Burgess Survives Explosion in Istanbul

Or so his story will go.

By Steve Burgess 21 Jun 2006 |

Steve Burgess is a freelance writer and the author of Who Killed Mom?, published in 2011 by Greystone Books.

Born in Norwalk Ohio, home of the famous virus, Steve was raised in Regina, SK, and Brandon, MB. He writes a regular column for The Tyee, often reviewing films but also, sometimes, detailing his hilarious world travels for Tyee readers. Steve is a former CBC Radio host and has won two National Magazine Awards. He has also won three Western Magazine Awards.

Reporting Beat: Travel, pop culture, politics, cobbling, knife sharpening, furnace repair.

Twitter: @steveburgess1

Website: Steve Burgess

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Tough nut to crack.

"Breaking news," says the BBC World Service announcer.

Oh boy! Breaking news!

"There's been an explosion in Istanbul."

Ah. Frankly, I prefer my breaking news to be from somewhere I'm not. The bomb -- no one I speak to seems to agree on whom was responsible -- went off near the waterfront where I was hanging out the previous evening. No one was badly hurt. There were a few too many bones in my fish sandwich, though -- I could have choked.

With a little embellishment, it will make a fine tale someday. As told in a few years: I'll have shrapnel in my hair, tending to the wounded. My war stories will have to wait till I'm out of town, though. There are too many people around Istanbul who know about the real thing.

Sitting in a café on Divan Yolu, near Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, I watched as a group of men at the next table fed cake to a few of the countless stray cats who wander Istanbul's streets. The group turned out to be from Baghdad -- clearly people in need of some industrial strength tourism. There were three businessmen and one police major. In broken English, one of the men told me tales from the Iraqi streets; it was nothing I hadn't read in the papers, but his version boasted the added power of the first-hand account. "Behind my house last week, big explosion," he told me. "American TV -- full of lies. Things very bad. Bush, big liar. American troops, very bad. British troops, not as bad. Not good. Americans cannot leave yet -- too much trouble."

Cold showers and pessimism

"Al-Zarqawi?" One man pointed to his shoes, a sign of disrespect. "No one liked him, no one follows him. Maybe things can get better now. Maybe. Wise old men will decide. Sistani will make deals for peace."

At my hotel, there are more tales of hardship. The hot water, for instance. Cold showers are truly an invigorating way to start the day. I hate them. The weather has been a surprise, too. I had hopes for doing laundry here -- I figured Istanbul would be someplace that could really dry out a sock. Not so. Rainy and cool for the most part.

But again, my personal war stories have been trumped. An American woman encountered in the breakfast room turns out to be an aid worker on three weeks' R&R leave from the American-controlled Green Zone in Baghdad. She had more tales to contribute, some of them surprising, some just sad. Surprising: there's a real estate boom in Baghdad that may even surpass Vancouver's. The economics of that are a mystery to me -- prices are soaring even as the Iraqi population flees en masse for neighbouring Jordan, causing another price boom there.

On the sad side, her sick Iraqi acquaintances go from clinic to clinic, getting wildly varying diagnoses that shed light only on the near-complete exodus of qualified medical people from Iraq. The American stares at the table. She seems, if anything, more pessimistic than the Baghdad tourists.

Topkapi Dagger

Elsewhere in Istanbul, there is ancient evidence that Baghdad has been a dangerous spot before. In the legendary Topkapi Palace, stunning treasures of the Ottoman Empire have been collected, including the Topkapi Dagger that was central to the plot of the 1964 movie, Topkapi. Studded with ridiculously giant emeralds, it was intended to be a gift for the Nadir Shah of Iran in 1747. (A gift from the Shah sits right next door, a mind-blowing gem-encrusted throne plundered from India. Obviously the pressure was on to reciprocate appropriately.) As the delegation approached Baghdad, centre of the Persian Empire, they received news that the Shah had been murdered. The Americans are not the first to discover the perils of that city.

Topkapi is an amazing repository of wonders, and other big attractions like Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque are truly impressive as well. Still, I was bemused to come across a brochure lifted from Patricia Schultz's "1000 Places to See Before You Die." It mentions the Covered Market, a.k.a. the Grand Bazaar. Good news for those who feel death is imminent: no need to go all the way to Istanbul. Just head for your local Wal-Mart, where you'll find goods of similar style and quality.

Istanbul is a tough nut to crack. To my Western eyes and ears it seems a city soaked in Islam, starting with the jarring wake-up call emanating from the loudspeakers of the Blue Mosque at 4:15 AM. Burkha-clad women dot the streets. Walking by the water when the afternoon call to prayer begins, the cacophony from different mosques produces a sound like a distant football stadium. A noisy protest in a public park falls dead silent when the call to prayer rings out; in a café, the volume on a World Cup game is muted. The Turkish word for "hello" is "merhaba," and yet for much of this week I have heard only "Salaam," the Arabic -- and Muslim -- equivalent.

Religious secularism

And yet the American aid worker, coming from Iraq and Jordan, has been struck instead by the defiantly secular nature of Turkish society, where women fill the universities and walk the streets in Western fashion. The battle to establish a secular Turkey was fought fiercely by the country's legendary leader Kamal Ataturk. Today that modern tradition faces a resurgent Islamic wave, and at least some of the recent explosions may attest to that.

Even as I sit in a café that looks out at the magnificent Blue Mosque, I am interrupted by an economics teacher from Istanbul University, sitting at a nearby table, who pleads with me to give her five minutes. She watches CNN and BBC, she says. Their reports from Turkey are not accurate. There is fear in the Euro community over Turkey's bid for membership, but it is unwarranted. This is not a country in the grip of radical Islam, nor is it lagging behind its European neighbours. "We are not Arabic," she insists. Her books, she says, are the same ones studied abroad in London and America. Religion is not a barrier that should keep Turkey from joining with Europe.

She smiles and apologizes. "It is important for me," she says, shaking the hand of a stranger with a laptop, a guy who might be able to tell a few Westerners the truth about Turkey.

Little does she know. My stories will feature massive waterfront explosions, followed by my heedless pursuit of terrorists through the narrow streets of ancient, deadly Istanbul.

Sorry about that, ma'am. Good luck with the European thing.

Steve Burgess is The Tyee's at-large culture critic.  [Tyee]

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