What I will remember most about my brief visit to Istanbul are the minarets. Minarets are tall towers that grow out of enormous mosques below, reaching toward the sky, reaching toward God. Some of these minarets have speakers attached at the top and five times a day you hear from them the call to prayer. It is the imam calling the Muslim people to stop and pray to Allah.
The majority of Istanbul’s population is Muslim and the imam’s voice does not startle them like it did me and my sister and brother-in-law—my travel companions. The sound is powerful and they use musical notes that we wouldn’t consider musical where I come from. They are minor and dissident, but to those who were raised near the minarets, they are simply a voice in their heads. Like the train by my home that used to wake me up at night and now I don’t hear anymore, the calls to prayer rattle the earth with their volume but everyday life progresses without pause. Pedestrians continue to walk where they were going and children keep crying or laughing. The salesmen continue to hurl overpriced souvenirs in your face and offer you, relentlessly, to the take the boat cruise on the Bosphorus strait.
Just when I have the world figured out, I visit a place like Istanbul. The city knows so much and has seen so much more than any city I’ve traveled to. I felt ignorant just standing on its streets. I didn’t belong there. I had no clue as to what feet had already walked the uneven grounds. I was so curious there and had so many questions about how the women pinned their scarves, how much PDA was allowed between couples so conservatively dressed, how to dip the bread—was it even bread—in which spread laid out on the table. I stared unknowingly at families and at fishermen and the boys selling clams. The masses of people on every corner and the cars that heeded none of us. Enormous and oddly healthy looking stray dogs and so so many cats. Under your feet at dinner, pawing at the sea, emerging from under rocks and places you didn’t know cats would fit.
I stared mostly up, at the minarets. I liked to pretend I could see the imam through a tiny window at the top. Of course I couldn’t, because they don’t actually climb the towers for prayer anymore, but if they did, I imagine it is a cozy place with a really great sea view.
I would catch myself staring and feel ashamed. In a way, I resented my own curiosity. I’ve done my share of tourism. I shouldn’t be surprised anymore, but I was surprised at my surprise in Istanbul.
Part of this shame was due to an underlying sense that I was not so different from the Muslim people of Istanbul. The minarets and the voices booming out of them were what made me see this.
At first I was afraid of the calls to prayer and eventually I grew annoyed. They interrupted our navigating and our group huddles to discuss what to do and see next. We would stop in our tracks or walk in silence and wait for the loud five minutes to end. I pulled out my phone trying to capture the strange sounds for friends back home. But on the last day, I put my phone away. Maybe the Christian’s prayer sounds no less strange or sad to the non-believer.
Do we not also climb our towers and recite the Holy Scriptures? The difference is our prayer is not marked by times of day but circumstances of life. We all cry out at the same time in the end: during trouble. The good things in our lives take a turn and we take a step up the minaret. It is a familiar call when we ask God for help or our friends ask for us to intercede because they are too weak to climb. So we do it for them. We put on our robes and take up the staircase. We reach the top and look out over a sea that we have grown so familiar with. Grace and mercy and forgiveness and love. We don’t notice its deep blue hue nor stand with mouths agape at the miracles that they are.
The stones we use to build our minarets are despair, fear and worry. The sounds we make through the speakers grate the onlookers’ ears and senses, but we close our eyes anyways and utter the same words we’ve uttered for years. Maybe we believe them that morning or afternoon or evening or maybe we depend on the hope that we will believe them tomorrow because we believed them yesterday.
I can’t decide if I like what Istanbul did to my view of God and of my faith. It shook it up, and it settled it in at the same time. When you look down from the top of the tower, everyone is the same height and the people you thought you were so different from look exactly the same.