As I explore Istanbul and the Muslim faith that prevails here, I am constantly struck by a familiarity. It’s not just one thing, but a whole bunch of different things, that I recognize from past experiences. Partly, this feeling stems from the multitude of influences Turkey has had throughout history. I see Greek influences in the worry beads I see locals clanging about.
I was also reminded of Greece influences in the business owners’ pushy attitudes as they try to entice you to stop and check out their store or restaurant. Even a simple “hello” or “good morning” morphs into, “you look hungry; you should eat here.” And even if you come up with an excuse, “sorry, I just ate,” they will counter with some fresh offers, “We have delicious baklava for dessert; you need to try it.” Yet despite this seemingly constant guilty assault, the Turks are some of the most friendly people I have encountered. Their desire to help is so genuine, I had a hard time accepting it at first. In fact, one of the best experiences I had thus far was getting a free, insiders tour around the Blue Mosque from an area shopkeeper who also proceeded to offer me free tea and sweets after I stopped in asking for directions to the famous landmark.
More familiarity strikes me as I learn more about the Muslim faith. A religion often misunderstood and marginalized in America, but even with open eyes and an open mind, I am surprised by how similar many Muslim rituals are similar to Christianity and Judaism. The most surprising is the seemingly universal celebration of Christmas here; despite the large muslim population, all Turks seem to LOVE their non-secular Russian-style Christmas, exchanging gifts around the tree on New Years Day. It’s like I’ve been reliving the pre-Christmas excitement as shops are decorated to the hilt and American Christmas songs play everywhere. I was even informed by a local teacher that the children LOVE to sing Christmas songs in English leading up the big day!
While I am by NO means a religious expert, I have noticed other similarities between the three major religions: belief in one God with different “prophets” setting slightly different rules, the idea of daily prayer, a call to prayer loudly echoing through the city much like church bells, ritualist washing to cleanse yourself before God, and the underlying message of charity by helping the less fortunate. These is also the common thread of ritualistic circumcision of babies, a pork-free diet, and segregation between men & women at religious services between the more conservative believers of the Jewish and Muslim faiths. Head coverings for men and conservative dress for women are seen in both. Sure I am over simplifying and all of this knowledge can be gathered from a basic Google search, but seeing these practices carried out in person really solidified the commonality between the Islamic laws here and the conservative Jewish practices I witnessed during my time at Brandeis.
Then there is the mixed symbolism I see in the various mosques throughout the city. The most famous of which is Haga Sophia, formerly a Byzantine church, it was re-made into a mosque but now serves as a museum, with the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus on the wall next to Muslim scriptures.
Yet in other mosques, amongst all the blue tiled patterns, I saw many blue 6-pointed stars, much like the Star of David. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but I have no doubt that Dan Brown’s famous symbolist, Robert Langdon, could raise more questions than answers.
There are other familiarities here, too: the Mediterranean passion for “discussion” (which looks and sounds more like argument); the universality that all cab drivers are CRAZY drivers; a passion for shopping; and of course, the crowded, slow above ground “metro” that locals HATE (Green Line anyone?).
Sure, there are plenty of differences: the language, which sounds almost like that made-up language you created as a kid that had too many vowels (ex. Güllüoğlu, pronounced GOO-LOO-O-LOO), the politics, their love for hookah, and of course the food. Yet sometimes even in the differences, you find sameness. Take for example, two classic turkish foods – “salep,” a winter-drink made from warmed cream, vanilla and cinnamon which reminded me of the warm milk I drank nightly, as part of my favorite pre-bedtime childhood ritual; and “künefe,” a warm dessert, made from wheat grains, cheese and pistachios sweetened with honey and crisped up in the oven which reminded me a big bowl of Frosted Mini-Wheats.
Ultimately, I think that it’s all a matter of perspective. We could constantly be pointing out how we are unique and different, yet I think there is much more value in understanding how similar we really are. In similarity we can find compassion for others and maybe then, many many years into the future can we achieve the ever illusive ideal of “Peace on Earth.” And I can’t help but wonder, maybe that’s the ultimate test we as humans need to pass in order to truly understand the greater workings of the universe? I can just see a divine being looking down, laughing at us as we bicker over differences, when really we are all just human’s struggling to survive and be happy… What will you choose for 2014?