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The View from Istanbul

The short walk through the Egyptian Spice Bazaar is a stroll in heaven. It is a page in a book of history of the East, and romance with the past. The magnificent colors of spices–blue, red, yellow, green, purple, and white–resonate the beauty of the grand paintings of Van Gogh and other masters of color. The aroma of exotic spices intoxicates the senses of the passers by, wets their appetite, and prepares them for the multitudes of inviting sweets and delights so invitingly laid next to each other on large and small trays.

I walked through the bazaar on September 11, 2002.

Hungry from the walk, I treated myself to what, by now, had become my vegetarian staple in Istanbul–boiled spinach toped with yogurt. I completed my meal with a glass of delicious Turkish tea, paid the bill–five million liras–and strolled towards the historic Sultanahmet.

Negotiating my way through the crowded sidewalks, my eyes landed on an old man solemnly keeping company a lone scale–his sole capital perhaps–hoping for a passer by to take him out of the boredom of his solitude. I walked towards the man without thinking. Noticing me approaching him, the old man’s face brightened up, radiated with joy, and pulled me towards the scale with magnetic strength. He welcomed me with a smile that stayed with us till we departed and I left him behind.

I stepped on the scale, took a notice of the reading, and gave the old man a one-million-lira note–a bit more than 50 cents. The old man’s body and hands bent and moved in every form and direction to show me his gratitude. So much joy, for a lousy 50 cents! I stood before him, wishing to embrace his shrunk body, touch his wrinkled face, and apologize to him for being more fortunate than him, and for spending many more million liras every day. But, I did not do so. I simply smiled back.

Showing my camera to the old man, I asked if he would allow me to photograph him. Sitting on his stool, he put his hands together, rested them on his chest, and bowed to me in a kind gesture of acceptance. With a smile bordering a loud laughter, he turned towards me. His unshaved and wrinkled face locked inside my lens; he posed for the first shot. I released the shutter. The camera swallowed the image of the old man’s face. I was satisfied. He had now become a part of my registered memory. I asked him to move his face for a profile shot. He did so still smiling. I took my second and third shots.

Moving back to his side, I sat next to the old man on the ground. Trying to show him my appreciation of his kindness, I took words out of my nearly empty arsenal of Turkish vocabulary. I rambled Merhaba, Mashallah, Teshekkur, and a few other words I could recount in Turkish. Holding my hands, he taught me new words. Like a student following his master, I repeated after him, one word at a time, carefully, and accurately. And using body language and words, the old man asked for my nationality. That is how I understood his words. “Iran,” I replied. “Iran,” he repeated with excitement, immediately continuing with “Reza Shah.” I repeated “Reza Shah!” As if testing the old man’s knowledge of Iran, I cried “Khomeini.” He said “Khomeni” and laughed, overjoyed for having found a way to connect with my history and me.

I packed my camera, shook the old man’s hand and prepared to leave. Still glowing with happiness, he said his last words to me: “Iran, Turk, Arkadash.” I left, repeating to myself: “Iranians and Turks are friends.”

Behzad Yaghmaian is the author of Social Change in Iran: an eyewitness account of Dissent, Defiance and a New Movement for Human Rights (SUNY PRESS, 2002).

He can be reached at: behzad_yaghmaian@hotmail.com

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