From inside the Blue Mosque, Istanbul.
“The bare facts of life are utterly terrifying. And yet, one can laugh. Indeed, one has to laugh precisely because of the darkness: the nervous laughter of the trenches.” — Alain de Botton
“I hope life isn’t a big joke because I don’t get it.”—Jack Handy
Perhaps a change in geography could jump start an adjustment in my mood, I thought before arriving in Istanbul Saturday evening.
Yesterday en route to the Blue Mosque, which was built between 1606 and 1617, and Haghia Sophia, constructed more than 1,000 years earlier, I was befriended by a Turkish man, who said he was trying to practice his English. We chatted about Pres. Obama, a very common conversation starter for non-Americans, and his recent visit to Turkey, which I was told required a very high level of security. He accompanied me to the Blue Mosque, in essence giving me an informed tour while explaining to me that, unlike the freelance guides in front of every sight of interest, he sought no payment, just the chance to polish his language skills. I overcame my initial reluctance and soon found myself grateful for the opportunity for a respite from my brooding, self-centeredness.
After the Blue Mosque, he suggested I see the nearby Basilica Cisterns, the vast subterranean water reservoir that was commissioned by the Romans in the sixth century. Afterwards, before I had planned to see the Hagia Sophia, he invited me for tea at one of the nearby shops that he and his family have operated for the more than four decades. There he effortlessly unloaded his smarmy sales pitch about the deal on carpets he was going to give me because, after all, I was about to become his first sale of the day, an auspicious bit of fortune for both us, he assured me. “Just for you, my friend” may be the surest sign that someone is trying to fleece you.
I have accepted that salesmanship—dickering, haggling, bargaining or however one attempts to apply lipstick to this particular pig—is widely accepted as one of the highest forms of human activity in many cultures. I will never understand why, but it is, so be it. What I cannot grasp is why these numbskulls cannot accept the fact that there are some people, like me, who are insulted when social intercourse is masqueraded as an attempt to achieve a commercial transaction. I don’t give a shit whether it is practiced in a used car lot in the States, on the streets of Juarez, or by the fanciest carpet and kilim dealers in the Turkey, but when I say am not interested, then that is precisely what I mean. After all, how complex a concept is no?
After Haghia Sophia on my way back to hotel room, from my hotel in the historic Sultanahmet section of the city,I was approached by another man. “My friend, are you going to the mosque?” If you are, it is closed for prayers for next half hour, but I can show you my… ” To which I replied: “Thank you, I have been, and I am not interested.”
After a few hours in my room reading and about 15 minutes after walking along Divan Yolu, the main drag in the old city, another man approached me. “How are you, my friend, and where are you from?” You are not my friend and it is none of your business where I am from, I thought. “No thanks. I am not interested.”
“Can I show you my carpets? They are…” No. “Can I give my card in case…” No. Will you join me a cup a tea? You know, we say a cup of tea can mean a friendship that will last for 14 years.” What an asshole.