In October of this year, I was invited to chair the 11th session of the Statistical, Economic and Social Research and Training Center for Islamic Countries (SESRIC) to be held in Ankara, Turkey. There was no question that I would not accept a trip to the historic country and having already been warned by my darling wife, Naeema, about taking foreign tours alone, we planned to the journey together.
I am a proud middle-class man, and like every middle-class person, seize an opportunity to enjoy the high life. One way was to use my Platinum card that the bank manager had emphatically sold me on, with one of the virtues being access the CIP lounge at the Islamabad airport. I downloaded several lounge apps on my cell phone and requested my credit cards to be opened for international use for the dates of my travel, I was ready. Packing Liras in my wallet and armed with credit cards, I felt confident and ready for an indulgent trip to the land of history, Turkey. Ready and eager, we proceeded to the airport and were delighted to enjoy the $1 access service to the CIP lounge. We enjoyed the amenities till our flight was called, and we leisurely proceeded to board the flight for Istanbul, basking in the privilege offered to CIP residents. The flight to Istanbul was uneventful, the Istanbul airport, however, was not as the Business Class lounge attendant requested $48 per person to enjoy the amenities. Exchanging a “look” and agreeing without speaking a single word, my wife and I decided that the money would be better spent elsewhere. We then wandered the duty-free shops and did some munching till it was time to board our flight to Ankara. We landed at Ankara Esenboga airport around 3:00 p.m. where we were promptly received by the transportation company arranged by the hotel. We were excited to be staying the Monec Hotel, which we had read was located at the highest and greenest peak of Oran, Ankara. Driving through Ankara, we could see a modern landscaped and infrastructure of roads surrounded by businesses and suburban neighborhoods sprawled on either side of the motorway. We reached the hotel around 5:00 p.m. and were guided to our suite on 3rd floor of the hotel. We were welcomed by a breathtaking, panoramic view of a newly built neighborhood, to be enjoyed indoors from the picture window of the suite, or outdoors through the spacious balcony in case we wanted to enjoy the fresh Ankara air. Fully immersed in the experience, Naeema and I were feeling great. The diplomatic area of Ankara, our neighborhood was surrounded by consulates and embassies of various countries and two malls nearby promised us access to eateries and entertainment a short walk away. A little hungry for a decent meal after 15 hours on the proverbial road and a host of airline meals, we went to explore the tastes of turkey for a long-awaited culinary R&R. I am on the conservative side when it comes to food, Naeema is my opposite. Experimenting giddily with appetizers and aperitifs the difference between our plates was clearly speaking of her culinary adventures. Tired of travel and now food, but not wanting to interrupt her fantasy, I hesitantly expressed going back to the room to review the conference proceedings. It was after all, my first experience to represent Pakistan at an international summit. Back in the room, Naeema made coffee and we both immersed into our evening on the balcony, her on Whatsapp and me in the conference notes.
Next day was the start of the coveted conference which went on till 5:30 p.m. At the conference I happened to meet Mr. Tahir a compatriot from Pakistan, working for SESRIC. He very kindly offered to host us in the evening. He took Naeema and I bargain hunting at nearby malls. We found an amazing deal on branded sneakers for my son, Zubair. Excited by the find, I encouraged Naeema to browse the stores to find similar deals, but alas, there were not many. With the pair of branded sneakers and other small nick-knacks, we exited the spree to meet Mr. Tahir’s father who was to join us for dinner. Serendipitously, Mr. Tahir’s father turned out to be a great Pakistani economist Dr. Fakhar and an old and dear acquaintance. Dr. Fakhar spent most of his professional life in Turkey, teaching at Bilkent University for almost 30 years. A warm soul, Dr. Fakhar alighted from his car, greeting us in Turkish, and while driving to his home, educated us as to why Turks have love and affection for Pakistan. Recounting the fall of the Ottoman empire, he picturized how Indian Muslim women sold their gold and valuables to support Khilafat saving the failing Turkish banking system for that love for Khilafat and which inculcated the love for sub-continent Muslims in the Turkish people. He proceeded to educate us on how the end of WW 1 saw the end of the Khilafat. Mustafa Kamal assumed power and established a secular Republic of Turkey, replacing the Muslim identity with secular ideals. Even after a 100 years, Turkey continues to evolve, never completely detaching itself from the Muslim ideology and today is an interesting blend of diversity where people have a choice to go to the bar and Masjid alike. The engrossing conversation kept us engaged till we drove up to a homely apartment in an upscale neighborhood. A sumptuous dinner with a royal spread took us through a slew of flavors for the body and mind as conversation diverted to Pakistan and Dr. Fakhar’s optimistic outlook and its potential if we can could gain stability after the institutional wrangling. He analyzed parallels between the Pakistan’s current state and Turkey in the last two decades and hoped that Pakistan would emerge strong, firm, and united after this crisis. As the conversation drifted to the fiscal reforms research he did for the Turkish government and his desire to do the same for Pakistan, I realized that we were way beyond our bedtime and should seek permission to leave. Having failed to convince him to relieve himself of his hospitality, we said goodbye to his family, and Dr. Fakhur zipped us on the freeway towards our hotel. Not long after getting on the freeway, our senses were jolted by a roaring sound, followed by a yellow flash, spitting fire in the horizon. Corvette, “we both chimed”. At our estimate of a speed of over 300 km/hr, the Corvette was much faster than anything I had ever seen, even beating the Ferraris and Corvettes on US freeways. A wonderful treat of experience, shopping, and intelligent conversation for me; Naeema was not happy. She wanted to roam, see the culture, eat more exotic local food, wander the shopping malls, sip and munch at roadside cafes, and experience public transport. I used a silent smile to acknowledge the complaint, hoping she would understand, thus ending our first day in Turkey.
The second day started with presentations followed by discussions. Most of the presentations were on South-South engagement to strengthen the OIC’s NSOs. After lunch, enjoying a casual discussion in the gallery about expansionism and jingoism, and whether the two are sides of the same coin, we felt a local completely emersed in our conversation. One of the translators for the proceedings, we invited him to join and were curious to find out that he did not view the Khilafat favorably and regretted the Ottomans annexing Middle East, Egypt and many other countries, imposing their doctrine. Reflecting on this thought later I realized the merit of his viewpoint. From the transformation of Hagia Sophia (Church) to Hagia Sophia (Mosque), I wondered why conquerors didn’t let the conquered continue with their beliefs and culture? After lunch, the session reconvened, and went till end of day. The evening was planned around a visit to the Ankara city center and the next morning, we flew to Istanbul. I should concede that the visit to Istanbul was my motivation to attend the OIC meeting. Finally there we were, ready to witness “Constantinople”, the capital of the Roman, Byzantine, Latin and Ottoman Empire. The present Istanbul is the largest city of Europe and financial center of the Republic of Turkey and the summit of European, Asian, Middle Eastern, and African cultures, while being the apex of three great religions, i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I deemed myself lucky that I could visit this amazing city, experience the culture, and see the history made possible due to the Turkish government’s efforts in history preservation. We landed at Sabiha Gokcen International Airport and went out to catch a bus service from the airport to Taksim Square. It was pleasant a drive, and the road took us through new and old neighborhoods. Sloped and adjacent to the motorway were what seemed like fields of seasonal flowers, radiating freshness on the concrete landscape. Close to the city, we approached a series of bridges. I tried to Google significant information, but since Google was unable to locate any, I decided not to share my wishful insights with Naeema. Finally, the bus arrived at Takism square. Wanting to check-in and settle down before exploring, we started our search for a taxi to drive us to Askara, where our hotel was located. Prior to the trip, we had been warned by friends to be aware of fraudsters in Istanbul, a warning that became fact on our first taxi ride. While taking the luggage from the boot, my wife handed the agreed 200 Liras to the driver who promptly proceeded to snatch the money from her hand in the blink of the eye, and swapped a Lira 100 for a 20 claiming another 80 for the ride. Clear in our claim and being a Pakistani, I stuck to my claim calling out the fraudster. Seeing that we were not phased, the driver promptly retreated, and left grudgingly, telling us that God will serve justice on the Day of Judgment. We had arrived in Istanbul! We landed from the proverbial frying pan into the fire with our next annoyance which met us at the check-in desk of the hotel. We were promptly informed that we would not be able to get our rooms till 2:00 p.m., when the reservation details clearly stated 12:00 as the check-in time. Losing this battle, Naeema and I decided to leave our luggage and find a place to eat outside. Our anxiety was alleviated when Naeema spotted our friends Omer and Sevda trying to locate our hotel through the lobby picture window. I walked out to hug Omer, and Naeema met Sevda whom she was meeting after 13 years. The Turkish couple have been our friends since 2003 when I was doing my PhD from Northern Illinois University and we were graduate students together. Having gained a tour guide, Omer and Sveda guided the happy reunion to a roadside specialty Kebob shop. Lunch was followed by a whirl-wind trip of Istanbul taking us through a small walk to Aksaray intersection where we took a metro to Sultanahmet district, which houses Hagia Sophia, and Topkapı Palace, and Sultanahmet Camii (Blue Mosque). Besides, Sultanahmet there are many other attractions like Obelisk of Theodosius and Soğukçeşme Street, and fairly close to the Grand and Spice Bazaar. We reached the district and walked around the neighborhood. There were long lines in front of Blue Mosque and Hagia Sophia and we decided to appreciate the view outside as the detailed visit of these sites was planned for the next day. We proceeded to take the metro to the Spice Bazaar, a street bustling with locals and tourists selling all kinds of sweets, dry fruit, souvenirs, ornaments, cloths and what not. Habitually, in a crowded bazaar, I protectively pull Naeema through the crowd till we can reach a peaceful spot, however such a spot did not exist here. Rushing through, we only bought Turkish delights for family and friends in Pakistan however in hindsight, I realize we should have stopped at some souvenir shops as well. It was late and we were already in front of the exit to the dock of the Golden Horn from where we were to take a cruise from European Istanbul to Asian Istanbul. Omer guided us to get a Metro Istanbul card which could be used for all buses, metro, underground Mamary and all boat journeys between Asian and European Turkey. We arrived on the Uskudar shore where we saw many historic sites from Roman, Byzantine, and Ottoman periods. We said Asr prayers in a masjid from Ottoman era and enjoyed coffee and one of the many cafes that are a feature of Istanbul. By the time we finished, it was Maghrib, and we performed prayers and sat in Uskudar Maydan, a public square, enjoying the Bosporus view. Since taxis take time, we took a minibus to Istanbul Medeniyet University, where both, Omer and Sevda are professors and where Omer retrieved his car to take us to The Büyük Çamlıca, a hill top in Uskudar district. Later on I learnt that Buyuk means “big” and Camlica means “pine”, so it was a trip to hilltop of big pines. From Büyük Çamlıca one could have a panoramic view of Istanbul, showing the Asian and European parts and skyline on both sides and bridges on the Bosporus. By this time, it was already 8:30 p.m. and we went back to Marmary station in Uskudar where we got a metro card and disembarked at Yeni Kapi to get back and retire to our room after a long day of adventure, rekindling lost friendships, and experiencing a rich Turkish culture. Since we had been thoroughly briefed by Omer and Sveda, we ventured on our own the next day and took the public transport to Topkapi which we reached at 12:00 p.m. A popular attraction, the entrance line was almost 300m making me rethink the efficacy of online booking. We were suddenly herded into a tour group (by mistake) and were ushered into the exhibit. The experienced guide narrated the history of the palace and took us through Soğukçeşme Street, which is between the Hagia Sophia and the Topkapi Palace. Walking along the street we found dozens of Ottoman era houses, built against the walls of Topkapi Palace. Over time, some had been converted to boutique hotels and upscale cafés creating an eclectic mix of old and new, seeing the fusion of which was breathtaking. The walk ended on the back entrance of Topkapi which is one of the most important of all the Turkish Palaces as it was the first Ottoman palace in Istanbul. The Sultans of the era used this spot as the primary royal residence from 1458-1873. Construction, ordered by the Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror, began in 1459, six years after the conquest of Constantinople. It was given the name Topkapi, meaning Cannon Gate. The palace complex consists of four main courtyards and many smaller buildings. Inside the castle, the first courtyard was not very decorative, as it was right in front of entrance. The second intermediary courtyard separated the royal throne and the exterior of the palace and proceeding from this courtyard one enters the third courtyard. This area architecturally the richest, as it accommodated the royal administration and the residence. The center housed a throne room, and behind it a library. The northern wing of the courtyard is occupied by the palace school and its mosque as well as student quarters. Towards the northern corner of the courtyard there are four domed rooms, three of which accommodate the relics of the Prophet Muhammed (puh) and his companions. These objects were brought from the east after the Ottomans defeated Mamluks in Egypt in 1517 and took control of Makkah and Medina, they became custodians of these relics. The third courtyard halls tell a tale of progress from the past. The first hall showcases watches, astronomical discs, wall clocks from 18th and 19th century, many of them, gifts or acquisitions from France, England, and Germany. Most of the clocks and watches were either made of gold or were gold cladded with very aesthetic designs or engravings. The astronomical and navigational discs told a tale of Turkish navigational strength. The next hall showcased weapons used by Ottomans in different eras, and holds swords, daggers, axes, shields and armors of different types. Weapons from relatively a recent time had golden carvings and Qur’anic verses engraved and were held in golden cases with carvings and engravings. The next display was different type of guns, pistols cladded with golden design stocks and barrels. Another hall, one with the longest queue, carried religious relics from the time of prophet Ibrahim to prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and artifacts like Moses walking stick, a bowl belonging to the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), foot print and sword of The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and his companions, Muhammad (pbuh)-Omer and Ali. The northwestern side of the palace is where picturesque landscapes of the castle can be seen. Here the Tulip Garden, a place where the Sultans loved to retire, is full of bright colors from fragrant flowers, fruit trees and vineyards. Nearby lies the Marble Terrace, which offers an incredible panoramic view of the Bosporus and the Sea of Marmara, as well as the Golden Horn. Enthralled by the view, we took many pictures to record this amazing scene. By then hunger pangs had set in, and we exited to a feast of options in the form of fruits and other nick-knacks. Wanting something more substantial we opted for a café selling “Kumpir”, a Turkish way of cooking potatoes, which is filled with vegetables, cheese, sauces, and meat. The potato weighed more than a kilogram, baked and sliced across and mashed on the inside with a fork. The vendor then mixed butter and asked us to choose the vegetables, fruits, meat, cheese, and sauces. It was satisfying and energizing; we were ready to visit the Blue Mosque and Hagias Sophia from inside. The mosque is known as the Blue Mosque because of, dominant, blue tiles on the interior. The design of the mosque is inspired by design of the Hagia Sophia, the masterpiece of Byzantine architecture built in the 6th century. The intensity of the tiles is accentuated by the play of natural light from more than 200 windows that pierce the drums of the central dome, each of the half-domes, and the side walls and the windows originally contained Venetian stained glass. After Sultan Ahmet our next focus was Hagia Sophia. Between Blue Masjid and Hagia Sohia is a Sultan Ahmet square, which refers to a park. This place was once the Hippodrome of Constantinople. It was a racetrack in its heyday that served as the sporting and social center of the city. We crossed the Sultan Ahmet square and reached Hagia Sohpia on other side only to find a waiting line of visitors. The Hagia Sophia combines a longitudinal basilica and a centralized building in a wholly original manner, with a huge main dome supported on pendentives and two semidomes. The original Hagia Sophia was covered in Christian mosaics and frescoes. One notable surviving mosaic in the Hagia Sophia is the Virgin Mary with the baby Jesus on her lap with a background of gold mosaics. Done with the visit of three icons in Sultanahmet district, we were heading back for Aksaray, from where walk to hotel was barely 5 minutes. Along the way we contemplated getting and souvenirs as from one of the many gift shops around us and bought Baklava, turkish delights, and chocolates. On the way back to our hotel, we saw a restaurant we always passed by and always saw to be full of cusgtomers. This time we decided to stop to see the menu. Naeema had been strongly recommended the traditional Sheesh Kebob, Adanan Kebob, Kuyu Kebob etc. After some contemplation we chose a platter of assorted meat served with rice and bread. Seemingly popular, the food seemed chewy, difficult to swallow and not as per the desi palate. Slightly disappointed we decided to call it a day and around 1100 pm, went back to the hotel exhausted.
On the third day we started from our hotel around 9:00 a.m. and took Murmary to Uskudar. Omer was waiting for us and we went to his house for a local homecooked breakfast. After breakfast, the plan was to head to Buyuk Ada. We took a ferry from Kadakoy to Buyuk Ada, a trip little more than an hour. I had read earlier that the government of Turkey has preserved and conserved the serenity and environment of the island from Roman days. Buyuk Ada allows only bicycles, electric bikes, and electric vehicles, and horse carts for touring the island. The best way for a typical tourist was the mini electric train which would take 20 visitors for a round trip. The train makes its way through the island, gliding against eateries, souvenir shops, boutiques, ice cream parlors, crafts shops etc., and of course a crowd of pedestrians and bikers, all the while witnessing magnificent architecture and breathtaking views of sea of Murmara. The island also hosts countless mansions with beautiful façades, and one gets lost in the design and architecture of the buildings which are surrounded by lush green slopes connecting backyard patios with the seashore. Of course, no trip to Turkey would be complete without sampling Dondurma, the Turkish ice cream. The sticky ice cream made from orchids gives it a “gummy” texture that allows it to be thrown around without spilling and comes with a show performed by most expert vendors, teasing and playing with the customers to receive the icecream. Having experienced the full breath of offerings at Buyuk Ada, we started our return journey to Kadkoy around 4:00 p.m., where we headed to a mall for some shopping. After shopping we headed for dinner to a nice restaurant for a sumptuous dinner of, you guessed it, assorted meats. The day ended with emotional goodbyes with Omer and Sveda as we left for our hotel. The next day was our day in Istanbul. There were still many things on our wishlist and some are still undone, but we decided to do at least two more; the first was visit to Taksim Square and roaming Istiklal street and second was a trip to Uskudar market. Starting early, we packed our luggage and placed it with the concierge as we headed for Yani Kapi, Murmary station, hardly 5 minutes’ walk from hotel. Taksim Square was not far from there and we came to the labyrinth of streets which forms Taxim Square. Proceeding to Istiklal street, one would find the republican monument, showing a bronze statue of Mustafa Kamal and his comrades when they abolished Kilahaft and transformed Turkey into a republic. We read the history as we walked towards Istiklal street. It was almost a 2 km street surrounded by malls, brand stores, shops, eateries, bars, and coffee shops on either side. We walked down the street browsing through stores, Naeema stopping at shops whenever something caught her eye to pick-up last-minute trinkets, beautifully crafted wall hangings for our home and other souvenirs to help recall the unforgettable Istanbul visit. A whirlwind of a tour filled with a tressure of reconnections, history-arts-and culture and most of all, glorious time spent with my wife Naeema, with mixed feeling we rode the three-stage escalator, alighting again in Uskudar. Our time in Turkey was memorable, however our memories were making us miss home. We reached the hotel and started repacking, adjusting, and squeezing the things we had bought into our already full bag and were ready to leave for the airport by the scheduled 3:30 p.m. The ride to the airport was long, almost an hour. Our mood was somber, knowing that memories sparkle only after leaving them behind. Droning through the multiple procedures and security check points, we boarded the plane for Pakistan and our home, where our evenings would be lit by the fond memories, made in Turkey.