Updated: Feb 21, 2022
It was entirely too hot on Wednesday during the day, so most of us stayed inside until the afternoon. Once it was cooler, Gage, Mike, Luiz (a new addition to the gang) and I went out for some food before taking the boat tour around the Bosporus. The kabab place we found had only one item on the menu: pork kebab. The menu was more of an illustration of what to expect, and the staff took it away immediately and told us we would be having “four kebap (sic).” In fairness, it was pretty damn good. The spit was a massive mass of meat slowly rotating above a fire pit. Our meat was shaved off and crisped up a little bit more before it was served to us with a few accompaniments, including salad and yoghurt, and more than enough flatbread. It was exceptional.
The boat ride came next, and I pointed out the places I’d seen with Amin the day before. Taking a boat gives you a whole other perspective on the city. I hadn’t really noticed before as I’d been a bit distracted, but Istanbul is big. REALLY big. The bridge that connects the two continents is long and high, understated from afar but overwhelming from underneath. Ancient walls and towers peeped out from behind trees, co-habiting with new developments on the shoreline. There are palaces with ocean waves practically crashing against their gardens. Harshly angled hotels sit next to classical architecture with no care for constructive consistency. The opportunity to travel further up the strait made for a visual treat. Unfortunately for me, I was only able to see so much before the onboard photographer decided to talk to me. Normally this wouldn’t be an issue, but he took a oddly targeted interest in that fact I’m English.
“I love England! I want to marry English girl!” he told me proudly.
“That’s cool!” I replied, wondering where he was going with this.
“You can tell me what to do for English wife?” Oh dear.
“I don’t know really; all girls are their own person. I can't really generalise.”
“English girls are faithful and work hard!” Oh god.
“Sure, I guess.”
“After work here, I go to Antalya. Many English girls visit for holiday. I will find one to make her my wife.” Jesus Christ, it’s one of these guys.
“Look, I don’t think any relationship will work out if you're just dating her because of her nationality. You need to find a girl you like, get to know each other, and then decide if marriage is what you both want.”
“Yes, yes, yes...”
“...so, what you say to English girls?”
This back-and-forth went on for far longer than it had any right to and made me miss much of the view on the ride back. He was pushy about staying in contact, which didn’t improve my enjoyment of the situation. Aside from that, the ride was as pretty on the way back as it was setting out.
As we arrived back at the dock, the sun had just set, but we weren't ready to go back to the hostel. We chose to wander around the area instead and see if anything caught our eye, and before long something did. We picked a mosque in the middle distance that stood higher than anything else around it, thinking it would at least have nice views of the city. The route was by no means direct however; we were four city strangers with no internal map except the knowledge that we needed to “go up.” Thanks to this stunning logic we found ourselves walking fast down side streets full of broken glass and ill-intentions, and passed by less than friendly-looking restaurants. At one point a car drove over a bottle that exploded glass shards at us, and we could see people picking through bins and throwing out a day’s worth of rubbish for some unknown reason. We didn’t hang around to ask.
Yet soon enough we were out of the unknown and moved into stonework streets, before a swift arrival at our improvised destination: Süleymaniye Mosque. The courtyard was magnificent, it really was incredible. There were high walls and elevated colonnades which could act as a seat if you looked towards the centre. Stretching up to the sky was the dome of the mosque flanked by minarets that were slightly too far apart for a group shot. All of it was illuminated by powerful lights that cast a chiaroscuro effect so grand that I had to lay on the ground to appreciate it all. I, along with my friends, had to pause out of respect for whomever designed such a brilliant building.
A Syrian woman pushing a pram came up to Mike and Gage for a conversation I was too far away from to hear, but I got the gist of even so. She clasped her hands together pleadingly, and they shook their heads apologetically. Then it was my turn. I couldn’t tell if she was being genuine when she said she was a refugee, since I’ve been trained to be cynical from years in London. Had I had any lira on me I would still have given some, but I did not. And so, I once again experienced guilt so strong I felt I had to justify my inability to help when discussing it with the others.
In any case, we next flirted with the idea of heading inside the mosque, which despite their assumptions we were allowed to enter; shoeless, of course. Almost as soon as we entered, we were approached by a volunteer that spoke immaculate English. He was Palestinian, and from the hour or so conversation about Islam that proceeded it was clear that he was extremely passionate about his faith.
He was eager to share it with others what started out as a simple explanation of some of the finer points of Islam, but developed into indiscreet proselytizing. Mike made it clear that he wasn’t interested in Islam on any level other than academically. Luiz was barely spoken to which was uncomfortable for everyone. By the end, the volunteer said that there was still “potential” for Gage and I, but that Mike was a lost cause. Again, Luiz was forgotten. We thought it was a little odd to use the word “potential” considering he’s meant to help everyone reach the faith. Maybe Mike didn’t fit into the grand scheme? Who knows. Mike didn't seem to mind. Once we’d extracted ourselves from what had admittedly been a very interesting philosophical discussion, we took in the sweeping view of a late night Istanbul from the gardens and headed back to end the day.
We were starving by this point, and it was getting late enough that few places were open anymore. Mike decided he couldn't wait any longer and bought a takeaway that was clearly comprised of the last of the day's food. His review was summarised in a regretful smile after the first bite, swiftly followed by a quiet "this is awful." The rest of us meanwhile discovered perhaps the best part about nightlife in Istanbul: corn on the cob. There's nothing quite like walking around Hagia Sophia with a freshly grilled cob of corn, which is a sentence I never thought I'd write in my life. You would have thought that late-night kebabs would be the food of choice for street vendors here, but no. A shocking last-minute twist.