Istanbul Story: Coworkers & Conquerors

Vicky and I didn’t always see eye to eye.

But as we piled into a passenger van from Ataturk Airport, we were swept up in giddy excitement, enchanted by swirling Turkish pop melodies blasting from the radio.

This was Istanbul—where East meets West.

Here my coworker and Ilike the Christians and Muslims, conquerors and traders that have passed through Istanbul itself for centurieswould write our own Istanbul story, find common ground, and come to terms with our own servitude to a more malignant power.

Something about Vicky disconcerted me.

Maybe it was her glowering, ghostly appearance, icy blue eyes sinking deep into her pale skull, wispy blond hair swaying around her waist. Maybe it was the way she spoke, loud and ferocious, caustic vitriol pouring from her stern, tight mouth. Her volatile moods were famous around the office just a month after she joined as a Project Manager. I was new to the suffocating rarefied air of the Washington Beltway, an idealistic yuppie trying to save the world through development with no marketable skills besides dealing with confounding third-world beneficiaries. Vicky showed little patience for my mask of go-getter optimism. At forty-something, she was just old enough to be my mother, which she reminded me frequently with a mix of incredulity and dismay.

So when she called me to her desk on a Friday afternoon, I readied my thickest skin. I assumed she wanted to discuss our upcoming project launch in the Balkans, a trip I was dreading. I shuffled into her office, bright-eyed and terrified.

Reclining in her black leather chair, her face was contemplative, distant.

“Do you hear that?”

I listened. The copy machine buzzed a few rooms away. Car engines rumbled on the street below. Nothing unusual.

“Hear what?” I asked.


I listened again. This time I picked up the faint echo of a mighty roar in the distance, a couple of miles away.

“What is that? Motorcycles?”

“Motorcycles? Those are Harley-muthafuckin’-Davidsons, kid. Haven’t you ever heard of Rolling Thunder?”

I hadn’t.

Rolling her eyes, she closed the door with a tap of her finger, whispered through clenched teeth.

“They come through every year for a Memorial Day rally. And I gotta tell ya, that rumbling sound’s got me horny as hell.”

She leaned over the desk, ice blue eyes flashing wild.

Why was she telling me this?

I wasn’t exactly thrilled to enter such personal territory, fracturing the walls I had so carefully constructed between me and my coworkers, especially Vicky. But behind the wild ice, something in her eyes pleaded to be seen. It was the kind of look you give someone at a madhouse when you realize, you might not be the only sane person there after all.

“Do you ride?” I asked, casually.

The ice melted as she launched into tale after tale from her biker days, the wind in her hair, ridin’ hogs and raisin’ hell, all beards and beers, leather and lace. Those days were over now. She had a teenage son to raise, bills to pay, Macedonian exporters to train. Listening to her stories, I felt a semblance of kinship with this perplexing woman.

Like me, Vicky was a little crazy, a little wild, and just trying to make life work through a series of compromises.

After our first week on assignment in Skopje, the weekend was wide open and I was itching to escape. But something told me to stick with Vicky. We debated plans over cappuccinos at a riverside café. I wanted to see more of Macedonia, but Vicky would have none of it.

“Do you know how many fucking times I’ve been to Lake Ohrid? If I have to go one more time I’ll kill myself.”

Neither of us had been to Istanbul and Turkish Air had a weekend promo.

With no further debate, we booked our flights for the next morning.

Squeezed between a middle-aged British couple, a veiled Turkish woman cradling her toddler son, and a German businessman barking into his Blackberry, we mapped out our weekend.

“What is there to see here? I haven’t even looked.”

“Well, it’s our first time, so we have to see the Blue Mosque, the Hagia Sophia, the Egyptian Obelisk, and the Topkapi Palace. Then tomorrow we can do some shopping at the Grand Bazaar. There’s a Roman aqueduct with some medusa heads, too, if you’re into that.”

“Medusa heads!? Hell yes!”

As we raced down Kennedy Caddesi, I turned my attention to the scenic coast to the right.

  • Young boys hurtled off wave breakers into the deep blue water.
  • Wood motor boats drifted at a tiny pier while young men fished off a dock.
  • Old men smoked cigarettes and played chess at cement tables in bursting green parks.
  • In the distance, rows of steam liners cut through the glittery surface of the Sea of Marmara.

As we approached, half a dozen spires came into focus, poking out of the city and into the sky around the whitish-grey silhouette of the famous Blue Mosque in the distance.

It looked like a fairy tale city on a hill.

“Ho-ly shit.”

For the first time since I’d met her, Vicky was at a loss for words.

Magical Istanbul

Magical Istanbul.

It was just past noon when we pulled up to the lovely but cramped Pierre Loti Hotel.

Vicky was a little tired after our extra early departure, so I flipped on the TV. I was smitten with the Turkish pop music I’d heard on the van’s radio, and wanted to find more. With any luck, a music channel would be playing some, with title and artist readily displayed so I could write them down and look for them later.

I quickly found what I was looking for.

Two handsome men and two curvaceous woman flashed steamy looks at the camera as they strutted around a CGI background of marble columns and flaming bowls. It was sensual, exotic, just a little tacky, an unholy alliance of Turkish culture and commercial pop music.

I was hooked. 

As I rushed to jot down the names the bedside telephone let a shrill sound, interrupting my reverie. It was Vicky.

“Git yer ass to the lobby, kid. We’re in Istanbul!”

We hit the streets amid a lunchtime whirlwind; Handsome Turkish men and women rushed up and down the sidewalks on their mid-day break, chattered over salads and coffees at a nearby restaurant. The smiled upon us, warm and magnanimous.

Stumbling down Divan Yolu Caddesi we narrowly avoided collision with lampposts and smartly dressed strangers, mesmerized by the exotic appeal of Istanbul and its residents.

“Damn, Turkish men are so hot!”

I couldn’t disagree.

But my eyes were fixed on a beauty even more sublime. The Sultan Ahmed Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque) rose above the urban mêlée, framed by bright green bushes, spiky palms and fluffy pink Bougainvillea of a nearby park.

Blue Mosque through Park

View of the Blue Mosque from Sultan Ahmed Park.

Pacing our approach, we savored ever more glorious views with each tiny step forward.

In 1616 A.D. Sultan Ahmed I erected the Blue Mosque on the site of the old Byzantine Palace as a symbol of Ottoman power. Never mind that he nearly emptied the imperial Treasury to finance construction, having failed to gather enough wealth from the spoils of war like his predecessors had done. The message was more important than the means: The Ottomans are in charge.

The courtyard swarmed with hordes of tourists and guides, snaking around towering columns and under vaulted arches. As we stepped inside the mosque, massive domes expanded overhead, covered in bright white, blue and gold tiles, shaped into flowers, trees, and Qur’anic verses. Lush multi-colored carpets covered the floor, dimly lit by hanging lanterns.

Blue Mosque

The ornate domes of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul.

A swishy silence filled the grand hall, as tourists tried to take in the sights without disturbing the faithful, a handful of bearded believers crouched in the middle of the mosque before Qur’ans on small wooden pedestals, muttering, reciting.

I thought about how their two worlds swirl past each other day after day, never colliding, in this seventeenth century monument. The holy faith of Mohammed, the unholy combination of socks, sandals, and the almighty dollar. A strange equilibrium prevailedeveryone knew who they were and where they belonged under these magical domes. But there was also a palpable tension, the sense that our harmonious co-existence could unravel at any moment.

I pondered the uncomfortable juxtapositions in my own life. My inner idealist and pragmatist, constantly fighting to take the wheel. A career in international development was my latest attempt to please everyone, to keep guilt and uncertainty at bay, but therein loomed a fundamental tension. I wasn’t exactly an Economic Hit Man, but I wasn’t the vagabond saint I aspired to be either. I looked over at Vicky, transfixed by fez-topped prayerful wizened man. I could see she shared my dilemma. Freewheeling biker chick at heart, the imperatives of motherhood had led her down an unexpected path.

Still, there were worse things than touting the wonders of Macedonian wine and cheese on the U.S. government’s dime. Right?

Most people leave holy sites feeling tranquil, replenished. I left the Blue Mosque feeling deeply conflicted. Did I mention there’s a restaurant, an ATM, and a rental car outlet on site?

Caught up in my thoughts, I followed Vicky outside to Sultan Ahmed Square, once the site of Istanbul’s old hippodrome. Ancient, phallic monuments lined the plaza; the Walled Obelisk, the Serpentine Column, the Egyptian Obelisk reached toward the clear blue sky. Each celebrated some or other ancient victory—of Greece, of Byzantium, of Egypt, of the Turks.

Columns and obelisks

From left to right: Serpentine Column, Egyptian Obelisk, and Walled Obelisk.

My thoughts took another, violent turn. For every victor, there is a loser. At best, war is a necessary evil; at worst, a scourge. Is conquest truly something to commemorate with a towering stone phallus? Ought sultans and kings to brag of submitting the weak to their singular, iron will?

And what of the competing forces in our lives today? Who, or what, was the victor there?

Vicky and I had both made compromises that we struggled in silence to maintain. If it could speak, would global capitalism gloat of conquering our spirits? Or were we in fact the conquerors, exploiting the system for personal gain? On the surface, two Americans casually touring Istanbul on a weekend. But underneath… were we cunning kings or abject slaves?

I searched the ornate dome of the German Fountain for black and white answers, stubborn silence echoed blue, green, and gold. These multi-colored mosaics told a different, more nuanced story.

German Fountain

German Fountain dome, exterior and interior.

So did the Hagia Sophia.

Built as a major Eastern Orthodox basilica in 537 A.D., shifting powers have used this abode of “Holy Wisdom” for centuries. The Latin Empire briefly converted it to a Roman Catholic cathedral from 1204 A.D. to 1261 A.D.; later the Ottomans re-purposed it as a mosque.

Its latest transformation in 1935 was to a “secular” museum, a tribute to history sponsored by the twin gods Capitalism and the Nation-State.

Despite the gorgeous mosaics of Jesus and Mary, the majestic marble arches, the priestly elevated galleries—the first thing I noticed were gigantic wood-and-leather discs hanging in every corner, golden calligraphy glorifying Allah, Mohammed, Ali, and five other holy figures whose Arabic names I failed to decipher.

Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia: Virgin and Child seated between God and His Prophet.

Like the ancient phalli just a few blocks away, there was something vulgar, hyper-masculine about these otherwise beautiful discs. An ad-hoc assertion of one religion’s power that nonetheless failed to eradicate all traces of another.

A more sinister force had staged a subtle takeover in the shadows of this front-and-center Islamic cannon.  There are no giant discs with dollar signs decorating the Hagia Sophia. Mighty greenbacks and Turkish liras change hands discretely, continuously at the ticket booths and souvenir shops outside.

I left the world-weary basilica distracted by an overwhelming nausea, unable to concentrate on Vicky’s sardonic commentary.

Dollars and cents, pounds and pence, liras and pesos and euros and kroners, we pay to live in a giant museum memorializing the freedom and the wonder that we so foolishly signed away.

Then I saw it. A towering spire poked out of the trees on the edge of the peninsula.

Topkapi Palace.

Money had swayed the plot of this Istanbul story since much, much longer than the latest wave of global capitalism.

Never one to mince words, Vicky spurred me on.

“Come on, kid, let’s go see where those rich motherfuckers kept the harem.”

And in the millennia-old tradition of slaves and subjects, we kept our good humor and plodded along, paying lip-service to all.

To be continued…

 “Whether it’s God Almighty, or the almighty dollar
We follow prophets like Islamics or the Dalai Lama
Your bullet points so hollow they could
prolly pierce body armor
Look in the scope, my people still a target”
Jay Electronica feat. Reflection Eternal, J. Cole, and Mos Def. “Just Begun”

July 29, 2007.

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