“Pardon… Pardon!” a middle-aged Turkish lady said as she tapped on my shoulder like morse code, gesturing for me to give her my seat on a crowded bus heading up the Bosporus Strait in Istanbul. She plopped down onto the chair, sighed and shifted course.
“Where are you from?” she said, pointing a finger uncomfortably close to my thorax.
“America,” I said.
“Phew!” she said, sighing with dramatic relief. “Too many Syrians, Iranians, Arabs here.”
“Yeah?” I replied.
The woman with round and smooth cheeks looked around conspicuously, closed her eyes and squeezed her nose for dramatic effect to show her disgust.
It was the day after Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice, the Islamic holiday that commemorates Abraham’s willingness to offer his son to God. In celebration, Muslims slaughter animals and distribute meat to neighbors and the needy.
Public transportation is free during the Turkish holiday, offering a rare opportunity for poorer segments of society, including Syrian immigrants, to see the central parts of Istanbul they normally do not visit. With wealthy Istanbulites emptying the megacity to travel to seaside summer homes, and other Turks returning to their hometowns to see family, the presence of Syrians on passenger vehicles alongside tourists and other migrant groups is palpable. I spent the day on buses, boats and trains to see what I could learn in this temporary alternate reality.
I walked down from the bus stop to catch a ferry to cross to Istanbul’s Asian side. Next to the entrance, I spotted two Syrian sisters giggling and eating strawberry ice cream dressed in new pastel fluffy dresses that ruffled in the wind in sync with the moving waves behind them. Their balding father squinted toward distant screens to see which of the ferries they would take that day.
On the water, the passengers’ conversations made one thing clear: Arabs love Istanbul. Tunisian honeymooners snapped selfies in front of the scaffolded Maiden Tower, which sits on an islet just offshore. Two Egyptian men hatched a plan to eat fish in Kadikoy, a neighborhood replete with seafood restaurants.
Tourists aside, there were also interactions between Turks and Syrians. A Syrian woman audibly whispered to her sheepish young daughter, “Ask her if this boat goes to Eminonu?” The daughter translated the question for the older Turkish woman sitting beside her and relayed bad news back to her mother. The two women looked at one another in a flash of solidarity as the Turkish woman told the girl not to worry: They could take another ferry from Kadikoy. The Syrian mother smiled in gratitude.
Once off the boat, I walked away from the narrow strait toward the corniche and the Sea of Marmara. Empty streets stood in contrast to the crowded boats and buses. I reached the coastal park where I observed a Kurdish flower seller mocking a Syrian man for not buying his wife a rose.
“Ayb, ayb,” the tough flower pusher kept repeating, a term used to invoke dishonorable behavior. She delicately held a cupped rose below the woman’s nose until the man caved. (Her strategy reminded me of my days working for a Persian jeweler in the French Quarter in New Orleans. My boss Effie would tell me, “When trying to sell something, go after the man’s dignity.”)
I continued walking down a windy pathway and climbed a set of stairs to enter Moda. Known for its frenetic street life, the neighborhood’s typically alternative scene full of youthful Turks in baggy clothing was missing. I walked under a cement colonnade passing the occasional open shop.
I had arranged to meet my friend Ammar for a coffee at the end of the gallery. Originally from Aleppo, he works as a translator, but had the week off for the holiday. “We call this the big holiday,” he told me as we sat down, with the small one being the end of Ramadan.
Ammar told me how happy he is not to be in Aleppo for Eid al-Adha. “I can still smell the blood,” a reference to the slaughtering of sheep that is done throughout the city. We talked about sacrifice, and he mentioned that children should be spared from the holiday’s gorier details. With a tattooed cat and squirrel on each forearm, he looked uncomfortable. “I mean, what kind of prophet almost kills his son?” he asked. As we both sat quietly and sipped our iced lattes, two Lebanese women and a Tunisian guy hovered nearby, seemingly ready for a white dress party, snapping photos and showing off their many small shopping bags.
With true chivalry, Ammar walked with me to the port, where I took a night ferry back to the European side of the city. The waters of the Bosporus had become calm and turned to an oily black. I sipped bitter tea from a paper cup and thought about generosity. The free public transportation that day reflected the country’s wider charity by letting in more refugees than any other. I saw a group of young Syrian teens sitting on the ship’s rail gnawing on corn on the cob and smoking cigarettes.
Halfway through the journey, I opened a tweet my friend had sent me: “Transportation should not be free during the holidays, everywhere is Syrian because it is free.” So I scrolled. In another tweet, Kemal Kilicdaroglu, leader of the main opposition party in Turkey, ridiculed the number of Syrian babies that had been born in Turkey. The next tweet associated the reemergence of measles and smallpox with the arrival of Syrians, a common trope of outsiders bringing disease.
Looking up from my phone, I saw a handsome Syrian man with silvery gray hair spinning his grandson around under the night sky. Holding onto the suspenders of his new-looking denim overalls, the little boy gleefully screamed to the other passengers.
I got off the boat and began walking home. This holiday felt very different than any other day I have experienced so far in Istanbul over the past nine months. It seemed that both everything and nothing had changed. The social order turned on its head, if only for a brief time.
Top photo: Passengers take in views of Istanbul at night during the Feast of Sacrifice