Adam Basciano ’16, an International Relations major, studied in Israel in the spring semester and shared with us his trip to Istanbul.
Istanbul is truly a magnificent city, full of complexities and history that left us with countless ways to spend our six days. I arrived here alongside an American friend from Hebrew University last Sunday. We met up with some of his friends who are studying in Istanbul for the semester, and they helped show us around the city.
Istanbul, a city that straddles both Europe and Asia, offered experiences and sights generally unavailable to us in Jerusalem. For instance, our dinner the first night was at an authentic Persian restaurant. Amongst our dinner party sat young students who each identify as Lebanese, Moroccan, Persian, Pakistani, Israeli, and well, me from New Jersey. Moments to get to know students from all over the world were abundant throughout the trip. It was both refreshing and informative.
The Turkish culture is alive and vivid in the country’s epicenter in Istanbul. The food was enjoyable and cheap, accessible through nicer restaurants as well as friendly street vendors. Each day brought with it at least two or three trips to a local cafe to relax with Turkish coffee or tea. A fusion of European and Middle Eastern culture could be seen throughout daily life here. At night, bars and dance-clubs light up the upper levels of the day’s shops and restaurants. Young Turks and tourists blend together to provide for a nightlife that reminds you of the secular nature of the Ataturk’s grand vision.
A visitor to Istanbul can choose to let these comfortable cultural surfaces define his or her trip to this city that is home to over 18 million people.
However, walk one block from the live music at the dance-bar you just spent the evening in, and you are greeted by the dozens upon dozens of Syrian refugees roaming the streets. They are amongst the city’s poorest, and have been continuously flowing into Istanbul and Turkey as a whole since the start of the Syrian Civil War roughly four years ago. Very different to the homeless people in cities like New York or Washington DC, their fate is unknown and the solution seems ungraspable. Ranging from young children to former professionals and academics, the Syrians sell items ranging from tissues to selfie-sticks.
To more fully understand present day Turkish society, one also must make himself aware of the increasingly authoritarian nature of the country’s leadership. Journalists are imprisoned regularly and the internet is carefully watched. It is uncommon to observe Turkish citizens speaking loudly on public transportation or for people to openly criticize President Erdogan in cafes. It only took one day after our arrival for the social media sites Twitter and YouTube to be shut-down by the government. The motives for doing so is believed to be related to the incidents that happened last week when there was a hostage situation in a courthouse that culminated in multiple people dead. While the websites returned to functionality eventually, we were reminded that Turkey is not as Western as it sometimes appears, despite how European the country strives to be.
An appreciation and understanding of Istanbul requires the awareness of the many complexities prevalent, a small sample of which I just described.
Not that you can truly compare Jerusalem to any other place in the world, Istanbul does leave a lasting mark similar to that of the City of Gold. Built on rolling hills and instilled with the histories of powerful empires, both Jerusalem and Istanbul represent convergence points of the world’s great civilizations. Both are also fully immersed in the highly complicated scenario of being cities of religious importance to many while simultaneously catering to the requirements of a secular, modern city. Their identities lie in their complexities and contradictions.
I couldn’t imagine spending my two-week vacation break any better. The plane is now boarding, and the second half of my semester abroad is calling.
You can read more about Adam’s life in Israel on his Hebrew blog:http://adamoshe.tumblr.com/