Not so much looking down as across..

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Istanbul - where East meets West

I spent a very short but memorable night in Istanbul last summer. I was returning to Dublin from Antalya where I had been attending an international conference of Amnesty International as one of Ireland's three representatives.

Our initial expereinces in travelling to Antalya should have prepared us. Turkish Airlines must be the nicest people to fly with but also one of the most seemingly unpunctual - and yet everything gets done in a slow, courteous and measured way. It reminds me of the West of Ireland in the fifties. I can never see a merger with time-table obsessed Ryanair

We arrived in Istanbul 'only' an hour late. A US colleague who was flying onward to Washington was beginning to hyper ventilate. But he got there , in the end. I did not know what to hope or expect before arriving in Turkey. During the week in Antalya I had been struck by the genuine hospitality of the people. They seemed untarnished by the harshness of commercialism or even their own precarious careers in the most volatile of industries - tourism.

We arrived at our modest two and a half star hotel in the centre of Istanbul beside the blue mosque just as the lazy languid light was fading in the soft blue sky. We quickly unpacked and rushed to the rooftop restaurant in time to see the sun go down and take a few photos of the mosque beside us. We heard the call to prayer as we sipped a gentle gin and tonic. The sacred and the profane seemed to mix serenely.

Istanbul was a revelation. I found it as Mediterranean as Nice or Barcelona but with the added zest of the Middle East. The scents and the perfumes were excitingly exotic. I was reminded me of the heady giddiness of seeing Paris for the first time in 1968. We wandered through the streets after midnight feeling totally safe and unthreatened. Our female colleague was at ease and joined us in buying attractive souvenirs that were ridiculously cheap.

Maybe they have got the balance right in Turkey between the religion and the state. I was a supporter of Turkey joining the EU before I set foot in the country. Having mets i's people I am one hundred percent convinced it is the right thing. If Israel can take part in the Eurovision why cannot Turkey join the EU? People point out to her human rights past. I lived in Spain less than forty years ago in the time of Franco and things were not great. In neighbouring Portugal things were not much better. They are now leading lights in the battle for human rights.

I also believe in the value of a secular state. I applaud the decision of the French to ban the burkah. I believe it is a medieval form of oppression on women - particularly on the women who defend it. While I believe in 'live and let live' we have to defend certain fundamentals.

The vast majority of Muslims are decent honorable people - as are the majority Christan's and Hindus. What has been done in their names has not always been the best. One of the big challenges of the modern world is to help religions reconcile with the founder's at times conflicting messages and interpet their charism in the light of modern science and insight.

I was truly excited by Istanbul and its people. I would love to go back. I can understand why people who have bought holiday homes in Turkey return every year. I hope we can support the Turks in their wish to come closer to the West - it's clearly in their interest - it is even more in ours.

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