In Limbo, In Istanbul

On leaving mount Athos the everyday realities of speed, poverty, greed, manipulation and ostentatiousness seem utterly surreal. Crossing the Greek Turkish border our bus drivers were arrested for smuggling iPhones among the supplies. A group of English Muslims en route to Syria with an aid convoy of five ambulances were held up in customs with us. One of them told stories about government forces making a mother drink the soup of her own boiled baby; and that Hezbollah were carrying out attacks on white Journalists to make it look like the work of ‘rebels.’ Truth being the first victim of war, none of this could be taken at face value, but he felt his help was needed: “I’m helping to bring Islam and topple dictators who stop the prayer, Islamic way of life.”

Once in Istanbul a cab driver hiked up the agreed price mid journey and spat on the ground when I refused to travel any further. Hotel hustlers assumed I was wealthy and tried to sell me overpriced room deals.  When talking with some Kurds a sideways glancing man I had a bad gut instinct about brandished a pistol. This was all quite a contrast to Athos but serenity could be found in the hushed silence of a mosque, with newfound acquaintances, and in the mystical stringed music of a Syrian refugee, serenading along the Bosporus at sunset:

I hung around in the poorer parts of town looking for stories and shared a rented room in a house full of flickering TVs run by a women knick-named ‘the beast.’ She was grossly overweight with plucked eyebrows and an ill fitting off the shoulder dress. When she sat her belly hung between her legs like a sand bag and you could hear her coming by the sound of her heavy breathing. Her terse lips only smiled when rent money changed hands. Above my bed was a picture of an eagle with a snake grasped in its talons; quite a change from a haloed saint or Athos crucifix. There were only two excuses to stay here: morbid curiosity and cheapness. Soon it would be time to hit the road and I started searching for stories with ‘migration route to Europe’ themes.

It wasn’t hard to find people with stories to tell, this being Istanbul, the bridge between Asia and Europe. Barnabe came from Burkino Faso following a footballing dream that faded when an agent swindled him of his money.  Mohammed, 35, from Palestine, had just navigated worn torn Syria traveling from mosque to mosque. He spotted me in a crowded bazaar and his opened conversation up with the question: “Are you a Christian?” By now I was happy to answer this question thus: “I was born in a Christian country.” In Islamic countries the question of ‘which religion you belong to?’ arises quickly and this handy phrase allowed doors to open rather than close. Mohammed told me he was focused on trying to get to what he considered to be a good country, “when you have nothing to loose we take a lot of risks.” he said.  In return for conversation I bought him a meal he could barely eat because of tooth ache. He was he apologised, “a shadow of myself, ” and was “loosing my religion, just like the REM song.”

Others I was bumping into were loosing or finding their religion too. Sitting in a shop front Amir, 32, an engineer from Iran, confided his feelings in me as a phalanx of sound ricocheted in the streets. The call to prayer can be the sweetest sound on earth, but sadly it can also be a cacophony. In Kabul one mosque put so much reverb and distortion out on the speakers during funerals the call to prayer sounded like psychological torture than an invitation to find peace with God. In Istanbul it was the same. The heartfelt song from Sultan Ahmed Mosque contrasted strongly with the sounds crackling from speakers near the shop. Amir winced when the azan sounded, “Islam no good,” he said. Following a dream where he asked for direction Amir was now turning to the Baha’i faith. To illustrate his frustration with the way Islam is interpreted in Iran he told me about his wife. She had been told she would “go to hell” by people of her street for independently starting a craft based business. Farzal, 35, a computer technician, sitting with us, ridiculed the finger wagers: “When they go back to God he will be very displeased with them for not using his gift to them,” he said pointing to his head, “they do not use their brains!” 

Bling Bling

Ships on the Bosporous

Street man and his dog

Baker's Dozen

Street scales

Kurdish shopkeeper


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