Saturday, October 20, 2012

A Taste for Turkey - Day One

Taksim Square, Istanbul

 Could anything top Egypt?  After our last trip there, still overwhelmed by this strange, yet magnetic country, my husband Peter and I talked about other possible travel destinations.  The city that kept coming up in our talks was Istanbul, the largest city in Turkey.  Istanbul, like Cairo, is an ever-expanding city, sucking people from the surrounding countryside like a vacuum cleaner.  Like Cairo, no one is sure exactly how many people live there, but the estimates are, also like Cairo, somewhere between 15 and 17 million inhabitants.

Before this city was named Istanbul it was called Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, a city we read about in history class.  Constantinople is the name of the city I was most familiar with, because of history classes.  But now that I live in Germany, I keep hearing about Istanbul.  And Istanbul seemed a logical place to travel to – it is another Muslim culture to explore, now that we’ve seen much of Egypt.  It’s also a city with a lot more sunshine and warmth in October, when we decided to travel, than Cologne.  

            But Turkey as a travel goal?  The name is reminiscent of big, fat, clumsy Thanksgiving birds.  Believe it or not, the two names are connected.  Way back in the 1500s or so, traders brought a bird species from Madagascar to Europe through Turkey, the guinea fowl.  It was thus nicknamed the “turkey fowl”.  When Spanish explorers to the new world returned to Europe with a similar-looking bird, they simply called this species “turkey”.  Turkey – something to eat for Thanksgiving.

            Turkey gets a pretty bad rap in Germany.  Turkish immigrants form the largest group of foreigners living in Germany – estimates range from one and a half to two and a half million people, depending on whether children are counted.  Turkish children born in Germany are considered German until the age of eighteen, when they must decide which nationality to take, so they don’t count in the statistics.  We hear stories about parents who keep their children home from school, or children who do go to school, but who aren’t allowed to take part in sports.  We hear about strapping macho teenage boys who terrorize other students, who then have to keep their mouths shut about it, because Germans dare not say anything negative about non-Germans.  Germans are always afraid of being called Nazis if they open their mouths to protest about anything.  We hear about Turks who have lived in Germany for over thirty years and who don’t speak a word of German.  I heard my mother-in-law talk when she was still alive, of unhygienic Turks who polluted the air with their garlic breath.  Of course, these people are different from those in Istanbul, many Germans are quick to say.  Germany gets the uneducated, religiously conservative peasants from villages in Anatolia.  I have even heard it said that the Turks living in Istanbul are a different race from those living in east Anatolia.

            On the other hand, Turkey is one of the USA’s most important allies, and it is a very important, strategic NATO power.  Turkey has been trying to get into the European Union for several years, but roadblocks keep getting put up in their way.  They are not modern enough, not democratic enough, not western enough, Turkey is not in a literal sense even European, write the pundits.  And yet, we also hear of tremendous leaps forward in their economy.  We hear that this is a nation that is working.   

            It was time to go and see for ourselves.

            We travel with a group of Germans through the same tourist agency as our first trip to Egypt.  On a soggy, cold, gray October morning, we leave Cologne, arriving in Istanbul’s glistening, modern Ataturk airport in warm sunshine.  I, as an American, have to buy a visa at immigration, but Peter, as a German citizen, doesn’t have to.  After picking up our baggage, we are met immediately by our agent, who leads us into a van with a bunch of other Germans traveling with the same company.  Before long, we view the sea, which is really a narrow stretch of water separating Europe from Asia, on our right.  But it’s broad enough to remind me of the sea.  We drive on along an endless grass-lined beach, filled with families barbecuing, enjoying Sunday off.  You can almost smell the mixture of meat and charcoal burning from our car, but the windows are sealed shut.  From this drive into the city, we can already see that Istanbul is doing a lot better financially than Cairo.  Everywhere we look, we see green trees and lawn.  OK – no desert here, so no dust.  But everything looks clean and tidy too.  The roads are in great shape, the buildings we pass look like something we could live in, and the Bosphorus looks awfully inviting for a swim.  In October!  Back in Cologne, it’s in the 50’s.  Here, we’re enjoying a balmy 80° Fahrenheit on this sunny afternoon.  In a way, it reminds me of a California beach city filled with apartment buildings.  The people we see picnicking look more like the Turks we see in Germany – most of the women have headscarves on, but the teenagers, kids and men are dressed like any European.  

The Golden Horn, with the Galata Tower inthe center
            It takes us over an hour and a half to get to the hotel – Prime Minister Erdogan happens to be officiating at the opening of a water purification plant which also just happens to be on the road we’re driving on, so we pass car after car, red Turkish flag after flag.  Finally, we get to the famous Golden Horn, a stretch of water turning inland from the sea.  Our hotel is on the other side of the bridge, in the modern, western part of Istanbul.  The city’s many mosques are laid out in front of us, their slim minarets gracing the blue sky.  The city looks a bit exotic, maybe like a movie set, with all those minarets, and yet fully European.  “There’s the Galata Bridge,” says our escort.  “And the tower over there.”  I’ve heard of the Golden Horn, the Galata Bridge and tower.  I’ve seen them in movies.  But now, I can finally see the whole thing.  Now I know how they fit into the rest of the city.

            One of the things I have discovered about living and traveling abroad is that a place becomes one’s own as you actually physically begin to inhabit the squares and buildings you may have heard about.  You may have seen Central Park a hundred times in movies, but until you’ve set foot in it yourself, it can’t become a part of you.  Now, Istanbul is already becoming a part of me.

            We check into a lovely hotel, the Larespark, located in the middle of a section of Istanbul called Taksim Square.  Four and a half stars!  Our room is roomy and comfortable – western!  Everything looks so European.  Well, why not?  We are in Europe!

            Later in the evening, we meet our guide, Harun, a pleasant-looking man with laugh wrinkles around his eyes.  He’s got a three-day beard, and looks like he’s under forty.  Harun tells us we shouldn’t drink the water in the hotel, but there’s no problem using it to brush our teeth.  And I can eat the salads in the hotel with no reservations – they use filtered water in their cooking!

            Harun tells us that our hotel is located in the most European, most progressive-thinking part of Istanbul.  It’s the area where Orhan Pamuk lives when he’s in Istanbul.  Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for literature in 2006.  A waiter walks into our conference room, and Harun tells us to order drinks.  He first lists all the non-alcoholic drinks we can choose from before he gets to the alcohol.  He announces that he will be drinking juice, but we’re welcome to order alcohol if we want to.  I order a raki, expecting it to taste like the ouzo I drank in Greece.  It does taste of anise, but I don’t like it.  

            Later in the evening, Peter and I walk out onto Taksim Square.  “This is THE hot spot of Istanbul,” he tells me.  It certainly appears so.  There are people out all over, strolling along the pedestrian zone outside our hotel.  We pass fast-food restaurants and general stores selling everything from toothpaste to animated stuffed animals that dance for us.  Young men speak to us in English, trying to get us to eat at their restaurants, but leave us alone when we say we’ve already eaten.  They don’t seem to have that Egyptian pushiness.  They’re more like the hustlers in New York City.

            It may not be as exotic as Cairo, but I know I’m going to feel very comfortable here in Istanbul.            

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

If God be for us...

The other day I was helping a friend who is moving.  One of the people helping her was a young man who is intellectually challenged, but who sometimes comes up with priceless comments.  I was complaining to my friends about something I considered unfair, when he suddenly put the nail on the head.  "Das Leben ist kein Wunschkonzert," he said.  Life is not a "listener's choice" radio program.

It is a platitude to say that life is hard.  Yet we all expect to somehow get through life unscathed, or at least healed from the worst of it.  When we suffer, pray, and continue to suffer, we wonder what ever happened to God and all the promises of blessing we are told that God has in store for us.  Where is the God of love?  Is God on the side of God's children?  Can we count on God to protect and help us when times get tough?  I've been seeing and hearing about an awful lot of suffering lately.

Last July, our church community lost little Henrik, a sweet, lively, affectionate little four-year-old, to leukemia.  Ever since he was diagnosed in May, we started praying diligently for him to be healed.  There were some promising signs, but in the end, he died from a bowel infection he got from being so weakened from the chemotherapy.  His mother shows the signs of this ravaging battle on her face, in her eyes.  Did she lose the fight?  Were all our prayers in vain? 
Ever since my two trips to Egypt, I've been subscribing to a publication committed to helping and praying for Christians who are persecuted because of their faith - "Open Doors".  Many of the prayer requests for this month come from Iraq.  A team of workers from Open Doors traveled to the Kurdish area of northern Iraq in June.  They say that the situation for Kurdish Christians has become less and less safe.  I mentioned this fact to my husband.  "They're doubly persecuted there," he said.  "They're hated by the ethnic Iraqis because they're Kurdish, and hated by the Muslims because they're Christians."

I started thinking about martyrs.  Christian martyrs.  Everyone knows that six million Jews were killed by the Nazis in World War II.  That's a lot of people.  But I found out that 45 million Christians were murdered in the twentieth century because of their faith.  In all of history, the estimates are that 70 million people have lost their lives because of their faith in Christ.  But that means, over half of them were murdered in our "civilized" twentieth century!  Since 2000, they estimate that around 105,000 Christians have been murdered every year because of their faith.  That averages out at about one person every five minutes.  What has happened to all their prayers for protection?        

These people are asked by their church communities to not retaliate, but rather to live peacefully with their neighbors and to bless when they are being persecuted.  Since the news about the anti-Muslim film has thrown huge tremors around the globe, Christians in Pakistan are feeling more oppression than ever.  Does God care?

We in Germany hear a lot about the Euro crisis.  Germans are being asked to foot much of the bill for a huge amount of Greek debt.  Germans are worried because the crisis has spread to Spain and threatens to deepen in Italy, Ireland and Portugal.  While we in Germany are living very well indeed, normal people in Greece are wondering where they're going to get enough money to buy a liter of milk.  Hundreds of thousands of Greeks will have to go without heat this winter.  In Greece, the suicide rate has jumped 30-40 per cent since the Euro crisis began.  Does God hear the prayers of the Greeks crying out?

When I read the words of Jesus, I hear a different message from that of the prosperity preachers on TV.  Jesus talked about "when you are persecuted".  He talked about injustice all the time - about turning the other cheek, about going the extra mile, about blessing those who persecute us, about rejoicing and being glad when we are persecuted.  He talked about bearing our yoke with us.

We protest about injustice.  I am especially vociferous on this point.  I expect to see fairness and justice, and am appalled when forced to see so much cruelty.  But I think I've been missing the point along with most of the rest of us.  I think Jesus wants us to hold fast to him, to let him suffer with us, to let him carry our crosses with us.  He didn't ever promise that suffering would stop when we start following God seriously.  In fact, it seems that, at least with Christians, that is a sure-fire way for the suffering to begin, especially if you live in certain countries.

If there were no domain called the "Kingdom of God," those of us who care about justice might just as well stop fighting for it.  We'd be better off if we went home, ate popcorn, drank beer and watched TV.  If this life with all its cruelty and injustice is all there is, what's the point of it all?  I think we need to start looking somewhere else.

What would our lives look like if we could manage to bring our problems to God and leave them there?  What if we could express our outrage at injustice to God, and then go on patiently with our lives, being peacemakers where we can, but where we can't make peace, allow the injustice to go on for as long as God allows it to?  What if we could forgive those who offend us instead of mulling over all the details of the offense for a thousand times?   What if we could enjoy the brilliant autumn leaves instead, accepting that in a month or so, they'll all be decaying on the ground?  What if we could love God and trust in goodness, even while experiencing some of life's injustices?  This kind of lifestyle makes no sense in a life lived solely on our terms, energized by our own power and inclinations.  But today, the thought came to me that perhaps this is the way we ought to pray.  It's the way I told God today I want to start living again.  I forgot about this way of living when I got so caught up in fighting for my version of justice.  My prayers are my faltering attempts to live the lifestyle that Jesus talked about in his Sermon on the Mount.  I will have good days, and I will have bad.  But living for these invisible, intangible ends is what a life of faith is really all about.  Jesus promised another life after this one.  Perhaps it won't be until then that we can enjoy justice, health, well-being and the fruit of all our good works.  It is this eternity, which is an aspect of both now, when we live in the dimension that is called faith, and of a future life after this one, that my hero St. Francis believed in as he prayed: 
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Where there is doubt, faith.
Where there is despair, hope.
Where there is darkness, light.
Where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.