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Posts Tagged ‘Islam’

While, of course, we wouldn’t have travelled to Turkey without expecting it to be nice to some degree, we were pleasantly surprised by the country. It’s quite unlike any other country I’ve been to; it has a pretty unique mixture of European and Middle Eastern culture and climate.

Coming from a city like Seoul that is dominated by its modern office and apartment buildings along with a few pine-covered mountains, Istanbul was a great contrast. The thing you notice most about the city, especially the touristy Sultanahmet area, which is where we stayed, is the mosques. They tend to sit on top of the hills, minarets arrowing into the sky, each looking much like the Hagia Sophia. Periodically, the call to prayer goes out from all of them, echoes bouncing back and forth across the city. There’s an undeniable beauty to the spiralling songs, but the whole idea of everyone stopping what they’re doing five times a day to worship some mythical being is the mark of totalitarianism.

On a happier note, Istanbul was also remarkable for the number of cats. It was like visiting Ulthar. Every café and restaurant seems to have a suprisingly well kempt stray lazing by the doorway. Mostly, they seemed clean and healthy – and friendly, too. We petted quite a few and they readily lifted their heads for a scratch. One of the friendliest cats I encountered was at the ruins of Ephesus. It was a pretty small white and ginger bitch who purred enthusiastically as she rubbed up against me. I didn’t pet her, however, as her ears were horribly infected, red and swollen, the tips nothing but scab. She didn’t seem to be in any discomfort, though.

Having had a less than totally pleasant time in India, I’m always on my guard when it comes to being approached by strangers when in foreign lands. Our experience in Turkey, however, was quite benign. People wanted to sell their services, but they left you alone if you said No, thanks. One man approached us as we got off the bus in Selçuk and I was automatically suspicious, but he turned out to be very helpful, offering us information about buses and taxis and then pointing us towards our hostel’s meeting point when we told him what we were doing.

As you might expect from its East-meets-West status, Turkey has both western- and eastern-style toilets. The sitting toilets have a little spout thing that sticks out from the back of the bowl rim and doesn’t appear to do anything. Many toilets also have the ability for the user to customise the amount of flush. For instance, some toilets have a kind of double-sided button on top of the cistern; you push one side down to flush and you push the other side down to stop it.

We had our share of Turkish coffees while we were there, too. It’s very bitter, thick stuff served in a little espresso-style cup. You need sugar or syrup in it to make it palatable. The last third or quarter of the cup is a gritty sludge that it’s inadvisable to drink; if you stir the coffee, you mix that sludge in with the rest of the drink. Tea was likewise served strong and black in little urn-shaped glass cups. We like our capuccinos, but they tended to be pretty mediocre in Turkey.

On the subject of food, my overriding impression is that Turks like their bread. Coming from South Korean, where the bread tends to be sweet and crappy and many people literally confuse cake with bread, the amount of good bread on offer was a pleasant change. Habiba was ecstatic about our hostel breakfast in Istanbul – a buffet of green and black olives, feta cheese, tomato, cucumber, egg and thick slices of crusty, rabbit-shaped bread. Rabbit-shaped because each loaf was cut down one side of the top before it finished baking.

Many meals would come with a basket full of such bread. Most of the meals we had were very good. They tended to be somewhat saucy and oily and pretty mild. After red pepper-heavy South Korean cuisine and our own spicy cooking, a lot of the meals seemed quite bland. A couple of highlights were bruch at a place in Istanbul called Van Kahvatlı that had lots of bread and cheese, and in Selçuk, we went to a restaurant called Wallabies where I had a chicken curry that was mild, but tasty.

Overall, we were very happy to have visited to Turkey. Looking around the shops and stalls in places like the Grand Bazaar, you realise you could come here just to buy beautiful things with which to fill your home. I limited myself to one cat ornament. We only went to two town, and it seems like we could have visited a dozen places and been just as impressed with each one. Another time, maybe.

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US anchorman Keith Olbermann presents an essay on the controversy over the planned ‘mosque’ (it isn’t a mosque) ‘on’ (it’s a few blocks away from) the site World Trade Center in New York. His words are incredibly potent and percipient, and highlight the danger of the world’s most powerful nation turning into the kind of state it has taken up a crusade against.

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