Islam in the Balkans

We didn’t really set out to travel at all in the Balkans. Outside of southern Spain, for its historical importance as a major outpost of Islamic culture, Europe was not to play a big role in our trip. But as it turned out, the cheapest flight from Europe to Dakar departed from Milan, and we figured, what better way to get from Istanbul to Milan than by train? And so, through Sofia (Bulgaria), Belgrade (Serbia), Sarajevo (Bosnia and Hercegovina), Zagreb (Croatia), Ljubljana (Slovenia) and Venice (Italy) we traveled to Milan, mostly on overnight trains.

In keeping with the theme of our year’s travels, we thought that we would use this opportunity to seek out historical and current Islam and Islamic culture in the Balkans. I knew that some of the countries in the Balkans had substantial Muslim populations (and detoured to Sarajevo to visit Bosnia in particular, post to come), but did not know how much Islamic influence we would see generally in the region. Given how extremely brief and superficial our travels in the region were, I was surprised to so easily find substantial remnants of Islam in the Balkans.

Islam came to the Balkans through the Ottoman Empire’s advances in the 15th century. From then until the 19th century, much of the Balkan peninsula was a part of that Turkish Muslim empire, and therefore subject to Turkish cultural and religious influence, as well as Turkish migration. We first saw evidence of the Ottoman and Turkish presence in the Balkans before we even left Turkey, at the Balkan Turks Foundation on Istanbul’s Divan Yolu (the sort of “main street” of the historical part of Istanbul), a cultural foundation similar to the East Turkistan Foundation for western China (see post of 11.05). It is unclear to me how many Turkish speakers remain in the Balkan countries now–given that some seem to have moved to Turkey–but in the period of Turkish advance before and during Ottoman rule, Turks must have moved into the Balkan peninsula just as they moved into Cyprus (see post of 10.27). Ataturk himself (see post of 11.02) was born in now Greece.

But Islam in the Balkans was not just a matter of Turkish-speaking Muslim migrants into the region, which seems to have been the primary phenomenon in Cyprus, but also of the gradual conversion of local populations. Just as there may not be any “Mughals” left in South Asia, but hundreds of millions of Muslims, there are far more Muslims in the Balkans than people of Turkish descent. As in other regions controlled by Islamic rulers, there was to some extent conversion in the local, originally non-Muslim population. There is one question, I have, however, about the spread of Islam in the Balkans, and that is why the Muslim populations seem so geographically concentrated today, in the more heavily Muslim republics of the Western Balkans (further from Turkey than the overwhelmingly Christian Eastern Balkans). I know that some of this has been exaggerated by recent conflicts, but it seems that the penetration of Islam was in fact greater in the west, perhaps due to greater/more direct/longer imperial presence/control in those regions. I would certainly appreciate clarification on this point from my readers!

Some photos and thoughts tracing Islam in the Balkans, from Bulgaria to Slovenia.

Ottoman-era mosque, Sofia, Bulgaria. The Banya Bashi Mosque, located a couple blocks away from the Sofia Synagogue, was built by none other than Sinan, the Ottoman Empire’s greatest architect, in the 16th century. Bulgaria is one of two European countries bordering Turkey, but it is, as is Greece (and, to the north, Romania), overwhelmingly Christian, despite nearly five centuries under Ottoman rule. The mosque seemed primarily for use by the Turkish minority (around 10% of the total population of Bulgaria) and perhaps Turks in transit, as it had Turkish language signs and prayer timetables in Turkish.

Bayrakli Mosque, Belgrade, Serbia. The Serbs, who have pride of place as a nation that engaged in a horrific ethnic cleansing campaign in such recent history (though some of the glory should be shared with Greek volunteers who took part in some of the worst atrocities), destroyed most of Belgrade’s at one time many mosques during the 1990s conflicts. Perhaps the current authorities believe that there is still a possibility of anti-Muslim mob violence, as this mosque had its own police box. The only other conspicuously Ottoman building we saw in Belgrade was a tomb of a pasha inside Kalemegdan Citadel. Much more so, modern Serbia identifies itself as a part of the Slavic world, with two of downtown’s most prominent landmarks being the Moscow Hotel and the Russian Tsar Restaurant (see Derek’s post of 11.12).

Bosnia and Hercegovina, despite very significant Christian populations (particularly in the semi-autonomous breakaway Republika Srpska), is very much a part of the Islamic world, and the most significant and northwesternmost bastion of Islam (if one does not count the large Muslim minorities within Western Europe). I will cover our visit to Sarajevo in a separate post to come.

Slovenia. Once you head into Croatia and Slovenia you leave the former Ottoman Empire for the former Austro-Hungarian, and traces of Islam disappear quickly. One small and depressing anecdote, however. Slovenia is by far the most financially successful of the former Yugoslav republics, now not only a member of the European Union but within the Eurozone as well. Slovenes are wealthy enough to be members of the international backpacker fraternity (we’ve run into them in Ethiopia and Kenya), and Ljubljana has a first world sheen that, say, Sarajevo does not. I asked a Slovene in Ljubljana what accounted for his nation’s success, and was told that the area that is now Slovenia has always been economically more developed than the rest of the former Yugoslavia, and as a sovereign state Slovenia was able to take better advantage of this lead. Another factor, I was told, was that the “southern people” of the other Yugoslav republics had a different mentality, in part because there were “many Muslims” and they “think differently” and were lazy and didn’t want to work. I had thought that Slovenes deserved credit for somehow staying out of the fray of the wars that entangled the other former Yugoslav republics, that Slovenes were perhaps less likely to think the sort of dangerous ethnic nationalism that their neighbors to the south seemed enamored with. Perhaps I was wrong.o

Food in Turkey

To start the day, the Turkish breakfast. Breakfast is usually included with the room rate in Turkish hotels–this one is a particularly fine spread. Almost always provided are boiled eggs, some sort of processed meat product (the one pictured is quite common), cheese (not usually four different kinds, as pictured), olives, cucumbers and tomatoes, and butter, jam and honey. All is eaten with bread (not pictured).

Another way to start the day, a pretzel-like bread called simit, often sold on the street.

A third way to start the day, and perhaps the tastiest: the borek. Most often filled with egg, spinach or cheese, the layers of cooked dough end up having a consistency more similar to egg noodles than to flaky pastry, which somehow makes it all the more delicious. Here, behind a glass of tea in a traditional Turkish tea glass.

For lunch (or dinner), what you eat will often depend on the kind of restaurant you go to. Three common choices: a pide salonu, a kebap salonu or a lokanta.

At the first, you will be served pide, which is described fairly as Turkish pizza. Pide is shaped like a flat football, made to order and generally quite cheap and tasty.

More common than the pide salonu is the kebap salonu. Kebap in Turkey comes in numerous forms, suggesting to me that the country is in fact the origin of that category of food. Far from kebap fatigue, which some travelers develop, I found myself gaining a greater and greater affinity to the food, including especially…

The doner kebap. Possibly the single greatest export of Turkish cuisine, the doner kebap, eaten as a sandwich or on a plate, is also one of the most common foods in Turkey. I want to note that Turks still cut their doner using real knives, as Syrians and Jordanians do with their shawarma, which I believe is the only way that the chef can properly select the most optimally cooked segments. Shame on you, Palestinians, for using an electric shaving carver! What laziness!!

It also comes in chicken, the tavuk doner.

One important variant of doner on a plate is the Iskender kebap, otherwise known as Paul’s favorite Turkish dish. Iskender is doner with tomato sauce and yoghurt, served over a plate of chunks of bread. The bread soaks up the greasy, creamy, tomato-y sauce–yummy!

Other kebaps are cooked on individual skewers. Kebaps made of chunks of meat, as opposed to the more common kebaps made of ground meat, are generally called shish.

Chicken shish sandwich. As with (other) middle eastern cuisines, ordering kebap in sandwich form costs a fraction of what appears to be the same components–the meat, salad and bread–laid out separately on a plate. This sandwich/platter price disparity mystery lives on in middle eastern restaurants in the United States, although to a lesser extent.

The Adana kebap is perhaps the kebap most similar to the Iranian kubideh, although the seasoning is in fact different, as an Iranian-American friend of mine commented on an earlier post (see post of 5.25).

Kofte is a general name for kebap made with ground meat. Izgara kofte, shaped like half smoked cigars (or meat turds, as we called them), is one of its most common forms.

You can also add some vegetables to the mix, as we in non-Turkey are fond of doing with our shish kebabs. Here, mantarli kebap with mushrooms, served at a rather good Ankara restaurant.

Kokorec is frequently spotted rotating on sidewalk grills. It smells inviting–surprisingly like grilled pork–but is made of sheep guts. As I’m just not that into innards, as food goes, I haven’t tried it.

The third category of restaurant, in my lunch list, is the lokanta, which is what I like to call a “bin food restaurant.” I hold bin food restaurants, any doubts about food safety notwithstanding, to be among the traveler’s greatest friends, for they offer those unfamiliar with a cuisine the opportunity to try a wide variety of dishes, with no ordering difficulties. In Turkey and in other countries as well, bin food restaurants also offer great variety, including home-style cooking that is usually unavailable in other types of restaurants (particularly upmarket ones that specialize in grilled meat). Caribbean and Mexican bin food restaurants are among our favorite restaurants back in New York. There is one caveat, however, about Turkish lokantas–while bin food restaurants in other countries are often quite cheap, your bill at a Turkish lokanta, especially if you want to try many dishes (portions can be small), will likely end up being quite a bit higher than if you had just eaten kebap.

An Istanbul special: the fish sandwich, prepared on the shores of the Golden Horn.

The most Turkish beverage is of course chay, served in tulip-shaped glasses. Tea is drunk sweet with plenty of sugar.

The second most Turkish drink, ayran. Whatever Derek may say about ayran being more a sauce than a beverage, it is one of my favorites, and it indisputably goes great with kebap. A particularly frothy, freshly-made version–more common is factory-produced ayran in plastic containers.

Some Turkish desserts:

My favorite Turkish dessert, indeed one of my favorite desserts of any cuisine, firin sutlac. Firin sutlac is like rice pudding (more pudding than rice) baked in an oven and then cooled, so that it develops a delicious tough caramel-y skin on top. The Turks and the Indians tie for first place, in my opinion, in rice puddings. This sutlac is from Ozsut, a coffee and desserts chain in Turkey.

The most famous Turkish desert, baklava. Who knows whether baklava is originally Turkish, or Greek, or Syrian/Lebanese? Best when dripping with syrup.

Turkish delight, or lokum, at Ali Muhiddin Haci Bekir, the Istanbul shop that invented it.

Ashure, or Noah’s pudding, of oh-so-many ingredients

Sahlep was one of the great discoveries of our first Turkey trip, and it remains one of our favorites. Although a bit expensive at Mado (first picture below), this cinnamon-ny, super-thick milky “drink” is wonderful in winter (playing the same role as hot chocolate or egg nog). In the second picture below, an itinerant sahlep vendor at the old book bazaar near the Grand Bazaar.

I must admit that I’ve left an entire category of Turkish meal, the meze meal, out of this post, mainly because meze are usually eaten at night, in challenging photography conditions. The meze culture of Turkey is similar to that of Greece or Syria/Lebanon (see post of 4.27), although the dishes themselves vary some. In our 2001 trip to Turkey, we had great difficulty understanding how a meze meal worked–how much cold meze (usually brought out to you on a platter) to select and eat, if and when to order how much hot meze, and if and when to order grill items after the meze. Almost all that we knew for sure was that meze was usually accompanied by raki, the national anise-flavored liqueur, which should be cut with water to produce its cloudy form. I have since 2001 had the Turkish meze meal explained to me: Eat as much cold meze (salads, pickles, etc.) as you’d like, usually with raki. The cold meze phase of the meal, with conversation and drinking, can take a great deal of time, and it’s not essential to have hot meze at all, or even to get to main courses. And whatever you do, there’s no real reason to sweat it, as the meal is not so ritualized that you can somehow commit a faux pas.

Reuse of Religious Sites

Another nice thing about traveling to so many places, especially within a reasonably condensed timeframe, is that you can easily recognize phenomena that recur in diverse settings and compare their manifestations. One such common phenomenon is the co-opting of places of worship for one religion by another (usually newer) religion, or, more simply put, the reuse of religious sites.

Examples are legion. Among the most famous that you may be aware of is the Pantheon in Rome, a Roman pagan temple that was turned into a Christian church in the 7th century, one of several such conversions in Rome. One of the single most contentious pieces of real estate in the world is Jerusalem’s Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount, the site of the Muslim Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa Mosque and formerly the site of the First and Second Temples of the Jewish faith. The most holy site of Islamic worship, the Kaaba in Mecca, used to be an ancient pagan shrine (and is believed to be built around a meteorite rock). An example familiar to the New Yorkers among you may be the Christian use of the Temple of Dendur, a Roman-era Egyptian temple which found its way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when its home on the Nile was to be flooded by a new dam. An Asian example would be the temples of Angkor, which were alternatively Buddhist and Hindu depending on the religion of the reigning power.

Why were all of these sites and buildings, and so many others, reused? Well, the sites were probably reused because places of worship are often built at meaningful or strategic locations, such as city centers and hilltops. After a conquest or upon conversion of a population, the powers that be of the ascendant religion probably felt that the location occupied by the older faith was too prime, and that to establish the prestige of the newer faith it must take up that particular space. Or, even if location was not a consideration, perhaps the new religion reused the site because it wanted to reuse the building. Why adopt an existing building instead of building something new? I suppose there are two main reasons for this. The first is simply pragmatic. Places of worship are often built with heavy stones at enormous cost. To destroy an existing edifice and to rebuild in even a shade of its former self (certainly it would not do to have the new structure, presumably for a religion that is coming into greater favor, pale in comparison to the old) may be beyond the financial or technological means of those of the newer faith. Second, and perhaps a more generous reading, is that the newer religion views the old site and structure as having some sort of special, mystical quality to it. In some cases, as with the transition from Judaism to Christianity or either to Islam, sites retain their significance because the newer religion incorporates, to a certain extent, existing stories and beliefs. But even in other cases, such as the leap from the Roman pagan religion to Christianity, there is superstitious value, credibility and prestige attached to existing places of worship. Even if the talismanic value is simply limited to the reminder that the new religion defeated the old, the purported reason that an obelisk stands in the middle of St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, the reuse has purpose and value.

Whatever the reasons, reused religious sites are incredibly helpful to an understanding of the history of a place because they establish, visually, the pattern of conquest of a given location, or the adoption of faith and conversion of a given population. The reused religious sites become tangible markers of some of the greatest conflicts or social transformations in history, whether, in the case of the Pantheon, the adoption of the Christian faith by the Roman Empire or, in the case of the Haram ash-Sharif or Temple Mount, the many changes of hands of the city of Jerusalem.

Our trip this year could be said to be a celebration or study of a single historical movement, the spread of Islam from the time of Mohammed to the present. Traveling through so much of the Islamic world has given us an experience mirroring in some ways the journey of the religion itself, from the Arabian desert outward. One common observation on the expansion of Islam is that it happened incredibly rapidly. Compared to, say, Christianity, which had to survive in secret for hundreds of years after the death of Christ before official recognition by the Roman Empire, the military conquests of the just-enlightened Arabs came extremely quickly, streaming out of Mecca and Medina in the seventh century to spread from Andalusia to Afghanistan by the eighth century. As quick as the Arab conquests were, however, the actual spread of Arab culture among and adoption of the Islamic faith by the peoples living in those territories, as well as the spread of the religion beyond those lands, has been a gradual process that is ongoing today. The religion’s expansion is still very much active, the Islamic faith having traveled deeper west into Europe, further south in West and East Africa, and outward east in Indonesia, since the travels of ibn Battuta in the 14th century.

Islam’s expansion has not come at no cost to other religions, given that currently Islamic societies previously had other beliefs, just as the Roman empire was pagan before it was Christian. In the Middle East, the arrival of Islam has largely meant a transformation from Christian into Muslim. The Levant, Jesus’s home and a homeland for the Christian church itself (see posts of 4.21 and 4.23), is now largely Muslim, save certain enclaves (see, e.g., post of 5.22). Coptic Egypt, the birthplace of Christian monasticism, has faded to a small minority in an increasingly Islamic population, though in the case of Nubia Christianity was dominant as recently as the 14th century (see post of 10.01). The capital of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire itself, Constantinople, was conquered by the Turks in 1453 to become an Islamic city and for centuries served as the great capital of the Ottoman Empire, which reached even further into Christian southeastern Europe before its collapse in the early twentieth century.

As with other religions before it, Islam too has reused existing religious sites, and, for the Middle East portion of our trip, the three most memorable reused religious sites are churches-turned-mosques, reflecting the religious history of the region: the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, the Ayasofya of Istanbul and the Selimiye Mosque of Cyprus.

Umayyad Mosque, Damascus

During the expansion of the Christian faith, it was of course the Christians who were adopting existing (pagan) religious sites for their own use. The list of such reused buildings and sites are too numerous to list, but include the Pantheon in Rome, and temples at Baalbek and Palmyra among the sites we have visited this year. In some cases, such as at Baalbek, the Christians used the existing pagan structures as a sort of quarry and foundation, rebuilding on the site using the pre-fabricated masonry at hand; in others, such as the Pantheon, things were pretty much left in place, a new altar and cross to designate the new faith.

Damascus was always a great city, going back far earlier than the life of St. Paul, and when the Christian faith came into power, the Christians converted the principal religious site of the city, the Temple of Jupiter, into their own house of worship. The Church of St. John the Baptist in the heart of the Old City of Damascus was probably among the greatest of these “new” churches of the Byzantine Empire.

The Roman colonnade leading to the old temple, still very much in place

The Christians reused not only the site itself, but many of the stones and columns of the old temple.

But the Christians were not to have the last word. After the Arab conquest swept through Damascus in the seventh century, and the new Umayyad caliphs wanted to make their architectural statement on their new capital of the Arab empire, they chose the most obvious site in the city, the site of the old Temple of Jupiter and the Church of St. John the Baptist, for their great mosque. It is said that the rights to the site were negotiated with the Christians of the city; no doubt the parties’ relative positions of power factored heavily into the balance. It is disputed to what extent the Umayyads kept the structure of the Christian church and to what extent the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus was itself largely a new construction on the same site. However, all concede that the new mosque, if not a strict conversion of an existing building, was built with a great deal of influence from Byzantine Christian religious architecture, and certainly reused some of the very pieces of the old church. The Umayyad Mosque was one of the first great architectural statements of the Islamic faith, and so it might be said that through this building Islamic architecture as a whole owes quite a debt to Christian religious architecture (which in turn owes a debt to pagan religious architecture).

Main prayer hall, which resembles the nave of a church. The shrine in the middle is said to house the head of John the Baptist, the namesake of the old church. Muslims, who accept to an extent the stories and teachings of the New Testament, believe in the holiness of both John the Baptist and Jesus (for whom a minaret at the Umayyad Mosque is named).

In Greek, the language of the eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, an inscription of Psalm 145 reads, ironically, “Your Kingdom, Christ, is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations.” This doorway is on the south side of the mosque, the side on which the Umayyads built their (non-extant) palace.

Byzantine statuary incorporated into the outside wall of the mosque. One Damascus resident whom we met suggested that this was a statue of Christ–likely not, but it was certainly part of the former Christian church (and in turn possibly lifted from its pagan predecessor).

Ayasofya, Istanbul

Although the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus may be the earliest great example of a Christian church to Islamic mosque conversion, it is by no means the most famous: that title certainly goes to the Haghia Sophia or Ayasofya in Istanbul, Turkey.

The Church of Holy Wisdom or Haghia Sophia was built in the 6th c. AD by Byzantine Emperor Justinian, who remarked at its completion that he had in fact constructed the greatest building ever built. And even today, his statement seems a plausible boast–in the sheer scale of its massive dome, not to mention the art that remains on its walls even today, the Ayasofya is with few equals, anywhere in the world, for houses of worship or for buildings of any kind.

Justinian presents the Haghia Sophia to the Virgin Mary, left.

The Haghia Sophia suffered much damage over the years, including in the Fourth Crusade, a savage looting of Constantinople by Western Europeans, but finally met its greatest transformation after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth century, after which Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer ordered the conversion of the Haghia Sophia into a mosque, making modifications such as the addition of minarets and a mihrab.

Quranic script medallions inside the great dome

But the conversion was far from a stripping of the building’s Christian history. The new inhabitants generally covered up rather than destroyed much of the great Christian art within the church, and even left some of it in plain sight. Twentieth century restorations have brought some of the covered art back into light.

Crosses are still very much visible, erased but not all that effectively or wholeheartedly.

Virgin Mary with Christ on upper left, Arabic script on lower right.

Just as the pagan Roman basilica became a model for Christian churches to come, the Ayasofya became a model for Turkish mosques, with many Istanbul structures mimicking the Ayasofya. Given the centrality of Istanbul and Turkey to Islamic architecture generally, and the construction of Turkish-style mosques in other parts of the world, the Ayasofya, like the Umayyad Mosque, can be said to have acted as a conduit for bringing Byzantine Christian architectural traditions into the Islamic world.

The Blue Mosque, completed in 1616, on right, Ayasofya on left

The Ayasofya, converted into a museum by Ataturk, still draws Christian pilgrims.

Selimiye Mosque, Cyprus

As significant as the Haghia Sophia/Ayasofya is in the history of the Byzantine Empire and Istanbul, and its status as perhaps the most historically monumental reuse of a religious building, it is not the most striking mosque-to-church conversion that we ran across on our trip. For sheer transparency of conversion, the Selimiye Mosque in Nicosia, North Cyprus, is hard to beat–no other place of worship I have ever seen looks so much like the very form of a place of worship of another faith.

The building now known as the Selimiye Mosque started its life, as is quite obviously apparent, as a Christian church, more specifically a Gothic Roman Catholic cathedral during the 13th-15th century Lusignan reign of Cyprus. After the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus in the 16th century, the cathedral was turned into a mosque. But, as you can see, apparently little other than construction of minarets, a paint job and the addition of a mihrab were effected–the building is very much a Gothic cathedral in form.




At the lower left, note the “re-orienting” of the church toward Mecca, effected by the construction of somewhat odd raised, offset platforms. While the nave still stubbornly points east, worshippers face south-southeast, the direction of Mecca, or qibla, from Cyprus.

Faces of Turkey

Man fishing, Galata Bridge, Istanbul

Not much to say in this post, except that perhaps another “Turkic trait” (see post of 11.05) is that Turks like to have their pictures taken. This goes especially for the men, but to some extent even for Turkish women, whose Islamic sense of modesty does not seem to reach as far as their Arab sisters. I chalk this up not only to an eagerness to be accommodating (especially to a foreign tourist) but perhaps also a little bit of vanity–from Istanbul to Tashkent, Turks love to see themselves on that little LCD screen, and then pose endlessly, drawing into the frame their family members and neighbors. We thank them heartily for their cooperation!

Two children from Northern Cyprus in school uniform

Children, Sultanhani, Turkey

A couple ladies, from Ankara and Istanbul. Both of these women happen to be wearing headscarves, but that is far from typical in less traditional parts of the country, such as Istanbul.

Young boys, Istanbul. The second boy is actually an Uzbek, from Uzbekistan, now a resident of Istanbul’s Kumkapi neighborhood (see post of 11.08).

Some young men. The first, as well as the man pictured first in this post, shows the surprisingly fair coloration that some Turks have; the third reminded us physically of someone one might meet in Tajikistan or Pakistan’s Hunza Valley; and the fifth is simply too good-looking to be selling fish sandwiches, even if in highly visible Eminonu, Istanbul.




Middle aged and older.


Iran to Sweden

It being our second visit of reasonably good length to the city of Istanbul, and as long-term travelers perhaps not as energetic in re-visiting all of the typical sights, we thought that we would make our way to an Istanbul neighborhood described in the Lonely Planet as being the staging post for tens of thousands of migrants and refugees from points east looking to go to points west, a key stop on a modern day underground railroad for those trying to escape persecution or simply looking for opportunity not offered in their homeland. Such migrant ghettos have intrigued me for a while, and I had no doubt that Istanbul’s Kumkapi neighborhood would be an uncommonly interesting place, with its diversity of ethnic makeup and the transitory nature of its population. But I did not expect from our visit the richness of the experience that we ended up having.

I timed our visit with market day, and produce and other goods filled the streets. While most of the vendors and customers were Turkish, we saw in the mix children from Uzbekistan and young men from various African countries. Stores advertised passenger and freight services to Russia and the Ukraine. We had a light snack at a local lokanta and walked through the market, taking pictures as we have in so many others this year.

Phone centers hint at the national origins of Kumkapi’s diverse residents.

But our Kumkapi experience was to be much more personal. It was about lunchtime when, while snapping some pictures of a vegetable vendor, we exchanged a few words with a gentle Asiatic-looking man in his late 20s or early 30s who spoke a fair amount of English. This smaller man was with a much heartier western-looking man of similar age and an older western-looking man. The three spoke to each other in a common tongue, Farsi, giving away their national and ethnic origins, as the three confirmed to us in our brief conversation. The smaller man was Hazara Afghan, but from Iran, while the other two were Iranians (though of Turkic descent, it turned out). They were an unlikely threesome, and after we heard a little about what each was up to in Istanbul, we could hardly resist when they invited us for lunch.

We followed them to their cheap pension a few blocks away, six beds to a room but comfortable enough. For lunch the five of us shared a pot of ghormeh sabzi packed in from Iran by the elder and a couple chickens bought from across the street, together with rice and a thin Afghan-style bread. They gave us the choicest meat and kept our glasses full of soda, treating us as guests in their room despite the fact that we were all travelers away from home. As we ate, they told us their stories.

We learned that the younger Iranian had been living in Istanbul for two months, seemingly a libertine escape from his unemployed and dull existence back home. He is in his mid-twenties, but looks a bit older, as Iranians often do. His father had come to Istanbul to retrieve him, not only dismayed by his son’s phone calls for more money but to ease the concerns of the mother, who was crying for her son to return home. The father was concerned, too, at his son’s apparent lack of maturity–“No wife, no job!” he said, shrugging–but did not seem disapproving of his son’s lifestyle in Istanbul, which evidently revolved around women and alcohol. The father was no fan of the Islamic Revolution, frequently interrupting himself mid-sentence with a heartfelt “goddamn Iran,” and saw no harm in his enjoying a beer or two (or, for that matter, his son’s seeing a prostitute or two) while in Turkey. “No beer, no whorehouse, Iran is very bad. Goddamn Iran! Goddam Iran!” he told us, shaking his head.

But more interesting than the story of the prodigal son and the liberal father was the story of the Afghan. But perhaps even to refer to him as an Afghan is misleading. Like so many people of Afghan descent living in Iran, Iran is the only home he has ever known–his family left war-torn Afghanistan when he was still a baby. Like other Afghan refugees in Iran, his family has lived very much among the Iranians, after all speaking a similar native tongue, but never became fully integrated, instead suffering much discrimination at both personal and official levels. Finally having had enough, and after some legal troubles arising from an interview he gave to a reporter, the Afghan decided to leave, parting with his elderly father and the only home he knows in order to find a better life in Europe. His model, a nephew who made it to Sweden and was living happily there.

Of course, and it was with some shame and a sense of helplessness that he acknowledged it to us, his journey is not “legal.” From Iran he paid $1300 to be smuggled across the border, in a truck full of other Afghan refugees, and the use of a fake passport (or rather a real passport but with his picture tampered into it), complete with Turkish entry stamp, to use in Turkey (the passport eventually had to be returned, presumably to be used over and over). He left Iran a month ago–the first time in his life. From Turkey he would go by fishing boat to Greece, then from Greece to Italy, then from Italy to France, and eventually hopefully to freedom and documents in Sweden. He didn’t want to break the law but felt he had no choice, no chance for a life in Iran, especially after his run-in with the Iranian authorities (an event that might help him qualify for asylum somewhere, I imagine). He was clearly bright, educated and proficient in English–no doubt a productive citizen for any country that would accept him. But first he had to get there.

After lunch we left the pension and walked south to the coast, stopping by at a store to pick up a few tall cans of Efes Xtra beer (none for the Afghan, who doesn’t drink), which we sipped while watching the sun go down on the Sea of Marmara. Derek took some pictures of some hefty giggling Sudanese ladies exercising on the playground equipment nearby. The night was getting chilly, and the Iranian son insisted I wear his sports coat.

We talked about our experiences traveling in Iran and other parts of the Islamic world. When we mentioned the Iranian pilgrims in Damascus, the father explained that there were two kinds of Iranians, those who traveled to Syria for pilgrimage and those who traveled to Turkey for alcohol and sex. The father thought (as we heard so often in Iran) that the whole of Iran was clinically depressed, and he looked forward to eventually retiring, selling his house and emigrating. The father explained how, when the Revolution came, everyone thought they would be free of the tyranny of the Shah, only to realize six months later that things were getting incomparably worse instead. The father explained that he was afraid even to be seen talking to us, Americans, that the “Iranian FBI” kept a watchful eye on the movements of Iranian nationals outside the country. He held out his hand to show that it was actually shaking.

After finishing our beers, we walked with the two younger men back toward town. We walked with them first to an employment agency, where they were due for a meeting that ended up not happening. The Iranian was helping the Afghan find work, so that he could save some money for the next legs of the journey. This involved temporarily surrendering his passport, what for us would have been a nerve wracking amount of trust in people that, judged by their profession–finding under-the-table jobs–may not be too trustworthy. (The Afghan would go on to find a job as a shoemaker, his trade, for $400 a month plus room and board, the first $150 of which would have to go to the employment agency as a finder’s fee.)

The young Iranian asked us if we’d been to Taksim, Istanbul’s nightlife district, perhaps assuming, as non-westerners from conservative countries seem apt to sometimes, that coming from the rich and licentious West our lives must be all about booze and discos. He seemed disappointed when we said that we did not go out much, and he took us on a little detour to the nearby street where Iranian and Russian men go for alcohol and prostitutes, a dreary assortment of bars and restaurants with multilingual touts and bored-looking women of all ages. The Afghan explained how he’d never even spoken to a woman before, and was intrigued enough to visit one of these restaurants. After trying without success to explain that he wanted only to talk to one of the women, he admitted that he had no money and was thrown out. The evening getting late, the two walked us to the tramway and we headed back to our Galata hotel.

We’re about to leave Istanbul and Turkey, headed for a long journey of our own, but one on a straightforward series of trains and with our U.S. passports in hand, a journey with no doubt as to our eventual arrival at the destination. When the Afghan feels he has saved enough, he too will move on, but who knows what luck he will or will not have. When we first told him that we were American–he never having been outside of Iran we were probably the first Americans that he had ever met–he explained to us how his English textbook said that Americans were warmer and more open than Brits. “And it said that America is the Land of Opportunity–I never forgot this.” He can’t go to America–it’s too far and, despite the millions who manage to make it in every year, our doors are still not open enough to accept all of even the most deserving immigrants. And so for him, his journey is from Iran to Sweden.

(We will try to stay in touch with him, by email, to see how things turn out–look back here for updates.)