It was the end of June and summer had only just begun. When I got off the plane, I felt as if I could breathe once more. Israel had felt so oppressive—so thick was the air, so suffocating its cities—that my heart had forgotten what it meant to be free. With hope, I believed that in Istanbul I could find the freedom I’d lost.
If I were to be honest I might tell you that I was in love with Istanbul before I even arrived. For years I had imagined myself standing in the shadows of empires and reveling in all that was, all that is, and all that will ever be. It did not mattered that when I arrived in the city I boarded the wrong bus and was dropped off miles from where I was supposed to be, because I was in Istanbul, and I was home. Eventually I found my way and rather than rushing to get to my destination I sat in the sun and ordered the first of many cups of Turkish coffee. A young man who worked at the café placed the ceramic cup between us, smiling as much with his eyes as with his lips. He smiled as if this city was the place from where joy comes. Silently, I watched the world unfold, knowing that in this moment a definitive line was drawn between past and present: there was everything before Istanbul and then there was everything after. I took one last sip from the cup and left the grinds on the bottom.
In the glory of summer I walked toward the ferry, half-skipping, half-sprinting, unable to slow my steps. The scent of the sea lingered in the air, full of salt, full of stories. Seagulls flocked along the shores, calling to one another from the heights above. From across the Marmara Sea I caught sight of the city: Hagia Sophia, the turrets of the Blue Mosque. I jumped up on a small partition wall and peered over the fence that separated where I was from where I was going and I swear, had it not been for the things in my pocket that I could not lose, I would have jumped into the Bosphorus and swam across its waters. But I did not. Instead I joined the swelling crowds as they waited for the ferry to arrive.
For my first time on this ship I went to the bow and sat on its edge. I leaned on the railings and just stared at the city. The engine rumbled as we pushed away from the dock. So much of me wanted to look back to see all that was left behind, but it seemed as if everything I ever wanted was right there in front of me.
Here, men greet one another with a clasp of the hands and an embrace. Shoulder to shoulder they stand, temples touching as they lean in closer to one another and whisper words that I do not understand. It is an intimacy from which I feel the need to turn away and yet witness at the same time. And women, some with their heads wrapped in brightly covered scarves, some with their hair flowing freely, take photographs with their children for no other reason but because the sun is shining. There is magic in the crossing of the Bosphorus. Waves rose and fell against the ship. I watched them merge and part, never knowing a sea to be this blue. It is no small wonder that the word turquoise comes from the word Turkish, as if the color itself was born from these waters alone.
From the ferry I walked to the Sultanahmet neighborhood, following the tracks of the tram around the curves of the street and up the hill as if Newton’s second law of physics applied to my feet and legs alone. The men who owned the carpet shops on both sides of the street offered me tea and dates of all varieties. Of course they were offering so much more warmth than that cup could provide and dates that might have turned out to be just pits and nothing more. But still, after traveling alone for so long I would be lying to say that the attention was not appreciated. How I do love to flirt.
It seems less people travel alone now in fear of violence, in fear of revolution, which is why, when I walked through the square where a revolution had actually almost taken place, I was surprised by the comfort I felt in this country. Especially since I had felt so uncomfortable in my own. To my right the jewel of Istanbul rose, the Blue Mosque with its six blue minarets piercing the sky. To my left: Hagia Sophia.
It was as if my whole life had been spent dreaming of this moment. I dreamt of the pink stucco walls, I dreamt of its arches and its apse, I even dreamt of the dome that stands again after falling. But I was afraid to enter this sacred space, knowing that I might never want to leave, but then again, this is what I came for. I came for this. And so I did what I always do upon entering these holy sites: I kept my head down and walked into the center of the room. Only then did I look up and like a fool I whirled around and around, spinning in my shoes and spinning in my soul, taking it all in: the latticework, the marble, the frescoes, the way the space is shared between two religions, the history, the hope. Here there are prophets. Here there is God.
When I finally stood still long enough to catch my breath, I thought that if this breath was to be my last I would not have minded, if indeed death were to come for me willingly I would be go because I would die happy. After all, happiness is like death. As with both, we do not know what awaits us on the other side.
For hours I stayed within the walls of Hagia Sophia, running my hands along the cool marble and remembering histories I had never lived. In those moments so overcome by nostalgia of the East I feared that I might never be able to return anywhere west of here again. Silently, I stood in the space between what was once and what now is, Orient and Occident, the twenty-first century and all of the centuries before it. How does one leave when it feels as if it is only now that one has just arrived? But eventually I did, and I wandered again through the city, turning down streets without names, getting lost, and getting found, for there was nowhere for me to go, there was nowhere for me to be.
In the lateness of the afternoon I sat between the two mosques waiting for what will always be my favorite part of day: the call to prayer. And when it came it came from Hagia Sophia, it came from the Blue Mosque, it came from all of the three thousand one-hundred and thirteen mosques around me, and for the briefest of moments I didn’t know whether I was in Istanbul or heaven, or maybe it was only that this was heaven.
After only being in Istanbul for a few hours, I had already grown used to the way men called to me from their carpet shops as I walked down the street. These men spoke as if knowing me was an inevitability, a fate that could not be avoided. It happened so often that I knew better than to think it was actually because they wanted my attention, instead all they desired was to sell their carpets that were stocked inside. It would be lie if I told you that I did not like the attention of these handsome and determined men, as truth be told I find tenacity to be one of the most admirable traits.
After the ringing of the bells I felt like being bothered. And so I collected my bags and wandered away from the park and up the streets of the city. Less than one hundred meters later the bothering began. He saw me long before I saw him. He was tallish, dark hair and skin, an almost handsome man. He came close as he spoke and for the first time in a long time I welcomed a man into my space without cringing, without recoiling back. So mistrustful had I become, so apprehensive of these interactions that I despaired that I might never enter another relationship again in fear of another broken heart. And yet he persisted. “Is two hours enough?”
I laughed as he said it, which only made him lean in closer and ask again. In that moment I did not care how many times he had used this line on other women. Twice was enough for me. As much as I like to pretend that I don't, I have always appreciated a man who knows how to speak to a woman, however inappropriately.
In our first two hours together we went for tea, sitting close to one another at a table that overlooked the heart of the city. On the street below people came and went. Hustling here. Bustling there. He told me of his life before Istanbul and I told him of mine. As promised we stayed together for two hours. Apparently it was not enough.
Just days later we went out on a midnight date; a dinner so late no one else was there. We shared a bottle of wine, as soft and light in the body as it was on the tongue. Soon a whole fish arrived at our table and we pulled it apart with our fingers and let the juice run down our wrists. This meal was not clean, but then again nothing ever is.
He left his cigarettes on the table between us, the lighter placed on top. I took one from the pack and lit it, watching the of smoke rise up and then disappear all the while thinking that this is not good for me, none of this is good for me.
And still, we continued to share our days together drinking coffee in the afternoon, beer in the evening, and smoking cigarettes well into the night. We went shopping. He bought me a dress. It was pink with an empire waste and pockets that I could put my hands in as I walked along the streets of this city. I was so in love with this dress that I wore it everyday. It reminded me of summer. It reminded me of Istanbul.
In Taxim Square he fed me mussels stuffed with rice and doused in lemon that we bought on the side of the road at 3 am, sliding them off the shell and into my mouth never waiting me to finish the first before offering another and another. Often, we stayed awake until sunrise, until the first call to prayer broke the silence of the night and in the morning I left him and returned across the azure sea.
Thereafter, these were my days: morning runs along the Marmara followed by bold cups of Turkish coffee, and the writing of every memory, every word. When my hand grew tired and my feet grew restless I walked in all directions hoping to get lost, even though there is no getting lost in Istanbul. There is only discovering what you might have missed had you not made the wrong turn.
I don’t recall the name of the street where I stayed in Istanbul; I cannot tell you of unnecessary things that will only fade from my memory. But I can tell you how close it was to the sea and some of the names of the ships that were anchored in its harbor. I can tell you how gulls cried out for no other reason than to say this is where we belong and what the end of June felt like along the shores of Anatolia. I can also tell you what it was like to walk in a city of twenty-four million: slowly, like a ghost, like a woman left alone with the world. Witnessing, but unwitnessed. Not from around here, but here all around me. I can tell you what this felt like: it felt like home.
This is how I fell in love with Istanbul: one step at a time. Never before had a city stolen my heart and I was not in want of it back anytime soon.
Days passed and yet there were things of which I never tired, like the crossing of the Bosphorus. But it was only my body that stayed on the bow of the ship. My heart, audacious as always, would leap across the sea and I spent what remained of my days trying to find it. .
Even though I traveled alone, I was never lonely. I felt so immersed in the world that loneliness had ceased to exist. So palpable was the fever of Istanbul, so fierce the fire in the hearts of the Turks that I was left with no choice but to need to be a part of it. It seemed as if Istanbul, conquered as it was in 1453, has been conquering hearts ever since.
And it was on this ferry, in the trading of one continent for another, where it was felt the most. I could not help but be swept away by a collective joy, as if all of us who shared in this journey from one side of the world to the other knew that for these moments, suspended as we were between all that is fluid, we were all part of something greater than ourselves.
And to be made witness to the devastating beauty of human nature is to be able to temporarily forget everything to the contrary. Here was beauty. Here was hope. Sometime after noon the call to prayer came rising over the sound of the engine that carried me across the Bosphorus. Since arriving these calls had become my favorite hours in which time both stands still and an eternity is passed. Most days I found myself leaning out of windows or against the rails of the ship, resting my chin on the tops of my hands and allowing the wind to pass through me, thinking only of this: if there was a sound made by peace, then surely this would be what it would sound like. At least for me. At least for these moments.
I closed my eyes and opened them and closed them again in an attempt to distinguish what was real and what was a dream. Somewhere in the middle of this closing and opening I stopped and allowed myself to experience a beauty that I have never experienced until now and in my heart I know that this is as close to the truth as I will ever come; a truth that cries out like the wind, like these prayers across the water:
You will pass this way only once. Only once. Only once. So keep your eyes open. Keep your heart open. This is how the light comes in.
Another day I walked through the streets of Chalcedon, eating a fish sandwich from a paper wrapper and barely whispering a word. The sun sank into the earth and I sat in silence, waiting once again for peace to come. Islam regards the setting of the sun as the beginning, and not the end, of a new day. These are called the Gurubi hours, longer than all other hours of the day. Long enough to remember. Long enough to never forget. And as one mosque called to the other, I've come to realize that these too, are prayers.
When darkness flowed like a river, I took the last of the ferries across the sea. It departed at midnight. As always, I climbed up the stairs and sat at the bow of the ship remembering that some of us wait all of the year, sometimes all of our lives for a summer night such as this.
That night, happiness was a stranger with a guitar and all of the strangers who sang with him the songs of their country. Happiness was the lights of the city fading across the river. And finally, happiness was men holding hands as they danced their midnight dabke dance, as a woman sang in the center and a crowd gathered begging for more.
By now I know better than to hold back the tears that swelled in my eyes and I welcomed this emotion, not for the first time on this journey, but for one of the first times in my life. When the flood comes, it rains down upon me a happiness that I never allowed myself to feel until this moment. Never have I felt anything like this before and I fear that I will never feel anything like it again.
I could not help but think how strange it was that only now, with my youth behind me, that I had allowed myself to experience such bliss. Everything else before this was only hindered joy. But maybe it is because I experienced the whole of my youth full of mistakes and stumblings that I can let go. There is no longer any need to hold on. And for those hours I was happy, truly unbelievably happy. And while I knew that this happiness would not always last, I also knew that such happiness was possible.
The thing is, we need not cross-continents in search of happiness. For it may not be found on the other side. Like these ferry rides, we go back and forth between one side and the other. But it is never about being on one side or another. The beauty is found in between. And when my mother calls the next day to ask me how I am, I tell her that I am happy. And if I close my eyes and I pretend I am back in Istanbul, I am happy. In Istanbul I was happy.
Here, in June, orange has become my favorite color: Orange like the rising of your sun in an east so near and the color of your sunset in a west so far. Orange like the color of your thunder moon over the Marmara. Orange like the terracotta tiles that shelter your city from storms and from darkness. Orange like the flesh of peaches and the skins of apricots. Orange like the ends of cigarettes burning like copper, like rust in the earliest hours of the morning and the darkest hours of night and all of the hours in between. Orange has become my favorite color because it is the color of heat, it is the color of summer, it is the color of you.
Looking back, I wonder if I will remember all of this like a dream where everything is always in its beginnings and nothing, not even summer, comes to an end. I wonder how it is that could I leave a place in which happiness did not exist for me until I got here. But I am not here to look back. I am here to move forward, toward a future that will one day also become my past.
I will always remember my first coffee in this city. I will remember the ceramic cup in which it was served with blues more blue than the Bosphorus laced with red and white and a handle so delicate that I had to lift it up from its rim in fear of shattering its beauty. I will remember the flakes of coconut that fell from that first Turkish Delight onto the saucer that matched this cup and the sweetness that it contained. If I close my eyes I can still taste this coffee on my tongue: strong and bitter and almost as hot as the sun that shone without clouds in the sky. I can still hear the language of the land being spoken all around me and the call to prayer that echoed from Asia to Europe and back again across the sea and across my soul, which until this moment had never before known this kind of peace. I remember how I stood still and listened and had to remind myself to breathe, for in these moments my very breath had been taken from me, every other emotion but happiness had been taken from me and I wanted none of them back. Just this. Just happiness.
Seni seviyorum. Seni her zaman seveceğim. Always.
Briana Gervat graduated from the Savannah College of Art and Design in 2014 with an M.A. in Art History. She then spent time traveling the world before returning to the United States and turning all of her attention to writing. Her memoir, Mosaic, was self-published in 2017.