The pleasures of Turkey | Dawn

June 2015

Where previous visits were formal or festive, a recent visit in April 2015 was educative and restorative. On the first evening in Istanbul one was introduced to a vantage point from where the sight was spectacular and the sound of azaan captivated. There was the splendour of both the Great Sophia Mosque and the Blue Mosque, like silhouettes of the soul, seen against the backdrop of the Bosphorous, and a twilight sky.

The normally solo azaan here became a unique duet. Each line of the call to prayer was rendered with a sacred euphony by the muezzin of one mosque. Then, a split-second later, repeated, with no over-lap, by the muezzin of the other mosque. Each voice rippled with resonance across the open space. Never before had one heard this perfectly partnered homage to Allah : all the cadences, the tenderness, the power of the call ---- touched, soothed, stimulated the heart, and every corpuscle.

Two other azaans one has heard have come close to such beauty. One at the Mecca Masjid in Hyderabad Deccan, India. The other heard at Dubai airport and sometimes also at Karachi's Jinnah airport. But the Istanbul duo are in a league of their own.

The holy duet bridges several centuries of time. The Sophia mosque was originally built as an Eastern Orthodox church ( the Hagia Sophia, which means " Holy Wisdom " in Greek ) in 537 AD. About 900 years later, after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, the church was transformed into a mosque. Then another 183 years later, in 1616, Sultan Ahmed I ordered the creation of the Blue Mosque. Both monuments possess an individual aesthetic, each supplements the other.

There could have been no better way to begin this particular visit. In Turkey, perhaps more than in any other pre-dominantly Muslim country, history, religion, modernity and secularism meld together in a distinct and holistic persona. A range of media practitioners, journalists, editors, business persons, educationists, activists : men and women, of different ages and orientations ---- all shared a quiet, unstated sense of pride clothed in humility. A commonality of courtesy and warmth, of genuine goodwill for Pakistan, of intense concern for conditions in both countries.

For Turkey too has its own share of deep disquiet. After a decade of positive progress, an alarming authoritarianism has emerged in the past 3 years in the AKP Government led by President Erdogan. Hostility against critics and the dissident media ; the admittedly complex policy choices faced about Syria and Iraq ; the barbaric menace of ISIS ; the hosting of masses of Syrian refugees ; the slow reconciliation with the Kurds ; new challenges in the economy ; growing political tensions as Parliamentary polls approach in June ; the villainization of the otherwise peaceful, non-partisan Hizmet Movement led by the U.S.-based Turkish philosopher Fethullah Gulen.

Yet the many virtues and strengths of the people and the country of Turkey shimmer throughout the visit. Here is the impact of education in a comprehensive sense. Going beyond print literacy,the merits of education as a fundamental value are apparent in several ways. While the Ottoman Empire bestowed a legacy of cultural pluralism and respect for diversity, Mustafa Kamal Attaturk's passionate stress on modernisation has left an indelible impact.

In an ironic way, Attaturk's secular break with a stagnating past was a re-assertion of the real precepts of Islam : rationality, purity, clarity. Cleanliness of streets and lanes, the absence of litter and rubbish dumped heedlessly as in certain other countries (!), the abstinence from spitting or unhygienic practices in public spaces, the relative discipline of traffic, the respect for time and the practice of punctuality. Above all, the recognition of the importance of formal education and then, its actual implementation . This takes the shape of well-maintained, diligently supervised educational institutions at all levels. Perhaps the enforcement ( now revised ) of compulsory military service for brief periods by all fit males in a given age-group instilled a set of best core practices on a mass level.

A moderate, dignified conservatism co-exists side by side with modernization. There are hijaabs aplenty but one did not spot a single burqa. There is an unspoken, unmistakable self -assuredness in being Muslim but one did not see a single bearded man. There are advertising pole-signs featuring women in bikinis but there was not a single sight of men staring at women or of inappropriate dress or uncouth behaviour in the markets. In short : apt propriety without a showy piety. Or a hypocritical duality.

Cordial invitations to dinners and meals at home afforded new opportunities to experience grace and hospitality. It was so proper to leave street-worn shoes at the door! Inside two separate households in the affluent neighbourhood of Floria in Istanbul, there were instant smiles and comfort from both host and hostess. Even as the lady of the house excused herself to the kitchen, one learnt that, regardless of income levels, at least in these two upper income homes, the women personally cook all the meals every day. And with only a little help from the husband, they served all the guests, placing the plates, cutlery and dishes piece by piece. Before they presented delicious Turkish cuisine, be it fowl or fish or beef or vegetable, each dish prepared with care and taste. Similarly, in contrasting settings inside the modest but very welcoming homes of retired and serving school principals in Konya, be it the single male host or the whole family joining in to generate an ambience of good cheer, one relished the aroma and flavour of their sincere friendship for visitors met only minutes earlier. And before departure from each home, thoughtful gifts were bestowed to remember them by.

During the day-long visit to Konya, one was pleasantly surprised to discover the large spread and scale of the city. This urban centre is abustle with commerce on its busy streets set on the flat landscape. The focal point of the place and the reason for the visit was to pay respects to the great Jelaluddin Rumi. His mausoleum marks the final resting place of one of the world's most remarkable thinkers and poets. He was born near Balkh in Afghanistan, then at the eastern frontier of the Persian empire. His father and family settled in this part of Turkey in the 13th century. 700 years after he wrote his texts, their profundity and insights blow the mind and enrich the spirit. Despite its dignity and distinctiveness, the cloaked sarcophagus is unable to exude the magnificence of his persona. A plaque in the adjacent courtyard honours Allama Iqbal to make a Pakistani proud.

Prior to going there, one visited the symbolic site of remembrance for Shams Tabrezi, the phenomenal figure about 20 years older at (60 plus), than his younger friend. He overwhelmed Rumi for three brief yet intense years. And then disappeared into thin air. To leave Rumi in utter despair. Only for Rumi to eventually graduate to a new level of inner peace in which he experienced a fusion of sublime sensibilities.

How fitting that the Hizmet Movement has recently opened the Mevlana University ( Rumi is respectfully referred to as " Mevlana " in Turkey ) in Konya. Presently located temporarily in a structure adapted from its original design as a large commercial centre, the University already bears signs of the high quality multi-disciplinary education it aims to impart at its new campus under construction nearby, in fields as diverse as medicine, business management and the social sciences. Earlier in Istanbul, during a visit to the Faith College which is part of the same Movement, one saw state-of-the-art technology being used by well-trained teachers guiding students who show a marked sobriety and immersion in their studies.

The people of Turkey truly treasure their heritage. From the city walls built during the Roman and the Byzantine empires to the gems of history and the jewels of time in the Topkapi Palace and Museum that preserve the Ottoman era, there is evident a collective commitment to protect the exceptional riches of shared ethnicity, language and memory. Heading into the turbulence of the 21st century, Turkish society seems to relish the prospects of the unfolding future even as it guards its resplendent past. Like all countries, Turkey too has its own warts and problems, separate from political issues. But it is not obligatory to list them during a recall of this most pleasant experience. Other sources for news gloom are aplenty ! This humble text is primarily a tribute to a remarkable people.

The visit was concluded perhaps as fittingly as it began. Guided by two extraordinary Turkish gentlemen, Ali Karan and Sait Celik who, respectively, supervise the Pak-Turk schools in Sindh and the Karachi office of the Rumi Forum, and who personify the spirit of service to humanity, one tried to absorb the panorama of Istanbul from the Pierre Point heights of the city. The edges of Europe and Asia eye each other across the Marmara sea. Local citizens and some of the millions of tourists who visit this great land each year sip coffee, try ice cream, move up and down the chair lift. Babies smile. And frown. The weather is cool, a gentle breeze blows. This could be, alas too briefly, like a corner of heaven on earth.And Rumi comes to mind as the homeward journey beckons.

" Know, son, that everything in the universe is a pitcher brimming with wisdom and beauty. The universe is a drop of the Tigris of His Beauty, this Beauty not contained by any skin. His Beauty was a Hidden Treasure so full it burst open and made the earth more radiant than the heavens. "

( Masnavi I, verses 2860-2862, translated by Kabir and Camille Helminski ).

As published in Dawn's Sunday magazine 7th June 2015.