05 September 2010
'Night of Power...'Istanbul. Day off.
The tourist exploration began in earnest this morning, with a trip to the Egyptian bazaar and spice market. Three of us took a cab there from the hotel as it was raining on and off. We were dropped off somewhere in the general vicinity and left to wander through the narrow streets, not quite sure where we were headed. Soon enough we could hear the bustle and racket of some kind of market so followed our ears there. It turns out that this wasn't the market proper, but that on a Sunday when a lot of the regular shops are closed, impromptu stalls pop up selling everything from jeans to kitchen goods, all jammed into the tiniest streets rammed full of people waving umbrellas, with vendors yelling, dogs barking, babies crying, birds squawking as the rain comes down. Entering these streets was an extremely intense experience, with that slightly delicious feeling of the whole being so overpowering that you're not quite able to focus on any one particular part of it.
On finding the indoor spice market, this feeling was amplified a hundredfold and the grey of the rainy streets suddenly burst into a technicolour sensory overload. On all sides there were shops and stalls packed with spices, sponges, teas, lamps, clothes, pottery, souvenirs, foodstuffs... quite fantastic and wonderfully alien. After exploring for a while we found an upstairs cafÃ© which served us doner kebabs, the like of which I'd never had before with tastes and sensations in a different league to kebab houses of London. Having eaten, we wandered further and found a flower bazaar, selling seeds, plants & blooms, interspersed with stalls selling live animals - rabbits, chickens, ducks, fish tanks and, most disturbingly, large jars of leeches.
From here we ended up walking all the way to the blue mosque where we met up with some friends who'd come over for the show. We found a place for drinks on a roof terrace and watched the sun sinking through the dramatic stormy skies. Once the sun had gone down we went out in search of dinner, only then realising what an incredibly stupid thing we'd just done. It's Ramadan, a time when Muslims fast during the hours of daylight and postpone eating until after sunset. An hour earlier and we would have been able to walk into any place out there and get a table, but now suddenly there wasn't a single restaurant to be found without a queue down the street. Plus we were a party of eight people. Knowing we wouldn't be able to eat for a while, we settled for a couple more beers and took in the atmosphere. A great many people were breaking their fast by picnicking on lawns in front of the mosques. The mosque buildings were ablaze with lights and special illuminations, with crowds of people milling about everywhere. It was, we were told, a special night in Ramadan - the 'Night of Power' celebrating the first revelation of the Koran which was apparently exactly 1400 years ago this very night. We just happen to be here for the 1400th anniversary, which was pretty exceptional timing.
It was an extraordinary scene, and amidst this commotion I was privileged to witness the most genuinely culturally shocking thing I have ever seen in my entire life. A young man was sitting on a kerbstone with a group of people who I presumed to be his family. He was smoking a cigarette with one hand and with the other he was bouncing a little boy on knee. The child couldn't have been even two years old, just about able to stand and toddle about. The father takes a drag on his cigarette then leans over and puts the cigarette right into the baby's mouth. The kiddie knew exactly what to do, taking hold of it with his little pudgy fingers. I felt like I'd been slapped and was tugging the sleeves of everyone in our party going 'did you SEE what just HAPPENED?!' Genuine culture shock.
A little later we found an alleyway winding up a narrow cobbled hill, set out with tables and chairs. Rather to our amazement we saw an empty table laid for eight, so we moved on in. A very jovial waiter arrived and explained that given the night it was, they were just doing a set menu of mezze and mixed kebabs, which was just fine by us. We sat out in the close & humid night, with wonderful food being set before us, people walking by and the sights and sounds of the Night of Power going off all about us.
Rounding out the evening with a near-death experience in a cab, (which seems to be the norm here) we headed home & had an early night.