Paradox between Europe and Islam

Istanbul finds itself at the crossroads of Western appeals and Muslim tradition

The Blue Mosque and its reflecting pool.

The centuries’ long difference in perspective between East and West was made painfully clear to me in one simple moment when I asked about the ceremony taking place in front of my hotel, Taxim Hill, located in the heart of Istanbul on Taxim Square.

The streets were blocked, police and military were everywhere, and the statue of Ataturk, the country’s first president after the fall of the Ottoman Empire, was surrounded by hundreds of bouquets of flowers.

“It is Istanbul Day,” the voluptuous hotel manager told me, pushing the blonde strands of hair from her face. “But today is a special one, it is the 550th anniversary.”

“Oh,” I said thinking back to what the year 1453 meant to us in high school history. “You mean the day marking the fall of Constantinople?”

Perplexed, she screwed up her face.

“No, the rescue,” she said. “It’s the day that Islam came here.”

“Oh,” I thought to myself, immediately realizing my cultural blunder. I tried to explain to her how that day was presented in every Eurocentric history book I’d read since childhood. It was a dark day, the final blow to Europe’s efforts to ever claim back the Holy Land. It also marked the beginning of the Renaissance and Rome’s return as the center of the shrunken world of Christianity. But how can you explain this on such a day in such a place?

Still, in the mind of my Istanbul hostess, little harm was done. Five hundred fifty years later, most Turks couldn’t care less about religion, and even less about a day marking the city’s separation from Europe when all of the nation’s political energy is now aimed at joining the European Union. I seemed to be the only person who cared about the ceremony, and that was mostly because the soldiers looked so hot in their uniforms. The rest of the city went about its business. Almost no one had the day off from work to mark the momentous occasion.

This is the paradox of modern Turkey—stuck between two sides, trying to honor both modern Europe and the Islamic world, yet never making either completely happy. It’s like a child in a bitter divorce, except neither parent really wants custody. This precarious balance was made all the more clear only weeks after my visit with the deadly synagogue bombings in November.

Turkey has one of the best relationships with Israel of any Muslim country, along with a substantial Jewish community born when Spain expelled its Jews 500 years ago in the name of Christian nation building. It seems the bombers want Turkey to make a choice—and not the one that leans towards Europe.

Oddly, the choices the West gives Turkey aren’t always in the nation’s best interests either. Turkey is part of NATO, and the West often suggests the nation should side against its Muslim neighbors to further American and European interests. Turkey wisely said no to helping Bush invade Iraq, keeping peace at home. When Turkey chose to join America, in Afghanistan, its army was welcomed there, as the one occupier that understands that Muslim nation. Turkish business leaders are also often the only foreign investors truly trusted in Islamic nations. With the world as it is, Europe and America should consider themselves lucky Turkey is an ally.

Still, any visitor to Istanbul can easily forget that he or she is in the Muslim world. On one side of the Bosphorus, where the neighborhoods Taxim and Beyoglu lie, the look of the streets—from the shops, to the buildings, to the people coming out of them—look distinctly European. It is also here that the majority of the gay venues exist. Istanbul has a mysterious side to be sure, but most of it is achingly familiar to the Westerner.

It is only on the other side, in the Old City, that one feels the sense of difference. To visit Istanbul is to visit one of the most fabled, mysterious, and history-filled cities in all of the world. It is in essence, an Islamic Rome, an eternal city that ruled an empire yet lasted far beyond it. The Old City with its forest of minarets is a site to behold, and perhaps the greatest collection of Islamic architecture in the world.

Yet even these buildings have their roots strongly in the European tradition—particularly the Hagia Sophia which began its life as a Roman temple and was the greatest enclosure of space in the world for more than a thousand years until the dome of the Vatican was built. The Ottomans built its complement, the Blue Mosque, centuries later, and the two face each other across a park which memorializes the Roman Hippodrome. European ornamentation infuses the arabesques of the 17th century era New Mosque. And, in the multi-domed outline of many structures, one sees the borrowing of design across the continents from Coptic churches of Africa to the Greek and Russian Orthodox churches flung from Eastern Europe to the far edges of icy Asia. All of this only testifies to the importance of the city as a bridge between cultures.

In spite of the mystery and its ancient and at times bloody history, the city is very safe. Forget about “Midnight Express,” remembered by Americans to this day. Go and you’ll realize how laughable any association between that movie and the country really is.

Or so it seems.

There are a few changes I noticed on my trip in October from my first visit five years ago. The place is much cleaner. Things run more efficiently. More people speak English. But there also seem to be a lot of women in head coverings. I don’t think I saw that in Istanbul five years ago, but now, while they’re only a few, it’s noticeable.

At first, I thought, it must simply be that women from the conservative countryside are coming in to take advantage of the improving economy. But that’s not what my friend Serenat, an Istanbul native, told me.

“We know that people from other countries are paying poor women to wear the veils,” she said. “I am from Istanbul, I know these things.”

Serenat herself wears stylish, sexy clothes everywhere she goes. Like nearly all the women I met in Istanbul, every interaction with her bordered on flirtation, even though she knew I was gay. One thing any visitor will find—part of the Turkish paradox—is that sexuality is extremely potent here, among men and women and regardless of orientation.

If there are more women with head coverings on the street, there are other influences, from outside Turkey, driving the country intriguingly to be more liberal. Porn shops and gay bars are present on the Istanbul streets. My friend Earl Starkey from New York who runs Sophisticated Travel along with Serenat Akkas says those changes, which would make our own religious right nuts shudder, are a direct result of Turkey moving closer to Europe. While porn arcades are not a requirement for E.U. membership, they signal a greater tolerance for more open discussions of sexuality.

Earl has lived in Turkey off and on over the past several years and credits two main things with changing attitudes towards gays and lesbians. One is the fact that Turkey’s biggest pop star, Tarkan, has been rumored to be gay for years. He’s never quite said so, but he acknowledges the rumors in a way that makes them seem irrelevant to the work he does. Most Turks buy that notion, and they continue to buy his records as well.

The other factor is something that every country hoping to be a member of the European Union must face. Gay rights, thankfully, are part of the Union’s agenda, and all countries must show they are moving towards equality in this regard before being considered. This has brought incredible changes in Eastern Europe, and now is poised to do the same in Turkey. According to Earl, “In the end, it’s a small price to pay, and really isn’t a big deal” for Turks to change their attitudes in the hopes of improving the chance for admission.

Serenat hoped to teach me more about Istanbul gay nightlife by taking me out with some of her gay friends. We started at the restaurant Literasse, sadly only a few blocks from where the Beyoglu synagogue bombing happened. It’s a rooftop establishment with a view to the old city. The floodlit minarets shimmered against the waters of the Bosphorus forming a romantic backdrop as we conversed. (Yenicarsi Street # 52; 011-90-212-292-8947; www.literacafe.com).

Then, it was on to the gay bars. Like much of the rest of Istanbul, everything pretty much reminded me of something I’d see in Europe, except with swarthy, handsome men. And more women. There aren’t as many gay bars as on the continent, so gay men and lesbians tend to mix more.

We were early for one place called Academy 14. They were having a special party with a carnival theme, but the make-up on the workers reminded me of Macaulay Culkin in “Party Monster.” Of course when I said this, no one knew what I was talking about. (Across from Pera Palace Hotel; 011-90-212-245-7820)

Later, we went to my favorite place of the night called Neo and danced to remixes of Tarkan’s hits. Interestingly, a woman was in charge of the club, which she herself conceded is a rarity, largely because it is a Muslim country. (Lamartin Street # 40; 011-90-212-254-4526; www.neobar.gen.tr)

This openly gay nightlife is relatively new. Still, any gay man who has ever spent time wandering through Istanbul will wonder if being gay was ever a problem anyway. Turkish men are among the most handsome I’ve seen anywhere—something I forgot in the five years since I last visited. It’s also easy to have a conversation with many of them in a way that leads to sex. Turks have famously had reputations for latent homosexuality since ancient times, and it’s a big draw for European gay men.

I met a German man in one of the saunas who comes here several times a year for what he calls “sex holidays.” He spends his time in saunas, bars, and cruising areas, finding compliant men everywhere, though he admits he often winds up paying.

The sauna where we met, Cihangir Sauna (Kuloglu Mahallesi Altpatlar Sokak # 14; 011 90 212 243 0693), is a place I visited five years ago. Little had changed. Though there is plenty of action, locals seem paranoid about getting caught there.

But even if you don’t go to a sauna, the promise of sex lingers in many an interaction. Wandering along a side street in the Old City, I met a handsome young man who owned a corner convenience store. He invited me to tea and chess. Though he claimed to be straight, he made clear his interest in sex, though our rendezvous was ruined when his uncle came by to help him close the store so he could get free liquor in the process. But the young merchant proved to be far from the only horny storekeeper in Istanbul.

One of them was a very handsome 20-year-old Kurd that I’ll call Achmed, who seemed scared to talk about Kurdistan, his homeland that straddles Turkey and Iraq.

“No, no, no Kurdistan,” he kept insisting, waving his fingers in front of me. “Turkey. I am happy to be Turkish.”

Turkey already fought a civil war near the border a few years ago as a result of Kurdish nationalism. Now many Kurds live in Istanbul, rather than where Kurdistan would be if geopolitics allowed it.

Since Achmed lived far from the center of town, I offered to let him stay with me overnight, but in the end he asked for $100 to fool around, and that was the end of that.

I left a few days later for New York, but my time at the airport was not without a major glitch. I was detained for questioning as a suspected terrorist. It all began when the woman in security refused to believe I was not Turkish because of my Mediterranean coloring. My American passport and other documents meant nothing to her and, ridiculously, she insisted on speaking Turkish with me. It didn’t help when she found out that I’d been in Afghanistan just before my trip to Turkey. Journalistic credentials meant nothing to her. Even the American government security agents Washington placed at the Istanbul airport played the same game. They had a show to put on for everyone at the airport, and I was the unwilling star.

But several weeks later when I heard reports of the bombings in Instanbul, I was reminded that worries about terrorism are justified, even if security forces bark up the wrong tree. From everything I’ve been able to gather, the bombings took the city by surprise. I called Serenat and she was shaken by the changes that the bombing represented.

And, in spite of our romantic misfire, I called Achmed to make sure he was okay. His candy shop is near the synagogue that was bombed. His English failed him on the phone, but he followed it up with an e-mail explaining he was okay and that Ramadan made him busy both at the shop and at home. Life, it seemed in Istanbul, like life in New York, continues in spite of terrorism.

Getting There: Turkish Airlines, www.turkishairlines.com, has flights every day from New York’s JFK to Istanbul.

Sophisticated Travel is Earl and Serenat’s company, offering group and individual tours of Turkey. Earl is gay and has won Condé Nast Traveler magazine’s award for best travel agent to Turkey. In New York: 212 409 9587; in Istanbul: 011 90 216 411 4301; www.sophisticated-travel.com

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Visas: Americans need visas, which you get on arrival and cost $100.

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Phones: Turkey’s country code is 90; Istanbul’s area code is 0212 on its European side, 0216 on its Asian side.

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Lodging: I stayed at Taxim Hill on Taxim Square, ranging from $80-$120. Inonu Street # 9; 011 90 212 334 8500.

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Money: ATM’s are everywhere and all credit cards are accepted.

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