Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Farewell to the Golden Horn. For now.

We caught the plane home from Istanbul at what proclaimed itself ‘the best airport in the world’. I suppose false modesty is a character flaw and at least this was certainly free of any trace of it. 
Tourist patrol in Istanbul: policing with a smile
if you're not an unlicensed street trader
It reminded me of the time I was using Liverpool airport regularly. It was the run up to the city becoming European Capital of Culture. Signs inside the passenger terminal proudly informed us that we were in the ‘official airport’ of that capital. All I could wonder is how many other airports had competed for the title. Had Glasgow perhaps been pipped at the post, Birmingham mounted a plucky but ultimately forlorn challenge?

Fortunately, however great its airports, Istanbul has a lot more going for it than that. There are the seven hills: seven naturally since this was the location of new Rome and it had to have the same number of hills as the original, even though it’s not that clear what exactly counts as a hill. There three different seaways, including the Golden Horn which snakes right into the heart of the city. And there are magnificent buildings recalling the past grandeur Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman grandeur as well as illustrating the dynamism of one of Europe’s great modern capitals.

What made the trip most pleasant,though, were the people. Everywhere we went we found friendliness, courtesy and good cheer. Even when they jostle you on the trams, they apologise so fulsomely and with such a winning smile that it’s hard to bear a grudge.

That kindness was so widespread that we were a little surprised when a policeman on one of those three-wheeled stand-up scooters went straight past us as we were trying to ask for directions. But then, as soon as he’d achieved his objective of driving away a bottled water salesman, he came straight back to where we were standing.

‘You had a question?’ he asked with the ubiquitous disarming smile.

Not only did he answer our question, but he took us to the door of the place we were looking for, and as soon as he realised Danielle was French, he expressed all his joy over the departure of Sarkozy, which only endeared him all the more to us.

Overall, it feels a Liberal city. Take the example of women’s dress: there are women wearing the full black costume and face veil, but probably no higher a proportion than we meet back in Luton. A much larger number wear a headscarf and cover up so extensively that the heat must be uncomfortable. But the largest number dress like any other women in Europe.

Islamic observance was, however, the one area that feels upsetting. A friend from the city told us how he’d seen the number of women in full Islamic dress grow over the last fifteen years. In itself, that’s not a problem. Where it becomes one is when the strict believers decide that they’re on to such a good thing, they ought to impose it on others. We’re seeing that in Western Europe too, in the slighter wackier fringe sects of Christianity, such as the upper echelons of the Catholic Church in Scotland.

With an Islamist government in power, however moderate, there has to be concern over wether Turkey can retain its vibrancy by preserving its liberalism and tolerance of diversity.

On our final day the city came up with another glimpse of its warm heart. As we were waiting in the hotel lobby to leave for the world’s best airport, a basil plant was delivered to reception.

‘What was that about?’ we asked.

‘The City distributes them to every single household, to help celebrate the Spring.’

A small gesture of generosity by the public authorities, without utilitarian value, only because it can spread a little goodwill.

Now that’s something that wouldn’t go down amiss in our own societies either, would it?

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