Back to Istanbul and a short hop to Izmit

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I’m back in Istanbul!

I’m back in Istanbul! That was me announcing my arrival (to myself of course) of a Sunday evening on the 18th of January, 2015. Although I hadn’t thought it at the time it was a rather auspicious date: my late mum was born that day back in 1952 and, coincidentally, my passport had been issued that day 4 years earlier (definitely not of great significance).

I had a good view of my previous place of employment as I flew out of London-Luton Airport – the manor estate called Luton Hoo (hotel, golf couse and spa) which borders on the one side of the airport – but not before I had to go through some unprecented formalities prior to check-out. You see, anyone traveling to Turkey today from mainland UK, especially men of a certain age, is deemed a potential Jihadist en route to Syria.

anyone traveling to Turkey today from mainland UK, especially men of a certain age, is deemed a potential Jihadist en route to Syria.

I assured them I wasn’t but the plain-clothes security officers still deemed it necessary to call through to spook HQ and check my passport details as well as grill me on the what, why and where-to of my intended trip. I left contact details with one of them and agreed to relay any information that might be of interest on the ground (should it be requested).

I arrived in Istanbul in the early evening not long after dusk. Having been to the city several times now I found it easy enough to negotiate the tram and metro to Gulhane (near Topkapi and the mosque complexes) where I checked into the Istanbul Harmony Hostel. This was a bit of a misnomer as I was to discover later that evening whilst talking to the Turkish owner of the establishment.

He employed quite a number of Syrians as staff but he didn’t have much good to say about them! I invited my friend Samer, a Syrian who worked in the vicinity, to come join me up top for a drink. If you had read my prior posts from Istanbul you might recall that I had bought an ornate box inlaid with tortoise-shell and mother-of-pearl from Samer a few months before.

Unfortunately he arrived right in the middle of my discourse with the proprietor who went so far as praising President Assad in bombastic terms. “Assad is Gud, only he knows the best way in this situation” he proclaimed, arms extended outwards. By “Gud” I understood him to mean ‘God’, although in retrospect he probably only meant ‘good’.

“Assad is Gud, only he knows the best way in this situation”

I am not sure what Samer made of all this but I recall him telling me that his brother died fighting with the government forces somewhere beyond Aleppo, his hometown. I get the impression that Syrians are used to being on the receiving end. That said they have much to be grateful for in Turkey.

Ironically enough, when I chatted to one of the Syrian staff manning the reception desk the following morning he laughed off his boss’s prejudice and told me not to listen to him and that he was, despite all that, “a good man”. I guess he was one of those gruff types who hides a softer heart.

Samer himself was well enough but now sleeping in his shop on an inflatable bed after being unable to afford the rent on his previous shared accommodation with an American lady. I think he has resigned himself to staying in Istanbul after his EU asylum application had been rejected (to the tune of 500 Euros which I find appalling). Before I departed the following day I gave him a set of earphones from my Walkman. His had been lost/stolen. That’s as much as I could offer in the circumstances.

his EU asylum application had been rejected … to the tune of 500 Euros 

On the Monday I took a quick tour of the area between the mosques. It was a bright, clear morning, around 14 or 15 degrees I suppose. Certainly not unpleasant. It wasn’t long before I was approached by an amiable young guy called Omar. He invited me to take a look at his carpet shop. I declined and instead went on a tour of the old subterranean waterworks beneath the steet-level just to the SW of the Aya Sofya mosque (formerly the Hagia Sofia cathedral, now deconsecrated and purely a monument).

It was really interesting and quite atmospheric. My pictures speak for themselves I think. When I emerged there was Omar, patiently waiting to nab me. I could hardly say no considering his shop was only a few yards away. To be honest looking around his shop was genuinely interesting.

In one corner someone had been working on a hand loom making a silk tapestry only a few feet across and perhaps 30 cm wide. Omar told me that it was the result of 5 months labour! Talk about a labour of love. Wow. I was then ushered to another room where there was an impressive array of woolen and silk rugs (kilim), and hybrid textiles of the two. Anything with silk was invariably more expensive. We were joined by another salesman and Omar left discreetly.

Someone had been working on a hand loom making a silk tapestry only a few feet across and perhaps 30 cm wide. Omar told me that it was the result of 5 months labour! 

I drank their apple tea, enjoyed some fruit cake, but resisted their efforts to get me to purchase anything, despite me mentioning my brother’s impending nuptials (what was I thinking!).

It was only later in the day, around 1345 hrs that I finally started moving in the direction of the coach station. I was in contact with Sofian via Messenger. He had been prepared to delegate a class of his to someone else but I told him not to. It wasn’t going to get to Izmit much before 5.

It wasn’t difficicult finding a coach and the journey was at least hastened by conversation with my neighbour, an electrical engineer called Mehmut, returning from a project in Saudi Arabia (building a Pepsi plant apparently). He was formally dressed with a the beginnings of an impressive beard. At first he was a bit stand-offish but after a few minutes of relentless questioning he yielded.

I discovered that stamp collecting was his real passion. He pulled out a new catalogue mailed to him from London and displaying all the previous year’s first day and commemorative covers. I used to be an avid collector so I could relate to his enthusiasm. There’s something magical about those little squares of paper and their depictions of countries and events far removed in place and time. It’s a form of escapism from the rigours of life I guess.

Mehmut was none to keen on getting married I discovered. His political views were conservative and looking out the window he expressed his disdain for modern Tukish architecture. “This is not the original Turkish style. We are trying to be too Western but we are not from the West. We are from the East. We are Ottomans,” he told me matter of factly.

“We are trying to be too Western but we are not from the West. We are from the East. We are Ottomans”

His views extended to the behaviour of women, their style of clothing, and young people in general. I tried to play the devil’s advocate but he wasn’t having it. I liked him nevertheless and on reflection there was a only a year between us after all.

I learnt that he had been in a relationship with a woman when he worked in Turkmenistan and it had evidently coloured his view of relationships and marriage. As for the inhabitants of that nation he blamed the previous Russian occupation and long-lasting influence for corrupting their traditional Muslim values. Apparently they enjoy drinking vodka, the women have no morals and the men all gamble!

As for the inhabitants … he blamed the previous Russian occupation … for corrupting their traditional Muslim values. Apparently they enjoy drinking vodka, the women have no morals and the men all gamble!

I am now in Izmit with my good friend Sofian. I have a fair bit of the city around the centre where I’m staying but of the surrounds only the nearby ski resort of Kartepe up in the mountains to the south of us.

Sofian shares an apartment with a diminutive Vietnamese-Canadian called Luan. They are only a stone’s throw from the school where they are teaching English. Over the last two weeks I have sat in and participated in a number of lessons where I think Sofian and his colleagues have been more than happy to have my augment their sometimes repetitive lessons.

As on previous occasions both in the UK and elsewhere the students seem genuinely delighted to have a native English speaker from the UK in their midst. I am at pains to dispel the illusion of complete authenticity and explain that I was raised in Africa in an English-speaking country. This usually raises a few eyebrows but I am helped by having a few other African teachers in their midst: Georg, a mixed-race young man from Botswana; and two part-time teachers, one from Zambia and another from Ghana.

I am at pains to dispel the illusion of complete authenticity and explain that I was raised in Africa in an English-speaking country. 

The Turkish youth have all the hopes and aspirations of their generations the world over. The classes are mostly composed of university students and recent graduates of both genders, most of whom want to learn English to further their chances of employment. It seems to me as though every second student is studying engineering or is a recent engineering graduate. I am not surprised to learn that Kogaeli University (Izmit is in the district of the same neame) is strong in the engineering disciplines.

Perhaps one of the most amusing anecdotes from my short time here comes from when I was chatting to an aircraft engineer during an outdoor activity session with one of Sofian’s classes. We had just been bowling at the nearby N-City Mall and were sitting having a coffee. The engineer, a swarthy, stockily-built Turk, a little older than the others, explained to me that his technical english was ‘very good’ but his spoken English was ‘very bad’. I assured him it wasn’t that bad (it wasn’t).

We were discussing the details of his job and the places he had worked and it transpired that he might have the opportunity of training or working in Austria at some point soon. I whipped out my phone and showed him a magnificent vista of the Swiss-Austrian Alps I had taken on my camera phone through the window of the jet on my outbound flight. He got very excited but not for the same reason.

I whipped out my phone and showed him a magnificent vista of the Swiss-Austrian Alps I had taken on my camera phone … He got very excited but not for the same reason.

“Do you see this?” he said pointing at the wing of the plane poking into from the edge of the photo. “It is a Delta wing,” explaining how the doofy at the end of the wing had a characteristic shape.

“But what do you think of the view?” I insisted but he wasn’t much interested. With relish he continued to expound on the names of the various flaps and something called a ‘vortex generetor’… That’s engineers for you!

I was originally only going to stay a week but now I am considering staying on a bit longer and teaching part-time myself. I have found another school who seem interested in hiring me on such a basis. I’m finding life here engaging so why not? My intended trip to Hatay and the Taizé Community there can perhaps wait a little longer…

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