Istanbul: Fear of travel exacts a cost

“You are the first American tourists I have seen in my restaurant this year,” said Aziz, gazing across the vast plaza that stretches between Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul’s Sultanahmet district.

Assessing the restaurant from the busy street an hour earlier, we had at first considered moving along to a place more out of the tourism center. “Expensive,” we thought. “Tourist trap.”

Drawn by the promise of pomegranate juice and Turkish coffee, we sat down for beverage and wound up staying for lunch. Aziz joined us at our table. We soon began a conversation about his life in Istanbul and the lack of tourists from the US.

“Once there were many; now, it’s Russians, Chinese, and they don’t buy.”

A former antiques dealer, Aziz’s business went bankrupt in 2001, around the time his twin sons were born. So he bid to rent a government-owned restaurant location near the hectic tourism maelstrom around Hagia Sophia and opened a restaurant. Now, at 54 and with his boys 13, he lives hand to mouth.

He is eager to make a change.

Aziz answers a question as we chat in his restaurant near Istanbul's Aya Sophia.

Aziz answers a question as we chat in his restaurant near Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia.

“When my boys turn 18, I will leave Istanbul. It’s too expensive. Too many people. It is not a good life.” Sensing more challenges ahead, he’s headed away from the city; for open space, clean air, and lower costs of living. Last year the government changed the rules of his lease. Now an auction is held every year, and the space goes to the highest bidder.

“One year I am here…I can be gone the next,” he shrugs.

Life is difficult for a man dependent upon tourism. And US dollars still rule when it comes to the success of a business like his. So, where have all the Americans gone?

“Fear,” he suspects. “They are afraid to come to Istanbul.”

Fear of ISIS. Fear of Islam. Fear of unknown people serving unfamiliar food in a place far from their home. Wariness spawned by warnings of anti-Americanism sentiment, and terrorists plotting the demise of western cultures.

We’ve been to Istanbul three times, now, and have yet to experience any inkling of anti-American sentiment or threat to our safety. To the contrary; we’ve been embraced. As an experienced traveler, I’m as worried about being targeted by terrorists in Istanbul as being eaten by a monster as I stroll along the banks of Loch Ness.

We don’t ignore traveler warnings, but we’ve learned to temper them with a healthy dose of skepticism. We lived in Phnom Penh for more than three years and watched US government warnings about health concerns, general safety and civil unrest come and go while we lived perfectly peaceful lives in the city’s center. Vague, arbitrary warnings of traveler safety exact a price from people like Aziz, whose perfect English and friendly, welcoming manner created an instant connection with us.

Aziz and his staff brought us a complementary plate of fresh watermelon. They chatted with us, shared their stories and spent most of their time with our grandson Lasky, tickling him, playing with him and gently pinching his cheeks. The Turkish love children, and men disproportionately seem wired to zero in on a child and heap attention on him.

“Chirkin,” they cooed, which is “ugly” in Turkish, stroking Lasky’s feet. It’s the Turkish way of warding off the evil eye; call a child beautiful and bad luck will come calling. Call a stunning child like Lasky ugly and he will live a life free of trouble.

So, “Chirkin” it is.

Aziz asks if I have children. I point to Kirsty. He stares at me, and then speaks to my daughter:
“I think he is your brother, not your father,” he says, cementing his role as my new best friend.

This country is full of people like Aziz: warm, friendly, hospitable, open. We were humbled by their kindness, generosity and charm as we have made our way through this city and elsewhere in the country on previous visits. They compensate for our inability to speak their language by deploying at least rudimentary English. They patiently answer our questions about their mosques, their traditions, their faith. They endure our gawking and snapping of photos as they break the first night of Ramadan with a communal meal that stretched for a hundred yards or more along Istiklal Caddesi, the city’s major pedestrian shopping area, sitting next to one another on the pavement and sharing the day’s first food and drink.

Some of them invited us to join them. We politely declined. I regret that; an opportunity now lost.

Part of Istanbul’s allure is that it’s so different from what we know, along with its tastes, architecture, aromas and rich history. We chose to come here with our family and friends to celebrate our connections with one another while exploring a culture of which we knew little.

And we leave richer, fuller for the experiences; 20 people from the four corners of the earth brought to together to celebrate one another.

In coming here, we helped Aziz’s day turn a bit more prosperous.

We parted with a handshake and a hug; two strangers with starkly contrasting personal histories yet with much in common.

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