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  • Ben Stower

Life's a Shish in Istanbul

Updated: Oct 27, 2019

Istanbul is a divided city. Not only are the Asian and European parts separated literally by the Bosporus, so too are the liberal and conservative Turks voluntarily confining themselves to their own communities, shops, markets and restaurants. This seems to be promoted by the governing parties, likely, as one local put it, for political reasons. The theory she bandied about is that this distinct separation makes it easier for politicians to define and maintain their supporters. If everyone liked or wanted the same thing, it would make it much harder for politicians to campaign and instil their own agendas through manipulative messaging.

Now, this separation of communities, and cultures, inevitably diminishes the richness of Istanbul’s multicultural flair more than a first-time visitor, like myself, might recognise on the first swing. Yet I still find myself drawn to the people and enclaves around this eternally shabby and symbolic city. Shabby in its modest shanties and alfresco eateries, and symbolic in the way this seemingly unwavering line of poverty and prosperity brings forth an overarching equality that ties and binds the people together.

One such enclave is Anadolu Nargile Çorlulu Ali Paşa Medresesi, a shisha den housed within an old school on the site of an even older graveyard. Some of the graves are still here, uncaringly stacked and leaning awkwardly by the main street outside, but the school walls are now adorned in black-and-white photographs of Istanbul’s timeless and treasured past and lined with mosaic side tables and timber lounges.

Like anywhere in Istanbul, I am greeted before I even know if I want to stay. This place is different than most though, in that the hosts, all men, don’t use the genial assertiveness of their stall-holder counterparts or the restaurateurs on the streets outside. It is a nonchalant confidence, an almost expectation that you will eventually see what they see, just a little slower. That you will recognise this place as a homey centre for peaceful refuge away from the overpowering touristic presence.

No doubt I am joined by fellow foreigners here who have seen the same appeal, or perhaps something more personal, but there are also local men and women smoking the water pipes and sipping on sweet apple tea under the partially open ceiling that reveals roof vines and blue, cloud-dappled skies. The smoke lingers for a moment in the air before passing, like any stress or thoughts of the next mosque I’ve been told I “have to visit”, out the open ceiling and beyond to streets sweltering under heavy and constant footfalls.

The servers, if they can be really called that, for they too smoke occasionally from the pipes of regular, better-known customers, are at once attentive and absent in the most relaxing way. Unlike the restaurants or bars back home in Australia, where we are constantly filed in and out of booths and tables to make way for the next cheque, they seem content for me to sit until closing time, topping my shisha up with fresh coals when needed and occasionally offering apple tea when my glass runs empty.

Arriving here after exploring the Grand Bazaar feels akin to finding Central Park in the middle of New York City. While the streets outside feel busy and ever twisting and turning me into another crowd, here is reprieve, prosperity in the company of nobody and the worries of a hermit, fed, bathed and clothed for the day. Part of this feeling is the fact that after I’ve smoked and drunk to contentment, I simply walk to the man with the wallet and tell him everything I had. He asks me no follow-up questions and there are no computers with my table or exact order. He trusts me, as he does with everyone else there, to tell the truth.

In a city that, in years past, has experienced much tragedy and political turmoil, this might be its most charming feature. I’ve experienced a number of such places travelling and it seems that those who’ve been through that kind of mass devastation and upheaval come out the other side more appreciative of what they have and more open and welcoming to those who wish to experience it.

There are, of course, exceptions. Istanbul is not one of them.

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