I wonder what is was like when Richard Halliburton visited Istanbul in 1925.
Did he prefer to sip sweet black tea or bitter Turkish coffee while he watched the sun rise over Asia, painting the pale city in hues of peach and gold? And when the midday sun blazed white in the washed out sky, did he keep exploring the hot, dusty streets, or did he hide in the shady alcoves of tea houses and bazars?
Was he charged three times the normal price for a simple doner kebab? Did he haggle the shop owner down, chuckling as the price slipped lower and lower?
When he walked along the streets, was he able to peer into the restaurants and shops without being stopped, or did he keep his eyes fixed straight ahead to avoid the inevitable, “Excuse me, hi, how are you, where are you from?” that rushes from every Turkish man’s lips when someone casts a glance over his wares?
Did anyone speak English?
Did he ever imagine that something as immense and timeless and beautiful as the Hagia Sofia could actually be improved with the strategic placement of a splashing blue fountain?
He said in “The Flying Carpet” that the time of Islam was drawing to an end, and that soon the Christians would reclaim their Cathedral. Did the idea of desecularization flit through his mind as he wrote those words? Could he imagine a Hagia Sofia that allowed both Christians and Muslims to enter the same space according to the same rules and filled with the same awe?
I doubt he was ever stalked for half an hour by a Turkish man with questionable ideas about women. I’m certain no strangers ever asked him to be friends on Facebook with the qualifying statement, “I’m not going to kill you.” I’m less certain that Richard’s kindness wasn’t preyed upon like mine was.
I wonder if Richard ever made it over to the Taksim Square area, that captivating maze of back alleys, shadowy passages and endless shops. Did he sample some Turkish Delight? Did he love it as much as I did? Did he cool off with a glass of fresh pomegranate juice while staring up at city walls so old it boggles the mind to imagine their birth?
Did he suffer through the nights because there was no air conditioning in 1925?
Did he wonder at the hundreds of stray cats that prowl the streets of Istanbul, skinny but friendly, secure in the protection provided to them by the Quran? Did he let kittens wrestle in his lap while their mother looked on lazily? Was he allergic to cats?
And when Richard continued his road south, was he relieved to leave behind the clamoring, sweaty, aggravating streets of Istanbul, or did he walk away feeling a little sad, a little hollow, because he was no longer a part of that great city’s story?