A Traveler in a Fabled City Where Tolerance Meets Islam

By Shalom Goldman

Published March 14, 2003, issue of March 14, 2003.
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I went to Turkey because war was looming. It seemed inevitable that Turkey would be involved, and that once war began Americans would not be welcome. I had wanted to go to Istanbul for years. In my student days in Jerusalem during the late 1960s I had heard from travelers that if one loved Jerusalem for its history and diversity, one had to visit Istanbul. And of course Istanbul and Jerusalem back then were stops on the overland hippie trail to India, adding to the aura of levantine intrigue a new mystique of adventure. Now it was 30 years later. If a war was coming, I thought, I’d better go soon.

One of my interests, as a scholar of Middle Eastern affairs, is studying the Jewish communities of the Muslim world. During my own lifetime these communities, which before World War II represented more than 10% of world Jewry, have dwindled to a few thousand people. The great legacy of the “Jews of Islam” has been upended, collateral damage in the turmoil of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Turkey is the great exception. Its Jewish community has thrived since the 15th century, when thousands of fleeing Spanish Jews were welcomed by the Ottoman sultan. The welcome was reaffirmed just last January, in a message to the nation’s newly installed chief rabbi, by the leader of the ruling Justice and Development Party, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Islamic leader who was named prime minister this week. “Those of the Jewish faith have contributed to and will continue to contribute to the improvement of our country and our culture,” Erdogan wrote.

Today, Istanbul’s Jewish community numbers some 20,000 souls, many of them prominent in public life as intellectuals, artists and business people. One of the country’s leading journalists, Sami Kohen, a columnist for the daily Hurriyet (Freedom) newspaper, has taken the lead in recent weeks in helping Turkish readers appreciate the difficulty their government now faces, poised between American demands and regional power considerations.

Visiting Istanbul in February, I saw almost no other American tourists — even though I stayed in Sultanahmet, the tourist area near the Blue Mosque and the Hagia Sophia. It was something of a mistake to book a hotel there; being one of the few Western tourists meant attracting a degree of unwanted attention — “Hey, American! Look at my carpets.”

Once I left Sultanahmet I seemed to blend into the neighborhoods. People on the busy streets would turn to me and ask for directions or the time, and I quickly learned one key Turkish phrase: “I don’t speak Turkish.” Finally I asked a middle-aged fellow why he had addressed me in Turkish. “You look crim,” he said. I was confused; true, I hadn’t shaved in a few days and looked scruffy, but did I seem criminal? “No, no,” he said. “Crim — from Crim.” Did he mean I looked like I was from Crimea, on the Black Sea? “Yes,” he replied. “Many people here from Crim.” I have often wondered whether my Russian Jewish ancestors had some lost connection to the Crimean port of Odessa, with its Jewish Turkish baths, fervid intellectuals and socialist revolutionaries. Now I know: It shows on my face.

When I say I booked a hotel in the tourist area, that’s not quite accurate. I booked a $25-a-night stay at a Sultanahmet hostel. On the Internet it sounded ideal, reminiscent of my student days. I didn’t know it hadn’t been refurbished since the era of “Midnight Express,” the 1978 Hollywood about an American traveler imprisoned on drug charges in a terrifying Turkish prison. By a miracle the film’s protagonist escapes Turkey. These days getting out is easy; it’s getting in that’s the hassle. Though tourism-starved, Turkey charges American citizens $100 for a tourist visa — so I was eager to save on lodgings.

Reaching Sultanahmet late at night, however, I was shocked to find it, well, below my current standards. I spent a fitful night, almost gagged in the bathroom, and went off in the morning in search of greater creature comforts. I found them in a mid-priced hotel where the day-clerk was willing to bargain.

Walking away from the tourist area and its desperate tchotchke sellers I followed the main drag, Divanyol Street, and soon found myself near Istanbul University. The massively-gated entrances to campus are guarded by police who are there to discourage political speeches or demonstrations. Political factions often fight it out on campus. As students from the city’s private English-speaking institution, Bosphorus University, told me: “Istanbul students have fights. We have discussions.”

Facing Divanyol Street was the impressive-looking School of Foreign Languages, founded, as I later learned, by two of my cultural heroes, the mid-century European intellectuals Erich Auerbach and Leo Spitzer. Professors at prestigious German universities, they fled from the Nazis during the mid-1930s and were welcomed at Istanbul University, which not only gave them an academic home but also enabled them to found a department of European languages and literatures. It was in Istanbul that Auerbach wrote his great work “Mimesis,” a foundational text in comparative literature. Academic folklore has it that he wrote the book without being able to refer to his heavily-annotated library, which he had to leave in Germany.

Though officially neutral in World War II, Turkey leaned toward the Allies, and it did not close its borders to Jewish refugees, unlike its fellow neutral power, Switzerland. Even though Istanbul was within 40 miles of German lines for much of the war, Turkish diplomats helped many refugees to get identity papers. It was part of Turkey’s long and enduring tradition of tolerance toward Jews. It hasn’t treated its other minorities with the same consideration, and its harsh treatment of the Kurdish minority is again an issue now as the war in Iraq looms.

One recent mark of respect for the Jewish community was the ceremony this January marking the appointment of Turkey’s new hahambashi, or chief rabbi, Isak Haleva. Government representatives and clerics of the Catholic and Orthodox Christian minorities attended the ceremony at Istanbul’s Neve Shalom synagogue, as did the Sephardic chief rabbi of Israel. Erdogan, the ruling party leader who became prime minister this week, sent a congratulatory telegram and apologized for being kept away by affairs of state.

Neve Shalom, one of 17 synagogues in Istanbul, is sadly famous as the site of a 1986 terrorist attack in which 19 congregants were murdered. From the street the synagogue building looks squat and undistinguished; inside the visitor encounters a spacious and airy sanctuary. At Sabbath morning services I was greeted warmly — once I relinquished my passport to the fierce-looking security guards. In the entrance hall stands a clock hit by the attacker’s bullets and stopped permanently at 9:17.

I could follow the Sephardic liturgy, but not the synagogue announcements or sermon, which were in Ladino. There were perhaps 50 congregants that morning, almost all of them men; two or three older women peered down from the women’s balcony. I was told that the sanctuary, which can hold 300 people, is often full for holidays and weddings, when Neve Shalom hosts community-wide celebrations. Speaking to people afterward I sensed that the imminent war, and Turkey’s involvement in it, were on their minds, but that they took the long view. They feel secure in Istanbul.

Israeli tourism in Turkey is a large industry, particularly near the resorts in the southern coastal area of Antalya. The Israeli tourists I met in Istanbul appeared quite calm about the impending war — at least, they did when I arrived. I was even greeted in the Istanbul airport by a sign in Hebrew welcoming tourists for a Hebrew-language tour of the city; the woman holding the sign told me that the tour was available every day.

When I left Istanbul a week later, however, war seemed even closer, and though I looked carefully, I saw no signs of the Israelis.

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