It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. Not to overuse a metaphor, but hills seem to bear the city’s many brightly-colored buildings as if on waves, tossing them this way and that, until the horizon is an impossible distinction between the saturated buildings and the backdrop of dark, Balkan trees. The skyline is similarly confusing: neighborhoods rise and then give way to water: the Gold Horn, the Aegean and Black seas. Mosques like giant, many-domed spiders somehow dominate even the skyscrapers, leaning into their surroundings from the heights.

Watching the sun behind this particular set of lines is simply staggering.

It may have a long, dark history and a shady present, but today’s Istanbul is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I have just returned from my trip there for the conference between Turkish and Armenian NGOs, which went quite well, and am already yearning to go back. Lebanon is lovely, but there was something in Istanbul that I find lacking here in Zahle, in Beirut.

I know now, after some thought, what it was I felt absent in Lebanon. It is nothing new, but is cast far into a far more stark silhouette by my return from one of the world’s great cities. In Istanbul there is a sense of togetherness, of identity and comfort with oneself and one’s fellow citizens that I have simply not found here in Lebanon. True, the Lebanese strut around in Western clothes, indulge in fatty Western foods, and engage in Western intellectual discourse. But it is all somewhat of an exhibition, a show. I have never seen more made-up women in my life than here, nor men for that matter – to name a more superficial issue. In Turkey, there are those who dress smart and those who are more relaxed. There is a more encompassing sense of “modernity” (whatever that means) without the need to advertise. It is self-realizing, while in Lebanon it is self-congratulating.

There is a point where collective identity becomes so strong that it almost fades away completely, because a people can be so conscious of it that it becomes a non-issue. At least in Istanbul and among Turks, there is such profound attachment to the Turkish-ness that it is almost a non-issue, not worth mentioning unless called. There are profound (at times brutal) historical reasons for this, of course, but it exists nevertheless. As such, there is such a sense of ease with oneself and the environment that I was simply stunned. I was blown away by the number of Turkish-language bookstores I happened by, while in Lebanon, the freest country for Arabic literature, Arabic holds second place to foreign works – and then, good luck finding a decent bookstore.

This is from a public bus in Istanbul. I found it a nice image for, well, obvious reasons.

This issue, language, was the most potent message of all. In Lebanon, education means speaking Arabic poorly and code-switching with English and French as much as possible. The Lebanese pride themselves on being multilingual while they let Arabic die as a language of culture and knowledge. In Turkey, I was hard-pressed to find anyone outside of my hotel who spoke English at all. Coming from Lebanon, I was oddly relieved by this change. Here I finally had someone being happy with who he was. Turkish is the language of communication and academia in Turkey – it is as healthy as a language can be, and tells me that the Turks have more self-pride than even the Lebanese.

History has been nicer to the Turks than to the Lebanese, and Turkey is not without it’s problems. But it is just sad to watch as the most successful Arab nation gets rich through more forgetting. That I can hardly bear.

I can deal without 24-hour electricity, warm water, and even without the lovely Balkan weather. But it is hard to return to a country where people are so eager to seem like something else.

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