“When two human beings meet a smile is three parts of the way to happiness.” So asserts the French writer of Chinese origin, Gao Xingjian. Was travel the inspiration behind this wise saying? Or did a fairy whisper it into his ear one starlit night? It doesn’t matter what the source was, but what does matter is that it describes our experience in the company of Sonja and Esra. Rather than visit the museums to soak up the recommendations of The Lonely Planet guide, we have got to know Istanbul through the eyes of our hosts. Animated discussion and reflections fill our days and their generous smiles light up our evenings.

A Plunge into Happiness

Final carefree hours before Istanbul

For more than an hour we bowl along the overcrowded, crazy and lethally dangerous motorway, finally landing up in the district of Uskudar. We sweat off all the adrenalin stored on our way, climbing up the little streets of Istanbul’s most ancient residential suburb where our hosts are expecting us. After a lot of effort and detours to avoid the innumerable flights of steps marked as streets on our Google maps, we eventually find ourselves outside No 112 Selami Ali Efendi Caddesi [Street]. We call over to a young passer-by – small brief-case, jacket of a black suit. We guess he may understand English and ask him to lend us his mobile phone to call Sonja.

- Hi Sonja. It’s Morgan.

- Hi!  Is everything okay?

- Yes. I think we are outside your building. Your flat number is written in white on a red background.

- Are you there already? Yes, that’s the one! Brilliant! I’m at the market, ten minutes away. I’ll be right with you!

- No rush. We’ve got all the time in the world.

After more than 33 days without a stop since Tajikistan, 33 nights running sleeping under the stars, we have this invitation to Paradise, our haven of peace for the days ahead.

Alerted by a telephone call, Sonja’s flat mate Esra comes out eagerly looking for us. Her smile is radiant, and she is bubbling with energy. Her boyfriend, Umur, more reserved, is kindness itself as he inquires after us. It is around three o’clock and we are in the sitting-room, sweaty and filthy, lean and tanned by weeks in the sun. With a cup of tea in our hands we are dreaming with our eyes open and the sensation of being drugged, hypnotized, and magnetized. Esra and Umur are talking to us. Their voices echo in our heads. We can’t control the occasional nervous laugh. Our smiles are pasted on to our worn-out faces, our wide-open eyes fixated on insignificant details around us. We are quite extraordinarily happy.

-             “Please forgive us, but we feel really spaced out. It’s hard to believe we are actually here at last!” Morgan explains. “It will soon pass.”

-             “No problem. You can have a shower and a rest while I make you a special Turkish dish for dinner,” Esra answered, her smile still glowing.

Our happiness surpasses all understanding

Sonja our guardian angel from Croatia

The front door bangs while Brian is still in the shower. It is Sonja arriving, her hands full, her smile warm and heart open. And so it came about that we welcomed her to her own home.

A happy moment shared with Sonja at an evening party

Sonja was born in Croatia but has lived mainly in France with stretches in Mexico, Spain and now Turkey where she is at present revising her thesis on living conditions of black African immigrants in Turkey. At the end of our stay she would say to us jokingly: “There are always people to thank on completion of a thesis. I am going to write: ‘I cannot offer my thanks to the Solidream team for having prevented me from working for the entire ten days they spent in my home.’ ”

Sonja has also spent several months cycling in Central America but it was when she was ensconced in a remote Indian village that she discovered the true value of travel and meeting new people, the wonders of the differences and contrasts that make up the richness of our world. Ever since she has dreamed more than ever of travelling. While waiting to take to the road, perhaps in Africa, she has kept her door open to other travellers.

“I often felt embarrassed by the hospitality and generosity of people during my travels. I had the impression of receiving rather than giving, of taking advantage of being different so as to be invited. But now that I realize the pleasure I get from asking globe-trotters into my home I can see things more clearly. To share a smile, inspire someone  to dream, spread a little good humor, learn from our differences, hear another person telling their  life story… these are the things that are both beautiful and powerful, and well worth a bowl of soup and the offer of a night under a roof,”  Sonja explains to us.

Brian crosses to the other side of the Bosphorus to meet up with his parents and sisters who have come to spend a few days in old Constantinople, while Morgan sleeps on the carpet of the mezzanine landing and Siphay in the little room on the ground floor which we christen ‘the box-room.’

Siphay: “The room measures two by two meters, has no outside window and is completely dark. In the very depths of the building, it has no ventilation, and the heat is intense… and yet I feel really good in there! Throughout this trip what I have missed most is not comfort, not high class food, but, even more than my loved ones, an intimate, private place, “my place”. Now this has been my home these past two days, even though I have very much wanted to go out and explore Istanbul and spend time with all these new people. I spend a lot of the day shut in here, by myself, surfing the internet, trying to empty my mind.  It relaxes me.  Hard to make the others understand all this. But the only other way to isolate myself, given that we are not in a hotel, would be to go out and avoid everyone. Sonja has provided me with a real luxury by offering me the box-room”.

Istanbul under tear gas

(Without wishing to get into a political debate, we offer you a straight account of our own experience of the demonstrations and what we learned about them from talking to eye-witnesses.)

Breaking of the Ramadan fast in Istiklal Street leading towards Taksim Square.

On our first evening Umur, Esra and Sonja suggest going to watch the demonstrations in the Taksim area, the modern centre of the city, to see with our own eyes what has been was causing the unrest among the population over the past few weeks. Exhausted and clearly in no state to run in the event of a police assault we decline, and instead stay quietly at home to learn a bit more about what lies behind the uprising.

It is radicalization, the product of an uneasy compromise between the Islamic religion and a lay government with its capitalist vision which its prime minister openly proclaims that is causing the people to take to the streets. The ban on selling alcohol after ten o’clock at night and the shortening of the time delay before an abortion is permitted, have recently added to projects in which financial gain takes precedence over cultural values and the general sense of wellbeing, and other ecological and aesthetic considerations: such as the construction of a shopping complex to replace one of the city’ rare public open spaces, Taksim Gezi Park.

The resulting police violence in face of the protesters, officially labelled terrorists by the government, has led to the forging of a powerful chain of popular opposition. We are astonished at the clandestine organization that has spontaneously come into being, by the ability of social networks to mobilise and coordinate people who previously did not even know one another, and the mutual help that materializes when men are faced with a common enemy. Free food is distributed by volunteers, others sell gasmasks, open-air concerts are organized, and restaurants shelter and hide protesters pursued by the police with tear gas and water jets.

Morgan: “The other evening we saw a crowd erupting, running full tilt down a road at right angles to our own. It didn’t take long for an armoured police van to nose its way through, chasing the people on foot with powerful water cannon and tear gas to irritate the eyes and throat. We sought sanctuary in a bar where the owner quickly shut the door behind me. I was able to watch the sad and shocking scene through the window. A guy still in the street was knocked off his feet by a powerful jet of water. He stood up, raising his hands in surrender, his mask still on his face, and yelled at the armoured vehicle. No question of throwing stones, no threatening gestures, just words shouted to convey the plight of modern Turkish youth. Policemen advance towards him. Just then the bar owner tells me to come away from the window and go into the back room with the other “refugees.””

Demonstration in Taksim Square

Everyone is coughing and clearing their throats, their faces protected with a gasmask, a scarf, or a T-shirt. In the ensuing silence everyone looks at one another; the television shows live pictures of events that are actually happening to us; while the ventilation system struggles to circulate air in the room with the tear gas still smarting our eyes. After a while we leave to go and dance to wild rhythms with our friends. Homeward bound at around four in the morning, we set off through streets still full off tear gas and people running from the police. And so ends a typical Istanbul evening in the month of June 2013.

If the protesters display a sense of humour in their slogans and caricatures, they are nonetheless extremely precise in their demands. It being Ramadan, they aim to demonstrate that they are in no way enemies of Islam but opponents of the new government’s reforms, laws and initiatives. At sunset they break their fast, sitting in the street in a line 600 metres long. The message is clear and pacific in tone. As to the forces of law and order, they watch and wait to strike…

One evening Esra, speaking with deadly seriousness, tells us: “We’ve been on the streets a month now, denounced by our leaders as terrorists, and beaten up by their bully-boys…. Nothing is going to change. The alcohol law has been passed already and Tayyip will build his shopping centre over our public park…” 

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