Alone one afternoon in the ancient part of Istanbul I was wandering the streets behind the magnificent Blue Mosque. The neighbourhood behind the Mosque is a bit quieter with beautiful hotels and residential buildings to spread out the carpet and pottery shops. Here there is no street food, only restaurants; there are no vendors of knock-off merchandise, only salesmen of fine Turkish goods.
Istanbul is basically a labyrinth of streets and it’s not possible to follow any walking tour printed in a book, but what it does offer is a surprise waiting around every corner.
I was casually strolling the labyrinth when a young man approached me and started a conversation. He asked the usual questions like “where are you from” and “what is your name”. From there we started talking about Turkish food and some of the best restaurants. He wanted to show me his favourite restaurant with one of the best views in the city so I followed him up a winding case of marble stairs.
On top was a restaurant called Seven Hills with breathtaking views of the Bosphorus Sea and surrounding city. He was still talking but I wasn’t listening, I was soaking up the beauty of this stunning restaurant. He started to leave, but instead, I sat down and ordered myself a Turkish tea. Of course he joined me.
We had a lovely conversation about his restaurant over by the Grand Bazaar and his family in a small village in a remote part of Turkey. He is Kurdish and I won’t mention his name – you’ll understand why as you read.
So then he invited me to see his carpets (yea, you could be right, perhaps it is a line!) but I followed him down into the basement where there was a huge room full of beautiful Turkish carpets. We sat on a sofa and he told me about his life. How he grew up in a poverty-stricken village where he went to school with no shoes and tattered, dirty clothes.
In this village they had one telephone that 200 families shared. The only television was at his school where he saw stories of Istanbul and that inspired him. So when he was 13 years old, he left school, his family and the village for Istanbul.
When he arrived in the big city he knew no one. He went around asking for a job but with his tattered clothing, no one would hire him. He slept in a park and this is where he met the owner of a tea house who took pity on him and gave him a job as a dishwasher. (Don’t stop reading – it gets better!)
He worked hard during the day and studied English every night. After seven years he worked his way up to restaurant chef. He left there and opened his first business, the restaurant in the Grand Bazaar area because food was the only business he knew. Next he opened a carpet shop because his mother and sister are both carpet makers in their village. Then he brought his family from the poor village to the city for a better life.
From not having shoes when he grew up, he now has at least 3 pair of shoes in his car and more in his house. With the profits from his two businesses, he buys shoes and new clothes for all of the students at the school in his old village which is still struggling with poverty. He does this every year. It’s his way of giving back and he believes that everyone should give back to help others.
That’s when he got up and began throwing beautiful carpets on the floor telling me all about techniques, fabrics, sources and the people behind each of the carpets. Did you know that Turkey is the only country in the world that makes carpets using a double knot? I didn’t know that, but according to him, Persia, Monaco, India, Pakistan and Egypt all use the more inferior single knot method. That’s why Turkish rugs are much more expensive.
Anyway, I have a lot more Turkish carpet knowledge if anyone is interested. He went on to tell me how he’d love to have one of his carpets that he bought from the poor people in his home village in my home in Canada. The conversation gets tense, as he doesn’t understand why I just can’t hand over a few thousand Canadian dollars for a beautiful carpet – even though it took an entire family 24 months to craft by hand. I eventually did leave without a carpet albeit; I did fall in love with one in particular.
As I tried to leave (and I did many times) I said I had to go to write his story. A panicked look came across his face as he told me not to print anything he said, that his story was a personal one and he preferred to keep it just between the two of us, he told me these things only because I was special. So I’m sharing the story without revealing his name.
Little did he know I am in the process of moving and downsizing and have no need or want to buy one more item for a home that perhaps may not have a place for it. But I know that when I move into my new place, if I still want that carpet, I can email him and it will be at my doorstep as quick as a flash!
The entire hour and a half with him was delightful and in the end it was a game of wills. Perhaps not for everyone but hey, I had a free afternoon in Istanbul and I was happy for the experience.