The Tulip is Turkey’s national flower. Although, the Dutch fields of tulip have charmed the world forever but few realize while admiring them that the Tulip was a gift given to the Dutch by the Ottoman Sultans.

“Originally cultivated in the Ottoman Empire (present-day Turkey), tulips were imported into Holland in the sixteenth century.” – www.holland.com

I forgot that too as soon as I landed at the darling O’Hare to head home to Memphis after a 2-week Umrah trip that had cradled a fabulous 3-day stay in Istanbul on our way to the holy cities. *Excuse me, 17 hours of travel and no sleep, it’s a wonder travelers remember their own names!*

This piece is my ode to the city of Istanbul and its many wonders.

We were a family with an age range of 40 to 6 year-olds, boys and girls, some bored to the core while others super excited about something as small as a random feather floating in the air, pampering mood swings and appetites from starving to hungry to no-thanks-I-want-candy-and-coffee-NOW to I-am-in-need-of-a-restroom-ALSO-NOW while we haggled and bargained with the shopkeepers for shoes or something. And Istanbul readily catered to us all!

One of the monuments in the Hippodrome. The hieroglyphics on this one tell us that this particular obelisk structure was a gift from Egypt to the Ottoman Sultan (Photo: Author)

First things first, you need to get your trip planned through a nice travel agency that is sure to hook you up with a nice tour guide so he can take you to places with nice restrooms while you’re out enjoying the rich history of Constantinople. I’m not kidding. If you’re anything like me and if your kids are anything like mine, you want a squeaky clean restroom to take them to or your only shot is to make it to your hotel without accidents – road and otherwise. So, there’s that. However, I do believe that Turkey is a clean country in general as well. The restrooms at Istanbul airport were as fresh as the smell of clean laundry, and if you aren’t a frequent traveler who has seen things (or if you’re not into hygiene much), you’d have no idea what a luxury that is.

A 3-day stay in a city like Istanbul isn’t enough to be honest but it is enough to rush over the highlights, lose sleep immensely that you can falsely hope to make up for during flight, and get a jet lag that needs a week to recover from. But it’s all worth it.

It goes without saying that even a day’s stay in Istanbul would warrant a visit to the Hippodrome, the Blue Mosque (or Sultan Ahmet Mosque as the Turks call it), Hagia Sophia, Topkapi Palace and its museums and a stroll through the Grand Bazaar. Stay a day more and you can take a cruise of the Bosphorus Strait, visit Taksim Square and pay your respects to the Shrine of Hazrat Abu Ayub al-Ansari (if you’re into that sort of thing; we proudly are). Of course, you’d have broken your legs by midnight and realized then that it would’ve been wise to space-out the sightseeing over at least three days. So, 3 days minimum. Keep that in mind.

Obviously, you also want to keep your camera handy and ready to click-click every wonder you lay your eyes on while touring the historical sites and bazaars unless there’s a sign or two or a dozen explicitly saying DO NOT PHOTOGRAPH THE RELICS and USE OF CAMERAS IS PROHIBITED HERE. The vast grounds of the Topkapi Palace include a few museums that house the priceless relics of the Ottomans and an array of holy relics belonging to the Prophet, his family and companions. Signs prohibiting photography of these items hang left, right and center in and around these museums, and if you’re with a guide, he’ll educate you too regarding these rules. BUT there will always be that one guy or gal who’ll blatantly ignore the signs and the inspector’s warnings and work their flash… and this person will, somehow, always be a Pakistani.

I’m not kidding neither am I saying this out of malice for my home country nor am I assuming their identity. It’s hard to not notice the hilali parcham pins or other Pakistani insignia they proudly wear on the lapels of their jackets and shirts, which also becomes painfully hard to forget when they act like total morons later, some worse than the others.

The beautiful interior of Hagia Sophia (built in 537), one can see Islamic and Christian relics side by side. The emblems, like the one bearing Allah’s name, were made inside the Hagia Sophia as their diameter was so huge, they couldn’t have been carried through the doors of the buildings. The material on which the calligraphy was done is actually camel skin (Photo: Author)

To the girl who shamelessly photographed the Ottoman jewels while a Turkish guard angrily yelled at you for literally ten minutes to stop before moving in on you so you’d put your camera-phone away to even notice her, blink like an idiot and apologize in the most obviously hollow and insincere way as can be… what the f*** is wrong with you? I only wish you weren’t wearing anything that even remotely identified you as a Pakistani – but for that snitch of a pin on your ugly leather jacket! If that guard now forever thinks that all Pakistanis are twat waffles for what you did, she would be in the right and you, ma’am, are an embarrassment to us. I hope your phone meets with a fatal accident and none of your data ever recovers!

A trip to the museum of holy relics is another stress-inducing experience. The push and pull and shove and a mild kick in the ribs from those behind you as you try to make way into the first chamber of the display, it becomes evident that we definitely have great love for our religion and what better way to express it than to trample over the person in front of you while you’re supposed to be walking in line. I wish I had to fight for my right to breathing space with anyone other a Pakistani but alas! Here too, it were my own countrymen who misbehaved the most.

To the man dressed like he’d just stepped out of a madrassah, putting your wife in between me and yourself and then shoving her head-on so she’d somehow propel me out of your way, in no way makes your behavior Sharia compliant. You’re still a moron and should learn some manners. And please, don’t wear that Pakistani flag pin on you while you act like a buffoon. Not all of us are like you but when you wear that pin, the world somehow assumes you represent us all. How insulting for the rest of us!

Seriously people, if our country is our pride so much that we choose to associate ourselves with it in any way, how is it justified for us to not display good sense and manners so others think well of where we come from?

Maybe learn a thing or two about pride in one’s country from the Turks!

I couldn’t help not feel the immense sense of pride that the Turks have in being Turks. It’s as tangible and solid as one’s soul. You can almost touch it, feel it wash over you with its warmth.

The Christian relic that was preserved by the Ottoman Sultans even though they turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque (1453) after invasion. They had the church artwork covered in special paper that didn’t destroy its beauty but kept it hidden while Hagia Sophia was used as a mosque. Now, teams of archeologists are busy removing that paper from all over the inside of this building to uncover artwork of the centuries. This is a painting of Mary and Baby Jesus (Photo: Author)

A view of the Asian side of Istanbul from our ferry cruising the Bosphorus Strait and Golden Horn (Photo: Author)

Turkey is a secular nation but they are so greatly proud of their rich Ottoman history, and all the 3,000 mosques that they built all over Istanbul, and their palaces on land and by the banks of the Bosphorus, and the bazaars and the extensive baths the Sultan established just for the benefit of their people. You can see that love in their food, in their preservation of their ruins and relics, in the upkeep of their cities, and in the way they talk about themselves and their country in the stories they relate of how Turkey was and is. They carry their historical facts (like Turkish wasn’t always written in Roman and that fez was an essential part of their dress) in one palm and their current pride (like Turkish is now written in Roman and that Kamal Ata Turk prohibited the wearing of the fez and westernized Turkish garb) in the other with equal dignity.

One of my hotel room windows overlooked a market street where a shopkeeper would come every morning and sweep the pavement clean in front of his shop before he opened it for business. And he wasn’t the only one who did that. All storekeepers on that street did so and I’m sure as did every other storekeeper in that market and all other markets. It was a small gesture but made a big difference. Clean store front, clean street, clean marketplace, and clean neighborhood and so on. Perhaps, we were staying in an upscale area of the old city but I know what I saw and I didn’t see any filth on the streets of Istanbul.

I did see insane traffic, however. Turks are total Karachiites in that regard. You want to cross the street? Do so at your own risk because we got no brakes in our cars and traffic lights may or may not mean something… depends on ma mood! Even then, they have very functioning and popular tram and subway systems. We took the subway to Taksim Square and it was better than NYC’s subway – very clean!

Other noticeable features of the city were roasted figs, corn cobs and freshly baked pretzels selling at every few feet everywhere we went, pigeons and bird feeding at Taksim square (you must not miss this), stray dogs wearing yellow ear-tags that meant they were neutered and also safe to share public space with humans, underground shops that I kept tripping into on my first walk through the neighborhood (you have to watch your step or you’ll topple face forward into one of these as if you’d walked over the edge of a cliff), and Syrian refugees. Yes, the effects of disturbance in the neighborhood were evident on the faces of these people who were jobless, possibly homeless, as they stood in corners, inside mosques, asking for help and food.

To the lady with a beautiful child by her side, standing inside a small mosque, blowing me kisses as I walked away from you simply because I’d given you my packet of roasted figs and chips, and my daughter had shared her chocolates with your little girl, I wish I could do more but that was all I had on me in that moment. I hope all your trials end in good fortune and your future is bright and your children find a safe place to grow up in. I wish you well. I wish you well…!

A baklava store at Taksim Square. This is your ultimate dessert stop in Istanbul (Photo: Author)

Saying goodbye to Istanbul wasn’t easy.

Mostly because running through the Istanbul airport constantly reminded me of Home Alone 2 and I kept checking for my kids every two minutes! It’s one of the busiest airports I’ve been to. And there are no seats. None. I don’t understand how they could overlook something so simple or perhaps they get more traffic than the seats they built but I mean O’Hare has more seating capacity for people in transit than Istanbul airport. The food court is devoid of benches or so it seems. The Starbucks there is expensive and awesome with a waitress who picks after you but it never has any seating available! For one thing, people just lounge around there, doing nothing. I mean please, if you’ve eaten, get off and make way for those who are buying now and looking where to sit and finish their cakes and coffee. So if you’re there, either buy and sit on the floor or you can be like me and stand 3 inches away from a lounging family, look miserable while holding a tray loaded with food and drink, just sigh every two seconds and complain like ‘DEAR GOD, IF ANYONE WOULD JUST GIVE ME A CHAIR, MY LEGS ARE DYING!’ They will vacate. Trust me. And oh, Turkish men are really cute so don’t let your barista talk much or you’ll forget what you were ordering.

And if you have cute kids, some random person will fall in love with them and offer to buy them. Never did I think I’d have to make a case in a lamp store to a pleading Turk why I didn’t want to sell my son to him and deprive the nice man of the extreme privilege of being a foster parent to my child. True story!

Yeah. That’s Istanbul. And we loved it!

*After Istanbul, it was time to get my act together and visit Hijaz… that’s an experience I’ll pen in my next blog. Stay tuned.*