“The Truth” about Istanbul

Street vendors of all types ply their wares where they please. Shortly before this was taken, this fellow swapped one of his sweet pastries for a banana from another vendor. Makes sense to me.

Our friend Colin has been pestering us to show “the truth” of the places we visit, rather than the stuff you can find in “any art history text book.” He wants to see the gutters, poverty, deprivations of every kind. Mostly that’s just his own twisted personality, but it presents some problems. Turkey is simply not that depraved. Yes, there are issues. There is unemployment. There is poverty by Western standards. But in a country that is 99% Muslim, there is a definite lack of depravity.

This isn’t Vancouver’s East Side. There are no overt drug or alcohol addicts. Even young Turks prefer to drink tea or juice when they go out to hit the down. Crime is minimal, and tends to be of a mild “fleece the foreigners” variety. On the whole, Istanbul has presented the type of warm hospitality Turkey has long been known for, blighted occasionally by the fact that everyone is trying to sell you something. Sure, sometimes this hospitality is more sincere than others (our hostel staff for instance, have been honestly helpful and welcoming, even cooking us dinner one night). Often it is little more than a remnant of a simpler time or an act meant to fulfill visitors’ expectations. After all, in a country that gets over 30 million visitors per year, it’s simply not practical for the average Turk to treat every one he meets as a “visitor from God.” Unfortunately, with tourism on this scale, the authenticity of traditional Turkish culture and hospitality is bound to wane, at least in major centers like Istanbul. That said, we have had meaningful exchanges with a number of Turks already, learning something about them, sharing something about us. This doesn’t happen in most countries, where foreigners are treated politely but distantly.

I did mean it literally when I said that everyone is trying to sell you something. In a country with unemployment issues, an influx of foreign tourist capital, and extremely lax regulations on business dealings, everyone is an entrepreneur. Turkish free-market entrepreneurship makes Alberta look like a communist state. Old ladies in traditional dress sit in the public squares hocking packets of tissues or bowls of bird seed to feed the flocks of pigeons. Each morning, old men carefully lay out displays of their merchandise (old leather shoes, rotary dial telephones, ancient calculators, circuit boards), setting up shop where they please and moving it when the grass looks greener elsewhere. Younger men might become “touts,” the charming but aggressive salesmen who hang out in busy places imploring passersby to follow them to a nearby carpet or leather shop. Don’t need a carpet or leather jacket? That’s fine, they also know a a great hotel, the best Turkish bath, and the perfect place to find an authentic hookah.

This man is selling razors. Try to imagine a street vendor in Calgary or Vancouver trying to sell razors or bars of soap. I can't imagine it either.

These touts get a kickback for bringing customers in the door, and who can blame them for trying? Indeed, that statement sums up the Turkish attitude to a lot of things. If a man can make some money by selling junk on a street corner, why should anyone care to stop him? If a tout can waggle a sale out of a naive tourist flush with cash, why shouldn’t he?

Bargaining and prices are based on the same principal. While it can be off-putting to a Westerner, used to firm, clearly-established prices, the Turkish need to haggle is firmly rooted in both tradition and common-sense. Discussing and agreeing on a price is not just a way to show mutual respect, it is a tacit acknowledgement that the transaction involves mutually competing interests. It is a way for both sides to personalize the transaction, and to come away from the deal feeling each got a fair shake. It’s not a way to swindle, but rather a way to push for a better deal. If a Turk can take advantage of a Westerner, inexperienced in this type of transaction, and get a bit more for their product or service than they would from a fellow Turk, why shouldn’t they? This has already happened to Laura and I a few times, although we are getting more savvy about the whole thing.

Lamps for sale in the Grand Bazaar. Largely geared to tourists and visitors, the Grand Bazaar is nonetheless not to be missed. With over 4,000 shops under one roof, it apparently has more "stores" than any mall in the world.

In Canada, this type of truly free market street commerce would be completely regulated, requiring expensive permits and driving many of these people out of business. Those who could afford a permit would face the inevitable ‘not-in-my-backyard’ mentality so prevalent in North America, being driven into specific locations far away from the actual dollars and cents of their potential customers.

Meanwhile, well-to-do Turks might actually own a storefront, where they will typically specialize in one type of merchandise, or try to sell anything and everything. Whole neighbourhoods are dedicated to a single ware; we’ve walked down a street where every shop sold types of scales (digital scales, analogue scales, bathroom scales, industrial scales), another where every storefront was stacked with safes. There are shopping districts for camera gear, art supplies, clothing, shoes, leather goods, fresh produce, and spices, among other things. Of course, tourist trinkets and souvenirs are both found in dedicated areas and sprinkled throughout the city. The ubiquitous kebab stand, with its rotating spit of chicken or lamb is dotted throughout this landscape as well, selling tasty meat and veggie sandwiches for about $1.50 CDN.

Turkey's answer to Home Depot. Shops will either specialize in one type of product, or try to sell anything and everything.

Istanbul is Turkey’s largest city (though not its capital, as many believe; Ankara is), and certainly the most visited place in the country. We are staying in Sultanahment, Istanbul’s old city center, which is also its most touristy neighbourhood. I guess we’ll have to wait until we get out of the city to see how well these impressions hold up for the country as a whole. Turkey has a population of over 70 million; twice the size of Canada. It is also far more ethnically and geographically diverse than a person would at first assume. Give us a month here, Colin, and I’m sure the picture will change.

Mosques dot the Istanbul skyline, and are a much more vibrant and integrated part of Muslim life than churches tend to be in Christendom. With prayer five times a day, the Mosque is a social space as well as a spiritual one.
Ablutions before prayer.
Tea break: Turks drink tea virtually in lieu of water.
Istanbul's notoriously congested traffic.
The main thoroughfare of Istanbul's Grand Bazaar.
Major historic tourist sites are part of "the truth" too, Colin. Aya Sofia.
The "Egyptian" Spice Bazaar and its environs are far more authentically Turkish than the Grand Bazaar. We passed through here on a Saturday afternoon and it was completely thronged with people picking up food, spices, and other meal-related things. The crowds were thicker on an average Saturday than I've ever been subjected too at the Calgary Stampede. This was taken once we escaped the crush.


10 responses to ““The Truth” about Istanbul”

  1. Mehmet Avatar

    Very realistic article and great photos about Istanbul; for more about this magnificient city check this out; http://www.best-of-istanbul.com

  2. true, C, true…..

  3. Can i change the beautiful “pawn” pic your site has given me to something i want?
    If not, could you add a couple of x’s for my eyes and a squiggly line for my mouth.

  4. or intense…: ) (if intensive isn’t a word, which gollly,its suressis!)

  5. I’m not after ugly. (Who is) To me , truth leading up to the subject (ugly or disturbing) is what makes beauty that much more intensive.


  7. Dear Chris,

    I’m from Turkey and glad to hear your observations and see those photos you’ve taken. You should really upload these photos to Flickr and tag as istanbul.

  8. I love the detail in this entry… I can almost smell the place.
    Not everything is ugly Colin, there are a lot of beautiful things in this world, outweighed by the ugly in some places, ugly outweighed by the beauty in others…. truth is in the beauty too…

  9. As an American expat living in Turkey I appreciated this thoughtfully written post, your photographs and your observations.

  10. Much much better…Trading bananas for sweet goo etc. Knowing what just happened or what happened after the pic brings me closer…truthlierist…i just made that up for you.
    So the east side equivalent isn’t everywhere, so maybe seek out the local freak shows ; ) Or something along the lines of the link below.
    Here is my most fav pic, and stands as the only possibility, thus far, of what i’d allow to be driven into my flesh.
    The one responsible for the picture, committed suicide, apparently due to the fact that no one gave a shit after he published.

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