“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
Through the unknown, unremembered gate
When the last of earth left to discover
Is that which was the beginning.”
~T.S Eliot, “Little Gidding”
Nights in Istanbul, living, breathing contradictions clothed in hijabs, burqas, and mini skirts; clothed in bira (beer) and tasbih (Muslim prayer beads); clothed in masjids, buildings, and bars; clothed in the transsexual, homosexual, and heterosexual; clothed in the prostitution, male or female, and marriage; clothed in the secular and the sacred. The men or the women you see walking in Taksim square could be married with children, professionals – doctors, lawyers, and engineers – and also prostitutes. The stars in the night sky contend with the bright and colorful city lights for the attention of terrestrial eyes, all in vain, all for naught, since those those former burning spheres pulsate to a divine but distant rhythm inaudible to most while the beat behind those latter burning bulbs and fluorescent tubes can be heard by all, both those sleeping and those awake. The radiance of one appears brighter than the other, but the other still persist, despite the light population. When the club music subsides, the athan supersedes.
I am sitting on the balcony of Buena Vista hostel in the touristic district of Taksim, watching the world go by, bantering with some Turks, all of whom have Allahu Akbar (“God is Greater“) on their tongues, all of whom, save one, drinking Efes (Turkish beer) and Miller (American beer) and Istanblue (Turkish vodka), and all of whom, without exception, chain smoking cigarettes. The residents of the hostel, students from Europe, enter and exit the building freely, drunk, red-eyed, stupefied from the alcohol and partying. One of them regurgitates on the possessions of those with whom he shares the dormitory room. I ask what floor he’s on and I’m told he’s on the fifth, for which I thank God, as I’m on the second.
“Now, I don’t care if you want to drink. What you do with yourself is your business so far as I’m concerned.” I say, “But the moment you start vomiting on my shit or on someone else’s shit, that’s when the motherfuckin’ problem starts!”
We all erupt in laughter, half out of genuine humor, half out of the influence of the bira. I, though, am drinking Limonata, Turkish carbonated lemonade, because I have no need of alcohol to loosen my tongue nor have I need to drown my troubles, my sorrows, or myself away. The words flow on their own; they have a consciousness all their own. And I am Muslim, a slave of God, the slightest dust of the Prophet Muhammad, and one held hostage by my own self-awareness, consciousness, and sense of moral rectitude. I couldn’t bring myself to drink with them, indulge in and credence to the paradox of the city, but I can appreciate it for what it is, for what it’s worth, in spite of my religious convictions.
It’s all here in this city, the collage of being, the gamut of the human experience, the good and the bad, the pulchritude and the vile. So, as I am always apt to say and sometimes – I admit – even slow to observe, reserve your judgement, even if it is a matter of infinite hope. If you are quick to cast your nose aloft, then you run of missing something worthwhile.
How true are the words of T.S. Eliot. They echo in my mind as I write this. My journey throughout Turkey has come to a close, having returned to the place where I started, tired of difference, exasperated with strangeness and newness for the time being; and yet, I know the true wayward soul never really ceases exploring: reprieves are illusions, veils, masks among the many; and underneath the masks among the many, beyond all these seemingly trivial happenstances and differences, lie a greater wisdom about who we are as humans and an insight into our destiny. No matter our starting point, no matter our journey, we’re bound to come back to where we started.
“Unto every one of you have We appointed a (different) law and way of life. And if God had so willed, He could surely have made you all one single community: but [He willed it otherwise] in order to test you by means of what He has vouchsafed unto you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works! Unto God you all must return; and then He will make you truly understand all that on which you were wont to differ.” 5:48
I learned a great about myself, things I perhaps wouldn’t have learned otherwise given some other impetus. I hadn’t planned on doing any soul-searching while abroad but such was the natural consequence when traveling throughout Anatolia on buses or in witnessing how even the variegated peoples of Turkey live their lives: it forces one to retreat inward and re-examine certain presuppositions and idiosyncrasies. A broader perspective is acquired, one that accentuates and gives justice to the complexities of the world.
So what exactly did I learn throughout this whole sojourn? Well, much as I would like, I really can’t assign any tangible words to most of what I’ve learned since doing so would actually diminish the value of the trip: it would never capture the essence of the thing, as some wisdom is simply inexpressible in words: it has to be experienced and lived, and then it becomes noetic, comprehended in the mind and thus a part of you. Thus, I can’t exactly qualify it, but I can – and I will – say this however. I’ll never again hesitate to relinquish my apprehensions and venture forth into an endeavor, no matter how daunting the task. After being a stranger in a strange land, after traveling in a foreign land by my lonesome, in which very few people spoke English, and after made it out unscathed, I feel I can weather any tempest life can throw at me with confidence, al-hamdu’ilah. Granted, traveling in Turkey is relatively easy, so I don’t give myself too much credit. But having made that first step is worth all the kudos one can muster: in any given circumstance, the first step is always the hardest. Sometimes, you have to be like Nike and just do it.
They say travel changes you, that you are not the same person you once were when you left your homeland. My return to America will be as a litmus test for this, but its veracity I don’t doubt. I’ll be a stranger in a familiar land once more, but the familiarity will be welcomed, as will the comfort of my own living space and amenities. I’ll have much to do upon returning, but I feel more equipped to handle my affairs. I haven’t bested the Quarter-life Crisis as of yet, but I see the light at the end of the tunnel.
In any case, I’m grateful for having been given this opportunity, as I’m sure there are some who would have liked to indulge in Turkey as I have.
All praise is due to Allah alone, the One Who made this beautiful world – with all its contradictions and paradoxes – in the first instance, the One Who sustains it without tiring, and the One Who will roll it all up like a scroll at the Apportioned Hour.