Places of My Heart / Relationships / Turkey

Turkey: Coming home (3 of 3)

Turkish tiles in Turkish baths.

Turkish tiles in Turkish baths.

I BREATHE IN olive-soap-laced steam, as generations of women have breathed in before me in this historic turquoise-tiled neighborhood Turkish bath, the Üsküdar Çinili Hamam.  It’s out-of-the-way in an Istanbul neighborhood, but it’s mine.

With my green bar of olive soap, a traditional washing attendant scrubs my dirty arms, scraping off dark rolls of dead skin with an abrasive kese mitt.  I wish I could scrub away my heart’s pain just as easily.  She rinses my soap-bubbled body, pouring copper bowls of warm water over my head, dripping down. Baptism.

– “Tamam?” – OK? she asks.

“Evet, tamam.”– Yes, OK.

I drop onto the hot marble slab, my aches and heartaches melting into this heated stone. Suddenly, Turkish women around me spontaneously sing a mysterious melody echoing from the alcoves and domes of this hamam:  It is ancient, healing. I am washed clean.


Twelfth-century “Judgment Day” deesis in Hagia Sophia. (Istanbul, Turkey)

 FRESHLY SCRUBBED, I’m newborn into my Turkish world, with three rituals to initiate myself back into this sacred sense of place, Turkey.

First: Hagia Sophia, once the world’s largest church, where my small soul senses timelessness in an early morning prayer alone surrounded by gravity-defying domes, Byzantine mosaics, and divine light.  I pray for grace in our imperfect lives: in me, in my Turkish and American families.  I pray for this beloved country and my own; for hope and generous understanding of our Muslim and Christian faiths.  And, in the words of Apostle Paul who once roamed this land, I pray for peace that passes all understanding…

Renewed, I ride a public ferry towards the Black Sea along the Bosphorus Strait, a 20-mile-long liquid finger separating Europe from Asia, East from West, old from new.  It’s all here, condensed: mosques, palaces, fortresses, tankers, fishing boats, yalıs – pricey, seaside wooden Ottoman mansions.

Finally, with my last ritual I head to Istiklal Caddesi, the mile-long pedestrian shopping street that’s always hopping. It’s my prime people-watching place while overdosing on sweet baklava and even sweeter Turkish coffee. Walking back to my hotel, crossing the Galata Bridge over the Golden Horn, I pause midspan to catch evening sunlight shimmering off a landscape of mosques and minarets…

Circumcision day, aboard ferry near Istanbul, Turkey (2010)

Great costume, but uh-oh–it’s circumcision day! Aboard ferry to Buyukada, near Istanbul, Turkey (2010)

 MY TURKISH EXCHANGE FAMILY is scattered around the country, like my own American family.

Hoş geldiniz, Helen!” – “Welcome!” echoes across Turkey.

My host sister, Aynur, now a retired schoolteacher, meets me first in Istanbul and years later in her new home in Bursa.  Her two boys are now grown and she is divorced—a growing trend in Turkey. Most of my extended family now lives in and around Bursa, that ancient Ottoman capital, offering to extend their deep roots to me if I choose to move to Turkey one day. Other Turkish friends suggest an arranged marriage.

“A Turkish Muslim husband would treat you so much better than your American men,” they assure me. I don’t say no.

“How can a husband of faith,” one asks, “– a Christian – treat you so badly?  How could anyone do this to you, Helen?”

I don’t know.  I have so few answers to anything, anymore.

In the  Mediterranean seaside town of Fethiye, my host brother, Ilhan, greets me in the hotel he manages, a quieter change from his journalism career.  Along with thousands, Ilhan was jailed for five years as a political prisoner during Turkey’s more turbulent times. Beyond this hard life, Ilhan’s aged dramatically since the tragic death of his wife, killed instantly with her brother in a nighttime car crash.

My Turkish father?  He died recently – pancreatic cancer – yet I remember our last time together so well. Back in my little town, Mustafakemalpasa,  Baba —”Father”— then in his 80s, greeted me more warmly than my own.  Baba spoke no English save one phrase memorized from the radio decades ago.

“Helen! Helen! My heart ticky-tocks for you!” Baba cried out joyfully, cradling my head against his warm chest.  Just as he did years ago in his doctoring days, Baba smelled of clean olive soap.  In respect, as a Turkish tradition I kissed his healing hand and pressed it against my forehead.

I am beloved.


Sea of Marmara (Istanbul, Turkey)

Where it all began, my life. (Sea of Marmara–Istanbul, Turkey)

 MY JOURNEY IN TURKEY ENDS with one last, lasting tradition.  A local ferry carries me to Büyükada, the largest of the Princes’ Islands near Istanbul.  A waffle cone filled with dondurma — goat milk ice cream — forces me to linger in this horse-and-buggy village. Primed, I hike across the island and up a challengingly steep cobblestoned path, often lined with sad white prayer rags for women who ache to have children, like me.  At the top is St. George, a 6th-century monastery. Here I stand on the worn rocks and look past the islands, beyond Istanbul, out to the Sea of Marmara, in this place I once stood 38 years ago as a wide-eyed high-school exchange student, wondering what life ahead would hold for me…

In my heart, perhaps in everyone’s heart, there is a place, Istanbul.

There is a place, Turkey.

It is a place — even in middle age — that still breathes the expansive dreams and desires of my youth, the hard lessons of faith, love, and life.  Hard lessons that faith of a Muslim boy and a Christian girl needn’t necessarily divide young hearts.  That kindness and hospitality do not require perfection, even as my Turkish family opened their flawed lives and simple home to me, their naive American exchange student, so many years ago.  And in all these actions, in 38 years, Turks beyond counting offer me faith, heart, and hope.

… On this sacred mountaintop looking out, here love endures and, like these intertwining smells embracing me of jasmine, sea, and olive trees, I breathe it in deeply …


 [Part 1]  [Part 2]   [Part 3]

{All photos ©Helen Holter}

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