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Friday, April 18, 2014

Travel teaches us how to live with Muslims


Jet-lagged and unable to sleep, I awake a few minutes before 5 a.m. and step onto the balcony of my room overlooking Istanbul. Suddenly the colored lights atop minarets all over the city go on, and the voices of a dozen muezzins are heard from loudspeakers resounding all about me. It is the morning call to prayer, a strangely beautiful sound, repeated at four other times throughout the day.

Later, my wife and I board an electric trolley (1 1/2 Turkish lira — about a dollar — per person) to the Sultanahmet district, which houses the Blue Mosque, Aghia Sophia (a Roman Catholic cathedral converted into a mosque, then converted into a museum by the country's early-20th-century president, the secular-minded Ataturk), Topkapi Palace (home of the sultans and their harem-confined concubines) and the stupefying Grand Bazaar of shops extending seemingly for miles.

On the smooth-as-silk, four-car trolley, more modern than any I have ever ridden, we take our seats behind three young women dressed in brightly colored head scarves. One of them speaks a bit of English, and my wife conducts a lively conversation about Istanbul and our respective families, with everyone laughing and smiling.

Also on the trolley: a modern group of young women of Istanbul in totally chic, western dress mixing easily with the others in their traditional Muslim cloaks. As we move along, we glance at the passing sidewalks filled with a variety of people, the majority in gowns and suits as modern as in London or Paris, but with a healthy number of head-scarved women and an occasional ultra-traditional female in head-to-foot black chadors, leaving only a small space for their noses and eyes. Everyone mixes and mingles, and conducts their daily routines in relaxed fashion, showing total tolerance for each other.

Later in the day, I pass the jogging track of an in-city park where young women in shorts and other modern running gear, their hair in ponytails, are exercising alongside other equally athletic young women in head scarves and long dresses.

It is now late in the afternoon. After a strenuous day of mosque- and museum-hopping, my wife and I pass an alleyway on which we see a large Turkish sign with the smaller words "Turkish baths" underneath. We enter the most un-touristic establishment in all the city, where only sign language indicates to the surprised proprietors that we Yanks are each eager to experience these intensely local treatments (40 lira, about $25, per person).

I get undressed and am conducted into a searingly hot steam room where I am soon drenched in sweat and made to endure the heat for nearly half an hour. I am then rubbed down with what is close to sandpaper, then doused with buckets of cold, tepid and hot water in succession, then covered with soap. And then I undergo the most painful massage of my life, the masseur's thumbs digging deep into every muscle I possess. And after a final wash, I am wrapped into a towel and escorted to a reception room where I meet my also towel-draped wife, who has had everything except the steam treatment. We are each served a tiny glass of heavily sweetened Turkish tea. The proprietors of the steam bath beam at us, who probably are the first tourists they have ever served.

For the entire day we have been in a Muslim world, a part of it (namely Turkey) a tolerant land set on a course of modernity by its former military ruler, Ataturk. We are going to have to learn to live with that world, to deal with them as equals, to react to them with tolerance and sensitivity for their beliefs and their struggles. We cannot patronize or dominate them, as we have sometimes have in the past.

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