Instead of my usual alarm, I was awoken by the joyous laughter of seagulls welcoming a new day. The room was filled with gentle morning light, filtered through the curtains making a hazy attempt at protecting me from the nosy gazes of neighbours living in the apartment building opposite. I sometimes wondered if it was possible to really get any privacy in Istanbul between the narrow streets of its busy neighbourhoods and friendly people filled with curiosity.
Istanbul has always been a very special place for me. Ever since I visited this chaotically beautiful city on the cusp of Europe and Asia in my teens, I couldn’t get it out of my soul. It was the first “real” place I have travelled to on my own – an excited 16 year old with a head full of dreams of adventure on her way to meet a friend she had met two years earlier in England. Istanbul was my introduction to a brave new world. I still remember that first day I heard the ezan, the melodic voice of the muezzin calling everyone for prayer blending with the sounds of ships passing the busy waters of the Bosphorus. To my young heart yearning for a bigger life, this was the most beautiful sound in the world.
Istanbul was a place where I visited bohemian cafes and had meaningful conversations about life over cappuccino flavoured nargile smoke, where I drank litres of strong tea from tiny tulip-shaped glasses while looking at the turquoise water in front of me and mosques dotting the horizon. It was the world where I felt loved, inspired and free. It was the world my dear friend Aysegul lived in, my favourite place to come back to.
Over the years I kept on visiting Ayşegül and Istanbul, watching both of them change. To me the city and my friend used to be one and the same thing – different from anything I had known before, familiar yet full of surprises, artistic and hungry for life. With time however, both of them started to go different ways. With each year Istanbul seemed to be turning its head towards the past, a change towards which Ayşegül started becoming increasingly resistant. The more women in headscarves populated the streets, the more rebellious my friend would become, leaving me with a vague feeling that he city was being taken away from her. On one hand there was the liberal bohemian lifestyle I have grown to associate with my friend, which still seemed to be in a full swing in the tiny atmospheric cafes of Karaköy and cute, cat-filled restaurants of Üsküdar . On the other side however, there were pictures of Erdogan somberly scrutinising the passersby hurrying from the ferries to packed dolmuş taking them home, checking if they are pious enough. I could feel the growing tension between the young and the old, the modern and the tradition, the liberal and religious. Istanbul was changing and neither Ayşegül nor I liked the direction in which the city we loved was heading. But it wasn’t up to us to stop the journey it was on and we had to accept that it was time for Ayşegül to go her own way.
As my friend was moving to Canada, my latest visit to Istanbul was threatening to be a truly last one. I will miss the free spirited young people filling the independent cafes of the Asian side of the city, the sellers of the sesame encrusted simit moving gracefully between the cars trapped in Istanbul’s unyielding traffic. I was going to miss the warming bitterness of Turkish coffee and the hours of playing the game of tavla. I would miss the rough aquamarine beauty of the Bosphorus, but most of all, I would miss my Ayşegül , our laughter on the streets of Istanbul forever intertwined with the seagulls screaming about their freedom. Because no matter where we would be, regardless of where the city was heading, we would always have our Istanbul.