Friday night. We walk the crowded streets of Istanbul at night and a strong breeze sweeps towards us, up the alleyways that lead from the Bosphorous. The half moon filters down through a thin layer of clouds, and the light that reaches us smells now of freshly-squeezed fruit, now of kebab shish, now of exhaust from the police motorcycles that wind through the crowd.
We eat on the third floor of the restaurant and look down on the street as a small group of Communist protestors chant and march. They carry small lights, and their voices, shouting slogans in Turkish, remind me of how far away I am from home.
When we go back outside there are people playing music in the streets, rousing music that makes you want to shout and stomp your feet. Huge crowds gather around, and they sing together in loud voices. Everyone seems to know the words.
* * * * *
Sunday morning. Our car pulls off the highway and into the maze that is Istanbul’s side streets. No grid exists. Just short roads plowing into one another at jaunting angles, fusing with roundabouts or obtuse intersections, flanked by stop signs and little blue arrows that point you to the correct side of the road.
The buildings rise high on either side, and the hills are steep. It is easy to lose your way when you can’t see the horizon.
On Sunday mornings there are few people out and about. The city feels deserted. Shopkeepers turn keys and raise metal gates that make a churning, grating sound as they spin. Markets wake up, and the men that run the stalls are tying canvas tent covers in place and unloading crates of fish or produce. Barrels of rice and flour are uncovered. All of this is done in near silence. Even drivers do not beep their horns at that hour. Istanbul stretches and yawns.
We walk slowly through the cold, our breath clouding up around us. The streets are wet from the last few days’ persistent rain. The city smells alternate between that of dirty water, and exhaust, and fresh winter mornings. They tell me that later in the day, when we leave, the alley will bask in the scent of baking bread.
We enter a large office building and stand in a small foyer. I wonder why we are waiting there beside the closet door but then a light comes on in the closet and they open the door and I realize it is not a closet but an elevator. We go up.
The elevator opens into a narrow hall and we walk through to a large room where forty or fifty chairs have been set up. The people in the room love each other – that much is immediately evident. They are smiling and shaking hands and hugging. It feels like a reunion of long lost friends or relatives, but these people are not related, and it’s been only a week.
It is a small church in the heart of Istanbul, and on this cold, winter morning, I am one of 5,000 Protestant Christians in a country of 70 million people.
* * * * *
I sit with a 50-year-old man and his wife, and they tell me stories of their time in Turkey, traveling the Silk Road, driving ancient paths along the Euphrates. They tell me of their work building bridges between Christians and Muslims.
In a steady voice, the man tells me the story of receiving his diagnosis: stage four liver and colon cancer. He tells me how his doctor, so upset by the MRI images, kept pacing back and forth, not wanting to give him the news.
“It’s bad!” the doctor finally cried out in Turkish, his English failing him in his anguish. He points recklessly at all of the white spots. “Look! Look! It’s very bad!”
Yet the man tells me of his hope, that his death will open the hearts of these Turkish Muslims who have become his family. He tells me how his life’s prayer to God has been a request for courage to lay down so many things, and now he is laying down his dreams of a future where he is able to see the woman his son will marry, or the way his daughter will hold her children. He lays down the dreams he had for these coming years when it would be just he and his wife at home.
And he is willing to do this thing, to die this death, for his community. For his friends.
My recorder takes in his words, and I feel like I am watching someone who knows what home feels like.