The Great European Adventure

Understanding Istanbul

There were many things I liked about Istanbul:

The steep, narrow streets that led Katie and me to Galata Tower, which, mercifully, had an elevator and rewarded us with this view:


The contrast between the Hagia Sophia’s somewhat faded exterior and its cavernous, rich interior.



The tea that our hostel always had on offer. The pampering we received at a hammam. The day we spent wandering around the city trying to find a post office to no avail because apparently the people of Istanbul like putting post offices on maps, and then moving them. And then not updating the maps.

The morning I awoke to the sound of the dawn call to prayer, and, turning away from the window, witnessed one of my fellow hostel guests – an Iranian woman – on her knees in whispered prayer. I loved hearing the call to prayer even when it interrupted my sleep because I loved being in a place where devotion to God was apparent five times a day. I’m a Christian – an Episcopalian, to be exact – so, while the call to prayer is not directed at me, every time I hear it I am reminded of God. I find it, as I imagine I am supposed to, profoundly spiritual.

When I visited Istanbul, it wasn’t the first time I’d set foot in a Muslim country. In 2010, I studied abroad in Barcelona, and during a school break I traveled to Fes, Morocco with one of my American friends. It was an amazing experience for many reasons, most of which stemmed from the fact that Morocco was so different from anywhere else I’d been before.

I use “different” rather than an arguably more descriptive word like “exotic” or “foreign” or “unusual” because these latter terms are loaded. They perpetuate an “us” (Western countries where white people are still clinging to majority status with horror-stricken faces) and “them” (the Third World, full of poverty and brown people) mentality where “developed” countries are “normal” and “developing” countries are “abnormal.” Any social studies teacher worth their salt will point out that the developed/developing dichotomy includes the inherent assumption that developed is the ideal towards which developing nations are working. Developing countries are lesser because they are failing to be developed countries.

While Morocco holds the honor of country-most-different-from-the-United-States-that-I’ve-ever-visited (gosh, that’s a mouthful, no wonder people use shorthand like “exotic” to make their points), it’s not the first “developing” country I’d ever visited. My first trip outside the United States was when I spent a week as an ecotourist in Costa Rica with a group of my fellow high school students and a social studies teacher worth his salt.

Unsurprisingly, my experiences in Costa Rica were very different from my experiences in Morocco. And yet, these are both “developing” countries. Clearly, the difference and sameness between countries and cultures goes far beyond this false dichotomy of USA and not-USA. And I know I’m simplifying, and I’m exaggerating, and you may be wondering: who actually thinks of the world as USA and everywhere else? I’m not going to set up some straw person for us to critique, so that we can feel good about our own worldliness.

We’re going to critique me.

Making an ass of myself in Gülhane Park
Making an ass of myself in Gülhane Park

Because when I arrived in Istanbul last Fall and I looked around at the mosques, and the headscarves, and even the knick-knacks being sold in souvenir stores, I was reminded of Fes.

And, if I’m being honest with myself, that just doesn’t make sense. Turkey and Morocco are different — culturally, politically, geographically.

A quick peak at their respective Wikipedia pages makes this abundantly clear. Turkey and is home to over 75 million people, while Morocco is home to about 33 million. The Republic of Turkey succeeded the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923. Morocco was under French colonial rule until 1956 at which point the Moroccans reinstated their monarchy, and in 1998 they held parliamentary elections. Turks and Kurds make up the majority of the Turkish population, while in Morocco, 99% of residents are Arabs, Berbers, or Arab-Berbers. Unsurprisingly, Turkey’s official language is Turkish, while Morocco’s official languages are Arabic and Tamazight.

And, seriously, these countries aren’t even on the same continent!

This leaves me wondering why I was so strongly reminded of Fes when I visited Istanbul.

When I think of Fes, I remember holding sprigs of mint in front of my nose while I visited a tannery, so I wouldn’t have to smell the leather being made.


I remember when a young Moroccan man stopped my friend and me on the street, startling us, and asked if he could show us around his city. He introduced us to a friend who played traditional Berber music, and brought us to his mother’s house for tea and cookies. And I remember sitting on a hilltop above the city and hearing the afternoon call to prayer drift up from the various mosques — the calls did not begin in unison, but made a cacophonous round.

Fez from above
Fes from above

Is this why I associated Istanbul and Fes? Because they’re both cities with large Muslim populations? With so many differences between them, was I really allowing a single religious similarity to trump my understanding of a place?

When we travel somewhere new, our experiences are shaped by the places we’ve been before. We use the knowledge we’ve gained previously as a lens through which to view this new experience.

In child development theory, of which I was a one-time student, the lenses through which we view the world are called schemas (or schemata, if you want to sound fancy). As children, we build schemas through assimilation and accommodation, either absorbing newly-learned information into existing schemas or altering our schemas so they explain something we’ve recently discovered. Our schemas grow and change with us, and they’re beneficial because they allow us to make sense of the world, but they can also resist alteration and make us susceptible to biases and stereotypes.

What happens if we’ve never encountered a culture or a place like the one we’re now experiencing? What if our schemas are ineffective in aiding our understanding?

This is when we need to expand our ideas about the world. So often, though, instead of altering our schemas, we try to force new places and cultures into the frame of reference we already have. We use the understanding of “people like that” and “places like that” which we’ve gleaned from the media, from politics, from history, and from the stereotypes that have trickled into our consciousness. We try to force squares into circles.

We try to force Turks into Moroccans.

We try to makes sense of the world with tools that don’t properly describe it.

Now, I know the thesis of this argument boils down to “travel with an open mind,” but I think it’s worth exploring what that actually means. Because it’s easy to say that we’re traveling with an open mind, but it’s harder to actually stop and think about how we’re interacting with and understanding a place, and how ingrained it is to fall back on our preconceived notions without even thinking about it. Because we need a framework through which to view the world. It’s impossible not to have your present experiences and opinions be shaped by your past experiences and opinions, in fact, it’s necessary, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop and think about the situations in which it can be hurtful.

And when we go home and reflect on our experiences to others, we should think about how we present the information. Are we using words like “exotic” to describe where we’ve been? Let’s not. Are we shocked when someone goes on vacation to Turkey because the Middle East is dangerous? I hope we’re not making inaccurate generalizations about entire regions. Are we pitying Muslim women while wearing culturally insensitive clothing at religious sites? Or are we reading Islamic feminist theory (and Arab feminist theory) and being respectful of cultural differences?

One thing I knew for sure before I visited Fes and Istanbul was that the majority of people living in each of these cities were Muslims. And, so, I had reduced them to this fact. Fes and Istanbul were “Muslim cities.” Whatever the fuck that means.

As I spent more time exploring Istanbul, my schema began to accommodate this new city, and I witnessed the many ways in which it reminded me of other European cities, and the many ways in which it did not remind of Fes, and the many ways in which it defied being explained by Fes or London or Barcelona or Boston or any of the other cities I’d ever visited.

And so, I’m left with the things I liked about Istanbul. The view from Galata Tower, and the streets that led me there. The tea and the masseuse and the Hagia Sophia. And, yes, the call to prayer. This is my — albeit still limited — understanding of Istanbul, and it is distinct from anywhere else I’ve ever been.


As it should be.

Emma Holliday is well-traveled. After 5 years in Boston, she and her husband upended their lives to move to Berlin where she is currently writing a (funny) book about travel and grief and attempting to learn German.


  • lisatann2

    I think this is one of my favorite things that you’ve ever written, in content and in style. It’s lovely, profound, introspective, and informative, and it makes me want to go to Istanbul to see if I can understand it on its own terms. ^_^

    • opportunemma

      Oh wow, this was such a lovely comment to receive. Thank you, Lisa! I spent a lot of time on this post, and I’m glad it turned out introspective and informative and especially that it made you want to go to Istanbul. That’s what travel bloggers love to hear!

  • Colleen Brynn

    I appreciate what you say about parts of the world being developed or not. I went to Mongolia this summer and it is quite clearly such a developing country, or under developed or whatever you want to say. While I was there, I found this distinction to be quite irrelevant, and actually I LOVED the country for it not being developed like the western world. And yet you can really feel the change happening in the country, so this all makes for a very interesting place to visit. I was really grateful for being able to see Mongolia in its current state before too much change happens.

    • opportunemma

      It’s interesting to visit places in states of flux, and I’m glad you had such an amazing time in Mongolia as a result. While I’d argue that everywhere we go is changing (“developed” or “developing” or what have you) I understand what you mean about feeling the change taking place. Every place and every culture is changing, but sometimes it’s only noticeable to locals or insiders and sometimes it smacks you upside the head and makes your mouth fall open in wonder or horror or an inexplicable mix.

Leave a Reply