Sunday, May 24, 2009

Light & Dark

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul ©Tauseef Mehrali 2009

Friday, May 22, 2009

Hagia Sofia

Hagia Sofia, Istanbul ©Tauseef Mehrali 2009

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Dispatches from Istanbul (5)

A mid-morning ferry from Eminonu took us to Eyup this morning. Eyup, the alleged resting place of the Prophet's companion Abu Ayyub al-Ansari, lies at the head of the Golden Horn. As it technically lies outside the precincts of the city, Eyup was, and still is used as one of Istanbul's cemeteries. The added allure of being buried in the vicinity of a holy personality has pretty much transformed it into a necropolis.

It was a cooler day today which thankfully eased our treck up the hillside overlooking Eyup to the Pierre Loti cafe, offering some of the best views of the Istanbul cityscape. A frequent sight at Eyup is of mace-wielding young boys dressed in regal clothes sheepishly in tow to family and usually gorging on sweets. Surely no amount of sweet-based bribery can divert their attention from what lies ahead later that day: sunnet or circumcision.

I couldn't resist ordering a Superman Pide for dinner from a local eatery we've discovered. Who could? A pide is a boat shaped pizza not too dissimilar to a calzone. The superman variant boasts a topping of salami, Konyan cheese, fried meat and egg.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Dispatches from Istanbul (4)

This morning my previously lack lustre breakfasting experiences underwent a real renaissance by virtue of a delicious homemade fig jam. Mixed with natural yoghurt, it's difficult not to have seconds and even more difficult to resist thirds. I suppose an infinite supply of figs is a useful counterweight to the physiological consequences of a toilet in the hotel room that must have been presented to the people of Lilliput by Gulliver. Ergonomically it's a disaster. A step ladder, or for that matter even a jar of homemade jam, would be indispensible in simply reaching this mighty throne.

We ventured westwards today towards Beyezit and the university. A timely pit-stop at a local Baklava vendor meant we probably significantly overcompensated in replenishing our blood sugar levels with a selection of sweets and Turkish tea. Actually it was just enough sugar to provide the necessary fuel for an afternoon of...haggling for towels in the Grand Bazaar. Apparently we won.

The language remains totally impenetrable to us. Turkish seems designed to neuter any advantage the amateur Arabist may have in the Middle East. I feel dyslexic and dizzy when faced with the barrage of consonants, umlauts and cedillas.

We had dinner dockside in Eminonu as the sun disappeared behind the pencil like Ottoman minarets. Unsurprisingly, it consisted of freshly cooked fish placed in roughly cut bread along with a helping of salad and onions to which you can add as much rock salt and lemon juice as you desire.

I can't sign off without mentioning a snippet of conversation overheard earlier today as a middle-aged American tourist rather naively requested of her tour guide:
So, like, what's happened over here over the last century then?

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Dispatches from Istanbul (3)

No visit to Istanbul is complete without the requisite 'compare and contrast' tour of the Blue Mosque and its predecessor, the Aya Sofia. Which of the two great edifices you prefer tends to boil down to whether you're atracted to decoration or design. Intricate and exquisite arabesques in Iznik blue dominate the interior of the Blue Mosque whereas the architectural genius of Emperor Justinian's Aya Sofia lies in the seemingly freestanding dome and the resulting sensation of spaciousness.

We grabbed a bus and headed to Ortakoy in the afternoon. The village sits along the European shore of the Bosphorus and is feted as being one of among 'Istanbul's coolest, chic-est, most artsy neighborhoods'. Sunday is apparently the day to visit due to a bustling street market and we weren't disappointed. An eclectic Baroque mosque, the Etz Ahayim Synagogue and an Orthodox church punctuate the cafes, boutiques and bistros. Strangely, our take home memory of the village will be of the ubiquitous jacket potato. It appears as though the whole potato (rather than its multiple derivatives) as a dining experience has only just hit the shores of the Bosphorus. And it's hit hard. Almost everyone was carrying a jacket potato laden with a mountain of fillings. Those that weren't carrying, were selling.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Dispatches from Istanbul (2)

Traders in the Grand Bazaar have one of the best repertoires of inane comments to be found anywhere in the world's commercial hubs. Take this for instance:
"Lady, excuse me! Are you perfect? Then you need this perfect bag!"
I can't overcome the belief in the inevitability of being ripped off in such venues. This delusion is not aided by the fact that the Istanbulites seem to have agreed amongst themselves that Mrs Africanus and I are wealthy Arab visitors who can't wait to be parted from our dirhams. Our mission to eventually pass off as fully fledged Istanbulites though has come one step closer as we are now proud possessors of an Akbil, the oyster card equivalent.

We've worked our way through the role call of kebabs in all their guises - an idea for a potential 'Guess Who?' spin off - and were pleasantly surprised to find a halal Wagamama's in Beyoglu. The quality of coffee out here is impressive. Although I can't manage the traditional kahve - coffee flavoured molten lava - the more modern coffee houses pour some fine espressos.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Dispatches from Istanbul

Arriving in Istanbul this afternoon was somewhat reassuringly just as complicated as I last remember. This time however, in addition to the easily overlooked purchase of a visa on arrival, there was the added bureaucracy of Swine flu screening. The far from rigorous process consisted of fighting my travel sickness to complete a meaningless form which looked as though it was a photocopy of a fax of a scanned document and perhaps better suited to testing my appreciation for abstract art and visual acuity rather than risk of transmitting H1N1. As we touched down on Turkish soil, the Istanbulite sitting alongside me and Mrs Africanus promptly pulled out a 5TL note, flashed it before our eyes and pointed to the ageless image of Ataturk, I presume to give his bizarre welcome gesture some stately gravitas.

The city itself is thankfully as welcoming and relaxed as I remember. We took a lazy stroll through Sultanahmet, lunched whilst gazing at the Aya Sofia and spent the evening indulging in some caffeine fuelled people watching on Istiklal Street in the lively Beyoglu district. Tomorrow can't come soon enough...