Monday, April 24, 2006

Istanbul "Çok Güzel"

(Beirut Notes Pictures)
Captions: All kinds of Olives in Istanbul's Spice Market, Views of Istanbul, Hassan and Hussein Medallions in the New Mosque and Attaturk banners.

Forget Dubai, Beirut should take its cue from Istanbul, one of the world's "çok güzel" (very beautiful) cities.

A few days ago when I entered the Aya or Sancta or Hagia (from the Arabic Hajj, according to my not-very-informed tour guide) Sofia in Istanbul and I saw the portrait of the Virgin Mary baring Jesus in her hands alongside black medallions with the names of Allah, Mohammed, Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman, Ali and Hassan and Hussein, I thought: that is it! That is the solution to our problems.

Attaturk understood. No church, no mosque but a museum. The Aya Sofia was a church for 900 years and a mosque for 400, and when Mustapha Kamel Attaturk wanted to resolve the claim of religious authorities to the superb edifice, he turned it into a public museum in 1935.

The mix of Shia, Sunni and Christian symbolism under the same secular roof is a great achievement. And Attaturk was great. He created a nation that will sooner or later become part of the EU.

Although secularism in Turkey is at risk today because of democracy and the re-emergence of political Islam, Attaturk’s presence, 38 years after his death, is still strong through the powerful Turkish army and his ever present portraits around the city. And compared to the ugly faces of Lebanese, Arab and Iranian leaders that decorate our streets and our psyche, Attaturk looks like a Hollywood movie star.

Istanbul is a European city in its architecture and its rich culture, even its mosques are European in character. Indeed all the ones I saw in Istanbul are totally different from the ones in our part of the world. The most famous Ottoman architect, Sinan, built the Suleimaniya Mosque based on the norms of the Aya Sofia and ever since religious architecture in Turkey has been heavily influenced by his style.

Although, the Attaturk airport was full of men in white towels and women dressed in white hijab going to the Hajj in Mecca, a Christian priest and an Orthodox Jewish couple looked completely at ease among them. The scene at the Airport is a small microcosm of Istanbul where I saw a lot of bearded men, veiled women and burka-clad ones in the market, but unlike their brothers and sisters in Riyadh, they were all smiling.

The government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan wants to get close to "its Muslim brothers" in the Arab world, one Turkish journalist told me, but she added that they were rushing into it. Indeed they received the Hamas leaders and the step was not thought through. It was a diplomatic disaster, according to the journalist. Furthermore, the new government is also bungling the Kurdish question.

Economically Turkey is doing great and that is what really matters. Investments are pouring in, people are getting richer and the only way is forward. I hope one day a Turkish tourist could say the same about Lebanon.