I kept twisting and turning till I decided to venture out. The moment I stepped out it felt I had all America in the lane with hotels like Great Washington Hotel, Hollywood and so on.  I walked down the clean pavement in the mild late afternoon sun and sat for my first late lunch in a cafe called Ottoman that had Hookah rates/hour on its menu. I saw one/two gentlemen enjoying their hookah and whiling away the afternoon. Every lane in that neighbourhood had rows of Turkish delicacies, milk cakes, pastries, puddings, kababs, barbeque chicken or fish and multi-coloured rich desert. The streets and narrow lanes with sundry shops selling almost everything one wants looked the same like boy Pamuk noticed in his memoir Istanbul “1…lady’s pastry shop; 2.a florist; 3.a handbag store; 4.a watch shop; 5. a football pool retailer; 6. a gallery book shop; 7. a pharmacy;”[1] ( and I add) 7. lingerie shops 8.clothes store; 9. a little stationery with cigarettes, toys, newspapers, water bottles, tram tickets and Istanbul pass! I knew I was going to enjoy the rest of my time eating street food while enthusiastic waiters ready to chat with tourists to lure them in. Delighted to see all kinds of shops but anxious that my bags are already full, I was already thinking of buying another suitcase. Soon I realised as I walked along how the city welcomes the tourist in offering a unique experience of history, architecture, legends, food, garments, porcelain, carpets, handmade jewelleries, music and lovely people. I’d already listened to some Turkish music in the cafe and had a little chat with the handsome waiter who promised to get me few CDs of Turkish Instrumental Sufi and traditional music.

Next morning I took the 24 hours BIG BUS TOUR—the flexibility of hopping in and hopping off throughout allows one the freedom and time to explore accordingly. They had two routes: the Red line that tours the city and the Blue that takes one particularly to the Mini Turk Park displaying replicas of important landmarks and ancient architecture of the Byzantium and the Ottoman empires. All tours started from the central Big Bus office at Sultanahmet area located between the Hagia Sophia[2] and the beautiful Blue Mosque and a little ahead of them is the Topkapi Palace. With all the important monuments within the vicinity I took the long Blue line to go to the Mini Turk park showcasing ancient architectural landmarks of both the empires that ruled Turkey.

At 5pm with the sun still shining bright I changed the route to Red to going to the European side of the city and got down at Dolmabahce palace to have a delicious meal of five medium sized kababs, baked veggies including a large capsicum, French fries at a restaurant in the campus. There were many couples and ladies waiting for their partners sitting in the lower deck of the restaurant on the Bosphorus overlooking the blue waters with few cruise ships moving. One can never ignore the serene skyline and the seagulls floating or diving in/out with fishes aiming at the little crumbs of bread thrown at them by the waiters occasionally.

At 7:30—which would be a vital time next day in Turkish history– I was again moving in the bus on way to Taksim Square for the rest of the evening, chatting with my kids online (since the bus provides free wifi) to inform them that the bus was going through one of the two bridges on the Bosphorus that connects the two distinct sides of the city—the Asian and European. It is like being in two continents at the same time! The European part revealed the impact of globalisation with malls, KFCs, Dominoes, large hoardings and traffic. Taksim square is in this part of the city where one can laze around listening to bands of Turkish music performed in the open space or go shopping in the walking street, Istiklal the central hub at night with all the hustle and bustle of sellers, shoppers, foodies and others. Shops put up heavy discounts and amidst various outlets I saw a bookshop. In that huge two storied store one shelf in the corner had books written/mostly translated works in English. Books by Turkish authors filled the other shelves who wrote in their native language. The children section also had interesting Turkish epics, folk tales. Although I couldn’t understand the language I flipped through few brightly coloured children’s picture books that had local heroes among the popular modern superheroes, robots and aliens.

Later sitting on the long stairs in the square I was relaxing and thinking of returning late to my room. A young boy came up to me to sell dry paper napkins for one lira. He gleefully spoke in a language I couldn’t understand but since I got amused at the price, I communicated in gestures and little English. He informed that he had come from Syria where his parents had been killed in the war and now he depends on whatever he sells per day for meals and ‘cigaa-rat’. I met a few other refugees from Syria in the square and in the pavement near my hotel who are practically living on little businesses and I presumed even willing to spend a night with a lady for proper dinner and a bed instead of sleeping on open spaces. Last year we (I was travelling with my hubby) saw many refugees in Vienna who moved with folded beds and small children putting up in parks, train stations and other open spaces. The railway station Westbahnhof that we often frequented during our stay had a free Wifi named ‘Wifi For Refugee’. In Istanbul it was difficult to identify them unlike in Vienna, unless they start communicating via Google translator with the locals.   

On the last free day I walked up to the Topkapi palace gate at about 11pm. It had three main gates—the Imperial Gate Bab-i-Humayun, the Gate of Salutation Babussselam and the Gate of Felicity Babussaade. Chewing barbequed chestnuts that are sold for 5 Liras on the pavement I entered the Royal Gardens. The palace is built atop the Byzantine acropolis on Sarayburnu at the tip of the peninsula of Istanbul surrounded by the sea of Marmara, the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn (mentioned in Pamuk’s The White Castle). On land it is enclosed by the 1400 meter high walls that remind one of the Great China Wall and on the other sea-side by Byzantine walls. Earlier this palace not only served as the residence of Ottoman sultans but also functioned as the administrative and educational centres of the state after it was built by Sultan Mehmed II, the conquerer of Constantinople in 1460-1478. It became inadequate for state ceremonies and protocol during 1850s, so the sultans moved to the Dolmabahce palace on the Bosphorus—where the restaurant I visited is located. But despite this move Topkapi played an important role as the ancestral residence of Ottoman dynasty and had the Royal treasure and the Holy Relics of Prophet Muhammad preserved inside. Most significantly, among others it displayed the stuff of Moses and the footprint of the Prophet. Following the abolishment of monarchy in 1922 it had been converted into a museum on the order of Mustafa Kemal Ataturk.

The Topkapi palace covers a huge area approximately of 700,000 sq meters consisting of the outer palace and the inner palace consisting of the Harem, the ladies quarters where the king lived with his large family: his wives, children and concubines. It contains 300 rooms, nine bathhouses, two mosques, a hospital, dormitories and a laundry and other service rooms. These apartments are secluded by high walls from the public courtyards and were guarded by Black eunuchs brought from Abyssinia and central Africa. This tradition of guarding the women’s section of a royal palace dates back to ancient Mesopotamian and is adopted in palaces as far as Rome and China. These guards had a Black chief who would control them and had separate prayers rooms within. The Harem also had a Girls’ palace where young girls of 5-16 years are brought in. They would be taught like the boys but the majority of them were employed as servants or employed in the laundry, pantry bath house furnaces. Those who are considered pretty and intelligent would be further trained by experienced women according to their interests in reading writing, sewing, music or dancing. The Queen Mother will often be entertained by the concubines. The entrance of the Harem has two tall mirrors on both sides of the wall that leads to the Queen Mother’s chamber. The highest ranking women will be called Kadin meaning lady. Those concubines who became favourites or who bore the Sultan a child will be raised to the status of wife (Kadin Efendi) or favourite wife (Haseki Sultan).

The well known Turkish bath or the Hamam is located in this inner palace. It had a cold and a hot room before leading to the main bath where there are rows of stone benches with provisions for water that would fill up the whole room like a large elongated rectangular bathtub. I imagined how Lady Montagu[3] could have observed these details of the Hamam during her visit before she elaborated them in her Turkish letters; when no stranger could ever think of entering a Turkish home, her advantage of being a woman traveller provided the opportunity to visit these forbidden places.

Since I had an evening flight to Delhi next day I returned to my room early around 6pm after a brief round of window shopping of handicrafts and hand painted stuffs. Immediately I switched on CNN and was following the Nice attack in France. It was horrifying to see the footage and relatives of the victims on screen. Yet relaxed and cosy in bed I was looking forward to my last dinner in Ottoman—they promised a discount on my meal if I ordered fish. Eventually I did ask for a long sea fish with baked vegetables and Turkish tea. Most of the tables were full and in the middle I saw a family of four children and parents enjoying hookah and waiting for their main course. When I left they were still talking and giggling and other couples having dinner. It was just beginning to grow dark so I took another short walk in the lane and reached my room at 9:30. Again I switched on the television in need of some sound and the first headline flashed: CHAOS IN TURKEY. Without much thought, I turned to get into the bed when I heard the planes above. I moved to the window and looked into the night sky and below at the people sitting on the pavement. Confused I tried to follow what the news reader was saying and then my heart began to throb hard. She was reporting of the military coup to oust the Turkish president Erdogan who was then in the southern part of the country on holiday. The rebels had blocked the two bridges that linked the European and Asian sides of Istanbul paralysis civilian movements– Galata and Ataturk bridge (where I was the previous evening) and had announced their control in the city. Suddenly they were everywhere—near the airport, on the streets, parliament house in Ankara, CNN office, chasing away photographers/journalists and in Taksim Square. I thought of my refugee friends! Civilians were left stranded in the square and near the bridges though later as one university professor reported they were allowed to go home at 7:30. CNN would not hide their concern for the presence of US Troops in Turkey and were discussing on how the US cannot afford to displease any Turkish regime. Control over airbase has always been crucial (as in the Iraq War) and the Erdogan regime or the rebel army faction would surely try to control it. The International community could not ignore the crisis as Turkey’s geo-political parameters facilitate a territory in their war against Syria. Consequently the airport was closed down and all flights cancelled indefinitely. The army declared curfew. One’s idea of curfew in India and its status quo in Turkey differed as it was imposed by a faction of the army who claimed power and control over the country though they were seen only in Istanbul and Ankara. This muddle about who’s in power to command was the CRISIS? It leaves one clueless whom to turn to. I’d no other option but to panic.

There were the sounds of gunshots and explosions outside my room and I began to speculate on the safest corner inside sitting on the carpet. CNN reported the army now controlled the national media and had blocked social media sites like Facebook and Twitter as Erdogan rapidly communicated on these sites with the citizens asking them to defy the curfew. Fear and nervousness was gripping as the loudspeakers of the various mosques came alive with Azan (call for prayers) at a very unusual hour–to call people out into the streets and defy the curfew, in other words deny the Army’s claim.

Istanbul was Erdogan’ home and he started his political career from this city; so the people following his call came out of their homes, gathered in Taksim Square, corners of the street and started moving towards the airport and the bridges. It was an open fight on the street with tanks and explosions and blank fires. I simply went berserk and numb. The war that I see on television screen is round the street corner; one mistake: a drop of a bomb or a stray bullet would have ended my consciousness in a second and I would not even know that I was dead. Strangely enough I was more worried for my kids at home. The thought of not meeting them again dried up every bit of sense in me. I called home and cried. I would see no logic and desperately wanted to go home. My daughter was trying her best to explain and console. Sitting on the carpet with my legs pulled up together I cried for my kids and then I thought of crossing the country by land. The previous day the tour guide showed us the International Bus Terminal connecting Turkey with the rest of Europe. My sole purpose of life was to get out of Istanbul. The Turks had known war and several coups. But for me more than anything it was a deterrent between me and my family, home.

Meanwhile one of my best friends an Oxford Research Scholar was arranging a temporary stay in co-researcher’s residence in the city if I had to stay back for days. My daughter contacted the Indian foreign minister through social networking and received a diplomatic answer about India’s solidarity with the Turkish democratic regime. The news channels in India flashed two numbers of the Indian Embassy located in the European side (and I was staying in the Asian part) to ask for help. I tried to get some sleep before I could call them in the morning but failed. Explosions shook the window panes and the curtains of my room. The news reader informed that the army was checking every hotel and was assembling the foreigners to send them back. All my things lay scattered on the chair, carpet and table. I quickly rolled them in my suitcase and was waiting for them to pick me up contemplating if it turned out to be a trap. Caught amidst foreign forces I realised anything could have been possible.

The fate of the city was my fate! Apparently the city had secretly crept in and has become a part of my ‘self’. Erdogan’s smart act of leading the citizens out of doors to challenge the Army worked profitably for the President in retrieving control and power and also for me.

In the morning the airports re-opened (though flights resumed only towards the evening). Taxis were ready as business was low (Turkish Lira fell following the coup) to take me to the airport and on my way I saw groups of Erdogan supporters waving Turkish flags. I crossed very few armymen in black with automatic guns. A tank on the road near the airport had become an entity to take selfies with and the children were climbing all over it in excitement. Relieved yet thinking as I sat waiting for my flight at 11:15 pm to Delhi, how absurd one feels faced with these ‘other’ forces!  The Indian Embassy phone rang but no one received the many calls I made. While speculating on crossing the borders by land and eventually flying back home from another country, the thought of valid documents never crossed my mind. I could have never managed a visa in that fight for state power and wonder which regime might have authorised it! With no tourist office equipped to guide one in such a crisis, for some time to my surprise now, I had become the refugee I’d met—speculating ways to flee the conflict zone.


[1] Istanbul: 29

[2] The earliest and largest church in Istanbul of the Byzantium Period which was damaged in wars, raids and earthquakes and had been rebuilt several times; it was converted into a mosque during the Ottoman rule when Sultan Mehmet the conquerer had the church restored after his conquest of Istanbul. It is now a museum following the order of Ataturk.

[3] Lady Mary Wortley Montagu(1689-1762) was an English writer primarily known for her Turkish embassy letters from her  travels to the Ottoman Empire accompanying her husband, the then British ambassador to Turkey.

(Dr. Farddina Hussain teaches English at Gauhati University. Travel writing and films are her research areas.)