You and your older daughter are nearing the end of a sojourn in an unfamiliar land, a land that is neither Europe nor Asia but the meeting point of both; that has long been its reputation, and it has proven to be true. Never have you been in a place that feels like such a crossroads – a land where an Eastern emperor succeeded a Western one, where one religion superimposed itself upon another, where the traditions of thousands of years exist side by side with cell phones and free wi-fi.
The two of you began your trip by getting on separate airplanes and meeting in a huge airport outside a huge city in the middle of your own huge country. It was night and you took the train into that city, trundling your carry-ons behind you, and met her older brother at a Moroccan restaurant.
The three of you drank hot, sweet mint tea, ordered an appetizer decreed by the brother to be a “chicken doughnut,” sampled each other’s tagines, and ended the meal with a coconut-mango dacquoise, a word none of you knew the meaning of but which you all enjoyed pronouncing.
The three of you sat around a table in a room draped ceiling-to-floor with billowy swoops of bright cotton. An hour in from one end of the blue line for you and your girl, an hour out from the other end of the blue line for your boy. A meeting in the middle.
Then you hugged him goodbye and watched as he walked off into the dark night to board the train back to the house where he lives now. You fought back the sensation you always feel when you watch him walk away, which is bewilderment and disorientation: How did this happen?
How did he grow up and move away from the house where he used to live, with you, the house where you used to butter his toast and set it before him in the quiet morning?
Don’t start, you told yourself, because there was no way to understand how this had happened. It was too big and too dizzying, and it had to do with the passage of time, which is something that despite your hyperawareness of it you have never been able to understand.
You and your girl trundled your carry-ons back to an airport motel and next day boarded a plane which took you to that unfamiliar, enormous city sprawled on either side of the Bosphorus Strait in a land that borders Syria and Iraq and Armenia and Georgia.
This land had always shimmered in your mind as a mythical place –site of two magnificent empires, fulcrum point of warring factions. You and your girl take photos of each other standing by the Bosphorus, in the Grand Bazaar, in the Spice Market, on a bluff looking north toward the mouth of the Black Sea.
The two of you wander the neighborhood streets and try to figure out the ingredients for the sweets displayed in windows. You try all manner of mezes, little plates of food that you share: fried mussels, eggplant salad, sauteed greens, shish kebap, pumpkin stewed long and slow in honey and sprinkled with figs and pistachios. You drink tea that comes in the same potbellied glasses no matter where you order it, a small spoon standing in each glass to absorb the heat.
You try Turkish coffee, swirling the muddy grounds and feeling the caffeine charge instantly through your bloodstream.
Before you enter a mosque so huge and so beautiful that you can hardly comprehend that it was built in only a few years, the two of you cover your heads with scarves and remove your boots and then crane your necks skyward.
In a roped-off section, men on their knees pray. In a basin meant for washing before prayer, a tiny boy pretends to take a bath while his parents laugh and take photos of him. You and your girl pick up pamphlets titled “Understanding Islam” and take them outside, where you sit on a bench in the sun and read them.
You both admit to each other that this little booklet is so well-written, clear, and easy to understand that you both feel far more informed about Islam than you ever have before.
Wherever you go you practice the five words you memorized, which are the same words you try to memorize in all languages: Hello. Please. No. Yes. Thank you.
At an outdoor cafe you see a sign for Turkish Hot Milky Drink with Orchid Roots and order a cup out of curiosity. You expect it to taste nasty, but when the waiter brings it over –two cups instead of the one you ordered– you can’t believe how delicious it was.
Sahlep is the name of this drink, sprinkled with cinnamon and served only in winter, and you buy some sahlep powder in the Spice Market to bring back home with you.
One day, you get up early and take a ferry up the river to a little fishing village on the Asian side of the Bosphorus. You climb a steep hill to the ruins of an old castle, where you stand on a bluff and gaze out at the mouth of the Black Sea. The knowledge of the ancient history that has taken place there, that is taking place now, makes you shiver the same way that beholding the underground cisterns, supported with Roman columns, makes you shiver.
You think of Syria, the country on the southern border of the land where you are standing, and what is happening there right now. That familiar feeling of disorientation and bewilderment –how do these things happen? How did we get here from there?– is dizzying.
A few days into the sojourn, you wake at dawn in the dark and quiet of your hotel room. Your daughter sleeps silently in the bed next to yours and you listen as the muezzin wails the morning call to prayers from a nearby minaret. You get up and push back the curtain, see the world coming slowly into light. The Bosphorus tumbles by below the window, gray and opaque, and pigeons gather on the square.
This call to prayers comes five times a day, drifting over the entire city. Over the entire land. In a country where ninety-nine people out of one hundred are Muslim, the call to prayers is a constant reminder to pause. To take note. To breathe.
You witness restaurant owners turn off their music and stand silent in the doorway, listening. You witness others raise their voices to carry on their laughter and conversation over the song. Observant or not, the ritual is part of everyone’s daily life. You think, I will hear this call for the rest of my life.
Women in full burka walk on the arms of their husbands next to women in tights and spike heels. In the Hagia Sophia, Arabic inscriptions from the prophets hang next to ancient mosaics depicting Jesus and Mary and Joseph. In this city, east meets west, Christianity meets Islam, and if you don’t have enough Turkish lira, euros will work.
You and your daughter are here, just the two of you, in this mythical land. One foot east, one foot west. One of you just turned twenty, the other is in the middle of her life. You forced yourself not to have expectations of this trip, because you have learned that it’s always better just to live the days as they happen.
She is your middle child. The two of you have never had a long stretch of time together, years together alone, the way her older brother and younger sister did. This knowledge has always, for some reason, cracked your heart.
There comes an evening when the two of you are returning to your hotel after a long day of wandering. The bus is crowded and you hang onto the overhead strap, tired and thirsty. All around you the other riders chat quietly in Turkish, stare into space, smile down at their cell phones.
You turn, seeking out your girl, and there she is, looking out the window toward the Bosphorus, her arm wrapped around a pole. Her eyes have that same faraway, peaceful look as that day when she was a kindergartner, her forehead pressed against the window of the schoolbus, and her teacher turned to you and said, “Look, Alison. Just look at that beautiful child.”
Seeing her now, like that long-ago day when she didn’t know you were watching her, your heart clenches. This is one of those moments that come sometimes in life, when everything is in place, when it feels as if everything has led you to this moment. The crowded bus, the water splashing onto the cobblestones below the bluff, your daughter dreaming of something you’ll never know. Your life has arrowed itself toward this single perfect moment.
The world outside will come roaring in again. You will return to your life and its many obligations and responsibilities, to that familiar world where east clashes with west and people keep dying and dying at each other’s hands.
But not now. Not right now.
I am a sky where spirits live.
Stare into this deepening blue,
while the breeze says a secret.
When someone asks what there is to do,
light the candle in his hand.