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Reflections on and from Istanbul


I must have looked quite a sight sitting by the river late at night observing all the hustle and bustle and writing in my book. In fact the few individuals who came up to me to ask what I was doing may well have wondered whether the ‘polis’ in Istanbul had opened a Gestapo-esque unit, delegated to note down details of subversive conversations! I was – needless to say – doing nothing of the sort. The decision to write was impulsive. I remember feeling so overwhelmed by the beauty and paradoxes of Istanbul that I was saddened by my inability to draw or paint. There was something that needed capturing and modern contraptions like digital cameras and camcorders were redundant. What was needed was not a technical eye or that of a documentary filmmaker, since there was no “gritty” reality to observe. What there was were fleeting moments and faint feelings, registering so lightly that at first I wondered whether I wasn’t trying too hard to make meaning; and yet like a presence there they were. Like the shiver that runs up your spine when a light breeze too cool for summer announces the coming of autumn, or when you feel someone’s stare on you and so you turn around, my compulsion to write came from sensations as evanescent as these. A painters brush may have been able to capture them more than photographs and certainly no photographs that I could take, but unable to command the aesthetic elegance of these mediums I turned to writing and the magic of words.

Day one

The atmosphere is warm. There is a small apple tree just outside the mosque – an impressive structure, markedly Ottomon with its grey dome and thin tall minarets. This is Turkey. The mosque dominates the skyline, its minarets piercing the darkness of this warm night. Yet despite its regal beauty and its haunting echo of a golden era now lost to the waters of the Bosphorous and time, the mosque seems to disappear in all the hustle and bustle of the streets and of the market outside its doorstep. Tent like covers are stretched between the trees under which stall holders tempt passersby to purchase their merchandise. The streets are a riot of sound and colours. A stray dog exhausted by it all lies nonchalantly on the road unconcerned by the hoard of feet that shuffle past him. Ferries carrying passengers to and fro across the river hoot their loud horns, and all is lost in a spirit of joviality. A man passes by pushing his cart of corns-on-the-cob, which for a small price he’ll roast to golden brown. The sound of music – a repetitive beat of the base – fills the air at which point the muezzin begins the adhan. The secular and the religious reverberate in the soundscape of this small strip by the river. And as the faithful make their way to the mosque nothing much changes – life goes on.

Day two

I am conflicted when it comes to Istanbul. There is something that stirs deep inside me as I see tokens of its past; a past where the Muslim world was a world of Muslims living Islam and where society reflected the development of its history. This is unlike today where the Turkey of old struggles to be more than a ghostly residuum. Whereas Dubai is rapaciously erasing its past in order to erect a hyper form of western modernity, Turkey has taken its past and placed it decoratively behind glass cases. As well as boasting over 2000 mosques in Istanbul – an impressive number given its secular and ultra modern air – the city also has an exceptionally large number of museums. It is as if Turkey has taken its past and frozen it. In fact, in its adoption of western modernity (I call Turkey’s modernity western because of its blind emphasis on secularity) it has gone to an excess in exhibiting its past as spectacle from whence an eye can be kept on it. Yet in speaking to taxi drivers in Istanbul and hotel staff, and in the recent (past seven years’) development of its politics, it seems Turkey’s Ottomite past poses a powerful emotional reservoir containing a network of symbols that will not – pace Attaturk – go away. Indeed, the high performance of Attaturkian nationalism – which involves the pervasive display of the national flag and the reverence paid to its anthem – may be seen as nervous gestures to keep at bay Turkey’s pre-Secular history. In this sense Istanbul does not induce conflict in me so much as reflect a conflict in Turkey’s national imaginary. 

Day three

Birds twitter overhead, nestling in the branches of the trees that stand in the centre of the courtyard. The mosque which surrounds this courtyard has on one side of it the tomb of Ayub Al-Ansari. Tourists and worshippers blend into one as all walk peacefully around the courtyard paying their respects to the man and the atmosphere. This is far from the trendy night life that animates the centre of Istanbul, yet it is here that I find substance. There is something timeless about this place – people come here as they have done so for centuries. The man commands such respect that his “presence” elevates this building – beautiful though it is – to a state of significance. Somehow it and the reverence that everyone illustrates here – Muslim as well as non-Muslim – prevents it from transforming into something ephemeral and fleeting.  In fact, as the sound for prayer begins the very feel of Istanbul changes as it transmutes before me. The city, I think, is alive and has many identities so that as I make my way into the mosque and return salaams to fellow Muslims also making their way to Maghrib salah, I am intrigued by Istanbul’s multifarious performances.

Day four

We are having breakfast by the river. The blue of the water, a rich turquoise, is breath taking. The sunlight reflects on it and for a moment the surface is bejewelled. In a distance rises Istanbul again, divided as it is by the Bosphorous. Buildings dot the landscape on that side, but not in the cramped chaotic way of London. The buildings seem to be tucked into the land; standing in between the trees and following its rise and fall. A light breeze blows by lifting the heat of the sun so that it does not felt as scorching. “Eggs Benedict”. The waiter’s voice draws my attention back into the restaurant. For a second I was lost in the aesthetics of the scene. No manmade object could possibly compare with His magnificence as manifested through His creation. ‘Which of the favours of your Lord will ye then deny’ – the ayah comes to me and I think indeed I am favoured to have come here; the beauty reminds me of descriptions of paradise and re-commits my soul to pursue His pleasure.





About Syed Haider

A PhD candidate at SOAS and English teacher.


  1. about the use of words.
    same goes for the last comment I read from Admireu

    Although a dictionary can any comment they want on a word I am of the opinion that the word genius wich expresses I think something extraordinary shouldn’t be used in the language also to express anything since I am of the opinion that the word Genius is derived from the word Jinn….. to express something with jinnious by way of speaking I think is wrong for muslims since we should work on our ihsan and ikhlaas in our worship how small the matter may seem. 🙂 I love you people for the sake of Allah ta ala :)wa salaam (Allahuma sali alaa Muhammad salallahu alaihi wassalaam

  2. an advise and question at the same time
    salaam alaikum
    I liked the story a lot.
    Now somewhere apeared the word magic in a sentence used in a certain context ofcourse. I remembered suddenly that magic is kufr and haram I myself because of this would never use it to express something in words or of feelings since magic is kufr and haram and disliked by Allah ta ala we shouldn’t even use the word in any context. Thats my opinion and I think I am 100% right. anyone got an opinion about about my statement. Just think would the Prophet ar any salaf from the past use this expression in the so cold positive way? I don’t think so. wa alaikum salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh.

  3. You see what you want to
    I visited the same Istanbul just last year, as well as other areas of the country. Whilst the influence of westen culture cannot be denied, I found a strong yearning for the pre Ataturk ottoman heritage and life. I met many a devout Muslim on my travles around the various masaajid. Who embraced you andloved you because you shared the faith, irrespective of your ‘national’ identity.
    As per the comments, people will see what they wish to. I did not encounter the belly dancers, prostitutes etc because I ventured not to those parts. Surely, these are not unique to Tukey, but can, sadly, be found in many a ‘Muslim’ land across the world.

  4. turkey is lost
    i completely agree with the brother above. turkey should be ashamed of itself. i went there to see my islamic history, but that is hardly what i got. i felt intimidated for their embracing secularism and modernism so wholeheartedly! like i told everyone back home, turkey is a beautiful country but the people spoilt it for me, so sadly. islam is not in their hearts.

  5. turkey is lost
    i completely agree with the brother above. turkey should be ashamed of itself. i went there to see my islamic history, but that is hardly what i got. i felt intimidated for their embracing secularism and modernism so wholeheartedly! like i told everyone back home, turkey is a beautiful country but the people spoilt it for me, so sadly. islam is not in their hearts.

  6. not only his beard, always his wifes niqab lol – talk about arrogance!! its people like him who then crawl to their computers in the dead of the night to watch porn.

    Seems like he needs to learn how to read – obviously not a salafi with an inclination to intellectual learning, he probably looked at Ibn al-Qayyims nuniyyah and said, “Whats that nun crap about”!

  7. Reply to Wislam
    Have you with your beard forgotten your ettiquettes? The writer speaks about going to the mosque for prayer; he recalls an ayah from the qu’ran; yet still you call him “this guy” and suggest in your pllipancy that he was may be drunk? does this suit someone like yourself who happens to want to make the point that Turkey has lost its Islamic ideals? You seem to not be the best spokesperson for this point. Also, the author mentions how he is conflicted by Istanbul – it is beautiful but alo imitating the West (note his point about Western modernity); he mentions how it is a place where the mosque/s dissapeare; where the secular and the religious seem to coexist; where the Islamic past is kept frozen behind glass cabinets etc. You may have severely dislike your experience of the country but these reflections are personal contemplations of the author not an essay focussing on critique. It is also artistic and not purely analytical. Wislam, you and your beard need to think and reflect a little more: these reflections should be read by the likes of you again to learn the art of contemplation.

  8. disagree
    Completely disagree with this.
    I visited Istanbul, and as a Muslim I was shocked at what I found.

    Not a SINGLE person could say salaam, until I said it – even though my wife wears hijab / niqaab and I have a beard.
    Islam is pretty much dead in that country, and the only thing left is shirk (particularly at Ayub al-Ansari’s grave site (subhanAllah, you’ll see countless pilgrims to his grave!)), and a society which longs to be athiests and adopt western attitudes.
    I only saw a handful of people who prayed at the Masjid’s, which are only really tourist attractions now, i.e. you’ll see more tourists in the masjids than Muslims.

    SubhanAllah, even though the Hotel had Muslim staff, they couldn’t even say salaam until I said it. And they’re so proud of their secular society that they no longer have anything to wash yourself with in the toilet, instead you’ll only find toilet paper.

    At night, you’ll only see prostitutes on the streets, and countless night clubs and strip clubs along with huge amounts of Alcohol being sold in practically every restaurant you visit (all the way from Emonunu to Aksaray)!

    And you know what they have on the Bosphorus boat trips??
    At night, you’ll find naked belly dancers, lots of music, along with huge amounts of alcohol being drunk to the so-called bejewlled river!

    Perhaps this is unfair – I’m reflecting on the current secular Turkey rather than what it was.
    But this guy was either completely drunk when he wrote this or he was blinded to the real Turkey and especially Istanbul.

    Unfortunately, all the glitter they’ve added to the ottoman buildings and rebusihments have really lost what was underneath – exactly the same can be said for secular Turkey now. When you walk in any of the masjid’s, you won’t see the real building as the real Muslims built it, you’ll only see glitter and massive amounts of decoration! And what did the Prophet(saw) said about decorating? … “the worst money spent on a building is decorating it”.

    To be honest, you’ll find many MANY more practicing, educated Muslims in UK / America than you’ll find in Turkey.

  9. Questions
    Do you have more brother?

    How many days in total were you there for?

    Also can you detail what you did day by day please?

  10. Genius!
    Wow! More poetic than most of the poems on this site!

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