I just got back from a trip to Turkey, and if you haven’t been and have half a chance to visit, pack your bags and go. Trust me on this.
I have never, ever met friendlier, more welcoming people. There was the shop owner in Istanbul who lent my friend some reading glasses: “Just use them until you get some more.” (He also called ahead to a restaurant and said, “My American friends are coming. Give them a discount and your best wine.”) There was the woman in Cappadocia who took us into her cave house and taught me how to tie my headscarf. My favorite person by far was our kind, knowledgeable, thoughtful and infinitely patient guide and friend Hasan. (He drove us around for hours, found us a cave hotel, kept me from killing myself on a rickety ladder I should never have been on in the first place, bought us pistachios and Lay’s potato chips, took us to (and through) the underground city at Ozkonak, introduced us to Turkish pop music and answered all my many questions about Islam.) Along the way, I also met a charming hotel clerk who absolutely loves Elvis and a beautiful Kangal dog named Pambuk. I sipped a Turkish beer on our hotel rooftop in Istanbul while listening to a cacophony of sunset calls to prayer, savoring the sights, sounds, taste and irony. I saw Rumi’s tomb in the Mevlana Museum in Konya and Yoruk nomads tending their sheep and goats along a busy highway.
The trip was a mix of business and pleasure. A friend and I went to Turkey to shop for another friend’s import company, but before we got down to our 13-hour day of business in Beysehir (fueled by endless cups of chai), we enjoyed a country breakfast of boiled eggs, homemade jams and breads, thick yogurt, spicy lamb sausage, feta pastries, olives green and black, tomatoes, cucumbers, cow and sheep cheeses, and honeycomb dipped in something called hashas, pronounced “hashhash” (non-narcotic, reddish granules from the poppy pod that tasted a bit like peanut butter). All this on a huge copper tray set atop an antique urn in the seller’s office.
It was an astonishing trip. But even more amazing to me: My visit to Turkey actually began several years ago with a passage in The Orchid Thief where author Susan Orlean describes an ice cream made from orchid tubers. You can get the real thing only in Turkey. (Those who sell it have a certification of authenticity from the government. They usually also wear special outfits (not government issued) and perform a little show that involves twirling your ice cream cone just out of your reach.)
I wanted some of that ice cream. The fact that I could get it while visiting such an exotic locale (in Istanbul, a short ferry ride or a stroll over the Galata Bridge takes you from one continent to another, and so we went to Asia for dinner one evening) made the idea all the more enticing.
Little wonder then, for a trip that really started with a simple paragraph in a book, I relied upon other books all along the way. First, of course, was a travel book. I used Open Road Publishing’s Turkey Guide. It was filled with the usual (and some unusual) descriptions of things to see (the Yerebatan Cistern, built during the reign of Justinian 527-565 A.D. and very near the Hagia Sophia, “is a cool, dark spot in the midst of the pandemonium of Sultanahmet;” it’s also a breathtakingly beautiful example of form and function). The guide had plenty of necessary phrases (lutfen (please), tesekkurler (thank you), Bu ne kadar? (How much is this?) and O istiyorum. (I want it). But best of all, this book offered a short, but thorough history of each place we visited and the country as a whole. This knowledge was invaluable to me as I set out to be a traveler rather than just a tourist. I found that knowing the culture of a place and the character of its people—and the why of it all—are even more important than the niceties, which can take you quite far.
I also packed another book that gave me even more insight into Turkey and its delightful people. It was a novel that ultimately was more useful than even the travel guide, which, among other things, helpfully cautioned me to stop and purchase a visa before getting in the long, snaky line for customs.
I read Louis de Bernieres’ Birds Without Wings all the way to Turkey, and, while there, I went to sleep each night with this book in hand. Reading more and more slowly as I went along, I reluctantly finished it after I got home, and I was sad when it was done.
The novel is set mostly in a small village in southwestern Anatolia at the end of the Ottoman Empire. The inhabitants all speak Turkish, although those who can write do so with Greek letters. Christians and Muslims live together, celebrate together at religious feasts and even intermarry. These villagers are portrayed so vividly that they were almost as real to me as the real people I met. There’s Karatavuk, a smart, young Muslim man who begged his Christian friend to teach him how to read and write and whose tales of war are both horrifying and humorous; Philothei, a girl so beautiful the imam asked that she wear a veil; Ibrahim, who was in love with Philothei since childhood and who sadly becomes known as “Ibrahim the Mad;” the lonely and brokenhearted aga Rustem Bey who takes a Circassian mistress (who turns out not to be Circassian at all); and Iskander the Potter who fashions both pots and proverbs (“Take your time; if the cat’s in a hurry, she has peculiar kittens.”). Historical at heart, the novel also traces the life of the charismatic and visionary Mustafa Kemal, who becomes Kemal Ataturk. And, in sweeping, epic fashion, the book follows Turkey’s transformation into a modern, Western-looking, democratic republic.
This novel and the intuitive historical and cultural perspective it offered me proved the truth in Persian poet and scholar Moslih Eddin Saadi’s observation: “A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.”
Pick a place. Go there. And, if you really want to know where you’re going, take a novel about that place with you.