From the moment Lubna and I stepped into our taxi on arrival in Istanbul, we knew that our trip would be the beginning of a memorable adventure. A couple of minutes into our drive to the hotel, Lubna whispered to me that I should ask the driver politely to change the radio station to Turkish music – something all three of us could appreciate. The driver seemed genuinely pleased to oblige and we rocked gently all the way to The Holiday Inn, Istanbul City, while taking in the sights along the way, including the Great Wall, families relaxing by the quay, in parks and community cats and dogs strolling among them. In a blink of any eye we had been transported from Fairfax County, Virginia to another world.
That set the scene for the rest of our stay in Turkey. We discovered how obliging, polite and accommodating the Turkish people are. And, truly hospitable.
Before our trip, I had known Ali quite well and had also exchanged pleasantries with Erkan a few times. I had figured both of them to be thoroughly nice gentlemen. But you only get to understand and appreciate what people are really like when you hang out with them on a regular basis for some time. After our 7-day trip had ended, I have no hesitation to say that Ali and Erkan far exceeded our expectations in their goodness, their ability to stay calm, even-handed and retain their sense of humor among all the different personalities that made up our group. No mean feat, that! It certainly helped that Ali was so humble throughout (as he kept reminding us. I eventually conferred upon him the title of “His Humbleness”, which he found amusing).
What a moving experience for Lubna and me to hear regularly the muezzin’s call for prayers, the azaan. That brought back childhood memories and naturally compelled us to go inside to ‘do our namaaz’. The sight of the ever-circulating doves and pigeons around the illuminated Blue Mosque was yet another mystical moment that we will treasure for a long time.
How clever and grand-looking is the Miniature Park! It depicts, in the tiniest accurate and brilliant detail, Turkey’s major government buildings, places of worship, palaces, ancient ruins of Ephesus, ships and moats. We noticed little things that the builder of these miniature structures had captured so well: such as deliberately painting rusted watermarks from a faucet that had long ceased to work.
The visit to Zaman Newspapers headquarters, interacting with editors and various journalists who are doing such a courageous job for their readers in trying times was a poignant reminder that we take our freedoms of speech in the U.S. for granted. We met for the first time a gentleman there, Rustu, a co-founder of The Rumi Forum, for whom our daughter had done an internship in 1999. What a small world.
Seeing a film at the Kimse Yok Mu charitable organization was touching. KYM is also part of the Gulen Movement. I was deeply affected by the work that KYM had done (and is still doing) for the victims of the Pakistan earthquake in 2005. The fact that during the Myanmar typhoons KYM was the first outside charity to be let in the country says a lot about the depth of its connections and the selflessness of its volunteers.
There was so much more to our unique and memorable trip: visiting Fatih University and to hear the dean and professors feel so proud of their institution and answering all our questions after providing us a healthy breakfast – indeed, inviting some in our party to teach a semester or two at this venerable university.
We also visited a kindergarten / high school, so called “Gulen Schools“, in Istanbul that is sponsored by the Gulen Movement. All of us remarked upon the quality of the education, high standards expected of students and the on-site facilities, such as labs, theater rooms, gyms and swimming pool. Not only academics but all-round practical experiences, sports and the study of comparative religions are high priorities of the Gulen schools.
The Sifa hospital was impressive indeed. We met some of the dedicated doctors who work and perform surgeries there using the most advanced robotic technologies. They are well-trained and entertained queries from our group about costs of doing heart surgeries, putting stents in arteries and performing other minor and major bodyworks. That was done in an informative and light-hearted manner (if I may say so). We really appreciated the doctors’ hospitality and the beautiful Turkish gift plates that they presented to our group.
Ephesus and Virgin Mary’s home: truly uplifting. Dolmabache and Topkapi palaces: magnificent. Coppadakio, monastery caves and eating lunch inside a cave restaurant while a musician entertained us: amazing. Visiting the Grand Bazaar, the Spice Bazaar, indulging in sheesha on a rooftop restaurant, shopping in marketplaces (a few times): once in a lifetime experience…for Lubna especially.
Last but not least: Turkish cuisine. It rocks! We had the most delicious foods and specialty drinks throughout our trip. Some of the Ottomans favorites were our favorites; we were treated like sultans wherever we went. The freshly-grilled trout by our host in Izmir, the lamb and beef kebabs, meatballs made by some of the best restaurants in town, salads, fresh tropical fruit, pistachio ice-cream and syrupy desserts are just some examples of the fantastic hospitality we encountered everywhere. Ayran, a yogurt drink and Turkish favorite, certainly an acquired taste, became the drink of choice for some of us. And, the ubiquitous Turkish tea. Just keeps coming. One little secret that I will divulge. Lubna and I arrived too late for the first night’s dinner. Although His Humbleness brought along pizza for us on The Bosphorous boat ride, we did not eat much of it. Late that night we were hungry and walked outside to explore snack possibilities. We came across Gazi’s little restaurant and brought back charcoal-grilled chicken. We had a most delicious meal by the poolside. Finger-lickin’ good as they say. While most of our group slept, Hizami joined us after a jog. Although she did not eat, we chit-chatted for quite a bit into the night. The three of us became friends quickly and later on of course, everyone in the group also introduced each other for an undoubtedly enduring friendship.