I detest shopping for myself. I hate it with a passion that is so unwomanly I occasionally wonder if I was a man in all of my past lives. Perhaps this is my first go ’round as a woman. I hate the faffing and the queues and the decisions involved. I hate the bags and the receipts and the escalators. I hate the fact that sizes differ and mirrors lie. Retail therapy simply doesn’t work for me.
Unless it’s civilised. As it is in Istanbul .
I was warned about touters who would stop just short of kidnapping me to get me inside their shop. I was warned about the ceremonial teas and the long palavers designed to separate me from my money. I was warned about how relentless they are in their pursuit of customers, of how persuasive they can be, of how genuine they can come across. And despite all the warnings, I was sucked in. And what’s more, I enjoyed it. Immensely.
First up was my man Sevket, whose nephew had latched on to me at the Blue Mosque. He took me inside, showed me what to do and gave me a brief history of the place for which I was very appreciative. I literally had 20 minutes before the mosque closed to visitors for prayers so it was handy not to have to waste 15 of those figuring out the rituals. The deal was though, that when we were done, I had to go visit his uncle’s carpet shop. Being a woman of my word, I went. And I made it clear that I had no money. He commented that my sunglasses (which happen to sport the CK label) were worth at least $500. Observant chap. But that was ten years ago, I said, when I had a regular job. That money had long since been spent.
I’ll write more on carpets later. Suffice to say that Sevket, like many Turkish men I met, seemed to be looking for a wife. Or so he told me. Now, as a single someone who isn’t at all backward about coming forward when it comes to expressing herself, you’d think I’d be in my element… but no. I was at a complete loss for words. In my defence, I’ve had little experience of proposals. Once we’d established that I had no money, the talk then turned to how I could earn a commission by sending my fellow delegates from the conference to his shop. I had to admire his ingenuity and the tenacity. We parted friends.
Some days later, at the Spice Bazaar – Mısır Çarşısı- (which, by the way, is streets ahead of the Grand Bazaar when it comes to temperament), we happened into Cihan’s shop (No. 70). Some 55 minutes later, replete with (newly discovered) pomegranate tea, we left, laden with goat hair cloth and silks and soaps. But in addition, we had his story. And this is, perhaps, what endears me most to these Turkish salesmen: their willingness to chat about life and its vagaries; to talk about stuff few men are willing to do. If I could be romanced by anything Istanbul had to offer, it wouldn’t be the food, or the mosques, or the history – it would be the people’s ability to chat, to punctuate their conversations with lessons worth remembering. I’m a sucker for deep and meaningful conversation.
One of Cihan’s gems, for example, was that you can’t convert people overnight, but rather over time with love and example. He married a Canadian and lives in Istanbul with his wife and daughters and was clear that he didn’t marry her for her passport. Yet they’re planning on moving back to Canada – the government, he says, wants everyone to be religious and have an iPhone. Beautiful. He explained the concepts of helal (that which you deserve) and haram – that which you don’t and spoke eloquently on the diminishing work ethics plaguing the world. It was a joy to listen to him and engage.
Next, on Cihan’s referral, we visited Ahmet at No. 76, who insisted on giving us the royal tour of teas, spices, and sweets. Only once we’d heard the history, and sniffed, smelled, touched and tasted practically everything on display, accompanied by yet another cup of pomegranate tea, would he entertain the thought of us buying anything. And buy we did. He said he understood that we weren’t from Qatar (apparently the embodiment of wealth) and that we should only buy what we wanted and what we liked. When he recommended the anti-aging tea for me, and the love tea for my friend, he managed to do so in a way that made us laugh – and add to our list. He, too, had stories and advice and seemed quite happy to take all the time in the world in dealing with our right, as women, to change our minds … repeatedly.
And yet, there remains the constant reminder of why I’d find it hard to live in the city. The black-veiled women whom I simply couldn’t figure out. Some walked meekly beside their men – and others, when alone or with another woman, could spout orders and commands with the severity of a Major General. I couldn’t tell those who were Turkish and those whom came from Qatar – as these two did, judging by the size of their bill. I’ve made a mental note that next time I go to Istanbul, I will find one I can put my questions to… over a cup or three of pomegranate tea.