The Road (Not) Taken: Ancient Dusky Rivers
By Alison Rogers ’12, Contributing Writer

“I’ve known rivers:

I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.”

— “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” by Langston Hughes

Istanbul, Turkey. The city bakes in the last sunrays of summer but Turks still sit sipping steaming chai from tiny glass cups. Whether dressed in suits with ties, headscarves or loose sundresses, the people of Etiler are not to be rushed. At night, the same café stays open until 3 a.m., and students order pastries and play backgammon, tuning into the sounds of the soccer game on television between dice rolls. Bosphorus University is nestled on a hillside surrounded by a wealthy district overlooking the great Bosphorus River. At night, one can view the lights in great mansion windows on the Asian continent or the boats floating down the Golden Horn towards the Sea of Marmara as they have for thousands of years. Like so many conquerors, travelers, poets and myth-makers, students from around the world quickly fall in love with Istanbul and wish it was their own.

Turkey has been working to forever shed the legacy of the dying Ottoman Empire, the “Sick Man” of Europe, and resist the negative connotations too quickly attached to Islamic nations. For visitors, its attractiveness and modernity are made clear. Ataturk Airport taxi drivers are prepared for English, Dutch and Spanish visitors. New pavement and clean streets frame the city’s architectural legacy; gorgeous mosques, art nouveau apartments and steel and glass towers pile and tumble over the steep hills. Next to painted adverts for Gucci are banners welcoming tourists to the European Culture Capital of 2010. As host, the city shows off its ancient Arabic, Roman and Ottoman artifacts, as well as its modern art and entertainment.

From the secluded section of Etiler to the ancient Sultanahmet district, it’s hard not to find comfort in beauty. However, like all cities, not all is perfect. Newspaper front pages expose a recent mob attack on an art gallery in Istanbul’s Tophane district. The incident began at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 21 when patrons insulted a passing covered woman, according to reports. Though hearsay, many reports said that the provokers were European visitors, potentially intoxicated. Speculators argue that evidence points away from such random spontaneity and towards organizational violence. A group posing as both tourists and locals supposedly acted to draw attention to the ongoing regentrification in the Sukule district. Many argue that this development has been conducted in the interest of the westernized secular elite while displacing pious locals.

The true cause of the event is blurred, but because of the art gallery’s connection to the European Cultural Capital program, the incident has been thrust into the complex play of Turkish politics on local, regional and global stages. Whether intentional, issues of class, public and private piety and European integration are at the forefront of discussions surrounding the attacks.

As once-taboo political reform passes within Turkey and Middle East instability exacerbates tension between the West and Turkey’s eastern neighbors, it is unsurprising that local incidents have become highly sensitized. Turkey developed a political culture fiercely dedicated to westernization and European integration. Growingly, elected government seeks to bolster claims of regional power by promoting pride for connections to the Islamic world and cautiously carving out a place in politics for its large Islamic population.

Something surprisingly familiar may strike Americans about these reports: biased punditry and polarization abound. When issues cross into national and international waters, fear and anxiety work their way into the rational. Recently, a discussion with an employee of a cell phone shop lends perspective on the consequence of tailoring reports toward ideological agendas by including conforming evidence while excluding informative facts.

Hindered by the language barrier, this woman, 26 years old and wearing thick black eyeliner and tight slacks, smiled warmly at me asked, “What does the USA think of Turkey?” I could tell she had been waiting to ask.

Not long ago, one might answer few Americans think of Turkey at all. But lately, Islamaphobia and the “Flotilla incident” wrapped up in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have attracted attention. I skirted the answer by asking, “What is your concern?”

Bluntly, she asked, “Do Americans think all Turkish women wear [full cover]? And you know 9/11 was not us, it was Them, Iran or Iraq.” Then, she left her desk urgently. In a moment, she returned to play a clip of the American puppet master and comedian Jeff Dunham doing his parody of a Muslim terrorist on her iPhone. We laughed. Then, with a very serious face she looked into my eyes and said, “Does [the USA] know I hate them, too?”

When laughter ends, peace is often restored. For us two women, full of questions for and concerns about the Other, the conversation illuminated a desire for voice, and the exchange which followed exposed a common struggle to align ourselves with ideals between extremist views and polarized political campaigning. And yet, it all ended after a few awkward sentences, representing a large gap of experience and an ultimate failing to overcome the language barrier between us. I left to return to campus, having lost the comfort of momentary acceptance and connection.

How does one understand the intrigue and complexity of human connection? In “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”, Langston Hughes writes of heritage, bonding and a timeless soul that goes beyond human race and blood. Though Hughes wrote of contemporary African people’s place in Western civilization, his poem is still relevant. Superficially, he writes of the Euphrates, which flows from eastern Turkey, recalling the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. He mentions the Nile, which reaches north to a sea not far from my dorm. He speaks to a shared history. Yet, it is hard not see the Bosphorus river, flowing thick with riches born of struggle and pain, and not struggle with a deeper crisis of identity and place. Despite interconnectedness, the barriers of language and time I am realizing, the diversity of love, war and work I am observing and the individual perspective I am owning create an internal sense of isolation.

While stirring sweetened tea, exchange students debate how much in common we may have with those we have come to live among. It seems that between or below the politics and philosophy is where people live: families dining on kebap, shopkeepers selling phones, fishermen hoping to catch. One cannot help but be invigorated by our diversity.

Visitors debate the right way to learn and experience place: to “blend in” is one way to pursue the authentic Other, but to reject temptations to “fit in” is to attempt to achieve connectedness despite disparate backgrounds. Both seem unattainable.

And so, I act as only I can act and report on what only I can see. Like Turkey, I cannot shed a desire to acquire better camouflage in the hopes of finding a place among Them. Is it futile? Do I wish to share an intimacy I only imagine Istanbul to possess? Though I am in pursuit, I hope to never meet the goal because to do so means to shed the bittersweet skin of human experience and the fulfillment of adventuring through it all.

Issue 04, Submitted 2010-09-29 00:36:20