The Shades of Istanbul: a meeting of skepticism, Christianity, and Islam across the centuries
These are the opening chapters of a metaphysical novel in which men and women from very different backgrounds struggle to find the meaning of the struggle of good and evil in this world.
The Shades of Istanbul
Job in the Hebrew Scriptures
Eyub in the Koran
Joy & Woe are woven fine,
A Clothing for the Soul divine;
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
A story was told almost three thousand years ago about God-fearing man by the name of Job. He had wives and children and slaves. He was rich in lands and supremely happy.
Then, because of a dispute between God and Satan, God allows Satan to take everything from him: wives, children, slaves, lands, and even his health.
Job sits on a pile of ashes and asks why this would happen to him when he was completely innocent of sin or rebellion against God.
Job gets no answer, but his question is the central theme of this story.
Empires and centuries converge in the great city of Istanbul, once Constantinople, and before that Byzantium. The Asian and the European sections of the city are divided by the Bosporus, a serpentine waterway that joins the Black Sea with the sea roads to the Mediterranean and ultimately from the Danube to the Nile. Istanbul is not only divided by the Bosporus, but it is united by it as well, since it became a boulevard for city traffic, trade, and migration.
Three great world empires - the Eastern Roman, the Byzantine, and the Ottoman made their capitals on the same spot, and even today, while Istanbul is not the capital of the Turkish Republic, it is both politically and economically one of the most important cities in the world. Here Islam is in a foment of conflicting values as modernization encounters the floods of conservative Muslims who settle in the city.
One walks the streets of Istanbul and sees at every turn the monuments of overlapping civilizations. And if one is attuned, a person senses the spirits of its former inhabitants. Once the second most important center of the Christian Church after Rom, then the capital of Islam and the seat of the Caliphate, churches and mosques are found on every corner. These are now interspersed with bars an discos, theaters and shopping centers. Except for the modern contribution of the automobile which clog the thoroughfares for hours morning and evening, this is one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
But more extraordinary than the monuments are the shades from the past. The inhabitants of the city from every century stroll along the streets and sea promenades. Some enter the churches on a Saturday evening or Sunday morning. And since these churches are now mosques, the shades of the Ottoman faithful throng the courtyards and spaces under the great domes. Because they are from different eras, they are unaware that the faithful of two religions are sharing the space through centuries. Somewhat shyly the older shades of the pagan centuries practice their rites in old temple sites that are now bus terminals and bazaars. And no one seems to mind - or even to notice.
Sultans and Emperors, made less fierce by their deaths centuries ago, watch dancing girls in the halls of ancient palaces in the evenings after the tours have left. Some of the more sophisticated of them drop by modern concert halls and theaters to hear the strains of Italian baroque string quartets or the songs of Sezen Aksu, Turkey’s most extraordinary singer.
Given the violence of certain eras in the great city’s history, one would expect more conflicts among the shades, but they are gentle, no longer capable of doing harm. A few of them have developed the ability to slip from the shadows and encounter each other and even living people from different ages. Two of the characters in this story are such time-shifters. They have sought out a third person, one who lives in the 21st century to have a conversation about a paradox that puzzles them all:
If God is good, he is not God; If God is God, he is not good. Taken the even, take the odd, I would no sleep here if I could, except for the little green leaves in the wood, and the wind on the waters.[i]
Istanbul from Above
A giant plane flew low over Mustafa Ali where he sat with this friend Kemal playing tavla, or backgammon, in front of a small grocery store.
‘Allah, Allah”, said Kemal, gesturing upwards at the noisy machine. Since he had never been in an airplane and never would be, he could not imagine what good they were for and why they were allowed to fly so close to his little neighborhood. The machines not only drowned out the call to prayer from the mosque but also disrupted the conversations of the old men playing their games and smoking their bubbly nargiles. Even after years of hearing the jets, no one had gotten used to their noise.
The neighborhood where Mustafa Ali and Kemal lived was unfortunately right next to the Attaturk International airport. Few of the streets were paved since no rich or influential people would ever move into the houses that were pieced together from discarded materials from construction projects.
Children played in the street, sometimes when they should have been in the school at the bottom of the steep hill. The only building that gave the appearance of care was the new, partially finished mosque with its aluminum dome and its minaret. This was built by the government for the benefit of the Sunni Moslems, the major sect. There was no place of worship for the less fortunate minority, the Alevi Muslims, who were considered unorthodox.
The big jet made its final approach to the airport after flying all night from New York. It had come across the Atlantic, then down from Ireland, over France, Italy and the now disassembled “Former” Yugoslavia. David Fordyce sat awake looking out the window. His airline omelet and plastic cup of cool, weak coffee was untouched in front of him.
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[i] Archibald Mcleish , JB,1958.
[ii] The Book of Job, KJV, Chapter 1, 6-12