Before I tell you about my weekend in Istanbul, I think it’s important to explain how I ended up there.
There is a sensational program in Philadelphia where about two dozen Middle Eastern students spend a month traveling the East Coast of the United States, learning about religious pluralism from the multitude of cultures that make up our country. About midway through the month, a pair of students spends a weekend with a volunteering family of a different faith to create dialogue. For the past seven years or so, my family has taken place in this program, fostering students from countries including Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and Turkey.
One of our first students was Ahmet, a fierce and passionate student from Istanbul. From the instant we started talking with him we knew that we made the right choice with the program, and to this day he’s one of the most interesting people I’ve ever gotten the chance to know. The weekend ended and we said our goodbyes. For a couple of years, we kept up with him via email.
In July 2016, a failed coup d’état against the Turkish government occurred, and Ahmet vanished from our correspondence. We were heartbroken, but above that we were worried for his well-being: Ahmet’s political views could be considered radical under the eyes of the increasingly dictator-esque view of President Erdoğan. We assumed that, at best, he was imprisoned. At best.
A year and a half later, he blipped on the radar by messaging me on Instagram out of the blue, so we knew he was alive and (seemingly) a free man. Last month, he re-emerged from his web dormancy, responding to one of my mom’s periodic essays sent to all of our boys with a lengthy message of love and apologies for his absence. Additionally, Ahmet peppered in that if I could make it from Prague to Istanbul for a weekend, I would be welcomed with open arms and would be given free housing, food and guiding in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
I booked the flight the next day.
The first thing I noticed in Istanbul is the political atmosphere. It’s everywhere, but nowhere. Erdoğan’s face is plastered every ten feet for the entirety of the city, headlining his party’s campaign for the upcoming parliamentary elections happening this Sunday – even though he’s not running. However, this didn’t register to any of the Turks I saw, Ahmet included. It seemed like they accepted it as normal, three years post-coup, and on top of that, objecting to the uniformity of the campaign (and by extension, the government) could spell disaster for any Turkish citizen. ‘Thin ice’ is an understatement for political dissent in Turkey. I’m not even using Ahmet’s actual name – I’m playing it that safe.
The good news is that once you get over the depressing political landscape, Istanbul is one of the best cities I’ve ever been to. First off, the food. Czech food is solid, but Turkish food absolutely blows it out of the water. I lost track of how many spices I had over the weekend, each craftily woven into delicious meals. I expected Eastern European delicacies such as lamb kebab, but some of the best culinary moments caught me by surprise, like to-go mussel carts adorning the narrow streets in the old part of town. On top of all of that, Ahmet’s wonderful mother cooked me insanely complex family recipes every morning and night.
The architecture of Istanbul was truly something to behold, and it somehow surpassed my already high expectations. The Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia stood out as picturesque, but what really blew me away was the age of the any random building. Odds are that the corner store you just absentmindedly pass by on the way to lunch is at least double the age of the United States. Below many of the ancient buildings live the seemingly infinite street dogs and cats, happily roaming the busy streets of Istanbul, well-cared for by the townspeople.
Most importantly, it was just great to see my Ahmet again and meet his family. They treated me like my family treated him years ago – like a brother and a son. Although I was of a different nationality and faith, I felt at home. It was great to see him all grown up and happy.
From the bottom of my heart, I hope that both of our countries can learn from its people and turn over a new leaf in the coming years.
Daniel Cohn is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.